From Lawyer to Law Firm Coach: Allison Williams, Law Firm Mentor

There are many resources out there on starting a solo or small practice. Yet, when it comes to how to grow your new venture, the available information dwindles. That’s why consultation and coaching can be vital in deciding what are the best techniques to help your particular business thrive.  That is the service that Allison C. Williams — owner of the Williams Law Group — provides through her coaching practice, Law Firm Mentor. A successful attorney in her own right, Allison Williams started and built a seven-figure family law practice firm and uses the lessons she’s gleaned from her career to help lawyers get more money and free time in business.

I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to interview Allison and I’m posting the transcript from our interview below.  If you’d like a chance to meet up with Allison face to face, there’s still time to register here for our FREE meetup set for January 10, 2019.

Elefant: Congratulations on 5 years! For this series I’m focusing on lawyers who have side businesses, yet, I haven’t really talked to anyone in coaching interviewing or strategy. Because you have a successful law practice and you’re pursuing the second venture, it makes you appealing to the kind of audience that I have. They want to see someone who’s had a successful legal career before they entrust them with their money and their business plans.

Williams: That’s my differentiating factor. I didn’t go out and hang a shingle right out of law school. I think that people need the experience of working with other attorneys and getting the guidance and mentorship on how to be ethical and professional. And when you learn things about business that don’t necessarily translate to the legal profession you give yourself pause instead of excitement about building the business.

Before I started the business, I had a very very successful career. I built my reputation across the state for doing child abuse cases. I had a pretty substantial book of business when I decided to start my own business. I asked myself a few questions:

How do I make this bigger than myself? How do I make it a brand? How do I create something with its own societal appeal apart from what it does for me? Does it do something for the community?

Those questions are what launched my desire to have the firm and then make it into something more. The fact is I did create it and used business principles to make it run like a machine. When I gave myself more  money and free time I realized that I could help other lawyers do that as well. There were things I learned as a coach that I didn’t necessarily agree with and I learned to use my own voice and decide what does and doesn’t work for me. That is the kind of weighing that you need to do. I don’t want to take that voice away from people. When I was being coached before I felt that voice was being taken away from me to some degree.

E: Let’s take a step back. It was very forward thinking of you, especially because this was 5 years ago and you were relatively young when you started a legal career. In literature, there is a lot of focus on starting a business but not much about growing it. So what inspired you to focus on that next step?

W: So, it started to outgrow me before I even got it started really. Which is kind of the reason I started working with coaches.  I was at the point where I had a run rate of about $500,000 a year in business at my old firm, so I approached the partner that I worked for and asked to be a partner. After he expressed enthusiasm about the idea, the partners came back as a whole saying “We need to think about this”. We need to think about this? I made more money than some of the partners did, so it was a little offensive. I wanted a title, so I left. But it wasn’t like sneaking off into the middle of the night–I had a plan.

The plan was nothing’s going to be perfect, but I’ll figure it out when I get there. But I got there, and it was awful. The most miserable experience of my life. I had 43 clients come with me…but I was overwhelmed.

Through being overwhelmed, I almost killed myself. I lived about 45 miles from the office, and after hiring three completely inept secretary, I decided to be my own secretary. I’d wake up at 5 in the morning, get to the office at 6, be a secretary from 6-8:30, a lawyer from 8:30-6, take a “dinner” break to return emails and shove down something unhealthy, and from 7-9, I’d be a secretary again. I basically did that 5 days a week and on weekends it was project works. And it worked a while, but after four weeks I was driving home one night and I “woke up” to find myself a quarter of a centimeter away from a guard rail.

That was my wake-up call. I decided that I would return to working for others so I called a few of my contacts. I called the firm I always wanted to work for as a young associate. I talked to my mentor there and told him “Make me an offer”, to which he replied “Well, let’s have lunch first.”

I planned to make a deal to get a six figure salary there, but I realized that wasn’t quite right either. I thought, alright, if I want this god-awful thing called a law firm, I need to figure out how to not let it kill me. So I went to google the next day and googled ‘how to manage a law firm’.

I signed up for coaching, and I was blessed that my lead coach was a psychologist. Our backgrounds were similar for a lot of reasons. He’d give me great advice and I thought, I’m paying you, but I want to do it because you’re telling me to. And that was the right way to approach it, in a sense. You don’t turn yourself over to the doctor and second guess their instructions.

By a certain point I outgrew the program, not because there was anything wrong with it, but because they help people grow from 0 to a million dollars. After reaching a million, I just learned to systemize everything.

Everything has a system in my law firm. How we answer phones, to how we have meetings, to what happens in those meetings, to how many people have to be at the meetings, how long they’re supposed to last, which clients are allowed to communicate with us, how clients are allowed to communicate with us, how/when they can talk to us, when they can talk to a paralegal or attorney. And I never had these in place before, because family law is known as overwhelming and emotional and you can’t control how the clients are going to react.

When I had to put more structure around the chaos in order to function, however, I noticed the people could be more creative.

And all that you do as a lawyer in my office is create legal solutions for people think outside of the box, do your lawyer-y thing and help people. And we’re really good at helping people. We have a very good reputation but what I think is the secret sauce of the firm is that it’s what I wanted. And at some point I stopped following instructions and I just created for myself what I wanted.

And having that helps you get through those days when a client is difficult and you have to take them off, or if a lawyer had a really bad day and is crying in the corner. We all have those days but those days are very very isolated now, because the process is really what keeps us all sane.

E:  When you developed the process did you sit down and kind of have a chart of everything, or did it build out each time you encountered a problem?

W: So it’s a little of both. When my office was really small, I would basically take every Friday and get lunch together and we would bang out policies and procedures.  That started to bring a lot of the order initially. Then over the course of time, as things were happening, I realized it was easier to create it at the moment something was happening because it’s fresh in your mind. It’s hard to systemize because you’re always changing the systems. You’re always shifting things around.

Because the bigger you get, the more personalities you have around. There’s certain adaptability as well–our receptionist is also a legal assistant, so we’re going to have her do something instead of the paralegals so it saves cost to the clients sometime we think up something so we have to change the system.

But the initial part is “Okay, that didn’t go well let’s do a brain dump” and I would do that every once in a while. I would come into the office and say, let’s discuss the worst things that happened last week and how to fix them. And we would brainstorm and share them out loud.

Why did that happen? Who was responsible for it? How did we get to it? How do we fix it for next time?

The person who had that problem is often in the state of feeling blame and shame and guilt, so when you start putting it out there that “Oh yeah, I screwed that up last week you just didn’t hear about it”, it creates a culture of openness. When you share stories of how bad you did something, people are a lot more open to sharing stories of when they did something wrong. And they know that the boss is not going to flip out about it, because the boss did something wrong last week. I’m really big about telling my team when I did something wrong, because I know we can sit down and fix it together.

E: Do you still practice or what is your balance between practicing and managing the firm and setting the overarching goals and strategies for the firm, these days?

W: Right now I don’t practice at all. I am just the Chief Strategist of the Law Firm. We handle all areas of family law in the firm. And even though I have a decorated history in matrimonial law, and I can try a family law case, my real attachment is to childhood abuse and neglect. I have experienced matrimonial law attorneys that only do that.

We have attorney meetings every other week. Everytime something unique or esoteric comes up we talk about it. Anything something problematic happens in a case I’m made aware about it. That’s legalwise what I do. I’m also the owner of the firm so any complaints that cannot be resolved through the first line, I deal with that. I oversee the budget, I manage our sales and marketing teams, and oversee collections. I’m the hub over everyone else’s responsibilities in the firm.

E: Now,  for someone who still wants to go to court, can they continue to do so while still playing an active role in their practice?

W: This is what I  tell people. You shouldn’t ever take yourself out of the courtroom, or take yourself out of the practice of law. You can’t effectively manage something unless you know it intricately.

But… if you want to grow your law firm rapidly, you can’t be a court attorney.

It is a tough pill to swallow. The first time someone told me that it felt right but wrong to my conscious and I started crying—who am I without the practice of law, I asked myself. Really! I had a real crisis of conscious about it. At the end of the day, it was more important to create a system where hundreds of people could be helped a year instead of 30 or 40 or 50 which was all I could, capacity-wise, handle and I knew that being able to train other people was not something I could really do. Unless they were watching me lawyer, which is not making any money, or lawyering beside me, but I’d have no time to watch or mentor them or guide them so they’d be doing a good job.

You have to make those decisions. But every decision has a financial consequence and a time consequence. So as long as you’re making a knowing decision, you can always go back and forth. For instance, I have a sales person that does all our consultations. She does not do law advice, she’s not an attorney and one thing that does is free up my lawyers from meeting distressed people who drain their energy, and allow them to be their fresh best self for someone who’s actually paying us. So that’s a cost factor. I tell people if you add up the consultations,  lawyers take longer than most people to get information.

But there’s some people that won’t convert to a sales person, relative to an attorney. So do the math on what those rates would be.  It’s a financial decision. It’s a quality decision. Family law is stressful, so I want to give as many opportunities to reduce the stress as possible, so my employees are not pouring out to strangers. That’s something that’s going to cost you more in terms of dollars and cents in the short run, in order to ramp it up over the wrong run.

It is the same thing as you as a lawyer being in the courtroom.  If someone calls me and asks for me to personally take a case, I have to say, “I’m sorry I’m not doing it”. You have to trust me that I’m not handing you over to someone that didn’t get my training, doesn’t have my mindset, doesn’t have my skills, etc. And if that’s not good enough, than that person is not coming in as a client of the firm. And they can make that choice. And there are people who have said to me I know you’re $500/hr, I’ll pay you $700/hr. And I say no.

And for me, I have changed from the person I was back when I litigated abuse cases. I realized that person who I was back then got angry and pissed off about how people in the system were being treated and how judges weren’t listening to them, and dumping kids into foster care.  I’m not that pitbull anymore. I don’t want to be that energy, because you can’t be an effective manager when you’re an aggressive litigator. That’s just not good management. If someone wants to stay in the courtroom and that’s consummate with who they want to be as a boss, leader or manager, you can absolutely do that.

You are just going to have to build time on having some more people doing lawyering and more people doing admin, versus if you take yourself out of the courtroom you don’t need another person doing admin. It is what it is. It’s definitely a choice. It’s one that you just have to think out and plan out.

E: Alright so, now that I know your background, I want to hear about your new business. I have some ideas of the impetus ,but what was it that pushed you to start it now, as opposed to six months ago or six years from now.

W: Yeah, it’s kind of weird how it happened. A part of it was that I always been a teacher at heart.

Both of my parents are educators, when I became a lawyer what I always loved about lawyering was the teaching moments. When I got to teach my client or teach the judge about my client’s case or teaching an adversary through settlement, or teaching through CLEs.

I’ve always loved being on stage. I love giving out information and people having those A-ha! moments and I know I’m good at giving people the information in a way that they can digest it. What happened after I outgrew my original coaching program, was I didn’t want to leave the program because I didn’t want to leave the people, and it wasn’t cost-burdensome because I had already grew the firm so much. So I was like, I’ll stick around. So the way I wanted to engage was to share.

I started teaching on the closed forum, and people would start asking me questions. Then people would contact me off of the forum and ask me about the policy and procedures for doing certain things and I’d talk to them.  It was out of the spirit of helping people. After I left the program, I’d still give advice, and people were always happy with the advice. It was clear, they could understand it, and it gave them hope that there was a solution.

I knew that I have a gift for this, I enjoyed it and I know it fulfills me and it’s helping my own people. I see people like me, who serve the public through lawyering, as members of one of the best professions in the world. Yet, you don’t get to see a lot of people be positive about lawyering.

It’s rare because the public has their own opinions and lawyers have grown hard-hearted and jaded, because of the day-to-day and lawyers that start law firms need to have a lot of grit and get worn-down. When you start comparing yourself to other people you start to feel inadequate in ways, that it’s really hard to move forward.

So people think in terms of inching themselves forward a little bit reaching out and hiring a marketing company. Certainly legal marketing tools are an answer, but you need to concern yourself with who they’re marketing to, and what you’re going to do with all these people once you start bringing them in droves. They don’t think about what you’re creating, they’re just focused on bringing in more clients for more money. It’s a flaw and doesn’t’ serve the individual and it’s not good to grow at breakneck speed if you have any profit, because you pissed it all away on a law firm that breaks down next week. There’s a balance between the two.

People aren’t getting advice on how to think between the two and that is what I do with each decision. Am I going to choose to make less money today so that I can have more comfort today?  Where am I going to choose to make more money today so that I can give you more economic benefit? There are always those questions with everything that we do. December of last year I thought–I’m just going to do it.

To learn more about Allison’s coaching program, please visit the Law Firm Mentor website. And hope to see you at the meetup!

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