Balancing Briefs and Babies: A Candid Conversation with a Working Mom and Law Firm Director

Episode Transcription

[0:00:00] Julie Smith: Welcome to another episode of Empowering Entrepreneurs. I’m Julie Smith, and I am missing my other teammate, Glenn Harper, but it’s for a good reason. We have a guest today, Elle Smith, who her and I have had one conversation, and I said, oh, my gosh, we have to have you on the podcast, and we kind of have to do a girl power thing. She runs a law firm and is doing, you know, a lot of the operational stuff, kind like myself, and has really found. I think she has a little bit of an entrepreneur bug in her of trying to take what she’s doing and take that to the masses for the law world. And we just really hit it off. So, Ellie, thank you so much for coming on today. I so appreciate it.

[0:00:42] Elle Smith: Hey, I was thrilled when you asked me to do this because agreed. I think we had a great conversation the first time.

[0:00:48] Julie Smith: And I heard you love yoga.

[0:00:50] Elle Smith: I do, yes. I actually have a certification. I got it years ago before I had my kids, so taught for a handful of years before COVID hit, and then I went a different direction. But it’s deeply rooted in my heart.

[0:01:04] Julie Smith: Yeah. So you’re a fellow career woman, mom, and I think we share that of trying to have a successful career and manage that household as well. And it’s something that I think both of us struggle with, but somehow we’re always pulled in two directions and have to keep that going.

[0:01:24] Elle Smith: That’s right. Absolutely. It’s kind of what it’s all about.

[0:01:27] Julie Smith: Yeah, absolutely. Trying to show those kids exactly how to have a little bit of that work ethic, and you can do anything in this world. So she’s the director of operations for the Rod firm. And, Elle, tell me about your day to day inside the law firm and kind of how you came about getting to where you are today.

[0:01:46] Elle Smith: Day to day. Oh, my gosh. Day to day is, like, a million different things. There is no norm in the operations world, as I’m sure you know, especially for a small practice. So a little bit of background for me. I actually moved to Georgia about five years ago. My background is in sales, actually, years and years of sales. And when I moved down here, there weren’t any, really, sales opportunities in my industry. And I knew Chris through my sister, essentially, Chris Rod, and he’s like, I’ll hire you as a legal assistant. So I came into the firm knowing about as much about law as you would learn from watching, like, Judge Judy Law and Order, and I just learned the ins and outs of it. And then over the years, I’ve been with him for about four years now and actually almost five years. And I have now moved up to the director of operations and client experience.

[0:02:39] Julie Smith: And do you feel like in your role, you are essentially running the business so that he can do what he does really well.

[0:02:49] Elle Smith: That’s the ultimate goal. I’ve been in this role for it’ll just be about a year come this April, I think even more now than three months ago. Yes, it’s really difficult for a firm owner to kind of release the reins off of what they’ve been doing solo, really for years and years since opening up their own business and allow someone else to kind of step in and start making those decisions. But, yeah, that’s kind of the ultimate goal for the two of us to find that balance.

[0:03:20] Julie Smith: And how do you think glenn and I went through the same thing? But how do you think the two of you have been able to kind of come to that mutual trust, respect, all those things, to be able for him to hand some of that over to you. Give us a synopsis of that process so fellow entrepreneurs can kind of understand why this role is so important.

[0:03:40] Elle Smith: Yeah, I think from an entrepreneur perspective, when we’re speaking to business owners, attorneys, or not just attorneys, but whoever is owning their small business. You’re with the CPA firm, right? I’m with the law firm. So different industries, but kind of the same idea. I think that it’s allowing yourself to be okay with someone else coming in and number one, taking some of that off of your plate, but also giving them the trust to do that. I mean, Chris and I have known each other a long time, so we had a deep rooted trust kind of already. And then when he approached me about this role, we both knew it was going to be a transition to go there. But I don’t even want to say to a fault because that makes it sounds bad, but we’re really honest with each other. We both tell each other how we’re feeling with the scenarios, and we respect each other enough to listen so that we can grow.

[0:04:39] Julie Smith: And I think it’s that mutual respect and transparency between the two of you. There’s no judgment because it’s like your work marriage, right? It’s like you got to come in because if not, there’s going to be resentment, you’re going to build up the wall, and eventually you’re like, you know what? I’m done. I can’t do this anymore. And I think if you have that transparency and communication, you guys can figure it out, right? Communication is everything, so trying to figure it out together is oftentimes easier and then you’re not going butting heads against each other.

[0:05:10] Elle Smith: Exactly.

[0:05:11] Julie Smith: What are some of the biggest challenges you see with small law firms? I think you’re and I’s position in industries are a lot relatable, but from your perspective as you’ve kind of gone through this, what do you see as those challenges for small firms, like, as they grow?

[0:05:29] Elle Smith: Yeah, so I think some of the big challenges that I’ve noticed is culture is a really big challenge, especially when you’re in a small firm and it kind of depends on how long the firm has been around. If it’s a newer firm. Right. You’re kind of starting. Smith the understanding that you’re going to change and grow within kind of modern times when you’re talking about a firm that’s small, that’s old, that’s been around for 10, 15, 20 years, and they’re trying to grow, there’s a change in culture that needs to happen not just from legal assistance or paralegal perspective, but the attorneys need to be involved, as well. My assumption, if anyone’s listening to this, though, as an attorney or a CPA owner, firm owner or whatever, they’re already kind of on board. Smith that, but I think that’s one of the big ones. The other thing is the fear of change. It’s really scary to not only release the reins and let somebody else take over, but even if you don’t have that operations person, and even if you are doing it individually and you’re kind of taking those steps forward, it’s scary to shift processes that have been in place for millions of years, so to speak, quote unquote.

[0:06:45] Julie Smith: And I think what’s so important about our positions is the firm owners in general have a vision, have a goal of kind of they can see that. And I think we both are visionaries as well and can kind of see that. But you always have the executor and then the visionary, or the integrator and the visionary. And I think for both of us, we kind of fall into both those categories. But I think the most important part of the role is that you guys are able to communicate and then you can go take that to the team and it’s not necessarily the firm owner. And sometimes I think we speak a different language than them and are able to communicate that directly with each person involved rather than them trying to get everybody involved, if that makes sense.

[0:07:34] Elle Smith: Yeah, absolutely. Our firm is kind of unique. Chris really likes to stay super involved anytime we have any changes, he really likes to talk about that kind of like coming from him, which I love. But from a day to day perspective, he still expects me to go in and have those kind of one on one conversations and make sure that the processors are following along with what that vision is. And it’s next to impossible, truly, it’s next to impossible for any firm owner or small business owner to be able to do both well, especially when it gets to a certain point, you just don’t have the bandwidth or the time of the day. And if you don’t, then one thing is going to slip. Either your processes day to day are going to slip, or the original reason why you started the firm, which was in our case, being an attorney, focusing on clients. And that’s going to start slip if you start going the other way, which you don’t want to do, right?

[0:08:27] Julie Smith: Absolutely. And so I think being in leadership positions, do you find I asked about your day to day, and we can joke about it. Being the chaos coordinator, I oftentimes call myself the barista because you just really don’t know what’s going to come your way. But I do find that I spend a lot of my time listening and really trying to be that trusted person that they can kind of are they venting? Is it a real problem that we need to discuss? And really, I think our emotional intelligence comes into play day to day in regards to every employee, because I really try to talk to every employee every day, even if it’s a small check in, hey, you doing okay? Or, hey, I get the full spiel for 30, 45 minutes, whatever that looks like. And so I think listening is so imperative, and I think the difference between firm owners and us, we can take the time to listen and use that emotional intelligence to decide, hey, are they just venting today? It’s just a tough day, or, hey, I recognize this is a real problem. I’m going to take action. And not only am I going to take action, but I’m going to involve you maybe in that action, and you’re going to understand the follow up, because oftentimes, even if someone listens, if they do nothing about it, you’re going to lose that relationship. And so do you find you just are doing that on a day to day basis?

[0:09:54] Elle Smith: I mean, definitely, especially in the terms of the growth phase. As you grow, the people that you’re with need to be on board with that as well. And growth can kind of like it’s hard in a lot of ways, especially for the people, what I call the boots on the ground. The boots on the ground. People are seeing really the kind of overarching brunt of that change. And most of the time, at least, our team is completely on board to wrap their arms around it and embrace it. But there’s definitely going to be frustrations and challenges that come up, and if you’re not willing to listen to that and then pivot accordingly if need be, it’s really going to be a serious issue in the firm.

[0:10:35] Julie Smith: Absolutely. And so do you think that and I forget what’s the guy that you work with I was going to say Rick, chris totally was going to mess it up. Chris, do you think Chris sees himself as an entrepreneurs, or how does he view himself and how does he run that business? Because oftentimes people running businesses don’t see themselves as that entrepreneur.

[0:11:01] Elle Smith: Yes. For chris. I mean, that’s 100% yes. He’s very unique in the sense that I was thinking kind of through this entrepreneur thought even just this past couple of weeks. And he embraces that for sure because he’s all about taking risk and embracing the change, and he stays super laser focused and all that as well. So absolutely.

[0:11:28] Julie Smith: And I know you are working on your passion. Maybe you can just give us a little bit of background on your passion and the change you want to see in your industry.

[0:11:39] Elle Smith: So, yes, our firm, in my opinion, is really unique. Now, one thing that we do which isn’t unique in and of itself, we do only personal injury at our firm. So we’re not a law firm that does kind of your overarching general litigation, a little bit of civil, a little bit of real estate, a little bit of criminal. Nothing against those firms if they haven’t structured in the right way, I’m sure they’re highly successful. But we personally feel very strongly about being very specialized in one field of law because it allows us to do the same thing every single day. There are massive idiosyncrasies which within every area of law, personal injury not being an exception to that. And if you don’t live in that world 100% of the time, things can slide by you. And I personally think that because we do find ourselves within that specialized area, it gives us a leg up to help our clients in all ways. We can narrow our technology around what can help us just in personal injury. We can narrow our marketing around what can help us just in personal injury. Our processes in place and the conversations that we have with our clients is just around treatment and medical records and different things like that. We’re not pulling ourselves in a million different directions. So it is a massive passion of Chris’s. Since I have come on board years ago, and I’ve kind of seen him grow this firm, I completely back it. I think it’s an amazing, amazing thing that we do for our clients.

[0:13:17] Julie Smith: And I know that you have one thing that you believe to be the most important in your firm. And so how have you done that and taken that and been able to really capitalize on that for the clients?

[0:13:29] Elle Smith: So are you talking about, like, our client communication? Is that what you’re talking about?

[0:13:33] Julie Smith: Yeah. I had a note written down from the first time we met about the initial call and how you believe that to just be so important. And so you’ve really focused your energy and your firm into perfecting that.

[0:13:47] Elle Smith: Yeah. Thank you. I was like, what was the one thing? I have so many one things probably depending on sorry. No, it’s fine. Yeah, our intake process. Agreed. I think that the intake process for a firm is really, in my opinion, one of the most important things. And here’s why. When someone gets hurt or when someone needs something and they call someone on the phone, number one, that first call is highly scary. I mean, any of us that’s been in any area where we’re needing something from someone, especially in a traumatic situation. It’s really scary. And if you get someone on the phone that, a, doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or b, doesn’t really seem to care, then you’re even in a worse place than you kind of were before. And so Chris and I both are very passionate about this together. And because of my sales background, I am all about the intake process.

[0:14:40] Elle Smith: Getting them on the phone, getting them to the right person, and having a really solid conversation with them to let them know that not only are we here for them, but we hear what they’re saying, we understand what they’re going through, and we can help them through that. It’s so important. And if that intake process, what I call intake, that first call with their clients, not solid, we might as well not have a firm. Honestly, I mean, what do we do?

[0:15:03] Julie Smith: So how did you get the person who’s answering the phone to really buy into that and then really see the vision with that?

[0:15:10] Elle Smith: Yeah. So this has changed over the years. When Chris first opened his firm, it was just me. I was the only person that was an employee of his. And now we have, like, eight of us in this office, so we’ve grown a lot. When it was just me, it was easy because that was my entire background. Right. I do sales and everything now that we’ve grown. We don’t actually have a receptionist here, which is kind of unique in the law industry. Most attorneys offices have receptionists. We all pitch in and answer the phone. So everyone in our office is on board with our culture, which is exceeding expectations, putting clients first, going that extra mile for our clients, and that just kind of bleeds in everything that we do from there. It was just kind of a training piece. Like, what conversations do you have? I have an SOP that’s written out.

[0:15:59] Elle Smith: I created a video that kind of showed people what basic questions to ask. And it doesn’t matter who answers the phone. They don’t need to know the ins and outs of how to explain a contract to a person. They don’t need to know the little teeny steps that happen in the process. Eventually they will. But even if we have a new employee, all they need to know is, how are you? How are you feeling? How did you get hurt, and what can we do to make this better? And it’s that simple.

[0:16:28] Julie Smith: Isn’t it crazy when you break it down? It’s so simple. In order to having that client service. So you talk about how you’ve grown and how it was just you and Chris to begin with. How did you go about hiring the right people to create the right culture?

[0:16:44] Elle Smith: That’s a really good question. It’s been trial and error. I’ll tell you. It’s tough. We have a pretty strict hiring what we call hiring funnel. So whenever we need somebody to add to a new position. First off, we do it with it. We use the word intentionality a lot. We don’t really like to do anything in this firm. Kind of just like willy nilly or just because, like, no, we’ll just try it and see what happens. There’s certainly a time and a place for that.

[0:17:16] Julie Smith: Right. I’m going to interject because I think I find Glenn and I talk about this on the podcast. A lot of small business owners don’t have that intentionality. And so they meet someone, and I’m going to say the bar, the gym, what have you, and they’re like, oh, you want to come work with me? Not knowing exactly the intention of what they’re wanting out of that. And so I think what you just said is so important for entrepreneurs is to understand the intention when you’re hiring yes.

[0:17:47] Elle Smith: Exactly what role you’re needing, what type of personality you need. Like, we even go as far as sending out we’ll use a hate to call it a personality test. It’s called the Colby assessment, is what we use. And it actually kind of tests how people function kind of by default. So most personality tests out there take into consideration current stage of life, what their surroundings are, what scenario you find yourself in, and this kind of tests people, as far as all that aside, what they do best by default. And so we even take it as far as sending that out to make sure that they actually are a good fit, because we want a really well rounded team. We want some people with this personality trait and that personality trait and this personality trait so that we can all blend. It would be not very good if we had eight people with the same personality trait, because then nothing else would get done.

[0:18:37] Julie Smith: Right. As you’ve grown, how has your role been so imperative to that growth? To go from one employee to eight is huge. And so how has it been so imperative? And how do you view that role as entrepreneurs are growing?

[0:18:57] Elle Smith: Yeah. You mean in the director of operations role?

[0:19:01] Julie Smith: Yes.

[0:19:01] Elle Smith: So I think really what I want to do is I want to give Chris the freedom to do what he does best. Truly. I mean, you should see him when he’s in a deposition or at trial. He’s in his element there. And while he’s great at talking to employees and doing all of that as well, if he’s spending 50% of his day just kind of like managing the office, he can’t do what he does best, which doesn’t give our clients what they need. Right. It is not to the best interest of the client. So being in my role and assisting him in order to manage team issues or really procedural stuff, we have a little thing that we print stamps on every month. It just decides to stop working for whatever reason. And I’m the only one that seems to know. It’s just a random skill that I have, I guess. So it’s just little things that he would have to step in and do that. Being able to come in and allow him to do that and also share his vision and put procedures in place in order to grow that firm is really important when you have one person doing everything as an assistant to having we have five people, right? Five assistants doing stuff, those processes and procedures change. You got to break it up and make sure that you’re really intentional about what each person is doing and that they all flow together.

[0:20:25] Julie Smith: And so in regards, you talked about personality when hiring. How do you and Chris’s personalities differ alike and complement each other? Because it’s really important when you have those two people together. So if you could give us a little background, take the curtain away of what that kind of looks like.

[0:20:44] Elle Smith: We probably couldn’t be any more opposite, to be honest. It’s funny. He is the most calm, cool, collected person you’ve ever met in your entire life. Like, truthfully, I’ve never seen him get upset. His ability to compartmentalize and kind of streamline and do whatever he needs to get done is just astounding to me. I strive to do it every single day. I’m a bit more boisterous, I guess I should say. You can probably tell just from this interview, we’re just really opposite, but it allows us to be able to soundboard off of each other. He kind of brings that calm, cool, collective element. And I’m like, let’s do this type of a deal. It’s going to be fine. We’ve got the things in place and to get it done, it’ll be okay. Let’s do this. So it’s worked really well. Of course, we have our times.

[0:21:37] Elle Smith: He said, as all people, do as.

[0:21:40] Julie Smith: You should, or you would just be a yes person. And he’s not looking for a yes person exactly.

[0:21:45] Elle Smith: It’s funny, he has a phrase, and I’m trying to remember what it is. I think it’s healthy conflict is what he calls it. So whenever there’s a slight I don’t even say disagreement, but tension. Healthy discussion. Yeah, he calls it healthy tension. He goes, this is good. You can’t grow unless there’s healthy tension. Right. It’s the uncomfortable areas that really allow us to kind of grow to that next level. So he completely embraces that as well.

[0:22:11] Julie Smith: And does one of you process things a lot faster? From what you just described, I’m going to guess it’s you who is sometimes way over here at the finish line. And is he kind of over here? I don’t want to say too far behind, but he’s still processing a little bit because he’s able to be cool, calm, collected, a little bit of what that looks like where probably you and I have expedited that process.

[0:22:36] Elle Smith: Yeah. And I think you know what? I think a big reason for that is the fact that it’s not my money, ultimately. Right. He’s like, okay, well, it’s my business and I’m going to do that. I keep that in mind to the massive extent that I possibly can, but at the end of the day, it’s not my firm. While I’m cognizant of that, he just sees things differently than I do, which is to be expected. It’s his firm, and I have to always remind myself of that as well at times. But again, it works well for us, and I come at conversations with as much data as I can possibly throw at it.

[0:23:12] Julie Smith: That’s what I was going to say. I do that with Glenn, like, here’s your ROI, here’s your why, here’s the total spend, but here’s what you’re going to get back out of it. And Glenn is obviously more of a numbers guy, but he’s like using the ten key while I’m talking. And I’m like, I’m saying words, not numbers. What are you calculating?

[0:23:31] Elle Smith: Yeah, Chris is very numbers focused as well. I’m numbers to a point where I’m really fantastic. I love reports. Like, I could just dig into reports all day long and pull different stats and different stuff like that. I think it’s just super fun, probably from my sales world, my sales background, but my numbers and my concept of the numbers as it applies to the business is a very different approach than his understandably, because of our roles.

[0:23:59] Julie Smith: Yes. But I think both of us come at it from the same standpoint and it matches up with them. It’s just how do we communicate in their language? And again, that’s something over time, learning how each person communicates. And sometimes I think I go into Glenn’s office with an idea now and he’s like, wait, I feel like you’re doing something to me. You’ve just learned how to communicate to them in a way that they’ll understand. And in the beginning, it’s hard. Right? And so as you go through this and you learn, and you both are kind of in sync in regards to the business, I think that just naturally happens.

[0:24:38] Elle Smith: Like I said, even like now versus three months ago, we’re significantly further. So it’s always a process. I think you touched on this earlier. You asked about the operations role and someone having somebody, a firm having someone in that role, what do you look for and how does that help? You need to know that it’s going to be uncomfortable at times, but it’s so important to have that sounding board.

[0:25:02] Julie Smith: And you said something that we touched on, but I want to just go back to. And I think oftentimes this role cannot be a yes person, and it’s okay to have those uncomfortable conversations, one, but two, it’s okay to disagree. And I think oftentimes in our world, like, the Admins, the CPAs, the accountants, the support staff, like, okay, well, whatever he says goes. And I’m over here, like, well, that doesn’t really make sense from this standpoint. Did you think that through from that way? And what about this? And so it’s just that accountability. And I think before any of us go to do a change or go to Pivot or go to do something different in the firm, it’s a conversation. It’s a discussion. And it may be intense, and I may not agree in the beginning, but by the end, I’m like, okay, I could see it that way, but we just need to tweak that a little bit. And I think if we do this, we’ll get this person on board and having those conversations and everyone being held accountable in that room is huge. But when you walk out of the room or the office or wherever you’re having the conversation, you’re a united front.

[0:26:16] Elle Smith: Yes.

[0:26:17] Julie Smith: Agreed. And if that doesn’t happen, people start finding, well, she said, well, he said, well, they said. And it’s like, no, we’re saying all the same things. We’re all doing it the exact same way, and we’re a united front. There’s no way anyone’s getting through that. That is what will make or break a firm.

[0:26:37] Elle Smith: Totally. I completely agree. The drama and the chitchat around the office, again, you don’t have to agree with somebody, but you need to be on a united front.

[0:26:47] Julie Smith: Absolutely. So as we conclude, is there something that you would give to someone who’s starting out in this position with an entrepreneurs who wants to scale and grow, build a great culture, hire great people, build processes, do all the things that is expected of this role? What advice would you give to them?

[0:27:13] Elle Smith: I would say my number one, first, be okay with being uncomfortable. It’s a big part of this role because you’re navigating. You’re kind of like the bridge between the firm owner and the employees and the firm owner and the processes and the firm owner and all those elements that you just mentioned. You’re kind of the bridge between those. And so you have to be okay with being slightly uncomfortable because sometimes those two can come at odds with each other. But again, that’s where the growth happens. And so just being in it, taking a breath while you’re in that space, learning as much as you can from being in that space is really important. The other thing, too, is check your pride. I know that’s kind of a funny thing you maybe didn’t expect me to say, but there have been times where I feel very confident in my abilities and my skills, and I have found myself kind of running over myself with all of that. And as a leader, it’s really important to know that you’re in a leadership role and that people are looking to you and how you respond to those uncomfortable situations. So I’m not 100% at it. It’s a challenge every single day. But that’s the other piece. And then the other part is have fun. Have fun with it.

[0:28:34] Elle Smith: Don’t put your nose to the grindstone and just kill yourself. Have fun with the processes and the conversations that you’re doing and you’ll see the rewards of that work that you’re putting in.

[0:28:46] Julie Smith: And I have just one more question, and I know you’re going to be like, julie, you didn’t tell me you were going to ask me this, but that’s okay.

[0:28:52] Elle Smith: Bring it on.

[0:28:53] Julie Smith: What is your superpower? What is something that you do, you feel you do better than anybody else, and it’s the strength that you bring to the table every day?

[0:29:05] Elle Smith: Oh, wow. That’s a great question. Yeah, you did spray with on me. Let’s see. I have a lot of confidence in my decisions that I make, potentially to a fault at times, which is why I need to kind of keep that in mind. But I think that’s a strength of mine not always been that way in my life. There are many times in my past younger years where I was nervous about the decisions that I’ve made. But I’m confident in the data that I’m able to generate based on the processes we have in place and why we put those things in place. And because of that, I’m really confident in the decisions that I make, so it allows less room for kind of that willy nilly in between stuff. I can be very intentional with our decisions because of all of that. So I think that’s a super power of mine.

[0:30:04] Julie Smith: I love it. I think I would agree 100%. So, Ali, thank you so much for coming on. I hope our entrepreneurs have been able to learn a little bit more about this role and how it can assist them and how they could find that person and what they’re kind of able to do. As you have went from just you and that entrepreneurs to a full blown firm, you guys have been able to grow and scale and still keep in mind exactly what you want to do. And you’ve been so intentional, so kudos to you for being able to do that. It’s hard, it’s tough, and I think you’ve smiled the entire podcast, so you’re having fun, and that is half the battle. So congratulations to you.

[0:30:48] Elle Smith: Awesome. Well, it was a pleasure talk to you. Thank you so much.

[0:30:51] Julie Smith: Thank you. So this is Julie Smith, and maybe next time we’ll get Glenn here in the studio.

[0:30:57] Elle Smith: All right, awesome. Thanks so much. Bye.

Episode Show Notes

Listeners will gain valuable insight into the challenges faced by small law firms and learn how to effectively manage a team while balancing a successful career and household responsibilities as a working mom.

Guest Elle Smith, Director of Operations and Client Experience at a law firm, shares her experiences in leadership positions and emphasizes the importance of emotional intelligence and listening. The episode also delves into the significance of healthy conflict and tension for growth and highlights the role of an operations manager in bridging the gap between the firm owner and the employees.

Entrepreneurs looking to overcome the challenges of entrepreneurship will find this podcast episode both insightful and empowering.

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