M.C. Sungaila, a frequent Woman Advocate contributor and partner in Snell & Wilmer’s appellate practice group, talked to Karen on the two-year anniversary of her company about work/life balance and business development tips for women lawyers.
M.C.: Thank you for agreeing to this interview and to share some of the insights that you have gained running your business, Legally Organized. First things first: What inspired you to form the company?
KAREN: Well I’m one of these people who use my own services. I’m incapable of just doing one thing. So while I was chief marketing officer at Quinn Emanuel, I got the opportunity to buy a staffing company—a legal staffing company on the east coast which is thriving now. It’s a $37 million company. And one night my marketing director, Courtney DiCarlo, and I were in the middle of launching a major website revamp. I mean, it was going to be reported on in the New York Times when it launched. And we were both moving; I was moving into a new condo and she was moving into her first apartment by herself. It was late at night and we were just crazed. And when you are moving, there are so many things, that your to‑do list just kind of balloons. I thought: I wish I had a personal assistant. [W]e just realized there were not enough hours in the day to get done what we each needed to get done, both for work and personal.
M.C.: How does Legally Organized work?
KAREN: We provide part-time personal assistance and concierge services to busy professionals. Our first mission was to design a process where people weren’t adding items to their to-do lists by creating telephone tag scenarios. So our biggest challenge initially was to design a website and a process where interaction with clients happened over email but was also recorded in the backend of our website. We wanted to (a) mak[e] sure that all of the details were in writing, and (b) mak[e] sure our clients weren’t spending a lot of time communicating with us. We arm our clerks with gift cards, bank cards, so then the clients are invoiced online and pay online.
We also set out to create an alternative billing format, which we then changed. As much as people complain about the billable hours, whether it’s the clients of law firms or the people billing the hours, we devised a point system that assigned a certain amount of points to a task. [By setting] a point limit . . . we absorbed some of the risk in it. But people did not like it, so we polled our clients, and they said they would prefer the hourly. Now, of course, when we converted everyone’s points into hours, they would have gotten more bang for their buck had we stayed with the point system. But you have to respond to what your clients say. It’s just like in a law firm—maybe you have clients who say no, I don’t like email, I want to communicate with you on the phone. That’s what you have to do; you have to adjust to what your clients want. So we switched to a plain old billable hour discounted method. So it’s basically applying a discount. The more hours they purchase, the less it is per hour.
M.C.: How has the scope of your services changed over the past couple of years as the business has grown and people have kind of explored the limits or not the limits of your services. Did you think you were going to provide a certain range or type of services, and then it turns out that actually it has expanded well beyond that into other areas that you hadn’t anticipated?
KAREN: No, I think that we really had kind of an idea of what people needed. And I would tell you that in terms of the most frequent thing, a lot of people need help organizing. Whether it’s their home office or their kitchen or their closets. [O]ne of the most frequent requests is moving related. [We] do consultations with clients. We go over to their house, and they say, “Oh, yeah, I have these three watches that need to get fixed, which have been sitting here forever, and I have these two cameras, I want to see what’s on these two cameras. I have these shoes to be repaired. Another thing that is pretty popular is having us help people with hard-to-find items or unique gift items.
The most interesting use of our services in my view, and something I had not anticipated and I wish, frankly, that more people would do this, because I think it’s brilliant, is using it for business development. One of our clients was having lunch with a client who liked sushi, and she wanted to find a sushi restaurant in Century City, which I did. So she didn’t have to worry about having anyone do the research. And then, in the course of that lunch, she discovered that her client had a four-year-old daughter who she believed was musically inclined, she had no idea where to even start find her classes or what the classes entailed. So [the client] asked us to do research. So we basically did the research and wrote a memo listing schools, their prices, and what it would entail for a four-year-old. And there were quite a few of them, actually. And to me, that’s business development. It’s a relationship development. When I was in traditional legal staffing, I was the conference queen, I had to go to all of these conferences. And they sit at all these round tables with general counsel. And the one issue that always came up was, “I like my lawyer to know me.” If I am a wine connoisseur of Italian wine, and one of my lawyers bothers to send me an article that they saw in a magazine, it means they are thinking about me. It’s relationship development. People do business with people they like in addition to them being competent and having expertise.
I think that women lawyers, in particular, feel like they have to be like superwomen. In terms of work/life balance, in particular with women lawyers you know there are two issues, one is finding the time to get everything done. But then you have to consider the value of the time. I know the average billable rate across the country is like $287.00 and I’m sure in L.A. its probably $400.00 or $500.00. Is waiting for DirecTV really worth $400 an hour? Wouldn’t you rather take that time to do something for yourself, or your family, or your friends? It’s like more about working smart versus working hard. You know that whole result versus effort. You could work really hard but if you don’t have the right results, who cares? I just think that people don’t realize how valuable their time is and they should really think about that because it’s also a stress reduction thing then too.
M.C.: So I have a question about your somewhat eclectic background, Karen, because you have experience as a litigator, businesswoman, legal marketer, and screenwriter. How has your collective experience led you to this company, and how do you think it effects the way you run it?
KAREN: I’ve always been a very process-oriented person. So that’s why I like to organize. I was always good at running big cases because I would put a process in place. And being a lawyer. Litigators are salespeople. They are either, they’re pitching something to a judge or a jury, it’s either in writing or orally, and so to me it’s all kind of consistent when with screenwriting you know you are telling a story like I did when I was a lawyer. You know you are really telling a story. You are trying a case.
M.C.: Peter Drucker, the management guru, says a business enterprise has two basic functions: marketing and innovation. And that sounds like what you are talking about.
KAREN: Our new slogan is “innovate your errands.” Our latest endeavor is Errands Express. There’s been this whole community-based sort of communication. I thought, how does Legally Organized get within the community, you know, interact with the community more? So now we have this new service called Errands Express and we go where the food trucks are. We have a limited menu of services, it’s a discounted rate for two hours of time, and we say “let us take over your to-do list.”
M.C.: What kind of advice do you have for women lawyers as businesswomen? Lawyers have to engage in marketing and really run their own business too within their own firms.
KAREN: I think that women lawyers don’t see themselves as business owners. I understand why that happens. I was an associate in a big law firm. I billed 3,000 hours one year. You bill hours, you service your clients, and you don’t think about particularly either approaching partnership or even when you are a partner, I don’t think women think about themselves as having their own business. Like you put it very well, having a business within a business. And that’s good. If more people approached it like you are talking about, then women would be bigger rainmakers and then essentially have more power.
Women have to twist the way they are thinking in that they are responsible for generating revenue. And it’s getting outside their comfort zone. And it’s no different from the first time you ever stood up in a courtroom, how scared you were. More women have to get more comfortable with business development and see it as part of their job. Right. Not being afraid to ask for business. It’s like any sales course. You know one of the things I always heard from women lawyers is they are concerned to ask for business from other professional women. She thinks I’m her friend. If I ask her for business, she’ll be upset. And I’m like you know if that’s the way they are going to feel, then I don’t know what to tell you. I remember when DuPont looked at their outside counsel and they formed the convergence program and the DuPont legal model. And when they looked at their thousands of law firms, I forgot how many it was but it was a lot. And they looked at why they were using each of those law firms, like 98 percent of it had to do with, oh he was my fraternity brother, or he was my friend, or he was my brother’s friend. People do business with people they like. That relationship is the whole reason to do business with each other if you like each other. If you hire a friend it’s sort of like you trust that they’re not going to screw up. I think women have to understand that business evolves and it’s relationship-based.
M.C.: And we should have an advantage in that regard. I mean, we are good at relationships.
KAREN: Yeah that’s what I mean. That’s why it sort of flummoxes me sometimes that more women in law firms are not comfortable [building business]. I think that women in law firms don’t see themselves as business owners or entrepreneurs, and maybe if they thought of themselves more that way, then women will have more power in law firms.
M.C.: Since your business helps women lawyers manage both personal and professional demands, I wonder whether you have gained any insights into how women can balance those two sides better?
KAREN: You have to approach it like you approach everything else. Prioritize. Have the bigger picture in mind to ease stress, or look for more innovative ways to do things.
M.C.: Thank you, Karen, for taking the time to talk about solutions to achieve work-life balance.