Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today my guest is Elise Buie, Founder and Head of Elise Buie Family Law, located in Seattle, Washington. Elise is no stranger to crises which she turns to her advantage. COVID is no exception and today she’ll tell us how she’s continued to grow her firm in the face of a current pandemic. Elise, welcome to the podcast.
Elise: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Sharon: So glad to have you. We’re really looking forward to hearing how you’re managing through this crisis. Can you give us a brief overview of your career path up to this point through the founding of the firm?
Elise: Sure, I graduated from law school in 2004 and at the time, I lived in New Orleans and I started clerking for a federal judge. I did that for two years and I had an offer at a big insurance defense firm when I graduated but they let me go work for this judge who was a newly appointed judge and so then I went back to that insurance defense firm and was working for several years. During this time, I was having children. I had two children really quickly while I was actually clerking for the federal judge and then went to the law firm and decided that I was going to stay home with my children and just be a stay-at-home mom for a few years and so I quit working, had two more children and then Hurricane Katrina hit and then that kind of thrust us on another path and we ended up moving to Georgia, then Minnesota. I got relicensed in Minnesota, started a firm in Minnesota and then was getting remarried. So, in the process of that, I got a divorce, was getting remarried out here in Washington and had to start over here in Washington, take the bar exam again and I got licensed out here in 2012 and I started my firm in Washington in 2015 and here we are today in 2020 and I’ve been growing my firm since 2015.
Sharon: Wow! So, you have experience in all aspects of family law then. Hurricane Katrina had a big impact on your life and your outlook. Do you think you would have seen opportunities in the current pandemic if you hadn’t already overcome the challenges that Katrina presented and looked at the opportunities?
Elise: I like the way you put it. I like to think of them as opportunities. I mean I think what happened in Hurricane Katrina and our family evacuated—and it was a pretty complex time. I was helping a friend who was dying and all her children and getting them settled and we evacuated and had massive financial issues at the time. We were considering divorce, but then we kind of had to put that on hold during the evacuation and getting resettled and restarted in a new place and so a lot of things I think Hurricane Katrina taught me were that you could look at all of these, like the disaster of Katrina, the disaster of this pandemic, and really just see the bad in it. Whereas, I think one of the things that I kind of pride myself on is—I mean, I joke that I’m a chaos junkie—I mean you don’t have four children purposefully, a legal career, both of us—my ex-husband and I are both attorneys. It’s a busy life and you just don’t do that without kind of having some of need to have a lot of things going on and I think when Hurricane Katrina hit, it allowed me to really pivot and make some changes that we’re going to really be able to propel me and my family forward and I think the same thing with this pandemic. Initially, I have to say when the pandemic hit, I did my typical prepare for the worst routine. I really tried to figure out and get my head around—O.K., what if this is the very worst-case scenario, no more money is coming in and no more clients are coming; it’s going to be a real disaster. How am I going to withstand that? What is that going to look like for my team and what am I going to do? And I did this whole exercise. I pulled out my white board and kind of mapped out fiscally all the worst-case scenarios I could even imagine. I mean I’m a good insurance defense litigator at heart, I guess. We love to prepare for the worst. So, I did that and really got my head around the worst and once you get your head around the worst and you problem solve around how are you going to survive the worst, everything else is lagniappe. I mean everything else is just, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad” and “things are looking up.”
Once I did that, I then brought my whole team together and I was like, “I got you.” I said, “it’s not going to be all horrible” and I made some immediate changes to do what I could to make sure I was guiding our team into as much security as I could and in my mind, that was touching as many potential new clients as possible. I started doing all the firm consults and even if the people didn’t seem to be a perfect fit, I also decided that this was the time for me to reach out and kind of be a resource in the community because people were suffering and so we offered all kinds of free consults and I talked with people for hours every day, and I think that that really helped bring in the business and keep my team focused and where they felt like I had their back which I think was really important.
Sharon: No, it sounds like—the fact that you were creating this feeling—at least giving them some sense that things were going to be O.K. and this feeling of security. You could sort of calm people and then—I don’t know about other people, but when I’m freaking out, I can’t work. So, it sounds like that was very, very important, that sense of security.
Elise: Well, I definitely think being calm in the face of crisis is pretty critical. My children, I must admit, joke with me. They’re like, “You’re sometimes robotic when all of a sudden everything is going crazy around you.” I become super calm and quiet. I’m just like, “O.K., these are the problems. You handle this. You handle this. I’ve got this,” and so I think that’s just part of my temperament. I do think in a crisis, it kind of helps because—I mean we joked about it during the election. Everyone was freaking out then and I was like, “Guys, we got this. It’s all going to be fine.” I don’t know. It’s just part of my personality, I guess.
Sharon: Do you have any advice or suggestions for law firms and lawyers who are freaking out and who are just like afraid to look at the worst because they just sort of see doom and gloom and nothing else? What are your words of advice to colleagues like that?
Elise: I think really getting your head around doom and gloom is—I mean it’s the key to being able to move forward because once you can—and I mean truly get your head around it and I don’t mean superficially; I mean like crunch numbers and say to yourself, “O.K., I’m going to have no money and then figure out what the alternatives are.” I mean I was searching for jobs online, like really getting your head around the worst. I had a very serious—and I mean serious—I really contemplated this. So, I sat my husband down, my youngest son who’s the only one left at home and I literally told him, “We’re going to pull you out of private school for your senior year. I cannot fire my intake person who’s a single mom of two children while I’m paying for your private school.” I was like that value isn’t going to jive with me and he was like, “O.K., I gotcha. That makes sense, I can go to public school my senior year.” And so, we really looked at what we could do as family.
I canceled all kinds of things that one would consider somewhat frivolous like wine clubs or just all kinds of things. I went through my expenses and I got around that if I brought in not a dime into our family for six months—that was my version of a worst case scenario was zero dollars from me into our family—then how could I make it where I could continue to pay my team and so I think once you really do that and you crunch those numbers and you look at them and you figure it out—I mean I had real hard conversations with my team members, trying to understand everybody’s circumstances because I needed—let’s say I had an employee who was married to somebody who works at Amazon and they were going to keep earning their $300,000 a year salary—if I had to choose, I maybe would choose to have that employee work fewer hours than somebody who was a single mom supporting her children. So, I really looked at everything and I wrote down all the numbers and figured it all out and then I truly became kind of empowered by that because then I’m like, “I have a plan.”
So, if the worst case happens, there was a plan in place of how I was going to move forward, who I would I have to let go, what of my family things was I going to jettison. I mean the whole thing—we were like, “O.K., we can put our house in the market.” Like we had an entire master plan of the worst-case scenario and I think that really helps.
This is not science. This is just how little Elise does it, but it seems to work for me because then I’m able to—I can put my freaking out away, if that makes sense. It goes in a box because I’ve already done it and I’ve figured it out. I’ve mapped out a plan and so then I can just put my mind right back to where I was the day before I learned about the pandemic and just put my nose to the grindstone and I’m like, “I got this. I’m just going to keep on moving forward making tweaks.” Like I said, I did all the consults which I think was a big part of helping and really then supporting my team in helping them come off the ledge.
Sharon: Wow! I think it’s a gift that you were able to look at things so clearly because a lot of people—you think, “O.K., if the firm doesn’t survive, I can go get a job.” If push comes to shove and the firm doesn’t survive and they do have to get a job, that’s when they’re going to start freaking out, let’s say as opposed to you have it all lined up and know what the steps are.
Elise: Yeah, it freaks me out a little, the thought that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll have to go get a job, but I also am like—I mean I wasn’t working for ten years and had to come back into the workforce. I had to get a job. I had to move places. I had to get a job—like I can get a job and I tend to think I will land on my feet. I guess I tend to be more confident than not that if push comes to shove, I figure it out. I mean anything is possible and I am a hard worker, that’s something—I don’t have any problem working hard. I don’t know. I guess that part doesn’t really scare me. If it did all fall apart and I had to get a job, O.K., I would just get a job.
Sharon: You have a track record. I mean you really have a track record of overcoming such obstacles. I mean that must give you some confidence as you say.
Elise: Yeah, I think it does. I mean I think because I definitely have a mindset of anything is possible and I mean anything. Obviously with all the kids—we have six kids between us, and you can imagine the things that children sometimes throw at you and I’m like, “I got it. We’ll figure this out.” I do think I tend to be kind of a problem-solver type and so I think that helps like when you have a crisis, instead of thinking of it so emotionally and just from that place of just fear like where your lizard brain goes into fear mode, really thinking of it more as a challenge, like, “Oh, this is a big problem. How can I solve this?” And we lawyers are kind of trained to solve problems.
Sharon: Yes, I would say that lawyers are trained to solve problems, but to manage, as you say, the emotions that go beyond that. It’s one thing to have a client give you a problem, but it’s different when it’s overtaking your life. You have to look at some of those big issues that you were talking about.
Elise: When you talk about your mind and really looking at your mindset behind a problem—I think managing your thoughts and really getting your head around that whole model of circumstance creates a thought, creates an action and creates a result and really understanding that second piece, like the circumstances, the fact you can’t change; the pandemic is the pandemic. But it’s your thought, what is your thought around that pandemic. Is your thought, “My life’s going to be over. Oh my gosh, the world is collapsing?” or is your thought, “Wow, this is a big, wild challenge, like bring it on. Get my white board. Get my colored pens and let’s figure out how we’re going to do this.”
Sharon: You did continue to grow your firm since and you decided earlier on that doubling down during a crisis would keep the firm going, keep your growth growing, so what do you mean by doubling down and how did you do that? Was everybody out in the field trying to lure in clients in a sense or how was that?
Elise: No, I was the only one doing the consults because I wanted my team to be able to focus their billable work because obviously that’s what was going to bring in the money and then when I talk about doubling down, I mean I have hired nineteen people since March 1 and so actually doubling down, meaning like I would set these goals. I have an intake person that I work with really closely and so I would say, “O.K., I’m hiring an attorney/paralegal pod. So that means we need twenty-five cases by X date and then we kind of worked together and kind of challenged each other and really vetted all the intake calls we were getting, making sure that I was getting the ideal client calls immediately. I was responding to those and getting them onboard and so as every pod has been brought in, it’s been kind of a challenge or game where we’re like, “O.K., on this date, we’re bringing in these people, so time to build up another docket.” We just have kept doing that and then obviously we’ve been doing a lot of other work, some of the more practical, fundamental firm work like building up systems and building up marketing, doing a lot of things in that marketing department. Also perfecting intake in a way. We’ve been doing a lot of things on the back end and some of that I do on faith, in that I am like, “I know I am able to bring in new cases” and so I will hire somebody and I’m like, “Yes, I will be able to pay them and do what I need to do” and it has been working well thus far. So, I’ll just do my thing.
Sharon: Wow! I have this image of you having sort of having a hand at your back just pushing you forward because these are things that are going to serve for the next few years.
Elise: That’s a long time.
Sharon: This is what keeps a firm well-oiled in a sense.
Elise: Absolutely. I mean initially when this happened, I really thought we weren’t going to have this much work and so my very initial plan with my team, we were just going to become like psycho-crazy in developing our systems, our marketing. We were going to do all this content writing. I had all these ideas mapped and it turned out that we just really exploded with growth, so my team couldn’t help me with any of those ideas. I hired other people to help me and I mean I definitely love the art of delegation. I’m a huge fan of don’t do stuff you suck at. Like if I stink at something, I should not be doing it and I have a lot of things I stink at, so I find other people who are excellent at that and I bring them on so that they can help me in all the areas I am really weak in.
Sharon: I think that’s very smart. I mean one of my core beliefs is you don’t work so much on shoring up your weaknesses but let somebody else handle that and you work on your strengths, yes.
Sharon: You used the term “zone of genius” and that you should focus on that. What do you mean by that?
Elise: It’s kind of like what we were just saying. I really believe—kind of like that 80/20 where we have 20% of things that I mean we are really just rock stars. It’s what we do that we don’t even notice when that passes. I mean we are just in our flowing doing what comes so naturally and so authentically and to me, that’s what we should be doing all the time and all the other stuff that we do that we’re not so good at, we should not be doing it and somebody else should be doing it.
I think that one of the things that we do in our firm that I have found helpful is we do a lot of testing of potential new employees that come onboard. We do Colby Tests, we do DiSC. I do a test with Jay Henderson, the Real Talent Assessment. I mean we do a lot of testing. We do motivational testing and that helps me so much when I’m putting a pod together of an attorney, a paralegal, maybe a legal assistant of who’s going to be doing what and what are their strengths. We do Clifton Strength Finders as well and I have this whole big chart of the whole office. We see where all our strengths lie, and my goal is that we’re all working in our strengths so that work is pleasant and we’re happy doing the things we love.
We have a paralegal, as an example, who loves discovery. I mean I could give her discovery all day long and she would just be thrilled. I have other paralegals that—I mean they’d rather poke their eyeballs out than do discovery. So instead of pigeon-holing and be like, “Well, this is the attorney you work for, so you do everything even though you might hate some of the things,” we are much more flexible, and I think that that flexibility allows my team and me in our zone of genius.
Sharon: Wow, it’s very impressive! These are things that firms are counseled to do, but it sounds like you’re doing them all and I can’t say I know a lot of firms that are doing all of that with the testing and the arranging things so that people can focus on their strengths and they’re happy—people are on Yelp and writing bad reviews and whatever.
So, if you want your law firm to grow during times like this, why is it so important to invest in yourself? You’ve talked about the importance of investing in yourself. How do you invest in yourself? What would you counsel others? Where should they start—other lawyers?
Elise: I think investing in yourself is critical because—I don’t know about all your listeners, but I have so many areas of weakness that I have needed to shore up or to kind of really get my head around, “Oh Elise, you’re really bad at that, so you should not be doing that” and that has required a lot of business coaching, a lot of personal growth and introspection. I mean for me that also looks like—being radically candid with myself, but also encouraging those around me to be radically candid with me. When I’m working with team members on let’s say the blockage on some project, I need to empower my team to be able to say, “Elise, you’re the problem here. You need to step aside and let somebody else do this” or, “Elise, this is not one of your strengths” and I need to be able to take that feedback in a way that’s open where I’m not offended by it or anything, where I’m really grateful that people are able to provide me that kind of feedback.
I really think that when we talk about how do we invest ourselves, I have to say—and again this is not scientific in any way—but in my mind, as a law firm owner, the thing that we can absolutely do best is put on our emotional intelligence hats and really try to flex the knowledge we have as owners of emotional intelligence and make sure we understand what it means to be attuned to our team and to be attuned to our clients and then really wear that hat all the time because working in a law firm doesn’t have to suck. The fact that it does in so many cases is such a problem I think and that is something that I feel very strongly about is shifting that law firm culture so that I am acting as my best self and I can bring out my teams best selves as well.
Sharon: That’s very interesting. It’s fabulous to hear, but I guess my thought is there are so many lawyers whose emotion—a lot of businesspeople, lawyers, whatever; I don’t just want to pick on law firms and lawyers—but whose emotional intelligence is so buried in a sense that their first job is figuring out that they have it somewhere and how do they uncover that? How would you suggest somebody start?
Elise: One, you could just read some books. There are a lot of really good books out there to help you get more insight, and then there are some really excellent coaches who work with attorneys specifically and really have a lot of emotional intelligence and they talk about a lot of things and then there are some really supporting lawyer groups where in these professional groups—I’m a part of the Maximum Lawyer Group. It’s probably 3,500, 4,000 attorneys, but the leaders of the group definitely think about emotional intelligence and it comes up in many things like programs, podcasts, things we do and I have to say I think that sometimes lawyers have to open their eyes to realize that it matters and I think that part of our struggle as a profession is it’s not being taught and it’s not being discussed at the law school level because that’s where it really needs to be discussed. Because I think that once lawyers start their practices, a lot of times they get too wrapped in productivity and profitability where they kind of look at just those things and I’m not at all saying those things aren’t important; don’t get me wrong. I think you have to look at those things to maintain and build a solid business that is going to withstand problems, fluctuations, time, but there’s a time to be banging on productivity and then there’s a time not be banging on productivity and I think that having lawyers who can discern those differences and be able to help motivate your team to be productive at a time when maybe no, you shouldn’t be banging on it, but maybe you can bring out productivity in other ways. And the thing we do that I think is helpful—and obviously I don’t know and if you interviewed everyone on my team, I’m sure you’d have some people that would say, “No, that doesn’t matter to me,” but the bulk of my team I think would agree, we do an office closure twice a year, so I close the office from about December 15 to whenever—in normal times, kids would go back to school, so like January 4 or 5 and then we close for a week on the 4th of July and so when the whole office is closed, everybody gets off, but they all get paid of course for taking the time off, but let’s say they don’t meet their productivity goals, they’re still going to get the time off, but it might not be a paid time off and they all know that and we track those things and if anybody is really off, you’ll see people in our Slack channel. They’ll be like, “Oh, it’s October. I need to make sure I’m hitting my targets. I’m really looking forward to my Christmas break and that’s a positive motivating thing.
Sharon: Wow! Yes, absolutely!
Elise: And so, I find that that helps with their work, but then it also helps me maintain my focus as more of a motivational leader rather than a hammer leader. Does that make sense?
Sharon: Yes, it makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense, I think. Is retention a problem? It sounds like you would have longtime people.
Elise: Yeah, that has not been an issue for us. I have lost a couple of people along the way, but it’s been pretty specific kinds of instances where I think those people will probably find greater opportunities in other environments. So no, I think the people that we bring in, they are generally pretty happy, and I try really hard to hear my team, to reach out. I do these reach-out calls for everyone and regularly, or at least quarterly, to try to make sure they’re on target with their own personal and professional goals and kind of figure out how can I help them in both arenas.
Sharon: Wow! Well, Elise, thank you so much for telling us your “magic secrets” which sounds like they take a lot of thought and a lot of work, but really make a tremendous difference. Thank you so much for being here today. I greatly appreciate it.
Elise: I appreciate you having me, and I hope you have a great holiday coming up.
Sharon: Thank you, you too and I look forward to talking with you again.
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