Episode Notes

Think it’s impossible for an “old” firm to learn “new” tricks? Think again!  

After more than three decades in practice, Lawyerist Lab member and firm owner Jennifer Hawkins knew she had to make some changes to take her firm to the next level. In today’s episode, Stephanie chats with Jennifer to hear how her firm transformed when she identified core values and rethought the hiring and onboarding processes. 

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.

  • 08:36. Never hire in a hurry
  • 15:43. Building a process manual
  • 22:48. The project management software difference



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. 

Stephanie Everett (00:35): 

Hi, I’m Stephanie Everett. 


Jennifer Whigham (00:36): 

And I’m Jennifer Whigham. And this is episode 484 of the Lawyerist Podcast, part of the Legal Talk Network. Today, Stephanie talks with Jennifer Hawkins about making changes in her law firm. 


Stephanie Everett (00:45): 

And today’s show actually doesn’t have a sponsor. We switched it up for 2024, 


Jennifer Whigham (00:52): 



Stephanie Everett (00:54): 

We will have sponsors, they’re coming back, but we wanted to make that part of our show a little bit different. So I think in a couple of weeks you’ll hear what that’s going to sound like, so maybe stay tuned and you’ll hear about that more later on. 


Jennifer Whigham (01:08): 

I know I made the intro feel very short, but you have a lot to say about Jennifer and I know you talk, not me Jennifer, but our Labster Jennifer and you’re talking about hiring and why did you choose Jennifer for that? And tell me a little bit about that. 


Stephanie Everett (01:22): 

Lots of people struggle with hiring. It continues to come up time and time again, and it’s such an important decision for small firms especially, right? Maybe if you’re at a bigger firm and you make a bad hire, that person kind of hangs out and hides for a while. But in a small firm, we really feel the impacts when we don’t get hiring, right? And it’s expensive. It costs us a lot of money because now maybe we hang onto that person. It’s expensive to get them onboarded and trained and to figure out they’re the wrong person. And then we’re like, oh, now we got to get rid of them and go through this all over again. Drain. 


Jennifer Whigham (01:57): 

Yeah, it’s kind of like you get into the sunk cost of the person and then if you have one bad hire, you get too afraid to try again and it becomes this perpetual loop of stress. 


Stephanie Everett (02:07): 

Absolutely. So we already have a ton of resources inside of Lab that help people and guide people on how to do the hiring process differently. You’re going to hear Jennifer talk about that and how she used those resources and how it really did positively impact and help her hire the right people for her team. And I really love that. I get really excited about hiring and we heard from our folks sometimes people are like, but can you just do this for me? Right? 


Jennifer Whigham (02:38): 

We hear it all the time. 


Stephanie Everett (02:39): 

So we said, you know what? We think we’ve figured it out and we can. So starting in the new year, we are now going to offer a hiring package that will allow us to really help people. You don’t have to be in lab to take advantage of this offer. If you are in lab and you do, you get a discount, but anybody can hire us to help them hire the right people for their team. 



And what it looks like is we work with you, we define the hiring role, the role that you’re trying to hire for. We write that job ad, which is so, so important because you want to, it’s a marketing piece and you want to attract the right people in where actually we have proprietary software that’s going to allow us to help you figure out the right compensation for this person. And that’s included. We’re going to help you figure out the hiring process. We’re going to do the first round interview for you so that we can give you those best candidates, but then we’re also going to make sure you’re set up with what it looks like for your hiring process, that you have the interview questions that you have, everything you need, you have to be a part of the process. Obviously you’re hiring for your team, but we’re going to do a lot of the legwork and that first round interview so you can really feel great about the time you’re investing in. It will be just really on those final great candidates. 


Jennifer Whigham (03:57): 

I mean, I don’t own a law firm. I do own a small business separate from Lawyerist, and hiring for that was always very stressful for us, and the idea of someone doing it for us is such a relief. Just hearing you explain all that, I was like, ah, I wish we had had that. All the stress, even just figuring out the compensation and those first interviews, which can be awkward and you really have to be sensitive to figuring out if that person should go to the second round because you don’t have a lot of information about them yet. So just knowing that someone could do that for you, I feel like would be such a relief for the people in our program. 


Stephanie Everett (04:32): 

So if you’re listening right now and you’re like, yeah, I need a hire this year, that sounds helpful. We would love to talk to you more about it. I actually don’t have the URL ready for the new page yet, but it will be on the show notes by the time this thing airs. Or you can always just email me at stephanie @ Lawyerist dot com and we can jump on a call, find out what your needs are and talk to you about what that would look like. But we would love to help you and of course if you join the lab, you get access to all of our templates and all the tools and the things that we have around hiring because we do think it’s such an important part of your business and we love doing it. 


Jennifer Whigham (05:08): 

Sounds great. Now here’s your conversation with Jennifer Hawkins. 


Jennifer Hawkins (05:15): 

I’m Jennifer Hawkins and I am an attorney in Sullivan, Indiana. I practice with my husband Jeff, and we have a small law firm. We practice elder law, medicaid planning, asset protection, estate planning, and I do a lot of trust in estate administration as well, and I’m just happy to be here. 


Stephanie Everett (05:38): 

Well, hi Jennifer. I’m excited to have you. I think first let’s just acknowledge you practice with your husband and you guys have been doing that for over 30 years now. 


Jennifer Hawkins (05:47): 

We have, and we still like each other and love each other. We’ve been married 36 years and we started practicing together. We actually went to law school together and were admitted to the bar side by side 31 years ago now in 1992. And we love practicing together and doing the things that we love together. 


Stephanie Everett (06:09): 

Yes, I love that. And I know we have a lot of people that we work with that are spouses and work together, and so I always ask, do you have any advice for how you make that work because it’s different to own a business with someone that you’re married to? 


Jennifer Hawkins (06:26): 

Well, I’d like to say that some people say, well, you just leave the business at the business. And we have times when we say, yes, today is a non-business discussion or a date night or whatever. But yeah, a lot of the partners meetings are across the kitchen table or looking at the ceiling before we go to sleep talking about things. But for the most part, I think if you just are, in our case, we’re best friends and if you just respect each other as also business partners too and make sure you can be in both all of those roles, it works out. It’s worked out great for us. 


Stephanie Everett (07:02): 

I like that. Sometimes I have to remind my husband, we need a business meeting. Don’t come in when I’m getting ready for work and ask me about, did I call the accountant? 


Jennifer Hawkins (07:12): 

Yeah. One of our best business meetings in recent this year has been driving from Atlanta to Indiana after Lab Con. 


Stephanie Everett (07:19): 

Oh, I bet. 


Jennifer Hawkins (07:21): 

Yes. Because we’re Labsters and we really enjoyed Lab Con and we had, my computer was in my lap and we were debriefing Lab Con all the way home. 


Stephanie Everett (07:31): 

I love that. Yeah, I’m sure that was a good use of your time. Well, let’s explore a little bit. You have a smaller firm, like you said, and you guys have gone through some transition this year. So tell me about that and what was that like? 


Jennifer Hawkins (07:45): 

Yeah, we have this year, we are a small firm and we don’t have a lot of turnover of our team. Every three or four years we need to hire someone, but this year was different, and we had already joined Lab when this started happening, but about six months ago, we decided we needed a fourth in-person, team member. Now we’ve got some remote team members. We use a virtual receptionist service too in the office. We needed a fourth person, so we did hire that person a week later, and I’ll talk about that a little bit and how we went about hiring that person. But a week after she started, my Medicaid case manager resigned, and there wasn’t any drama or anything. It was just that she had found another opportunity. We wished her well had a party, but that was a week after we had just hired the new person. 



So we were then again back to three. Well, then a week after that, my office manager who basically herd the cats and does all of the business administration of the law firm, she had a major health crisis. So she was out for weeks and weeks. So we were needing to do some hiring and training and onboarding. We needed to do it quickly, but we realized that we should never hire quickly. So we just went to the drawing board and really with the help of our coaches, which I’ll shout out to Sara and Amy, both of them have been our coaches through the last oh, 18 months or so. We really got a handle on how to do this right, how to do it better than we ever had. We’d had a law firm for 30 years, and I did things totally differently based on what the coaches advised and gave us ideas and it made such a difference. 



And if I can just go and talk about the first thing, just deciding what to put in a job post. For instance, for years when I was going to hire somebody, I have a two sentence thing that said, paralegal or legal assistant needed inquire at this email address. No, that didn’t work so great. Well, I mean it always did, but we didn’t always get people who had the qualifications. They maybe worked into the job that we were probably looking for that they ended up some good, some not so great. But now we needed to get some really qualified, skilled people to work with us. We needed first a trust and estate case manager. So I worked with Sara on that and gave me some examples and basically talked about, and we ended up doing this, a job post should be very specific and go into what we do exactly what this job would entail exactly, and why we do what we do and who we are. 



We had established our core values in lab and I put the core values in the job description, the job post. People loved that. The candidates just were wonderful and said the core values really spoke to the candidates, they told us that. So that was something I would’ve never thought about doing. So instead of being the two sentences, our job post ended up being about two pages and it was very well received. One little tip we use Indeed for our recruiting and our hiring and everything, and there are algorithms that those services use based on your job post, which was wonderful because it got people that actually had experience and interest in this specific job. However, I made the mistake of calling them new position, the first new position, our trust in estate project manager, well, project manager, I didn’t realize is a real big term in construction. 



So I don’t know how many matches and hits I got on wanting to build things. There are guys wanting to build things and apply for that job. So algorithms are important to understand and remember the wording that you’re using in your job post later. When I hired the Medicaid, I called her an eligibility specialist. So that really changed the matches that I got the possible candidates that I got for the second hire. But the bottom line was by following that model, the interviews that we had were so much more on point. People had the most specific experience that we needed. I needed somebody that if I could knew the Medicaid rules in Indiana. And so I got people from the actual family socials and services administration applying for my job and people that were nursing home administrators, which was wonderful because they already came to the table knowing the process and knowing the job that they were applying for. So it was great. 


Stephanie Everett (12:55): 

I love that because we teach everybody your job posting. It’s an advertisement, it is marketing. You want to attract the right people in. And so we do spend a lot of time working with folks on how to craft that so that it does get the right candidates in. So I love that you were able to tweak that and have success. That’s awesome. 


Jennifer Hawkins (13:15): 

Yeah, we were very excited about it and in the end we got two wonderful new team members that are love their job and they seem to, anyway, they say they do, and we just love them and it’s working out great. 


Stephanie Everett (13:30): 

Yeah. One of the things you mentioned too was having core values. And I know you shared with me that that was something you guys developed after joining us in Lab, that you had never really thought about that in that way before. And I know we talk about values a lot, and I’m sure people listening are like, oh, here’s, Stephanie goes talking about values again. But I would love to hear from you, how did you see that make a difference both in your hiring process but maybe also in just everyday firm life? How does that show up for you guys? 


Jennifer Hawkins (14:01): 

Well, I think when we first were tasked with coming up with core values, that’s one of the first things that you do in lab is you need to find out your core values. It was a Saturday and Jeff and I sat down here in the office, no one else was here. And we said, okay, what does this really mean? At first you think, oh, we’ve been doing this for 30 years. Do we really need to write this down? We know what our values are. Well, we really hadn’t really thought about it. And so I bet we spent three or four hours that day just sitting down and writing things out, redrafting it, and it was a great exercise and we took it very seriously. And now we still take it very seriously. We sometimes will tweak it a little bit after we did it and we had it in the form that we wanted it. 



We had a staff meeting and we said, Hey folks, this is who we are and this is what we strive to be. And I think that they appreciate it. Jeff’s idea, and I have yet to do it, but I’m going to is get a graphic artist or somebody to wall hanging of our core values to put in the office. And I think that would be a really cool thing so that if you’re standing next to the copy machine or at a staff meeting or whatever, you can look up and see those. And so we don’t forget about them. I was worried that you do this thing and it’s great and it seems wonderful, and then it’s in a folder on your computer and nobody ever sees it again. And I don’t want that to happen. I want us to always look at that and be reminded of it. 


Stephanie Everett (15:32): 

So it sounds like the hiring process, although unexpected that you had to do so much of it, it went much better this time. Any other thoughts or tips you’d give and how you approached it differently? 


Jennifer Hawkins (15:43): 

Well, the other thing that we approached differently I think was the onboarding of these two turned out to be ladies. So these ladies, they had some experience. They knew generally one that my trust and estate case manager had worked for another attorney in that exact area for 16 years, and he just unfortunately passed away. And so she was a very well qualified but not necessarily qualified on our way of things. Everybody has their own processes and systems. And a few years ago I remembered, we listened to a podcast, I believe actually it was your you Stephanie, about process manuals. And so we had started a few years ago with a process manual with a Word document, and we just added to it and added to it, and it was a bit cumbersome. It was 180 to some pages and didn’t cover it, just everything. But we were on the way. 



Well, we realized that there are other platforms than just other Word document that we could put this process manual in. So we signed up for Tetra, and I believe that was somebody we found that at Lab Con, someone mentioned they had two or three different ones that we were looking into from recommendations that we’d gotten. So we signed up for that. We started moving our process manual stuff into it and adding to it. And so when we hired these new folks, I went in and started adding crazy specific things for their jobs and they love it and it’s so helpful. And now if there’s something that something new or something that they need to know, we just say, Hey, it’s in Tetra. Go here, search this keyword and you’ll find it. My trust and estate team member, Tiffany, is her name. She’s really techie and she loves it so much that she has starting adding things herself. So that’s wonderful that it’s not just about Jeff and I making the process manual. Everybody’s jumping in and helping with that. 


Stephanie Everett (17:45): 

Yeah, that’s going to make life so much easier if these people find a different path or leave you, it happens. 


Jennifer Hawkins (17:54): 

My office manager, who by the way, is on the mend, it’s been a long road, but she’ll be back and she’s working from home a lot. But yeah, you never know when she’s was the most healthy youngest person in the office and you just never know when somebody’s going to have a health crisis or they just have a life change, need to move, whatever. It’s not always a bad thing when people are leaving. 


Stephanie Everett (18:19): 

Yeah, I agree. So that’s great. So those are two huge things that you guys have been able to accomplish. And I think sometimes people listening might feel like, oh, I know I need to do that operations manual, but it just feels so daunting. 


Jennifer Hawkins (18:33): 

And you were right early on when you said that you just start with a blank word document and you just put something down, and that’s kind of what we did, and we just would pass it back and forth, and now we have things that we can put into this platform that makes it easier to search and find and everything. 


Stephanie Everett (18:51): 

Yeah, I love that. That’s great advice. So it sounds like you’ve made some really great changes both in the hiring process and then the onboarding process and that ongoing training with the Ops manual. Are there other areas that you’ve noticed that you’ve really been able to improve and those needle moving things that have made a huge difference for you guys? 


Jennifer Hawkins (19:11): 

Well, one thing that I think, and I don’t know this, Jeff and I are, we’ve been doing this 31 years, and I always say, well, we started when we were 10. Of course, no. So we’re not ready to retire anytime soon, but we are looking that way. We’re looking what happens down the road when we need to do something to sell this practice. And one of the things we did at Lab Con, which I thought was a great exercise, was how do you sell convince somebody to buy your practice? Because we had been thinking about that and what can we do to our practice to make it down the road something somebody would want to buy. And so all of these things are important to look toward the future. My father-in-Law and his partner owned a fairly large regional concrete company, the two of them own this concrete company, had concrete trucks and equipment and everything. 



They at some point decided they were ready to retire and they were going to sell their concrete company. So before they did that, they bought a whole bunch of new equipment. They had all these concrete trucks, they bought new ones, they painted everything they had, they painted their old black and white concrete trucks, this very beautiful blue and white, and they just spiffed it up so that they would be able to sell it. And so Jeff and I always talk about we love what we’re doing, we want to keep doing it for as long as we can, but we are also needing to paint the concrete trucks to make sure that when the time comes, we can do that well. 


Stephanie Everett (20:42): 

And kudos to you because as you’ve mentioned a couple of times, you guys have been doing this for a long time. 30 years is not a short amount of time. You’re right. You definitely look like you were 10 when you started, so that’s great. 


Jennifer Hawkins (20:55): 

Oh, well, thank you. 


Stephanie Everett (20:56): 

But I think sometimes it can be hard to make big changes when you’re so far into what you’re doing. And so to have the wherewithal to stop and say, actually, what does it look like to paint the trucks and what do we need to do and what changes should we make real kudos to you guys for being willing and open to making those changes and maybe to getting a little bit of help to figure out what those changes could look like. I think a lot of people just stay stuck in the way they’ve always done it, 


Jennifer Hawkins (21:26): 

Right. We’re very excited about not doing it the way we’ve always done it. So it’s a journey, and I think it’s a fun journey myself. 


Stephanie Everett (21:36): 

Well, was it hard? Was it hard to make that switch or were you guys just both open to it? 


Jennifer Hawkins (21:42): 

I think we were both open to it. Jeff is probably the leader in that. He’ll say, let’s make this change. Let’s buy this new software, let’s change this. And I’m always the one that says, well, what are the pros and cons? Let’s weigh this out. What’s the cost of this? But usually we end up together. I know buying the Monday, we got Monday project management software shortly after we started the lab, and he’d been telling me for years, we need to research and buy project management software. We had practice management software, which is different from project management software. And I would argue, no, we’ve got this practice management, we don’t need it. Finally, we bought it and started using it, and it’s changed everything. So yeah, I was wrong and he was right. But we’re both willing to listen and discuss things and move forward. We don’t want to ever stay stagnant. 


Stephanie Everett (22:38): 

Yeah, I love that People may be wondering how could project management software make such a big difference? I mean, you said it changed everything. So I mean, what would you tell them if they’re thinking about that? 


Jennifer Hawkins (22:48): 

Well, the Medicaid process, we do a lot of Medicaid applications. Those projects are just huge as far as documentation that you need to gather a task that you need to do, and just having that all set out very specifically in a timelines. And that helped in the same way with a state administration and trusted administration. You have an estate that goes for nine months and there’s so many steps and so many things to do and customized to each one, different issues that come up. Then the project management software really helps keep track of that and helps us collaborate with it so much better. 


Stephanie Everett (23:30): 

Yeah, no, I love it. We couldn’t live without ours, so I love hearing that perspective and hearing from another lawyer like, no, it really, because you can visualize your cases and see what needs to happen next. 


Jennifer Hawkins (23:43): 

And one more thing that we did, lot of attorneys around here thought we were crazy. We’d been practicing since 1992. We own our building here and in our basement as of about five or six years ago, we had 200 bankers boxes of files, and we thought, this is crazy. Number one, you have to run down and get these old files when people come back. So we decided we’re going to go digital and we’re not going to just do current. We’re going to go digital, go big or go home. So we spent two years and everything that didn’t move, we scanned and some things that did, and we scanned every sheet of paper that we ever did. I can pull up wills I prepared in the nineties, and we shredded all of our banker’s boxes, everything’s in the cloud, and it was the best thing that we ever did. But I mean, it took a couple of years, everybody scanning and saving, scanning and saving, and I mean, we hired teenagers to come in and scan and it’s been the best thing, best decision we ever made. Now when we retire, I can say, here is my password, instead of here’s my basement full of hundreds and hundreds of moldy paper. 


Stephanie Everett (24:55): 

I love that. And I think turns out January is national cleanup your computer month. I didn’t know that until yesterday, so I didn’t either. Yeah. So it’s a great time if you’re listening to this, go clean up those files and know is everything saved the right way. And think about your naming conventions. I mean, our data is so important to our job. If we think about what we do as Lawyerist, it is all based around data. And especially when we start thinking about the new AI tools and things that are coming, the fact you have everything scanned now, presumably means you could train. I mean, we’ll get there, but you could train your AI tool on your stuff. I mean, we got to think through it and follow all the rules. 


Jennifer Hawkins (25:36): 

Oh yeah, sure. 


Stephanie Everett (25:37): 

But if your data’s in a basement in boxes, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of some of these new tools that are coming out here in the future. So I think all smart for all the reasons you said. Plus plus, 


Jennifer Hawkins (25:49): 

Plus plus. Yeah. And we have extra space in the basement for storing Christmas presents and stuff. 


Stephanie Everett (25:55): 

Yeah, I love it. Our law firm rented out our basement to a fitness group, and they would actually do exercise classes down there. Oh, cool. No idea. So as we wrap up here, I guess I’m just curious if you have any words of wisdom or partying advice that you would give advice to your fellow small firm Lawyers? 


Jennifer Hawkins (26:17): 

I think just don’t stay the same. Keep going. You have a long career maybe. Hopefully you have a long career and don’t ever say, well, I’m at a good enough spot. I started practicing when attorneys started using computers. We had our Doss brand new computer that was very low memory when we first started practicing, but there were attorneys who and paralegals who were actually retiring because they just didn’t want to mess with the computer systems and the things that were coming out for Lawyers. And that’s kind of sad. So just keep learning, keep going, keep getting that next new thing that’s going to help and enhance your practice and help you move forward. 


Stephanie Everett (27:04): 

I absolutely love that. Agree with that message wholeheartedly. And I think it’s a good reminder that you can take these small steps. You can just get started. You guys have been working on some of these things for a year or more now. Like the scanning project took you two years, but you did it. And the operations manual, it takes forever. Quite frankly. You’re never quite done with it, but you got started, and I think that’s maybe also in the month of January, a good message to remind people. Sometimes you just have to take that first step and get started. 


Jennifer Hawkins (27:34): 

I agree. 


Stephanie Everett (27:35): 

Well, Jennifer, thank you so much for being with me today. I love hearing your story, and I’m so proud of all the things you and Jeff have accomplished, especially since working with us. We’ve just seen such tremendous growth and change in you guys and your practice, and we are excited to watch what’s next. 


Jennifer Hawkins (27:51): 

Well, thank you, Stephanie. It’s been such a pleasure. 


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

Jennifer Hawkins Headshot

Jennifer Hawkins

Jennifer J. Hawkins practices with her law partner and husband, Jeff Hawkins, at Hawkins Elder Law in Sullivan, Indiana. Jennifer and Jeff have been married for 36 years, and they were sworn in together as Indiana lawyers more than 31 years ago in 1992. They have enjoyed practicing law together ever since. While their physical office is located in the small town of Sullivan, Hawkins Elder Law serves clients from all over southwestern Indiana and southeastern Illinois.  Jennifer concentrates her law practice on asset protection planning for long-term care, Medicaid planning and applications for Medicaid benefits, and estate and trust administration. She is a Board-Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyer, certified by the Trust & Estate Specialty Board in 2010.

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Last updated January 4th, 2024