5 Lessons Learned In 5 Years of Business

Five years ago today, I “officially” started Schaffer Law Firm. I use quotations because, like most entrepreneurs, I had been thinking about it nonstop and preparing relentlessly for the day. I was a brand new baby lawyer at the time, having just been sworn into the Tennessee State bar only four months earlier, and I had just returned from New York fresh from taking that bar exam. It was time. I had no other viable choice back then, if I wanted to make a living being a lawyer, this was my only option.

So on March 1, 2011 I woke up, made some coffee, sat down at my computer in my pajamas and got started. I honestly can’t recall what I did on that very first day as my own law practice, it certainly wasn’t momentous and it passed without any kind of fanfare, but it was the first, and every day since has led me to today.

Looking back on the past five years I can say they have been the best years of my life thus far. I worked for some incredible clients, and some not so incredible ones, I took on cases outside my comfort zone, I built this law practice from nothing in the midst of this country’s worst recession in years and have grown steadily each year, I hired my first employee who I can say I have no idea how I lived without her and I discovered a passion for an area of law that I had no idea existed.

But most importantly, I have figured out who I am as a person, an attorney and a business owner. But it took time and effort – sweat, some blood and lots of tears at times. And so I give you what I have learned in five years of business and practice of law, may it bring you some hope and guidance for when you reach your five-year milestone.

  1. If death is not a possible result of a decision you make in business, the situation is not that big of a deal.

This is probably the most valuable lesson I have learned. The first year of any business is absolutely terrifying and ridiculously exciting, every day all day. You are constantly afraid of screwing something up for a client, what if they fire you?!?! It seems like every decision you make, the potential consequences are horribly crushing. But I’ll save everyone the suspense: you are going to make mistakes!!! Last I checked, we are all human and not a single one of us is perfect. It is important to put everything in perspective: you lose a case or don’t deliver a product perfectly on time to the customer, is someone going to die? No? Then you can fix the problem and move on. Don’t dwell on your mistakes, focus on how to fix them. I tell the story of one of the first court cases I took on about two months into starting the practice. I had NO IDEA what I was doing, but I was going to do everything I could to figure it out. I failed spectacularly, and publicly! It was really the first time in my life that I had ever failed. It was the most uncomfortable feeling I have ever experienced. But guess what, I LIVED!!! And more importantly, the client was not upset with me. The facts were the facts, we lost because we had a losing case. In fact, they were extremely appreciative and grateful for my representation. They were satisfied that I had given my all and that I cared, plain and simple. So don’t be afraid to make decisions, be informed of course, but know that if it doesn’t work out, shit is not that big of a deal!

  1. If you are not in the fetal position on the floor at least once a year, you are doing something wrong.

I think in a way you need to learn this lesson before you graduate to number 1 above. Big decisions, small decisions, it did not matter, I was regularly rocking back on the floor humming like a crazy person. That was my process, and surprisingly, it was the process for many other entrepreneurs as well. While there are MANY books, blogs and articles about starting a business, not many people talk about how it FEELS, or when is the “right” time to make some of these crucial decisions. I wish I could say that the path was illuminated before me for every decision as if it came from heaven above, but alas, that was not the case. Take for instance the decision to rent my office space. My rent is definitely the largest expense my business has ever incurred and when I found this space, I wanted it badly, but I was terrified, I didn’t think I could afford it! After many hours of rocking back and forth about it, my mother (who is one of my mentors and an entrepreneur herself) said that there was no way this was going to be a bad decision. I needed a place to meet clients in a confidential environment, it was clear that the coffee shop thing was no longer working for me. So I jumped, and there has never been a time where I was unable to pay my rent or other office expenses.

  1. Everything will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right then it’s not the end.

This one has to do with the money. As an entrepreneur, we worry about money constantly. At this point in five years I still worry about it, but either not as much as I did when I first started, or the same, its just not that big of a deal. I know that it will work out in the end. Money is one of the biggest barriers to entry for someone wanting to start their own business, and I do understand and respect that fear. But perspective is everything, and I believe strongly in two things when it comes to money and entrepreneurship. First: you can’t fire yourself. Sure your clients can fire you, and some of mine have. You have some of the best job security in the world in my opinion because it is on your own terms, not someone else’s. Second: you get to determine how much you are worth. You do not have a boss sitting above you dictating your salary, bonuses, etc. There is no limit to how much you can earn. If you work hard, you will make money. You could say I am looking at that with a glass-half-full mentality, and yes I am, but it has definitely worked for me over the years.

This lesson is still a work in progress and frankly, I think it should be for every entrepreneur! Things change almost by the minute in many businesses, and you need to have the flexibility to change with it. I believe doing the work to figure out your pricing makes you much more confident when you ask for that price from a customer. If there are questions about the price, you have data to back it up. And yet, for all your hard work, clients will try to undervalue you and your product or service. It can be a hard pill to swallow. Many entrepreneurs will cave and give the client the price they wanted, even if it means operating at a loss because they don’t want to lose the business. I truly believe if you set good, fair prices and have a rock solid explanation for setting said price and someone STILL wants to undercut you, walk away! That is usually a red flag for more difficulties with that client to come. For those of us in the intellectual service industry, this can be difficult as we sell our time and expertise, and someone trying to undervalue us can feel like an attack on our person. I’ve been there, and I have caved to the client before, almost always to my detriment. Now my law firm policy is the price is the price, I am happy to negotiate on payment plans to pay it, but I do not negotiate on the total amount. This became a POLICY when I hired my first employee. I realized that it would be unacceptable for her to accept a lower price than what the firm sets so what kind of example am I setting for her if I am going to do that? I need to hold myself to the same standards as I would my employees, and honestly it is tougher to do that with myself than with my staff!

  1. Firing clients/customers is your right; don’t be afraid to do it.

This is one of the golden rules of entrepreneurship. You have started your own business because you want to be in control of your destiny, from designing your own product/service and marketing strategy to deciding which clients you want to work for. Guess what: you don’t have to accept EVERY client that walks in the door anymore! Those days are over! So why are you still doing it? We all have had the client that when we see their name on our phones, we start to break out in a cold sweat. For the love of God WHY?!?! You have the power of choice! Fire that client! There simply is not enough money on earth to justify working for someone who is difficult, demeaning, ungrateful, etc. But I know that is not that easy every time. The difficult client comes in many shapes and sizes, sometimes they do not show their true colors until you have been working with them for some time, and some of them have this nasty habit of paying you well and on time, but at the same time they make you want to stab yourself in the eye with a pen! Cut them loose, it will be the best decision you ever made!

  1. Figure out who you are and do it on purpose.

Last but not least, this is a life lesson as well as a business lesson. I started my business when I was 26 years old. I had no idea who I was or what kind of lawyer I wanted to be. But I looked around and saw what all the other lawyers in town were doing, acting, dressing, etc. and I thought that was what I needed to do to get ahead. Wrong, very wrong. I am not from the South. I am not a girly-girl. I am a New Yorker who likes to drink beer, swear and dresses in jeans, Chuck Taylors and t-shirts. Trying to wear skirt suits and heels made me extremely uncomfortable and I am sure made me act just as uncomfortable. I am an eccentric, semi-creative person by nature. It was important for me to realize that I work best when I act as myself, and if someone doesn’t like it, they can find another lawyer. As soon as I started being myself, the right types of clients started walking through the door consistently. It is part of my marketing and my brand. I don’t want every client out there. I want the eccentric, creative, slightly crazy small business owner who has a big dream and maybe a small budget but who really needs my help.

Owning my own business has been a blast so far, and I am so excited for what the next five years will bring for me, my family and the firm.   I literally wake up every day for work and don’t feel like I have worked an hour I enjoy the practice I have built so much. I want to thank everyone who has helped make this day possible, my wonderful family: mom, dad, my husband Tyler. My staff past and present: Kelcy, Samantha and Landon.   And finally all of the many clients and referral partners I have met along the way, this day is just as much for you as it is for me, bon anniversaire!


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