The LeXfactor

The Secret to Growing Your Firm and Keeping Your Team Happy with Jessica Markham – The LeXFactor

Brad Paubel, CIO at Lexicon, takes this episode of The LeXFactor as solo host and brings in returning guest Jessica Markham, Owner & Managing Principle at Markham Law Firm.

In this episode Jessica tells Brad how she keeps her team members happy through avoiding overburdening, offering employee mentoring and other resources, and enabling them to grow in their legal careers. The pair also goes over Jessica’s tips for growing your law firm in the way you want. From getting comfortable with managing different kinds of people to learning how to be flexible with your job responsibilities and how you are spending your time, Jessica provides an overview of her “secret sauce” to keeping attorneys happy and growing her dynamic family law firm.

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Podcast Transcription

Brad Pauble: Welcome to another episode of the LexFactor. And it is a very, very special episode today because Brad Pauble, that’s me, is the host for once. I’ve never actually had the opportunity to host. My previous host would rub it in my face constantly that I am the co-host. So for this one opportunity, I get to shine and do whatever I want. It’s crazy, right? They let the co-host have the mic for the day. So it’s very exciting. I’ll clap for myself because Lauren always claps for me. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

But we do have a guest with us today. It is a returning guest and I’m very excited to welcome Jessica Markham back to the LexFactor. Welcome.

Jessica Markham: Thanks for having me. Yeah, absolutely.

BP: It feels different now that I’m the host, right? It’s more lively. It feels more exciting.

JM: You didn’t need her.

BP: I love it. I love it. Remember, I didn’t prompt her to say that anybody. She said that all on her own. Do you mind re-introducing yourselves for those that maybe haven’t heard the previous podcast?

JM: Not at all. My name is Jessica Markham. I’m the owner and managing principal of Markham Law Firm, which is a family law firm in Bethesda, Maryland, which is a couple miles right outside Washington, DC. We practice exclusively family law, all aspects of family law in Maryland and D.C.

The ‘Secret Sauce’ for Law Firms

BP: And today I think we have a very important topic. We’re talking about how to go to that next level in your law firm, how to grow, how to take it to that next level, how to really expand your business. And I know in previous podcasts we had just tons of different opportunities to talk to people about the culture and people and revenue and metrics and you name it. Everybody has a secret sauce for growing that particular piece of their business. What do you believe is that secret sauce, Jessica?

JM: I think my secret sauce kind of goes back to the last time I was on the podcast. So the last time we really talked about creating a happy law firm work environment, and I think that’s been my secret sauce because it’s been, I’m not going to say easy, but I have been very fortunate in attracting and retaining really amazing attorneys and they’re happy. And other law firm owners ask me, why my attorneys are so happy. So I think that has been a special sauce, but I have also a lot of other tips and things that I wanted to share with the listeners as well.

BP: Well, before we go into those tips, I couldn’t agree more. A happy employee is going to be more productive. Your customers are going to feel that they’re going to feel like they’re a part of something that’s bigger. Not only your employees, as well feeling like they’re part of something bigger, but you know, just the whole dynamic that is when a customer comes in during a difficult part of their lives and trying to reach out for help, they’re going to feel they can trust you and drive towards that. So before we get into your tips, what are some of the things that you do, going into our previous podcast a little bit, to just make your employees happy?

JM: One is sort of a reasonable billable hour requirement. I don’t believe in overburdening everybody, because I want them all to be performing to their highest capacity. So I really try and keep their workload manageable and just be during business hours. I don’t expect them to work evenings or weekends, and I encourage them not to work evenings and weekends. And we check in a lot to make sure that they have a caseload that allows for them to really, really work hard during work hours and to unplug during non-work hours.

We really focus on employee training, mentoring. We offer lots of different resources beyond just regular CLEs. Coaching. We bring in speakers, professional development. We sort of train and nurture our employees and mentor our employees to grow in their careers, make a name for themselves, differentiate themselves in the market. Those are just some of the ways that I think we set ourselves apart as an employer.

Investing in Employee Development

BP: Sure. We received quite a bit of feedback from your previous podcast, especially around that work-life balance, but we did receive a question that was more specific around how much should you budget for those type of activities? When is it too much? When is it not enough? Obviously when they’re reading that question, it depends on your people and how receptive they are to it, but how would you answer that question? How would you budget for bringing in speakers, any extra activities that you would do. Obviously work-home balance is a separate topic, but just those things that you bring in to help educate them and continue to grow. In the previous podcast, you also talked about activities and things like that. So just how much should be spent on that? I would assume they’re thinking like a percentage or how do you gauge when it’s a success?

JM: We actually don’t spend as much as you might think. So we have a meeting. We used to do it every Thursday and now it’s not every Thursday, it’s maybe every other Thursday, where we bring in a speaker to talk to the entire firm on Zoom about a particular topic. And for most of them, we don’t pay. They’re using it as sort of a marketing opportunity in like more of a non-traditional sense. So for example, we’ve had financial advisors come in and talk to us about life insurance or disability insurance. We had one come in and talk about alternative investments, like, you know, private real estate holdings, things like that. Think nontraditional things that you don’t hear about all the time – oil and gas investments, for example. We had a mortgage broker come in and talk about changes and mortgage qualifications and different types of mortgages. We had a yoga person come in. That person we paid, of course. We had somebody come in and talk about mindfulness. We’ve had Enneagram personality type system training, Gallup StrengthsFinder. So we pay some of these people. They just spent 45 minutes of their time so that we potentially are giving them business in the future. But I would say on average, a thousand dollars a month for a group training is probably on the high end and it’s really, really effective. And it’s like you kind of throw that in with your holiday party, for example, but it’s much more meaningful. So it’s a chance for people to spend time together and learn.

BP: I think sometimes people forget about those opportunities that are out there. It is a means for businesses to market, but it is what you take away from those conversations. And there is a lot that you can learn from those individuals. And you also could be setting up a potential opportunity to work with another company in the future. It works both ways. So I think that’s a very positive approach and something that our listeners can take away.

Previously, you had talked about additional items besides the secret sauce of making people happy. What other items do you have on your list of ways that you could grow your business?

How Law Firms Can Grow Business

JM: As you might’ve mentioned, I get asked about how I grew my firm quite a bit. I get inquiries maybe up to a couple of times a week from attorneys that want to grow their firm. They’re either solos or maybe it’s a solo and associate or two partners, and they want to figure out how to grow. Just for a frame of reference, I started six years ago when it was just me and a part-time person to help me. And I just hired my ninth attorney and we’re right now interviewing two positions. So that would bring us to about 19 total employees. People see that and they wonder how I did it and so forth. So, I mean, in talking to many, many law firm owners, and people who want to be law firm owners … I told somebody in the first year, “Well, if I did it, you can do it too.” And then another law firm owner said, “I don’t know if that’s true. You might want to stop.” I’m all about positive encouragement. I will say, I look at other firms and then I kind of think about, well, what are they doing? What am I doing different? What could they be doing better? How can I help this person get to where they want to go? People tell me sometimes to start coaching, I just like talking to people and helping them. It’s just fun for me. So I think what I have noticed with all the attorneys I’ve spoken to and I’ve spoken on panels, bar associations, done workshops, all kinds of things. So after talking to probably a few hundred law firm owners and kind of comparing against my journey, I’ve identified a few things that I think that I do that some people maybe don’t want to do or aren’t as good at.

I would say the main thing is if you want to grow your firm, you need to get comfortable managing people. I think attorneys, typically, usually did college and then law school right after. There are not a lot of business majors that I know of. Most people have had zero management training and they don’t think about management. they don’t think about it for really what it is and I think that there are a lot of other industries that are way ahead of the legal industry with respect to management. So most people just look at their associate as somebody that they can kind of walk into their office, virtual or otherwise, and dump some files on them

BP: Right, and they just hit the ground running. They just go. Manage themselves.

JM: They look at their associate and they’re like, this person is somebody I can dump work on. But I challenge listeners out there who want to grow their firm to flip their thinking and to say “Not what an associate can do for you. What you can do for an associate?” So I tell the managing attorneys here who have direct reports that you have to completely flip your thinking. And when we hire a young associate or a law clerk or a paralegal, we are undertaking to train and mentor that person. And we need to be of service to them and teaching them how to be a lawyer.

BP: I feel like it’s the old, “do not ask what the associate can do for you but ask what you can do for the associate.” I love it.

JM: I do think if you’re looking at the world of lawyers that wants to grow their firms, and you’re looking at it as a pie, there’s like a couple slices there that don’t want to manage anybody. I think also they might say, “yeah, I want to hire somebody that can just do work and then I keep most of the money.” That kind of appeals to almost anybody, right? If you think about it that way. But if you think about it as you are bringing somebody into the fold, you are responsible for mentoring them, teaching them, training them, helping them with their professional development, their networking, all of those things, and you actually have to manage them. you meet with them, you talk to them, you see how they’re doing and you have to ask them, you have to be willing to hear, “Well, how am I doing as a boss? What am I doing wrong?” And I talked to lots of law firm owners who go, “Huh, I never asked anybody that before.” And it’s like, “well, maybe that’s why they keep quitting because there’s stuff that you’re doing wrong.” But you have to be receptive to hearing that.

So that’s like my No. 1. And it might sound obvious, but if you are not prepared to do all that stuff, then you are probably not going to really be growing your firm.

BP: Right. And you know, there’s so many topics, so many courses out there, so many things that you can find online about management and being a good manager, and they all start with that same approach that you outlined. It’s not just sitting down, giving an update and it’s not just production. How many hours or did you complete this much paperwork? It’s really more about the perception that they’re driving. How am I doing as a boss? What advice do you have for me as an individual? And it’s that relationship that you build with that individual that makes it more of a working relationship. Because to be honest, everybody says it, you spend a lot of time at work. I know you had talked about work-home balance, but it’s still a lot of time at work. So it’s important to build that relationship. And I think that is missed in law firms very much. I think that a lot of people forget that aspect of it. And like you said, they don’t know, just graduating from law school, that a big part of their job is going to be doing that as they grow their individual law firms.

JM: I mean, that’s my major one that I tell people. The other thing I’ll say, when people come to me and ask me for help, most people aren’t good at everything. It takes so much when you’re starting a law firm. There’s the management, the marketing, the handling the money, bringing in cases, actually practicing law. And so I think of when you’re small or when you’re a solo you’re wearing like every single hat and as you grow, you cannot keep all the hats. You have to be giving away hats. And I think a great deal of lawyers are really type A. They’re controlling. They are used to doing everything themselves, and they have a really, really hard time giving away some hats. And so if you identify all the different roles and responsibilities that go into owning a firm, and there are things that you are not good at, then you really need to find a partner or somebody that works for you who can wear some of these hats. And I think sometimes people partner up just because they like a person, which is great, but I think if you are not good with money or you’re not good at managing people, but you’re really good at bringing cases, you need to find a partner to wear those hats. So the more you grow, the more hats you’ll give away.

BP: Oh yeah, absolutely. And it really is, when you’re talking about it, management 101. Surround yourself with people that can do things that you can’t, or that are smarter than you, or has other capabilities or other skills that you don’t own. I think that is so important. And I do think a lot of attorneys are very much that type A and want to be in that position of control. But letting go, and I love your analogy of giving away your hats. I picture every firm when you walk in the door has this a hat rack with all of these different hats labeled accounting, marketing, whatever it may be, and you’re wearing them all in the ones that just don’t fit very well on you. That’s the people that you need to surround yourself with.

JM: One of the things that I read that I did that was really effective for me, maybe like a year and a half ago, something like that, I made a list of all the things that I do in one month, all the things I do in one week and all the things I do in one day and the list was just bananas. There are things on there that I really like to do, like update the website because I’ve always worked on websites. I think it’s fun and easy. And I’ve done that since high school. And I realized that it just was not an effective use of my time. So even though I liked doing the website, it was just eating into other things and there are better uses for my time. So when I made those lists, I was able to really look at the things that I probably shouldn’t be doing even if I want to do them or could do them and give them away.

BP: So did you just for a month just put it in buckets and just write down website design, did financials, did you do it like that? Is it that big of a bucket?

JM: It didn’t even take a month. I mean, it took a couple of days. I just kept a notepad right next to my laptop on my desk. And I mean, stuff just accumulated on there so fast. I mean, there was stuff I was doing – I think it was a year and a half ago because I think it was during COVID – but I was sending content to the person that sends out our newsletter and I really didn’t need to be doing that. The website and the newsletter are the ones that come to mind first, but there were a couple other things that it was like, well, even though I don’t mind, do I really need to be doing it or can someone else do it?

BP: That’s certainly a good thing for people to sit down and it’s not just that the hat doesn’t fit, but it’s also, is there a better use of your time and figuring out where you can reduce to focus on more important items to let the business grow or to help guide the business growing.

JM: Right. I mean, that sort of takes me to another point, which is you have to let go of doing everything yourself because I think all the law firm owners out there, they know they’ve put the blood, sweat, and tears into building a law firm. And whenever you give something to someone else, it’s not their firm, they might not do it the same as you, or as well as you. But you can’t let that stop you from delegating. I mean, you still have to be comfortable in delegating a lot. If you’re not comfortable with delegating, you’re probably not going to grow your law firm. So that’s something that you just have to get comfortable with. I write a blog for a local legal newspaper called The Daily Record and I wrote a blog about this. One example was I wanted to buy mugs for the firm that had our logo and the person I delegated that to kept trying to show me mugs. And I was like, just buy mugs, put the logo on it. Like, I don’t care if they’re blue, if they’re white, if they’re bigger, they’re smaller, whatever. And so the subject of my blog post was essentially that she might not have bought the exact same mug that I would have bought, but the difference between her mug and what I would have gotten – in terms of a satisfactory decision, her mug might have been an 80%. Mine might have been 100% but the difference between the two is not meaningful. I just have to let that go.

BP: It’s easy to say, but it is so hard for some people to do that. You know that, right?

JM: Yeah, I know. I know. I talk to people. You just cannot care about the mug. If you care about the mug, you will not grow your law firm.

BP:  We’re going to make a t-shirt that says that. We’re going to ask, care not for the mug, grow your law firm. I love it.

JM: I think people, if they really want to grow their firm, you have to sort of get into the CEO mindset. One of my favorite shows is 30 Rock. Alec Baldwin played Jack Donaghy, who is the CEO of NBC or whatever. In one of my favorite scenes, Kenneth goes to Jack and he goes, “Um, sir, there’s a problem with my paycheck.” And Jack says, “And you’re telling me this because we’re the only two people in this company?” So, you know, you have to be the person that is making the major decisions. I mean, nobody should be going to Jack Donaghy asking about the mugs or the paychecks or anything like that. So you really have to be protective of your time and only do the things that you have to do and let go of all the other mug-like things.

BP: I love it. It’s just so true. And I think it’s easy to fall into the caring about the mug trap. Also, even if you get out of not caring about the mug, you fall back into that trap very easily. There was a paper that was published back in the 70s about management and how to get people to think on their own. And it was really centered around what you were describing with the mug, but it went into a little bit of detail around when people come to you and they’re asking these questions. You give that back to them. You say, “Choose what mug you want. Which mug would you choose?” Go take care of that and empower them to be able to make that choice. Because if you do continuously make the choice of what mug, then they’re going to bring you the next thing. What drinking glasses should they use? What silverware should it be in the kitchen? Everything’s going to be your decision and your time is going to be filled with these decisions that could be made by somebody else and you’re not spending time on growing the firm.

JM: I think in your scenario, the only difference is you’re training the employee to think for themselves. I think the problem that I see more with law firm owners, and maybe it’s a lawyer thing, is training the lawyer to not hear about the mug. I’m sure whoever you hired is perfectly capable of doing whatever the thing is. But you have to actually not care. You have to trust them. And then, because I do meet a lot of law firm owners that are micromanaging or managing on the backend, and they’ll say, “OK, you do it,” but then they want them to bring it back to them and have the final OK. But you actually have to just really let go of a lot of things and you really have to trust the people that you hired to have autonomy.

BP: Or worse, let them choose the mug and then make sure to point out how they chose the wrong mug.

JM: I’ve totally messed with people like that before. I’m like, “You bought that thing?”

So one of the business books that I really like is called “The E-Myth Revisited,” and they talk about an arc of the life of a business and how you need to be planning for growth. And if you’re not growing, then you’re shrinking and you’re dying and that sort of thing. And the thing that really stuck out to me was something that I had seen with my own eyes with other law firm owners, which is they grow, they get bigger, and then all of a sudden you see them get smaller again. And they described this phenomenon and I thought it was crazy because I thought what I had seen was like a very unique thing, but it turns out it’s not. So when you grow, you start delegating and hiring and then somebody messes something up. So it’s, like, not a mug anymore, right? It’s some big things. Some big business decision. And then the owner freaks out and then takes it all back and starts doing it all themselves again. And then that’s when the firm shrinks. That’s when you’re in the shrinking, not growing phase. And so I’ve seen that before and I do think you have to resist that urge and that’s part of what they talk about in the book because somebody will buy the wrong thing and mess up the thing, you know, do something with their case that you didn’t like, whatever it may be. And it’s going to happen. Nobody’s perfect, including you. And so you have to just stay the course, learn your lessons from it.

BP: Yes, and the answer cannot be to just take it back over, but instead figure out what you did to allow that, or what lack of guidance you gave or maybe even training or whatever it may be, so that doesn’t happen in the future.

JM: Exactly. I mean, I do think for any kind of business, but especially a law firm, having processes in place can obviously guard against mistakes to some extent and can maintain a level of standards that you want, can maintain quality of work that you want. You can’t just have 20 people just like floating around totally doing their own thing. If you want to maintain your brand and have a cohesive firm and such, having processes and procedures and standards is important. The more that you grow, the more you’re going to have to get processes in place. You can’t just sort of wing it, like when you’re alone. And so I think that that’s definitely important. So I think that’s sort of the rational response to any hiccup, as opposed to just saying, “Well, I’ll do it myself.”

BP: Well, you’ve definitely given us a lot of advice for allowing your firm to grow. Do you have any parting comments that you want to share with anybody or any kind of last thoughts to leave them with?

JM: It’s important to think about what you want your firm to be and what makes your firm different and having a brand for your firm. And I think when you start out, you’re probably not going to have a brand and you’re not going to have a culture and you’re not going to know what makes you different because you’re literally just probably trying to keep the lights on. But that brand and culture will develop. It’s just a question of, is it a good one? Is that the one you want? So you have to be mindful of what culture you’re creating, who you want to be, is that aligned with your values, and so forth. And so I think that’s also sort of in the special sauce category of really thinking about it and not sort of allowing it to happen.

BP: I think people sometimes forget that a culture and a brand, just like you had said, it’s going to form on its own. It’s going to form, is it what you want it to be is the question and how you guide it in that forming process so that it turns out to be what you want your law firm to be defined as. If you don’t put the effort in, something is going to form, it just may not be what you want.