On this episode of Lawyer Business Advantage, I speak with my client Renee Ross, owner of Ross Family Law. In her first year of running her firm, Renee built a million dollar firm from the ground up while taking two weeks of vacation along the way! In just a few short years, Renee has built a multi-million dollar law firm while taking weeks of vacation every year. She has truly built her Perfect Practice. Learn how she did it…coming up next on Lawyer Business Advantage!
Alay Yajnik: [00:00:00] Welcome to Lawyer Business Advantage, your source for biz dev tips, wisdom and inspiration. I’m your host, Alay Yajnik. We’re unleashing your inner rainmaker in 3…2…1….
Alay Yajnik: [00:00:14] It’s my pleasure to welcome to the show Rene Ross of Ross Family Law. Renee, welcome to Lawyer Business Advantage.
Renee Ross: [00:00:21] Thank you so much Alay. Thanks for having me.
Alay Yajnik: [00:00:24] You’re welcome. I really appreciate you jumping on my show. It’s been so much fun seeing how your firm has grown and developed over the years. I’m really familiar with with your firm, obviously, but our listeners probably don’t know. So could you tell us a little bit about how you’ve grown Ross Family Law over the past several years?
Renee Ross: [00:00:45] Sure. How much time do you have?
Alay Yajnik: [00:00:49] We’ve got about a half an hour. But for this question, let’s do it in about a couple of minutes if we could.
Renee Ross: [00:00:56] Sounds good. I started my small family law firm in the nether regions of the East Bay in 2014. It was just me and a very part-time paralegal that I’d worked with for a really long time. And I really didn’t know much about running a business when I started out, but I had really incredible mentors. And so a lot of what I did was adopt things that I saw that they did well and incorporate that into my vision of what I wanted my firm to be. And I picked up new mentors along the way.
Renee Ross: [00:01:30] I spent a lot of time studying business, hiring excellent business coaches like Alay. I had a lot of slow organic growth. It was intentional that the firm grew as the right people came along. And that’s essentially what I mean when it’s organic. I didn’t intentionally try to grow too much, too fast. It was who is the right people at the right time? And a lot of it was really based on relationships.
Renee Ross: [00:02:09] And anyway, so we grew from that first year with my part time paralegal and myself. In year two, I added another really experienced senior lawyer. With that senior lawyer, I then needed another paralegal. And after that, business started to continue to grow and I had more business than I can handle. And so I brought on yet another lawyer and more staff. And fast forward a few years later, I’ve got a multi-level firm that can handle really complicated cases that need large staffing and but at the same time, help garden-variety cases as well.
Alay Yajnik: [00:02:57] Right! And thank you for the plug, by the way. It was a pleasure working with you as you were starting your firm. And one of the things I loved about how you’ve grown it, you mentioned that you were fairly conservative in terms of figuring out when to bring people on board, when to take on additional consistent expenses month over month. Can you tell me a little bit about what was going through your head as you were thinking through some of those decisions and why you chose to be more conservative rather than, “OK, I’m going to invest for growth and I’m going to go for it?”
Renee Ross: [00:03:29] Absolutely. I felt it was a philosophy that I had that if I was lean and mean, I was more flexible and adaptable as a business. But that doesn’t mean that was without struggle. I mean, I made very conscious decisions to keep overhead low, especially office space. But Alay, you know, for years I struggle with “Do I get more space or not?” And the pandemic’s answered that question. For me, the answer is, “What do we need space for now?” So it’s just really interesting that sometimes as a business owner the things that you struggle with, just resolve themselves essentially without decisiveness.
Alay Yajnik: [00:04:11] Yeah sometimes over time, that decision gets decided for you if you don’t do anything. You started off with one office in Pleasanton and then you expanded to a second office in Oakland. And can you tell us a little bit about how that transpired and why you made the decision to expand in that direction?
Renee Ross: [00:04:31] Sure. I always wanted to have more of a presence closer to home. My practice has been in Pleasanton as long as I’ve been a family lawyer. And so I have a lot of recognition in the geographic area and I’m used to working out there. But I actually lived in Oakland and wanted to be closer to home and all the attorneys lived out in that area too. So I started exploring office space in Oakland and some of my closest relatives were lawyers as well. I happened to find office space in the building where they had their law firm and on the same floor down the hall. And so once that office space came up, it was meant to be.
Alay Yajnik: [00:05:18] Awesome.
Renee Ross: [00:05:20] Yeah, it’s really nice, actually.
Alay Yajnik: [00:05:24] Good. What do you like about it?
Renee Ross: [00:05:30] It may sound corny, but the the building management is really nice and the people that work in the building have been there for 20 years. So the garage attendant I knew when I was in high school because I’d go with my uncle to his office, and I knew the manager of the building, and I knew the front desk attendant. So it’s a familial environment and it’s, honestly for commercial office space, really warm. So I just see these really great people that I’ve known for a long time. And it’s this sense of nostalgia when I go to the office, which I don’t do anymore. But when I did go to the office, I really enjoyed going there.
Alay Yajnik: [00:06:19] Right. And hopefully at some point we’ll all be able to go back to the offices.
Alay Yajnik: [00:06:22] One of the things you mentioned is you want to be lean and mean and keep costs low. But one thing that you’ve never scrimped on is compensation for your team. For your size firm, you compensate your employees generously and you provide them with generous benefits. Can you provide some insight as to why it was worth that investment for you?
Renee Ross: [00:06:48] It’s also a deep rooted philosophical belief: that my employees and the people that I work with take incredible care of me and support me and allow me to do the work that I enjoy most. And so I feel it’s incumbent on me to take care of them. And so one way that I feel that I can do that is by being generous, particularly more so with benefits than other firms. It’s really relationship-based, I value the people I work with and I want to take care of them.
Alay Yajnik: [00:07:24] Yeah, and that definitely comes through with your team and not just on the compensation standpoint, but also the culture that you have built at your firm and the sense of camaraderie that’s there at your firm. And the retention also, in a fiercely competitive environment for talent, you have been able to retain your best attorneys and that’s not an easy thing to do. And as you were growing your firm, your role’s changing over time as you’re adding people. And I know you did a lot of work trying to find out what your strengths were and how to leverage those. And so how did your strengths really play into the growth of your firm and your firm success?
Renee Ross: [00:08:05] Yeah, excellent question. I’m an insufferable extrovert, and so I am happiest when I’m connecting with other people and building strong relationships with other people. And it was my assistant actually that coined it as one of my superpowers. She’s just this really amazing, positive person, and she regularly points out the positives in people. So to have people in your inner circle who have a long history with you, that can mirror back, maybe what you forget or you don’t always see. And so she pointed that out to me as one of my superpowers and my ability to build relationships with people. And so what did that mean? And what did I do with that, is that I use that to try to build my business. And so in terms of people I work with, I try actively and I focus energy and efforts on making sure I’m connected with them, even in a physically disconnected world.
Renee Ross: [00:09:06] I’ve increased the number of meetings that we have on a weekly basis. We have meetings, most of the staff on Monday mornings. We have all staff meetings on Wednesday morning and we try to have attorney meetings on Friday afternoons. When as typically we only do maybe one meeting a week, one meeting a quarter with everybody. So I intentionally try to strengthen the relationships with people that I work with. And by doing that, I feel like we have a unicorn, at least in my experience in law firms, a place where people really enjoy working with each other and really enjoy and value the work that they do. And it’s been really fun to create a culture and understand what that means and what that looks like. So I’ve built this almost work family and we all really care about each other. And that’s also mirrored in the relationships and how I built a referral-based business.
Renee Ross: [00:10:07] I care a lot about nurturing relationships with other lawyers, opposing counsel, with my clients, and that’s transformed into what’s pretty much one hundred percent referral-based business.
Alay Yajnik: [00:10:19] There’s two things around that that I would love to dig deeper on. And one is the actions that you take. That’s probably one of the most common questions I get is “What do the top attorneys do who are natural rainmakers or who are rainmakers?” “What are the top attorneys doing to bring in business?” So that’s one question, is the actions that you’re taking to do that. The other question, though, which is perhaps even more important is “What is your attitude and mindset with regards to business development?” That’s probably the first part or the most important one, because if you do that right, the actions may not matter as much. And if you don’t have the mindset right, the actions you take won’t matter at all. So what mindset do you have when you approach building relationships for business development purposes?
Renee Ross: [00:11:04] It’s really interesting, nobody teaches you relationship-based networking, right? And so when I started out as a lawyer, I knew I had to network. I knew I had to go to events, but I didn’t know what networking really meant. And so I go to these events and I think I even went to one and I asked somebody for a job just plainly in an event which was so embarrassing looking back on that. But what took me a long time to realize was really networking and relationship-based marketing and networking is about making friends. And once I transformed networking or marketing into making friends, it was really easy to figure out what to do.
Renee Ross: [00:11:47] So it was really creating a mindset of “Who are people that I find interesting?”, “Who are people that I want to spend more time with?”, and that’s where I focus my networking efforts because it’s fulfilling and interesting to me. I spend time and build relationships with people that I want to be friends with, and then the actions flow naturally from that.
[00:12:15] What do you do with your friends? You email them, you call them, you see how they’re doing, you catch up with them, you see how you can help them. What can you give to your friends? Not about what your friends can give you. And so it’s once you transform your mindset from how do I…., “How do I develop business?”, “How do I network?”, How do I market? That’s really just making friends. And that was transformative for me.
Alay Yajnik: [00:12:40] That approach right there is something I’ve seen in all of the successful rainmakers is they don’t view it as networking for business development, because, if they viewed it as networking for business development, they wouldn’t get results because people see through that transparent agenda just like that. But if you’re networking because you’re genuinely interested in them or, as you say, they’re your friends, that takes things to a whole different level because it’s genuine and it’s authentic and it shows that you care. And that’s what’s going to build those really strong long-term relationships. So thank you for bringing that up. And it’s really important for all of our listeners to hear.
Alay Yajnik: [00:13:19] And then you also mentioned some of the actions that you’re taking. So you email them, you give them a call, you see how they’re doing and try and help them out. And I love the fact that you’re thinking about them as friends. And so those actions flow naturally. There’s a bunch of different frameworks out there and models for networking. I have a system. A lot of people have systems. Tell us about your thoughts on having systems for networking and business development.
Renee Ross: [00:13:47] I think it’s great, I think having a system is great. I think in all honesty, I struggle with networking systems. I’ve used them in the past and I go back to them when I’m really trying to be intentional about my networking. But I struggle with regularly employing systems. But when you do it, I think it’s effective and it works. There’s no doubt about it.
Alay Yajnik: [00:14:11] Yeah. Here’s the reason why I ask, because you’re viewing these relationships as friends, you don’t need a system, really. You could use a system. And some of us really like to have systems and processes in place so we’re consistent with our actions and everything that goes with systems. But if you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons, a system will help maybe, but it’s not necessary, is it?
Renee Ross: [00:14:35] I mean, I inconsistently employ systems for networking purposes. And so far, at least in terms of measuring my success with the business that’s come in and my efforts, if that’s any marker, I don’t need a system.
Alay Yajnik: [00:14:51] Exactly. And so that’s one of the things I’ve noticed is when people are learning business development and learning how to build those relationships, genuinely put aside the biz dev agenda, genuinely put aside the fact that you’re trying to build a book of business and just connect with people for them being people and for them being friends.
Alay Yajnik: [00:15:09] Having a system in place is helpful because you’re trying to learn this different mindset. And it’s good to have a framework of reference that you can use to learn this stuff. But once you get to the point where those relationships are formed and they’re set in place and you’re rolling with those and are genuinely just connecting with them, because they’re people, a lot of people don’t need a system. And so I wanted to put that out there as well. And I’m glad you echoed that, because that’s something a lot of the top rainmakers will say, is they don’t really have a formal system. They just know a lot of people.
Renee Ross: [00:15:41] It’s true, I do know a lot of people. And I think you touched on a point that’s important too, the mindset’s more important than the system. And no matter what you do, if you have a system or not, if you’ve got a negative mindset going into the business development, it’s not going to be effective whether or not you have a system.
Alay Yajnik: [00:15:58] Well said, well said, and that brings us to another topic which we were kind of joking about the other day. I found in building my business from the ground up, I’ve been the only owner. My business has a lot of my tendencies built into it. And you’ve built Ross Family Law as being the only owner. And I suspect the firm mirrors some of your tendencies. And the firm’s growth has probably been proportional to your personal growth in some way. Would you mind elaborating on that?
Renee Ross: [00:16:29] Sure. It’s really interesting. When I started my business, I was very cautious as a business owner. I didn’t know how to run a business. No one teaches you in law school how to run a business. But I was really interested in learning and I read business books. I joined business mentoring groups. I hired an excellent business coach. And the thread that I was able to connect through all of those sources was that, really, I felt like I was in the self-help book section when I was doing all of this work. It was like I was at a Tony Robbins seminar or something, because the advice was really focused on the business owners being right with themselves, knowing their vision, being internally consistent with their vision and the external matching the internal and it was surprisingly “hippy dippy.”
Renee Ross: [00:17:33] And so that kind of led me down this really transformative path like, “OK, well, if I’m going to really try to do this work is as a leader, as a business owner, then I have to do the internal work.” And so I started doing really intensive self reflection work through formal programs and meditation and still continue to do that this day. So what’s incredibly surprising and transformative was that I never thought that starting a business would transform my life and would transform me as a human. But that’s what happened. It’s completely changed me and for the better. So an incredibly rewarding experience.
Alay Yajnik: [00:18:11] How has it changed you?
Renee Ross: [00:18:14] I had to do a lot of deep internal work to find out who I am and what’s important to me. And how do I focus that energy and and how do I carve out my time to focus on what’s important. And I meditate. I try to meditate daily and try to bring that calm into leading the business through a global pandemic and helping clients managing chaos in their personal lives while they’re going through divorces. And so it’s better equipped me to navigate all of the chaos in the world, in the business world, and in my cases.
Alay Yajnik: [00:18:57] Yeah, and your cases are really emotional. And not only that, when the pandemic was happening, the courts were closed, so you had to navigate your firm through that. And you did. So congratulations to getting through the last few months. I know it’s not been easy. When you mentioned – I mean, I can’t see you, but I can just picture this huge smile on your face- when you talked about “You really enjoy running a business”, tell me more about what you really like about running a business.
Renee Ross: [00:19:25] I feel like I get the opportunity to create something, and I also didn’t anticipate that, I didn’t anticipate enjoying running a business as much as I do and building the relationships that I have with the people that I work with and being able to take care of them and their families and building something that they can go home and be proud of what what they do. And so it’s the opportunity to create something and we’re still creating it. I mean, my business is still pretty young. I don’t know. We’ve only been around for six years almost now. And so who knows what the next next decade is going to bring?
Alay Yajnik: [00:20:10] Yeah, we’re going to get to that in a minute. But a lot of people that listen to this podcast do so because they’re looking for business development insights. So they’re getting started with business development from scratch or they really want to accelerate their results. And what’s interesting is in this conversation, business development hasn’t been that much of a of a part of our conversation. But it really has, because a lot of the things you talked about: your strengths, how you’ve used them, how you’ve leveraged business development – sorry, excuse me – how you’ve leveraged relationship-building by thinking about it as essentially establishing friendships. Those have been really key to your firm’s growth and key to our conversations. So for attorneys that are looking to get started with business development, and these may be attorneys in your firm, too, what advice would you give to them?
Renee Ross: [00:21:02] There’s a few pieces. I had great mentors, and so when I was learning about business development and how to do business development, I literally just copied what they did.
Renee Ross: [00:21:16] They were a part of X, Y and Z groups. So I became a part of X, Y and Z groups. Once I was a part of those groups, I showed the group that I was a committed group member and then became a leader within each organization that I was a part of. So select groups in your industry or with people that are going to be a good referral partners. Get involved in organizations and then do the work to be a leader. Volunteer for the board, people want the help. Make yourself useful, then you have a common project to work on with other people. It gives you an opportunity to develop those relationships. Become a leader in your field. So I’m a family lawyer, there’s a certified specialist exam, which I took as early as I could. There’s other organizations like the AAML, which I got into as soon as I could, and I attend all of the seminars that I can. I’m constantly doing professional development, trying to become a better, stronger lawyer and a leader in the community. And that was because that’s what my mentors did and I followed in their footsteps.
Renee Ross: [00:22:29] So that would be my primary advice to other lawyers is you have to do the work to be seen as a leader in your community. And if you don’t know how to do that, find mentors. And even if you do know how to do that, find mentors. Mentors on many levels, it’s just not someone to teach you how to be a good lawyer. It’s not someone necessarily just teach you how to be a good businessperson, someone maybe even a friend that can teach you how to be better human. I’ve got many mentors and anybody who’s willing to give me mentoring advice, I actively seek it out from any source so that they’ll give it to me because I feel like that there’s people with all kinds of really wonderful experience out there, and if they’re willing to share their learning with me, it’s my responsibility to listen and grow from that. So seek out mentors however you can, become a leader in your community and just keep growing and learning.
Alay Yajnik: [00:23:23] The growth mindset is so, so critical, and I’m glad you emphasize that. The other thing you just mentioned a little bit, which I’d like to dig a little bit deeper on, is the work that’s involved. It takes work and effort and sustained work and effort over a long period of time to have the degree of success that maybe the top mentors in whatever field have had. And so, Renee, when you think about attorneys that maybe have had access to those same mentors but haven’t had the results that you’ve had, what do you think is maybe setting you apart in terms of your willingness to do things that they’re just not willing to do?
Renee Ross: [00:24:03] I think part of it is taking opportunities and when you’re lucky enough to get an excellent mentor, really nurturing that relationship. And you can’t just look to the mentor when you have a legal question and say, “Hey, mentor, answer my question for me, tell me what the answer is”. It’s your job as the mentee to nurture that relationship and and make sure that you provide the opportunities to the mentor to help you learn and grow.
Renee Ross: [00:24:36] And then I did networking and business development. Maybe from year two, I think the first year as a lawyer, I really just tried to get get my feet under me, but then after that I started joining groups and doing networking. And by the time I was a senior associate, I think I was on five boards at once and going to multiple events at least twice a week and building those relationships. Again over a very long period of time, you can’t expect that relationship based marketing or networking is is going to result in business development overnight.
Renee Ross: [00:25:19] People have to trust you and know you and like you for a long period of time in order to trust you with their referrals. You can’t expect results over a period of time. You have to really make sure you’re in it for the long haul and not expect the business. It’s not an expectation. You just go and you do the work and at some point it should come back to you.
Alay Yajnik: [00:25:45] It should. Yeah. And it is a lot of work. And one of the things that I’ve heard people say is, “You know, I can’t really go to that networking event in the evening” or “I can’t commit to this networking group or this board because I have family obligations, I have family that needs me.” How would you respond to managing that juggling act?
Renee Ross: [00:26:09] It’s hard. And,I didn’t do it alone. I mean, I’m lucky enough to have a spouse that loves me and supports me. And when I say, “Hey, I have this event on Monday and Wednesday…” I’m able to do that. So that’s a different negotiation with your family and your life that you have to do. But we all have to make sacrifices and we have to balance our time. And if you want to develop the business, you’re going to have to do the work at some point. Maybe evening networking events aren’t the thing that you can do. So maybe you find groups that you can build relationships that have lunchtime events, or now that you don’t have to go to events, you can Zoom into board meetings. And maybe that’s a little bit easier for you with your family obligations. But find things that you can commit to. And it’s probably not going to be just one group. You’re going to have to do it in multiple groups in order for it to be effective.
Alay Yajnik: [00:27:11] And there is a path, you just have to find out what that path is…And if the path isn’t relationship marketing, so be it. But relationship marketing takes time. It takes being intentional. It takes genuinely caring about the other people that you’re building these relationships with. And for those people to think that the relationship is kind of, I don’t want to say at its end, but the result is getting that first referral. The news is that’s just when it’s just starting in many ways because nurturing that referral and taking great care of it oftentimes is just the start of a great referral relationship.
Renee Ross: [00:27:45] Absolutely. And you may even get some actual friends from it. I mean, so some of my closest friends now are from activities, business development or groups that I’ve become a part of. And so the intention of making friends, they actually are my friends.
Renee Ross: [00:28:05] We socialize together and maybe it turns out that they think of me when they refer me business or maybe not. But it’s resulted in really, really amazing friendships that I suspect are going to be lifelong.
Alay Yajnik: [00:28:19] That is so wonderful to hear, Renee. And as you think about, you know, we’re certainly living in interesting times, but I know you’re always looking to the future, into what’s next. So what really excites you about Ross Family Law in the future?
Renee Ross: [00:28:31] Well, I touched on this a little bit before, but it’s what I’ve been able to create in the past few years is “What can I create in the next few years?” And I think that while these COVID-19 times are really challenging and were really scary and still are frightening, the growth mindset, if you reframe things like, “OK, what opportunity is presenting itself by this challenge and how can I bring my team closer together even though we’re physically further apart?” and “How can I utilize the pandemic as an opportunity for change in the firm?” “Do we really need the office space that I’ve been struggling with for years about whether or not I need to expand?” “How can I use this as an opportunity to serve more clients because we’re not traveling to court nearly as much as we had to?” So I’m really excited about growth on the horizon and what that looks like and how that shapes up, because I don’t really know. So it’ll be interesting to see.
Alay Yajnik: [00:29:39] Well, Renee, thank you so much for being on Lawyer Business Advantage today, we really appreciate you being on the show.
Renee Ross: [00:29:44] Thank you so much, Alay. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Alay Yajnik: [00:29:47] And that’s Rene Ross, the owner of Ross Family Law with offices in Oakland and Pleasanton.
Alay Yajnik: [00:29:54] And that’s a wrap! To get more episodes, webinars and free stuff, visit lawyerbusinessadvantage.com. My name is Alay Yajnik. Thank you for listening. And remember, there’s a rainmaker inside everyone, including you.