How to Grow Your Practice During a Crisis
Meet three attorneys who grew their law firms successfully in the face of 2020’s obstacles.
This article is based on a panel discussion hosted by Attorney and Atticus Practice Advisor, Steve Riley, and Atticus Director of Client Services, Denise Gamez. Steve and Denise interviewed three Atticus clients who grew their firms exponentially despite the unique challenges of 2020.
- Shannon Sagan, Law Offices of Shannon J. Sagan, PA, Lake Worth, FL, www.1800flalawyer.com
- Roberta “Bobbie” Batley, Batley Powers Family Law, Albuquerque, NM, www.batleypowers.com
- Jonathan White, Jordan & White, LLC, Salem, MA, www.jordanwhitellc.com
What Was the Biggest Challenge You Faced and Why?
DENISE: “Bobbie, you just saw really great growth, what do you think was your biggest challenge?”
BOBBIE: “As the Atticus Coaches know, my weakness is being the cheerleader, the hero in our firm in that role. I want to walk in every day and inspire people and set them on a straight course. I suffered a really devastating personal loss at the end of April and I couldn’t be that… I just could not be that. So, my star associate, my paralegal, my office manager just pushed me out of the way, stepped in and became that. And, it was that great reminder to me to say get out of the way of the talent on your team.
The thing that made me the most fearful and the biggest challenge was really worrying about the mental health of my team and that was hard to gauge when we were not all physically in the office together. Zoom meetings I think are great but you can’t feel someone’s energy and so I think that was one of our biggest challenges really checking in on each other and taking care of our mental health.”
DENISE: “Jonathan, I’m going to ask you the same question, what did you find in estate planning to be the biggest challenge for you?”
JONATHAN: “My biggest challenge was how do I keep my processes going? Whether it’s estate planning or real estate closings. Massachusetts doesn’t allow for us to use any electronic signatures, so I had to keep real estate closings going and signings going with people in my office.
We really had to rethink the whole process, we had to rethink the format of the office, we had to rethink how we’d handle notaries and witnesses and we were able to do that. We were able to change things up and we were able to use resources like Zoom to review documents with people ahead of time so when they came in to sign, it was minimal time in a conference room. Similarly, I had to do things like connecting with the probate court and the registry of deeds who weren’t always open and who weren’t sure themselves how they were going to accept documents or allow us to keep cases or real estate closings flowing. So, I had to really work with those state resources to figure out how to keep things moving as well.”
DENISE: “And Shannon, I’m sure you saw some very specific challenges for a PI practice that are different from any of the other practice areas. Can you talk about that for a little bit?”
SHANNON: “In my business, I’m all personal injury and the bulk of my cases are people getting into accidents or slip and fall premises cases. It’s pretty clear that with the lock down the traffic just isn’t out there and hasn’t been out there, so that’s been a challenge.
We’ve had to come up with new marketing ideas like digital and keeping in contact with referral sources. Basically, trying to think of outside-of-the-box ways to try and get that case.”
In Your Practice Area, How Are You Getting New Cases?
STEVE: “Perfect segue. Shannon, so how are you actually getting new cases in the door?”
SHANNON: “I’m doing tons of lunches. I’m getting out there and I’m meeting with friends, family, clients, my referral sources anyone who potentially could be a referral source – staying in their face. I’m trying some new online marketing campaigns as well.
I do things like give-a-ways online or send out thank you gifts to people who have thought of me in the past and I’m just really trying to stay in people’s faces especially people who are not comfortable enough to get out or to meet me for lunch or for a drink or what not.”
STEVE: “That’s actually very brilliant, really brilliant. Jonathan, how about you?”
JONATHAN: “I double-downed on some of the professional networking groups I belonged in. They switched to Zoom right away and that enabled me to get to more meetings and then each meeting led to more meetings which led to top-of-mind awareness. Then I made sure to follow up on any referral with a hand-written thank you note.
Also, just check in with people from time to time and see what they need and see how I could help them. So, I really double-downed on that top-of-mind awareness through some professional networking groups I already belonged to.”
STEVE: “That’s fantastic. Bobbie, how about you?”
BOBBIE: “Just to follow up on what Jonathan mentioned, I think that top-of-mind awareness was really what distinguished our firm from the other firms in our state and nationally that were really struggling.
Our intakes are up 30% this year from this time in 2019 and our new cases are up 15% this year from this time in 2019. We are just really proud of our team but I think that strength was from the depth of our referral bench.
The founders of this firm and myself who’ve been at this firm for 19 years have invested a huge amount of time in marketing over the years and are heavily involved in professional organizations and community organizations. Having those personal touches have been so important.”
JONATHAN: “Reaching out isn’t always enough. I think there are two ways to reach out. One is just to say, ‘hey, how are you doing?’ not selling yourself, just let them know you’re there. And, the other thing is value.
So again, without selling my firm in the real estate world for example, I was able to provide value to my real estate colleagues by keeping them abreast of what was happening with the closures by keeping in touch and saying, ‘hey, this is the latest on what’s going on and I wanted you to know about this.'”
STEVE: “When your referral sources are stressed, or society seems stressed your effectiveness of some of your traditional advertising will go down. So, when there’s high stress, go high touch. And, that usually means that you as a lawyer are going to have to identify who your best referral sources are and reach out to them and just do what Jonathan said which is ‘hey, how can we help you… what can we do,’ and then keep them in the loop on what’s happening.
One of the things we really recommend that you do, and Denise and I really encourage our clients at Atticus to do, is build a referral portfolio. A referral portfolio are really those professionals that see you and your firm as a go-to firm. And I think the lawyers that invested into a strong referral base, that referral portfolio, really weathered the storm very, very well. Those that did not, really are feeling some pain.”
What’s the Biggest Thing You’ve Learned in Marketing Your Firm During This Year?
DENISE: “Obviously there are significant challenges in marketing your firm at a time like this so I just want to hear about the things that you’ve learned and what was your biggest lesson out of all this?”
BOBBIE: “So I really learned to be ‘real’ and be creative and be open. So just a couple of points on the be ‘real’ part. We were all panicked. You can imagine what our clients felt like. We do family law. We have people that are trying to figure out where they’re going to live… how they’re going to see their kids… what’s happening with their school system and I knew I couldn’t make every phone call.
My daughter called every one of our top referral sources. She called every one of our current clients. She called every one of our closed-in-the-last-30-days, kind-of-getting-used-to-a-parenting-plan clients and said, ‘What can we do for you? We are here for you, we know you’re under stress.’
Honestly, nobody needed anything but an ear. Most people just needed to say, ‘here’s my biggest stressor, thank you for listening.”
DENISE: “Jonathan, you said that one of the things you learned is that technology is not the enemy. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?”
JONATHAN: “We had to really test our tech very quickly because of the shutdown order in Massachusetts. And, what we learned was that we had a lot of stuff in place we didn’t know we had because we didn’t have to use it before.
In fact, one of our big areas of success was reducing costs by getting rid of redundant processes, redundant software, things we just didn’t need two of and using more of one software platform we had. So that was a really big win for us to see that and then really leverage what we had.
On the marketing side, what I learned was that my marketing created a bottleneck. I didn’t have the right process or the right personnel in place. I’d go out and market and then the work’s coming in but it’s getting stuck in that bottleneck because I don’t have the resources to help me move it through. So that taught me something different about my firm.
If I’m going to market, I have to really beef up my firm to be able to handle the work I’m getting from the results of the marketing.”
SHANNON: “Starting last year I created a really good, solid marketing budget, so that I knew I had a certain amount of money to market. And, when the Pandemic hit, it allowed me to actually increase my marketing budget and try more avenues to see what was working. Also, with spending a lot of time working from home it got me thinking that I have 15 + years as an attorney and I have lots of contacts and past clients that I have not reached out to.
I spent months just mastering my contacts’ list gathering emails, addresses and phone numbers from all old clients from years ago. I went through my Facebook contacts and actually through my phone and just pulled everyone I could think of and put them all on a master list to start doing newsletter campaigns and keeping them informed.
It was something I’ve been wanting to do for a while but I kept putting it off because it’s a huge task – it probably took me and my staff 3 months to do.”
What Lessons Did You Learn in Managing Your Team Remotely?
STEVE: “The next question kind of plays off the tech question that Jonathan opened up which is all of your team had to go remote and you still had to manage them. So, what was the lesson or lessons that you learned in managing your team remotely?”
BOBBIE: “The first lesson I learned was just to empower them. We invested a lot of time in this team and a lot of time in training. I tell them as often as I can, ‘you are not here by mistake.’
I felt a little like a street preacher, but as we locked the doors on Friday, March 13th and said goodbye to each other, we stood out front and I said, ‘We were made for this. We have every technology system in place. We have a tight team. We have a great referral basis and you all trust each other and you all support each other. We are not going to have problems. The biggest obstacle is going to be ourselves… taking care of ourselves.'”
SHANNON: “In the beginning you’ve got to be a good team leader and make sure everybody’s calm and focused and understands what the plan is. We would have morning Zoom meetings to just go over any questions or concerns and let everyone know that we’re working from home and it’s going to be a little bit boring, you’re going to need to take a break and you may get distracted and it’s OK.
Also, we had weekly Zoom meetings on Monday to find out how your weekend was, what’d you do with your family, what good things went on last week at work and in your personal life.
The Zoom meetings ended up being longer than the morning meetings we’d have in person prior to COVID and it just felt nice. It didn’t feel rushed like it used to be and sometimes they would take 45 minutes, but I didn’t want to rush it and I wanted everyone to feel comfortable.”
JONATHAN: “I learned that it was very easy to trust that my team would do what they had to do at home. I learned to trust that they were as invested in the success of our firm as I was. And then that manifested itself out through regular Zoom meetings, some for specific business purposes and some for fun. You had to trust your team to do what they had to do and then give them the leeway to do it.”
How Did You Handle Hiring and Training New Team Members?
DENISE: “Is now a good time to hire? There’s a pool of people out there who have unfortunately lost their jobs and many are asking should I take advantage of this potential hire and do it now instead of waiting? BOBBIE, I think you hired through the pandemic so can you just tell us how you decided to do that and then training, how do you handle that remotely?”
BOBBIE: “Trust the process and trust Atticus. One of the first Atticus’ webinars I saw said there are going to be these people, this amazing talent that was not treated right or didn’t transition well and just look for them. I had ads running and I pulled them when we first did the shutdown. I put them back up about the end of May, and by the first part of July we had two new hires, not just one but two. Two new associates and we also hired a paralegal during that time.
We were able to do most of our training in person because we had already reopened the office the second week of June, but our paralegal suffered a COVID-positive diagnosis in her home and so almost all of her training was through Zoom.”
JONATHAN: “This is a very apt subject because I ended up using Susan Schmidt in the Atticus “Build My Great Team” offering. I had been struggling to hire. The first thing I did was I realized one of my struggles was I didn’t have the training processes in place, I didn’t have the standard operating procedures. So, in March and April, my current team and I worked on getting those ready to go. Then we worked on an ad and then I found out that I always discovered a way to sabotage the process and I really had to dig deep inside and say, ‘Why am I refusing to do this? I know I need it. I know I want it.’ At the end of the day I decided I didn’t need to figure out the ‘why’ I just needed to get it out of my hands so someone else could do it.
So, last month I saw Atticus’ hiring webinar… called up… talked to Susan… the ad’s out… and we already have candidates and we’re getting ready to go. So, for me, it was I needed to get stuff in place and I needed to get that role out of my hands.”
DENISE: “Fantastic! Shannon, did you see any different challenges with your processes and your market being in Florida because there’s been a lot of news about the Coronavirus in Florida? Any challenges there with your practice in hiring or training?”
SHANNON: No, for me it was different, I got lucky. In the beginning of all this we were getting overwhelmed with work. One of my former employees got laid off at her job and we just happened to be texting and talking business and I ended up scooping here back up and so she’s here. I got lucky in that I didn’t have to spend all that time training.
It took a little while to get her back up to speed with us working virtual and then by the time she got here within a of couple weeks we were all working back out of the office. For me, it was pretty seamless and I got lucky. But the “Build My Great Team” program that Atticus has where they will go and look for someone for you that’s probably something I will do on my next hire. I think it would just save a ton of time and hassle and stress.”
DENISE: “It really does, it takes that focus off your plate and gives you the top 3 candidates to look at instead of looking at 20 resumes.”
If A Colleague Was Struggling to Grow Their Practice, What Would Be the No. 1 Piece of Advice You Would Give Them?
DENISE: “Looking at your practices and how successful you’ve been, especially this year, a lot of your colleagues are saying, ‘Hey, what’s your secret? What are you doing?’ So, what would be the number one piece of advice that you would give a colleague that’s struggling right now?”
JONATHAN: “I suggest partnering with like-minded people. One thing that I was very fortunate to have happen to me was I bonded with about 12 attorneys. We were bonded together by all being Massachusetts attorneys and Atticus’ attorneys and we committed to having a weekly call on Monday for an hour. On that call we celebrated wins, we looked at failures or struggles we were having, and we set goals for the next week’s call. Celebrating wins was awesome and very powerful.
We found a win for everyone even if they didn’t think they had it. So, I learned to celebrate the smallest of small wins and then sure enough over time they built up. I found a way to find a win in everything and that was the most powerful tool that I found. That’s what I suggest other attorneys do to help them through this.”
STEVE: “What Jonathan just said was so brilliant. Your confidence in your future is the wind in your sails. One of the things that Jonathan and his group of like-minded people did was reinforce and harvest confidence. If you lack wind in your sails and you’re feeling kind of low and not so sure what to do with life right now, one of the most powerful things you can do is start to harvest those wins, and wind, and redirect it into your future sales.”
DENISE: “I love the ‘celebrating the wins’ because in a time like this it’s so easy to kind of get down and depressed and all of these things and worry about everything – even things we can’t control. So, the fact that you’re looking at gratitude and things you’re grateful for, puts positive focus on the things that you’re accomplishing. Shannon, what would be your number one piece of advice to colleagues.”
SHANNON: “Similar to Jonathan, I have a small handful of local colleagues mainly in the personal injury world that I will reach out to for help, advice and ideas. But, I’m also in Atticus and I’ve found some of the personal injury lawyers in my group and the groups that I’ve been in over the past few years and we do ongoing bi-weekly meetings or phone calls. Another group of us do monthly Zoom meetings so I find that that’s been the most successful.
Staying in each other’s face, holding each other accountable, helping each other out, coming up with ideas that worked for each other and what didn’t work. That’s been very helpful.”
BOBBIE: “Never, ever, ever stop marketing. I have spent tons of money in marketing in the last 25 years. My firm has, I have, I’ve encouraged people to do it and so I understand there’s a cost to it. What I think becomes a roadblock for people is they think it’s all expensive. One thing I really learned during this time was there are a lot of really inexpensive ways to do marketing.
One of the most personal things that I never ever intended to be a boon to our marketing was kind of accidental. I am a journal-er and much like Jonathan, I do celebrate my wins and I do a gratitude journal. I literally woke up on the morning of the 13th of March and I couldn’t sleep and I just kind of wrote what I would call a journal entry that I turned into a blog. And it was all about the fear that we were experiencing. I mean, ‘I’m an owner… a mother… a daughter… a sister… I’ve been divorced… I’ve been alone.’ I got divorced right after 911 and I felt incredibly alone and I just wrote about that. And I talked about what you could do in terms of co-parenting and I gave some tips and tricks, but it was just really personal.
Well, we threw it up on our website and not only did our local bar publish it, the ABA Family Law Section added it to their Coronavirus website and it got picked up by an NPR reporter. An NPR reporter called me, I did a radio interview, and that got picked up by a local news station. And, just yesterday I got contacted by a law library in Florida saying, ‘we just ran across your blog, can we add this to our COVID resources because we have students that are parents?’
So, my advice continues to be, ‘be creative, be open, and be real.'”
Looking Out Over the Next Year, What Are You Most Excited About?
STEVE: “What I’d like to do as we start to pull this to a close, I’m just going to ask each one of you briefly, what’s the number one thing that you’re excited about for the upcoming year as we look at the next 12 months. What’s the thing that excites you the most about the next year? And, BOBBIE let’s go with you first, then Jonathan, then Shannon.”
BOBBIE: “I’m most excited about our hungry, young talent. They just want to learn. They are voracious in their appetite and that excites me. It reminds me of why I entered this field. I feel incredibly confident about the future and I’m really excited about what we can do for each other internally by taking care of ourselves and what we can do for our clients.”
JONATHAN: “I’m really excited to onboard our new hire and then hire the next one. I’m looking forward to that. I have a 24-month goal in mind, and I know what I want to do and it requires having people. So, that’s what I’m most excited about.”
SHANNON: “I am excited because I started the process of opening up another area of practice in my firm.”