What does it take to successfully grow a law firm? For Kelly Hayes and Elizabeth (Betsy) Spawn Stotler of Burgeon Legal, law firm growth came organically, albeit with plenty of hard work. Kelly and Betsy left their respective firms to start their own two-person practice in 2012, and that practice has now grown to a law firm with over 30 employees.
After the firm won our Clioday contest in 2016, legal professionals in Clio’s Advocates community started asking about how they’d become so successful so quickly. We spoke to Kelly and Betsy about their experience growing Burgeon Legal, and put together a few tips for law firm growth based on that conversation.
Burgeon Legal represents a variety of healthcare providers in complex Medicaid eligibility and collection cases. It is based in Pawleys, South Carolina, but an investment in technology lets all of the lawyers at the firm work remotely, allowing Burgeon Legal to provide services in 25 states.
1. Know your values and hire mindfully
When growing a law firm, it’s important to think about your law firm’s culture and to hire people who are willing to grow with you. “We’re very passionate and proactive and expect that of anyone on our team,” Betsy said. Overall, Kelly and Betsy value work-life balance, but they also look for resourcefulness and tenacity in anyone who comes to Burgeon.
Be sure to look for people with skills or qualifications that may help your growing firm in other ways as well. For example, as Burgeon Legal grew, Kelly and Betsy started to look for lawyers who were a cultural fit, but who could also practice in more than one state.
2. Grow deliberately
Kelly and Betsy never expected Burgeon Legal to grow as quickly as it did. “It was an organic type of growth,” Betsy said. “We actually were concerned because we’d heard a lot of advice to grow deliberately.”
Certainly, plenty of articles on the subject of growing a law firm advocate for a formal business plan and growth plans, neither of which Burgeon Legal had before it opened its doors. Betsy wouldn’t change things if she could go back, but she does have some advice for other lawyers:
Be careful and try to grow deliberately. Find a balance between making decisions too quickly and waiting too long for all the information you need. Sometimes, we need to solve a problem in the moment, but it’s uncharted territory, so we have to think about those decisions and make educated guesses.
3. Prepare for growing pains
The challenges of growing a law firm do not scale linearly. This is something that Kelly wishes she was more prepared for when starting Burgeon Legal.
“I thought that growing would just bring more of the same types of growing pains, but there are different challenges that come with having 10 versus 30 versus 50 staff,” she said. “For example, a team of 50 needs much more sophisticated processes and technologies than a team of 10.”
How can you prepare yourself? Write a detailed law firm business plan to help yourself work through these challenges ahead of time.
4. Accept that you will become the employer
In addition to growing pains, there’s a shift in dynamic from partner to employer that not all lawyers might be thinking about.
“We’ve learned there’s a natural tension between employer and employee, and becoming the employer has been challenging,” said Betsy. “I think by accepting that tension early on and learning to navigate it instead of lamenting over it and fighting it, lawyers can avoid a lot of headaches.”
5. Know that you spend more time managing
One of the biggest differences between going solo or growing a law firm is the degree to which you’ll be practicing law. “When you’re a solo, you’re practicing. When you grow, you’re managing,” Kelly said.
If you’re thinking of growing a law firm, be sure that’s what you want. For Kelly, it’s worked out—she misses practicing law somewhat, but she also enjoys managing her firm. “It’s a different challenge every day,” she explained.
6. Use tools
Using scalable tools has certainly made it easier for Burgeon to succeed. For example, Burgeon Legal uses Clio for practice management, which helps its lawyers access firm information across different states.
“When we first opened, we needed a cloud-based time and billing system,” Kelly said. “We were in two different locations from the start. Now, we use Clio in 25 different states. The same information is available, no matter where our employees are.”
7. Be creative and persistent
The skills needed to start your own law firm and overcome ongoing challenges are not skills you necessarily learn in law school. Both Kelly and Betsy said that a certain degree of creativity and persistence is required to be successful. Here’s Kelly’s advice:
Be creative. If one thing doesn’t work, try another thing.
I think if somebody has a smaller firm, and they’re looking to grow, they need to know that they’re going to come up against a wall—over, and over and over—and they’ll just have to keep hammering ahead. It’s the fun part, because it’s a lot of learning, but it’s also the part that could easily dissuade someone that wasn’t up for that kind of challenge.
8. Be prepared for hard work
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
That’s a quote from Thomas Edison that Betsy said resonates with her, and she’d give that advice to anyone looking to start their own firm.
“We definitely did not know how much work it would be, in so many different ways,” Betsy said. “[Growing the firm] took a lot of really hard work and sacrifice. It’s work. You just have to keep going. Don’t give up.”
Finally, Betsy stressed that it’s important to concentrate on what’s important. Rather than having growth as a main goal, she suggested that lawyers should focus on doing good work. If they can get that part right, law firm growth should happen naturally—if they want it to.
Law firm growth is possible—if you want it
Kelly and Betsy were not planning on growing Burgeon Legal. But when opportunity knocked, they took on the challenge, and are still growing the firm today. There’s a greater degree of responsibility that comes with running your own law firm, but if you’re ready to take it on, it can be an exciting and liberating experience.
“There’s nobody to tell you what to do,” Betsy said. “You have to have confidence and make the best decision you can.”
Clio helps Burgeon Legal stay connected across 25 states. Want to see how it works? Try Clio for free.
About Kelly and Betsy
Kelly and Betsy left their respective firms to start their own two-person practice in 2012, with the hope of achieving the elusive lawyer dream – work life balance, challenging (but fun) work, and awesome clients. With no formal business plan, no loans to get them started, and only an idea of the type of firm in which they’d want to practice, they decided it was time to quit thinking about it and “just do something”, so they dove in. Burgeon started, simply, as a concept. “Burgeon” means “to grow or expand, increase rapidly, or flourish.” It’s what Kelly and Betsy wanted for themselves – to expand their work and their families, and to flourish, not just at work, but in life. It’s also what they wanted for their clients—health care providers—to grow their clients’ profitability and, in doing so, to help their clients’ business’ flourish.
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