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May 20, 2014 Articles

How I Defied the Risks, Started My Own Firm, and Lived to Tell About It

By Jeana Goosmann

Five years ago, I left a large law firm and defied the risks of starting my own firm. My firm has grown substantially over these five years—in clients, staff, and number of offices. Some of the risks I anticipated; others I did not. I hope reading about my experiences will empower interested readers to take similar risks and beat the odds.

Starting a business comes with many risks. Most future business owners only hear about these risks in a negative light. Some may choose to shy away from their original idea for a business and never make that first bold move. If you are thinking of starting your own law firm, I encourage you to recognize the risks of starting a business—but instead of dwelling on them, defy them. That is what taking a risk is all about: walking into the unknown and being confident that your decisions, experience, and strategic mindset will lead you down the path to success.

Motivation to Start the Firm
Have a business mindset, something many business owners do not have! When I decided to start my own firm, I knew I needed to go from thinking like a lawyer to thinking like a business owner, who just so happens to be a lawyer. I found out that there was much more to running a law firm than just the lawyers, legal matters, and great coffee. Now suddenly, I had to think about employees, and with employees comes payroll, and with payroll comes WE NEED BUSINESS, and with needing business comes advertising and marketing, and with that comes…WE NEED BUSINESS. To say the least, it is a vicious food chain, only not with food but with dollar bills. To a business owner who is just starting out, this can cause endless worry. More important, it can be downright scary.

I found that asking the right people and strategically thinking through decisions helped me to become the business owner I am today. Seeking advice from a credible professional, one who can also serve as a mentor, will be one of the best decisions you make for your business.

My experience as a lawyer taught me how to be proactive, and that in return helped to guide me when I started my own firm. I had previous experience as a law firm partner, so I had seen the hard work required to keep a successful firm running. I had great mentors who encouraged and guided me along the way, and this allowed me to envision myself starting my own firm. I began thinking, “I can lead the firm,” and the more I believed in myself, the easier it was to go out and start a firm of my own.

The First Year
Will my clients stay or go? That was the key question I asked myself when I left a well-known, 100-year-old firm and started my own law firm. I knew there would be some growing pains and that some clients would decide not to follow me. However, for every client who decided to stay at my previous firm, there was another client who decided to continue doing business with me.

I started my firm with a big client who accounted for 75 percent of my firm’s revenue, and this helped to establish the firm. I called that client my “practice maker.” Right off the bat, I had enough work to hire and keep several attorneys busy. I pumped the revenue from this client straight back into business-development efforts.

What does that mean exactly? Rather than hiring four attorneys from the start, I hired one attorney and an assistant. I worked nonstop, both as a lawyer and as a business owner, to rebrand myself not as a partner of a large, established firm but rather as Jeana Goosmann, CEO, managing partner, and owner of Goosmann Law Firm, PLC. That rebranding was expensive, but it was the best investment and best business decision I have made to date.

The revenue I used for business development helped the firm grow from a couple of attorneys to now, five years later, seven attorneys and eight non-attorney staff. Now, we do not have just one big client bringing in the majority of the revenue, we have roughly 20 key clients that make up the foundation of the firm. To put the firm’s growth into perspective, that “practice maker” client who helped establish my firm is no longer a client—because, several years down the road, I had the honor of helping to sell that company. Now the firm’s clients range from large national corporations to small local companies, and I personally act as general counsel to company presidents and CEOs. My practice includes business, business disputes and litigation, mergers and acquisitions, finance, banking, creditor bankruptcy, commercial law, telecommunications law, contracts, corporate law, employment, and real estate.

Along with growing my firm, I had to overcome the additional hurdle of commanding the respect of others as a young female professional in the first year of my business. As any young professional knows, people may see you differently than a professional with 20-plus years of experience. Learning to be confident in myself, even when others doubted me, helped me to earn the respect of others. Respect is something that is not always given freely.

Sharing my excitement for the firm and my business vision helped me to become a good boss to both my team and to myself. In the first year, it was strange learning to be the boss, setting deadlines and making all the decisions, not having a committee watching my every move. To continue to keep myself accountable, I began to make “pocket goals”—goals I wrote out and kept in my purse. Putting my goals on paper and checking back on them on a regular basis allowed me to stay on track and encouraged me to meet all of my goals. I employ this same technique with my team, requiring them every quarter to write down their goals, both professional and personal, short term and long term. This process holds them accountable, gives them a sense of discipline to meet their goals, and has taught my team to be their own bosses when looking to reach their goals. I enjoy recognizing my team when they accomplish their goals, and I enjoy celebrating even the smallest victories in life.

Hiring the Right People
How do you get a great team? Hire the right people. You will find that there are those individuals who do not buy into your plan and vision. Your mission is to find people who do, then train and teach them as much as you can about their jobs to help them grow. The more they grow, the more your business grows.

Finding those key people is vital to growing a business and overcoming the risk of failure. I search for individuals who possess the qualities and characteristics that fit the position. I can train for the technical aspects of the job; I cannot teach them to have different qualities. During the interview process, I have the final candidates complete the StrengthsFinder assessment. This “test” identifies a person’s top five strengths; there are no wrong answers. This helps me identify how the potential staff member will fit into my team. For example, I want my receptionist to have a strength of “woo” (winning over others) because he or she will make the first impression of the firm, have a lot of client interaction, and be the first person a potential client may talk to. Using these techniques after starting my firm, I was fortunate to have hired great people, most of whom are still with me today.

Along with hiring the right people, I found out quickly that strong leadership is key to a successful business with hardworking (and happy) employees. Leading a new team at a new law firm can be an experience in itself. Not only is the job new, but so is the business and everyone else in it. You want the team members to know that they have stable jobs, with a stable boss, in a stable business. I learned that the culture of my firm is what drives my employees and me to work hard and want to continue coming to work every day. Your team is the driving force behind you; support them and they will believe in you.

Small Community, Big City Style
At the Goosmann Law Firm we have grown to three locations in the Midwest, all of which are tight-knit communities. I grew up in a small Iowa community and knew I wanted to grow my firm in one as well. I have found that owning a business in a small community has large rewards, along with some challenges. In every community, it takes time for the public to notice a new business, know what it is all about, and then tell friends and family. We all like to hope that just posting a banner outside the building will bring in flocks of people, but it tends not to work like that. It takes hard work and motivation, first to be seen and then to be recognized as having a good reputation. However, in a small community word spreads fast! That has been a significant benefit to starting my law firm in a small community. People noticed us and word spread quickly.

My team has a strong connection to the Midwest. Most of them were born and raised here and they understand the community’s values and characteristics. They want to raise their families in a small community that values hard work and dedication. This plays a large role in connecting with our clients. Our clients want to know that we understand them and support both them and the community we are a part of.

I want my clients to get that “Big City” expertise in a small law firm with small-town service. To ensure my clients get that expertise, attorneys in my firm have generous CLE budgets and are encouraged to attend national conferences and industry-specific seminars. We then take the experience, knowledge, and connections back to our hometown. Our clients receive world-class legal services on a small-town budget.

That’s where hiring the right people and having a great office culture comes into play. One example of creating a positive and energetic office culture involves taking my full team to educational retreats and conferences. For instance, my team and their spouses all came to the 2013 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. We have flown to a Cubs game in Chicago, spent a weekend at the lake, and taken our families (kids included) to the Black Hills. My team knows they could not find the same culture anywhere else. You cannot buy culture; you have to develop what you have and build on it for a stronger team.

Growth and Vision
With every vision and new idea I have there is always a risk: that it will not work, that people won’t respond as you hoped, and that technology will fail. We used to have Fido Fridays, where one person brings his or her dog to work. While it was fun, it did not fit our professional setting. Growing pains hurt, but they are necessary to get where you want to go—and that is up!

It is important to keep up with the market. I discover niche markets for my firm by keeping up to date on trends in the industry and by researching legal trends. I saw a need in our community, and therefore growth opportunities for my firm, for attorneys in estate planning and construction law. So I recruited to add those practices. As my firm continues to grow, I encourage myself and my team to think outside the box. Being different and unique is vital. Instead of shooting down new ideas, I welcome them. I want our firm to be noticed, and at times it can be as simple as wearing a suit in a color other than black! Turning my ideas into strategic plans and acting upon them is what sets my firm apart.

Now in our fifth year, I still see the big picture of where the firm might be in the future. Our goal is to grow 10 times in 10 years; we will not get there remaining stagnant, or with those who do not see my vision. Over the years I have seen business owners get complacent, and then suddenly their business stops experiencing growth, and they and their staff are no longer motivated. To overcome the risks of stagnation, a business owner must set the tone for her team to see growth. Involving my team in a pep rally where I hand out praise or surprising them with a new quarterly bonus plan can spark their motivation. Do not let yourself or your team fizzle out. Keep growing, and continue working toward the “bigger and better.”

Have great ideas, persevere, and work hard and you will eventually reap the rewards. After all the risks, challenges, and trial and error, I am now at a team of 15 and growing! I have not been afraid of letting go or embracing change, and I know that the decisions I have made have led me to where the Goosmann Law Firm is today. I have gained the respect of my community, led my team to think big, and I have never steered away from my vision. I was recently told by someone that I am a business owner, who just so happens to be in legal. I found that comment extremely rewarding.

With a business mindset, hiring and promoting the right people, developing a strong professional culture, and capturing hot markets, I have been able to beat the odds, defy the risks, and watch my firm grow.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, small firm, starting a law firm, business development, teambuilding, firm growth

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