Sean Bigley (JD ’13) thought he wanted to go into politics.
He went to college in Washington, D.C., was an investigator for the Department of Defense and worked at the White House.
“I had a colorful pre-law school career,” he says.
Bigley, who also was a police officer for a short time, eventually decided he wanted to be his own boss.
“I had a lot of lawyers in the family and they said it’s a great thing to be able to have a professional practice where you can hang out your own shingle – be a doctor, lawyer, dentist, whatever,” says Bigley, director of Chapman University Fowler School of Law’s new entrepreneurship certificate program. “You’re never going to be wanting for work.”
Some of those family members, including Bigley’s father, entered professions with the option of having their own practices because Bigley’s grandfather was laid off a few years before he could collect a pension from a company where he’d worked for decades.
“He had to work side jobs to help make ends meet and there was a period of several years where times were tight for the family,” Bigley says.
“I grew up hearing those stories about how entrepreneurship is so valuable because you are never going to be in a position where someone else dictates your ability to put food on the table. And so for me, that was something that I always had in the back of my head.”
The idea of entrepreneurship “crystallized” for him while he put himself through Fowler School of Law.
“I had a professor who – I will never forget – made a comment, ‘Niches make riches.’ And I thought, OK, maybe this is somebody’s way of telling me to just take the leap of faith.”
Bigley did, opening his own practice immediately after graduating from Fowler School of Law. He parlayed his experience doing government security clearance investigations into a “gap in the market.”
At first, he wasn’t making money and second-guessed his decision. But eventually, “something clicked” and two years after graduating he was making more than his classmates who joined big firms, he says.
His firm – which he is retiring from after a decade to run the entrepreneurship program – represents people around the world applying for government security clearance. It grew into a five-attorney partnership with employees in three states.
“I always tell people, I got a phenomenal legal education at Chapman,” Bigley says. “But for me, the missing piece was that business acumen because that wasn’t a background that I had, and so I had to teach it all to myself. And I know that I’m not alone in that.”
Knowing how to run a business
The California State Bar calls attorneys in solo or small-firm practice its “backbone.”
“You have to know how to run a business,” Bigley says.
To that end, the entrepreneurship program – which officially starts in fall 2023 – will offer two tracks:
- Solo and small firm practice: For the JD student who contemplates opening their own practice or who seeks to add value to an existing small firm. Students will receive practice-oriented instruction in the legal issues solo and small firm practitioners often encounter. Students will also learn the “business of law” and how to succeed as entrepreneurs.
- Advising and representing entrepreneurs: For the JD student interested in advising and representing start-ups and small business owners. Students will receive practice-oriented instruction in the legal issues commonly encountered by non-attorney entrepreneurs. Students will also learn basic tenets of business and personal finance.
Bigley, who has already taught an entrepreneurship-related course at Fowler School of Law along with another attorney, says there has been “an overwhelmingly positive sign of initial student interest even though the emphasis program itself hasn’t started.”
“There has been about a quarter of the entire third-year class in just those two classes. To me, that is a huge sign of what I think this program will become.”
It’s been said the legal market is saturated, but Bigley says students can get a great return on their JD investment by having a niche practice and knowing opportunities – especially if they worked in another field before law school.
“Investing in entrepreneurship is not only an investment in our students, but it’s also an investment in the value of the school for the long haul. We’re showing students that we are committing as a school to your success and your opportunities post-graduation,” he says.
One thing that could be added down the road is an incubator for Chapman law alumni who want to start their own practice.
No matter what, students will have foundational business knowledge to go with their law degree, he says.
“If you find yourself laid off or you find yourself tired of working for that boss you don’t like, or you need some flexibility because you want to stay at home with a child or you don’t want to practice in a traditional firm setting, this gives you options,” he says. “You’re never going to be wanting for work when you can go out and create your own opportunities. And to me, the best gift we can give our students is options.”