When Sarah Jacobs first met her future business partner it wasn’t particularly love it first sight. In fact, they represented opposing parties in court. Soon, however, they found themselves spending hours together negotiating the case, and developed a respect and friendship that long outlasted the matter at hand. Today, they run a very successful law firm, guiding countless others through rocky relationships.
On this episode, we delve into how the work they’ve done together to improve their own business relationship has impacted their ability to better serve their clients. We also discuss:
- Why disagreements often help you get to the right decisions, as long as you approach the problem with a certain attitude.
- How to recognize when you need dramatic change in your company – and when you need help to get through it.
- The challenges that come out of hiring a team – and managing a group of different personalities.
- The data you need to run your business that you might be ignoring.
- And so much more.
Mentioned in This Episode: www.jacobsberger.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 am your host, Davina Frederick, and I’m here with Sarah Jacobs, one of the founding partners of Jacobs Berger. Jacobs Berger is a family law firm based in Morristown, New Jersey. Welcome, Sarah. I’m so happy to have you as a guest today on the Solo to CEO Podcast.
Sarah Jacobs: Hi, Davina. Thank you so much for having me. I’m very excited about being here.
Davina Frederick: Great. I used the term family law firm, and to non-lawyers that could be such a generic term. And even to lawyers that can mean a little bit different things to different people, so why don’t you tell us a little more specifically about your firm, and what it is that you do?
Sarah Jacobs: I think you’re right, Davina. I do believe that family law has a really broad context, and it also has a variety of different meanings. For my partners and I, we really try to provide a law firm that covers the gamut of what you need as a family, in the context of divorce, custody, mediation, adoption, and that arena.
We try not to peg ourselves as a divorce law firm, or a custody law firm, because we really do provide a lot of different services within the branches of family law. But we really do try to focus our efforts and our services on those people who have real needs, real time, and who want real outcomes with real solutions.
Davina Frederick: In fact, I noticed that mediation is a big part of your practice, isn’t it?
Sarah Jacobs: Yes, it is. Currently, we have four attorneys at the firm. Two of us are main founding partners. One of us is another partner, and we have an associate. Both partners and I are all mediators, and my founding partner and I both have taken a huge role in implementing more mediation services as part of our firm. We really do feel that it balances out the litigation aspect. There are cases that just can’t settle, and need litigation, and need the court intervention, and need to sort of have an arbitrator if you will. But we find that a lot of family law cases can resolve, and resolve with the use of mediation, and we are big proponents not only of mediation when we’re the mediators, but of mediation when we’re sort of the litigators in the case because it’s a solutions oriented customized outcome.
And with family law, where people are not cookie cutter, and don’t have the same issues from case to case, family to family, child to children, to parent, to grandparent, to aunts and uncles. We find that it provides a really nice opportunity for settlement minded amicably driven people to sort of write their own ending. And it’s been a very positive source of comradery, both within the clients that we are working with, and for, but also within the law firm itself.
Davina Frederick: And that kind of fits in with your sort of approach and philosophy. When I was doing a little bit of research, and studying your firm, and looking at your firm, you kind of have that as part of your approach, right?
Sarah Jacobs: Yes. My partner Jamie and I, we very much believe in the philosophy that you will need us for a time and for a season, hopefully for not many seasons, and hopefully not for too long of a period of time. But you will need us for a time and a season. When you are done having us as active participants in your day-to-day life, you’re going to need to live that life, and you’re going to need to be able to sustain whatever you’ve created in the process where we’re partners with you.
And so we very much take the practical approach with you. Yes, you have family law problems. Yes, you may need to resolve those family law problems, or those family law issues right now. Whatever you do now sets you up for how you’re going to be able to move forward in the future. And when we’re making decisions with you, we really do try to highlight the idea of, “Okay, that’s what you want today. Let’s talk about what you want in five years, ten years. Maybe it’s fuzzy. Maybe it’s just crystal balling at this particular point.” How can we work what you want in the long-term into what you need today, so that you have a solid foundation underneath you when you’re down with us, to walk forward into that future and say, “Okay, I can afford the house I’m living in. Okay, this custody arrangement makes sense, and it makes sense for my five year old today, and my fifteen year old in the future.”
Sure, things change. Circumstances arise. The world evolves and revolves, but we try not to let this season and this time overtake what the future can and should like. And we want you to walk out of our lives into your life in a solid practical way.
Davina Frederick: It sounds like you and your partner are very well matched. How did you two meet and become partners?
Sarah Jacobs: Funny story. We actually met as adversaries. Jamie and I both worked for other very established family / matrimonial law firms here in New Jersey. Jamie worked for a firm in Morris County as well. I worked for a firm in Bergen County. And our… At that time, both of our partners, who were active participants in family law, and in the family bar in the state of New Jersey had a case against each other. In a typical fashion, the associates get roped into that, and get assigned to the file, and spend more time talking to each other than we spend talking to our families.
And we… The case was very contested. And our clients are very oppositional. And Jamie and I found that we had a similar work style, a similar respect for the law, our partners, for advocacy, but also for forming a relationship between adversaries that was productive, and useful, and moved both parties forward toward the conclusion, and didn’t let them get stuck in the quicksand of fighting just to fight.
And we finished the case, we stayed colleagues, we stayed friends. I left my law firm first, I opened my own law firm with a different partner. Jamie went out on maternity leave. She wound up joining my then firm as another counsel, and we had a similar business sense, a similar legal sense. Over time it just naturally progressed to a place, where our prior partner went on to purse a niche practice, and Jamie and I wound up forming what is currently Jacobs Berger.
Davina Frederick: And when was that?
Sarah Jacobs: That was approximately September of 2015, the transformation took place.
Davina Frederick: Oh, right. And so and you’ve grown quite a bit since then?
Sarah Jacobs: Oh, yeah. Very much.
Davina Frederick: Tell me what that’s been like.
Sarah Jacobs: Jamie and I like to equate our then law firm to a newborn, and now we sort of feel that we’re in the toddler bordering on actual child stage. And we laugh at ourselves because prior to that I had owned some version of this firm for approximately five years, so who would think my firm in 2015 would be an infant? But we really have enjoyed the process of growing a law firm, but also in learning how to be business people, and how to run a business as well as just the firm. And that has been an eye-opening experience for us in multiplicity of ways, not the least of which is personal growth and development, which is a hard thing to do as a leader, and as a business owner.
And it’s been interesting as two of us, instead of just one of us as well, because we’ve had to navigate the interpersonal relationships, and our respective strengths and weaknesses, all while leading a team of people, and servicing clients who are in one of the worst situations in their life. It’s been a rollercoaster to say the least.
Davina Frederick: Contrast that with your first partnership. I mean, what… You’ve obviously pursued some personal development, some outside resources, or something with this partnership, that maybe you didn’t with the first one?
Sarah Jacobs: Definitely. I think number one we’ve grown just in terms of age literally, age and maturity. I think also our… How do I say this? Our comfort with our current firm being “established,” as opposed to the newbies that just left our firm, and open another firm is a dynamic that for those of us in New Jersey, where family law is a very tight bar. But we came from established firms, and we sort of can’t shake that shadow for a little while, until you can stand on your own feet, and sort of prove yourself, we’ve had the benefit of time.
But I also think that… You know, partnership is a difficult concept, and you really have to learn to be respectful of yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses, your partner’s strengths, your weaknesses, to navigate those, and to learn to trust, and for lack of a better catchphrase, lean in a little bit to those-
Davina Frederick: It’s like marriage.
Sarah Jacobs: It is. I actually… Jamie and I joke all the time. We believe, number one that we spend more time with each other than we do with our respective husbands, and families. But number two, we think we fight more with each other than we do with our respective husband and families because we have such passion for what we do, and passion for our business, and we formulate our decisions by really fighting it out in the boardroom for lack of a better term.
But it’s been a good learning experience for us, and I think that part of what we can attribute to our growth has been mindset development for the two of us. Who are we? How do we navigate each other? How do we work with each other? What do we want our vision for our firm to be? And can we learn to trust each other implicitly with decisions that normally two type A, strong-willed female personalities have? And that’s been I think the single source of our recipe for success if you will.
Davina Frederick: Yeah. I find that to be… I mean that’s really fascinating, you talking about that. Because that’s one of the biggest challenges of partnership, I think is that particularly for attorneys, is because you do have such strong personalities. If you’re in… And especially if you’re in any sort of litigation. You get a couple litigators in a room, right? And then you’re trying to run a business together. It’s difficult already if you’re partnering with somebody, and you’ve got two people that are trying to steer the ship, right?
Sarah Jacobs: Oh, absolutely.
Davina Frederick: That’s going to be… That’s going to be a challenge. And then as women, do you find it difficult to not want to offend? Not want to fight? I mean, you have to fight, but at the same time you don’t want to fight. You don’t want to offend because you want to get along, and you want to be liked, and you want to be social, and all that, but at the same time you have strong opinions, and you want to be heard, and you want your… You want to be the one in charge.
Sarah Jacobs: Yeah, I definitely think that our strong personalities come from sort of our upbringing and the way that we were taught, and we have a very forward thinking… Both of us, forward thinking upbringing. We were similarly situated in the way that we were raised, but I think that we both have a good healthy amount of opinions, and we like to express those opinions pretty regularly. And I think especially, like you said, being attorneys, but litigators, and being litigators in a court room where traditionally it was a male dominated industry that has become exceedingly more female in nature over the years. But where there is bias, and there is gender discrimination, and there is this concept, and you have clients who fight about gender bias, and discrimination. And when they’re talking about their children and their money, it becomes even more pervasive, I think in the way that you learn to communicate.
And I think for us the single biggest help has been learning how to speak each other’s languages, and learning how to trust decision making when it comes to, “Well she’s better at this.” So, not that I don’t have a say, but I’m going to listen more than I’m going to talk. And I’m going to internalize and process, and she’s going to do the same, where she recognizes strengths for us, and we’re going to learn to lean on each other to help navigate the ship when it comes to those things, and the staff has learned… Not necessarily that there’s a divide and conquer mentality, but that there is a healthy dose of respect from each other to the other, and that they see as a unified partnership, and a unified front. And that there’s no divisiveness within, that translates to our staff, which translates to our clients, which I think serves long-term the concept of bringing these families that are fractured to a happy conclusion. Maybe not the best conclusion, but a happy one for them.
Davina Frederick: Right.
Sarah Jacobs: They feel at least calm that there is an outcome, and that they feel comfortable moving forward. And I think that they get that from feeling that they are with a team, and that there’s no forward face to the client, and internal face to the partnership. It is the same face no matter what side you’re looking on.
Davina Frederick: I am assuming that you guys didn’t just do this on your own, that you actually turned to some outside help to help you grow as partners, and as people for this mindset work, and to become better communicators, and that kind of thing?
Sarah Jacobs: We did. We sort of flew by the seat of our pants as we had early in my partnership, and kind of continued some of that in the early stages of our partnership. We… As I mentioned the New Jersey family law section is a pretty tight bar. We had some friends who were using a coaching company, and were doing some good work. Jamie and I are skeptics by nature, and so we fought it for quite a long time, and even when we joined, I would have to say that we maybe didn’t embrace the mentality as much as we should have in the beginning stages in order to get as much out of it as possible. But it definitely pushed our comfort zone, pushed our horizons, pushed our thinking.
We started making changes in the business, you know, on “our terms,” of course. And we saw change, and we saw progress. We’ve doubled down, and we’ve really committed to the process, and we’ve really embraced what we feel is productive for us, and who we are, and how we operate. And we’ve asked for help when we’ve needed it, and we’ve pushed ourselves where we maybe felt like we were slipping. And that has helped us look at the firm as a business, and as really being better leaders, and being better managers, and better parties for that definition. Because the healthier we are in terms of our ability to reflect and listen, the better we become at our job, especially with the nature of what we do for a living.
And while it’s not solely that, I think we’ve adopted it. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force them to drink. They have to be willing to drink, and they have to be willing to find a place in the desert to relax. But without that, I don’t think we would have pushed ourselves as hard as we did.
Davina Frederick: Right. And so you have expanded. You have other attorneys.
Sarah Jacobs: We do.
Davina Frederick: And how has that changed the dynamic of the firm? What kind of challenges came out of that?
Sarah Jacobs: Well leading a group of people, especially when you have two strong personalities, has been an interesting dynamic because they all have strong personalities. And we tend to find that we like the dynamic of having a lot of personalities in the office, and I’m really playing to each of those person’s strengths.
I think that one of the biggest things that Jamie and I have created here is a culture of teamwork. And probably every business, or every firm, especially if it services family law, say that, but I can say that with honesty here, because we are a group of people that express opinions on a regular basis. One of the best things that Jamie and I took away from our respective firms when we left them was the comradery that we had with our associates, and the lines of communication that we had to our partners at that point, and we really strived to replicate that here.
We have open doors. We have collaborative discussions. We talk about cases all the time. We try to place the people that we think are best for the case on the file. We don’t work with egos. We work with results. And I think that, that has been one of the things that has led our team to be so aligned with our mission, and so onboard with the way that we want to do things because there’s no divide here.
We don’t have walls where nobody knows what’s going on. They know the clients’ names. They know what’s going on in the cases. They’re invested in the stories. They care about the people. They care about the children involved. And I think that culture has really been something that’s been long in coming, and hard to create because you have to find people that fit within it. But when you do, you protect it like a momma bear because it’s so key to the success of a business.
Davina Frederick: Right, right. When did you know that it was time for you to bring in other attorneys?
Sarah Jacobs: I think that there were probably two ways that we did that. One was… I mean, the work just gets too much for any one person, or any two people, and we know that we are not able to produce and grow in the way that we want, with quality work, and details, and clients feeling satisfied.
But the other part was, how do we serve more people? And we can only serve more people if we have people in our firm that can provide the capacity. We can’t be chief, cook, bottle washer, lawyer, mediator, biller. You know, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, receptionist then, and garbage collector. If we’re trying to do all that, we can’t actually produce, and promote a firm that will help more people.
And when we got to the point where we said, “We’re doing our best, but there’s no more bandwidth,” we sort of get to the point where we’re like, “Okay, well we need more people like us. How do we do that?” And then we go through the hiring process, and here you are.
Davina Frederick: Did you have fear? Did either of you have fear around money, and around paying an attorney, and supporting an attorney? And providing for them what they expect, and what they want? And if so, how did you deal with that?
Sarah Jacobs: Yes. Currently, and probably will in the future. Because that… As a business owner, there are those days where you take a step back, and you’re like, “Whoa, all these people are relying on me. And I have to keep making sure that they get paid.”
Davina Frederick: Way too adult for me.
Sarah Jacobs: Yeah. Okay, tomorrow, can I stop adulting? But yes, all the time. But I think that, that can do one of two things. It can paralyze you, and keep you in a situation where you continue to be the chief bottle washer, cook, you know, garbage collector, and biller and receptionist. Or you push past that fear, and know that it will make you hungrier, and will make you work harder to make sure that you can sustain the people that you’re bringing in, and the brand that you’re creating. And it makes you drive for more business, and more growth.
And Jamie and I are… Like I said before, control… A plus personalities. So, for the two of us, fear is always there, but we won’t let that stop growth, and we won’t let that stop our goal to help as many people as we can. So, we push past it, and we budget, and we forecast, and we watch our numbers, and we learn how to measure our metrics, and we pay attention to those things, and that helps us ride through any concerns that we might have, and it puts us in a place where we feel more comfortable being able to make those decisions because we have actual data to rely upon.
Davina Frederick: And is there a much bigger vision? I mean is there an end to how big?
Sarah Jacobs: Yes. There’s a definitive end to how big. We never want… For personal reasons, Jamie and I do not want to be so big that we don’t know how many people we have, we can’t fit around a conference table for firm lunch, which we make sure that we do once a week. We don’t want to lose sight of birthdays, and special occasions, and important things.
There will be a too big point. I can’t say that it’s now. I think we have room to grow, and we are looking to grow, but we both believe in a very carefully picked family here that serves the families that we need to serve. So, there will be a too big point. Yeah.
Davina Frederick: As you know this is the Solo to CEO Podcast, and so I’m always very interested to have my guest share maybe some of the lessons that they have learned on their journey from solo to CEO, wherever they are on the journey, so that people who may be behind them in the journey can learn from their lessons. Are there some themes that kind of come to your mind? You know, if you had it to do over again kind of thing? Lessons that come to your mind that you’d like to share?
Sarah Jacobs: I think two. There are two that really come to my specific mind, and I speak for me in these, not necessarily for Jamie, though she would probably tend to agree with me. But one, you have to know your data. Yes, flying by the seat of your pants is a great idea, maybe on day one, but by day one hundred, you really have to start thinking about, “What is my business plan?” And really commit the time to sitting down, and working on your business, and not just in your business.
Because when you work on your business, you realize a lot of things. You look at numbers. You look at metrics, and I don’t like it because it brings an element of fear. We sit down and we have administrative meetings now, and we go through bookkeeping, and collections, and I always take a deep breath, I go, “Okay, what are we going to hear today? How am I going to push through this?” And it’s not bad. It’s always fine. It’s just one of those things that you have to do as a business owner, and when you don’t, you’re actually doing a disservice to yourself.
Find a quiet place. Find somebody who wants to sit there and talk to you. Talk to the squirrel in the park up the block. Do whatever you need to do in order to find time to actually review those metrics, and really dig into what your business is telling you because that way there are no surprises.
And I think the second thing is mindset, mindset, mindset. We all have our scripts. We all have the ways that we want to do things. We all have our fear. And unless we actually learn how to work on ourselves, and figure out what’s holding us back, what’s keeping us from making the next decision, why we operate that we operate, how we communicate with people, what our triggers are, we wind up sabotaging ourselves, and we wind up hiring the wrong people, or firing the right people. Or choosing this client because they’re safe today, and not necessarily because they’re good for the business. And those are not choices that can sustain, or help you grow long-term, so you have to get out of your own way.
Davina Frederick: And just kind of following that same thought, what do you believe is the most important factor in your success so far?
Sarah Jacobs: That is a good question. I think it’s pushing past fear. I think fear can really undermine a business. It can set you back in the same patterns. It can force you to communicate negatively with the people around you. It can lead you to making poor money choices, or poor people choices, and I think if you can take that first leap, then you just keep taking leaps. Maybe they’re not aggressive. Maybe they’re small steps, but they are movement, and without movement they’re standstill. And standstill just leads you to the same place that you’ve been, and so there’s no ability to develop and grow both your business, and you. You have to push past that fear.
Davina Frederick: Let me ask you this, did you set out kind of from the beginning thinking that you were eventually going to have your own firm?
Sarah Jacobs: Ha. No. Decidedly, the exact opposite. In law school, I very much wanted… I love constitutional rights. I loved the law. I interned at the ACLU. I wanted to proceed for truth, justice, and the American way. I was against a billable hour. I was against business for profit. It was not in my DNA at all.
I then realized I would not be able to eat unless I made some money, nor would I have healthcare, or any of the other things that go along with a lot of the good positive work that people do in this world on a pro bono basis. And so I said, “Okay, just for a little bit.” And 16 years later, here I am. Just for a little bit.
So, not at all did I ever think I would own my own firm, never mind own a business, or two for that matter.
Davina Frederick: Yeah. Yes, you own a second business. You want to tell us a little bit about that?
Sarah Jacobs: Polar opposite to what I do every day. I own with a different business partner, a boutique Pilates, yoga, fitness studio, here in Long Valley, New Jersey, which is also Morris County, but the other side. It is a boutique environment, and it is really a phenomenal space, and a phenomenal place as well. Also for transformation, but just of a different kind.
Davina Frederick: What made you decide to start that business?
Sarah Jacobs: My partner there and I, her name is Michelle. She actually was my personal trainer. In 2007, I made a commitment to myself to becoming healthy, and really getting in shape, and trying to set my mind and body up for the long journey because I didn’t want to be 90, and unable to walk. And she worked at this particular location. There were two other owners at the time. And I started going there, and I loved the environment, I loved the space.
She had an opportunity to buy the business, and I pitched to her, “Let me come in with you. It’s going to be great for me. I know how to run a business.” She had never run a business before. I said, “I knew how to run a business.” That was funny. But I thought I knew how to run a business. I could do a lot of the administrative work. She had a lot of the client facing training experience, and I thought what a great outlet for me to have this positive happy environment, balancing out this difficult complex emotional work that we do here at Jacobs Berger, and that was my initial thought.
But both businesses have blossomed. They both have grown in their own right, and while I still feel that both are positive, balance is an interesting concept, that I’m not sure actually exists in the world.
Davina Frederick: Yeah, I used to own a fitness studio myself.
Sarah Jacobs: Ah, so you know.
Davina Frederick: Yes, I do. I do know. We’ll have to have more on that later. More on that subject later.
Sarah Jacobs: Different podcast topic.
Davina Frederick: Exactly, exactly. And I find it interesting because I do find when I talk with women entrepreneurs who own law firms, often times they… You know, we invest in other types of businesses, because once you get bit by that entrepreneurial bug.
Sarah Jacobs: Oh, for sure.
Davina Frederick: You know, you just… You can’t help it. You want to… Everything you see, you’re like, “That would make an interesting business. Hmm.”
Sarah Jacobs: I said the same thing. I was walking by Jamie on my way past the conference room, and I stopped and I go, “I have another business idea.” And she goes, “How many do you want?” I said, “That’s not the point. Let’s talk later.” It happens daily.
Davina Frederick: Yes, it’s fun. It’s fun. Because it’s fun to grow a business. And once you develop those skills, why not use them, right?
Sarah Jacobs: Absolutely.
Davina Frederick: Terrific. All right, any other final thoughts that you want to share today before we wrap up?
Sarah Jacobs: I just think that it’s important for anybody who owns a business, women especially, but any kind of business owner, do the work. Don’t do just the work that your business is serving, but do the work for you and your business, because you see such growth in your entire life when you work that way, that it has positive impacts both business wise and personal wise.
Davina Frederick: I couldn’t agree more. And so tell us how we can find you on the internet.
Sarah Jacobs: www.JACOBS. J-A-C-O-B-S. Berger, B-E-R-G-E-R, .com. We are also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and all social media channels. Coming to a theater near you. That is the main source that you can find out about our firm, and about the partners and the associates that work here, and the good work that we do.
Davina Frederick: Terrific. Good, good. Thanks so much for being here, and sharing lots of great information, especially for those who are considering partnership. It sounds like you guys have really done it well. Not an easy thing to do to have a partner, and then to make a partnership last and do it well. And so I congratulate you on that because it sounds like you chose well, and then you guys have put the work into it, so wonderful. And it sounds like the firm is doing really well, and I can’t wait to check back with you a few years from now, and see how much more you’ve grown. Thanks so much for being here.
Sarah Jacobs: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.