I went to law school to make a difference and really help people. I graduated from law school in 1999, when the economy was having a party and law firms were fighting for the top law school graduates. By the time I graduated, starting salaries had crept up to $135,000 per year and I graduated first in my class from Georgetown University Law Center, giving me my pick of law firms, any one of which would give me a fat signing bonus and pay for me to move to their city.
It was too much to pass up. I had a baby at home and my husband was staying at home to raise her. I convinced myself I could make a difference and really help people even as a big law firm lawyer, if I chose the estate planning practice area because then I would be a trusted advisor working directly with individuals and families.
I chose the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles, California. Founded by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s right hand man, I thought this would be a place where I could develop real relationships with my clients and make a difference in their lives, like Charlie had with Warren.
Boy, was I in for a big surprise. Maybe that was the reality once upon a time, but these days in big law firms, personal relationship takes a backseat to billable hours, transactions, forms and documents. That’s the reality.
Had I made a huge mistake by going to law school, I wondered? Sure, I was making a good salary, but I was so disillusioned with the practice of law. I wanted to feel passionate, excited to get out of bed everyday. And, I didn’t.
I had loved law school. Absolutely loved it. Where had things gone wrong?
I began to blame myself. Surely there was something wrong with me.
I was at the best law firm in town, making a 6-figure salary, had just bought a house, had a baby at home and by that time, another one on the way, and inexplicably, I was miserable.
I was trapped by my success.
I started to think about how I could go out on my own. By then, I had a 2nd baby on the way and my daughter was three years old. My husband was still at home without an income and I was making close to $200,000 a year as a third year associate.
The thought of leaving the paycheck was nearly paralyzing.
I didn’t have any resources saved up. I didn’t come from a wealthy family. And, I didn’t realize that I could borrow money to start my business.
I spent hours thinking about what my business would look like if I was to start my own law firm. How many clients I’d see. What I’d do when they came in to meet with me. How much free time I’d have.
At night and on the weekends, I began to design the logo and website for my law firm to be. I made the commitment to myself that by the time I was 30, I’d make the leap.
In August of 2003, just 5 months after my second child was born, I went in to meet with the partner I worked with and told him I wouldn’t be coming back, that I was starting my own law firm.
He didn’t think I was ready. I needed a few more years under my belt, he said. I think he wanted a few more years of me billing hours.
Regardless, I was ready to go.
I opened the doors of my law firm, Alexis Martin Neely, Attorney and Counselor at Law (one year later I changed the name to Martin Neely & Associates because I knew I wanted to build something bigger than just myself).
To this day, I still get a charge of energy when I think about it. It was an exciting time. A scary time. But, definitely an exciting time.
The first two years of my business were full of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The first time I collected a check from a paying client, I ran around the office yelling like a madwoman with glee. It was the best feeling in the world. The worry of where the next client would come from was not. I remember standing in the middle of my office at one point, praying to God “please, please, please let me one day not worry about where my next client will come from.”
I was scared of failing every day. I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, I knew how to be a great lawyer, but that has nothing to do with running a great business.
Attracting clients, engaging them, getting the work done … it was all a mystery. I was making it up as I went along and not doing a very good job of it.
Eventually, I figured out how to attract the right clients into my law firm (by focusing on an underserved niche), only to realize that attracting clients was only half the battle. The fortune was made in getting them to hire me.
I would sometimes meet with prospective clients for up to 4 hours at a time only to hear that they weren’t sure or had to think about it before moving forward. Invariably, that meant I’d never see them again.
I spent a lot of time trying to learn how to become successful from other lawyers in our community who appeared to be successful. But, the more I got to understand their business, the more I learned that their success was only on the surface.
Sure, they had lots of clients, but it was all about the next new client. They were stuck on what I now call the marketing merry go round and the cash flow roller coaster, a never-ending treadmill that is constantly focused on bringing in the next new client, churning out documents, and then finding the next client.
I had gone to law school with the desire to make a difference, went to the big law firm hoping for the same, and launched my own firm with the intention of finally seeing that as a reality.
I talked about relationship a lot in my business, but when I looked around, there was no real relationship to be found.
The business model I learned from all those apparently successful lawyers didn’t provide a financial incentive for relationship. It was broken. I knew I had to do something about it.
So, I went outside the legal field and learned from the best minds in entrepreneurial business and marketing. People like Michael Gerber, Seth Godin and Dan Kennedy.
What I learned, rocked my world. I discovered that there was a way to structure my business model so I could have real lifetime relationships with my clients, make a great living and not kill myself doing it.
I put it all together and in 2006, I brought over $1,000,000 in revenue into my firm. The only problem was that I was working 6-7 days/week to do it.
In 2007, I did it again, but that year I was only in the office 2-3 days a week, at most.
What did I do to go from struggling and uncertain to a million dollar law firm owner?
I created and put in place systems for attracting clients, engaging them, servicing them, and retaining them for life and systems for keeping my team accountable to the systems.
It was hard and I had to invent a new business model to do it, but so worth it!
In 2008, I sold a 75% interest in my law firm so I could focus my attention on teaching other lawyers how to implement the systems and business model I discovered and put into place in my own law firm, in their law firms. I rarely take on any new clients these days, focusing instead on my existing clients who pay a monthly fee for the privilege of my guidance.
I like to think that I matter because I’m revolutionizing the traditional/broken model of estate planning that so often leaves families in the lurch with a bunch of outdated documents that don’t work the way they are supposed to when their loved one dies and a business model that sticks a lot of lawyers with law firms that don’t work either.
I matter because I’m teaching lawyers the business systems that give them law businesses they love, that make a real difference in their client’s lives, without working around the clock.
I matter because I’m writing books, appearing on television and radio and inspiring, motivating and educating millions of people. Living my purpose. And, changing the way lawyers think and the way the American public thinks about lawyers.
Alexis Martin Neely is the founder of the million dollar small firm Martin Neely & Associates, the CEO of the Family Wealth Planning Institute (www.FamilyWealthMatters.com) and Law Business Secrets (www.LawBusinessSecrets.com) and writes about all of it at the Intrepid Mompreneur (www.AlexisMartinNeely.com). Follow her on Twitter @alexisneely.