All The Shit I Had To Go Through: Celebrating 10 Years In Business
March 1, 2011. I had my license to practice law for four months. I got out of bed, made some coffee and sat down at my desk in my apartment. I said out loud to myself: “This is day one.” I remember that day like it was yesterday. If I close my eyes I can remember exactly how I felt at that moment. Excited and fucking terrified. Today is March 1, 2021. Ten years later. I am feeling so fucking proud today. I have been proud of a lot of things in my life, but today marks one of the most significant accomplishments to date: operating a business for 10 years.
When I hit the milestone of having practiced law for 10 years, I was definitely proud of that moment but this is different. It’s one thing to have practiced law for as long as I have but I know lawyers who have been practicing law longer than I have been alive. It is quite another thing to have run a business for ten years. I started Schaffer Law Firm when I was 26 years old. I was practically a child. This business has been the ride of a lifetime and I am so excited for what the future brings, but today I want to talk about what it took to get here. Most people are probably expecting me to list my accomplishments or everything I have learned in ten years. I am not going to do that. I am going to tell the story I have not told about the past ten years, and that is the story of the challenges, setbacks, bad decisions, and failures that got me to this point.
How This Shit Got Started
Many people know why I started Schaffer Law Firm in the first place. I couldn’t find a job when I got out of law school in 2010. The few months between when I passed the bar to when I started the firm were some of the darkest, most depressing times of my life. I sent out hundreds of resumes and heard nothing. Then I FINALLY got my shot. A law firm in downtown Nashville wanted to interview me. I KNEW that if I just got an interview I was going to knock it out of the park. I was interviewed by one of the named partners. He grilled me for over an hour. At the end of the hour he told me that the firm was not hiring at that time, but he liked to interview everyone who sent in a qualified resume. I remember walking down 3rd Avenue in tears. I was completely crushed. After I picked myself up from that moment I decided to take the New York bar exam (shoutout to Tim Kappel for talking me into a second bar exam in less than 15 minutes and no alcohol!). I needed something to do and studying helped get me back on a schedule. During that time I determined I had three choices in front of me: 1) I could move back to New York and work in my mother’s business doing data warehouse management (still don’t know what that is); 2) I could get a job doing something else (I took interviews at Bread & Company and Restoration Hardware) until I could get a law firm job; or 3) I could start my own firm. I knew I wanted to stay in Nashville and option three seemed like the least horrible of them all. It also felt like the most terrifying. When I was not studying for the bar I started working on a business plan. I came up with the idea for the logo while sitting in Ugly Mugs one day, (shoutout to Duane Stephenson for designing my logo which I still use today!). I took every lawyer to coffee that would let me. Matt Potempa and John Kitch were kind of enough to mentor me through my early years. I can’t thank them enough for their time and wisdom.
The first few years of practicing law and owning the business were exciting and terrifying all at the same time. Every day was a new adventure. About three months into starting the business I took my first court case. In law school I had decided I was not a litigator. But when I started practicing I needed to pay the bills, so I jumped in. I was up against an experienced attorney who knew I was green and he wiped the floor with me during that trial. I lost. Big. I also was working another case where the opposing counsel threatened me with sanctions. I was absolutely terrified of what that meant! This was legitimately the first time I had ever REALLY failed in my life. It felt HORRIBLE. I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom feeling so devastated from the loss, but there was a part of me that knew that moment was significant. I NEEDED to fail so I could learn how to pick myself up, dust myself off, and keep going. And I did.
The People Who’ve Helped Me Get Through Some Shit
The next few years I was faced with big decisions. I moved into the office in Edgehill Village a little over a year after I started the business. I was rocking back and forth in the fetal position on my couch unsure if I was going to be able to afford the rent. Happily, in the eight years I was at Edgehill I never had trouble making those payments. Next it was time to hire my first employee. I was waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat: would I hire the right person? Could I afford them? What if it all goes wrong? I found Kelcy Morris (or really, she found me) and my gut told me she was “the one.” I interviewed several candidates but what has always stood out for me about Kelcy is her authenticity and candor. I remember asking her in her interview what three things she was most proud of in life. She gave two common answers, but before her last answer she paused and prefaced it with “this may sound corny, but I am most proud of the relationship I have with my parents.” That answer was real and it spoke to my soul. For four years, Kelcy was my employee and she became like a sister to me. When it was time for her to move on to the next phase of her life I had no idea how I would survive without her. And just as she was honest with me in the beginning, she was honest with me at the end. I knew she had really good offers to consider and I made her one of my own to stay. She took some time to think about it and came back to me and looked me dead in the eye and asked if I really thought she was the right person to take the business to the next level. I knew – and she knew – the answer was no. We parted ways friends and that is what we still are today. Kelcy thank you for being who you are and being a part of my life. I am honored to know you!
Kelcy was not the only employee I have had over the years. Landon Breazeale went from intern to current associate. He is the yin to my yang, the good cop to my bad. We balance each other. He became a better attorney than I will ever be and he continues to shine to this day. Elizabeth Barese has more experience as a paralegal than Landon and I have combined as attorneys. She is the rock, the mama bear. We are a family. I can’t imagine a better team to have weathered a pivot in 2019 and COVID-19 in 2020.
As I started finding my feet, figuring out the type of attorney I wanted to be, I hit some interesting obstacles. I have faced two bar complaints from clients in my tenure. Bar complaints are akin to being sued. It feels like the wind is being knocked out of you. Everything stops when I get a bar complaint. I can think of nothing else, I can do nothing else but deal with the bar complaint. Neither complaint had merit and were dismissed by the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility. I learned something from both experiences and both have made me a better attorney. I have had a client stiff me for $40,000, which at the time represented an entire month’s worth of revenue. I made a bad hire in 2019 that cost me money and impacted the relationship with my staff. But we made it through those situations. I learned from them. I am better for them. I truly can say I do not regret them.
Shit Got Real
In 2016, I decided it was time for me to become a mother. Also one of the most exciting and terrifying journeys of my life. At the time the business was about five years old. I felt like it was stable enough that I could walk away for a bit to take care of this primal need to have a child. We spent months getting ready. Declan decided to grace us with his presence three weeks early, conveniently on a day I was scheduled to be in court. The story goes that whilst in the midst of labor, I was on all fours on my bathroom floor emailing Kelcy what she needed to do to appear in court that day. My non-labor brain should have just told her to call the court to postpone the hearing because I was having a baby, but the commitment to the job plus pain makes for some funny decision-making. I made it through six weeks of maternity leave and then came back to work. For almost three years I worked part-time so Declan could be at the daycare I wanted. In that time, I became a MUCH more efficient business owner. I had to. I was only working 25 hours a week, but I grew the business in both those years.
Over the past ten years, I have either sought or been sought to be acquired by other law firms. The first two were for big firms. I pursued them. I was tired of the grind of entrepreneurship. I felt like I should be making more money, reaching more and bigger clients. I thought being acquired by a large firm would give me the platform to do that. Both the big firms passed and after each time I swore I would not entertain acquisition again. Then I was sought by a medium-sized firm in early 2020. Had COVID not happened, I would not be writing this blog post because we would have probably joined this firm. I believe everything happens for a reason and as I write this I am so fucking happy the acquisition did not happen. My highest and best use is being a business owner. I am certain I would be unhappy just being a lawyer. Owning my business is where I am meant to be, but had I not gone down the acquisition roads, I would not truly appreciate that.
In October 2019 we decided to pivot the business to exclusively serve hospitality clients. I was excited but also scared. Would hospitality alone be enough to sustain us and grow? I also was not prepared for the pain of pivoting. Telling long-time clients that they were no longer a fit for the new direction was uncomfortable and not always met with enthusiasm. Saying “no” to business because it did not fit the new direction was hard to swallow. I had to refund way more client fees than I anticipated. But we got through that to 2020. And then COVID hit. I truly believe if we had not gone through the difficulties during the pivot, COVID would have kicked my ass. But it didn’t. I truly stepped up in that moment. I made decisions, none of which I regret today. I was able to keep my staff and not cut salaries. I navigated through PPP, grants, deferring expenses, etc. And through it all I tried to be there for my clients that I knew needed me.
I Love This Shit
Every client I have served in ten years has been special to me. To this day, I love businesses, entrepreneurs, and business ideas. I love helping people do their businesses. I would not be here today without every single client that has provided me the honor and privilege of serving them. This blog post is for all of you. Some of you have been doing your business nearly as long as I have. Some of you are just starting. I hope my story shows that the path to business success is not straight, nor is it always sunshine and unicorns. It twists, turns, and has peaks and valleys. I know most, if not all, entrepreneurs are struggling right now because of COVID or for some other reason. I hope my story shows you that challenges, obstacles, and failures are where you are going to find opportunity for growth. Don’t get me wrong, they suck ass when you are going through them. However, I promise, once you get to the other side you will be a better business owner for it.
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