Jennifer Lancaster met her future husband in law school. Once they married, he almost took a job in Big Law, but Jennifer knew her new husband’s dream was to return to his hometown of Benton, Arkansas to open his own law firm, so she encouraged him to do just that. He said he wouldn’t do it without her. That led them to open The Lancaster Firm.
With an MBA as well as her law license in her back pocket, and the guidance of a helpful mentor, Jennifer took to running the business and starting her own bankruptcy practice, while her husband focused on the other areas of practice.
Nine years later, they’ve grown their firm and their family. The key to their success in business, so far, she says is keeping an open mind about processes, and technology. For instance, some of their employees, including paralegals, work remotely and part-time.
Jennifer talks about the systems that make it possible, as well as…
- Their “assembly line” approach to paralegal work
- A trick for turning negative experiences into chances to learn and grow
- Why sometimes it’s a good idea to turn down an “ideal” job offer
- Leveraging technology to maintain a hybrid remote/in-office workforce
- And more
Mentioned in this episode:
Davina Frederick: Hello and welcome to the Wealthy Woman Lawyer Podcast, formerly known as the Solo to CEO Podcast. It’s a new year and we have a new name, but our mission in 2020 is still very much the same, to provide thought-provoking, powerful and practical information to help you in creating your own wealth-generating law firm without overwork or overwhelm.
I’m your host Davina Frederick and I’m here today with Jennifer Lancaster, managing partner of the Lancaster Law Firm. The Lancaster Law Firm, located in Benton Arkansas, offers family law, immigration and personal injury services to clients throughout the state. Welcome, Jennifer. We’re so pleased to have you as our guest here today on the Wealthy Woman Lawyer Podcast.
Jennifer Lancaster: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Davina: Great. So tell me first of all, how’s the weather out in Benton today?
Jennifer: It’s a little cloudy and a little bit cold. So we’re trying to stay warm.
Davina: Yeah. Well, I’m down in Florida. So unfortunately, it’s not as sunny here today as we normally have it. But so tell me more about your law firm, your law practice and how you serve your clients. You offer a wide variety of services, family law, immigration, personal injury, and I think criminal defense too, right?
Eclectic Legal Services
Jennifer: Yes, we do. We offer services and all of those areas. Family law, including divorce, child custody, adoption, guardianship, bankruptcy, which includes chapter 713 and 11. We do debtor and creditor. We represent debtors and creditors. And as you mentioned, general civil litigation, wills and animal law. So we represent clients across many varied areas of law.
Davina: It sounds like you really function as a, like a family lawyer, a lawyer for life, almost. So anybody comes to you, you’re representing them, you want to be their lawyer throughout for all their needs.
Jennifer: That’s correct.
Davina: You are, this is the Lancaster Law Firm and you’re a partner who, you’re a partner with, is it your husband, you’re partner with?
Jennifer: It is my husband. We met in law school, and we actually got married our 3Lyear over spring break. We took the bar exam together. We graduated and then took the bar exam together, which I do not recommend. We did it. And we found out that we passed the bar exam. We both passed on a Friday and we opened our law firm the following Tuesday. We would have done it on a Monday except it was a national holiday.
Davina: That would have been really bad if one of you had not passed. That was a real toast to your relationship right there.
Jennifer: Right, right. But fortunately, we both did pass so it was great.
Davina: Excellent. And how many people do you have in your firm? Is it just the two of you and you have staff and
Jennifer: Yes. So my husband and I are the two attorneys. We do have a third attorney here, but she is operating independently. She is within our building. We do have multiple staff members, three paralegals and a legal assistant. And we have a tech person and our own process server.
Davina: Okay. Good. So you, because you must serve a lot of processes. So tell me what, tell me before you became an attorney, what was, did you just always know you wanted to be an attorney? Was this something that you, as a child, you just knew that Is what you wanted to do? Or did your journey take you someplace else first?
An Unexpected Journey Into Law
Jennifer: Well, it’s funny. When I went into law school, I was in a concurrent degree, percent a concurrent degree, the JD and MBA. I wanted to be a businesswoman and I wanted to, my long term goal was to eventually get into politics, whether it was lobbying or running for political office, and I thought having the JD would be a huge asset. I wanted to affect change, positive change in the world, and I thought that that would be the avenue for me. So that is why I enrolled.
I am grateful that I did but my life has certainly taken a unique turn and throughout that. While I was in law school, I often said I wasn’t exactly sure what I would be doing upon graduation, but I knew that I would not be practicing law and I would not be living in a small town. So here I am. So I, as I said before I met my husband in law school and his dream was to open a law firm in his hometown, which is Benton, Arkansas. And it is relatively small. So upon graduation, he was extended a great job offer, we both were, but knowing that my husband’s goal was to have a law firm, I encouraged him to go ahead and pursue that at that time.
We didn’t have children, it was just us. So he decided to open the law firm. He turned down to the job offer and opened a law firm. Again, maybe not the brightest decision from an outside perspective. It was in the middle of a recession. You know, job our offers were hard to find, but we did that and we just gave it everything. I’ll be honest, I did not think that my husband would want to pursue it. I figured he would try his hand at it and then would decide maybe that wasn’t for him and then would ultimately find a job elsewhere. And that was almost nine years ago now.
Davina: You were trying to be a supportive spouse, and that whole thing just backfired on you.
Jennifer: Exactly. It did. And I told him, I said, well, you need to go now. Now is the time. We don’t have children. Go open your law firm. Do give it everything you’ve got, I will support you. I was still trying to finish my MBA at the time. And so I was going to get a job and support him while he got his law firm off the ground. And he said, you know, I’d really appreciate your help with this law firm. So I agreed, and again, I thought it was just going to be a short-term thing and I decided that I would practice bankruptcy. I didn’t really, I had taken one course. And it was by the chief bankruptcy judge at the time.
I really enjoyed his class, but I did not clerk for any bankruptcy firms during law school. And so upon graduation and opening the firm and his request for me to help him I decided that’s what I was going to do. And I reached out to a local law firm to, just to take one of the attorneys to lunch and pick their brains and just get what information I could about it. And surprisingly, I was shot down in an embarrassing way. Yes, it was by a man but he did it in front of his staff. And they in a surprising twist with that, one of the paralegals was, she felt bad for me and she started referring clients to me.
Davina: Oh, so that worked out well for you.
Jennifer: It did work out well. But then I turned around and met a female bankruptcy attorney. And she was wonderful. She took me under her wing. She introduced me to the bankruptcy software, told me about the judges and the trustee. She went through a couple of bankruptcy petitions with me and then she was just readily available anytime I had questions. And so I credit so much of my success and my beginnings to her. And I’m so grateful that she was willing to be a mentor to me during that time. So
Davina: I love hearing the stories of you know, mentorship from other women like that. That is fantastic.
Jennifer: Yeah. You know, women can just be such, so we can be each other’s best cheerleaders. That is so true. And I think we do have a duty to mentor other women who are coming up and trying to make their way in the world. And this woman, her name is Danielle Walker. She’s located in Little Rock. She is just a beacon of light in the legal community, I will tell you that. So from there, you know, I started practicing. My bankruptcy practice just took off and here we are. And, you know, even though this is not what I planned on doing with my life, it has certainly turned out to be a huge blessing and I couldn’t be happier.
Davina: Right, right. And now you have a family you have daughters.
Jennifer: I do. I have two daughters, Victoria and Gia. They are five and three.
Davina: Oh, wow. So you have quite, you have your hands, you the two of you really have your hands full now. And you have this law firm nine years later, so it doesn’t look like you, doesn’t look like he’s gonna go get a job now. Go get a real job now, right?
Jennifer: Right, right. No, we’re happy.
Davina: Oh, that’s wonderful. So tell me what do you think have been some of the biggest challenges that you guys have faced in growing your practice and growing the business?
Turning a Negative Experience Into a Learning Experience
Jennifer: Well, I just mentioned a very wonderful woman who took me under her arm and under her wing and was a great mentor to me. I will also say women can be some stumbling blocks as well. And hiring and firing, that has been a bit of a challenge. We have hired women who, you know, the personalities just didn’t fit. I will give an example. We hired a woman she was an attorney. And two weeks after I had my youngest, and my oldest was still one, she had not yet turned two. She sent letters to all of our clients.
She set up a law firm, just down the street and sent letters to our clients, telling them they should come with her. She would, you know, perform the services for less. Yes. And then disparaged us. And we had really tried to encourage her and lift her up. And we showed her the ropes. We introduced her. We were the type of mentor that Danielle had been to me. And so that was hurtful and that was a bit of a challenge. However, I will say I took that experience and while it hurt, I have tried my best to turn that into a positive experience.
So and I think women with children will understand when you’re trying to grow a law firm and a family there are unique challenges that come with that. So what I have tried to do is create a law firm where we hire women who are moms. And I’m trying to create a situation whereas they can work from home. They can be flexible. They can be devoted mothers but also be developing a career and a legal profession. That is how I have tried to take my negative experience and turn it into a positive one. And so far it’s working out well.
Davina: Oh, wow. So how are you, so are you doing that with your, so like your paralegals they’re, or you’re setting them up as remote workers or you’re doing flex time? Tell me a little bit more about that.
Jennifer: So I do have a couple of paralegals who work, the majority of the time they work remotely. So we are set up, we’re highly automated, and we have computer software programs and we utilize Dropbox. And so a lot of our work can be done from home. I have a paralegal that she has devoted. In a way, I’m taking a page from Henry Ford’s book here. I have one paralegal who’s devoted to interrogatories.
Answering them, making sure they’re in on time, making sure that any interrogatories that we have propounded to the opposing party, that we have received them timely, etc. So that is her focus. And yes, a lot of that work can be done from home. And then I have another paralegal who her focus is on my creditor clients. So banks, even in the bankruptcy process, drafting, reaffirmation agreements, proof of claims, pleading for foreclosure, etc. They don’t, some of these paralegals don’t work 40 hours a week.
Maybe it’s more like 20, but it’s flexible hours. So if they want to get up at five in the morning, get some work done before the kids wake up, that’s fine, just as long as the work is done. We do have the software program where we can set deadlines and we can assign tasks. And so that is how we, one of the main ways that we communicate with each other and with our clients. And that’s how we all stay on task and we don’t have to be in the same building.
Davina: Right. Right. So you are, so they’re like a VA so like virtual assistants almost as opposed to what you think of a traditional paralegal who works a file from start to finish. They’re more assigned, you know, projects you know. And to clarify for people who, when you say you took page from Henry Ford’s book, what you’re doing is more kind of that assembly line where one person does the same task over and over and over again, as opposed to handling a file from start to finish and doing multiple tasks, multiple different tasks.
They’re just doing the same tasks like an assembly line. So one person does the same task over and over and the next person does the same task over and over again and so on so forth. So that yeah, that is that’s this genius that’s fabulous, and it’s working out really well for you.
Jennifer: It is. And it’s allowing these women to, like I said before be devoted mothers, but at the same time, develop a skill and contribute financially to the household. And that’s my goal. I just want to encourage women. I want to lift them up and be that that mentor or just to make the world a better place for women, which I know you’re trying to do as well through your podcast.
Davina: Right. Right. And you, how, and how, and that’s working well for your firm. You haven’t found that it detracts from your firm in any way. In fact, it’s probably working better for you.
Jennifer: It is. It is working well now. I do have two full-time assistants that are paralegals that are here in the firm daily. So it’s a hybrid and it is working very well. And the way that we’re able to stay in communication with our client, that’s the most important thing. If they want to know what’s going on, they want to have an act, many of them want to have an active role.
And they get that through all the many programs and technological advances that are now available to us from text messaging features to emails to software programs that just keep the clients abreast of what is happening in their case. And so at any point, any one of us can reference the file, readily reference the file and then provide that information to the client and we have not had any problem. So it’s working well.
Davina: Yeah, that’s wonderful. So shifting gears a little bit, I want to talk to you about what it is like, you and your husband working together. I’m part of an entrepreneurial couple. Both my husband and I are entrepreneurs and have worked together in many different businesses. And so I know the unique challenges that come with that. So I’d like to talk to you about what that’s like to be a partner in a law firm with your husband and how you, how that works for you. And do you divide the responsibilities? And, you know, each of you obviously have different areas of practice, maybe? I don’t know. You tell me.
Playing to Your Strengths
Jennifer: Yeah. So I get this question a lot. It actually works out really well for us. As I mentioned, I was in the MBA program, so I’m a more business-minded individual. My husband is very litigious. He loves being in the courtroom. And he has a very aggressive personality, I would say and that’s not a bad thing at all. He was a former Marine, a former pro bull rider. There’s just not much that scares or intimidates him. So when we, as we have created this law firm, even though I kind of took a backseat role initially, we have divided the responsibilities within the firm based on our unique skills and personalities.
So I have taken the lead on when it comes to the business and the hiring of personnel and the software programs that we use and just how the business is structured. And my husband really doesn’t want anything to do with that. He wants to focus exclusively on litigation. So that frees him up to focus on those areas where he truly just shines. So he trusts me with all the business decisions and he focuses on the litigation.
And I do assist him. So I actually will draft some pleading with him and help prepare for trial, etc. But he takes the lead on that. I take the lead on the business side and in my respective areas of the practice. But it works out quite well. There is not a whole lot of overlap. People, I think sometimes we assume that we work each case together and that’s not always true.
Davina: Right, right. That would probably be very tough to do. That’s probably a little too much togetherness.
Jennifer: Probably so, yes. There have been some cases where we do work together and it actually works out really well because we do have such unique perspectives on it that when we put our heads together, no stone is left unturned and we are prepared for everything. So it does work out really well. And I have really enjoyed working with my spouse and growing this law firm with him.
Davina: Right, right. So this is something kind of interesting that I noticed about you is that you, at one point, were a national level figure competitor. Was this something that you’re still actively doing or is this something that you did before you were in law school?
Jennifer: So the same year that I, my husband and I got married, we took and passed the bar and opened our law firm, I competed in the national level figure competition.
Davina: So you’re just a little bit driven, just a little bit driven, right?
Jennifer: Just a little bit. It was actually just a couple of months after we opened a law firm, I flew out to Sacramento, California and competed in the national competition out there and I won my division. It was a wonderful experience, extremely challenging. extremely challenging, but a wonderful experience. And I love to lift weights, I love to just push my body and see what it can accomplish. Just seven months after having my second child I competed in Ironman 70.3 down in Puerto Rico and completed that.
I think physical fitness and just overall health and wellness is so important, especially in a high-stress environment like a law firm. You have to take care of yourself. Your mind functions better. The individual feels better. So I try to set that example. I try to live and practice what I preach. And I try to encourage not only my husband but my staff members to take care of themselves as well. Because you get one life, you know, you need to just take care of yourself. And it’s part of having that balance, which I think is so important.
Davina: Right, right. And you’re also the founder of the Lancaster Animal Project. Tell me about that. What is that about?
Animals are Much More Than Furniture
Jennifer: Yes, so it’s a multi-faceted project and we call it a project. It’s not just a rescue, but it is, in fact, a project. We’re just trying to make, we’re trying to promote animal welfare throughout not just Arkansas, but the country. We have represented animals and their owners from Colorado, Connecticut, of course, here in Arkansas, and we do rescue animals. So we have taken in some of the worst cases of abuse and neglect in the state of Arkansas. We’ve taken in those animals, we have gotten them the medical care that they need. Any rehabilitation that they may need.
The ultimate goal is to get them well, physically and emotionally to be a forever companion to individuals. And so we have taken in those kinds of animals on the rescue side. We also, as I mentioned, we represent animals and their owners in the courtroom. So, for example, we had a case out in Colorado where a dog had bit a woman and the city was wanting to put the dog down. Now we were ultimately able to prove that the woman had beaten the dog with a metal tiki torch pole before it bit her. It was a huge dog. She, there was no reason for her to beat the dog. However, in court we were able to prove that she was an ex-girlfriend of the owner, she was bitter.
And that’s how she came to end up just abusing this animal. And then it bit her out of fear. And so we were able to reunite this dog with its owner who is a veteran. And so they actually, we remain in contact this case took place, oh goodness, I don’t know, five, six years ago. And this dog is with its owner. It’s loved. It has a little sister who I believe just turned four. So we take On cases like that, where we will go to bat for the animal. And then we currently have an appeal pending wherein, and you may know this, but in Arkansas, an individual cannot recover noneconomic damages for harm done to an animal as a result of negligence.
So we are going to be asking the appellate court to basically find that noneconomic damages can be awarded or be recoverable when foreseeable harm is done to an animal as a result of negligence. So we’ll see how that goes. But it’s just trying to push the law and further instead of promoting animal welfare, and hopefully, at some point, getting animals a nonhuman living status under the law because right now, animals are seen as nothing more than property in the eyes of the law. No different than a lamp or a couch. And so we’re hoping to change that over time.
Davina: Right, and l animal lovers out there like me, I’m a huge animal lover. We are, you know, championing you know, we’re your champions in this. We’re behind you 110% because we don’t view our puppies as, you know, lamps and couches. We view them as babies.
Jennifer: Right, right. and in this situation in this case that we are appealing, the woman had boarded her dog, which was her companion. I mean this dog went to the chiropractor and went to the groomer. It was her baby. Our client did not have children. She loved this Goldendoodle. And she had to go out of town so she boarded the animal and the boarding facility allowed this Goldendoodle to be with, I believe three other dogs, one of which I think was an Akita and a pitbull and a third large breed dog and a fight occurred.
And of course, there’s three this one older doodle. You know, the three one and the boarding facility did not even take the dog for vet care until almost 24 hours later. They didn’t notify her owner and the dog ultimately passed. So from that, we are, that it that’s, those are the facts surrounding this appeal. But she, like what you just said, you know, this dog is her child. She loves this dog and seeing this dog suffer was very traumatic for her.
So she should not just be able to recover the value of the dog, which you know, the value of 11-year-old doodle is almost nothing. So we’re using that to try to push the law. Also with our project, we just this year, decided to offer what we are calling escape grants. So, through our domestic relations practice, we have learned of individuals who have while escaping their abuser, they have left the animal behind the family pet behind.
And oftentimes the family pet will become the abuser’s next target. And so we have begun offering escape grants to encourage these individuals to bring the animal with them. And so these escape grants will fund boarding, vaccinations, food, etc, for up to 30 days while the survivor is getting back on his or her feet or finding a new place to live until they can be reunited with the animal.
Davina: Oh, wow. That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful because that’s something a lot of people don’t, you know, wouldn’t think about but that’s a huge, you know, that’s a huge issue.
Jennifer: Yes, it is.
Davina: Wow, that’s wonderful. It sounds like you guys are doing some great work through this.
Jennifer: We’re trying. We’re trying to make the world a better place.
Davina: Yeah, yeah. So what is, what’s next for the Lancaster Law Firm? What are your plans in, I know 2020 is coming up. So you’ve got some growth plans in 2020. What’s next as you’re coming up into year 10 soon?
Jennifer: Yes, yes. Well, we are looking at opening another location in another county. So we’re exploring that option. We have actually, in the past, we have hired quite a few staff members, other attorneys and we have just discovered that the current size of our law firm with my husband and I being the attorneys and our staff members is ideal for us at this chapter in our lives. We, as I said, we have two young girls and we have structured the firm such that it keeps us busy. We have a very comfortable lifestyle, but I’m also able to leave every day At 2:30 to go home and be with my girls.
And so I’m able to spend time with them, cook dinner, etc. So, right now, short-term growth plans, our plans are just to stay as we are, continue to provide excellent service to our clients, which is what we have become known for. We demand excellence of ourselves and of our staff members. And we have found staff that rise up to those expectations. So we’re very pleased. But long-term, yes, we would like to have one, possibly two more locations and just slowly find the perfect staff members that will constantly make our clients a priority and demand excellence of themselves every day.
Davina: Tell me this. What do you think the biggest lessons are that you’ve learned along the way in growing this business besides never just tell your husband you should really go do this now?
Jennifer: Some of the lessons, you know, I think, being bold and when, and I think all women could benefit from being bold. When if you’re an entrepreneur you are not going to, it’s very unlikely that we’re going to be making rash decisions. Every decision, every plan comes with a lot of thinking and planning. And once you make that decision to move forward, just be bold. You’re going to have people that are going to throw stones. You’re going to have people that are going to criticize or say it can never be done.
But once you’ve committed, remain steadfast, move forward with speed and intensity and competence. And just pursue those goals with reckless abandon and don’t be afraid of failure. I think that’s really hard for women because we often, and I’m guilty of it too well, what if this doesn’t work out? You know, and I think it would be wise to have a plan B, but not be expecting to put that plan B into effect. Just move forward don’t be afraid of failure because that is what will hold you back the most.
Davina: Right, right. That’s great advice. I could not agree more. That’s wonderful advice. Well, thanks so much for being here today and sharing with us. Tell us how we can find out more about your law firm on the internet.
Jennifer: Our web address is www.thelancasterlawfirm.com. We are on Facebook at the thelancasterlawfirm.com. Our Twitter handle is lanc LANC Law Firm. And you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Davina: Great. Thank you. Thank you so much for being here. It’s been just wonderful talking with you today and learning so much about your firm and the great work you guys are doing out in Benton, Arkansas.
Jennifer: Well, thank you. Thank you for all you’ve done and it’s been a pleasure being with you.