Relaunching Your Practice:

Transforming the Firm You Have into the Firm You Want – My Story So Far

by

Michele Allinotte

I know a little bit about relaunching your practice. I have done it several times, sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity. This is my story so far. If you don’t feel like reading the entire narrative, you can skip to the end where I discuss my lessons learned.

Two Pregnancies, a Move, and a Public Inquiry – 2002 to 2008

I was called to the bar in 2002 and almost immediately became pregnant. I had barely become a lawyer and eight months later had to take a break from practice. I paused my practice during my leave of six months. When I returned, with the encouragement and direction of my then firm, I changed my areas of practice from family law and civil litigation to corporate/commercial, real estate and wills and estates. I had found that while I enjoyed the substantive work with the family and civil, I did not enjoy the minutia of court work. I really did not enjoy the waiting around. Once I had a child, I knew I wanted to have more control over my schedule, which a solicitor’s practice allowed.

Both when I started practicing and when I restarted my practice, I did a lot of things to get new business. I signed up for the Lawyer Referral Services and various private referral services. I spoke to the other lawyers in the firm and other lawyers in my region about the work I was doing and that I was available to take on new work. It did not take long before I had a full roster of clients.

Then in 2005, I had another baby and while on maternity leave, my then spouse was transferred to Mattawa, Ontario. Once I finished out my maternity leave, I joined a firm in North Bay, with the same areas of practice I had been doing since my first maternity leave. I had to establish a practice in a community where I knew no one and take on quite challenging files with little to no mentorship.

When I joined the North Bay firm, a lawyer had recently retired, so many of his files and clients fell to me. I also immediately started working on minute book reviews for the corporate clients and will reviews for those clients. Where we had an existing relationship with the client and their accountant, I copied the accountant on my review letters. I did these reviews at no charge to the clients but brought to their attention the deficiencies in their minute books and in their estate plan. The accountants loved me for providing these reviews and, once again, I quickly had a full client load. Even though I was a junior lawyer, I was the most senior person in my firm doing corporate and estate planning work, so I worked on really interesting and challenging files.

It was in North Bay that I started picking up the phone and calling every realtor on every real estate deal that crossed my desk, or any other professional involved in the client file – accountants, financial advisors, etc. Since no one knew who I was, I figured I needed to introduce myself. It quickly solidified connections with local professionals and helped me build my network.

My experience in North Bay was challenging, but ultimately rewarding. It shaped who I am as a lawyer, and how I wanted to practice. Being thrown into a new situation with no connections was very scary, but it honed my networking skills and my “figureoutiveness” – when you have no one to ask, you must figure it out yourself.

I also learned then how to schedule my time to work around my family schedule. I needed to leave the office each day to pick up my children at 4 p.m. To put in a full work week, my then spouse would pick them up each Wednesday, and I would work until 7 or 8 p.m. and still be home to tuck my children into bed. I also usually spent a couple of hours at the office on Saturday or Sunday before I did the family grocery shopping. Working uninterrupted in the off hours helped me maintain my billable targets at my firm, while still allowing me a significant work/life balance.

In 2008, I returned to my former firm in Cornwall, expecting to restart my usual practice again. But – surprise – the firm was representing a local agency at a public inquiry, and I was called on to work for that agency at the inquiry for almost a year after my returned. Any balance I had was thrown out the window for that year. Knowing it was only temporary got me through it. I knew I could never regularly work 16-hour days and weekends with no break. I had zero regrets about not choosing big city/big firm life after that experience.

Striking Out on My Own Without a Plan and an ADHD diagnosis – 2009 to 2014

In late 2009, the inquiry ended, and I once again was restarting my practice at my old firm in Cornwall in corporate/commercial, real estate, wills, and estates. When I looked around at relaunching my practice at my then firm, it just did not fit right. I knew I didn’t want to put the energy into ramping up my practice at that firm. I spoke to the partners that day and they asked for a date by which I would exit the firm. I chose a date six weeks out, with no plan at all as to how I was going to launch my practice.

Allinotte Law Office opened in October, 2009, about seven weeks after I met with the partners at my former firm. In the first year or two of opening my firm, I worked my butt off to let anyone and everyone know that my firm existed and what services I offered. I went to every single event possible, armed with business cards. I did print ads, public education seminars, and some social media (though social media wasn’t what it was now at that time). My hard work paid off quickly, and the firm was profitable and met my lifestyle needs at that time.

With the opening of my own firm, I turned to introductory phone calls once again. I called everyone involved in a client file and told them who I was and who my practice served. I invited many of those professionals out for lunch. Some of the early calls I made are folks who have since become my own clients, and many of them have become good friends.

A surprise during that time was that I was diagnosed with ADHD in 2010, shortly after I opened my practice. As a result of the diagnosis, the way I work and the way I have developed my practice have changed to accommodate that disability. I rely heavily on checklists, tasks, as well as delegation to my team members. I also began chunking my time after working with a therapist to learn some better executive functioning skills. Accommodating a disability or working to be more effective is a small way to redesign your practice. I ensure that I have blocks of uninterrupted time to do the heavy work each week and I try to stack client appointments during a day or half day, instead of interrupting my day sporadically. I also rely heavily on colour coding my calendar. My team is aware of my disability and how I manage it, so they work with me to help me be as efficient as possible.

Single Parenting and Expanding the Practice – 2014 to 2017

In 2014, my marriage ended, and I was suddenly a single parent of two young children. During that time, both my children were confirmed to have ADHD, and one child was confirmed to be autistic. When I launched my practice, I expected to have a life partner and active co parent while my children were young. Suddenly, I was the primary caregiver of two young children with plenty of needs.

I had hired my first associate in 2013, but I was already thinking then about designing my practice in such a way to meet the demands of my life and my children. At that time, several lawyers had approached me about purchasing their practices when they retired. I always said no, until one lawyer that I really respected approached me.

After close to a year of negotiation and preparation, I purchased a retiring lawyer’s practice in spring, 2015. As a result of the influx of work, as well as the time required to add his wills and minute books to our client inventory, I hired two new staff members and a summer student. This brought my full-time staff members to four, then three when my summer student returned to school, as well as a new associate to replace the first associate who had recently departed.

The reason I purchased this practice was because the lawyer had a large wills and real estate practice. My plan at that time was to move towards a practice focused more on estates and estate planning, with other lawyers providing services in real estate. This lawyer also had a stellar reputation and had put in the work to prepare his practice for sale.

I knew then that moving to a more estates and estate planning focused practice was what I wanted to do, so I took steps to start to make that happen. Immediately my client base expanded, and my revenue increased. While buying a practice is not always a great value, in my case, I did make the right choice. The retiring lawyer stayed on as counsel for some time, and even know, we occasionally review issues on his old files. Our lives are also connected through his grandchildren and my stepchildren – his grandson is my stepson’s BFF. Connections like that are one of the reasons I love practicing law in a smaller community.

Part-Time Practice Plus Full-Time Caregiver – 2017 to 2018

It took about a year to integrate the new practice into my existing practice, so there was little time to do long term planning during that time. It was a time where work had ramped up almost immediately.

In late 2016/early 2017, one of my children was diagnosed with a medical condition that required frequent trips to Ottawa from Cornwall, sometimes daily. During that time, the current associate returned to Ottawa to start their own practice. I was stretched extremely thin for over a year, as I tried to deal with my child’s illness and manage the practice and provide legal services on my own. I still had three full time employees and the expenses and payroll that comes with that. It was … not great.

In the summer of 2018, my child had surgery and I took a month off to care for them. I was not able to do much legal work, as my child required round the clock care. It was like having a newborn, except I was 13 years older than I was the last time I had cared for a newborn. Also, I was on my own without a partner to tag team.

During the month off, I did take time to review my practice and what I wanted and needed it to be. I was excited to go back to the office and begin the hard work of rebuilding what had crumbled a bit during my child’s illness. Unknown to me, two of my full-time employees had been planning their departure, both to another firm. They gave me their two weeks notice within a week of my return to the office.

So, there I was, after working basically part time for more than a year due to my child’s illness, I needed to pivot again. I very seriously thought of leaving the practice of law or closing my practice. I had job interviews and offers that I very seriously considered. I ultimately decided that having my own practice was the best way to meet my needs while still allowing me the time to care for my children.

Rebranding, Refocusing, Restructuring – 2018 to 2020

Once I decided I was “in”, I really dove into it. I started working with a coach to design a firm that worked for me and my future. That year was when I made a five-to-seven-year plan and began to implement the design of my practice and plan for my succession. At the time, I was in my early 40s and knew that I wanted to plan to retire at a reasonable age, in my mid 60s. I also wanted to plan to have a flexible practice that would allow me to be away from the office if I needed to in the future, either due to the illness of a loved one, my own illness, or to travel.

I decided to really begin focusing on developing my estates and estate planning practice, which had grown with the purchase of the practice in 2015. I debated on pursuing the Certified Specialist Designation or obtaining my TEP designation from the Society of Trusts and Estates Practitioners. I decided to go the STEP route and began the process of obtaining the designation that year and became a TEP in 2021. With the disbandment of the Certified Specialist Designation, I clearly made the right choice.

I also knew that I needed to embrace technology and automation to create the flexible practice that I wanted and needed. While the practice had always embraced technology, some of my staff members stubbornly clung to paper and were reluctant work in a fully digital fashion.

Over the next year, we moved our practice management from PC Law to Clio, started using Lawmatics for intake, started using Surface Pro computers for all, and generally moved to a more digital and automated practice. It did not happen overnight and took a lot of work, but the way the practice functioned dramatically changed because of all these changes in our software, technology, and adding automation. I worked with my business coach and a consultant to implement these changes.

In November, 2019, the practice which had until then been known as Allinotte Law Office, was renamed Journey Law. I worked a long time with a branding consultant and graphic designer to come up with the name and logo. I really wanted something that was personal to me, easy to remember, and that reflected the modern and unstuffy nature of the practice. I love to travel, so the name is a nod to that. It is also a nod to the fact that the office sees clients through the various phases of their life – their “journey”.

I also looked at my relationships with my support team. Up until now, everyone had been a full-time employee, working 37.5 hours a week. That was a large payroll, especially when I was working part-time to care for my child during their illness. So, I decided to revamp the structure of the firm.

In this period, a long-time staff member resigned, and my then associate left the active practice of law due to family obligations. The staff member who left was the one was reluctant to fully embrace digital file management, a paperless office and automation. While the end of that relationship was sad, it ultimately was the best decision for both of us, and for the practice. This employee was unable to adapt to the changes I needed to implement, and they have landed at a firm that better suits their needs.

Due to the nature of our clientele and the work we do, I knew I needed to have an actual office and one or two employees to staff that office. I had hired a full-time Office Manager/Bookkeeper in 2018 who is still with the firm. I also hired a Client Coordinator in the fall of 2019, and she is also still a member of our team. Those were the two key positions I had identified – the bookkeeping work is essential with a real estate and estates practice, as is having a friendly and helpful person to manage client calls and appointments.

In 2018, I engaged the services of a remote real estate clerk, who is also still with the firm. She provides her services on a per file basis and sets her own hours. Sometimes that means I’m doing a deal on my own when she is away or ill, but that is the nature of our agreement. Overall, I have found this arrangement perfectly suited to the practice. The cost of my real estate support staff can expand and contract with the volume of work.

I also entered into three Of Counsel relationships during this period. Instead of hiring associates as full-time employees, they became Counsel to the firm, providing services on their schedule. One of them is a referral-based relationship as litigation counsel. The second stayed with the firm until very recently, when they took a full-time position at a firm much closer to their home. The third left due to caregiving obligations brought on by the pandemic.

The Of Counsel and independent contractor relationships with my team offer flexibility to both the practice and the team member and need to be part of every firm’s toolkit. Not everyone wants to be a 9 to 5 employee, and not every firm needs that much support in every role.

Quick Pivot During a Pandemic – 2020 to 2022

As I was making all the changes to the practice, I did not know that we would have a pandemic that would catapult us all into remote work.

I had watched the spread of Covid 19 across China and Europe and made plans to pivot to remote work, which ultimately happened in mid March of 2020. If I had not taken all the steps I had since 2018, we would not have been able to do so.

I am not going to lie. The pandemic was tough, particularly in the first few months. Work stopped coming in almost immediately, at the same time as everyone stopped paying any outstanding invoices. My staff and I were in a daze, trying to figure out pandemic life. Again, it was … not great.

After a couple of months, we began to figure things out, legislation changed to allow us to work with clients more remotely and things returned to the “new normal”. We saw clients in person, if necessary, but made every effort to meet by video or outside during the highest crisis times. The flexibility I had built into the practice served us well during the pandemic and we were able to meet the needs of our team and our clients, sometimes in interesting ways. We did many will signings outside and I kept a “portable office” in the back of my SUV – folding table, chairs, clipboards, masks, etc.

We have gradually begun seeing more and more clients in person, depending on their wishes. However, the pandemic allowed the practice to evolve so that all our team either works completely remotely, or in a hybrid fashion. That is also how we meet clients – by video where possible and if it meets the clients needs, and in person when necessary. In person is no longer the default, but we can offer in person meetings for clients who prefer it.

Return to the Office and a Surprise Move – 2022

In the spring of 2022, the world began opening up. I hired my first LPP student in February, 2022 and it made sense to be in the office regularly a couple of days a week to provide an opportunity to review things face to face. Client appointments were stacked on those days as much as possible to provide the student an opportunity to sit in on in person appointments.

Once more of us were regularly back in the office we had ignored since March, 2020, it quickly became evident that it likely wasn’t going to meet our long-term needs. The space I rented in 2009 was intended to be temporary. It was inaccessible, offered no free parking, and it was loud with street noise, noise from the restaurant below and noise from the other tenants (one of whom was a music school). When the new landlord who had scooped up the building site unseen during the pandemic wanted to triple the rent, I declined to sign a new lease. The landlord provided me with 30 days notice to vacate about five days before I came down with Covid.

I worked with a well-known commercial realtor and told him what I needed in my new space – modern and bright, accessible, free parking, and close to our existing Downtown Cornwall location. The realtor found the perfect space and helped me deal with negotiating the lease, deal with contractors and a decorator – all while I was house bound with Covid. I was sick for two weeks and had to rely on other people to deal with the biggest decision in my practice (other than our rebrand). Are you seeing a pattern yet? It was …not great.

I used the move as a true opportunity to redesign and rethink how we used the office space. The new office is accessible, bright, and welcoming. We are still working on implementing the designer’s plan, but from the furniture to the paint, the selections were made intentionally. The office has a welcoming and airy feel. It is not your typical law office.

In the design we have also considered that the future of the office is in hybrid work, and not everyone will be in the office every day, but we still need spaces for when they are in the office. We have two “traditional” offices for myself and my LPP student (who is now a lawyer with us), plus a conference room, staff room and a third office that will likely be a flexible space for more than one person. Each room can be transformed into a workspace as needed, and there are many other ways we can expand our workspaces in the future.

Our clients love our new office, especially those clients who struggled with the stairs at our previous office. We now have clients just stop in to say hello to our Client Coordinator when they are walking downtown, or sometimes just to sit on the new green couch that is prominent in our waiting area.

The LPP student I hired in February, 2022 was called to the bar just last week and has joined the firm to start his journey as a lawyer. I have been frank with him about my plans for the firm, what I need from my team, and my desire to exit active practice at age 65 (ish). He is aware of my goals, the firm goals and what we want to accomplish. I hope he is invested in our future, but I know that neither of us have a crystal ball. The changes I made in the practice in the last few years enabled me to have the funds and structure to hire and train a future lawyer. I will absolutely have an articling or LPP student in the future, and I hope to hire very soon.

Lessons Learned After 20 Years of Stopping, Starting and Redesigning

Either you have read my entire story, or you have skipped to this part to find out my tips, or my lessons learned. If you skipped to this part, the TL: DR is that I have been through a lot of changes in my practice since 2002, and even my head is spinning as I recount all of them here.

The best tips I can give are the following:

  • You don’t get what you want without figuring out what you want. You cannot be on auto pilot. You need to drive your practice to go where you want it to go and be able to change direction if you need to, or if the universe intervenes. This means that you need to be intentional and create a road map. You may need to work with a coach or a consultant, or some other professional to help you figure out what is on the map but putting it on paper is the first step to get started.
  • Related to the previous point, do not be afraid to hire external professionals. Working with a business coach and a branding consultant are two key relationships that helped formulate my current plan. When you are starting (or restarting), money can be tight, but the advice of professionals can help you formulate your vision and build the road map you need.
  • While professionals are key to developing a plan, you also need to figure out a lot on your own when you are starting or restarting. I have taken many free and paid courses on marketing, social media, WordPress, automation, and many more. It isn’t always the most efficient for me to do things, but sometimes it just needs to get done.
  • Part of your road map needs to be figuring out your ideal client. The person who needs the services you want to deliver and who has certain attributes. In your marketing materials, processes and decisions, you will be thinking about how you can serve this person, how you can attract their business, and how you can keep their business.
  • Nothing happens overnight. I’m currently working on a plan I started to implement in 2018, although parts of the plan started before. Be patient and focus on your goals. Revisit your plans regularly but continue working towards what you want.
  • Bootstrapping is great, but to achieve some goals takes financial risk. I have had the benefit of some small business grants, but for the most part, many of the big changes I have made meant incurring debt. I don’t come from money. A parent did not gift me a firm. I am doing it on my own and the financial risk can be scary. Make sure you are in control of your financial goals as part of your plans.
  • Hire slowly and fire quickly. It sounds cliché, but it is the truth. If your team is not helping you reach your goals, then it is time to part ways. I kept staff members too long and was afraid to make certain changes. Once the changes were made for me, it was incredibly freeing. It allowed me to add team members who understood my vision and support it. Also, don’t stick to a standard structure when thinking about your team. Titles don’t really mean anything – figure out what you need support with and how you need that support delivered. Be flexible in your team structure.
  • When looking for new team members, don’t find the person and then structure their role. Determine the role and find the person to fit that role. Expand your searches beyond Indeed and consider folks from other backgrounds and industries beyond law. My current two full time staff members come from non-law backgrounds. They have never said “well, this is how we have always done it”.
  • My biggest challenge has been finding and retaining associates. There is no one formula that is going to work for each lawyer joining your firm. Of Counsel relationships have helped me fill a gap. It is impossible to chain another lawyer to your firm. The best you can do is create an environment of respect and mentorship and engage them in your goals and plans. They need a road map just like you do.
  • Whatever the structure, treat your team well. Share your goals with them. Let them know where you are at in your plans. Reward hard work and dedication. Be compassionate. In this market, there is no loyalty to an employer who provides only a paycheque. Build a team, not a hierarchy.
  • You need to think about the end from the beginning. I have been contemplating my retirement for years, but more earnestly now that I am 46 and I am in the last half of my career. I do not want to be working full time in my 70s, and the decisions I am making now reflect my retirement/ease out of practice goals.
  • Seek out mentors who do the work you want to do or have a practice like you want to have. Not everyone has the time, but I have been fortunate to have had the encouragement of several mentors. Donna Neff and Mary-Alice Thompson in particular have been very helpful.
  • When you rebrand, relaunch, move, change practice areas, etc., you need to tell everyone. Network like you have never networked before. Join groups on social media. Attend meetings, lunches. Come armed with your business card and quick speech about your new direction everywhere you go. Call up your colleagues and referral sources to tell them what you are doing now and the kind of work you are seeking. Picking up the phone and introducing myself to other professionals working with my clients has provided some of the best ROI out of any marketing action. Go to the places where your ideal client will go. I am an introvert. I know this is scary. But take a breath and do it anyway.
  • Look at every failure or set back as an opportunity. There were many times I wanted to just give it all up and get an “easy job”. But I knew that I would not be happy and challenged with an “easy job”. I knew I needed the challenge. The trick during my career is to figure out how to do challenging and exciting work in a way that meets my needs. When a bad thing happens, I look to what I can learn from it and what opportunities I have to do it differently. Some of the worst things to happen during my practice ended up leading to the best transformations.
  • Take care of yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup. Your team and your clients need you to take the time to fill up your cup every once in a while. Book regular vacation time at least four times a year and institute times where you do not look at email. Remove notifications so you can relax and focus on your life outside of law. You might love being a lawyer, but that is not all you are.