Dalyla Santos-Furman’s father instilled a passion in her to speak up for others who can’t speak for themselves. And that’s what inspired her to become an attorney after emigrating from Cuba as a teenager.

She’s had experience in bankruptcy, foreclosure, immigration, and more. And these days she’s just where she wants to be: with her own law firm, working closely – and getting to know – the clients she’s helping directly.

She talks about what it takes to go out on your own with a growing family, as well as …

  • The challenges of partnerships – and what to do when it doesn’t work out
  • The one person you need to help guide you when starting out
  • 4 things you must have first when starting a solo firm
  • How to diversify your law practice – and when it makes sense
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned on This Episode: www.santoslawpa.com

Episode Transcript:

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 today with Dalyla Santos-Furman, founder and CEO of the Santos Law Offices in Miami, Florida. The Santos Law Offices focuses on immigration, bankruptcy, insurance law, and general civil litigation.

Welcome Dalyla. I’m so happy you’re here today.

Dalyla Santos: Very nice. Thank you so much for inviting me. I am so excited to be part of your program.

Davina Frederick: Oh, great. Tell us, you and I have known each other for a few years now, and I’m really excited that our listeners are going to get a chance to know you. So tell us a little bit about your law firm, and your practice, and the clients that you serve, and how you serve them.

Dalyla Santos: Well, my name is Dalyla Santos-Furman, or Dalyla, whatever is easier. And I practice… My office is in Miami, Florida and I practice mostly in the areas of, like you said, bankruptcy, debt litigation, civil litigation, immigration, and some insurance claims. Most of my practice is in the area of Coral Gables, around there in Miami. Most of my clients are Spanish speaking clients, but we have people from all over the world, specifically with the immigration practice.

Davina Frederick: So give us an idea of why you decided to go into this area of practice?

Dalyla Santos: Well, I guess we could go back to why I decided to be an attorney if you want.

Davina Frederick: Okay.

Dalyla Santos: To give you the full story. But I’m originally from Cuba. So I came to the United States when I was 14 years old, with my parents. And back in Cuba, my father was always very… He always made sure that we understood in the household that we did not support the government. We were against it. And that we should always speak our mind and speak on behalf of others that could not speak, or could not defend themselves.

So that was my education in the household from my parents. And of course, you got into a lot to trouble for that mentality back in Cuba. But that always stayed with me. And it was my dream to become an attorney so I could defend people like my dad back there in Cuba and everyone else.

So that always was with me. But when I came to the country I did not speak English. So I didn’t know how this dream was going to become a reality.

So I went through school. I went to high school. We lived in Orlando. When we moved from Cuba we lived in Orlando and I went to high school there, then I went to UCF. And at UCF, I remember I was doing the legal studies program, but I was still afraid that I was not going to get into law school.

So I went to see my counselor and I said, “Listen, I want to switch my major to something else, because what if I don’t get into law school, what am I going to do with a legal studies program?” So I switched to marketing even though the counselor told me, “You’re crazy. You’re not going to get into law school with a marketing degree.”

So I too the LSAT, I passed to my surprise, with good numbers and then I got into law school, still shocked, but I could see my dream coming closer and closer.

So, I finally got to law school, during law school I interned at immigration firms. I interned at insurance firms, so I got to see other areas of law, but still I had the opportunity to represent people and speak on behalf of people that couldn’t speak for themselves, or that couldn’t stand up for themselves. Then when I finished law school, it was right in 2008 where the market crashed, I joined a firm in Orlando that did foreclosure defense, and then litigation and consumer protection. It was then that I realized, even though this is not what I was thinking I was going to do as an attorney, I realized that these people, the people that were losing their homes, the people that were going into bankruptcy, they needed help against these big banks and corporations.

It was for me, a very exciting part of my career. I was with that initial firm for five years, and I got to do also a lot of integration and I got to sue and represent a lot of… Sue a lot of banks on behalf of individuals for violations of different laws and represent a lot of people who were losing their homes.

So that’s how my career started, and that’s how I got to this area of law. It was through that first job that even though it was not my ideal job, it really gave me the opportunity to lead that dream that I had from when I was a kid back in Cuba. Maybe it was not a human rights kind of job, but it was a job that the community needed at that point, and it really gave me that satisfaction with respect to that.

Davina Frederick: What led you to start your own practice?

Dalyla Santos: Well, again, my father did not agree with me going on my own. He thought that I should stay with that company for 20 years and just have that job, especially being female, and everything else that goes with that mentality. But I wanted more, you know. I was working for a big firm that I was so thankful for at that time; gave me so many opportunities. I learned so much, but I wanted more client contact.

I wanted to get closer. I wanted to know… I wanted the satisfaction of knowing the people that I was helping. At this big firm, I’d been with them for five years, and at this point, for the last three years there, I was a managing attorney for the consumer protections department.

So I did not meet my clients anymore. I was not looking at their faces and seeing their results, and seeing how happy they were or not. So that’s one of the biggest reasons. I wanted to meet and I wanted to know the people that I was helping, and-

Davina Frederick: Right.

Dalyla Santos: That job didn’t give me that anymore, and going on my own gave me the opportunity to have more control as to who I represented and for what reason. And that was the driving force for going on my own really.

Davina Frederick: Right.

Dalyla Santos: And moving to Miami, because all of that was in Orlando. I also moved to Miami, over the objection of my family.

Davina Frederick: Oh I can imagine.

Dalyla Santos: Yep.

Davina Frederick: Fathers like to keep us close.

Dalyla Santos: Yes.

Davina Frederick: Yeah.

Dalyla Santos: Especially my… Not only my parents, but my siblings that are also in Orlando. To this day, they still hope that one day I’ll go back and stay, and open a firm there or something.

Davina Frederick: I’m a lot older than you are, and my parents are older than your parents, and they still hope that I move back. So I don’t think that changes, right?

Dalyla Santos: Yeah. Yeah.

Davina Frederick: But that took a lot of courage for you to make that decision to move away and start your own practice. Where do you think you get that sort of… And even you referenced earlier about making that decision in the face of somebody saying to you, “Well, you’re not going to be successful getting into law school with a marketing degree” and you know, your dad is a very, I’m sure you have a tremendous amount of love and respect for your dad, and it’s a very formidable thing for him to say… To be concerned and have that fear for you and say, “Oh, you need to stay with the company, and don’t go on your own”. All of this.

What do you think it is that… Where do you think you get that fortitude to kind of push past the fear, and other people’s fears, and strike ahead, and forge your own path? Where do you think that comes from?

Dalyla Santos: I guess if you really think about it, and my life has not been difficult, just because we came from another country, that’s difficult, I have to be honest. I think overcoming that, coming to a new country so young, and having to deal with a new life, new language, everything.

I think that builds in me those defense mechanisms, or growing mechanisms, where we overcome things. That’s what we do. And going back to my parents they always told me, don’t let fear paralyze you. You can be afraid. I’m going to put him on the spot, my dad and myself were afraid of the dark, and my dad is 71 years old and he is afraid of the dark. He knew I was since I was a kid, also afraid of the dark.

He always told me, “Listen, I’m afraid of the dark, but I’m stand in the dark so the dark knows I’m here”. I’m not going to let it paralyze me. I’m not going to let my fear stop me from doing something that I want to do.

So I think that was instilled in me from when I was a kid, and then just being pushed into this new world, new life, new language, new everything, as an immigrant. I think it built in me that I had to push through or else I would be working at… I wouldn’t even have gone to law school, had I listened to my counsel; had I listened even to myself. Or taking the bar, or passing the bar, or taking the job.

So I’ve always recognized, everything I do, even to this day, especially now as a business owner, you know I have discussed with you on how many decisions; how difficult those decisions can be sometimes. But the important part is that, thanks to the people around me, at times thanks to you, I have pushed through those fears and have gotten the job done. I think that, that’s what’s always driven me.

Davina Frederick: So when you first moved out, you had a partner at first, and it’s very common for people, especially for women often times, to feel a need to partner with somebody. Initially you had a partner and then eventually you decided to strike out completely on your own.

How was that experience for you?

Dalyla Santos: Yes. The partnership experience, I think is something everyone needs to live and decide if it’s good for them or not. Looking back I really enjoy being solo and having complete control over what I do, or not do, in my office.

But yeah, partnership is just like a marriage. It’s challenging. Sometimes it works great. I’ve seen… I know many people have partnerships and they’re amazing. They do great. They’re successful and then sometimes they don’t work out. That’s what happened in my case, it didn’t work out.

Of course, I’ve always been the type of person that wants to work things out and make it work and succeed, and it was a difficult decision for me to realize that I needed to make the change because this was not going to work out no matter how hard I tried, or how much I wanted it, or how scary it was to say, “Yeah, this didn’t work out and I need to move on”.

So you were instrumental in reaching that conclusion and making the decision to move on, and actually taking the steps to move on. I can close my eyes and remember the night that I was speaking to you and you pushes me to, like, “Don’t wait any-“. I think I was waiting until Wednesday to take the steps and it was Monday night, and I was still at the office. You said, “Why are you waiting until Wednesday? Tonight you need to… You need to do this now” and I did it.

I never looked back. It was one of the best decisions that I ever made, again, despite the fear that I was going through.

Davina Frederick: Yeah it was an incredible… That again is an example of you feeling the fear and doing it anyway. You know?

Dalyla Santos: Yeah.

Davina Frederick: That’s your pattern, of feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

Dalyla Santos: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Davina Frederick: This is all you, and your formidable nature, you know? Of saying, “Yes, okay. I’m scared of this thing, but I’m going to do it anyway” and how has that worked for you? With your new firm?

Dalyla Santos: I’ve never been happier. Not just in my professional life, my financial life, but in my personal life. It was incredible. It’s been incredible.

I’m so much happier. I have happy clients. I have a happy family. Now I’m a mom, so it’s just a lot has been going on.

If this was in 2017, middle of 2017, so it’s been… It’s going to be two years now, I believe, in July. It’s been, like I said, best decision. One of the best decisions that I’ve ever made.

Davina Frederick: So some of the things that had happened since you struck out on your own, completely on your own, left a partnership is… Let’s talk about your firm and some of the things that had happened when you went on your own.

At that time you were not a mom, so you have started a family.

Dalyla Santos: Yep.

Davina Frederick: And you were just telling me, your boy, your baby boy, is now eight months.

Dalyla Santos: Yes.

Davina Frederick: So congratulations.

Dalyla Santos: Thank you so much.

Davina Frederick: So what is your challenge, because I know there’s probably going to be a lot of solo CEO, law firm moms, out there listening to this. So tell us some of the ways that you sort of balance your… Some of the challenges, and some of the ways you sort of overcome the challenges with balancing being a mom and running your law firm.

Your law firm has grown.

Dalyla Santos: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Davina Frederick: In this period of the last couple of years. So not only did you leave and start your own, when you left you had a couple employees, when you started, that you took with you.

So give us a kind of, some of the things that have happened, because I know you’ve added some practice areas.

Dalyla Santos: Yep.

Davina Frederick: Diversified a little bit. So talk to us a little about what the firm looks like now, and some of the changes you’ve made on this solo to CEO journey.

Dalyla Santos: Yeah. Well, I’ve been able to focus more specifically on the type of, in the field that I practice… More specific on the type of case I want to handle. We have grown. We’ve added and employee. We’ve moved the office. That decision came along with… Because of the baby, now my office is barely ten minutes from my home, so that’s great for me. It is more centrally located for my clients, so it worked out perfectly, and we have added one employee and a virtual assistant, aside from my employees.

We’ve grown. It’s a nice building that we’re in. The challenges that come along, just owning the business and all this stuff, but along came my pregnancy, which we had planned for, but remember that mentality that I have that I can do it all, and even if there is fear, I’m going to go through it?

Davina Frederick: Right.

Dalyla Santos: Well sometimes I overestimate my power and I decided that I could do it all. I could be pregnant, I could have the baby, and the next day I could be back in the office. This I did not discuss with you, or maybe I did, but I don’t think so, because you would’ve asked me to think about this a little longer.

Despite the fact that my husband said, “Hey, maybe you should get someone else to help you out in the office while you’re out” I said, “No, no, no, no, no. This baby is going to be there in five weeks and three or four days with me at the office”. Well, that did not happen, and I did not plan accordingly.

So, I would definitely recommend any new moms, especially an attorney with her own firm, I would plan for this. Plan to just spend time with the baby and have someone else cover for you. It really needs to be planned out, and that’s what I’m working on for the next baby, whenever that happens. I learned from my experience. You really need to have a plan in case… Someone at least you know will be there at the office for you.

This is the thing about my practice. I like to meet with my clients. I like to be there when they drop by the office. I’m always there, unless I’m at the court house. So I wanted to do that despite the fact that my baby was two days old. So it was impossible.

So that for me mentally was difficult to accept, that no, I couldn’t be a mom right now, with a two day old baby, and also be at the office. I had to, in the middle of all that, come up with new strategies and new things to handle the first two or three months of the baby, and I should’ve planned much better.

Any new moms with a firm: have someone in place to cover for you so that you can completely forget, or at least step away from the office, and only be available for emergencies, if necessary. But then-

Davina Frederick: You weren’t thinking about how much you were going… First of all, I imagine the physical toll, and then secondly, how much you’re going to want to be with the baby.

Dalyla Santos: Yes.

Davina Frederick: And also the needs of the baby. I mean there are just so many things involved in that.

Dalyla Santos: It was my first time being a mom and no matter what anyone told me, I was sure I could do it all, and it was going to be great. It was great, but with a few bumps that could’ve been avoided had I planned better. I had a very solid staff that was able to help me. I even had a very good friend of mine who covers… I cover here in court for her sometimes. She will do it for me. She did that for me one time. I only needed coverage one time, and as a matter of fact it was my plan to go to that hearing, and only because of a calendaring thing, I didn’t make it and the judge specifically told that attorney that covered for me, “I am so glad Mrs. Santos is not here because had she been here, I think I would have held her in contempt” because he told me, “You cannot come to court with this baby five days old”.

I was fine but there was a mis calendaring on my end, so I didn’t make it, and she covered for me, and she told me, “The judge said you better not show up there any time soon”. But thank god we got through those first three months and everything had been going great in this new year.

We’re growing compared to last year. So I’m very happy.

Davina Frederick: So let’s talk about your team and growing your team. So you’ve doubled, really, your team, because now you have a virtual assistant in addition to-

Dalyla Santos: Yep.

Davina Frederick: So you’ve doubled your team. So talk with us about some of the challenges of being a boss. Being a boss, being a real boss lady, boss CEO.

Having a team of people and kind of, some of the things you have learned about hiring, firing, managing your team. Do you have some kind of advice or tips for others who are sort of wanting to follow in your footsteps? Things that you might’ve learned from that experience?

Dalyla Santos: I hope you don’t have to hire or fire anybody any time soon because it is so difficult. It is so difficult. It is destructive if you have to fire someone. You know, it really destructs the team.

I haven’t had to do that in a while, so I don’t even remember but, hiring, and I’ve gotten lucky with the three assistants that I have there. They’re really solid, good people. One of them was an attorney in Columbia. Another was an attorney in Venezuela, and the other one has been an assistant or has been in the legal field for over eight years. So very smart, professional, dedicated people.

Davina Frederick: So you really looked for very experienced people, you were hiring-

Dalyla Santos: Not necessarily. Not necessarily experienced because the Columbian and the Venezuelan attorney, they didn’t have… They practiced, they’re my age, but they practiced law in their countries. Not what we do. I do look for someone that is professional and hardworking. These ladies, one of them was working at the mall at a kiosk because she had not had the opportunity to get into the legal field.

Then the other one was working in a little office, a doctor’s office, as a receptionist. So I saw their resumes, and I thought they were so great. I talked to them and they were so smart, so professional, so hardworking. They only wanted the opportunity to really show what they could do, and I took a chance with them.

And I always get resumes from attorneys from other countries, and I normally stay away, but this time I said, “Let me give them a try. Let me talk to them” and these two ladies just blew me, and I couldn’t believe that I had passed on so many of these resumes.

So I gave them the opportunity a year ago, both of them, and they were incredible, and they’re very hardworking.

Davina Frederick: It’s really interesting. So I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to listen to the podcast that I did with Kathy Knowles who was the lady who… Has a lot of experience in human resources and is an expert in that area.

One of the things she talks about is hiring based on, or considering core values, and hiring based on your core values, and it sounds like even though, I don’t know if you did this intentionally or not, but whether or not you did, it sounds like that’s really how you hired.

I know that your core values… You have an incredible work ethic, I mean as is evidenced by you wanting to go back to work when your baby was two days old. You have an incredible work ethic, and I know that’s very important to you that, that professionalism and that work ethic. I know having worked with you before, how you know, that was an issue in the past with employees. That was a concern of yours.

And so it sounds like that was a really key factor in the people that you’ve hired. Looking at their, obviously, having been attorneys in other countries there’s an intelligence factor there. There’s also, the thing that really persuaded you, seems to be the work ethic and the professionalism.

Dalyla Santos: Yeah, and to this day, I see it every day in them. There is not a day that goes by, you know this just happened today, one of them made a comment, “I signed up for some kind of CLE on immigration” and they wanted to hear, they want to take it. I say, “Yes, sure, you can do it here in the office. You can do it whenever” and one of them started saying, “Okay, when I get bored” and I’m listening and I’m thinking, when does she get bored at the office that she’s going to listen to the CLE, and she keeps talking about, “When I get bored at home on Sundays” and then I turn around and said, “You know I was about to say, ‘When are you ever bored at the office that you’re going to listen to the CLE?'”, and she said, “Of course not!” She meant at home.

So that was a laugh that we had today, because they are so hard working. The three of them, but all of them are hardworking, but talking about these two ladies. They are really incredible.

Davina Frederick: Sounds like it.

Dalyla Santos: What do you mean you get bored at the office? She’s like, “Not at the office”-

Davina Frederick: You’re going to fix that, right?

Dalyla Santos: Yeah, I was like, “Let me give you something!” But I always just listen. I’m walking out of the room and she’s saying that and I was just laughing with my staff.

Davina Frederick: So when you started this, when you moved completely on your own and you started this practice, you started out doing bankruptcy.

Dalyla Santos: Yep.

Davina Frederick: And that was primarily it, and then you decided to diversify, and what was your thought process in diversifying?

Dalyla Santos: Well, when I was back in Orlando in that first job I had, it was a big firm. They mostly did bankruptcy and foreclosure, so for the first two years, I was doing that. Then they asked me to manage what they call the Consumer Protection Department, which is basically, we would sue collection companies that harass people while attempting to collect a debt.

That area, to me, is fascinating. It’s so rewarding. I got to do that, I got to manage over 20 employees, including attorneys, for the next three years.

While in that position I also got the opportunity to develop their immigration department. My sister came from Cuba after my parents, and I came. When my parents and I came, we came through a lottery visa. My mom won basically the lottery visa and she was allowed to bring any kids under 21, and a spouse. I have a brother and a sister who were both over 21, so my parents had to leave them behind, and we came.

Years later, my sister came to this country, and I was already a practicing attorney with the firm in Orlando, and she barely spoke English. So I begged one of the partners to just hire her, to volunteer. He didn’t have to pay her. To put her in the mail room, and just leave her there, and they did.

The years went by. We started doing immigration, I started using her while she was working in the mail room, as my assistant, and she was already learning English and speaking English. She got her paralegal degree, and she was still working in the mail room and we were developing the immigration department together for that firm.

I left five years later and she was still working in the mail room, not doing the mail anymore, but still in the mail room doing immigration, social security, and all that stuff, legal assistant work for the attorney in that department.

So that immigration part started there. My sister fell in love with immigration, and I feel in love with immigration, and we worked together and it was incredible. So that developed. So I loved the consumer work. I loved the immigration and I enjoyed bankruptcy. To get the consumer work, I would have to do the bankruptcy, which I enjoy a lot too.

So that’s how those areas developed and that’s how I focused on them, but that’s where I came from.

Davina Frederick: And it was important to you to diversify.

Dalyla Santos: Yeah. It’s just our mentality, you know. I’ve heard people tell me, “Oh you should just stick to one area, and just do that” but first of all, I wanted practice in the areas that I enjoy, number. That’s number one because if I don’t like a case or an area, I would hate it. I would be miserable doing it.

So number one I wanted to do something that I enjoyed, and those two areas mostly they’re bankruptcy or they’re debt litigation, consumer, all that together and immigration to me is enjoyable. I really like it. I really like representing these people. They really need it. So besides the fact that I’ve talked to other people, “Oh you should just concentrate on one area” I think that my office can handle, and I can handle, those main areas, and diversifying.

I think from a business perspective, to me, it makes sense. Especially, for example, I still do, and I do insurance cases. Those cases take much longer, and from a business perspective, my bankruptcy case, my consumer cases, my immigration cases could be resolved faster. I could get paid faster while I wait and I litigate the insurance cases. So from a business perspective that is what you’re asking me, that’s the position that I made.

Davina Frederick: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So what advice do you have, before we wrap up here, let’s give kind of some… If you would sum it all up for other attorneys who are interested in growing their practice, and they want to have the kind of success that you’ve had, other women attorneys.

What kind of advice would you have for them if they’re starting out on this journey of having their own practice?

Dalyla Santos: I would definitely… So the Florida bar offers a few CLEs on Solo and small law firms. I would definitely do those, and most of them are free. I get emails about them all the time. So I would definitely get some background on the structure, you know you have to be sure that you’re compliant with all the professional rules and the trust account rules. So you definitely need to get some background and some structure there, and I think that Florida bar CLEs really help with that.

I also think, I don’t know if it’s that important, but you definitely need a mentor, or someone that can guide you. Maybe someone that’s been there before you or someone that does it for a living, or someone that’s an attorney with their own practice. Whether they’re starting a few months or a few years ahead of you, or that person has a practice that is mature and grown. But you need a mentor.

I wouldn’t do this without a mentor. And you need to know your numbers. This is the worst part.

So definitely the CLEs on setting up the business and everything, a mentor, and then you need to know your numbers, and another part that I completely dislike is you need to network. Those are the main three, four, things that I would recommend.

When I say “need to know your numbers” you should come up and think of what you want to get out of this business, out of your law firm, put a number to that, and walk yourself backwards. How many cases you need to go up and get to that number. You need to really know your numbers, even if you have two cases, start practicing. You only have to try and start practicing how much money you want to have at the end of the year, and go backward and figure out how many cases you need for that, and how many computers you need, and how many people you need.

You need to know your numbers to be successful. You can’t have goals blindly on this.

Davina Frederick: Yeah, I think that’s great. That’s great advice. I know you and I have many conversations about that. The importance of that, and having that, not falling so much in love with being… The difference is, if you want to be a lawyer, you can be a lawyer but if you want to open your own business, you also have to embrace being a business owner, and part of being a business owner is you have to know the business side. You have to get comfortable with the finances, are just as important, as being a lawyer.

Dalyla Santos: Yeah.

Davina Frederick: So you and I have talked about that; knowing your numbers, you have to just get comfortable. You can’t say, “I’m a lawyer, so therefore I don’t do math” you have to learn to make your peace with it.

Dalyla Santos: Yeah.

Davina Frederick: And that doesn’t mean you have to become a bookkeeper, you can hire bookkeepers to help you line up the numbers the way you need to, but you need to understand where… What all those numbers mean and be able to put your fingers on them at any moment, and understand where you are at any moment, right?

Dalyla Santos: Yeah, I know.

Davina Frederick: That’s terrific advice.

Dalyla Santos: Yep.

Davina Frederick: Definitely.

All right. So tell us, if we want to find out more about this Santos Law Offices, tell us where we can find out more about you.

Dalyla Santos: So you can always visit our website, Santoslawpa.com. We’re also on Facebook under Santos law, on Instagram I am always posting client information, or things that happen in the office with one of our cases, so you can always find us on Facebook and Instagram with stories. On our website you’ll find a lot of information. I try to put as much information as I can about the fields that I practice in, so people can just have, that are looking for answers, can find something quickly.

And you can always call us at 305-417-4111. We’re on 67 and Coral Way, right off of Coral Gables in Miami.

Davina Frederick: Wonderful. Thank you so much. I so enjoyed our conversation, as I always do when you and I talk.

Dalyla Santos: Yep.

Davina Frederick: And I really appreciate you being here.

Dalyla Santos: Thank you so much, it was such a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.