Episode Notes

Do you treat your firm’s core values as the guiding principles they are designed to be?

In this episode, Stephanie talks with Lawyerist Lab member Fiona McEntee about how, once she settled on her core values, she was able to use them as signposts to build and grow her immigration law practice. For Fiona, the values of harmony, optimism, modern, and empathy (HOME… get it?), are more than just buzzwords. Listen now to learn more.

Links from the episode:

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  • 6:29. Establishing core values
  • 20:29. Building a leadership team
  • 25:27. Recruiting based on values



Welcome to The Lawyerist 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


Zack Glaser (00:36):

And I’m Zack Glaser. And this is episode 408 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today, Stephanie is talking to Labster Fiona McEntee about all the big changes she’s been making in her law firm. Since joining our Lab program.


Jennifer Whigham (00:52):

Today’s podcast is brought to you by Albatross Legal Workspaces, Postali, and Posh Virtual Receptionists. We wouldn’t be able to do this show without their support, stay tuned. We will tell you more about them later on because we always do.


Zack Glaser (01:05):

So Jennifer, today, we wanted to kind of talk about some of our core values.


Jennifer Whigham (01:10):

Oh yeah.


Zack Glaser (01:10):

We live by our core values here at Lawyerist and encourage others to do the same, but you know, like everybody else, we have very specific core values that, that fit us you know, to a T


Jennifer Whigham (01:24):

Yes. And there is one that always makes me laugh because I don’t even know if you know this story, Zach, but at one of our leadership retreats, we when we kind of were thinking about our core values, again, we spent more time than I wanna admit debating the name of this core value, because it was weird and there were two sides to it. Strangely enough, I was on the side to not have it, but I’ve since come around totally to it, cuz I love it. And then it’s our core value called “experiment like a lobster.”


Zack Glaser (01:56):

Yeah. That one, right? When you say it, I mean exactly what it means.


Jennifer Whigham (01:59):

Yes. You know exactly because the rest of ours are very like, you know, grow as people and the other ones that just have totally gone outta my mind, even though I say them about a hundred times a day, but experiment like a lobster is this idea. And I think it fits us really well that we are always experimenting in our Lab coaching program. We are teaching our lawyers to experiment in their firms and not get stuck and try little things here and there to see if they work and we practice what we teach. I mean, we are running our business. Like we are teaching people how to run their business. And in that way we experiment like a lobster. And the lobster thing is because we call our coaching program members Labsters because they’re in Lab and often that gets autocorrected if you’re trying to type it to lobster. So experiment like a lobster is just sort of the weird experimental way that we are. I didn’t describe that very well. So if you wanna give it another go, I think that’d be great


Zack Glaser (02:58):

Gladly. Well, let’s experiment with how we yeah. How we talk about experiment like a lobster.


Jennifer Whigham (03:02):

Okay. That was my experiment. Now yours,


Zack Glaser (03:06):

To me, it’s the practical application or the beginning portion of constant iteration.


Jennifer Whigham (03:13):

There you go.


Zack Glaser (03:13):

You know, we wanna say constantly iterate, be making things better and better and better because nothing’s ever gonna be perfect. We never start with a perfect practice, but how do you iterate if you don’t have different things that you’re doing and looking at what your processes are, looking at, what it is that you do day to day, what it is you do every year and saying, how could I do that differently? That might be better or different or more efficient or some, you know, anything like that. It is the way that we promote constantly iterating and it doesn’t have to work.


Jennifer Whigham (03:49):

No, it may not work. Actually. It doesn’t


Zack Glaser (03:51):

Have to be, it doesn’t have to be right. It is A/B testing things. It’s looking at the emails that you send out to your clients and saying, okay, well, can I send half of them, this email and half of them, this other email and see which one works better. It’s waking up in the morning and, and saying, you know, I like to drink coffee for half an hour at my office, at my desk. And look at Twitter before I get started. And, and then the next week you don’t, you know, we, we just experiment with how, how things work and it’s not formal. This is why I like that lobster portion.


Zack Glaser (04:25):

It says, this is not formal, but it is something that we constantly do. And everybody knows that lobsters experiment.


Jennifer Whigham (04:33):

Yeah. They’re the, the smartest animal in the ocean. I just, I actually have no backing for that. Please, please. Nobody tell me that’s


Zack Glaser (04:40):

Wrong. Oh yeah. Yeah. We are not, we’re not accountable for,


Jennifer Whigham (04:43):

I am not a Marine biologist. I have been to Maine though. I did wanna say though, some people have asked me nobody’s asked me this. I just assume this is a question people might have, like, we are very systems oriented. We are very structure oriented. And when we say experiment like an lobster, that might sound like there’s attention there, but there is an attention what I say, and I say this to our lobsters is it’s like being a musician where you rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. So you get the structure of a song and then when you perform, you know, it so well that you can improvise within the song. And that is how I see those two things working together. You have your framework, your structure of your law firm or your business, and you know it so well that you can then conduct these little experiments in it to see if something is more efficient. It makes you happier. If it makes your clients happier, you just never wanna be stuck doing something just because you’ve always done it that way. And you can’t remember why you even did it that way in the first place. Like if you’re ever, if you think of something today that you’re like, why do I do it that way? And you can’t think of a reason why that’s where you wanna do an experiment with


Zack Glaser (05:47):

And it could be fun.


Jennifer Whigham (05:48):

Totally. It could be fun.


Zack Glaser (05:50):

Well, now we have Stephanie’s conversation with Fiona.


Fiona McEntee (05:55):

I am Fiona, McEntee. I am the managing attorney of McEntee Law Group and we’re an immigration law firm we’re based in Chicago, but we represent clients all throughout the US.


Stephanie Everett (06:08):

Welcome to the show. Fiona, I am happy to have you on today to talk about your practice and all the big changes you’ve been making with your business lately. So maybe to kick us off, the best place to start is just that you have been so focused on your business over the last year or so. And what do you think’s been the biggest change that you’ve made?


Fiona McEntee (06:29):

Yeah. So thanks Stephanie, for having me on, I am especially lucky that you’re my coach and that we work together on, on a regular basis. But I would say over the past year and a half since really joining the Lawyerist program, I think the changes that I’ve made as a whole really we’ve become more intentional and strategic about different things that we’ve done in the firm. One of the biggest things for us has been kind of solidifying our core values. This was a to-do list item for me for years, for honestly, probably four or five years. I had it as like a culture deck or things like that that I wanted to do. And we work with a lot of startups and I go to a lot of events. And so I’ve heard other people non-law firms, but just, you know, startups and stuff, talking about their culture and their core values.


Fiona McEntee (07:20):

And it was always something that I wanted to do, but never really got around to it. Did it, I kind of found it like overwhelming and I didn’t really know where to start. But then when I started the Lab, I reviewed some of the materials and it was like almost the first thing that I did now. It took me a while. Like it didn’t happen overnight. It probably took six months or so to get the core values solidified, but having them done has, I think been really instrumental in how our practice has changed over the past year.


Stephanie Everett (07:52):

Yeah. I mean, maybe let’s explore that for a minute because there are still a lot of listeners out there that have heard us sing this tune about core values and they probably are still thinking that sounds very fluffy and I’m, I don’t understand how just working on that would make such a big difference in your business. So, I mean, what would you say to those folks?


Fiona McEntee (08:13):

Yeah, I probably would’ve agreed with you maybe before I did my own core values. I mean, what you find is that you’re, you’re really solidifying things that are already there in your firm, right? So you’re thinking about what are the things that make us unique and what are the things that make us, you know, our firm. And I think that we, our firm has this, you know, everyone probably thinks their firm unique, but we have this vibe, right? That it was hard to really express what that was. And when we started looking at, you know, things that we do that are different, I realized that, you know, this is essentially, these are our core values. And I realized that we were already, in some ways, putting them down on paper, like we were putting these things in our recruitment and we’ve always done really well with attracting amazing team members.


Fiona McEntee (09:03):

And when I was looking back at the ads that we were placing, we were actually kind of inadvertently like putting our core values into these ads. And so that was the first place that I looked. So we used to have these like bullet points and we still do where we’re, where we say we are. And we kind of describe who we are as a firm. You are, and we’re kind of describing, and this is like generic, regardless of the role. These are the, I guess our core values. So looking through that really helped us put pen paper and put these core values down. And we came up with four core values that spell out HOME, which was also kind of symbolic given that we do immigration law. And it was a way for us to easily remember them. And it has really helped driven our structure of our systems management, our firm, you know, in terms of like time off, like it has been a guiding light for a lot of policies in our firm ever since we put them down on paper.


Stephanie Everett (10:03):

Yeah. So let’s dig into some of those cuz as your coach, I happen to know what some of those changes have been. And one is one you just mentioned, which is a new holiday schedule. And I guess, which is really a part of also a compensation philosophy, but tell us, because I think a lot of law firms will be fascinated by this, but tell us now what you’re doing with your holiday schedule.


Fiona McEntee (10:24):

So the holiday schedule relates to our core value of harmony, right? So that’s the H that H or H as I would say it being from H as the Americans would say it, but it stands for harmony and home for us. This was kind of a play on words as well because our office is in a music and entertainment studio and we work with a lot of music and entertainment clients. So instead of using balance, right, there’s nothing wrong with balance, but for us, we’re like harmony is actually a better kind of fit for the vibe that we have. So for us, we want to look at the whole being of a person, right. And we want all to be in harmony. We’re also very, I’m particularly mindful of just how short life can be. We had like a young passing of one of my cousins last year and just kind of being aware of how long we spend working and how we want that to be in harmony with the rest of our lives.


Fiona McEntee (11:17):

And just this kind of idea of that. So the harmony is caring for the whole being, right? So for each person’s like time outside the office and something that we implemented was a winter break. So essentially we’re closing the office from normally Christmas Eve, obviously not religious, but just based on, you know, a day. Right? So it’s from Christmas Eve to New Year’s day. So we used to give extra days off anyway. And we used to give off like the day after Christmas, the day on New Year’s day, we used to give a few extra days anyway. And we just said, why not close for that whole period? So now every year we’re closing from, I think, yeah, Christmas Eve until whatever the Monday is or whatever the day after New Year’s day. So everybody gets that time off to be with their family or not. If they don’t have, you know, people get to spend that time in whatever way makes them happy. And that was a change that we implemented to be in line with that core value.


Stephanie Everett (12:13):

Yeah. Did you have any pushback from clients or anyone who was like, what do you mean your office is just closed? I’d imagine that time of year it was, it’s probably easier to do than we realize.


Fiona McEntee (12:24):

Yeah. It actually is easier to do. And we work with a lot of European clients and I think me being from Ireland also, I bring some of those values to the firm and it goes back to when I was setting up the firm back in, you know, 2009, I wanted to create a firm that I would wanna work in if I was an employee. And for me, you know, I was very surprised when I moved to the US. Although the reputation proceeds itself let’s say right, that it’s like, there’s nobody ever gets any holidays is kind of what we would all know about America. And I just thought, does it have to be like that? Yeah, that’s how it is, but does it have to be that way? So it was important for me to try to bring some of my values from home and from what, like the European let’s say kind of ethos.


Fiona McEntee (13:07):

So no, it was actually easier. And one thing we did was we had an attorney on duty every day to monitor the regular info inbox. So someone would just log in, you know, for like half an hour, see if there’s anything crazy, urgent, and then just deal with it. So it was like one person for like half an hour, each day. And we rotated around so that not, it was just a different person each day. So that was a way that we kind of balanced that as well. So that when we came back on January 2nd, we didn’t have however many hundreds of emails sitting in the inbox. We were able to just kind of triage them really quickly. And if there was an emergency, we could handle it from there.


Stephanie Everett (13:42):

Yeah. I mean, that sounds like a reasonable approach and I’m sure the reaction on your team was well received.


Fiona McEntee (13:48):

Yeah, I hope so. I think so. Definitely. Yeah.


Stephanie Everett (13:51):

Yeah. What are some other changes that you’ve put in place as a result of kind of being clear about your values and how you wanna run your business?


Fiona McEntee (13:59):

I mean, another one of our core values is optimism and it’s the idea of caring about the bigger picture of immigration. This is also something that we had previously put in our recruitment, you know, we would say, are you down for the cause? Right. And what does that mean? Well, for us, that means yes, clients, individual cases are super important, but the system and, you know, advocacy relating to policy is super important to us. And I think this is another one of our differentiators. So things that we do regularly, like I’ve written a children’s book on immigration, for example, but we do a lot of media and a lot of congressional advocacy. And so it’s this idea of like, we believe the system can be better. We’re optimistic that the system can be better and we strive to make it better. And so we try to do proactive things to try to influence the narrative of immigration, because a lot of, you know, there’s a great organization, define America.


Fiona McEntee (14:58):

And they talk about how our consumption of media, you know, relates to, for example, like we, we see a lot of portrayals of immigrants in the media, so on TV or whatever other entertainment we’re consuming that maybe focus on things like deportation or criminal like immigrants. And the reality is that that represents a very small portion of the immigration experience. But if all we’re consuming, if we’re disproportionately consuming that we’ll, then when we think of immigration, we’re gonna equate it with, you know, criminal or whatever other, you know, negative connotations. And so we strive to put forward these positive stories of immigration and not just for me as the managing attorney, but from other attorneys on our team. And we’ve a diverse background. You know, one of our attorneys is from Argentina or other attorney is from Russia. We’ve another attorney, who’s Filipino American. So we just try to make sure that there’s like diverse voices represented. And that was a kind of a shift as well, because for years, you know, I set up the firm and it was, I was more of the, you know, kind of forward facing attorney, but we try to make sure that we have an effort to showcase all of the attorneys and support staff voices as well.


Stephanie Everett (16:10):

Love it. We’ll put a link to your book in the show notes because you were so kind and gave me a copy and it’s, it’s a lovely book. It’s a, it’s a children’s book and a lovely story of where people come from and that it’s lots of places. So I love that message. And that that’s part of what you’re doing as a firm, not just the legal work you’re doing, but the bigger advocacy work is super interesting and exciting.


Fiona McEntee (16:36):

Thank you.


Stephanie Everett (16:37):

With that, let’s take a quick break. We’ll hear from our sponsors and we come back, I wanna talk a little bit about some management decisions that you’ve been making.


Zack Glaser:

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Stephanie Everett (20:03):

All right. I’m back with Fiona, who I think we didn’t say it in the intro, but you’ve let everyone in now that you’re from Ireland.


Fiona McEntee (20:12):

Surprise <laugh>.


Stephanie Everett (20:13):

And tell us how many, how big is your, the law firm right now?


Fiona McEntee (20:18):

So there are, I think, 16 full time staff, and then we’ve been off kind. So attorneys, so yeah, there’s about 16 of us altogether.


Stephanie Everett (20:26):

Yeah. And of that. How many are attorneys? Do you think?


Fiona McEntee (20:29):

Like five myself, Ray, Natalia, Elaine. Yeah. There’s a five attorneys. And then we have case managers a client coordinator. We have an operations manager, so yeah. Other types of, and marketing on social media as well.


Stephanie Everett (20:42):

Yeah. I think it’s helpful because for the people listening, sometimes they wonder about that, you know, how big is your firm? And it really makes sense as we kind of tee up this next part of the discussion, which is one of the things you’ve been working on is really redefining your management structure within the firm and a leadership team and how people I think as your coach, I can say, you realize like you get to a certain size and you can no longer as the managing attorney have everyone directly report to you. And that’s a shift for a lot of attorneys that we work with. It can be difficult because as you grow, you kind of go through these stages and it’s usually you start out and you’re doing all the client services and you’re the attorney and you’re doing all the things. Then you start hiring a team and you realize, okay, now I have to have this team be the one who’s client facing. And then the next level, which is where I think you guys have been is okay. Now I can’t manage all the people myself. I really need another layer. Another, I need people to help me manage. And that’s been a big shift for you the past year. So tell us a little bit about what that transition’s been like for you.


Fiona McEntee (21:50):

Yeah, I think, and I, again, going back to the guidance that I’ve received from you and from Lawyerist, I think it was really on one of our retreats on our legacy retreat that we did earlier on this year in Utah, which was amazing. But when we got to sit down and talk about, you know, this idea of what a leadership team is, you know, and I think it, it is so cliche, but it’s like, they don’t teach you this in law school. You know, we don’t learn any of these things in law school. It was just like, how do we set up the management of the firm so that everybody is getting managed, you know, appropriately? Cause I feel like there’s no way that one person could manage. I realized that 16 people it’s just too many people. And so we then said about like establishing this like leadership team and this like core team of managers who would in turn manage other people, but would also be there to help make decisions that are important to the firm. Cuz I, again, it’s this move towards the firm is not just me. It was when I, when I started, but now there’s a lot more of us here and it’s like, how do we get everybody? Or at least a core team involved in some of these important decisions.


Stephanie Everett (22:59):

Yeah. I think it’s important and it’s sort of a missed point, but now it’s, it’s not all on your shoulders, right? Because you worked through and you created the accountability chart, you can now look to other people and say, no, this is what I’m holding you accountable for. And this is your role in the business and they still report to you, but it’s not all on you. And I think that’s a really important and helpful shift when we’re able to make it.


Fiona McEntee (23:23):

Yeah. And I think it’s, you know, we don’t always know what the best thing to do is as well, right. We’re not expected to know or have all the answers. And also sometimes you just, you need to talk things out. One thing, for example, we were struggling with was who manages all the case managers, right? We have a lead supervising case manager and it’s like, does, does this person manage all the case managers or did the attorneys who work more closely with the case managers manage? And so we had a long conversation about this. Like who’s the best person to manage, you know, the case managers? By talking it out, we figured it out. But it wasn’t just for me to make that decision. I definitely needed like input from everybody and we were able to talk through it and I think make a decision that, you know, we took everyone’s kind of viewpoints into account. And then we made collectively made the decision that we thought was best for the firm. And it has been, that’s been a huge thing for me was like having that input from the other team members and in this leadership team.


Stephanie Everett (24:21):

Yeah. I think that’s super helpful to hear because it definitely is an area, a lot of attorneys struggle with. So in your answer so far, you told us about the H and we heard about the O and so I feel like I can’t leave the audience hanging. What are the M and the E of your core values


Fiona McEntee (24:37):

Okay. So the M is modern and I’ll explain what that is. That the E is empathy. So modern is this idea of, you know, like I said, our office is in a music, an entertainment studio. We, you know, attorneys have tattoos and they wear jeans and, you know, we’re just different in that sense. And so we communicate with our clients in a different way, very conversational kind of informal. And, and so that’s kind of reflective of that. It’s also this idea of like embracing, you know, modern ways of working and flexibility as much as we can, which is, you know, unfortunately the federal government, some parts of the federal government still require paper forms for like, you know, paper filed cases. Some of we do a lot of extraordinary ability cases where there can be hundreds and hundreds of pages long. So I think we’re always gonna have some element of in-office work because of that.


Fiona McEntee (25:27):

However, we’re not forcing everyone to come into the office for no reason. Right. We’re being flexible with that. And that’s kind of this idea of like modern approach to just working and to how we communicate and stuff with our clients and kind of looking at new technology and just that idea of that. And then the E is empathy. So a lot of us on the team are immigrants, but you, we don’t want people to feel like insecure if they’re not that’s okay. If you’re not like we had somebody before and the team was like, I feel like bad. Like I don’t have as much of an immigration connection. That’s like, you don’t have to, you just have to appreciate what that would be like. Right. And because we, a lot of us have gone through it firsthand or our children, you know, first generation, you know, we have that kind of sense of what it, what it is like, what it would be like.


Fiona McEntee (26:14):

And, you know, we strive to really provide the service that we would give to my brother or my parents or your aunt, or, you know, it’s that type of idea. And then that kind of translates to us being really responsive, which is like a big, one of the biggest things about our firm was that we tried to respond to all emails that day within 24 hours. Like it’s a huge thing since they set up the firm was to keep a zero inbox and be very responsive, not necessarily doing everything that one day, but at least acknowledging receipt of emails and stuff like that. So, yeah. So that’s all the, the core values, the H O M and E.


Stephanie Everett (26:47):

Yeah. And I think when people hear it, it makes sense though, once you got really clear on these four guiding principles are going to really guide everything. We do the M and modern with our technology and our systems and E is ties into your empathy, ties into the responsiveness to your clients. It’s easy to see then why getting really clear on these principles would allow you to move the business forward and would allow you to really make a lot of changes that are benefiting your business, which is awesome.


Fiona McEntee (27:20):

Yeah. And I think this, I, it took me so long to do, but it was so important and it has been so beneficial because we always go back to it and we say, you know, which core values does this tie into? Or how do we use this? And now we are, we actually explicitly put this in our recruiting. And the great thing is somebody who was applying for a job, you know, even brought it up in an interview. They said, oh, I saw your core values. And optimism is the one that I really relate to because of, you know, da, da, da, da, da. And I said, okay, that’s amazing that this is also, you know, someone else is relating to this. And I think it helps you. And I think we, we really have had a, we’ve done a really good job of recruiting and, you know, retaining people that really feel the same way that we do about things.


Fiona McEntee (28:04):

And I think it’s because we were inadvertently putting these things in our recruiting, but now we’re just more deliberate about it. And it, it has helped us even more to attract people who, you know, these really resonate with somebody like Liz, who we just hired for marketing and social media, you know, she was like all about social justice. She’s like, yes, I’m down for the cause on my walk. Like, you know, and so she completely aligns with everything that we’re trying to do. And in that sense, you know, I think especially recently, people have had a hard time with recruiting. And I would say that if you, you know, if you have your core values or if you haven’t don’t have them yet to work on them and put them in, I think it will naturally help you attract people that are aligned with what you’re trying to do. And I think that will help with retention as well. So I think it was such a valuable exercise, even if it did take me years to do, I am very grateful that I did it.


Stephanie Everett (28:57):

Yeah. I love it. I mean, I couldn’t have said it better myself. Fiona, thank you for being on the show with me today. I have enjoyed our conversation.


Fiona McEntee (29:05):

Thanks for having me.



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.

Your Hosts

Stephanie Everett

Stephanie Everett is the President of Lawyerist, where she leads the Lawyerist Lab program. She is the co-author of the bestselling book The Small Firm Roadmap and is a regular guest and co-host of the weekly Lawyerist Podcast.

Featured Guests

Fiona McEntee Headshot

Fiona McEntee

Fiona McEntee is the Founding & Managing Attorney of McEntee Law Group. She first moved to Chicago from Dublin, Ireland, back in 2002, as an international exchange student at DePaul University’s College of Law. Having fallen in love with Chicago, she returned to study at Chicago-Kent College of Law, where she received her Juris Doctor in 2007.

Fiona and her team of passionate advocates represent individuals and families, as well as the world’s leading musicians, artists, athletes, innovative entrepreneurs, and multinational and U.S. companies. They counsel their clients on the ever-changing immigration policies and help them achieve the American Dream.

Fiona is a member of the Media & Advocacy Committee for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the bar association of over 15,000 immigration lawyers. As a national spokesperson for AILA, Fiona is regularly tapped for her immigration thought-leadership by major media outlets including MSNBC, BBC, CNN.com, The New York Times, Politico, Chicago Tribune, Irish Central, Irish Times, & RTÉ.

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Last updated September 27th, 2022