Episode 23 – Alexis Neely: Creating a New Business Model for Law Firm Owners
Chief Visionary Officer, Law Business MentorsAs a new attorney, Alexis joined a prestigious firm, expecting to stay forever. But three years later she was miserable and felt the “golden handcuffs” growing tighter. She realized she’d have to start her own firm to find the fulfillment she was after. Placing herself in a do-or-die situation, she experimented and tweaked until she perfected a model that yielded greater profits, more balance, and a better relationship with clients. Now she helps other attorneys to do the same.
Full Interview Transcript
Michael: My guest today is Alexis Neely, the founder of New Law Business Model. And she’s also the author of the bestselling book on legal planning for parents “Wear Clean Underwear.” I’m really excited because Alexis is a real innovator. After running her wheels in estate planning firm for a number of years, she was struggling in various ways and was really unhappy, so she decided to blow the whole thing up and make it better. So I’m really interested in hearing about the details. Thanks for joining me, Alexis. Alexis: You are so welcome. And, yeah, I’d love to just, you know, mention that I started…I wasn’t really unhappy in my own personal practice. I was at a big law firm, one of the best law firms in the country, Munger, Tolles & Olson, for three years. And I went to that law firm because I thought that I was going to be able to have a personal relationship with my clients the way that Charlie Munger does with Warren Buffett. And you know, of course, it wasn’t like that at all. I was making a great paycheck, a 6-figure paycheck but I was commuting 20 miles each way in Los Angeles traffic from my home to the office, and often having to work really long hours, not feeling any personal connection with my clients whatsoever. And I felt the golden handcuffs just getting tighter and tighter the more money I made. And I did not go to law school with any intention whatsoever to start a business. In fact I went to law school specifically because I didn’t want to be a business owner. My dad had been an entrepreneur and didn’t make it look very good. And I went so I could have security, so I could make a difference in people’s lives, so I could really love my career. So it was a big shock. You know I worked so hard in law school and then to come out and find that it wasn’t anything like I expected it to be other than the money part which was you know really good. But to find out it wasn’t anything like I expected it to be was a lot of heartache and pain. And I was around 28 years old, I was married, I had a baby, I had a mortgage, and taxes, and insurance, and student loans of course. You know about $100,000 of student loans and I felt trapped. And I went out and I ended up starting my own law practice and creating the New Law Business Model which I’d love to share with you today as we get into it, and ultimately creating a life that I really loved as a result of doing that. But I was terrified. That was not anything that I ever intended to do. Michael: Now, I mean isn’t the promise as a young associate, “Hang in there kid, it’s gonna get better. First you’ve gotta to learn the law and then we’ll teach you how to talk to clients. And then you know 10 years from now you’ll be right where you wanna be.” Did you just shake out before you got there, or was that maybe not really the way it was gonna go? Alexis: Well, a couple of things with that. So I think that is the promise, but I could see that it was a false promise. And I could see that because I could look at the partners in the law firm and see that that was not where I wanted to go. What they were promising me wasn’t reality, number one. You know many of the partners were working constantly, constantly stressed out. And the partners that had more of the lives that I wanted like in the estate planning group, I could see that I wasn’t really going to be taken seriously by the firm. That they didn’t really respect the estate planning practice. It was like you know this little side service that we do. And the way that they were doing estate planning for their clients wasn’t inspiring me at all. It was based on forms and documents. In many cases we were putting in place plans that I knew were not going to work for our clients because of an experience I had in law school when my father in law died. And he had gotten one of these forms and documents plan that once he died they didn’t work. We were stuck dealing with the probate court, we were stuck dealing with his ex-wife, the exact things that he put in place in estate planning for us to avoid. So I was beginning to see that there were real flaws in the model. That there wasn’t truth built in. And I am just such a…like truth is one of my highest values. And I couldn’t continue to perpetuate a model that I didn’t really believe in and that I knew wasn’t really going to allow me to create the life that I wanted. And so I had to make a change and I had to make a change before I got more stuck. Because I’ll tell you, you know coming out of law school, I came out in ’99. I clerked for a year on the Eleventh Circuit, and then that year I also got married and had a baby. And then I started at Munger, Tolles in 2000. Now this is the height of the market when you know they’re bonusing everybody, they’re trying you know to get all the best associates, and I think I started at $135,000 or $165,000. I’d never made that kind of money before in my life. I was a waitress you know before law school. I didn’t grow up with money, so this was like, “Wow, this is a lot of money.” And then I was at $185,000 and soon I was gonna go to 2-something. And I could just feel myself getting more and more locked in. And my husband was a stay-at-home dad at the time, so everything was dependent on me. But I’ll be honest with you that after taxes were taken out, after the insurance came out, after the retirement came out, and you know all of the travel, and the commuting I was doing, it’s not like that there was that much left over at the end of the day. And so I was really starting to look at, “What am I doing?” Like, “Am I really building a life that I want?” So I went to the firm and I said, “Hey, why don’t you guys let me bring in clients?” Because at first rather than starting my own practice I decided, “I’ll make it work here.” So what would I need to do to make it work here? Well, I’d need to feel like I’m building my own business. So I go to the firm and I say, “Hey, why don’t you guys let me bring in clients?” They were not really very happy about that idea, but they said, “Okay, as long as there’s no conflicts.” You know and that was certainly a big thing. I had to run conflict checks on everyone, and sometimes there were people I couldn’t work with because of the conflicts issues. But I did start to go out, and start to do networking, and start to learn, “What would it take to be a rainmaker?” I had some sense that that was going to be the path to my happiness. If I could feel like I had some control over my own business even while working at this law firm. So I tried to make it work that way. And that was pretty good. I did like it. The problem that I ran into is that ultimately the firm, number one, didn’t really respect the estate planning practice as I said. Number two, the commute was horrible, and number three, I didn’t really feel like I could build in the support structures that I wanted to have. To have the kind of practice that I wanted and really make a difference in my clients’ lives. As I said this was a forms and documents practice. I was the probate paralegal, the file cleric, the administrative assistant, and the associate attorney. I was doing find in replace. You know so a client would come in and it was like one size fits all planning. And you know I’d pull up the Word document from the last client I did, search and replace, more often than not there were mistakes. And then they’re just getting a set of documents that I know in my heart of hearts are not going to work when that family needs it. And that is what they were calling estate planning. Now, frankly that is the norm. That is a norm that I have been working now for nearly 10 years to change. But first before I could do that I needed to change it in my own practice, and that ultimately led to me going to the partner that I worked with and letting him know that after just three years with him I was going out on my own . And he did try to dissuade me. He’s like, “Alexis, you need to be here another few years. You need more experience.” And I said, “I understand and no, I’m gonna do it.” That was a hard conversation for sure. “But I’m going, I’m going on my own.” And that was a huge moment of empowerment in my life. Had I known what I was getting myself into, I might not have decided to do it. I really had to reinvent a huge wheel, but hopefully now you know 10 years later with my training programs that I’ve created as a result of doing that, I’m helping other lawyers shortcut that process significantly. Michael: Right. So I get the sense that in the time that you had your own firm, you know you went through a lot of evolution. And so I’m interested in hearing sort of like what that first version of the firm looked like. Partially to set up the contrast to where did you get to, right? Alexis: Yeah. Well, there’s been many stages of evolution, so I’ll take you through them step-by-step. I mean the woman that I am now bears very little resemblance to the woman that I was then. And I don’t know if you put up like any additional materials, but I mean you can see me now I have actually hidden some of my woo-woo accoutrements for this interview. Usually I have feathers in my hair, you know all sorts of things. But I’ll send you a picture of the woman that I was then so that you can put that up. But let’s go back to 2003. I was a mom for the second time. My son had just been born, so now I had two children at home, my husband still staying at home to take care of them. I’d just told the law firm partner that I’m not coming back. I’m foregoing my six-figure, you know on my way to two hundred and something thousand a year paycheck. I did not have any money in the bank when I did this. I wanna mention. No wealthy family, no savings, nothing other than a lot of grit, and determination, and will, and this internal knowing that I could do it. And the way that I knew I could do it is because I had a friend who had done it herself. And I would talk to her on the phone. And she was in her own practice, and she was bringing in I think at the beginning like $10,000 a month and then $25,000 a month, and I was like, “You know if she can do it, I can do it.” And that is so important. You know who you are surrounding yourself with is so important because everybody around you, for the most part 90% of people will tell you, “You can’t do this.” If you wanna watch an example of that, I just watched this movie “Joy” the other night. Michael: Yes, I’ve seen that. Alexis: You know you see her family just telling her, “You can’t do this. Oh, look you failed,” and they just are undermining her every step of the way. And it’s this weird thing where they think they’re helping us. You know saving us from disappointment by doing that. That’s the way most people are going to be with you. But if you can get around other people who have done it, which is this small. It’s a small percentage, right? Like 5% of people can actually be successful in their own practice. But those are the 5% you want to be around. Then you will begin to say, “Oh, if they can do it, I can do it.” And so I had that inside of me. “If she can do it, I can do it.” So I rent off this space in my town, the South Bay area of California. I live in Colorado now. But then I lived in Hermosa Beach, California. And so I rented off a space in Torrance, California in one of these high-rise office buildings. But I didn’t have the money for rent, so I went to one of the attorneys that was there in that building, his name is Rod and I said, “Rod, I’d love to do a trade with you. I’ll trade you my time in exchange for office space.” So I gave him about 20 hours a month of my time to work on his client matters, and he gave me free rent equivalent to about $2,000 a month. So I went out and I got some used furniture. I remember I got this huge double desk, used, you know on credit cards, and I asked my sister to come in and help me. So I’m sitting on one side of the desk, my sister is sitting on the other side. She’s got like this old laptop, I’ve got a computer and we’re figuring it up. Now, I did have a coach at that time to support and guide me, but this coach, he really was only able to take me so far because he didn’t really believe in my vision. He was another one who was saying, “You can’t do it that way? You’re not gonna be successful if you do that.” And ultimately I had to believe in myself that I actually saw something better than the traditional model. He wanted me to do this very traditional model. But when I looked around at the other attorneys in the office, some of them had been in practice 20, 25 years, they were again, working all hours of the day and night, they’re working weekends and they’re not doing it because law firm management is making them do it, they are law firm management. They’re doing it because they have no other choice. Michael: I know because you’ve had all the experiences that have occurred since then that you have a very clear understanding now, but do you remember what was that germ of a vision that you had in those early days? Did you articulate yourself in some way at that time? Alexis: Yeah, it was that I wanted a relationship with my clients, number one. I wanted them to see me as a trusted adviser to them. Like you know Warren Buffett does with Charlie Munger. I wanted to do all flat fee billing, I didn’t want there to be any surprises. I definitely didn’t want to be doing hourly billing and trucking my time. I wanted to work a reasonable schedule serving families in my community. And really what I wanted was to be like this kind of, I call it now personal family lawyer, I branded it. But back then I thought of it as like you know the hometown country lawyer back in the day. That’s what I had in mind. Like I’m gonna be this hometown, country lawyer type thing that I didn’t see existing anymore. And then I got the sense that I really wanted to focus on serving families with young children. And that was the big one that all the attorneys in town said, “No way. You cannot do estate planning focused on serving families with young children. You will starve. They don’t wanna talk about death, they’re too far away from it. They don’t have the money to spend on estate planning, they’re not interested.” Now, I was a mom and I knew they were wrong. I knew that as a mom I would do anything for my kids, number one. Number two, I saw that there were huge holes in the planning process for parents with young kids that were leaving their kids at risk. And I saw it only because I was a mom and I’m out to dinner with my husband one night and I’m like, “What would happen if we didn’t make it home tonight?” We had an estate plan in place, we had named guardians in our will, but where was my will and who was gonna be able to find it? And where were the guardians I named? They were all across the country in Florida where I was from and here we are in California. So it hit me, I have a 16-year-old babysitter at home with my baby. My baby is going to get taken into the care of the authorities while they can figure out where my will is, where my family is. That was not okay with me whatsoever. And so I created something ultimately that would address that. We call it the Kids Protection Plan. And ultimately I began to put that in place for my clients and then that’s part of what we train other lawyers on today. So I was able to build that law practice. I’m gonna fast forward. Before I go there, one of the things that I realized is I had to get out of the mindset of learning from other lawyers, because all they were telling me was what wouldn’t work. You know we’re trained as lawyers to focus on that. What won’t work? What won’t work? Where’s the risks? Michael: Yeah. And also there’s sort of like a commitment to doing things the way that you know you look around, see the way that things are done, you’re part of a tradition. Legal precedent is really important, right? So that affects the mindset of, “We’re gonna run the business based on precedent too,” right? Alexis: Right. And it was the blind leading the blind. You know they’re leading each other down to hating their lives, hating their law practices, hating their clients, being hated by their clients. And I was like, “That is not gonna work for me.” I looked out 20, in 25 years and that was a no. So I started learning from other entrepreneurs. Other professional service providers you know like carpet cleaners, and dentists, and chiropractors, and Lasik surgery providers. And as I would you know go into their businesses, you know for example when I was getting Lasik for myself and I would see how they were doing things. I’m like, “Okay, here we’ve got a high value proposition that people are willing to pay a lot of money for. What can I take from their business and apply to my business?” And through it, I created a new model. A completely new model of serving clients that allowed me within three years, in my third year of practice, we did $1 million of revenue. I was the only lawyer at that point. And in my fourth year of practice, we did another $1 million of revenue but I was only going into the office let’s say on average three days a week. At that point I had brought other attorneys in, trained them on my systems and I didn’t have to go into the office all the time anymore, I had a team in place. And then sold the practice in my fifth year, and wrote the bestselling book on legal planning for parents, began doing a whole bunch of TV at that point as a legal expert talking about these issues on TV. And then you know also in that timeframe began training other lawyers on these systems. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I don’t you know to sound like it was all easy or peaches and cream, it wasn’t. There was lots of mistakes we can talk about. So since then I’ve been training lawyers. There was a period from 2010 to 2012 where I almost decided to stop training lawyers. I almost decided to leave the legal field entirely. I had kind of a spiritual crisis awakening, whatever you wanna call it. This is like my last level of transformation. Not my last level but the last big transformation. And that’s when the feathers came out and all the other things. But when I went through that period from 2010 to 2012, and I went into this deep questioning of, “Do I really want to continue to train and serve lawyers?” I was having this strong desire to serve purpose-driven business owners. And I took an entire year off and I didn’t do anything for that year that I wouldn’t do for free. So I took money out of the equation. I said, “I’m only gonna do what I would do for free.” And what I discovered in that year…as someone is about to come into the door behind me. I work at home. What I discovered in that year is that I love serving lawyers. And so when I looked at… my kids’ dad (briefly visible on camera walking behind her). What I looked at… You know he’s actually a big part of it which I’ll come back to in a minute. What I looked at is that if I abandoned serving lawyers that I was actually doing a huge disservice to the world, because lawyers have such an opportunity to change our systems, the way we interact with each other as human beings. And ultimately, I’m here in service to creating a new humanity. And as lawyers, we have a huge part in that. Now, I’ll give you an example that you know my kids’ dad is a perfect thing that he walked in when he did. He and I have actually been divorced for 10 years. When we went through our divorce, even though we used collaborative lawyers who are supposed to be committed not to litigate him, I found that his lawyer, and maybe even mine if I hadn’t been more aware, did little things to keep us fighting. Why? Because that’s how they get paid, because that’s how they are incentivized. And it’s really not their fault. They just haven’t been given another model, another financial model, another business model that allows them to have a great life, make a great living, and make a great difference in their clients’ lives that doesn’t require them to escalate the conflict. So when I came back to the…I never really fully left the legal world, but when I recommitted to, “Yes, I’m going to continue to serve lawyers,” that commitment was not to just helping lawyers start their own business and make money, that commitment was to also helping… [brief interruption] That commitment was to also helping those lawyers to find that place where you can actually make a difference in the world. Michael: Right, right. Yeah. I mean building a business around a vision and sort of a creative perspective rather than one that’s based around conflict or competition, can that work in all areas of the law or maybe only some or…? Alexis: Well, you know you have to choose. Ultimately you have to choose to be the kind of lawyer that is going to seek to resolve and not enhance conflict. So if you are a family law attorney for example, you’ve got to build your business model around helping people to resolve matters rather than to escalating conflicts. And that means that you need to have your pricing and packaging structure set up so you’re actually incentivized to resolve conflict more quickly. Because if you have your pricing and packaging set up so that you are financially incentivized to keep the conflicts going, it’s really hard to not keep the conflicts going. Even if in your mind you’re like, “Yes, I’m committed to peace and I’m committed to resolution,” but if you’re getting paid, the longer people fight, it’s in there you know. It’s in there. And so what I’m committed to doing, part of what we do here in New Law Business Model is first of all we help lawyers choose the right practice model, the right practice area. First and foremost you have to choose the right practice area. Second of all, you have to choose the right people that you want to serve where you are committed to serving people you love working with, who are going to appreciate you, appreciate what you bring to the table. Then it is about choosing the practice model, the way that you serve up your legal services and get paid for your legal services that it’s going to incentivize you to efficiency, to systems, to making a difference in your clients’ lives, to helping your clients be better parents, better business owners, better members of their community. And then you have to build of course the systems to actually fulfill on. If you can do that and you know we’re here to help you do that of course, but if you can do that, now going to law school was the best decision you ever made. Now you can really love your law practice, love your clients. Know you’re making a difference in the world and be financially incentivized to do all those things. Michael: You know and I kind of wonder about this, are there…I mean what are the primary practice areas that you work with that lend themselves to this approach? Alexis: Yeah. So we find that the primary practice areas, the best practice areas. And there’s kind of a hierarchy, so I’ll start with the two best. The two best are estate and business planning. Now, the reason that those are the two best is because people who are considering doing estate and business planning really wanna do the right thing by their families and by their businesses. So already they’re coming into working with the lawyer with good intent generally speaking. On the business side sometimes you know they’re coming to you after they’ve already gotten into a fight and now it’s a litigation matter, but if handled right, you can actually shift those people into long term clients for you. That you have a relationship with, that you’ll keep them out of conflict in the future. And then on the estate side as well, when you are able to work with people early in their life to address the reality of incapacity and death, you’re actually helping them to make their lives way better. And especially if you approach it from that perspective where they’re not gonna be coming to you at the end of their life with a crisis or to kind of protect their assets from their kids, right? But instead you can begin to influence their parenting early on which is really exciting. So those are the two best. I think they’re systematizable, you can build in recurring revenue systems. You get to focus on educating your community and counseling your clients while you have a small team with a lot of outsourced support serving the clients. You get full control over your schedule. You get to work when you want with who you want and make as much or as little money as you want depending on how you’ve set things up. So I love those practice areas. Family law, divorce, bankruptcy, immigration, criminal defense. Those practice areas can also be great. Why? Because you’re helping people. You’re helping people. Somebody comes to you in a divorce, they need help. They come to you because they’re facing bankruptcy, they need help. They’re facing an immigration issue, they need help. They’ve just been arrested, you know DUI something like that, they need help. So these are people who’re coming to you, they need help. The harder part about these practice areas is the systemization. Bankruptcy, you can systematize for sure, and with these practice areas, what I think is great about them…oh, also you know intellectual property, trademark, if you can see that first transaction, that reason they come to you as the starting place for relationship, you can then shift them into estate planning and lifetime relationship with you, or business planning and lifetime relationship with you. And so that is a really great way to incorporate estate and/or business planning into whatever you’re doing and again become a trusted advisor to these clients. Now, I wanna give one word of caution because what I’m not saying is take whatever walks in the door. That’s the worst thing you can do. Like big no to that. We call that a door lawyer. Being a door lawyer is the worst possible thing you can do for your life and for client. You might be thinking, “Well, I have to take whatever walks in the door because otherwise I’m going to starve.” And the reality is that the more you do that the more you’re trapped in that mindset, the worst you are going to do, and it just gets worse and worse and worse. So I’m not saying take whatever walks in the door. What I’m saying is get very clear on who you serve and what you do for them, and then look at what you can do to set up the systems and the structures to have a lifetime relationship with them. Serving them at another level of depth with systems and processes that are going to allow you to create a practice that you love. Michael: Right. Does this approach tend to lend itself to solos or is it really something that even firms that are say 10, 20 attorneys can pursue effectively? Alexis: Yeah, the great part about it is that you get to dial it up or dial t down based on whatever you choose. And you really get to choose. If you wanna be a pure solo and work out of your home, you can do that. Now, you’re gonna hit a max of about $250,000, $300,000 a year in revenue doing that, but if that’s fine for you, it’s super low overhead, great. Personally I think that being a true solo with no support, you’re working way more than you have to and you’re probably doing things you don’t really like to do. But it’s actually more efficient and more effective for you if you do have at least one team member that you work with in person and then you have some outsourced support. And with that, you can get up to probably around $600,000 to $750,000 with that model of revenue. And that’s…you’re probably gonna need two team members as you get up to the higher levels and outsource support. And then if you wanna go to a $1 million+, you’re going to have to have other attorneys. Now, you know can this work in a firm of 10 to 20 attorneys? Absolutely it can if you’re progressive, you know, if the estate planning group is given the respect that it deserves. It’s not just as this thing like throw away value add that we do, but actually potentially as kind of the way that the entire firm can be served. So let me give you an example. You know somebody in a 10 to 20-person firm, you know they might come in on some big corporate transaction like a merger and acquisition. That business owner who came in and hired that firm, they need estate planning. So now you cross out the estate planning services. And as the estate planning lawyer is digging in to the realities of this person’s life, guess what? They see other issues that come up, because now that person, that business owner who was just using the firm for corporate matters has something else come up, they call their estate planning lawyer because that estate planning lawyer becomes the trusted advisor that they turn to when their kid gets into trouble, when they wanna get a divorce or get remarried. You know something like that. It’s like really becomes this trusted advisor relationship. They get in a car accident. And now if you have that whole firm, you don’t have to you know refer that stuff out, it’s all able to stay in-house because of the relationship that the person has with the estate planning lawyer. Not necessarily because of the relationship that they have with you know the guy who’s handling the M&A. Also typically because a lot of times the lawyers in the other areas, the M&A guys and you know they’re more like they’ve got their blinders on. And frankly they don’t always have the best bedside manner. You know if you wanna be an estate planning lawyer or a business planning lawyer of the kind I’m talking about, we call them personal family lawyers, family business lawyers, or creative business lawyers, you have to be able to connect with your clients at a human level. I remember again when I was at the big law firm, the partner that I used to work with, if a client cried in the office, he would get so uncomfortable, sometimes he would even leave the space. Michael: I’ll leave you alone with your crying. Alexis: Yeah, I’ll come back in a minute. For me if a client cries, you did a great job. Like I actually succeeded in supporting them to feel the reality of, “Wow, I’m gonna die one day, and I need to make decisions in a different way than I have in the past because I’m passing things on to the people that I love, to my business, to my clients, to my team, and I need to do that consciously.” And that’s a big conversation. Michael: Right. Right. And also I mean that’s where the real human connection is when you’re getting real. Alexis: Yeah. Michael: Right. So well, I’m curious some of the things that you’ve seen with some of the folks that you’ve guided. I’m sure a lot of people have achieved you know kind of transformations that are really compelling. I’m kind of curious about any of the folks you’ve worked with who’ve had to make transitions or transformations as leaders. Have you seen some of those things or guided people through some of those things? And I’m curious about maybe any interesting stories that arose. Alexis: Yeah. Well, I share to you. The first is with an attorney named Aaron. And Aaron came to us after he realized that…there was a set of interrogatories that he had to do or that he was submitting. And he submitted these interrogatories and he calculated out the date that the other side would have to turn them back in, and he noticed that he was ruining the other side’s Christmas based on the date that these interrogatories would be due. And as he did that he like pumped his fist in the air like, “Yeah.” Michael: Yeah. Yeah. Alexis: Yeah. And then half way through of his fist pump, he realized, “I just became a human who is happy to be ruining somebody else’s Christmas. I just became somebody happy to be ruining somebody else’s Christmas. Who am I?” And he realized that he had in fact become that person in his family too with his spouse and his kids. That he had become not the kind of leader that he wanted to be. So he shifted into estate planning, he became a personal family lawyer and changed his life. And you know from that leadership perspective, what I frequently see, and I struggled with this one a lot, what I frequently see is we don’t know, we’ve never been taught on how to hire and manage people. This was probably the biggest challenge that I’ve personally had with my own leadership over the years. And I would say that it’s only been in the past two to three years that I’ve really shifted who I am as an individual. This is kind of probably part of spiritual crisis awakening thing to be able to be a strong leader. Because as lawyers, you might resonate with this yourself, we tend to be control freaks. We went to law school because we wanna control everything and we want power. And so I had this mindset that said, “You should be grateful to be working for me. You should be grateful I’m giving you a job.” And like, “You made a mistake? How could you do that? What were you thinking?” That’s just kind of my being. It’s like so internally negative. Now, ultimately it was only reflecting back to me. My own self-criticism and judgment and how hard I was on myself. Michael: You know I was thinking you probably…I mean I know a little bit of your story. You worked very hard to be top of your class in law school. I mean that’s who you are is the best, right? So how can you see that that’s not everybody’s MO, right? Alexis: Yeah. I mean they teach us that in law school to be so competitive, right? I had to graduate first in my law school class to get counted. At Georgetown Law they don’t count you if you’re not number one. You’re kind of either number one or you’re you know two through whatever. You know magna cum laude. And I wanted to be counted, and I put so much pressure on myself to graduate first, and I did. But sort of the internal toll that that takes is really ginormous. And then what about you know the person who was number two? And what kind of self-criticism and judgment might they have had for themselves? And we carry that into our lives, into our law practices, and then we project it out onto our team members. And, you know, the one that was my very first team member, I hired her in January of 2004, so just six months, maybe, yeah, four, five months after opening the doors to my practice, she still works with me to this day. She has a different kind of relationship with me now. Look, as you could see, I’ve dropped my perfectionist tendencies. You know, none of that would have been okay before. Like that would not have been okay, it wasn’t perfect. I’m like letting you in to see like the reality of my life. And my dog is barking, and my husband like that can’t possibly be okay, because I always had to put on this image of like perfection. And then I had to make sure that my team was exhibiting that image of perfection. But here’s the reality, your clients want to work with a human. And if you have this image of perfection that you have to maintain and then you’re requiring your team to never make any mistakes or you’re shaming them if they do make mistakes, you’re going to attract the kind of clients that just give that back to you. You’re going to attract the kind of clients that are never happy, that are constantly complaining. Don’t wanna pay your bill, find reasons you didn’t do a good enough job, right? And all these things. And ultimately you’re creating a life that you don’t want. So if you want to shift that and still be a lawyer which you can… Like I almost walked away from the law a couple of times because I didn’t know how I could be this and still be a lawyer, but you can. And in fact you will find it so much more fulfilling. Now, you don’t have to wear feathers in your hair, you don’t have to live with your ex-husband. I am clearly more eccentric than most. But you can look to what I have created to know that you can create anything. Anything that you want exactly as you want it. So you know the key is to know yourself and to begin the process of actually starting to question some of those thoughts that are driving you to be someone that doesn’t feel good. Michael: Okay. So you know, and I think that there are a lot of people who see that disconnect like, “Hey, I’m not who I wanna be, so what I’m gonna do is I’m gonna set a goal, and when I get to the goal then I can be myself.” Alexis: Yeah, right. Michael: Does that work? I mean what do you think? Alexis: No. Michael: Okay. So how do you have the courage to be who you wanna be right where you’re at? Alexis: Yeah. So I actually created a whole process for this because I had to do it. So in 2009, my businesses, I had two businesses, one training lawyers and one training non-lawyers. And my businesses total were making about $2 million a year. I was living in Hermosa Beach, I had the house by the ocean, the kids in private school, the Mercedes, you know the whole thing. I was successful, super successful. But I was not being who I wanted to be. And in fact when I started to try to be who I wanted to be, my team would reflect back to me, “Alexis, you can’t do that. You can’t say that. You can’t wear that. You can’t write that, you’ll hurt the business.” And I recognized that making who I wanted to be based on these external goals, I was never going to be able to get there because in fact the external goals were based on me being this certain way that I didn’t want to be anymore. Now, personally I had to go through an entire process of letting go of everything, and I do mean everything. I moved to Colorado, I moved to a farm, I ultimately ended up going through bankruptcy. I mean everything. I went to rock bottom to discover the truth of who I am and rebuild from there, and came out of the other side, and discovered that I in fact could be a lawyer, and I could serve and train lawyers, and still be this person. You don’t have to do that, I did it for you. So you know and ultimately I created a process called the Money Map, that’s what actually supported me to be able to step into all of who I wanted to be. And it starts with getting really clear on the life that you actually want to have beyond what your parents said, beyond what society says, beyond what the law firm partner say, or even your peers say. You have this little voice inside of you that is saying that you want something different and you begin to listen to that voice. And it begins with really looking at your life unlike some really basic things like, where do you wanna live? Who do you want to be associating with? How do you wanna be spending your days? How do you wanna be using your time? And so we go through this process and we look at minimum to be happy, preferred if you could afford it, no limits and now. Because so many of our decisions about who we are are because of money. And most of us, and especially lawyers have what I call money dysmorphia. Money dysmorphia is the skewed perspective you have around money that causes you to make poor decisions around your time, energy, and attention. So in your mind you’re like, “Well, I have to do this for the money.” And it’s a lie, you actually don’t have to do it for the money. Your non-renewable resources are time, energy, and attention. And if you could just split the whole thing in your head which this Money Map process does, then you begin to see that actually you could put your time, energy, and attention first strategically and systematically. This is like a little woo with a lot of practicalities. So your left brain. You know we’re really strong left brain creatures as lawyers. We’ve got left brain, right brain. Right brain is your creative brain, left brain is your really logical brain. We need logical left brain systems to help us to make this transition into following our hearts and pursuing our bliss and you know all of these things. So when you can get really clear about what you actually need to have the life that you want, then you can create a step-by-step plan for bringing in exactly the amount of money that you actually need in the time that you actually have. Serving the clients that you actually want to serve doing work that you love. So I did that, and ultimately what I was able to create for myself is I work from home as you can see. I live in a beautiful place in Colorado, I travel a lot. I’m home you know when my kids get home, and I thought at some point that my son was gonna walk in too, but he didn’t. I am able to make my own schedule. And I’ll tell you, had I kept my estate planning practice, estate and business planning ultimately is what it became, it would have been even easier in some ways than I have it now, because I would have been doing just one you know clear thing all the time. At this point in my life I’m actually doing a lot of things and that creates actually more difficulty because I can’t systematize. I’m kind of like, in some ways it’s like being a door lawyer. Michael: Well, I’m just wondering if that’s because you enjoy sort of being at the edge of your abilities. That the fun is in the creating the new thing as opposed to… Alexis: Yeah. Michael: Okay. So but for attorneys right who I mean is that gonna keep people happy just running the system, even if it’s a really financially-lucrative system? Alexis: Well, that’s what’s great about it. It could be a step. It can either be your forever or it can be a step to your next thing. So what we see a lot of lawyers happen when they come into our system is the first focus is getting clear on who you serve. Who are you gonna serve? How are you gonna educate them? How are you going to bring them through an enrollment process? Most lawyers by the way are focused on the wrong thing. In the beginning they focus on marketing. That is not the right place to focus. Do not focus on marketing first. First and foremost focus on creating a client engagement system. A system for engaging clients at flat fees, no surprises, package offering that they get to choose from and then delivering that service like a rock star so that they turn into raving fans. Then go out and market, market, market, market. But in the beginning, you should only be using low cost and free marketing strategies while you develop this system for engaging and serving your clients, then put as much as you can in the marketing once you have that. But most lawyers are doing it backwards. They’re like, “I have to market. I have to market.” Well, you don’t even know how to engage clients. So you’re wasting your money and your time on marketing when you’re just gonna lose them before they even make it into your office or you’re gonna market to your competition. Big waste of time and energy. So you wanna do that. Once you’ve got a system down for engaging clients, serving clients, and then reaching those clients, you might decide you wanna run that for the rest of your life. You might be the kind of lawyer where you’re like, “This is great. I can work three to four days a week in my office, I could spend time golfing, or doing yoga, or building another business, or on relational issues, or parenting my kid, taking care of my parents, whatever.” But you might also decide, “Great. Now that I have this, I wanna train other lawyers to take over. I wanna become an actual business owner, not just a law practice owner. Now I wanna start bringing in other lawyers to serve the clients and train them on my systems.” That’s what I did, that’s what most of our lawyers will do as their next step, they’ll bring in other lawyers. Then you can go out and do anything that you want from there. Now you have learned how to be a business owner. Now you have learned how to be an entrepreneur. Now if you wanna go out and create programs and products like I’ve done, if you wanna go out and start all other businesses, if you wanna write a book, if you want to you know sail around the world, now you have choice. And that’s what most lawyers in traditional practices learning from other lawyers never get to. They have to work until they die doing work they don’t even like just to pay the bills. Michael: Right. Right. Well, that’s fantastic. I really appreciate your perspective. And I think you know we traded some emails before we spoke. You kind of gave me a heads-up like, “Hey, look I’ve got radical ideas,” or I forget how you put it. But I feel like it’s really important to identify that this is you know for leaders who have firms in place and they’re trying to kind of keep moving forward that this is what’s available now to those attorneys. And so you know part of my message is that the firm has to be a platform for the success of the people who work in it, because otherwise you know you’re gonna have the turnover, you’re gonna have conflict and it’s just it’s gonna be miserable. Alexis: And listen, that’s my bleeding edge right now. So I’ll be honest with you that I have not been the best business owner, I have not been the best leader. I know how to make a lot of money, I know how to create products that serve people, but I have not known how to lead a team. And so I’ve had all that conflict and I’ve had all that turnover. I have some people who have been with me since 2004, like that girl I told you about. My financial management team, a couple of other team members who’ve been with me through the long haul. But in large part I have been through a lot of team members over the years. And now I finally have a team in place and my own personal ability to lead is such that I care more about making sure I’m creating something that works for everyone than making sure I’m creating something that just works for me because that is not sustainable. So that means I have to listen a lot more. I have to have regular team meetings and be consistent about showing up. I have to find out what they care about. I have to be willing to help them learn from their mistakes instead of shaming them from their mistakes. I have to let them make mistakes, that’s really hard because I know how to do it. But if I don’t, they get disempowered, they end up leaving because especially if you’re hiring millennials, they don’t care about your stinking job. You know they don’t have any loyalty at all. What they want is a great place to work where they can feel like family, they can feel appreciated, they can feel trusted even if you don’t trust them. Like find out where you can trust them. They wanna be empowered and you need to have systems, processes. You need to be showing up, learning how to be a leader in ways that nobody ever trained you and you know or chart policies and procedures, reviewing your financials weekly, marketing plans, all the things that create a container of safety and security for your team if you do have a team. And you know letting people who are better at you than doing those things do them and recognizing that just because you’re intellectually smart, there’s only one kind of smart. There’s emotional intelligence that you probably don’t have as much of as other people, there’s heart intelligence but you likely don’t have as much of as other people. Michael: What was that? Heart intelligence? Alexis: Heart intelligence. Michael: Okay. Alexis: It’s a big one. Michael: Well, how does that differ from emotional intelligence? Alexis: You know I see emotional intelligence as being…it’s almost like the bridge between the mind and the heart, so it’s maybe more like more soul, whereas the heart, gosh…I mean my heart is totally illogical, completely and totally illogical. I’m actually just you know over I would say again in the past few years like learning how to listen to my heart, how to know what my heart is saying. I had no connection with my heart at all. Knowing for example, when is it time to use mother love versus father love? Both very similar. Father love is harsh. It sometimes can even seem mean. Mother love is like giving and yielding. It’s my heart that tells me these things, whereas the emotional intelligence is more about listening to other. Like really deep listening to other, evoking more from you and holding space for the truth that you have inside of you, whereas the heart intelligence is like knowing me. Michael: You know I think of emotional intelligence as a leader as having an ability to put my perspective aside. So let a leader will say, “Well, if I were in that situation I would just handle it this way.” And emotional intelligence is having the ability to recognize that that’s irrelevant if you’re trying to understand somebody else’s perspective. And so you use all the information you have about them acquired through all your interactions over time to be able to ask yourself the question, “What are they thinking about in this situation? What are their needs? Why did they take that action,” you know etc. And being able to sort of project a theory as to where they’re coming from. But heart intelligence is not a term I’ve heard. So I wonder is that another way to get to a connection? It’s kind of like consulting your own… Alexis: It’s a connection with yourself. Michael: …sort of feelings about a scenario. Alexis: Yeah, it’s a connection with yourself really. Michael: Okay. Alexis: It’s a far deeper understanding of your own true motivations beyond the mind. And you know on the emotional intelligence side I would really encourage you to take that even a step further and look at rather than like trying to construct the other person’s perspective, look at how you can ask questions that provides space for you to truly understand the other person’s perspective. Now, that does require the first step that you said to even consider that their perspective is valid. Michael: They have one. Alexis: They have one and it’s valid. So step one. So step two is then to actually get to the place of understanding what that perspective is, and not trying to understand it with any agenda other than, “I really am curious. I wanna understand where you’re coming from here.” But then the heart intelligence is it’s the inward looking of, “I really wanna understand myself. I am reactive. I sometimes behave in ways that I’m like,” God, why did I do that?” Or there’s choices that I’m making that aren’t always necessarily driven by love. That to me is heart intelligence. Michael: Well, Alexis, thank you so much. I mean it’s been a tremendous conversation. I’ve really enjoyed it. Alexis: Thank you. Well, thanks for having me. You know, when you asked me to join, I knew that we would be talking to more of the traditional law firm set, and so for those of you that are watching this, hi. You know, I see you out there, and I know that for some of you, well, if you’re still here, you must have been interested. And for some of you, you know, what I’m talking about today is just like way too outside your box, or you are looking at me and saying you know, “I don’t wanna give up that much control.” But there’s others of you that are here today, and what I am sharing with you you’re saying, “Oh my gosh, I can be who I am, and still be a lawyer, and make a difference in people’s lives, and make a great living while I do it.” And I just wanna say, yes, you can. If I did it, you can do it. If all these other lawyers that we’ve trained over the years have done it you can do it too. And we’re here to support. When I was creating all of the trainings that we currently offer today, I invested a lot of time, and money, and resource to do it. I made tremendous mistakes along the way. And I remember in the back of my head as I was making these investments going, “Alexis, what are you doing? Why are you spending all this money?” Michael: Yeah, who’s gonna buy this stuff? Alexis: Well, no. At that point it was just for me, in my own practice. And the voice in the back of my head said, “You’re not doing it just for you, you’re doing it for all the other lawyers you’re going to be able to help who will not have to reinvent this wheel,” because part of this I was going I was like, “How can there not already be a system for this stuff? This is ridiculous that every single one of us has to reinvent the wheel.” And again that voice was like, “You’re doing it. You’re creating it.” And so if you are in that place of wanting to create a practice you truly love and be loved by your clients, we’ve got the systems and support for you to do it. We’ve got the inspiration for you to be able to move through all the fear of investing in yourself, investing in your practice. That was terrifying. Nobody ever told me that after I already put $100,000 into law school, I was gonna have to invest more in building a practice. I thought I could just do it out of revenue but you can’t really. Not if you wanna do it in the way that will actually create something that you love that isn’t constantly dependent on you six, seven days a week. And so we’ve got it for you. You don’t have to do it all alone. Michael: What’s the best way for people to connect with you? Alexis: There’s a couple of places. One is getthemanifesto.com. It’s my Law Business Manifesto on liberating principles for enlightened lawyers. Then there’s newlawbusinessmodel.com where you can see a video series of what I’m talking about here, how to put it into action. And our main website lawbusinessmentors.com, lots of articles and resources for you there. And then if you wanna read the bestselling book on legal planning for parents, you can get that for free at momsfreebook.com. And the reason that’s good for you to read is you can see in that book the way to talk about legal services that your clients actually want to hear. You’ll see that that book sells legal services in a way that the people who read it want to buy legal services. You know it’s about inspiring your clients as opposed to scaring them. You know it’s not about fear, it’s about truth. So anyway, you can see that. And if you’re a parent, you need to read it because your estate plan is leaving your kids at risk, so you wanna fix that right away. Michael: Well, fantastic. You know I’ll put all that info on the show notes so to be easy to find. Alexis: I’ll send you the lawyer picture of me so that you could see the way I used to be. Michael: That’s great. That’s great. Well, thank you so much. Really enjoyed the conversation. Alexis: Well, thank you. Thank you for inviting me. Michael: You bet.
- New Law Business Model
- Book by Alexis Neely: Wear Clean Underwear
- The firm where Alexis started her career: Munger, Tolles & Olson
Mentioned the Interview
- getthemanifesto.com – The Law Business Manifesto on liberating principles for enlightened lawyers.
- newlawbusinessmodel.com – Video series on how to put the new model into action.
- lawbusinessmentors.com – More articles and resources.
- momsfreebook.com – Free download of Alexis’ book on legal planning for parents.
- moneymaptofreedom.com – Process for getting really clear on the life that you actually want to have.
- personalfamilylawyer.com – The law firm model Alexis created for her own firm.
- kidsprotectionplan.com – The Kids Protection Plan – tool for parents to use in identifying who they want to care for their kids in the event of an emergency or sudden death.
- Alexis joined a prestigious firm in Los Angeles and quickly found it wasn’t the experience she had hoped it would be [0:55]
- Alexis chose law school because she didn’t want to be an entrepreneur; instead she wanted security, to make a difference in people’s lives and to just focus on career [1:35]
- Isn’t the promise to associates, “Hang in there kid it’s gonna bet better”? Yes, but it’s a false promise [2:45]
- The model didn’t promote balance—even the “successful” partners were constantly stressed out [3:15]
- She worried that the forms and documents estate planning practice they were running wouldn’t truly serve the needs of clients’ families [3:55]
- Truth is one of Alexis’s highest values so choosing a model that had integrity built in was very important [4:20]
- She also felt time was of the essence; she had to make a change quickly before she became stuck in the lifestyle [4:45]
- But before she made the decision to move on, she tried for a while to make it work at the firm [6:12]
- Ultimately though, she couldn’t structure her career the way she wanted [7:15]
- Looking back on launching her own firm, she hadn’t realized how much work she was taking on [9:00]
- In the ten years since she first launched her firm, she has gone through many stages of evolution [9:20]
- When she went out on her own, she didn’t have any financial assets, just an “internal knowing” that she could figure it out [10:28]
- She had a friend who had launched her own firm; this gave her inspiration and someone to model [10:50]
- She got her first office space by subletting from another attorney and trading hours of work in lieu of rent [12:20]
- She had a business coach who was pushing her to implement a very traditional law firm model; he also didn’t believe in her vision [13:07]
- Yet she knew she had to pursue the model she had in mind because she could see that law firm leaders didn’t have the answer; they were all miserable [13:25]
- She wanted to have a personal relationship with clients and be a trusted adviser, to bill flat fee, and not have to track her time to the minute [14:14]
- Her concept was to be like the small-town family lawyer; the concept she has since developed is a Personal Family Lawyer [14:50]
- Other attorneys advised her not to focus on serving young families; yet as a mom, she knew parents would do anything for their kids [15:10]
- She also saw huge holes in the estate planning process that were leaving kids at risk [15:42]
- That led her to create a system she called The Kids Protection Plan [16:30]
- Ultimately, she decided not to rely on learning business practices from other lawyers (the blind leading the blind) [16:50]
- Instead, she started learning from other entrepreneurs, other professional service providers [17:54]
- By her third year, she did $1 Million in revenue as the only lawyer; in the forth year, she also did $1 Million in revenue but hired other attorneys and only went into the office 3 days a week [18:30]
- She sold the practice in its fifth year [19:08]
- She began training other lawyers to implement her systems in their firms [19:20]
- In 2010-2012, she took time off to do soul searching and self discovery; this led to her affirming her decision to serve lawyers [20:10]
- Lawyers have such an opportunity to change how we interact together as human beings [21:20]
- An example, when she and her husband divorced, their collaborative attorneys found ways to keep them fighting (even though they both promised to handle the divorce amicably) [21:45]
- It’s all about the business model; the key is to find the model that will serve themselves and the greater good [22:15]
- There are ways to build a business model around helping people to resolve matters rather than escalating conflicts [22:55]
- How they help people through New Law Business Model: [24:20]
- chose the right practice area for you;
- chose people you love serving;
- create a business model that incentives those elements of your practice you wish to emphasize; and
- build the systems to fulfill on your promises