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Erica Payne Left Big Law and Built a Values-Based Firm That Saved Her Health

When attorney Erica Payne made partner at the largest firm in the upper peninsula of Michigan, it appeared she had “made it.” She thought she needed the big firm, the big resources, the big network, and the big paycheck. She didn’t anticipate leaving big law.

Big Law Impacted Erica’s Health 

Soon after, she received a devastating medical diagnosis— a chronic health condition that would likely get worse if she continued at her current pace. 

As she started to understand the reality of living with a chronic condition, Erica began to search for alternative ways to be a “successful” lawyer without selling her soul to her career, working long, stressful hours, and ultimately facing burnout (if not worse).

She knew the answer was leaving big law and partnership behind, but soon got stuck in, “Well, what do I do now?”

Leaving Big Law for Her Health

That’s when she found Lawyerist. Erica joined Lawyerist Lab in 2021, where she learned how to turn her vision of a values-based firm into reality.

With encouragement from the coaches at Lawyerist, Erica found the confidence to move forward and build a firm that would allow her to thrive.

“The vision for my practice was to find a different way to practice law that can be a more positive experience for everybody, from the client to the lawyer to the staff.”

Relying on Systems

Facing a tremendous amount of uncertainty in her health, career, and the nature of running a litigation practice, Erica relied on systems to generate certainty in the areas she could control.

Lawyerist helped her understand how things like flat fee billing, for example, can create an overall better client experience and provide for a more predictable revenue model.

Creating a Values-Based Firm 

Early on, clarifying her core values influenced many of the tough decisions. Including who to bring on as a partner and how to stay organized to get work done. Eventually, she named her firm Heirloom Law Group, a name inspired by something very meaningful to Erica’s life— gardening.

Once she was able to nail down what was truly important to her, everything fell into place. Heirloom became the firm Erica needed, including space for fun and authenticity.

“Sometimes lawyers don’t like to have that word brought up because we do very serious work. It’s serious stuff that we deal with, but your job can still be fun. The court process can be pleasant, or at least a positive experience. I want to go to work every day and have fun. We wanted to be authentic to ourselves.”

In building a practice around values, Erica demonstrates that law firms don’t have to be cookie cutter. She admits to being a goofy person and doing things differently than the average attorney. 

And, it works.

Another thing Erica does differently? She says no to multi-tasking.

How Erica Got Over Multi-Tasking After Leaving Big Law 

Erica recalls touting her multi-tasking skills in previous positions, as many people often do. Now, she realizes it’s simply ineffective and goes against one of her other core values: working systematically.

Now, she practices being fully present for one task at a time. This allows her time to focus It increasing productivity delivering legal work in a way that doesn’t negatively impact her health.

A Key to Systematizing 

Systemizing legal work does not have to be complex or expensive. One small thing Erica now uses to stay on task is a simple pack of post-it notes. 

“I’ve started every day writing three work tasks, three personal work tasks, and three fun or relaxing things. I like to pick up that post-it note and set it in front of me. It helps me be mindful about what I’m doing if I do get derailed.”

Everyone faces distractions, but when they pop up for Erica, she writes them on a larger sticky note and sets them aside. By doing this, she calls the shots on her true priorities, and her clients thank her for it.

Embracing Imperfection 

Above all, running a values-based business has taught Erica the importance of being willing to be imperfect. 

“It only works if you are kind to yourself, and that’s one thing that lawyers don’t do well. Lawyers are perfectionists. We don’t like to fall short, but we do. A process like implementing a system takes time. I want everything done yesterday, to be working smoothly, and for everybody to know what they’re doing, but that’s impossible all of the time.”

The Importance of Business Coaching and Healthy Self-Talk 

After leaving big law, Erica joined the Lawyerist Lab coaching program. She decided that it was time to practice law through a more human-centered approach. That human-centered approach started with herself. She works on her self-talk and practices speaking kindly to herself daily. Not only has this changed the way she practices law, it’s improved her health.

She calls Lawyerist a “life-saver,” and with her chronic health condition, she means that literally.

“I’m grateful because this is probably going to lead to a better, healthier life… a longer life. I don’t want to be the lawyer who’s working towards retirement. I don’t want to think about retirement, because I have had some scary situations over the last couple years and I want to live a good life today, tomorrow, and the next day. Maybe I won’t even see retirement age. That’s reality. I wish I would’ve taken the dive earlier, but I try not to dwell on it because I only knew what I knew.”

Erica’s Advice for Starting a Values-Based Firm

Erica proved through Heirloom Law Group that building a successful values-based lifestyle firm is not only possible, it’s profitable. 

“Don’t be scared. Keep reading about what’s possible for you. I found Lawyerist, and I found that it made me feel not so alone, that I could do it, and I could go out and I wasn’t going to be alone. It’s not as solo as solo sounds.”

We’re so proud of Erica for prioritizing her health and well-being and for having the courage to leave big law, envision her dream, and build it from the ground up.

If you are interested in learning more about how Lawyerist Lab can help you build a systemized, values-based firm that supports your life, we’d love to connect with you.

Small Firm Roadmap Stories: Real People, Real Community

We sat down with attorney Nick Pleasants of Pleasants Law to discuss his experience in our Lawyerist Lab Community.

Lawyerist: Can you give a brief description of your firm, its size, practice area, location, and a little bit of how you started it?

Nick: Sure. So, I have my own law firm in Bellevue, Washington. I’m the only attorney. We have one paralegal and I practice primarily in elder law. Think estate planning, probate trust administration, and estate litigation. I ended up with my own solo firm after working for my father’s firm for four years. And it was about the time my father was preparing to retire that I joined Lawyerist Lab where I worked on a business plan and developed processes to actually run my own firm instead of being an employee for someone else’s firm.

Wanting Defined Values in His Firm

Lawyerist: You mentioned that some of your challenges before joining Lab was to unlearn what you learned from your dad’s firm. What were those challenges, specifically?

Nick: A lot of things! One was having a business plan and a target customer in mind. My dad didn’t do much marketing other than the Yellow Pages. So, in Lab, I started thinking about how to have a brand identity, which is not something on my dad’s radar. 

Also, I talked to another Labster at LabCon who really had his values down at his firm. And I had a light bulb moment—I needed to develop some values and a culture for my firm. I found little by little, the work I did on our vision and values seeps into the way I speak when I’m giving public talks or recording videos. I’ll reference our firm values and culture. 

And that work is the key to everything we do now. That’s why I joined Lab in the first place—to get those fundamentals in place because I knew how to practice law, but not run a business. 

Community Support for Like-Minded People

Lawyerist: Speaking of—how did you find out about Lab in the first place?

Nick: It’s a long story, but I originally met Sam at a Washington State Bar Conference, then the rest of the crew at ClioCon one year. I almost joined another community, but that community felt one-dimensional and, honestly, not like a community at all. A huge selling point for me was seeing the Lawyerist team out in the world. They felt very non-salesy. They’re real people who do real things. That was the community I was looking for.

Lawyerist: That’s so nice to hear! What else attracted you to Lab?

Nick: One of the biggest tensions working with my dad was modernizing our office. For example, I told him I want to be paperless. I don’t want to ever have paper. That’s not necessary to practice law. And he would have a lot of reasons why we couldn’t. I bought a very fast scanner, but I couldn’t get him to use it. I just couldn’t get him to use it. 

And when I joined Lab, I thought: I’ve finally found a community where I don’t have to convince people modernizing is worth it. Lab was already a paperless-first community. Cloud-based first. That’s so important to me.

Lawyerist: How has the Lawyerist team help you strategize and implement over the years? 

Nick: Having a community and Mastermind cohort to hold me accountable is great. Being able to work through modules together, check up on each other—really valuable. 

Lawyerist: And you’ve been here here for a while—one of the veterans.

Nick: I started October 2018. Right! How would I ever leave?

Accomplishments in Lab

Lawyerist: What have been some of your accomplishments and milestones over the years?

Nick: I think it’s probably a series of little things, but a huge one is using a project management tool (Trello). To be able to visually see the next steps and deadlines in cases is crucial. And I have a personal account to keep track of my goals, too. 

At this point, the practice is taking off to the point where I can show up every day, work in the practice without stressing out. I take home a decent paycheck and people are happy, but I still want to bigger things. That actually having goals and setting aside some time to work on the business. 

Lawyerist: What features of Lab have you enjoyed the most?

Nick: Oh, I love LabCon. I miss in-person LabCon, but virtual has been a good substitute! I like that it’s not just a conference where you’re taking in knowledge. It’s actual work time.

And community events, too–Masterminds, group coaching calls. Those have been great. To be able to interact with coaches weekly, like Bernadette on Finances or Kelly on management or Laura on SEO. 

Lawyerist: What are your future plans for your firm?

Nick: We’re working on growing. I unlocked this with Coach Stephanie the other day. Our business grow and not just by a little bit—but by a large bit. I’m working on the processes to get us there. 

We’ve also been putting time in our website and we’re getting customers fast just from Google searches. The power of SEO! 

Lawyerist: Do you have advice for someone just starting their own firm? 

Nick: Great question. One thing to consider—the overhead monster. You have to keep your overhead super low. That’s true even when your firm takes off. You have to be brutal with those expenses. 

Less is more in the beginning. Start as lean as possible. For example, do you even need an office? I mean, now people just do everything from home. So if you can eliminate all those startup costs, then you could launch your own firm with very little out-of-pocket.

What areas of your business are you looking to take to the next level?

Whether the goal of your business it to bring legal services to the masses in a new, innovative way or simply just enjoy going to work everyday, we want to help you. At Lawyerist, our number one goal is to set you on a track to blow your own expectations out of the water.

Lawyerist Lab is full of resources, expert coaches, and an attorney community that wants to empower you to not only reach your goals but propel you far past them. Ready to take the plunge? Learn more about Lab here.

Small Firm Roadmap Stories: Taking Action

We sat down with family law attorneys Rebecca Ritchey and Sara Kelley of Sibus Law Group to discuss their experience in our Lawyerist Lab Community.

Lawyerist: Hi Rebecca and Sara! Could you give a brief description of your firm, your practice area, location, and any other details you want to tell me about it?

Rebecca: We’re Sibus Law Group. We’re a pretty small firm—we have two attorneys. We do flat-fee family law, which is everything from litigation to consulting fees on a flat-fee basis. This means clients know the cost of the services upfront and receive only the services they want. 

Looking for a Forward-Focused Support System

Lawyerist: And what were the biggest challenges in your firm right before you joined Lab?

Rebecca: When I found Lawyerist, I was originally looking for resources on reception services. But then I started to see that there was this really good community of people trying to change the practice of law—which is what we were already doing. 

We don’t have access to a community open to this kind of change here in San Diego. I attended one of the first LabCons and that’s where I found this great community of Labsters. So, you could say I wasn’t necessarily searching for community, but the community is why I stayed.

Lawyerist: How about you, Sara? What were your challenges before you were in Lab?

Sara: Similar to Rebecca. I joined a bit later than she did, but the challenges were the same—how to build a modern law firm. One of our major challenges was finding people that believed that there was something different from traditional law practice—for example, moving away from the billable hour.

Lawyerist: Rebecca, you mentioned LabCon. What was it about LabCon that made you realize you want to join Lab? 

Rebecca: At the first LabCon, we stayed up late into the evening, working on projects. The idea of collaborating to solve a problem in such a short period of time was amazing. Sara and I collaborate on our own, but when you get a group of people together who have great ideas, you can’t beat it. It wasn’t just spitballing ideas. We actually did something and that’s when I was like, “OK, these people take action!” 

Lawyerist: What was the advantage of both of you joining Lab, as opposed to just one person in the firm?

Sara: Joining together allowed us to serve different roles. Rebecca and I took a divide and conquer plan towards this. Rebecca focused on marketing and business, whereas I was able to focus on other tracks that go along with my role as the Chief Innovation Officer and Legal Engineer at the firm.

Working together in Lab puts us on the same page.

1×1 Support to Grow Your Firm Your Way

Lawyerist: How did the Lawyerist team help you implement and strategize?

Rebecca: Initially, when I joined Lab, I relied heavily on the course modules. I systemically went through those. And then when 1:1 coaching was introduced, it was so nice to know that I could go to someone if I was stuck. If I need help with, say, a social media or management issue, I have someone with that specific expertise I can talk to. 

Sara: Being able to speak to a coach in the moment when I’m stuck is invaluable. There aren’t many places you can get this kind of feedback. You can’t typically call up another attorney and say, “Hey, I want to automate my client intake system. How do I do that?”

And the people on the Lawyerist team have been through these issues and they know what they’re talking about when they provide guidance. 

Rebecca: Yeah! Prior to Lab, Sara was spending a significant amount of time researching resources. And not that we still don’t research—we’re curious, after all—but now we can get advice and support from people who have already done this work, instead of just mindlessly searching the internet. 

Accomplishments In Lab

Lawyerist: So, you’ve been in Lab a while now. What are some milestones you’ve accomplished while you’ve been here?

Rebecca: I keep thinking of how we automated our client intake system. It’s just so exciting. We changed and automated our entire funnel, from intake to onboarding. It’s great. Masterminds, conversations with coaches and other Labsters—all were a big help.  

Sara: Another one—conversations with other Labsters at LabCon and other events really helped shape our social media strategy. Picking the right person to hire for this with this made a difference, too and it’s running like a well-oiled machine. 

There was a shift where the strategy went from a thing hanging over our heads to a fleshed-out project. Hearing what other people are doing and getting that feedback during Lab events helped put our minds at ease—other people have done this and they’re successful. 

Lawyerist: You’ve mentioned the Lab community being helpful. What other ways have connecting with Labsters helped?

Rebecca: Seeing how other people struggle with similar issues has been so helpful, especially in Masterminds where we’re getting AND giving advice. Like, you know, when you’re teaching, you’re learning as much as the person you’re teaching. Sometimes giving advice or looking at others’ perspectives gives me an objective perspective of our own issues.

Sara: It’s been interesting to see how many lawyers struggle specifically with hiring and finding the right fit for their firm. You would think these are two sides of the same coin, but I’ve seen other firms hire based on people just showing up and applying. Watching other attorneys work on intentional hiring has helped our hiring, too. 

Lots of solo attorneys are struggling with this because law firms have a different hiring structure. For instance, if you wanted to start a restaurant, you might first work as a server or a host, then move to manager, then consider opening your own restaurant. Often in law firms, people skip the climb and go straight to owning. So they don’t have a lot of experience in finding the right fits.

It’s been helpful to work with Labsters who understand this idea and want to be more mindful about their hires. 

The Future of Sibus Law Group

Lawyerist: If you had one piece of advice to give to someone starting their own firm, what would you say?

Rebecca: I’d say—don’t let the noise of how everyone else practices drown you out. Keep going back to your why—why you started your firm and why you wanted to do things differently than traditional law practice.

Sara: Start with case management platforms. Don’t try to invent your own way of tracking cases and conflicts and money coming into your firm—there’s software out there that will already do this for you. It doesn’t matter which one, grab one, start throwing everything into it.

Lawyerist: Good advice. And what does the future look like for your firm?

Rebecca: Bringing legal services to the masses. Scaling up, allowing people to understand the costs of legal services and what goes into it and giving them the autonomy to choose the services they need based on the advice we give them. 

And, also, bringing this to people who traditionally shy away from going to an attorney because they think it’s complicated and expensive and it’s just going to mess up their divorce. And I mean, there are 50 million movies and TV about this misconception, so the future of our firm is changing that image.

Sara: The future is finding the right technology to solve problems that don’t require legal-specific knowledge. You don’t need legal knowledge to scan a document or answer a phone. We want to eliminate lawyer time spent on non-lawyer tasks and focus on the lawyering part. The other stuff will fall in line if we do this and access to justice costs will come down. 

Our ultimate goal is for people to come away from our firm thinking, “I love my lawyer.” That was a phrase that came up in our initial marketing development. We’re not there yet, but as far as an ultimate kind of pie in the sky goal, that’s what we want people to walk away saying. And I also want people to love being a lawyer.

What areas of your business are you looking to take to the next level?

Whether the goal of your business it to bring legal services to the masses in a new, innovative way or simply just enjoy going to work everyday, we want to help you. At Lawyerist, our number one goal is to set you on a track to blow your own expectations out of the water.

Lawyerist Lab is full of resources, expert coaches, and an attorney community that wants to empower you to not only reach your goals but propel you far past them. Ready to take the plunge? Learn more about Lab here.

Small Firm Roadmap Stories: Community Support

We sat down with Lawyerist Lab member and family law attorney, Aaron Thomas, to discuss his experiences in the Lab community.

Lawyerist: Can you give me a brief description of your firm, its size practice area location, and maybe the new project we know you’re working on?

Aaron Thomas: So, I’m the owner of Aaron Thomas Law. We provide family law services in Atlanta, Georgia and the surrounding Metro area. Our practice areas include divorce, custody, and child support, as well as enforcing or modifying any orders that fall under those and prenups and postnups. 

And I have a new project called Georgia Prenups

Rebranding a Family Law Firm from Divorce to Prenups

Lawyerist: Tell us more about that new project. How did it start? How did it get to where it is now?

Aaron Thomas: I’ve wanted to develop a niche prenuptial agreement for a number of years now. I tried a few different projects before, but they fizzled. I joined Lab in January of 2020 and around February, March, I started thinking about revamping this idea. 

It started as an idea I talked over initially with [Lab Head Coach] Stephanie and by spring, we started getting serious about implementing. I wanted to figure out how to launch without breaking the bank and in a way that would produce good results. 

With Stephanie, I focused on getting the minimum viable product out there, launching it quickly, and spending money in the right places. We turned it around pretty quickly!

We announced the new project through my newsletter and on social media in mid-August. We just signed up our fourth client, which was beyond my expectations.

Lawyerist: It’s been cool to see your project grow from an inkling to four clients in a month. Congratulations! 

Getting Help for Big Projects in a Small Law Firm

So when you joined Lab in January, beyond this particular project, what were the challenges that made you seek out help?

Aaron Thomas: I was dealing with a few issues. For instance, I wasn’t getting the performance out of one of my employees and that was causing a lot of backup and frustration. Also, I was working seven days a week, getting up on Saturdays and Sundays and sitting down at my computer immediately. Not sustainable.

I also wasn’t delegating appropriately. I didn’t have the right staffing. I probably wasn’t trusting my employees and they deserved my trust.

We had a lot of work. Bringing in clients wasn’t the problem. It was getting the work done in a way that didn’t require me to work around the clock.

Lawyerist: Common issues with our Lab members—many of them come to Lab to fix exactly what you’re talking about.

Why Lawyerist?

And had you read our book or listened to the podcast before joining? How did you find out about us?

Aaron Thomas: I actually attended a Lawyerist conference three years ago and it was a super inspirational few days. After, I continued listening to the podcast. 

And in January, the timing was right. I had done other training and worked with other consultants. I kept thinking of Lawyerist throughout those training sessions and reached back to join.

Lawyerist: And we’re so glad you did! How would you say our team since January have helped you strategize and implement?

Aaron Thomas: In a few different ways. Head Coach Stephanie was the first person I spent a significant amount of time talking to, especially about my Georgia Prenups project. 

First, I needed to bounce the idea off other people to figure out if it was even a viable idea. In my initial conversations with Stephanie and [Community Manager] Jennifer, I was able to ask—am I crazy? Is this something that can actually work? Am I missing something big?

In the beginning, the coaches gave me the kick in the butt to get me out there and try the idea. Then, I worked with all the Lab coaches to make a plan. It was helpful—I just couldn’t look it at from the same perspective the coaches and community could. Having Lab members I could talk through strategy, marketing, and accountability was helpful. 

What About Staffing and Delegation?

Aaron Thomas: Lab gave me the advice to sit down with the employee I was having issues with and be direct and talk about what the expectations were and then follow up to see if those expectations were being met. And we figured out that it wasn’t a good fit and we parted ways. 

Afterward, I was able to find someone who isn’t just a great employee but was able to take on the work that has given me the flexibility to step back and do more of what I want to do, including spending more weekends with my wife and daughter. So, the delegation issue was handled, as well. 

Lawyerist: Tell me how the different elements of Lab—community, courses, coaching—have helped you.

Aaron Thomas: The courses have been great starting points to figure out my gaps. For example, Facebook advertising. I think most lawyers don’t know anything about Facebook ads. And to be able to sit down on my own time, watch the videos, take notes, and at least learn the basics, even if I ended up outsourcing some of those projects, was invaluable. 

Community & Coaching: Leveraging Lawyerist Lab

One of the biggest benefits has been the coaching. Being able to talk to individuals about my particular problems and get a customized plan rather than a one size fits all, and to get encouragement and accountability—really wonderful. I often know what I need to do, but have trouble implementing, so the help was great. 

And the community—I didn’t even come into Lab expecting such a supportive community. There are some inspirational people In Lab, lawyers are doing some really amazing stuff.

Everyone has been super supportive. I chatted with some other lawyers outside of Lab about this project and the questions I got from them were so different from what I got in Lab. They asked—are you sure you want to do this? Isn’t it a risk? Aren’t you worried about liability?  There was a lot of poo-pooing this idea that had become my baby. 

And the Lab community and coaches couldn’t be more opposite. Everyone said—of course, you can do that. What you’re doing is amazing. And I heard, “Maybe I should do something like what you’re doing.” 

Lab has been a great place to pull it all together. When I talk to people in Lab, they say—all right, how do we best achieve this goal? Not can you achieve it. No one downs my idea for being unrealistic or too lofty or risky. It’s amazingly supportive. 

Lawyerist: We love hearing this. This is exactly what we want the community to be. Thank you for saying this. 

To end, tell me where your firm is headed. I know you plan to keep expanding Georgia Prenups, but what else is next? 

Aaron Thomas: The firm is doing really well. And my new project is doing well. The next year in Lab will be figuring out where I go next. Do I take more of a hands-off role in the daily firm and focus on the new project? Do I retreat into more of a management position? Do I bring on additional staff?

But I feel like I’ve got a base underneath me with this new project and I’m super excited. 

To learn more about our Lab community, set up a time to chat with our Community Coach.

Small Firm Roadmap Stories: Build the Tech You’re Missing

Lawyerist Lab is a community where solo and small-firm lawyers go to innovate, test, experiment, and improve their law businessesWe’re interviewing Lab members on their experiences as they align with The Small Firm Roadmap.

“People may not realize that if there’s not a technology or software product out there that works for your needs, you might be able to build one. It might not be as expensive or as complicated as you think.”

Tell me about your practice. How did it start? What were you doing before it started?

I launched my practice in late 1999. We focus on trademark law. 

Prior to launching my firm, I worked at the US Patent and Trademark office for about a year as an examiner reviewing trademark applications.

When I decided to launch my practice, I had a couple of thoughts. One: I knew working for the federal government wasn’t for me. It didn’t meet my professional goals. I wanted to be an entrepreneur — get out on my own.

Also, the internet as a marketing tool and platform was really just taking off at that time. When I launched my business, the majority of law firms didn’t even have websites. I saw an opportunity. 

What kind of opportunity?

I decided to charge flat all-inclusive fees from the beginning.

I also realized that technology was changing the way that firms worked and marketed, particularly in a field like trademarks where your practice can be national. So, I built a website, marketed online, and got my first clients. 

What were your struggles when you transitioned to own firm?

Like most solos, I struggled with being alone. I had a huge support network at the trademark office and in school before that, so being on my own was different. At the time, I didn’t have the wisdom to reach out to find mentors. 

Plus, there weren’t a lot of small or solo IP shops at the time because the market was undergoing an evolution. There were no roadmaps to follow. I really had to make my own way. 

You had your practice for quite a while before you joined Lab. What made you join?

A combination of things. Number one, even when things are going well, I’m always looking towards the future. I don’t want to be static or stuck in place. The practice of law is changing. The management of firms is changing. If you don’t keep up, you’ll get left behind.

Second, I had become tired of going to traditional conferences in the field. You’re surrounded by people who practice in the same field and they have the same type of lectures every year. I was getting so little out of going to those conferences that I wanted to try something new.

I wanted to think out of the box and make fresh connections. And Lab has been so valuable for this. Even if other attorneys in the group are working on different issues, I still get value out of hearing their stories, their obstacles, and how they overcame them.

What else do you find helpful about Lab?

When I was ready to grow, I had no idea how to handle staffing. I had zero experience or training in managing, overseeing, hiring, firing, all of that. To have support and coaching in Lab while I figured all of it out was really important. 

It’s also great to be around like-minded people — attorneys who are thinking differently about subscriptions, billing, staffing, processes, and everything else. Even if we aren’t working on the same issues, just hearing their solutions and stories is so helpful.

The Masterminds [peer-led brainstorming groups] have been tremendously helpful. Being around other people who are sharing their experiences and challenging each other and asking questions and learning is so valuable. 

Finally, one-on-one coaching with Stephanie. I’ve been working on a book, and she’s kept me on track. She’ll ask me questions like, “You finishing that book today? No? OK, what’s keeping you from writing? What’s the struggle? How do we fix the jam?” I can make a list of a hundred things to do, but it’s hard to do them without accountability. 

What’s one area of The Small Firm Scorecard where your firm is doing well? How are you maintaining that growth?

Technology. We’ve always been ahead of the curve there and we’ve kept the progress going. 

Going paperless is huge. You would think it’s not something to brag about anymore, but you’d be surprised. You’re still ahead if you’re paperless. And if you aren’t paperless yet, make it a priority as it opens up so many other doors with efficiency. 

I’ve also found that people may not realize that if there’s not a technology or software product out there that works for your needs, you might be able to build one. It might not be as expensive or as complicated as you think. We built our own product that works as a CRM, an intake, and our docketing system. It’s invaluable. A bonus benefit is that it is a great marketing tool when I tell prospective clients that we’ve built our own proprietary software.

If building a new tool feels daunting, talk to an expert and break it down into pieces – maybe your tool only needs to do one thing to start. What’s one very repetitive task you need help doing that you can’t find the right tool for? 

What’s your advice for someone starting their own firm?

Number one is to find a passion that you can tie into your work. I don’t believe in the separation of work from life. For instance, if you love sports, try to work with sports companies. If you love music, go to music events and network and promote your services that way. Combine your passion and work in every way you can. 

Second, have patience. I used to say, wait six months for progress — and even that’s probably generous. But when the returns start to come in, the results can be contagious. People are calling you because they spoke to you at an event a year ago. It just builds.

And then I’m always looking ahead, so that even when things are good and busy, I’m planting new marketing seeds to make sure there are pipelines of business coming in six months or a year. 

Erik Pelton is all about energy, whether he’s representing clients, addressing workshop or conference-goers, volunteering with Falls Church City’s Economic Development Authority, testing his mettle in a triathlon, drumming up support for charity, or wrangling kids on Bike to School Day. His superpower is making complicated subjects clear, using real-world examples to illustrate his points in an engaging—sometimes-hilarious—way. And as an early-adopter gadget freak, the exploding world of technology and associated intellectual property laws is to Erik familiar and fun rather than intimidating. Erik got his start as a trademark examiner for the USPTO and, in the years since, has grown his law practice with the enduring ideals of customer service, affordability, and clarity.

Small Firm Roadmap Stories: Ditching the Billable Hour

Lawyerist Lab is a community where solo and small-firm lawyers go to innovate, test, experiment, and improve their law businesses. We’re interviewing Lab members on their experiences as they align with The Small Firm Roadmap.

Jeff Houin, partner at Easterday Houin

I wanted to make sure the pricing, regardless of what the client used or didn’t use, was about the benefit — not the time it takes me to do it.

Tell us about your practice. How did it start? What were you doing before you started it?

Our firm is in rural Indiana. We have three attorneys. We cover a broad spectrum of practice areas. Since we’re in a small town, we like to provide all the legal needs our clients might need.

I joined in 2012, but the firm had been around for ages. At first, it was just my partner and me, then we added another attorney a few years ago. We plan to keep growing.

I was technically a solo my first year out of law school, sharing my office with a more established firm that gave me a lot of guidance. After that, I worked for a much larger firm that did real estate litigation. I covered the Northern third of Indiana! I mean, if there was a court hearing or appearance needed, I was the guy. And I came back around to smaller firms.

What made you go back to a smaller firm after your experience in a large firm?

Location, honestly. I now live and work in the town I grew up in. I tried to get away, but when my wife and I started having kids, we realized being closer to their grandparents was better for all of us. 

Also, I commuted for a long time when I was at the other firm and I realized I didn’t want to do that anymore. A small firm let me work and live in my community.

What’s different about a rural vs a bigger city practice?

The challenges are comparable — but the scale is so different. We do everything we would at a big firm and the challenges are similar, but we’ve had to think about how we scale for our rural community, including how we price our services.

So, what was the moment you decided to join Lawyerist Lab?

My partners and I followed Lawyerist for a long time — read the resources, listened to the podcast, the whole bit. And for a long time, we knew these were important lessons, but we thought we could still do everything on our own.

But at some point, I realized this wasn’t actually true. I wasn’t holding myself accountable. I was struggling to implement my ideas because there was too much to break down on my own. I really, really needed someone to say, “Here’s the process, and here’s your first step.”

I looked at a couple of different coaching options, but Lab was the one that broke everything down into the most manageable steps. I always know what my action steps are and what’s coming next. 

What do you find most helpful about Lab?

The coursework has been pretty valuable. As I mentioned, having a step-by-step process is invaluable to us, so having concrete steps I can reference at any time is a huge help.

The Masterminds are great. It’s always validating to hear other perspectives and get tips from other people who’ve been through what I’m doing.

What’s one area of the Scorecard where your firm is doing well? How are you maintaining that growth?

We’re scoring pretty well in Technology. Tech has always been a strength for our firm. We’re willing to adopt new tech and use it to make our practice more efficient and make our business run better. 

To implement, we start with the right mindset: We don’t adopt tech for tech’s sake. We’re not looking for the latest bells and whistles, or what looks the fanciest. We want tech that works within our existing workflows and gets the job done.

We’ve also been paperless since 2014. Other attorneys are speechless at how we can operate like this. I tell them I have one computer that is both my laptop and a tablet. And when I go to court, unless I have exhibits, I don’t take any paper files with me. It makes everything so much easier. 

Also, communication is key. New tech can be scary for people who aren’t used to it and there can be a reluctance to adopt. You can’t just change everything at once. Adoption has to be a gradual process of training, getting everyone on board, and helping them understand the benefits of the new tech. Having a clear roll-out plan is key.

We also have a pricing model that’s a little different from other firms we know. We use subscription pricing, which we launched at the beginning of 2019.

When we were looking at new pricing, we wanted something that really benefited clients. Billing by the hour meant clients were hesitant to contact me. They would think their question wasn’t important enough to get billed for, so they wouldn’t call. And I encountered situations where if I’d known their issue six months earlier, it wouldn’t have snowballed. We had to figure out a way to break down that barrier.

I wanted to make sure the pricing, regardless of what the client used or didn’t use, was about the benefit — not the time it takes me to do it.

So our model is a low flat monthly fee that keeps communication open. If clients have a question, they can call, email, or text me without worrying about how much it’s going to cost. If there are larger projects, then I’ll quote them a new price based on project pricing. 

This means fewer surprises. I always start with a roadmap session in the first meeting. Clients fill out a 50-question questionnaire so I know everything upfront. We decide on their priorities. I’m able to map out future project costs. And since they aren’t getting billed by the hour, they’re more willing to jump in and give me all the information I need. 

And the cost really evens out. In the first month, clients might call a lot. But as they get comfortable, they’re calling less.

Last question: What qualities does someone need to be a successful solo or small firm lawyer?

Mindfulness. Be intentional about your plan. Make sure you’ve thought through every decision: What are you trying to accomplish? What’s the plan? Why am I doing this? Taking time to plan your leap instead of jumping in will help you so much down the line.

Jeff joined the previous firm, Easterday & Ummel, as an associate attorney in April 2012 after working for larger law firms in South Bend and Indianapolis. Jeff earned a bachelor’s degree from Ball State University in 2000 and began a successful career in sales and management. After several years in the business world, Jeff returned to school to get his JD from the University of Notre Dame Law School in 2008. At Notre Dame, Jeff served as an Executive Articles Editor for the Journal of College and University Law and competed as a member of the Moot Court Showcase Team. Jim and Jeff formed Easterday Houin LLP on January 1, 2015.

Small Firm Roadmap Stories: Vision and Values

Lawyerist Lab is a community where solo and small-firm lawyers go to innovate, test, experiment, and improve their law businesses. We’re interviewing Lab members on their experiences as they align with The Small Firm Roadmap.

Our personal goals, vision, and values are keyed in across all six team members.

Tell us about your practice. How did it start? What were you doing before you started it?

My partner Jennifer Gersch and I practice criminal defense around Denver. We’re a virtual law firm and travel through most of Colorado to reach our clients. It’s just the two of us — but we have a team of subcontractors.

I spent four years as a solo attorney before I teamed up with Jenn. And I own and manage a second business (property management — a different skill set!), I had a toddler, I had multiple pets (including an office horse), and everything was getting a little chaotic. 

What made you go solo?

Ha! I can’t be a good employee. But really, I reached a point in my career where I wanted the discretion to do what I think is right. I’ve been a prosecutor. I’ve done bankruptcy and tax law. I was an unemployment appeals judge on a contract basis in Idaho. I’ve dabbled in aviation law. You name it. I liked the criminal courtroom because it lets me be creative and I was great in court.

But working in a firm or as a prosecutor, I couldn’t be there for my family and all of my other responsibilities. It was time for me to choose my own fate. I had an undergrad in Accounting and knew I’d like running a business. My dad, an entrepreneur, raised me to be an independent thinker. It all seemed to fit. 

What qualities does someone need to be a successful solo or small firm lawyer?

Justie Nicol of Nicol Gersch Law PC

A couple of things. Ideally, a business background — or at least, a willingness to learn. Business work often doesn’t come naturally to lawyers. So, I’d suggest solos audit a couple of business courses where you can learn organizational systems and accounting control procedures. 

Also, a thirst for knowledge. Study marketing and accounting, along with systems and processes. These days, you can audit courses for free from places like Harvard and MIT. Listen to a couple of lectures on systems thinking. (Lab’s a good resource here.) Don’t forget your local bar associations and other groups for continuing, substantive, legal education.  I know more now about family law – even having never practiced in that area – than I did when I sat for either the Colorado or Idaho bars.

Third, a risk-taker. I was terrified when I started. Probably 90% of lawyers who go out on their own are scared of not making it. You think to yourself: What happens if I invest my personal money and six months from now I’m belly up and I can’t continue doing this?

Solo isn’t sustainable for people who aren’t ready to take that risk. Identify your stomach for risk early. Like, do you hit the six-month mark and fold, or do you go for another twelve months and hope to turn that corner? Know what you’re going to do.  Have a plan and know when enough is enough. Thankfully, I haven’t reached that point yet. 

Last, be organized. Have a backup plan. You can always approach another like-minded attorney and join forces. You may also be able to sell your practice and go back to big-firm or government work. Or you can give up the law entirely, and rely on things like a real estate broker’s license or another career altogether.

Before you joined Lawyerist Lab, what was happening in your business?

I’d been solo for years, and I was about to team up with Jenn. Before joining Lab, I was an Insider. I read all the free resources. I dug into how to write a business plan. I listened to the podcast. But then when it was time to bring on a partner, I felt lost. 

I didn’t know how to get the systems in my head onto paper so a new person could understand. I had to drum up my supervising chops again. I needed help figuring out how to make this transition.

Having a partner is different than a junior associate. She’s a friend and a peer, so I had to reframe my approach. I had to think about compensation systems, maternity leave, caseloads. It was overwhelming. I needed some help!

What Lab tools have you found the most helpful?

For one, vision planning with the team. Along with new partner Jenn, we’ve added contractors and interns, and we want everyone to be on the same page. It was enlightening to work on planning with the team and see what feedback I received. Working with everyone on our values and our future was a big step.

Second, the community — having a group of people to bounce ideas off and getting that validation from lawyers who are working on the same issues or have the same ideas is really, really valuable. 

Lab feels like a backup plan and a safety net, in some ways. I’m not doing this alone. 

What’s one area of The Small Firm Scorecard where your firm is doing well? How are you maintaining that growth?

Our personal goals, vision, and values are keyed in across all six team members. 

We maintain a master vision notebook, which is also where we list our goals, as well as KPIs. We’re starting to build out the notebook to include client journeys and marketing. 

The vision book (which is branded and nicely designed) is for everyone on our team — not just partners and associates. It’s so much more than a business plan. I update it monthly and email it around to keep it top of mind for everyone — but it’s always open for anyone to review. 

We also have assigned homework prior to team meetings to help us set our vision and values for the whole company and incorporate everyone’s answers in this vision book. Everyone has a stake that way. 

What are you working on for the coming quarter?

Partner Jenn is going on maternity leave, so we’ll be in a bit of survival mode. We have contract attorneys coming into help. We’re exploring partnering with new associates. And we all have kids! So I love the idea of turning the stereotype of a criminal defense firm on its head — we’re all women, we all have kids, and we’re blowing it up. 

Along that line, we’re focusing on our core values. Having kids brings work/life balance into focus, along with being able to hold on to who we are. As a personal example, I got hired at a firm years ago who made me take out my facial piercings. They had sentimental value and they were me. I don’t want a firm where we have to change vital things about ourselves to conform. I’m not into conforming. I want to support our people so they can support our clients. 

We encourage rebelliousness. We’re a remote firm. We don’t care when or how you work— just if you get your work done. And I’ve never had to check-in with any employees to make sure they were doing their work. My team is killing it. So, for this quarter, we want to continue that momentum. 

Nicol Gersch Law was founded in 2019 when long-time colleagues and friends, Justie Nicol and Jennifer Gersch, looked around at the criminal defense community and realized partnering up was the way to go.  Not only are Justie and Jenn working together now, but they’ve litigated cases together for about 15 years–all the way back to their Moot Court days at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Hear more about Justie’s philosophies here.

How Lawyers Work: Jason Beahm, DJ Extraordinaire & Criminal Defense Attorney

In this week’s edition of How Lawyers Work, we hear from Jason Beahm. Jason is a San Francisco-based criminal defense attorney whose practice areas include DUI’s, traffic, personal injury and criminal cases. 

You can find Jason on Twitter and LinkedIn. 

What’s your elevator pitch?

I am a trial lawyer whose practice emphasizes protecting talented nightlife professionals, venue owners, and artists.

What apps or tools are essential to your daily workflow?

Everything I do begins with my iPhone. Over time I use it more and all other devices less. That means that I use a lot of applications, such as Gmail, Dropbox, and Clio. These applications allow me to stay in touch with my clients and colleagues, no matter where I am.

What does your workspace look like?

Either a desk or an airplane tray. I travel frequently for clients and events, so I am very comfortable working from just about anywhere. Some of my favorite workspaces are at hotels and airports. When it comes to the office, we are a paperless office, which means, we still have lots of paper. That being said, we make a concentrated effort to scan and save everything that can possibly be stored online and get rid of paper.
For some reason, ever since I was a kid, I have had a strange love for office supplies and things like scanners and printers. My favorite gizmos at the office are the Dymo label printer and Fujitsu ScanSnap. I never get tired of seeing the documents speed through the ScanSnap like magic, or the thrill of seeing the name of a new client being printed on a label. Pure thrills.

How do you keep track of your calendars and deadlines?

Google Calendar. It’s simple, it works, everyone knows how to use it and it links with everything. I have it linked with Clio as well, since Clio has a calendar built in, with a sync feature. Of course, my amazing executive assistant is a huge help as well. Since everyone works differently, discuss how lawyers work with all new team members so they can get in line with your expectations.

What is your coffee service setup?

Right now we are serving bicycle coffee made with a Chemex pot. It’s simple and makes great coffee. If I am the first one into the office, I make it. Otherwise, a member of my team always has coffee on hand, as well as a variety of teas, sparkling water, and juices.

How do you or your team approach problems?

First, we seek to understand them and then we solve them. Every client is different and every situation is different, so it is crucial to always take a fresh approach. We want to learn from the past but never become so mechanical that we lose the ability to see what makes each case compelling and unique. The goal is to understand the client and the case so well that we arrive at the winning argument, and achieve our client’s objectives. When your team knows how lawyers work it makes it easier for them to meet expectations.

What is one thing that you listen to, read, or watch that everyone should?

The Daily (New York Times Podcast). The quality of this podcast is just so amazing. The Daily does an amazing job of taking you through the big stories of the day, in a patient way. It avoids the typical for/against format where a bunch of talking heads scream at each other. Instead, they bring in an expert and ask them compelling questions. It’s often the first thing that I listen to as I start my workday.

What is your favorite local place to network or work solo?

I love working solo at the office, from the comfort of my office chair. I also love working at Node, a tech community just down the street that puts on amazing events and has been a great source of business and inspiration.

What are three things you do without fail every day?

Laugh, go for a walk and listen to music. Laughter feels amazing and is basically the opposite of sadness. Walking is good for you and it’s a great time to listen to music. I could live a million lifetimes and there would still not be enough time to explore how much fantastic music is out there. How amazing is that? Rarely does a day go by that I don’t get to carve out a walk and listen to some music. Life is too short not to.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Cameron Bowman.

Case Study: Greg Siskind, Immigration Lawyer and Bike Nerd

In this week’s edition of How Lawyers Work, we talked to Greg Siskind, founding partner of Siskind Susser, PC, an immigration law firm. In 1994, he created the first immigration law website in the world. He currently serves as a member of the Board of Governors of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

You can follow Greg on LinkedIn and Twitter.

What apps or tools are essential to your daily workflow?

I use a combination of apps each day that help me keep things together. Here’s a quick list of the most important:

  1. Dropbox is my central repository for documents, photos, etc.
  2. Evernote for all my notes, scans, business cards
  3. Office 365 for email, word processing, Teams (for interoffice texting)
  4. LastPass password manager
  5. BlueDot (immigration law case management system)
  6. Worldox (repository for work and client documents)
  7. Sharefile for a secure document sharing portal for clients
  8. Neota Logic for building apps for internal practice management and client services
  9. Just started using Notes Plus on my iPad with an Apple Pencil to take meeting notes.
  10. Constant Contact for much of our mass communications
  11. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn of course

What does your workspace look like?

  • Two computers – Dell XPS with Windows 10 and an iMac – two monitors and shared keyboard and shared mouse (each toggle between computers).
  • Brother HL-2270 printer
  • Fujitsu Scansnap S510
  • Ringcentral phone system with Plantronics phone and wireless headset

How do you keep track of your calendars/deadlines?

Outlook 365 calendaring + Wunderlist. My firm uses BlueDot, an immigration case management system, for client deadline management.

What’s your coffee service setup? (Other beverages are fine, of course, but you should really be serving coffee!)

Coffee is our #1 retention tool :-) ! We have a Douwe Egbert C-60 Coffee Machine, a very high-end product that I found many years ago in a Delta Skyclub and decided that something like that would make life happier for me and for everyone else.

What is one thing that you listen to/read/watch that everyone should?

I listen to a lot of podcasts on my bike commute each day. Tops are the Kennedy Mighell Report, Lawyerist, the Bugle, Stuff You Missed in History Class, This American Life. I do podcasts in the morning and audio books on my way home.

As for reading, the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine is excellent.

What’s your favorite local place to network or work solo?

I have a wonderful little coffee place called the Kitchenette that is in the middle of Shelby Farms in Memphis, one of the country’s top urban parks (though it’s 4500 acres so it’s more like a state park that happens to be in the middle of a major city). The place is on my bike route to work so I’ll often stop there and work before or after I’m in the real office.

What are three things you do without fail every day?

Exercise (almost always biking, but swimming, running and indoor workouts for rainy days). Here’s a graphic that sums up (literally) my cycling for the last six years.

Try to meditate most days. From a work perspective, I try and do some writing every day. I’ve had a couple of book projects over the last few years have been completed and now am working on something new. I also will write articles and shorter posts for social media on most days when I’m not doing longer form writing.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

Patrick Fuller at Neota Logic.