These days, Heather Keith, founder of Keith Family Law, has a thriving practice with a growing support team. But her leap from solo to CEO wasn’t always a smooth transition.
Heather shares the biggest fear she had to overcome when building the business beyond herself, how the solution she came up with allows the firm to run without her involvement in day-to-day details, and what she does with her time and energy instead.
We also delve into…
- Her #1 warning to up-and-coming business owners
- Why many attorneys are scared to talk about money – and how it can sabotage your business
- A hobby that helps her stay balanced in her life – but also benefits her career in unexpected ways
- How saying no to certain clients can actually grow your business even faster
- And more
Mention in This Episode: https://www.keithfamilylaw.com/
Davina Frederick: Hello, and welcome to The Solo to CEO Podcast, where we provide a mix of powerful, thought provoking, and practical information to assist you in your transformation from solo to CEO of a high-impact, high revenue generating business. I’m your host, Davina Frederick, and I’m here with Heather Keith, attorney and CEO of Keith Family Law. Keith Family Law provides divorce litigation, mediation, and collaborative divorce services for clients throughout New Jersey. Welcome, Heather, I’m so pleased you’re here today on The Solo to CEO Podcast.
Heather Keith: Hi there, Davina, I’m pleased to be here, delighted.
Davina Frederick: So I said that you provide divorce litigation, mediation, and collaborative divorce services for clients throughout New Jersey. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, what specifically that means, and more about your firm and how you serve your clients?
Heather Keith: Sure. I’m a family law firm here in New Jersey, and litigation of course means in court, for those who don’t know what litigation means, we’ve found that someone don’t know really what that means, or appreciate it. We also do alternative dispute resolution, which is a family of out-of-court methods of settling family law disputes and divorces, including mediation and mediation support. So sometimes I will serve as a mediator, and sometimes I will be the review attorney or the supporting attorney in a mediation setting.
But my favorite way to solve a divorce case, almost like a criminal case, is through the collaborative process. That is where collaboratively trained attorneys work with each other and with the client, oftentimes with mental health neutrals and financial neutrals, to row in the same direction, to transition a family from being an intact family to being a family of two separate households, oftentimes with children.
Davina Frederick: Right, so tell me, how did you get started and interested in practicing law to begin with? How long have you been practicing?
Heather Keith: I have been practicing for about 12 years now, I graduated from law school in 07.
Davina Frederick: Oh, so you and I graduated from law school in the same year.
Heather Keith: Okay, great vintage.
Davina Frederick: It was a great year. Did you open your firm right out of law school? What did you do before that?
Heather Keith: Oh dear no, after I passed … Well, I didn’t pass the bar exam, but the first thing I did after graduation of course was study for the bar exam and take that. Then I did a clerkship at the New Jersey Superior Court. My judge, half of her term was in the civil part, and half of her term was in the family part. The second half of her term is when I started looking for my job. Then from there I went into a boutique family law firm in northern New Jersey where I practiced exclusively family law for a handful of years.
Davina Frederick: And was that something that you had in mind that you wanted to do from the beginning, practice family law? I always find it interesting when I talk with attorneys to find out if they wound up practicing because they interned and their career led them to a practice area, or if they started out with a practice area in mind.
Heather Keith: That’s a great question. I was published in the circuit review law journal on a topic that’s completely not related to family law, it was in fact in environmental law. At the time that I was in law school, I had no idea where I was going to come out on the other side, I just knew that my motivation was in helping people solve their problems in a way that people seem to not be able … Some people are frightened to go to court.
I had been to court several times on my own, traffic court, this and that, and it didn’t really phase me too much. And I thought to myself, “Well, if I have this ability, then why would I not share that with other people?” So I took the LSAT, and I got into law school. This is later in life, by the way, I was in my 30s by the time I got into law school.
When I was there, I had no idea what to expect, or where to go from here. I did not grow up in New Jersey, I don’t have any legal experience in my family, I’m the first one who went on to higher education. So just by a series of circumstances, I ended up in family law.
The thing that I think really sealed the deal for me … You always have something in the back of your mind that sticks with you, maybe a formative experience or something that really drives you. For me, my parents were divorced when I was 12, and that really had a big impact on me. They did the very best that they could. This is early on, the 80s, and not too many people, at least where I was living, were getting divorced. It just made a very big impact on me, I watched my parents independently struggle with the separation, and the remarriages, and so forth.
It just really stuck with me, and I thought, “Well, if this is something that I can do to make future people’s experiences better, more healthy, if I can pass on some of the things that my parents were able to do, and help people avoid some of the things that my parents really were not necessarily able to avoid, and also to keep children right in the forefront of the experience, because clearly this isn’t anything that the children asked for to begin with, talking about divorce …”
And I thought, “If there’s some way that I can really lend my experiences and make this into a better experience for people, then that’s really what I would like to do at this point.” So, when some opportunities came up in family law, I was accepted into the clinic at my law school, the family law clinic, and I appeared before a judge as a student, and that really had an impact on me. I thought, “Geez, that was successful, so let’s see how we can really play this out.”
So I really didn’t have too much of a fear of being in the courtroom, but there was something in the back of my mind, that there was more, there’s more to it than appearing in court. And appearing in court is an important thing to be able to do, but in the bigger picture my real concern was helping families get from point A to point B without scorching the earth, without harming relationships, teaching people to communicate with each other once again, and maybe restoring just a little bit of trust so that they can move forward in their future lives.
Because these are families who will be at graduation, they’re going to be at birthday parties, they’re going to be at weddings and big family events in the future. Would they like to be able to do this in an intact way, and as healthy a way as possible? That was really my goal. It wasn’t really, for me, about law, law, law, it was really more about problem solving for me. That’s what drew me into family law, and that’s what keeps me in family law. The things that I see are really rewarding.
Davina Frederick: And that led you then to collaborative law, correct?
Heather Keith: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Davina Frederick: So about how long did you practice before you discovered and immersed yourself in the collaborative law model?
Heather Keith: I had been practicing, we’ll say traditional family law/litigation for about three and a half years, long enough to sort of look around, I was involved in bar events, ends of court and so forth. It was just really a good amount of time for me to see what’s possible using that method. But it’s also possible to see some of the destruction that can happen using that method.
There isn’t anybody in the world, no matter how well-intentioned they are, who can sit in a black robe and make a decision for your family that’s any better than you could make for your own family if you could simply set aside some of the emotional things and maybe have somebody help you focus on the things that are truly important.
So yes, when the collaborative thing came up for me, it really wasn’t an option where I was practicing at the time, so if I wanted to be involved in collaborative practice, heavily into mediation, and so forth, all these alternative dispute resolution models, I was not going to be able to do that where I found myself.
That’s one of the things that really motivated me to, when I did go out on my own, I thought, “Now this is something I really have to look into, because it’s really speaking to me here, and I think this is really worth looking into.” That’s why I did that.
Davina Frederick: So tell me about going out on your own. What factored into that … When did you do this, and what factored into that decision?
Heather Keith: Well, going out on my own was almost an accident. I left the environment where I had been practicing, I just had so many questions in my mind that I really wanted to answer, and I wasn’t really even sure if I was going to practice at all.
But then I thought to myself, “Geez, you worked so hard to get into law school, and you worked so hard while you were there, and you really were very successful and really enjoyed some academic success, and you came out, you were very well supported by people who were helping you in your career. Are you really going to throw that over your shoulder to do some sort of undefined thing in the future?” And I said to myself, “No, I really can’t do that. I have so many questions, and I just really want to answer those questions.”
So I took a few weeks off after I left my first situation, and then … The funny story is that I don’t know if I really would have opened my own firm but for the fact that, to get malpractice insurance, you have to fill out this 12-page application, and it essentially provides a roadmap for how to open your firm.
“Do you have an IOLTA trust account? Do you have a business account?” Oh dear, no, I’d better go down to the bank and open one. Okay, got that. “Do you want to register under your social security number?” No, I sure don’t, so I’d better get a tax ID number. “What are you going to call yourself?” Well let’s see, Keith Law Firm, that sounds broad, let’s think big. Now I’m going to need website. And before I knew it-
Davina Frederick: You had all the pieces and parts in place.
Heather Keith: Yeah, I had everything put together, I just printed up some business cards and off I went. And what I found was that the people who had been watching me while I was first out practicing supported me unconditionally. “Oh, we’re so proud of you, you’re really doing it.” And I heard all kinds of stories, “This is how I started. Oh, you’re in the building that I started in, this is great. Here, let me throw you some clients. Do you want to do these different areas of law?”
And at first it wasn’t about family, I was doing a variety of different things. But quickly it really narrowed back down to the family arena. I couldn’t stay home because you don’t really want family law people necessarily coming to your house, so even just to get out in the world I rented a room in one of those executive suite kind of places, so I would have a place to receive all of the things you receive when you’re an attorney.
I went to bar functions, and I just kind of put it out there, and I started passing out cards, and one thing led to another. I got a client, then I got another client, then I got a few more clients, and before you knew it I was like, “Wow, I feel like this might fly, this is really crazy.”
Davina Frederick: This might actually work, how about that?
Heather Keith: Yeah, this could work.
Davina Frederick: You said at one point you weren’t even sure you were going to practice at all. Were you thinking … Because I’m assuming you went to law school basically to know practicing and becoming a lawyer. And I ask this because I can relate to this. The nature of what I do now is different, I don’t practice law day to day. I am still an active attorney, but I do not practice law day to day. So I’m curious, you had this moment where you thought, “I’ve put all this work into this, but I might not actually practice law.”
Heather Keith: Well remember, I’m halfway through my life at this point, I’m in my mid-30s, I’m creeping up on 40 years old, and I had done several things in the past before I even went to law school. So my mind was a little bit open in that regard. In other words, I hadn’t come straight from undergraduate and then straight to law school, and that was basically all I knew and I felt like I didn’t really have a choice.
When I came out, I thought, “Well geez, I do have other choices.” At that point I had overworked myself, and I really wasn’t in a great emotional place, so I feel like that’s one of the things that led me to have that thought that I felt disconnected, so I felt like maybe … No matter how hard I had worked, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to do something different now.
Davina Frederick: And you had other options because obviously you had had other … I understand you are an accomplished musician, so another option.
Heather Keith: Yeah, I graduated from Oberlin College, and I was originally admitted to the conservatory as a voice major. I sing, and one of my original dreams was to become a choral conductor. It’s something that’s really never left me. I don’t know if that’s really something that you can truly do as a profession without really throwing yourself into it.
But I do have music in my life all the time, it’s very important to me. I still perform, I still sing, I have a madrigal group that I perform with. It’s always part of keeping me balanced.
Davina Frederick: Have you ever wondered how … This is kind of an off-the-wall question, but have you ever wondered how music informs your life as a lawyer, and as a business owner, and your day to day life?
Heather Keith: Yeah, great question. A couple of things. Music and math are closely related, and I find that … I’m a practicing classical musician, so I read music, and there’s a lot of logic that goes into the type of music that I do. And in addition to that, you’re performing. It’s in real time and real life, real things happening, you’re maybe on a stage or before a group of people, and if something goes wrong then you better know what to do right away in that moment, which is strikingly similar to arguing emotion.
You have the roadmap, and you have a general idea of what’s going to happen, but if something else does happen then you need to be able to improvise. It’s a very experiential thing, music is in real time, and I find that performing law can be very similar when you’re on trial, when you’re arguing emotion, even when you’re doing a deposition. It’s a very experiential thing, it’s something that you’re doing in the moment. You prepare for it, but at that moment you’re performing. So they’re very similar.
Davina Frederick: Right, because I always think that, whatever we … Like you, I did not graduate from law school till my late 30s, so it was a second career for me. And I always think we carry with us whatever it is that we’ve learned, the skills we’ve learned before, whatever we did in life before, we carry it through with us to the other things we do in our lives.
It’s always interesting to see how we weave together this life and career, and how it works to our advantage over time, and helps us to create the people that we become, and how it shapes our business.
With your business, I want to talk about your business and your Solo to CEO journey, because your business now has grown. You have what, one other attorney working with you know?
Heather Keith: Yep, I have an attorney, I have an office administrator, I have a receptionist person, I have a paralegal, and a marketing specialist as well. I have a lot of people now.
Davina Frederick: So what was that like for you, making that? When you had that moment where you’ve made that transition from solo to … You know the moment when you kind of felt like, “Okay, I’ve really shifted from being what we call true solo, that feeling, to oh my goodness, I actually have a firm here, I actually have a business entity that is separate from me and a lot of people relying on this business.” Do you know that moment?
Heather Keith: Yeah, well first of all the feeling is kind of like jumping off of a cliff.
Davina Frederick: Not scary at all then, huh?
Heather Keith: Yeah, it’s definitely exhilarating, it is scary for sure, but in the same way that it would be scary if you were skydiving. Because nobody’s going to die, we know that. But it was a huge transition, to pull myself out of the practice and make a business out of it, that was one of the most Herculean things I think I’ve probably ever done. It was very frightening because I thought, “Well, if this business is not me, then who am I? What does that mean for me, am I worthless, am I replaceable?” So you come to terms with that.
But that quickly gave way to the fun of setting up a business that will run without me. At first that was very threatening thing, but it didn’t take long for me to figure out, “Hey, if this place can run without me for a certain period of time, I could go home for a week to see my mother, I could go on vacation, I can pick up my son from daycare without worrying about it.” The rewards came right away.
But yes, there is a huge responsibility, and that was terrifying, that was the scary part about it. I have to say, if I can put my finger on it, it would be payroll, in a word. Like you say, there are people depending now on me, and I’m making a promise to them in some ways, to the best of my ability … It took a while to get used to the idea of people hanging their futures and their livelihoods on my business venture. That was kind of a scary moment.
But when you see it succeed and actually fly, you can’t believe it. It’s just so bizarre, just so weird.
Davina Frederick: So adult.
Heather Keith: Yeah, I know. That’s another thing that I never really considered, was creating a business out of my practice. Because I had been practicing for so long, I’d been practicing at being a lawyer, practicing at expanding my practice areas in the various family law areas, the guardianships, the simple wills, the other things that we do. To extricate myself from that and to create a container through which my business will work, it’s a very different model.
And I can see it now, but I didn’t see it coming at the time. I felt as though I was almost breaking something by going from a true solo … Because I’m the one who knows where the printer is, I’m the one who knows where all the stamps are, I’m the one who has all this knowledge, and externalizing all that knowledge first of all into multiple people was a very strange experience.
But when it was done, and I’ll just say a word about systems, systems, systems, systems, this is the key to any success I think of probably any business, but particularly in a law firm. We have systems for everything. We write them down on what we call flow sheets, we write down what we do. Every little thing, everything from how do you receive a payment to how do you book somebody for a consult. Everything is systematized so that we can move people around.
I promoted my reception person, who is trained in paralegal studies, and I actually was able to promote her to a paralegal position and bring in a new receptionist person without rocking the boat, because it all had already been written down and systematized.
So the new person was able to step in, and more importantly, this person was able to step out of that role and into a new role without bringing down the house. That was a really great experience as well. It’s been a lot of fun, it’s been a lot of fun setting up a business.
Davina Frederick: Oh yeah, and that’s again probably something that you didn’t anticipate when you were thinking, “I’m going to be a lawyer.” You probably weren’t thinking in terms of … And even like you said, you are an accidental business owner, you know?
Heather Keith: Right, yeah.
Davina Frederick: You weren’t really thinking about the challenge of morphing into a CEO, and what that had brought into your life.
Heather Keith: Well it’s a completely new role, it’s a completely different role. And I really love it, I love being in business. I like working in the business as well, I like serving clients, I like doing intakes and consults and things like that, and preparing for motion hearings and so forth.
But I really am enjoying, like you say, the transition from being a true solo to a CEO. I didn’t see that coming at all, and now that I’m here, it’s been an amazing journey, and it’s just going up from here. It’s very cool, very cool.
Davina Frederick: Right. So what advice would you have, now that you’re 10, 12 years down the road, what advice would you have for those who are on the Solo to CEO journey behind you? Some of the things, looking back on your experience, that you maybe would have done differently, or that you would have done the same, or that you want to throw up a flag warning, or some of the best experiences you’ve had that you want to share.
Heather Keith: Yeah, I guess what I would say is that whatever doubts you’re having, don’t have those doubts. They’re not productive. The only regrets that I’ve to at this point, and regret is a strong word really, would be that I didn’t start earlier. I should have done my systems earlier, I should have thought about marketing earlier.
And when I say marketing, for me there was a big period of growth for me in even marketing at all. Marketing at all, as a proposition, was not okay for me psychologically. So although it was not hard for me to ask for help as a solo, because obviously, look at me, I need help, I’m just starting out, you know everything, I know nothing, and then when you make the transition into the CEO part of it, something in me was afraid to go to that next level.
Asking for clients, asking for money, increasing my rates, valuing my work enough to take consistent retainers, refresh those retainers, sever client relationships when they go bad, because they do. Not all of them, obviously, but some of them do. Choosing the right clients to fill your house with is so important, you will never regret the client that you did not take, and you will cherish the clients that you do take, but on good terms.
That was one really important lesson that I learned fairly early on, is that if there’s a client who is not a good fit for you and the way that you want to practice, for whatever reason, if you can say no to that client, you are not saying no to business. What you are saying no to is that experience, meaning now you have the ability to take in a better experience.
For example, the client that’s not a great match for you, maybe this case really has legs and both of the parties are completely unreasonable, they can’t really pay your fees, they’re abusing your staff, whatever, those cases will take over your practice, especially when you’re first starting out. If you don’t have 10 or 12 attorneys, these are the cases that will really wreak havoc on your home.
This is your home really, your business, you’ve spent so much time on it, you rely on it, and you want it to be healthy, so one thing that I learned that was really important is don’t be afraid to say no to a client, even if you feel like you need the money.
Because what it really does is it really opens your schedule, opens your resources for you to be able to say yes to the client that you actually want, who may be reasonable, and who can pay their bills, and who are going to work well with you and not abuse your staff, imagine how that would be. I would say never take a client from a place of fear. That would be a big piece of advice that I would give to people.
And then in terms of marketing, if you have to, just plug your nose and jump in. You got to do it, it has to be done. The videos, and the copy, and if you can’t do it, that’s not a value judgment at all, because I can’t. I’m trained as a lawyer now, I’m wrecked for marketing, so I hired somebody else because my writing now is so technical that I was having problems voicing what I wanted to communicate to my ideal potential new client.
So I found an outside source who specializes in that marketing language, and then I trusted that person. I said, “Look, please don’t let me line edit you to death, you’re going to use your own language. Please don’t listen to me when I try to correct you.” Letting that go, letting go, delegating, is huge.
If you can learn to delegate, you are so golden. Find people that you trust, and delegate the things that you don’t need to be doing. You do not need to do it all, and in fact if you try, you will burn out quicker than anything else, your family won’t see you for dinner, and you’ll get very discouraged over time. So those are just some of the things.
Davina Frederick: It’s one of the things with my clients, I actually say it’s hubris to think that we’re actually the best person for every job out there. It’s really ridiculous when you think that. One of the things that we attorneys do is we think, “Well, if I just had enough time I could do everything.”
Heather Keith: I could do every single job there is. And I could do it really well too.
Davina Frederick: I am, really, the best person for every job out there, I mean, come on. How silly is that? Bookkeeping? No way, no way am I the best person to keep my books.
Heather Keith: Oh yeah, but the struggle is real. Attorneys are notorious control freaks, and I’m among them. I didn’t realize that until I started doing my own thing and I had to let go of some things. As a solo it was no biggie, because you are the show. But once you start growing, it’s that letting go.
You have to practice that over and over and over again, because the struggle is real to just reel it all back in and say, “No, no, no, no, no, let me do it, let me do it, let me do it, I can do this better, I can do it faster, I can do it whatever.” Don’t do that to yourself, let somebody do it for you.
That’s how you build a strong team. And then appreciate them for it, you build a strong team, and then you can go on vacation. There’s a lot between here and there, but yeah, absolutely appreciate your teams. And hire great, rockstar people. If people are not working for you, que será, será, find the next rockstar. Find the next rockstar, you have to surround yourself with rockstars. Period, end of story.
Davina Frederick: Do you have any hiring secrets?
Heather Keith: What I think is my best advice on that is the ask itself. It’s the ad. You can find people from word of mouth, and that’s okay, but what I really want to do is I want to put an ad out there, and I don’t pay for my ads, I do them, if I can say this, on a free platform, a very famous free platform. But it’s the content, you have to market yourself, you have to market that experience that you expect that person to have to the person that you want in a way that is going to resonate with them and cause them to send you their résumé.
And I know that seems kind of far out, but it’s the same thing as finding a client. You need to imagine who are you looking for. What do they look like, where do they live, what do they like, what do they value, do they want to make money, if they want to make money then you’re going to incentivize them by bonuses, if they want to just serve people then you’re going to maybe give them a different kind of client when they get here. But what is it that you’re looking for?
Whether it’s a lawyer, or whether it’s an administrative person, you have to have it solid in your mind what is it that you’re looking for. What are the attributes of this person? And if this person were in the room with you and you wanted them to come over and eat lunch with you, what would you say to them? What is it that would resonate with them? What are they looking for?
Because they’re going to be looking for something to change that’s better than where they are right now. Your advertisement needs to speak to them directly and emotionally, the advertisement should set itself apart from other ads. Because you see them all the time, “We’re looking for an experienced family law attorney, 5-8 years, salary commensurate with experience,” that’s not very compelling.
Something that’s compelling is, “Hey, are you feeling abused by your boss? Are you feeling ignored by the partner? Do you feel like you’re locked in a cubicle and you never get to court, but you know you’re a litigation rockstar and you just haven’t had a chance to prove yourself? Well then boy, do we have an opportunity for you. Come on over to here.” And then describe what you have. But the first step to that is knowing in your heart of hearts who you’re talking to, who is it that you’re trying to attract. So that’s my hiring tip.
And then you’ve got to interview them of course. I had one where I actually did an assessment as well. There are certain assessment tests out there that you can give, and this is kind of a scary thing as an employer to say, “I’m going to have you take an assessment as a condition of me considering you as a candidate.”
But at the end of the day, it gave a richer understanding of this candidate, whether at the end of the day we thought this candidate would be successful or not, and this candidate who ultimately was not successful, we knew exactly why that person was not successful, and were not surprised at the timing and the reasons that the person ultimately didn’t stay at the firm.
Those are just a couple of tips that I can think of.
Davina Frederick: Yeah, that’s excellent advice, and I love the idea with the ad and making it unique, really selling it. In another life, I worked for a large law firm in marketing, and their strategy when it came to recruiting associates, they had a summer clerk program, and their strategy was to make these candidates just fall in love with them over the summer. All these summer clerks just loved them, and they couldn’t wait, they so badly wanted to work with this firm and they said, “That’s our plan, we want all of them to fall in love with us so that we have our pick, then, of which one we want.”
And that’s what you want to do with your ads, you want them to want you, right? And then you get your pick, so that’s your ad strategy, is to make that so they’re salivating to come work with you.
Heather Keith: Yeah, like a buy-in, yeah.
Davina Frederick: Candidates that you get to pick from. And the personality, using those DiSC profiles, or Kolbe, or whatever it is that you choose, is a great way to see if they’re going to be a good fit for your team and for the type of job that you’re looking for.
Heather Keith: Yeah, truly.
Davina Frederick: This has been a great interview, a lot of good information. Where can we find out more about Keith Family Law?
Heather Keith: The easiest place is to point your browser to keithfamilylaw.com, that’s where our online presence is in terms of a website, and of course we’re on social media, so you can find us on Facebook, you can find us on LinkedIn, I think there’s a Twitter thing out there, my marketing person is all in charge of that, so I trust that it’s all going. And you can reach out to us and sign up for our newsletter too, if you want to go to the website, there’s a quick form in there, you just want to give us your email and we’ll put you on the mailing list for the email newsletter.
Davina Frederick: Great. Any final thoughts that you want to leave us with today or share about?
Heather Keith: Sure, I would just encourage anyone, if it’s in your mind … First of all, anyone out there who’s doing it solo, congratulations, you have my total props, that’s the bravest thing in the world to do. And then the next step after that is, if it’s in your mind to grow, do it. If it’s in your mind to grow, it’s in the universe already, you have the ability to go out there and do your thing, and you will make the world a better place for having done that. That’s my final thought.
Davina Frederick: That’s a wonderful final thought, and I appreciate you sharing with us. Thanks so much, Heather, for being here, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation today.