The Small Firm Roadmap Revisited doubled-down on our Healthy Firm model. But what, exactly, is it? Join us for another stop on our podcast book tour. This week we’re diving into recruiting, building, and retaining Healthy Teams.
Stephanie talks with Aaron Elinoff, Labster and managing partner of Novo Legal Group, about how he guided his team to define who they are and how a breakthrough at a team retreat helped identify his firm’s vision and goals. Learn the steps he took to get his team aligned, moving in the same direction, and keep momentum.
If today's podcast resonates with you and you haven't read The Small Firm Roadmap Revisited yet, get the first chapter right now for free! Looking for help beyond the book? Check out our coaching community to see if it's right for you.
- . The importance of a leadership team retreat
- . The retreat process
- . Getting everyone on the same page
Welcome to The Layerist Podcast, a series of discussions with entrepreneurs and innovators about building a successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Lawyerist supports attorneys, building client-centered, and future-oriented small law firms through community, content, and coaching both online and through the Lawyerist Lab. And now from the team that brought you The Small Firm Roadmap and your podcast hosts
Jennifer Whigham (00:35):
Hi, I’m Jennifer Whigham.
Stephanie Everett (00:36):
And I’m Stephanie Everett. And this is episode 447 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today I’m talking to a member of our lab coaching community, Aaron Elinoff, about getting alliance with your team.
Jennifer Whigham (00:51):
Stephanie Everett (01:01):
So today I want to bring up something that has been stirring around in my brain for the past couple of days, and I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I thought I could put the issue out there and we could start a conversation if that’s cool.
Jennifer Whigham (01:13):
I love it. Go.
Stephanie Everett (01:14):
So I was at a conference recently and in one of the sessions we were talking about partner compensation and how we just think of it fundamentally wrong, which is something I’ve been passionate about for a while and talk about.
And one of the things the speaker said is this idea of origination credit, which when we give origination credit, so many firms do this. We’re essentially paying a commission, but we’re paying a commission for a life because we continue to pay that commission for that client for every dollar they bring into the firm, not just on the first dollar collected, but all the way through. In fact, we even transfer it to a new person if that person, the original person goes away or retires. And so he was just talking about how this idea really started as a commission, but most salespeople don’t get a commission for every dollar they collect. And they were not really incentivizing just the bringing in of the business, which was the original point of this whole concept. So just know I’ve been sitting with that and thinking about that and thinking about how, yes, I do agree it’s fundamentally flawed, and what’s a better way.
And then I was in another session really talking about how do we make our firm’s destinations of choice for employees because we know retention and hiring continues. I was at two conferences in the last two weeks, and that was the number one talked about thing in both conferences with very different levels of firms. Everybody was just talking about hiring and retention. And so this person was talking about pay equity, and unfortunately, the pay disparity that exists with a lot of our law firms and the idea that people are getting paid differently or very work based on being a woman, being a person of color. And so I think I was sitting in there and I sort of had this aha moment. So here’s my big idea. I think that origination credit, it plays a large part in the pay disparity that happens at our law firms, especially at the partner ranks, women, people of color, they don’t have the same access currently to close those deals, to originate those clients.
They are contributing in very important significant ways. But historically, that contribution has been minimized because the idea of origination credit has been so highly valued and promoted and promoted AMO over most things. I mean, most law firms will pay out significantly more for origination credit than for other contribution. So now you’re probably wondering, that’s great, Stephanie, what do we do with all this? I don’t know. This is my big aha. Yeah, I’m on a mission to change it. I think I do have some ideas about what to do with it. I think it starts with obviously rethinking how we compensate our owners and our other team members. What are we incentivizing? What value do we place on everyone’s entire contribution to the company? And so what I’d love to do is I’m going to start a LinkedIn post after we record this, throw out some ideas and get a conversation going because I think these are big problems and not something we’ll tackle in this intro to this podcast. But I think it’s a discussion that our industry needs to have, and I’m really excited to get it going.
Jennifer Whigham (04:36):
Yeah, I look forward to reading that. And now let’s hear your conversation with Aaron.
Aaron Elinoff (04:44):
I’m Aaron Elinoff. I’m a partner of Novo Legal Group, an immigrant rights law firm with offices in Denver and Seattle.
Stephanie Everett (04:54):
Hey, Aaron, welcome to the show. Excited to talk to you today.
Aaron Elinoff (04:57):
Stephanie Everett (04:58):
So to kick us off, tell us a little bit about your firm. How big is it? How long have you guys been around? Give us a little background.
Aaron Elinoff (05:05):
Sure. We’re a high volume, predominantly immigration law law firm. About 80% of our work is immigration. We have about 40 people on staff, seven or eight attorneys right now. And our immigration work is split pretty equally between affirmative based family immigration and removal defense, what we call immigration litigation. It’s been around since technically we started in 2018 in June of 2018. So we’ve been around for coming up on five years. It was created when I merged my firm with a friend of mine, Bryce Downer. He had just gone out and started his own firm. And we realized that we had some synergy between our personalities, our expertise, and frankly what it is that we like to do when it comes to the practice. So that’s how we got started.
Stephanie Everett (05:57):
Yeah, great. I mean, that’s a pretty large team. Are you guys all in the office or remote or hybrid?
Aaron Elinoff (06:04):
We’re all over the place. We’ve got an office in Denver, which has, it’s kind of our headquarters. We have the probably 17 or 18 people that are based out of Denver. However, not everybody actually goes into the office. I think we have probably four or five in Denver, are almost exclusively from home. Then we have an office in Seattle, see there’s only four people in that office. And then we have an army of interns as well as a collection of remote paralegals that we work with a company out of Guadalajara. So I think we have four or five immigration specific paralegals in Guadalajara specifically.
Stephanie Everett (06:45):
Very cool. So we’re talking about healthy teams today. And a big challenge I think a lot of business owners have when it comes to our teams is getting alignment and getting them all moving in the right direction. And would love to hear a little bit more. Cause I know you’ve just completed this process and really been very intentional with it. So tell me where you guys were maybe before. I know you did some visioning work. What was that process like and how did that go?
Aaron Elinoff (07:14):
It was painful. Let’s see. It started in about August and in August of 2022, I had made the conscious decision to hang up my suit essentially and try to really scale back how much practicing, how much legal work I was doing. And so at that point, really, I decided that there was some sort of an agreement among the management team that somebody needed to just focus on building the business on the business itself, on development, on processes, on our finances, et cetera. And so that was me. So as part of that, I joined Lawyerist, the small firm roadmap, started really focusing on the business itself and their structure, how we operate, and really coming up with a bit more of a vision. It was through that process that I realized I’m not actually a visionary, I’m more of an integrator. So probably in September, October is when I really felt comfortable enough with some of these concepts, start introducing them to my management team.
And we started with core values and we had two full days devoted basically sitting down in a bar and just going over massive lists of concepts, values, ideas that we thought really embodied who we are and what we think is most important and what we do. And then after literally two eight to 10 hour sessions, we narrowed it down and we were all extremely happy with the list that we came up with. And we even kind of patted each other on the back went, this is great, we’re all super excited. And then it kind of stopped. We lost quite a bit of momentum from there, and we didn’t quite get to our vision. We didn’t get to reimagining or implementing our level 10 meetings or anything like that. We went back in many ways to the way that things had been operating with working meetings with countless people in those meetings that didn’t really need to be there without a real goal or an understanding of the systems that should be in place.
So in fact, I had on a couple of occasions tried to implement a new meeting structure saying we are no longer going to have working meetings that these things that can be resolved by email or by text message or chat or by a one-on-one conversation need to happen that way you should no longer be wasting 12 other people’s time. And there was quite a bit of not just hesitation, but of reluctance nobody. And that’s, I suppose just one example, but nobody saw any of this vision, any purpose to implementing or going through all of our processes and trying to carve out what these systems were going to be and who was going to be responsible for what and what our organizational chart or our accountability chart was going to look like. Nobody had any interest in getting through any of this. And in fact, it was actually putting me in kind of at times in a bit of a rougher situation or relationship with one of my partners. So at some point it was decided that we were just going to have a leadership team retreat, and that was going to be the time to really hammer out all of these steps to get through this process of establishing our, really establishing our values, our mission, setting some goals, working out our processes, developing our S O P or our manual, basically determining what KPIs we were going to start tracking based on all of this. And then setting short and long-term goals.
Stephanie Everett (10:37):
And I think it’s probably fair to say a lot of people hear this idea of, okay, we’re going to have a leadership retreat to basically all the things you just described are really what’s involved in a strategic business plan. Those are all the elements. And I think there is some hesitation on a lot of people’s parts of, is this really necessary? Do I really need to take a couple of days away from the office away from being productive or billing or working to go through this exercise? And what did you think about that? Because I think you actually shared some of those ideas.
Aaron Elinoff (11:14):
I was terrified, number one, I didn’t think that I even had a strong enough understanding of these concepts myself to get myself through the process, let alone to lead a group through this process of developing our business plan in essence. So I was particularly nervous. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to field questions. And people started prodding. They were getting drilling a little bit too deep into these subjects and they said, well, why do we really need to break down this workflow in particular? Or why are we doing this part first? And I was particularly nervous about those things,
Stephanie Everett (11:48):
And I know you and I connected and we hammered out a loose agenda for your retreat. And really, I think I remember questioning what are the goals? Everybody always says, well, what do we start with? What should we do when we’re at this time together? And I always say, well, what are we trying to achieve? What do we want to accomplish?
Aaron Elinoff (12:08):
Yeah, that session with you is particularly helpful and you were able to refer me to a number of the pieces in the coursework within Lawyerist. So some of those sessions where basically you guys already had a lot of the templates there. And so what I did was once we had established in essence like an agenda, which I broke it down to each of the different steps that we needed to accomplish how long each piece was going to take, I tried to attribute that time on an agenda and break it out enough that we weren’t going to run out of time or I wasn’t going to attribute too much time to one thing that ended up taking us 20 minutes. And then once I did that, I adapted the lawyer’s curriculum for us in particular and then try to create my own examples in each piece so that I had something demonstrative to show the team and we could work from.
Stephanie Everett (12:58):
This is probably a great place to take a quick pause. Let’s listen to our sponsors and we’ll be right back.
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Stephanie Everett (16:00):
Back, Aaron, and I’d love to hear a little bit more now shifting gears to what actually happened. So then you get to the actual retreat itself and you guys spent, was it two days together?
Aaron Elinoff (16:12):
Four full days.
Stephanie Everett (16:13):
Wow. Yeah. So you were willing to dedicate four full days of your team’s time, and this in this case was a subset of your team. It was your leadership team. So this wasn’t like all 40 folks, right?
Aaron Elinoff (16:25):
Stephanie Everett (16:26):
And yeah, I mean I guess I’m just curious, how did it go? What happened?
Aaron Elinoff (16:32):
It was great, but not at first. Each of us has our strengths. As I said, I’m more of an integrator, so while I don’t necessarily come up with a vision, I can see the path to actually achieving it. I can see how we’re going to actually get there and breaking that down in individual steps. My partner Bryce, is more of the visionary. He comes up with 20 exceptional ideas a day and then has zero capacity to actually act on any of them. So that sort of falls on the rest of us. My other partner, Luis, is the lawyer technician, and that is all that he wants to do. And anything that is not legal work is really just a distraction. So when we first arrived, and we did this up in the mountains in a small town, so we were able to be just completely isolated from everybody, which was essential. That was a number one recommendation as far as the necessary element to having a successful retreat is you need to get isolated, you need to step away and be out of your comfort zone a little bit so that you don’t fall into the same standard ways of thinking. And then once we actually got there, there was a tremendous amount of hesitancy to even begin engaging in some of these sessions. The first piece was like, why are we wasting our time doing this? Do you know how much other work I have to do?
And I think it was at the end of day two when we had actually gotten through our process, we had finished outlining our process and we had started, or we had gotten halfway through developing our accountability chart. And one of my team members goes, oh my God, we had it projected up on a TV in the Airbnb that we were renting. And he looks at this thing and he goes, this is what you’ve been talking about this whole time. I didn’t Hold on back up then. So we had to back up maybe 15 minutes or something, and I re-explained what the purpose of the accountability chart was along with our demonstration or how I had mapped it out. And he goes, you’ve been irritating the crap out of me since August with all this stuff, and I think I finally understand why. So anyway, it was really in that moment, it was after eight hours, two days, eight hours each really together trying to work through these steps that we all had a shared understanding of what that vision was of where we were trying to go.
And that it takes a lot of work to actually get there. You have to step outside of the legal work that you’re doing and start focusing on the why. I should actually mention that probably the biggest component, the most important piece of getting started was setting the tone from the get-go as to why are we here? And we started that with a very personal discussion of our personal goals. What is it that we want to accomplish individually? I always use the example of in five years I want to be homeschooling my son and a catamaran and the aian nice. Always get to laugh too, but it at least puts things in perspective. It’s a particularly selfish concept, but we work in an industry or in a practice area that caters to a bleeding hearts. People give their all to the immigrant community and representing these disadvantaged or marginalized communities.
And so it doesn’t really attract the corporate warriors. So to lead off this discussion with something, particularly in a team setting by saying, this is what I want to do personally. It has nothing to do with any of you. It has nothing to do with our business. This is what I want for myself. And it enabled everybody else to engage in that same exercise of investigating what it is that they want for themselves. And then from there we were able to back it up and say, all right, how are we going to get there in order for me to spend, in order for me to be on a catamaran and the aian, what does that look like here? What is it that that’s going to require? And then we shifted that focus to everybody else individually. Somebody said they wanted to, they just want to be able to vacation for one month at a time. We say, okay, well here are all of your responsibilities. So they need to be shifted, they need to be automated, they need to be cleaned up in other ways, redirected. How are we going to do all that?
Stephanie Everett (20:49):
Yeah, I love that. And so through this discussion, everybody was able to share their personal goals, but then you guys were able to wrap that into this is what we would need for the business, how the business would need to change so that we could make these things happen. And it sounds like you really got there. I mean, it was probably felt like a little bit of a drudge match and when you’re in it, the thick of it up at the Airbnb trying to figure this out, but then when those light bulbs come on, it’s like, oh, this is what we’re working on.
Aaron Elinoff (21:19):
Stephanie Everett (21:20):
Amazing. That’s what you want. That was the whole goal is to get everybody on the same page.
Aaron Elinoff (21:25):
Exactly. And once we got that buy-in, once everybody was on the same page and we had that understanding of what it is we were trying to accomplish, and we all saw the vision collectively, it was much easier to get through the rest of it, much easier to hold each other accountable, to hold true to each of these sort of lesson plans and working through them and understanding why we were getting through them. And then ultimately in the end, we could actually, we were assigning responsibilities for the next day and I no longer had this fear that people were going to show up the next day without having actually done their homework, which has always been a problem. Once everybody saw what it is that we were trying to build and what the goal was, it was like, okay, I’m going to make sure that I work on this outside of class so I can come in tomorrow ready to knock out those next steps.
Stephanie Everett (22:12):
And then the hard part is have you been able to keep that energy going? Because obviously when you’re away, like you said, you’re in that different head space and you have that time dedicated to it. And it’s great that you guys got the alignment, and I remember getting a message from you from the mountains and that it was going so well and I could hear it in your voice, and that was very exciting. But then it’s always, how have things changed in the office coming back from the retreat? And in the months since you’ve done it, have you noticed a difference in that sense?
Aaron Elinoff (22:43):
Yeah, I will say that the energy is still there. Everybody’s still holding those goals. That much is clear, and we are all very much committed to the mission. What has softened a bit is the roadmap because we had laid out the specific steps and deadlines by which we were actually going to achieve each step. And well as happens, things come up, there are complications, you get derailed, you get sidetracked by something. And so there have been sort of delays or we’ve had to revisit things. But what we haven’t done and what we need to do is to get the group back together and revisit our roadmap, sort of our action plan and set new goals and deadlines to make sure that we stay focused. Because you, as time goes on, you basically, you spread out, you lose that focus. You may maintain the same energy and understanding the same vision, but you lose that forward direction and that energy just gets put into other areas, right?
Stephanie Everett (23:47):
And our advice there is always if you can, a lot of people like working in a 90 ish day sprint, so that works well for some people. I’ve seen some variations even where some people will instead say three, four month sprints and they almost intentionally take 30 days off each time. So there’s no right or wrong way to do it. But then I think one of the keys is that you set that check-in meeting and everyone puts it on the calendar right there on day one. This is when we’re going to connect back and this is when we’re going to expect those goals to have been reached or if not, and here’s what all the check-ins we’re going to do along the way so we can really have those milestones. And that’s the hard part. I mean, that’s where, as your business coach, obviously we come in and do a little help there, but it sounds like you guys got a great start and a lot of times it does kind of take that restarting right now we got to go back, regroup, remember what we were doing. Okay, let’s try that again. Maybe you scoped those goals a little too ambitious or too many, so then it’s like, next time, let’s maybe not do quite as many so we can get ’em done.
Aaron Elinoff (24:51):
What we failed to do for sure was to set that follow up meeting. We set that lines, but we didn’t anticipate the number of complications are derailments in some of the plans.
Stephanie Everett (25:03):
That’s why we say relentless incrementalism. We’re always learning, we’re always testing. So it’s like no judgment. Okay, that was a learning and let’s just do it differently next time. What advice would you give to someone that’s listening and has been thinking about doing this for a while and is like, okay, Erin’s kind of convincing me this is probably worthwhile doing. What advice or takeaways would you share with them?
Aaron Elinoff (25:26):
Number one is prepare over prepare. The more you can have written down, the more you can have planned out, the better and the stronger you’re understanding the process you want to take everybody through, the better. Another thing is try to remember what attracted you to your colleagues to begin with. Remember that they’re not your enemy. Even though you can have contentious or sometimes difficult conversations, remember that you are there for a reason and they’re there for a reason and you have something in common. And I think that you’ll find that you actually have a greater ally in your team than you may have been afraid of.
Stephanie Everett (26:03):
Yeah, that’s great.
Aaron Elinoff (26:04):
Set ground rules. That’s a big piece. Yeah, that’d be number three.
Stephanie Everett (26:09):
Did you have some like, okay, we’re all going to be present. We’re not going to check email. Our phones and laptops aren’t allowed. I mean, there’s all kinds, and if anyone’s wondering, you can Google meeting expectations and come up with tons of examples that are really helpful.
Aaron Elinoff (26:25):
We went through rather than actually taking everybody through the session of establishing meeting norms, I just created, and then we had a very brief discussion saying, this is a safe space. We’re all here voluntarily because we want the best for ourselves, for our company, for our clients. And then I went through just what I thought were particularly the most important norms holding each other accountable, and we’re going to try and start and end on time. We’re going to keep a list of back burner items, and we’re going to be, we are going to feel comfortable asserting ourselves in conversation saying, I appreciate what it is that you’re saying. That is a conversation for another time. Let’s put that on this list and come back to it. That was a big piece.
Stephanie Everett (27:07):
Yeah, I love it. And I’m curious too, you decided to facilitate it yourself. In hindsight, how did that work? And I have, as you know, I have facilitated other people’s. I’ve also self facilitated ours, so I have some thoughts on this, but I mean, you can go either way. There’s no right or wrong answer, but how did that work for you to have to be the facilitator and be in the meeting as a participant?
Aaron Elinoff (27:32):
I think it was good. I didn’t have as much of an issue with it. I mean, even in hindsight, I would’ve preferred to had somebody facilitate because it would’ve been less work on me to have prepared. And it was absolutely exhausting for those four days to be fully on, totally engaged, not just facilitating the discussions themselves, but also participating in them and coming up with my own ideas and then trying to record everything simultaneously was, it was particularly exhausting, and being able to just relieve yourself of those burdens and be a participant, I think allows for a bit more creativity or a little bit more flexibility, creativity, relaxation. I don’t know. You might be able to come up with other different ideas, but since I had also already been through this process, at least myself individually, my participation in a way wasn’t as important. Yeah, I was much more concerned about making sure that everybody else was on board with what we were doing. And so the facilitating the sessions was almost the point.
Stephanie Everett (28:37):
Yeah. Well, I am just so pleased that it went so well because I do know you were anxious about it, nervous about it, completely understandable. And then like I said, getting those messages when you were in it and seeing the breakthroughs happen sort of real time was really fun. And I’m really glad you shared this with us because I do think it’s so important to do. Taking this time away from the business, and maybe not everyone has four days. I know we do a lot that are, I’ve done ’em one day or two days. I mean, four is a lot, and I’m glad you were able to do that, but I want to tell everyone, don’t let that be the reason that you get discouraged and think you don’t need to do it.
Aaron Elinoff (29:17):
Thanks, Stephanie. I was very grateful for your help for the guide, your guidance, and for the resources with Lawyerist as well.
Stephanie Everett (29:25):
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for sharing, and we look forward to seeing what the team does now that you guys are all aligned, and we’ll get those new deadlines and meetings set and then watch out world, because a lot of big things are going to be happening.
Aaron Elinoff (29:38):
I’m excited for it too.
The Lawyerist Podcast is edited by Britany Felix. Are you ready to implement the ideas we discuss here into your practice? Wondering what to do next? Here are your first two steps. First. If you haven’t read The Small Firm Roadmap yet, grab the first chapter for free at Lawyerist.com/book. Looking for help beyond the book? Let’s chat about whether our coaching communities, are right for you. Head to Lawyerist.com/community/lab to schedule a 10-minute call with our team to learn more. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.
Aaron is an experienced attorney with a diverse legal background, including Criminal, Family, Immigration, and Civil matters. As the managing partner of Novo Legal Group, he oversees business operations, financial strategy, and public relations while ensuring the firm’s short and long-term goals are met. Aaron is dedicated to achieving exceptional results for clients and remains involved in complex cases. He also actively participates in events like citizenship workshops, media appearances, and marketing initiatives to maintain the firm’s credibility and growth.
Last updated May 24th, 2023