As CEO of New Direction Family Law, Elizabeth Stephenson is passionate about helping families facing tough times come out the other end stronger and safer. Perhaps, it’s because she’s always been passionate about helping children and families, as far back as her early days in social work. More likely, it’s because she’s had her own share of struggles to rebuild her life following loss.

But this isn’t the first time she’s built a successful law firm, so when she chose to start anew, she chose a different approach. Where once she would have struggled by herself to bear the full burden of her cases, landing new clients, and the day-to-day operations of the firm, now she is older and wiser.

In this episode, Stephenson talks about how trusting others to help her made all the difference in the growth of her firm, and how it, ultimately, increased her personal fulfillment.

Tune in to find out…

  • How social media has transformed her marketing efforts – but in-person networking remains key
  • A strategy to figure out the right marketing mix (it’s different for every firm)
  • An unlikely source of referrals you might be missing
  • Ways investing in the community can yield huge returns in your business
  • And more

Listen now…

Mentioned in This Episode:

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 with Elizabeth Stephenson, attorney and CEO of New Direction Family Law. New Direction Family Law provides separation, divorce, and other family law services to clients in North Carolina. Welcome, Elizabeth. It’s good to have you as our guest on this Solo to CEO podcast.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Oh, well, thank you. I’m so delighted to be here and to share more, and hopefully help others as they move their way through their own path and to a CEO and working on their own entrepreneurship.

Davina Frederick: Oh, great, great. So, tell me… Let’s talk about… Tell me more about New Direction Family Law. I’m really interested and intrigued why you named it New Direction Family Law. It’s so common for law firms to be named, usually names of the founders and that kind of thing is very…

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: You’ve chosen to name it a different kind of name, and particularly, to call it New Direction. So, what does that mean?

Elizabeth Stephenson: Well, I came into this… I opened this practice in almost… well, a little over three years ago, for my husband had passed away. I took some time off. I had been in a partnership and been solo for a really long time, and I really wanted… He was a family law attorney, so I wanted to do something to honor him and how good he was at what he did, but I also wanted to do it the way I thought it should be done, ethically and morally, in how you treat your clients. And so, I was very thoughtful about it.

To me, New Direction means it’s like when you’re in separation and divorce, it’s the worst time in your life. It is like a death, and you cannot go backwards, and you cannot stay where you are, so you have got to go in a new direction. When you get that mindset and when you say, “I’m going to go in a new direction,” it’s always a better direction and people always come out the other side in a better place, even though they don’t think they will at the moment that they start.

Davina Frederick: So, it’s been an inspiration.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: It’s kind of an inspirational moment for them. I love that. I love that idea because I don’t think that, often times, as attorneys, we don’t necessarily think about for the people experiencing it, that it’s such a mournful, powerful, emotional time for…

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right, it is, absolutely. I have background in social work. I have a master’s in social work. That comes in really handy in my job.

Davina Frederick: Yeah.

Elizabeth Stephenson: I know I’m not their therapist, but people need to share their story, and that’s part of what we do, is sit in everybody’s pain every day and then help them get that story out and say, “Got it. Now, what can we do to get you out of this pain and move you forward?” That’s sort of what we feel like we’re the conduit for.

Davina Frederick: Right, right. You mentioned you were a therapist, and I was going to ask you about that. Let’s go through your background a little bit and talk about how your journey to becoming a lawyer and what you did before you became a lawyer.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Well, I didn’t go to law school until I was 37. I figured, if I either went or I didn’t, I’d be 40 in three years, so…

Davina Frederick: I was 38 when I went to law school, so I can relate to that.

Elizabeth Stephenson: So, I had been in the non-profit world for years and years, working with families of child abuse, and neglect, and that sort of thing. Then I started doing lobbying, and I realized that social workers weren’t very respected at the legislature, so I thought, well, fine, I’ll go get a law degree. Then when I got to law school, I realized that I didn’t want to do that. I took a family law course. It had just sort of spoke to me because, one, it involves children and it involves family, and that’s really where my heart is, and so being a therapist, you can’t tell people what to do, but being a lawyer, you can. I kind of like that part of it. So, that’s how. I sort of just fell into it, and I’ve never done any… from day one. Family law is all I’ve ever practiced.

Davina Frederick: Wow. I had a mentor. One of my mentors was a judge, a circuit court judge, and she practiced family law briefly early in her career and she told me. She says, “You either love it or you hate it,” because when I first started, I practiced family law. She says, “People are not neutral about that. Either you’ll find the people and you practice family law for a long time, or people who love it, that’s their passion. If you don’t have a passion for it, you don’t stay there very long.”

Elizabeth Stephenson: No, and you’ll get burned out really quick, absolutely.

Davina Frederick: Yeah.

Elizabeth Stephenson: I feel that exact same way.

Davina Frederick: Why do you think that is? Why do you think that is?

Elizabeth Stephenson: Because, I mean, and I don’t mean this in a bad way, but clients sort of suck the life out of you sometimes because they’re going through really… One, they can be unreasonable or they’re emotional, which they should be, and so it’s not like writing a contract. It’s not like doing business or that sort of thing. It’s very emotional, and you really have people’s lives in your hand, in a way. That’s really… It can be stressful.

Davina Frederick: Right, right. When you started practicing, did you immediately go into business for yourself?

Elizabeth Stephenson: No. When I got out of law school, I actually worked for… she was a family law attorney and had been practicing for like 20 years, but she was like the only woman in her law school class. I mean, she was a litigator and she was aggressive, and she ran a great business, and she was a fabulous mentor for me. And so, I just, again, I don’t know how this happened, but I just sort of fell in with her and learned so much from her. She just threw me out there. It’s like, sink or swim. And so, I had started litigating. I loved the courtroom and just sort of went from there, never left.

Davina Frederick: Do you feel like you were a natural born litigator, then? I mean, that’s kind of interesting because you said you were a therapist, and you don’t think of people who come from that. I think I read that you did social work and stuff.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: You don’t think of people who come from that background as being litigators, right, but you…

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: You think you have that.

Elizabeth Stephenson: I do. When we were having this conversation with, I don’t remember who, but I just think that all litigators are frustrated actors, because that’s what you do. I’m very good at… I’m not so good at advocating for myself sometimes, but I’m really, I think, really powerful and really good at advocating for others, and that’s what litigation, to me, is all about, is getting the best result for your client with the facts that you have.

Davina Frederick: Right, so that makes a lot of sense when you put it into perspective of you advocating for others. Then that really fits into a lot of what you’re talking about.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right, right.

Davina Frederick: From there, how long until you went into practice for yourself?

Elizabeth Stephenson: I think I stayed with Jane maybe a year and a half, and then I adopted a newborn. I remember taking my infant to work when he was like a week old. I felt like I can’t do this. This is not going to work, so I stopped and took a few months off, and then started working for a non-profit again, and then an old client called me, and I got a client, and I got another client, and I got another client. I thought, well, okay, I’ll open my own practice. I think I was just too stupid to be scared because I didn’t know what I was doing. It just sort of…

Davina Frederick: Sometimes, that works in our favor.

Elizabeth Stephenson: I know.

Davina Frederick: It works in our favor.

Elizabeth Stephenson: That’s right. Ignorance is bliss. And so, I was solo until probably 12 or probably 15 years. I was a solo practitioner. I mean, literally, it was just me and a paralegal, and then a friend of mine who did family law, we thought, well, why shouldn’t we just join forces? So, we did that, and then my husband got sick, and so I had to stay home for about a year and a half and take care of him. So, I just sort of left the practice, and I started up again, I think, in June of ’16. It was just me and a laptop. Today, three years later, there are 13 of us. We’re a seven figure law firm and have a partner, and so somehow, what we’re doing speaks to people, I think, in the way we do it. So, it’s really been a fantastic journey for these last three years to get this going.

Davina Frederick: What was it like to start over again, having been a solo before and then having that loss, and I’m sure that really changed you…

Elizabeth Stephenson: It does.

Davina Frederick: Because you’re more mature. You’re older, and then you’ve gone through and you’ve done it before.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: Then you suffer this loss, and so you’re a different person in a different place, and you’re starting over.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: What was that like for you at that moment and you decided to do this again? It sounds like it happened really organically the first time.

Elizabeth Stephenson: It did. It did, and then this time, I was… How old was I? I was 56. I didn’t want to go work for anybody, and so I have a child I have to take care of, and I got bills to pay, and I had to do something. So, I knew I was very good at what I did, and my mother is a serial entrepreneur. I grew up watching her and seeing her, and so she’s been a great mentor for me over the years, and so I knew how to do a business, and I was very passionate about coming back and what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. So, it was different.

I will say this, too, is that I had the funds, and the ability, and the time to do it this go around. It wasn’t just, oh, I’m going to have one client. I was able to spend money, have a budget, get a great website, hire a marketing director, things I couldn’t do the first go around. So, having those things in place let me be able to go out and market the firm, and put a face on it, and hire people to do the work, and then I got to go out and do what I like to do, and spread the good word, and meet and greet and all those sorts of things. It was really different this time around.

Davina Frederick: Right, right. Talk to me about… One of the things… Being an attorney, my background is in marketing before I became an attorney, and so now, I work my clients as a business growth consultant for their practices. One of the things that I teach them is that they… Being a CEO of their business is a different function than being a lawyer when you choose to create your own business. You have to put on that CEO hat and think in those terms. So, now, as you’re a business owner of your business, give me an idea of how you spend your day. Are you working in your business the majority of the day? Are you working on your business? How do you divide up your time with that? Have you hired an office administrator? Do you divide the task with your partner?

Elizabeth Stephenson: Yeah. I’m sort of at that place. My partner, I love her, because she’s really young, and my whole staff is under the age of like 32. So, I get to feel their energy every day. Yeah, it’s fabulous. Sarah takes care of the employees and that kind of thing, and then I have an office admin, who is actually my paralegal. We’re trying to move her out of that, and she sort of takes care of the office and doing that. I get to pick and choose the clients that I want. I don’t carry a full caseload, but I love working with people. I love hearing stories. I like going to court. So, I do keep a caseload, so it depends on if I have a trial coming up, then yeah, I’m working the work. But if I don’t, then I spend time with my marketing manager, looking at the website, doing the Google ad, going out. She gets us… Everybody in my staff has to pick a board, get on it, and volunteer in the community. So, we’re out and about all the time. We sponsorship, and we go to after hours and we network, and so I would say 50% of my time is doing that, and 50% of my time is doing legal work.

Davina Frederick: Right, so you’re involved in rainmaking as kind of a big part of your function. Being a rainmaker and all of that.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right, right.

Davina Frederick: Yeah. I was curious how you… One of the things that when I talk with my clients is that they get to choose. They get to choose what it is they love, they get to do, right, but you have more choice when you go to the firm and develop the support people.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right. My philosophy sort of is, yeah, I want to make money, but you can only spend so much money. The point of making money is to give back to the community, and I think that’s what makes us different, too, is even on our website, we blog.

Well, I don’t. They blog. They tweet. They Instagram, all of that, but it’s all about us being out, and we’re just not here to take your money. We really are invested here. The more money you make, the more free time you have, the more time you can give to boards, and volunteer, and do good work. So, I try to instill that in my staff, too. That’s sort of our culture here, I think, a little bit.

Davina Frederick: Yeah. I noticed that you were involved in quite a number of organizations in the community.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Davina Frederick: Do you have sort of a theme around your volunteerism and volunteer work? Is there a particular passion that you have that you…

Elizabeth Stephenson: Yeah. I mean, mine really revolves around children and families. I’m a longtime survivor of sexual abuse, and so I know that world, and I know how that is, and so I work with… One group helps. They’re victims of trafficking, and so we carry a caseload of pro-bono for those types of folks, and then I work with another organization, the Hope Center that helps foster children aging out of foster care, and they’ve been involved in abuse, and neglect, and all of that, and then Safe Child provides education and support for families, and survivors, and victims, and that sort of thing. Then all of us are… We love the ASPCA, and animals, and that kind of thing. That’s really what our focus is, I think.

Davina Frederick: Right, right. One of the things that… When I’m talking with people about their business development, and I kind of help them… My philosophy on it is, I mean, obviously, you can get business wherever… wherever you like to hang out, you can meet people, and that can lead to more business and that kind of thing, but one of the things that I suggest to people or recommend to people, though, is that if you do your business development work and you do your marketing work and you make the money, then you can have more time and have more money to devote to the organizations that you are passionate about.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Mm-hmm (affirmative), absolutely.

Davina Frederick: That can be something that you do and not have it be something that you’re trying to get something out of for your business.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Oh, yeah. I mean, it does have that positive effect, but I think we genuinely do it for the right reason. If you do it for the right reason, it’s all going to come back, and karma is a beautiful thing.

Davina Frederick: Right.

Elizabeth Stephenson: So, it’s all going to come back around the other way. I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 75. I’ve got a 10 year exit plan, and I got to do something with myself once I leave.

Davina Frederick: Although, you know they say about old attorneys, we die at our desk.

Elizabeth Stephenson: I know, I know. I am not going to let that happen.

Davina Frederick: So, let’s talk about your marketing philosophy and strategy or rainmaking strategy blossoming when you… because you’ve done this a couple times now, and I know at first, you said it sort of happened organically, and you were fortunate to have that sort of word of mouth because you had been working with somebody else, and then…

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: … bought… What kinds of things have you done, did you do, to get clients?

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: What strategies did you use?

Elizabeth Stephenson: Yeah. The first time around, I really didn’t have to… I don’t mean this in a snotty way. I didn’t have to work. I wasn’t the only person in the household, and so I think once you are, when you get that, you’ve got that hunger in you. You’ve got that drive because you know you’re it. So, you’re a little more thoughtful about it, and so I have Jen Bordeaux, who is my marketing director. We work with a company that… We were doing all of our own blogs. We were doing all of our own posting, and that was taking hours and hours. So, we have someone who does that for us, and we post every day. We review the articles. We review the blogs and that sort of thing, but I don’t have to spend my time writing articles anymore and writing blogs, and that frees me up. But, it gets us out there.

We have a Facebook page. We have Instagram. We’re on… I don’t know what the other ones are because that’s beyond my pay grade, but we do a Facebook live at least once a month where we bring in our referral partners, and then my partner does a… We call it the Case Law Corner where she’ll do an update on Facebook, and we have a YouTube channel where she’ll do case law updates and that sort of thing. We partner with other folks, like real estate attorneys, and estate attorneys, and that sort of thing, and we hold… These are after hours workshops where we provide drinks and food, or we’ll do a lunch and learn, and that sort of thing. So, not only are we promoting it, but we’ve got 10 other attorneys that are promoting it and getting out in their network.

Davina Frederick: Have you found that to be effective?

Elizabeth Stephenson: I do, because it’s like tell a friend, tell a friend, tell a friend. You’ve got people in the audience who are professionals, but they’re real estate agents. Real estate agents work with people who are separating and want to buy a house, or sell a house, or get rid of a house. I, then, put myself out there. Our philosophy is, the more you get out, the more articles you write, the more blogs you do, and you’re seen as the expert, and then you’re top of mind and people will call you or refer to you. I mean, that’s our best new client base, is referrals. I mean, we do Google ads. I don’t do a lot. I do, I think, $1,000 a month, maybe, but the rest of it, we built our website organically, really, by what we do on social media, and working with network partners, and that sort of thing.

Davina Frederick: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I could not agree more about the content marketing strategy. That positions yourself as an expert and really being active on social media where your clients hang out and…

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right, exactly, exactly.

Davina Frederick: Yeah. What a wonderful tool that is for any sort of small professional business, to be able to have, because you and I are old enough to remember when that…

Elizabeth Stephenson: I was doing yellow paper back then.

Davina Frederick: Or you had to get earned media.

Elizabeth Stephenson: I know.

Davina Frederick: And come up with some sort of story that they could… and beg a reporter.

Elizabeth Stephenson: I mean, I still do that, but yeah. Yeah, but that was then. I mean, there are so many options. The only thing that can cost you an investment is time.

Davina Frederick: Right.

Elizabeth Stephenson: You know, to make sure that you’re out there and you’re out there consistently, but it’s not thousands and thousands of dollars, for sure. You can contract with somebody, get an intern from… UNC has a school of journalism and advertising. Get an intern to write your blog and that kind of thing.

Davina Frederick: Right, right. There are so many different ways to go about it, so that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful now. Tell me about… You have assembled a really good team. One of the things that I know is discussed a lot among solo attorneys is the struggle of cultivating a good high-quality team and really those good people that you can rely on and you could trust to have your back. So, what are some of your secrets to success in getting a good, high-quality team?

Elizabeth Stephenson: Luck. My paralegal, Fizzy, she should go to law school. I keep telling her to do that. She was my first person I hired. I interviewed, I don’t know, a hundred people, and she came on-board, and then three of my staff were employees at my old firm that I did not go after, but I think we all have the same philosophy. And so, they’ve been with me since the start, and then we’re really good about how we, I think, interview folks or bring them on-board. It’s not just Sarah and I making the decision.

If we’re hiring a legal assistant, then the paralegals are going to vet them and meet with them first, and then we’ll meet with them, and then it’s a family affair here. I mean, Sarah and I get the final vote, but if somebody says that they don’t feel right or, “I don’t think they’re a good fit,” we trust our staff, and probably, that person shouldn’t be with us. So, I think we’re just mindful, and so we’re not quick to hire folks. Right now, I’m short two people because we haven’t found… We could get somebody in here, but that’s not what I want to do, and so everybody is on-board with that and working a little harder and extra, but we’d rather get the right person and take more time to do that.

Davina Frederick: Right, right. That’s great. That’s great advice. When you first had your firm, do you remember when you made your first hire, what that experience was like for you?

Elizabeth Stephenson: You mean back in the day?

Davina Frederick: Yeah.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Yeah. My mom is so funny because, I mean, I was solo. I would answer the phone. I would write the letter. I would sign the letter. I would stick it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, take it to the post office, all of that. I did that for probably five years, and my mom kept… I was scared to death to hire anybody because it’s like, if you’re an entrepreneur, it’s like you’re always looking in the bank. I don’t care if you got a million dollars in the bank. You’re still worried if you can make payroll.

I thought I had screwed up an appeal, that I had missed a deadline. I had not, but I remember sitting on my floor in my office, surrounded by files, and just sobbing because I was so disorganized. It’s like, I am going to lose my law license because I need some help, because I can’t do it all by myself. It was like, you hit rock bottom, sort of, and just like…

Davina Frederick: Oh.

Elizabeth Stephenson: You got to change, or you got to stop doing this because you’re going to screw somebody’s life up, really. You know?

Davina Frederick: Yeah. I wonder if every solo has that moment where they have that thought where they think, I’m going to lose my law license. We have that probably more than once. I just remember calling a mentor of mine at one point going, “You have to help me, or I’m going to have to turn my buyer card back in.”

Elizabeth Stephenson: The second time around, I knew better, and I was like, okay, just bite the bullet and hire somebody, and so it wasn’t even a thought at that time. That’s the one thing I could tell somebody. It’s like, it’s not all that much. Hire at least an assistant because you cannot do everything yourself, or you’ll lose your mind, for sure.

Davina Frederick: Right, right. If you had… The people listening to this podcast, we have a lot of people who are on the solo, the CEO journey, who may be behind you in the journey, less experience, just starting out or maybe a few years down the road, but maybe they don’t have 13 people in the firm yet.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: What kinds of little nuggets of wisdom would you have for them, based on your experience that you’ve had so far?

Elizabeth Stephenson: I think, one of it is you got to love what you do, which I do, but it’s like Sarah and I just had this conversation. It’s like, if you’re a business owner, nobody is directly depositing a check in your account twice a month. And so, you have to have… I wake up every day grateful and knowing that there’s going to be ups and downs. Years ago, if I was down, I’d lose a client, it’s like, oh God, I’m going to close my practice. I’m not getting more clients. You know what I mean?

Davina Frederick: Yeah.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Once my attitude changed and I became grateful and trusting in the process, and trusting in myself and my staff. It turned everything around, and so it didn’t happen overnight, but you got to be in it for the long haul, and you got to understand that it’s hard work, but you can… Somebody told me this, and I know it’s an old saying. You work like most people won’t, so you can live like most people can’t down the road, and you’re in charge of your own destiny. And so, if you fail, you don’t have anybody to blame, but yourself, kind of thing.

Davina Frederick: Right, right. I love that. I also understand that when you make the decision in your mind, there is no… The thought doesn’t cross your mind of, well, I can always go get a job because there is no plan B because this is your job.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: This is sort of like, so you don’t… When that thought stops happening, you know that you’re in it. You’re in it.

Elizabeth Stephenson: It’s for the long haul. That’s right.

Davina Frederick: It’s what you do. What do you mean go get it? This is what I do. This is my job.

Elizabeth Stephenson: That’s right.

Davina Frederick: Every day is just, okay, what do I need to get done today kicking this can down the road, keep moving this business down the road because…

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right, right. I also don’t have to ask anybody if I can take Friday afternoons off, either. You know?

Davina Frederick: That’s right.

Elizabeth Stephenson: There are downfalls, but there are so many advantages. It’s like if I have to go pick my child up at school… I had to leave at 12 to go take him to a job interview and come back, and I can do that, or I can leave early or I can come in late. To me, it’s just very empowering and freeing, but it’s a lot of hard work, and I think everybody understands that.

Davina Frederick: And you get to do what you love in the way that you love to do it, which is really…

Elizabeth Stephenson: Correct.

Davina Frederick: … which is really the piece that is… That’s the best part, is that you get to do what you love in the way that you love to do it.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right, exactly. Yeah, that’s a great way to put it. That’s true.

Davina Frederick: Yeah, yeah. Well, I am so glad that you were here today to talk with us about your practice and what you do. I’ve learned so much in this conversation. I really appreciate it. Tell us how we can find out more about you, if we want to find you on the inter web. I want to find out about that YouTube channel and all that.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Yeah. I mean, you can just visit our website,

www.newdirectionfamilylaw, and that has all the information. It has our profiles. It gives you the philosophy of the firm. Phone number: (919) 719-3470. All of our blogs are on there. It connects you to the YouTube. Visit on Facebook, all of that. I think if people see that and they understand, they get a sense of who we are, and so we’re always happy to… We believe education is power, and we’re always happy to sit down and talk with folks because we can’t undo some things, so we’d much rather them come see us before they do something, even if they haven’t separated yet, just to learn about their rights and options.

Davina Frederick: Great. For everyone in the Raleigh area… So, you’re in Raleigh and what other…

Elizabeth Stephenson: Right.

Davina Frederick: Where do you-

Elizabeth Stephenson: We’re in all those sorts of surrounding counties. It’s Durham County, Johnston County, Harnett, those sorts of things. The law is law, no matter where you go in North Carolina, so we’re happy… If you need us, we’re happy to travel a little bit. If that’s what it takes, we’re happy to do that.

Davina Frederick: Okay, great. Well, Elizabeth, thanks so much for talking with us today. I really, really appreciate it.

Elizabeth Stephenson: Well, I appreciate that and for letting me come on. I appreciate it so much.