On this week’s episode of the Wealthy Woman Lawyer Podcast, we interview Kelly Forst, Founder and CEO of Forst Law Firm, about her experience in running a law firm in two states. Kelly is a leading collaborative law attorney. Since 2000, she and her team have helped hundreds of clients navigate their separation, divorce, child custody, and estate planning matters. Two years ago, Kelly expanded her firm, and while she continues to operate in New York, she now lives and works primarily in Orlando, Florida, with an office in Celebration.
We chat about how she got her start as an attorney and law firm owner, and the reason she chose to expand into two states, as well as:
- What was behind her decision to pursue collaborative law
- Why respect and compassion are so important in her work with clients
- Her biggest challenges (to date) as an attorney
- Important lessons she’s learned along the way
- And more
Mentioned in this episode:
Davina Frederick: Hello and welcome to the Wealthy Woman Lawyer Podcast. Our mission is to provide thought-provoking, powerful and practical information to help you in creating your own sustainable wealth-generating law firm without overwork or overwhelm so you can live your best life. I’m your host, Davina Frederick, and I’m here today with Kelly Forst, founder and CEO of Forst Law Firm.
Kelly has been an attorney since 2000 and she and her team have helped hundreds of clients navigate their separation, divorces, child custody and estate planning matters. And Kelly is a leading collaborative law attorney. Two years ago, she expanded the firm and while she continues to operate in New York, she’s now living, and also living and working in Orlando, Florida and has an office in Celebration. So welcome, Kelly. It’s so great to have you on the show.
Kelly Forst: Thanks, Davina, I’m so happy to be here.
Davina: Great. So why don’t we start out, I gave a little, you know, the highlights but I want to hear about what led up to your being an attorney and then creating your own law firm. What was involved in that so we could get some background on you?
How Kelly Got Her Start in Law
Kelly: Yeah, so I was a paralegal for about 10 years. I worked for an attorney. I’ll tell you honestly, there was a case where the attorney, in New York every child who is involved in a contested custody matter gets an attorney assigned to them that gets paid by the state. And so this child had been abused in one household. We were representing the other parent. And at the end of the case, the child ended up, the judge sent him back to the abusive household.
And I was so outraged by that result. I asked my boss, how did this happen? And he said, Well, the attorney for the child just kind of fell down on the job. And I said, Okay, how do I get to the attorney for the child? He said well, first you have to be an attorney, Kelly. Okay, then I’m going to law school. And that motivated me to, so I was 37 years old when I went back to law school.
Davina: Wow. That’s a very powerful story. That’s a very powerful story.
Kelly: Thank you. Yeah.
Davina: Motivated by an individual situation that grounded someone else, you know?
Kelly: Right. So I, it was a five-year-old child with big brown eyes. His name was Nicholas. I happen to have, at the time, a five-year-old child with the brown eyes named Nicholas. And so there was, I’m certain there was an emotional kind of attachment that happened at that time. But yeah, it was just a really tragic story. And so I went to law school and, you know, graduated, passed the bar in New York. And I was supposed to take over the office for the attorney I’d been working for. But that did not happen.
And I ended up working for a different firm for two years. And I was only practicing law for two years when an attorney who was running for judge reached out to me and said, Hey, you know, I need someone to take over my practice if I win. How would you like to do that? And I was like, um, yeah. so I did that. And so I was literally handed a full-blown matrimonial practice. We were doing real estate and estate planning. And so the things that that attorney, now judge was doing, ended up being my practice.
Davina: Wow. So I can imagine you probably had a couple of thoughts about that. One is Yay, how exciting. I get handed practice, and B, Oh, my God. What do I do now?
Coming Out From Behind the Eight Ball
Kelly: Well, you know, it’s so funny. I was just talking to my husband about this this morning because, you know, I’m preparing for this and I’m going well, this is my answer. And I realized that, you know, I was, so I’m 40 years old when I started practicing law. And I felt, you know, going to law school with 20 somethings at 37, 38, 39, I really felt behind the eight ball because, you know, the traditional law student is a pretty brilliant kid, you know? And I guess I’m smart enough, but I never really saw myself that way.
So I always kind of felt like my experience was going to carry me through and actually starting a practice, to your question, it did. You know, it was very helpful. I had been the office manager in this attorney’s office that got me started. And so I knew how to run the office. I knew how to order supplies. I knew, and having been a paralegal, I knew how to draft documents, I knew, you know, I knew how to do everything that I needed to know how to do. What I didn’t know was about going to court, developing a case, you know, actually being a lawyer.
So I felt like I was behind the eight ball. But then when I was talking to my husband about it this morning, he was like, well, you have all this experience. It didn’t matter. You know, that didn’t matter because it was a different job. And that’s one of the things that I struggle with even today is, am I doing the paralegals job? Should I be doing this work? Whatever it is that I happen to be doing, should I be delegating this to someone else? Because it’s so comfortable for me to do that work, you know?
Davina: Yeah. I think it’s an easy, I think you’re not alone in that. I think there are a lot of attorneys who, because they know to do, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the highest and best use of their time. But, you know, we often think, well, I can just get it done faster. I do it already.
Kelly: Well, it will go faster if I just do it rather than explain it to someone. That’s, you know, it’s more efficient that way, it seems to me. But maybe not, you know?
Davina: Well, it’s interesting, you talk about your law school story in starting your firm. I was 38 when I started law school. And so I was 42 when I started my practice. So I totally relate to what you’re saying, you, when you have, I started a practice right out of law school, and I went to law school with that intention.
And it was, you know, because I had so many years of experience in business, I thought, you know, yeah, I can do this. And in some ways I could, and in other ways, I, you know, had to learn new skills. So I think that’s, I can totally understand what you’re saying with regard to that. I think we have a leg up being more mature and having more business experience already. And at the same time, you’re still a baby lawyer, no matter how old you are, when you start out being a lawyer.
Navigating the Differing Rules in Different Parts of the Country
Kelly: That’s exactly right. And then I come to Florida, just, you know, four years ago, I came here, studied for the bar, took the bar started practicing at 58, 59, almost 59 in Florida. And now I’m a baby lawyer again. And I have to say it’s much harder this time, much harder. So because it’s like, you know, what I’m realizing is that there are so many colloquial things in addition to the difference in law and the difference in procedure.
I mean, Florida, to me, compared to New York is like the Wild West in terms of procedure. It has taken me so long to figure out how to navigate, you know, every judge has a different procedure, how motions are handled. It’s so different. Yeah. So like, in New York, everything is the same. It’s the same no matter where you are, everything, you do it the same. And, you know, there’s a Notice of Motion, and there’s a motion you, you know, have to file it in a certain way. And it’s the same everywhere.
Davina: Here it varies county by county.
Kelly: Here, it’s a different procedure. So that has just been, just navigating that has been really hard.
Davina: I remember when I was, that was one of my mentors told me right away, you need to get, you need to make sure you go get the local rules. Wherever you’re practicing, you got to get the local rules. And I’m like, wait, there are local rules in addition to the law, the case law, that, you know, the Rules of Civil Procedure, all that? Now I have to know local rules. I have to know what, and then in addition to that, you’ve got to know like, what this judge likes and what that judge doesn’t. So it’s challenging, I mean, you know, being an attorney, and then on top of that, when you have your own firm, you have the business aspect of it.
Kelly: On top of it. Right. So that part’s easy now. I don’t worry about that part. You know, you get your malpractice insurance, you find your office space, you, you know, do your budget, you do your projections, you know. I have my sister happens to be my accountant. So she’s helped me a lot with, you know, the financial aspect of it. You do have to delegate, you know? I mean, I think that that’s a really important aspect of being in business for yourself. You cannot do it all yourself. And so, you know, so you just have to know what your strengths are, know what your weaknesses are delegate to other people the things that are not what you’re good at, And then, you know, or you need help with.
Davina: So let’s talk about your, how you grew from there. You had your firm, you were kind of handed this firm in New York, and how many years did you work there in New York, working with this firm?
Kelly: 15 years. And so I was admitted in 2000. In 2015, I met this wonderful guy and he actually had a tax, has still a tax practice. He’s a tax attorney in Virginia. And so he came to me and we, you know, we had met and dated for a while and said, you know how would you like to leave all this, come live with me in Virginia? I was like, and at that time, you know, I have to remember this because sometimes I feel kind of sad about it and unhappy about it. But at that time, I was so burned out.
I was in that space, in my practice, I had made the mistake that a lot of people, a lot of newer attorneys make. And I was taking on these cases that were really hard. I had a lot of 30 something year old women, young women with bipolar disorder and, you know, other, I had a few that had just other mental health issues that were really a borderline personality disorder. And custody. And people, you know, judges refer, tended to refer harder cases to me because, remember, I started out what I wanted to do was to be an attorney for children.
And that was the very first thing when I got my first job that I got, you know, certified to do. And so I was doing that. And so I think the judges knew that I had that background, that training, that I was really looking toward, not, you know, litigating, helping the people come to a resolution for the benefit of their children. And so, you know, all these really hard cases were coming to me and I was so burned out that, of course, I was like, Yes, yes, I will marry you. Yes, I will move. Yes. Set aside everything that I’ve worked for, for all these years. And I did that.
Davina: Yeah. Take me away.
Kelly: Yeah, right, exactly. And it was great. My kids were grown by then. They had moved away. I have two boys, they live in Denver and San Francisco. So they’re gone. So it’s like, yeah, I’ve got really nothing keeping me here. My folks are still there. But that’s it. And so
Davina: Did you sell that firm?
Kelly: I did not. I gave away whatever clients I had. It’s hard to sell a law practice. And, you know, what do you really have? I mean, the clients have to go where you’re going to send them anyway. So the better practice, I think, is to give the clients the option of, you know, several attorneys to go to. And, you know, I mean, what is there to sell really? You know, I just didn’t think that that was, I mean, it was given to me.
You know, so I did not do that. I kind of sent all the clients on their way. And I started working in my husband’s tax office. So I got, and for three years, I did that. And so I got what most divorce attorneys don’t ever get, which is a real in-depth training in, you know, tax preparation and tax law, which is value-added for my clients because now I can intelligently talk to them about tax consequences in a divorce, the, you know, differences in tax treatment.
You know, if they have a business or if they have, you know, no assets, you know, different type of tax, you know, capital gains tax, or whatever it is that they have to deal with in their divorce, I can talk to them about that intelligently. But then, my husband decided it was time to start looking toward retirement and wanted to buy a home in Florida. And he already had one here.
So he and I bought a place in Celebration. And I decided rather than start practicing in Virginia, I got admitted to practice in Virginia, but I decided if we were going to move eventually, better to start practicing where I’m going to be long term than start all over and then have to move again. So I got admitted. I had to take the other another bar exam. So I took the Florida Bar, and I was able to wave into Virginia, but then I, you know, so I took the Florida Bar. Failed the first time by one point.
Davina: Oh my goodness. That’s a knife to the heart
Kelly: Paid multiple thousands of dollars to, you know, take the bar exam because I’m, practice they do it on a sliding scale. So it’s, I’ve been practicing 15 years or more elsewhere, so they really did not, they wanted to charge. They don’t want to have people like me coming to Florida and practicing law and I get that, you know? So I did it and took the bar a second time, passed, and now I’ve opened my practice here.
Yeah. And I reopened My New York office. I rent the space from a colleague and I have a paralegal there and I have an associate attorney who’s on a contract basis there. So I have cases in New York and I have cases here and this COVID thing is really tough because I, with the way Florida is acting, I can’t get to New York now. I can’t, go there and back.
Davina: Well, let me ask you this. Was it a, I’m assuming you probably had the option to retire along with your husband if you wanted to. What was it that sort of made it compelling enough for you to want to go through the Florida Bar Exam not once, but twice, to practice? I mean, what is it that kind of continues to call you?
Kelly: A sense of purpose, a sense of purpose. It, you know, so I was kind of this like, now I’ve been working my whole life. I mean, I had a 10-year career in the restaurant business before I even started working as a paralegal. So I’ve been working since I’m 14 years old. And I said, you know, I’m, this is just crazy.
Me, like just being a housewife in Florida when my husband isn’t even here most of the year, half of the year. I mean, he goes back to Virginia for tax season both in the spring in the fall. And it was just, it was crazy. So I said, you know, I could certainly stand to have a, you know, retirement that’s more sizable, and, you know, whatever. So I just went back to work.
Davina: Yeah, yeah. So you have gotten very involved in collaborative law. And tell me about that journey and why you chose to pursue that?
Why Kelly Pursued Collaborative Law
Kelly: Well, so I mean, if you think back the reason I became a lawyer in the first place, it was really to help kids. And so the collaborative practice for your listeners who might not really know about it, is a non-adversarial, respectful process whereby each of the parties has an attorney. And in some localities, and in Florida, most localities do require that there is also a neutral facilitator who is usually a person with a mental health background, and there is also a financial professional, assuming that the parties have some complex financial issues.
I just finished one here in Florida where it was a, you know, high-level Disney executive, and they had to stock options, things like that. So we bring in a financial person and it, there is a commitment by the parties that, and all the professionals that no one will go to court for any purpose other than to get your final judgment signed. Which, you know, you have to have that in order to actually be divorced in the end. And if they do that they have, they lose the team, they lose their attorneys, they have to start all over.
But yeah, we all sign a participation agreement that we’re going to use what’s called interest-based negotiations. In other words, we’re not, the parties are not taking positions, they’re not saying, you know, I want the kid, I want the kid. We talk about, I am interested in being able to have a healthy, happy relationship with my child, right? So what is their interest? What is your interest in having the child with you? Well, I want to have a good relationship with that child, right? I mean, that’s just a really common, very general statement of the difference between a position in an interest.
And so we use interest-based negotiation and help the parties come to a mutually agreeable resolution of all of the issues in their divorce. And then the attorneys just, you know, draft up an agreement, draft up the judgment papers and submit them to the court and it’s a very peaceable, respectful process. So, and it fit right in with my values as an attorney wanting to help families move forward for the sake of their children in a peaceful way.
Davina: Right, right. And you’re actually a member of the Collaborative Family Law Group here in Florida.
Kelly: That’s right. So there’s the, Orlando is, the Central Florida Collaborative Organization. I’m a member of that. I’m also a member of the Rochester New York, it’s called CLARA Collaborative Law Association of the Rochester Area. So I am a collaborative attorney in New York and in Florida.
And my group here in Florida actually recommended me to be a member of the Leadership Institute from SACP, the Florida Academy of Collaborative Professionals, and I’m also a member of the IACP International Group. So the leadership institute has been wonderful. I’m learning more about Public Speaking in terms of just public speaking, not presentation in court speaking. And so yeah, so it’s, and, you know, working with a team and working for the benefit of collaborative in general, I was on the board of the Rochester Group.
So I’ve been, I mean, I’ve been a collaborative attorney since 2006 and I think the first collaborative group in Florida, I think it was like 2009 or 2010. It’s much later anyway than when I started. So I actually have more experience as a collaborative attorney than most anybody, most Florida collaborative professionals, so, just because I was doing it in New York for years before they started doing it here.
Davina: Right, right. So now tell me about the services that you’re offering. I know you’re working here in Florida and you still have some cases in New York and you have a team that supports you in both states. So we’re gonna get into the team in just a minute. But I want to hear, you know, what you’re focusing on now. I know you and I’ve talked about that you actually are kind of becoming the attorney’s attorney and doing a lot of work for other attorneys, which I’m sure is really helpful given the years of experience that you bring.
Kelly: Yeah, so when I first, let’s talk about that first and then I’ll go on to talk about the other things I’m doing. I, when I first came to Florida and, you know, taking the bar and I was looking for work, and I applied, you know, because I thought, you know, it’d be a good idea for me to work for a firm for a couple years before I tried to just, you know, go out on my own. And I could learn about, you know, Florida procedure and practice that way.
And I, you know, I think because of my age and the fact that I have so much experience, but I am still a baby lawyer in Florida, nobody even responded to me, but I sent out 15 to 20, you know, applications, resumes, whatever, and got nowhere. And so I started, I actually gotten connected with Steven Dwayne, who is the owner of The Freelance Firm. And for the first year that I was practicing, Steve sent me quite a lot of work doing work for other lawyers.
That was really helpful because I got to learn, you know, how documents are kind of styled and that kind of thing. But then I have a colleague in Rochester who has started to send me research projects on a pretty regular basis. And yeah, so I’m doing that. There’s one of the collaborative attorneys here in Orlando has sent me a couple of projects to work on. So I am really enjoying doing that as a way not only to learn Florida practice and Florida law, but it’s a good way to, in a way, give back because, of course, I’m not charging as much as I would charge a normal client.
Obviously, the attorneys are able to then bill their clients for my time at whatever rate they want to do that, you know, their own rate or something in between what I’m charging, and so they can make a little bit of a profit on doing that work, or having me do that work, whether it’s research and writing. And on my website, actually, there’s a sample. I’m about to put up another one. I did have my first appeal in New York last year and the appellate brief is online. So on my website, people can look at that to see my writing style. And I actually won that appeal by a mile. They just completely shut down the other side. So that was awesome.
So, yeah. So I’m, you know, so the other things I’m doing I’m certainly still doing the collaborative divorces. I really do not intend to do litigated divorces anymore. I think that at my stage of life to learn how to navigate a courtroom and the laws of evidence, the rules of evidence, in addition to everything else, would just be too much. I just, I can’t even imagine trying to put on a trial in a new state at my age. And, you know, just no. I’m not going to do that.
So I’ll continue to, you know, negotiate and collaborate.
And if people have mediation that they’re in, I’m happy to be the attorney kind of in the background, helping them understand, you know, all the issues that they need to resolve what, you know, drafting documents, that kind of thing. I really enjoy doing that work. And I’m doing some estate planning and probate. I’m really enjoying the probate work. It’s, you know what, generally, people in life transitions is kind of where it’s at for me, you know, the, kind of theory or the philosophy of my practice. My, little icon, whatever, what do you call it? Compass. So I wanted to help you navigate these changes in your life.
Davina: Right, right. So you’re, with the way that you’re practicing now and the types of cases you’re working on, you, I imagine that the pandemic and the subsequent quarantine, and now we’re in phase two where we’re going to start seeing, you know, people go back into quarantine. And if they’ve ever, if they step back out at all, anyway, has probably a little bit smoother transition for you because you’re not really required to be in court for any, you know, anything like a trial or hearings or that kind of thing. So what kinds of things have you done? Have you, is your firm sort of functioning virtually now?
Kelly: Yes, I am. And the next thing that I am doing probably next week, I’ll be reaching out and getting the information is to do the remote online notary. New York has issued an executive order allowing people to notaries to, you know, notarize people’s signatures remotely now, anyway. So I’m good with that. And, you know, I have Zoom, and I, you know, I have the technology that I need in order to see people remotely, and I’m educating people about how to, you know, download this app, download the software.
And, you know, it’s hard for estate planning clients because some of them are much older and don’t really understand the technology or how to do it. So you have to be good enough at it to be able to help people understand it so they can actually do it. But yeah, it’s, you know, that, not practicing for those three years while I was working in my husband’s office then coming to Florida and trying to be remote, it was a lot of technology that I had to kind of pick up and learn.
And, you know, and plus, Florida, his e-filing, which New York did not have at the time that I first started practicing in Florida. So I had never done an e-filing anything. So learning that system, I mean, that was a lot to learn about it, but I’m doing it. You know, it’s okay. I’m getting everything up to speed and I feel like it is up to speed and there’s, you know, just the remote online Notary will be the last thing I think that I need to kind of put in place in order to really be fully remote wherever I’m practicing.
Davina: Do you imagine yourself sort of staying remote?
Kelly: Yeah, I do. Yeah, I just changed my arrangement in my office so that I’m, it’s more of a virtual type of arrangement and, you know, costing me a lot less. I have a lovely office in my home so there’s plenty of room here. My assistant, my office assistant is working remotely out of a room at her home. And so, yes, it seems to be working so far. And so why pay the extra rent?
I mean, unless I really get so busy, which could happen, that’s what happened in New York, I got so busy, I just had to grow and hire more people. But here, if that happens, then I’ll, you know, look at that and figure out okay, now I need more, now I need space. Now I need people. Now I need to, you know, really have an office. But so far, it’s just been a perfect size. And the business is coming that needs to come and I’m doing great.
Davina: So your, tell us about your team and have you had, have you noticed any particular challenges with managing your team, with having somebody in New York and somebody in Florida? And, you know,
Kelly: What a great question. Well, the first thing I did when I started the firm a year, two years ago, was as I got people, once I had everybody on board, and I guess that was about a year and a half ago, I had a big meeting with all the staff. We did a virtual, you know, big Zoom meetings. I was in New York actually for the meeting and my assistant here got on virtually and, here in Florida. So I just you know, kind of laid out my firm goals and just, you know, what to expect and, you know, all the kind of personnel things, you know, the office procedures and, you know, when we are off and vacation pay.
You know, that kind of thing. And got everybody kind of on the same page. Introduced everybody to each other and the girls are all, I call them the girls, they’re all working really well together. If one of them has a question for the other one, they’re just communicating between themselves. I find out about it later sometimes. And so I just, I feel like I’ve put together a really nice team. I have an associate attorney in Rochester. I have a paralegal who was my paralegal has agreed to come back. And she’s just part-time.
She works for another attorney part-time and she’s working for me part-time. And so she does all my, you know, drafting, running things, you know, running, getting things filed where they need to be and served and that kind of thing. And then I have the assistant office assistant here, who, same thing, I have her, you know, doing some drafting of documents, putting systems in place, that kind of thing. So I have my Florida assistant doing more of the office manager work because she’s here and I’m here.
Davina: So what are some of, and you’ve been in, what year did you own your own practice? Was it 2000 that you started your own practice, or got the other practice?
Kelly: Well, I started practicing in 2000. I had a job out of law school. And then I worked for them for two years before the attorney running for judge asked me to take over his practice. So that was in November of 2000. So I guess two and a half years, I worked for someone else. And then I started my own firm
Davina: So what do you think are some of the key lessons you have learned in the years that you’ve been practicing since 2002 to date? What have been your biggest challenges and what do you think have been your biggest lessons?
Kelly’s Biggest Challenges and Lessons Throughout Her Long Career in Law
Kelly: Well, you know, I thought about this question a lot because when you internalize what you’ve learned, you don’t really think about that that much. But I think one of the things that has been the best advice, the best thing I’ve figured out for myself or people have advised me is that you cannot and you should not take every case that comes in the door. There are going to be people who will challenge every cell in your body.
And it’s really important, so, I mentioned I was in the restaurant business before I started practicing law. And I think from doing that, I really got to recognize, you know, certain characteristics and people and I got, I just got to get a good read on people as I met them. And so I think I have made the mistake of ignoring that knowledge, that deep knowledge that women have, and saying, Okay, this is a person who’s coming into me with a, you know, X dollar retainer. I’m going to work my way through it. And I will tell you, that is always a mistake. So, that’s one.
Davina: That’s great advice. Great advice.
Kelly: Yeah, I think you just got to trust your gut, you know, women have, you know, I do believe that this is true. Now, this may be, I don’t like to talk in generalizations, let me just say that, but I do believe that women have an intuition that, you know, was given to us by whatever, our maker, and, you know, it kind of compensates for the brawn, right? That most of us don’t have. And so I do think that women cheat themselves when they don’t follow their intuition. And so I think it’s really, really important to believe in yourself, believe in your own ability to know what’s right for you and do that.
Davina: Right, right. That’s great. That’s great advice. So tell us where can we find out more information about you or get in touch with you if we want to maybe reach out to you to hire you to do work for us or just get to know you and pick your brain a little bit on what it’s like having practiced for so long.
Kelly: Absolutely. Yeah. And, you know, just so people know, I am more than happy to mentor new lawyers to help, you know, in whatever way that I possibly can. So my website is www.kellyforstlaw.com. And it’s KELLY. Only one e in there. And it’s Forst, FORST Law .com. And yeah, so they can go on my website, people can send me a message there. There’s information Oh, like I said, that sample of, that appellate brief is on my website. My phone number’s on there. You know, everything they would need to get in touch with me is there.
Davina: Great. Thanks, Kelly. I really appreciate it. And thanks so much for being here today and sharing your experience with us and some of the lessons you’ve learned along the way. I really appreciate it.
Kelly: It’s wonderful to be here. Great to get to know you too, Davina. Thanks for all that you do for everybody.
Davina: Oh, thank you.
Kelly: Appreciate it.