In the early days of her practice, Sarah Stewart struggled to balance being a single mom and a solo practitioner. But when she changed her mindset and began re-prioritizing, she attracted better clients, ones who paid better, too.
What made the difference? She stopped thinking about herself, her work, and her clients in the dangerous way many women entrepreneurs do that can sabotage their success. She also learned to say “no.”
Sarah says her marketing strategy – one that attorneys rarely use – has also been a huge asset as she’s built her business.
In our conversation we unpack all of that, as well as…
- The biggest asset to growing a business and improving work-life balance
- How to conduct a “group interview” to find the best candidate for a job
- The support system she used to stay on top of her work and home life
- The way she distinguishes her practice from other lawyers in her area
- And more priceless tips on how to balance it all and create the lifestyle you desire
Mentioned in this episode:
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 CEO of a high-impact wealth-generating business. I’m your host, Davina Frederick, and I’m here with Sarah Stewart, attorney and founder of Solid Serenity Legal Solutions. Solid Serenity Legal Solutions is located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and services clients in need of estate of legacy planning, guardianship, and probate. Welcome, Sarah. It’s so good to have you as our guest on the Solo to CEO Podcast.
Sarah Stewart: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Davina: So you and I have known each other a little bit over the last few years, and I’ve kind of followed your journey and your career. Why don’t you tell everybody a little more detail about Solid Serenity Legal Solutions and how you serve your clients?
Solid Serenity’s Mission
Sarah: Okay, so we are based in Oklahoma. Our clients are Oklahoma-based. And we focus on helping families fill the holes in estate planning. And what I mean by that is, we definitely focus on making sure that there’s a plan for if something happens to you, for your children, your young children. That was something that became important to me when I became a mother. I also focused on probate. So that’s, for those of you who don’t know, transferring assets, if someone passes away.
And guardianship, we focus a lot on maybe special needs children become adults. Parents have to take them to court to continue to be able to take care of them. Or elderly people who aren’t able to care for themselves. And wrap into that we also do the special needs trust and things of that nature to make sure that they don’t lose their benefits. If you know mom or dad passed away, and they inherit money. So that’s really our focus is helping families stress less. And all of these wonderful legal situations that they find themselves in.
Davina: Yeah, it is a, it is quite challenging as, particularly as you get older, and you find yourself in a situation where you’re where you need to deal with issues for your parents, you know? I’m at that age. I’m in my mid-50s. And so my parents are getting into their 80s. And you have to start thinking about those kinds of things. And it can be very stressful and confusing for non-attorneys, who, you know, there’s so much involved in the legal process, right? So you have, what caused you to choose this area of practice?
Sarah: Well I actually, when I first started out from law school, I worked in divorce and child custody. And to be quite frank, that is just not a good fit for me. I didn’t like it. So I went on to do some nonprofit work. I became executive director of a nonprofit here in Oklahoma City. And we did that type of work. So we did adoptions for grandparents and guardianship. We focused on the senior community, the low-income community. And I loved it. I mean, I loved working in that environment.
The problem was, as the executive director, I just wear so many hats. And we have so many people coming through our doors. I believe we had about 1200 clients a year for two attorneys in the office. And so it just I felt like we were losing my connection to our customers and our clients. And that’s super important to me. In fact, in my business, I call my clients my client family. Because I want to be more than just their attorney for their document for their attorneys to help them do this probate.
I want them to call me if they need someone to mow their lawn. I can help them you know, have a community where they can get help. And I don’t want them to feel like I’m going to charge them $500 an hour every time I pick up the phone. So those are really the basics of my business because. I focus on the flat fee planning and I focus on connection with my clients.
Davina: Mm-hmm. So you really embrace the counselor-at-law role. Not just the attorney-at-law, but the counselor-at-law, you know? Sounds like you really work on that relationship of being a trusted advisor that they can call for all kinds of needs, which is is very special, you know, in this day and age that high touch really means a lot.
So tell me, you mentioned when you were last what you did right after law school. When you went to law school did you have an idea of what kind of you thought you wanted to be a family law attorney at that time? Or were you just, you know, what caused you to go to law school, decide to go to law school and become a lawyer?
Sarah: So I was in journalism and broadcasting as an undergrad, and I really
Davina: Oh me too.
Sarah: Small world right? I feel like there are a lot of us. But I wanted to be a news anchor. And the time I went to school is about the time media started to change. So it, we stopped with the Tom Brokaws and the Barbara Walters and Walter Cronkite. And it became more of a, its when media went private. When it, when private companies started purchasing them.
And so by the time I was getting ready to graduate, I just didn’t feel as passionate about it. And I wound up taking a media law class. And it was fascinating. So I actually went to law school to practice media law and not realizing that wasn’t really like a thing. Like you can’t go out and start media law. Like you have to be in house right at NBC.
Davina: You have to be able to pay your bills in the meantime.
Sarah: Right. Like I have no clue, just that really interested me in the law. And so I didn’t realize at the time how analytical I really thought until I got into law school. And I actually loved it. I know a lot of people didn’t like law school. But I loved it. And so, of course, by the time I graduated, I had no clue what I was going to do. Because they don’t really focus right on, on preparing you for an area of law, they just focus on preparing you in general.
And so that’s why I think I jumped around a little bit and started in divorce and custody because you also hear that’s where the money is right? Like half the nation is getting divorced all the time. So I didn’t realize the emotional toll that that takes because I do have that connection to my clients, and they do become family to me. And so them calling me on the weekends, I wanted to handle that and take care of that for them. And you just if you’re a family law attorney, you just can’t do that. Like you have to have very strong boundaries in order to survive. So it’s just my idea.
Davina: Yeah, I once had a mentor tells me that she was a judge. And she told me she says you either love it or you hate it. And she’s family law. There’s no middle road for that. And like you, I wound up moving into an estate planning, practice. And so and working with really the elderly population, and that it is a different kind of relationship. What made you decide to start your own practice, you know, create Solid Serenity, Legal Solutions?
Sarah: Yeah, so when I was at the nonprofit and working as an executive director I kind of learned the ropes of how to run a business, right? And I had a little bit of a safety net under me because I had, you know, a board to help me do things. And I had fundraising and grant writing. And so it helped me to get my feet wet and not be so fearful of going out on my own. But what really pushed me was just that disconnect that I felt having so many people come through the door not feeling like I could give them a quality connection and quality services.
I mean, I realize now within a year I’d forget half of our clients when they call and I say, Oh, I don’t know who that is. I have to look up their case. And it just didn’t feel right to me. I have a service heart and I thrive on connection with other people. So it just wasn’t the right fit for me anymore after a few years. And so going my own way seemed like the best situation for me, especially being a working mom with two young kids, the flexibility that having your own business gives you was just amazing for me. It’s been the best thing that I could have ever done.
Davina: Right. So how long’s it been since you opened your own practice?
Sarah: I’ve had my own practice for about four years now. Almost five.
Davina: And I am curious about the name. Tell me what went into naming it Solid Serenity Legal Solutions? What does that mean to you?
Sarah: So that actually came about, I would say about a year ago. I started out as Sarah Stewart Legal Group. But then I realized I don’t want to run just a self-employment business where I have to be present all the time. I want to run an actual business and I want to be the CEO. I want to not have to do all the work, right? I want it to run whenever I’m not there. And so I thought, well, if I’m going to do that, I need to change the name to something that’s not my name. And so I started thinking about what is it that I want to portray. What is it that we’re doing here? And so Solid Serenity came about because we are your sturdy whenever you’re going through hard times. But we’re also relieving your stress. So I found two words that sounded good together. And that kind of symbolized that to me.
Like, we want to be your strength, and we want to be someone you can lean on. But we also want to take away your burden and help reduce your stress. Because I know, you know my dad passed away probably about seven years ago and going through that process as the personal representative, even me who knew the process was stressful and time-consuming. And, you know, just to have someone in your corner who knows what they’re doing and help you get through that. I think it’s priceless.
Davina: Right. I really love the serenity, using the word serenity for that. Because that really because you know people don’t think of when people think of legal issues, they don’t think of serene. It’s not the word that comes to mind. But it really conveys that peace of mind that I think you’re trying to help your clients have. That sense that it will be okay and you’ll have peace of mind. And you know, you’ll get through this. So I really like that. Tell me what, so it’s been four years. So what was it like when you first opened your practice? What were some of the things that you found to be the biggest challenges?
Biggest Challenges Sarah Faced When Starting A Business
Sarah: I think the insecurity can be a little terrifying. So when you’re working with an employer, you get a paycheck, right? Every two weeks, or every month, or whatever it is, and you know exactly how much that is. When you’re in your own business it’s a little different, you know? Things can fluctuate, you have seasons. And I intuitively knew that.
And luckily, having been in the business for as long as I’ve been in the business, I have referrals out the gate and I never was in the red. But it can be difficult to get used to that when you’ve been an employee for a long time. Getting used to the swings of a business. And I think that was the hardest part. And not giving up whenever you go through a downswing too. I think having persistence is super important to realize that it will work out 99.9% of the time. You just have to stick to it.
Davina: Right. Right. That is the biggest challenge with entrepreneurship is it can have such highs and lows, that if you don’t learn to sort of, you know, embrace the suck and ride it out and just sort of know that it will get better. And there are clients out there for you, you know? Clients that are meant to work with you and have been looking for you, you know?
And when you provide a good service and you bring your personality to it, then you’re going to find those clients that are just really craving that, you know? They’re craving that care and understanding. Your, so fast forward now four years into it. What are some of the lessons you think you’ve learned along the way in growing your practice? After you got through that first difficult year, what are some of the things that you learned?
Sarah: I think there’s two really important lessons I’ve learned. The first one is know your value. I saw a meme, probably a couple of weeks ago now that said if it takes me 10 minutes to do something I spent 10 years learning to do that in a few minutes. You’re not paying me for the 10 minutes, you’re paying me for the 10 years. And I think a lot of especially women entrepreneurs have a tendency to undervalue themselves and not realize that really your worth is more than what you’re saying. So when I first came out, I would charge probably half of what my competition charges, because I felt bad.
I thought that’s a lot of money, right? Like people don’t have that much money. And now I realize number one they do. But number two, you’ve got to support yourself too. And you have to value yourself too. And if you don’t value yourself, they’re not going to value you. My clients now are so much more respectful and considerate than the ones I used to have. And I don’t know if that’s because I value myself more highly and so they do now. Or if it’s just a different type of client. I’m not real sure the reason for that. I just know that it makes a big difference to know your value and not be afraid to ask for it.
Davina: Yeah, you’re buying into some I’m sorry. Just to add to that thought buying into someone’s money story is something that I see all the time. When people when women attorneys are starting their practices, or attorneys are starting their practices. You know, we buy into a money story.
And we oftentimes project our own money story on people if we, if we’re struggling, which you may be if you’re starting your practice, you know from scratch, and you’re bootstrapping it, you’re looking at it thinking about what you feel you can afford and what you can’t afford. And then when a client comes in, you project that onto them and go, Well, I know they can’t afford this, right? But it’s really about probably that point where you feel like you could afford or not afford, right? And when you shift that mindset, it really makes a huge difference.
Sarah: Oh yeah. It made all the difference.
Davina: So what was the second lesson?
Sarah: So the second lesson for me, when I first started, I spoke to a mentor. And he said to me, you’ll remember the client you didn’t take more than you’ll remember the client you did. And what I learned from that was really you have to be selective about who you work with, because of that client that is really difficult that can suck up the most of your time, right? And so you really have to find the right fit for you. Someone who has, you know, similar values, similar personality. It’s almost like dating, really, in that you really have to find the right people for you. And don’t just take anyone who comes in off the street. And that’s made a big difference in my practice.
Davina: And that’s probably really hard, right at the beginning to not just take whoever walks in the door, right?
Sarah: Right. But I think you learn that it’s worth it.
Davina: Those people wind up costing you more in the long run. Yeah. So you have when you mentioned memes it, you know, if I wanted to mention this, you have a really wicked sense of humor. I see you’re the one who’s memes I’m always stealing and sharing. And you always post some really, you know, you’re like me. You like those inspirational quotes, but also, you know, that sense of humor. Where do you think that comes from. That little edgy, humorous viewpoint of the world?
Sarah: So my goal is just to keep, make someone’s day better by whatever I’m posting on Facebook. So if it makes me laugh, then I figure somebody else is going to laugh too, right? But I definitely, I try to see the lighter side of things because life is not fun if you’re always serious, and you never lighten up, and so I feel like that’s important. I try at least once or twice a week to have something humorous that can make someone smile.
And it surprised me how often I get random people that I don’t even know who will message me and say, Hey, I saw your meme today and it was funny, and it made me smile. And I thought, well if I made you smile today then I’ve done something right.
Davina: Right. It goes even beyond it goes beyond the work aspect. You know, when you have when you’re doing that. And you are, you’ve mentioned that you’re a mom of two young children. And so I imagine that adds really an added dimension of challenge. Reward, but challenge as well when you’re starting and building your own practice. So what tips do you have for the mom lawyers out there? How old are your children?
Sarah: I have a two-year-old and a six-year-old, both boys.
Davina: So they’re say, so they are Yeah, two years old. Right? So you’ve got your hands full, right? I bet and I bet being boys, you’re probably very busy. So what advice would you have for moms who are, and I know that’s such a cliche woman thing. I’m sorry to ask, to say that. When I say that to a man, I don’t know. But I know that moms tend to have a take out a lot of their responsibility. You know, they are in the children’s world when they’re little like that, especially. And so what kind of advice would you have for starting? You’re kind of juggling it all.
Juggling Multiple Full-Time Jobs
Sarah: Man. That’s hard, right? I mean, as a, especially a single mom, sometimes you just feel like you’re failing at everything, right? You have all these balls in the air, and then one of them dropped for some reason. And it’s like a domino effect, they all drop. But I would say the most important thing that I have found is having a support system. And I know for some people that might not be the easiest, maybe they don’t live close to family, or they don’t look close to friends.
But getting involved in maybe a mom group or something where you can have support is huge. Because without my family around, without my friends who are willing to help there’s no way I could do it. I did initially when my youngest was born, I brought him to work with me about the first nine months. Because you know, they sleep a lot. But after nine months on their mobile, there’s no way. Like I couldn’t have him working next to me.
I mean, it just, he wanted all the attention in the world, and so I know a lot of women are able to pull that off too. Maybe have a part-time nanny in the home, but I think you just have to have the quarter, even if it’s just for the purpose of getting your own self-care. Because, you know, it took me a long time to realize you can’t pour your cup into somebody else’s if it’s not full, right? Like, you have to take care of yourself first. It’s like the oxygen mask on the airplane. You have to put yourself first before you can help someone else.
And it took me a long time to realize that that’s hard, I think. I think women are taught that we should always care for others and always put others above us. So having to say, hey, look, I need this. I need this time. I need this break. I need whatever. I know, that can be hard, but I think it’s necessary. And I think we have to do that in order to really be our full selves. Be able to balance all of the things we have. Because everything is a full-time job. We have a full-time job, we have two children in my case to honestly both of them are each a full-time job. And so you’ve just, you’ve got to take care of yourself.
Davina: I think that’s a wonderful example for them too you know? So they’re going to grow up seeing that. Seeing that this is, you know, being with a mom who asked her what she needs and articulates that and takes the time and, you know, and pursues her dreams even though it’s a challenge sometimes, right? Tell me what is, you are, really, I see a lot going on with your marketing right now. And you’re doing more sort of videos and podcasts and putting yourself out there. And so tell us kind of a little bit about some of the initiatives you’ve taken to market your practice that you found to be successful in growing your practice.
Sarah: So for me, a lot of my practice actually comes from referrals. Either previous clients that have come back or previous clients who have referred other clients. So I’m really honestly always trying to figure out the marketing angle of it, right? That’s the one thing that I need to work on more in my business. And so I’m constantly looking for ways to do that, and what seems to be big right now. And what seems to be popular are the Facebook videos, podcasts and things of that nature.
So I’m part of a couple of networking groups. And I happen to have people in those networking groups. They’re very into podcasting and the Facebook live videos, and we’re always looking for people because I think as an entrepreneur, that can be scary, right? Putting yourself out there. So I think I have a hard time finding people. And so when they tell me, hey, I’ve got this thing, do you want to come? Absolutely. Tell me when. Tell me where.
Tell me what I need to do. But I think again, the reason that I’ve been able to be so successful in that is I don’t think that’s common. Especially attorneys. I don’t feel like a lot of attorneys participate in those types of marketing. And so I Yeah, kind of had five or six this month. But I love it. I mean, I think it’s fun. You’re just sitting down and chatting with someone, so.
Davina: Right. It gives you an opportunity to educate as well, you know, when you’re doing videos, and you’re doing podcasts, it gives you an opportunity to give back and provide information to the community. And maybe there’ll be some prospective clients out of it. But you know, it’s one of the things with, when we go through law school, we’re told that there’s, it’s incumbent upon us to go out and use our skills and abilities to serve and elevate the community. And it’s where so many attorneys kind of struggle with being business owners and asking for a certain amount of money for their services.
And yet still doing what, you know, this noble profession that we’re in and, you know, being a leader in the community and giving back to the community. But one of the ways that we can do that, in a way that is beneficial to everyone, is by putting content out there that helps educate people. You know, one of the biggest discussions you and I’ve seen in some of the groups online is when people say, have you seen that meme going around that says, you know, my law degree is, you know, more valuable than your Google search or something like that right?
So what if we create content that shows up when someone is doing a Google search? I mean, you know? and so you’re actually giving them something that’s valuable and real. And not, you know, not fake news, hashtag fake news, you know? So it’s a way to give back and also to attract and, you know, educate people on the law and legal services so that they can make informed good decisions. So what’s next for Solid Serenity Legal Solutions? What do you, what’s on the horizon?
Sarah: Oh, wow. So I’m really looking to expand. That’s what I would like to do. I would like to eventually be kind of an all hat type of service where people can come here and find a divorce attorney, or come here and find, you know, a real estate attorney or whatever it may be. So would like to bring more attorneys. And, of course, that’s more of a long-term plan right now and looking at where our next building will be, and what our next steps are in order to really grow within ourselves within our own business. They are long-term, that would be my goal.
Davina: I love it. That’s a fantastic goal.
Sarah: Well, I think it’s good for people, because people always get confused, right? They’ll call me looking for a divorce attorney or a criminal attorney. And I mean, I have those references. But wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say, yeah, down the hall. Bob, two doors down.
Davina: Do you have a very, do you have very many people on your staff right now? Are you a true solo? Or, you know, you have paralegal assistance? I mean,
Sarah: Right. So I have a legal assistant. Our office, work-life balance is very important to me. So for us full time, 30 hours, so he’s 30 hours and he’s full-time. And then I also have a virtual assistant. So she does the little things that I need done here and there. But she does my scheduling and a lot of my feeding work. And I will say even though it’s probably one of the scariest moves to make to hire on an employee, it has been one of the best. It’s really helped my business and help my stress level and my work-life balance. And so if you’re in a position where you’re thinking about it, do it, as my advice. Move forward. It’s definitely worth it.
Davina: And how did you find how did you find this paralegal?
A Clever Way and Effective to Narrow Your Hiring Process
Sarah: So I posted a job on Indeed, and what I did, because I, I mean, I got probably 300, 400 applicants. So to kind of narrow the field. Yeah, it was crazy. And I had them write the position, title backwards in an email and make sure that they told me their favorite restaurant in their cover letter. So that narrowed the field immediately down to like 20 applicants.
Davina: That really tells you who’s reading the ad, right?
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. It was so nice because I could just say, oh, that person didn’t follow directions, really. And yeah, it was really helpful. And then I did a group interview, a couple of group interviews. And then from that, I narrowed it down to three applicants, then did individual interviews. And then after that, I took them to lunch just to kind of see how they interacted with people in public. And I think it was a really good procedure because he’s been a great hire.
Davina: I’d really like to more about the group interview, the group interview process. So what did you do with that? How many people did you, just had what you had a conference room, and you had them all show up?
Sarah: I did. So I have a conference room here at my office. And I picked two days, like eight people, two dates that they can pick. One was like lunchtime, and one was evening. And there will be three to five applicants sitting across from me. And I just kind of tell them who I am and what we do here. And then ask them if they had any additional questions and answer any questions that they have. I mean, it probably took about 15, 20 minutes.
And then I said, Okay, well, if you’re still interested, send me an email. And I will send you, because I also do the skills test and some basic, like grammar and editing type of thing. But also do a skill test, and then we will set your second interview. And so that’s how I handled it. And I don’t know, it really cut down I think on my time and it gave me a couple of different layers to make sure that this was someone who was still interested in the position, and you were still interested in this.
Davina: Well, it really also gave you that chance to observe people and how they interact and, you know, with other people, because it’s such a big part of the job, right?
Sarah: It is one, yes, absolutely. Because but you know, my front desk person for answering the phone and calling clients. But yeah it was really important. I mean, more important for me was just personality and that because the skills that I needed for this particular position, a lot of that can be taught, and especially the way that I want it to be right? Instead of somebody else having taught them. So for me, it was far more important that I found someone who could work well with me and work with my clients, and, you know, be appropriate for handling the phone.
Davina: I love that. Yeah, I love that group idea. I think that’s fantastic. I hadn’t heard that before where you know, you get a group of applicants together and that kind of helps you. Because I think for when you have a larger firm, you can have sort of this two-step process by having, you know, staff members, maybe you know, an office manager or something, or HR person, interviews, and then cut down and create a shortlist for you. And then they’re brought into the attorneys to the partners, you know, to go from there.
But it’s harder when you know, you’re smaller, it’s you. Especially if you’re a true solo, or you just have one other person. And so the way that you did it is a great way to have a multi-interview sort of process. So I think that’s a great idea. Have you ever used personality testing or anything like that in your interview process? We’re talking about that today in group online. And I was just curious if you’ve ever used personality testing if you’ve done personality testing and used it.
Sarah: So I have done it personally. I didn’t use it this time around. But I think it is a good idea. What I have done and hiring is we’ve done a personality test with my assistants and kind of, you know, also as love languages. Like what how do you feel appreciated, right? So I have done that since. I did not do it originally. But I would definitely think it would be a good idea to do.
Davina: Yeah. Well, I really appreciate you being here today and sharing some, you know, your story and talking about, you know, your journey from solo to CEO so far. And I think you’ve really shared a lot of good ideas and terrific insight. So any other woman, lawyer, woman law firm owner listening to this is really going to benefit from some of the information you’ve shared. Tell us how we can find out more about you.
Sarah: Okay, so my business is Solid Serenity Legal Solutions. I’m in Oklahoma City. I have a website that is solidserenity.com. Or you can call me at 405-548-5763. And I hope I have given helpful information for someone else there.
Davina: Yeah. I really think you have. Some really good ideas. And I thank you so much for being here. And it was wonderful to be able to actually hear your voice and talk with you. As long as you and I’ve been connected on social media, never had a chance to speak so I’m really glad that I had an opportunity to do that today. Thanks so much.
Sarah: Well, thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.