On this week’s episode of the Wealthy Woman Lawyer® Podcast, we speak with attorney Sarah Poriss. From the beginning of her career at Consumer Law Group in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, Sarah was focused on representing consumers who were experiencing a personal financial crisis. Sarah was a member of Connecticut’s Bench-Bar Foreclosure Committee for its first seven years, helping draft the foreclosure mediation rules and procedures to involve more homeowners in saving their homes.
She’s taken the heart of that work to the next level, representing only consumers with money issues through her firm Sarah Poriss, Attorney at Law, LLC, the largest woman-owned foreclosure defense law firm in Connecticut.
She is the author of the book Got Debt? Dispatches from the Front Lines of America’s Financial Crisis, a collection of stories about working with people in debt over the last ten years.
We chat with Sarah about her career, as well as:
- How she became the media’s go-to for her area of expertise
- Why she chose her niche
- The benefits of working with her ideal client
- Her new book
- And much more.
Mentioned in this episode:
Davina Frederick: Hello and welcome to the Wealthy Woman Lawyer podcast. We believe all women lawyers deserve to be wealthy women lawyers. 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 so excited for you to meet our guest today. So let’s get started. Sarah Poriss began her career at Consumer Law Group in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, where she represented consumers experiencing a personal financial crisis, such as debt collection harassment, identity theft, and predatory lending. It was a natural transition then when after about four years, she opened her own office to expand her services to defending consumers being sued by their credit card companies and representing homeowners who are in foreclosure.
Sarah is so committed to helping her clients overcome debt and financial issues that she’s been a member of Connecticut’s benchmark foreclosure committee for its first seven years, helping to draft foreclosure mediation rules and procedures to help more homeowners in saving their homes. She’s also a member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates whose members pledge to never represent business interests contrary to the rights and interests of consumers. And she’s also the author of Got Debt: Dispatches From the Frontlines of America’s Financial Crisis. It’s a selection of stories about working with people in debt over the last 10 years. So we are so happy to have Sarah here as a guest today, on the Wealthy Woman Lawyer podcast. We’re gonna have so much to discuss. So welcome, Sarah.
Sarah Poriss: Thanks so much. So happy to be here.
Davina: Great, great. So I want to start out today, just getting people just letting people get to know a little bit about you and kind of your journey to becoming an attorney. Is this something that you always knew that did you? Did you want to fight for the people even as a child?
Sarah: Not at all. No, no, no, I wanted to be a teacher and I became a teacher. I was a French major in college, and I became a teacher. And I liked it a lot. But I had been oddly steered away from learning other languages. And in addition to French, and therefore, you know, as a modern language teacher in the 90s, and 2000s, you really need to know more than one language in order to hold down a full time job in the public school. And so that didn’t really last very long. And I went out and did a few other things.
And I landed a job with an attorney who was blind, she worked as an assistant attorney general for the state of Connecticut. She had a guide dog, and the Attorney General’s Office provided her a staff person to manage all the paper, manage all the paperwork, manage the emails, and things like that. So I was hired to drive her I mean, the the job posting was like, it was this it was reader needed for blind attorney must have driver’s license. call this number. And my mother saw it in the paper my mother saw told me about it, she applied, she canceled her interview the day before thinking they wouldn’t have time to fill her spot with someone to compete with me. And turns out, they interviewed 75 people narrowed it down to five, and I got the job.
Davina: So wonderful. Wow.
Sarah: That wasn’t so much. You know. And I guess one of the questions, they told me after that everybody who didn’t make the cut was mostly because they were asked, why do you want this job? And they said, because I like to read. And I was one of the few people that said, well, it might be an interesting way to see if I want to go to law school. And I can read out loud, pretty clearly pretty, you know, without stumbling as well, I think that helps. So I get the job. I follow this attorney around for two and a half years. And it really was more like, I wanted to just move up, I wanted to get away from my $13 an hour job. There were paralegal position openings. And I applied for them, and they wouldn’t hire me for them.
So I said, forget it. You know, they want to keep me in this job because it’s easier than training someone new instead of allowing me to advance my career as a paralegal with the Attorney General’s office in Connecticut. And so I went out and I, I just I left that job. And I said, fine, I’ll just go get, you know what? Forget it. I’ll just go to law school. In the eldest, a girlfriend from undergrad was going to University Connecticut, and I bumped into her here in Hartford. And we were talking and we hung out a bit and she knew I was trying to make a decision. And she said, I’ll give you all my alphabet study books. And that was it. And I I studied for the LSATs and I got into UConn and I live five blocks away and I walked to class and I just was doing it to for better job training. Really, it was good to get away from a $13 an hour job. So that was my motivation.
Davina: And did you, is there is there a point that you’ve ever regretted that or did it work out better than you thought?
Sarah: No, as a 28 or 29 year old who had been making $13 an hour and working for people who aren’t as smart as me for multiple years. I was happy to be in school again. I was I part time students in the first year, which is the option UConn offers, which I think was a good transition for me, I worked during the day, most days I temped or something, and then I had classes. So that was fantastic. And I knew by the time I was actually a student, you know, that year, year long process it takes to apply and take the LSATs and get in and start start classes, I had started to tune into what did I want to do, if I was going to be a lawyer, and I really enjoyed the work I did with the, with the blind attorney, she represented the Department of Children and Families, and she helped the department determine whether families should be reunited or whether their parental rights should be terminated.
And that was very interesting work. It was very social work based, you know, which was well aligned with my teaching genes, you know, and, and so I figured when I went to law school and graduate, I could do that I could go into juvenile law, I could do Family Law, my mother had been divorced, my parents got divorced, it was a messy divorce. And I felt like women needed a better voice in their divorce. My mother always felt, you know, so I had some motivators, I realized, there were things I could do with this law degree. And I knew I wanted, you know, going as an older, you know, an older person, I was 31, when I graduated 30, when I graduated. I knew I didn’t want to be what I call a corporate whore, it was just me, that was my way of saying, I want to do good with my law degree.
I’m not doing a second career, you know, to build 2500 hours a year and to make some corporation rich. So I was lucky when I landed that job at Consumer Law Group. It was aligned with my sort of public interest, career goals. And it was I joked that it was like a public interest job with a paycheck, because it was a private firm. And I got to do, you know, white hat work, always represent the little guy, it was really, really fun and exciting.
Davina: So I want to talk about you starting your own firm, and what motivated you to do that. But before that, I just kind of want to dig a little deeper into this, you know, you have a helping heart. It sounds like, and I wonder, I always wonder kind of where that comes from for people. So, you know, in your case, where your where your parents, public servants, were they teachers? Were they helpers in other ways. You know, were they medical professionals? What did they do?
Sarah: My mother had been a teacher, you know, she grew up in the 40s 50s. And, you know, she was to sort of say, with dismay, you know, women’s options back then were become a nurse, become a teacher or get married, right? So she’s like, I can’t stand the sight of blood, I became a teacher. And I felt that as a child, I used to try to play school. Like, with my friends, when I was five, or six or seven, I would say, Hey, you know, instead of chairs in my room, or wherever, and we play school, right, so I kind of had it, I don’t know, whether it was learned or from an I think that’s sort of nature versus nurture. You never really know. And I felt that. Yeah.
And so I was, I think I was consistently I would bring that to, to the jobs I did, right. I like to explain things to people in a way that helps them understand this as treating them, like they should already know. And they’re dumb, right? Like, I have a good way I loved customer service jobs, I had some customer service jobs like LL Bean, because I used to live in Maine, and I got a job at LL Bean taking orders on the phone. And I, I knew that was customer service is very important. And I think that’s a really good foundation for how I handle my clients, and how I work on my clients, customer service. It’s all a service, and that helps you so much. Because when they know you care, and they feel well taken care of, as far as I know, the responding to them and things like that, then they are very forgiving when you make mistakes.
Davina: Right, right.
Sarah: Which any woman attorney out there is so nervous about making mistakes. I don’t know how nervous men are about making mistakes. So women are really nervous about making mistakes. And yeah, if you approach it all with just being 100% honest, like, oh, my God, I am so sorry, your emails, keep going into my spam folder. And I keep missing them. I’m so sorry. But let me try to figure that out. And that hopefully will never happen again. Or let me you know, and you just kind of work around it and may be very transparent about communication issues are whatever’s going on, and they are very forgiving. That’s been a real blessing as a business owner.
Davina: Yeah, yeah, I can see where that would be really beneficial to have had that experience. And, and it’s interesting, because there’s some people who had worked in customer service jobs and say, oh, my God, I hated that it was the worst thing ever. Because I don’t like people complaining to me all day or whatever. And so it’s really interesting to hear your perspective and go, what a great foundational, you know, skill builder that was for me for what I’m doing today.
Sarah: I think that and this this can kind of trickle down to business owners sort of teaching new staff members, you know, everything we do as a lawyer or as a business owner. Everything that happens in that firm has our name attached to it. So anytime I took a call I also worked customer service for UPS again to big companies where I everything I did was, you know, attached to that company name. But would you know, if I had a bad experience, then LL Bean or UPS was a bad company, I had to be very aware of that that wasn’t something they were very clear about in the training, but I kind of understood that. So when I worked at that job at Consumer Law Group, I knew every time I signed my name to something, I was signing it on behalf of Consumer Law Group, and I had to be very conscious of that.
So that, you know, now that I pick a pick the staff members who get that about working for me, I pick five members who, and I train, if I hear that the tone on the phone isn’t the way I would like, you know, the way I would have my staff speak to my clients, I trained around that or I reassigned work, I did have a paralegal, and I could just start to hear after several months, she just didn’t like taking intake calls, I could just hear the tone, and I was like, I gotta get her off the phone and get someone else. And or that person just is no longer a good fit for your business. So being aware of yeah, of how you want to present to the world is important. And then your staff will have to do that for you as well.
Davina: Yeah, I mean, I think that is one of the big challenges of women law firm owners is, you know, when you’re hiring staff and training, we really have to look carefully at some people, no matter how much you train them, no matter how much, you know, there’s, they’re smart, they’re great, they may not have that certain, something that makes it easy, easier for them to be kind of in that positive, uplifting, helping sort of space, that may just be who they are, not who they are. And, and I think, you know, it’s so important to make sure that we really match, we marry people, yeah, the job with their strengths. You know, we don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole, while we’re hiring people, you know.
Sarah: And again, I think that you hear a lot of business owners say, and I hear this from my clients, too. Like, I’m working with this person right now. And he’s like, yeah, I’m bringing in an office manager at this office manager is going to get my business in the right direction, so that I’m not running in a million, you know, dealing with it all. And you know, fast forward a couple months, like, hey, as an office manager working out, not at all, not at all, they’re not working out at all, but you know, I’m going to wait through the holidays to fire them. And you know, and so I think that, let me go back to you sort of asked how I made the leap to owning my own practice, like, the Consumer Law Group gig was amazing.
I learned so much. So well mentored, that I was sort of losing the empathy and the enthusiasm for plaintiffs side work. I think that the there was this something that was no longer I think that the industry changed, you know, that collection, harassment was sort of evolving, and there was less of it. And I just, there was, I don’t know something about it. And I had a girlfriend who was doing document review from home, and making pretty good money doing it, I thought, I need a break from, from what I’m doing, I think I will try to get that job and work from home, and I got that job. And but within a couple of weeks, my former boss who I maintained a good relationship with, he said, You remember all the little old ladies, you were helping with their small claims, because we would volunteer for like the Elder Law Clinic, the Elder Loss Legal Services Unit, and I would counsel people through their small client like being sued in small claims.
It’s like all those little little old ladies that now have trials, and they’re calling back and we don’t represent we don’t defend, you know, we only bring plaintiff’s side work. So should I refer these people to you? And I was like, sure. So I just essentially grew a practice helping consumers defend against debt collection, nobody other than bankruptcy attorneys. Nobody was doing this. Nobody was making a practice of how debt defense, you know, sort of exclusively and then I help people, you know, all the other related stuff, credit report issues and things like that. And that grew, and I was doing pretty well sitting alone in a home office, eventually a small office, close to my house. And I did a lot of paid consultations, because that can really bridge your budget gaps is charging for your time. That’s a whole other podcast episode Davina. Pay Pal stations, but and then I started to get referrals for foreclosure help. And this was just before the bubble burst in 2008.
I think I had done three or four in 2007. And then 2008 was upon us, they created that bench bar foreclosure committee, actually, my old boss was invited to be on that committee, and he gave the opportunity to me, which was great. And we sort of developed our state’s foreclosure mediation program or free foreclosure mediation program through the courts. And then I then I started to feel completely overworked and burnt out and I was working more hours and working harder for less thanks and less money. And I said, I’m burning out and I wanted to take my energy in the direction of showing solos, how to make better money through the paid consultation, because I would go out to eat with my three or four solo friends quite often.
And I would talk about a consultation I had and how at the end of the end of the consultation, they wrote me a check. And so also, so lunch is on me, everybody, they paid in cash today lunches on me. And they’d be like, oh, you’re lucky your clients pay you, but they don’t pay us. And I just thought that was ridiculous. Like, there wasn’t anything I was doing. My clients weren’t any different than their clients. I guess I just knew how to sell a consultation and perform and give them value. So I knew there’s so many sellers not doing that they were free, free, you know, free all over their website, right? Free consultation all over their website. How are you ever going to get anyone to pay you? If you’ve got free consultation on your website? I mean, there are some practice areas, obviously, that, that that’s the norm. And there’s not much we can do about that personal injury or bankruptcy, for example.
But a lot of other things, you don’t have to give it all away for free, right? You just need to, you need to decide what you’re going to sell. And you’re going to decide what you’re going to give away for free. So I figured there was something there. And I actually took some coaching to learn how to be a coach. And that led me to find coaching myself, that I needed coaching myself to build my business. And that’s when I don’t know where I’m going with this Davina. But that’s sort of when I learned to scale my business up. Right, I finally found something. I finally found a way to defend foreclosures in a way that I could assign a lot of the work to a paralegal.
Davina: Yeah, okay, good. I want to talk about this, I want to talk about this model. So before we get too far away from that kind of want to go back a little bit, and I was talking about this charging for consultations, because it’s interesting, I was just having this discussion. And we’ve just been discussing this in my group mastermind with other women law firm owners. And, of course, many of them, many of my clients have, you know, they move very quickly to a pay for consultation model. And, because it is my belief, too, that it’s a great screening tool. If you have somebody who won’t even pay you, you know, 100 bucks, 200 bucks, or your hourly rate, or whatever it is to meet with you, and talk with you about their legal problem, then that’s a good indicator that, you know, they’re probably not going to be a good fit for you and be able to pay you your fees, right.
So there’s a lot of advantages to that. And also, you know, you can spend a lot of time waste a lot of time with having, you know, meeting with people for free, and you don’t have that kind of time to waste. And so, you know, there’s a lot of advantages to that model. Did you know this kind of instinctively coming out, because I do find that a lot. A lot of us when we first start our law practice, do that, that’s what we do is we say, well, you know, I’m going to charge this low fee, because I’m a new lawyer, and I’m not going to charge for consultations, because I so desperately need clients. And so when did this occur to you?
Sarah: Well, this, this is something I saw while I worked at Consumer Law Group, the you know, we were getting increasing, I remember the type of work that sort of inspired it, we were getting more and more calls about predatory lending issues. And people were calling and saying, I’m paying my mortgage every month, and they’re not crediting me properly. So my boss would schedule these people they would bring in, he would make them bring in like their entire payment history. And he pour over it for like two hours, two and a half hours, he’d go in the conference room with these people.
And I literally remember this one time, he came out of the conference room, and he he leans on my door in my doorway, and he goes, we got to start charging for these and he goes into his office, I could hear him slumped into his chair. And the next thing I know, there were several consultations that were scheduled for me where they had paid. I don’t know what the fee was that we were charging at the time. But I remember distinctly that the first person I I met with who had paid for her consultation said, I started talking and everything she was hang on, let me write this down. I’m paying for this. And we found that people weren’t late. When they paid, they were more attentive, they didn’t drag their kids, they didn’t get distracted by their phones, they were on, they brought the documents we asked them to bring, they took it much more seriously. And it was much more productive for everybody. So that was what I saw.
And so when I went solo, I just kept that up. Now I can’t say that I was good. You’re saying how sometimes we charge only a little bit because we are new lawyer. It’s true. I stumbled over quoting the rate for the first two or three times and then you got to you got to stop stumbling. Now you got to stick with the number that comes out of your mouth. But that’s fine practice. Practice those numbers and just maybe think of it in advance like you have 5-10 minutes on the call before you quote the rate. So start thinking about it sooner than later. And then eventually I drove my, my hourly rates up and you know, it isn’t one of those things where it’s like, oh, well, this person will pay me $500 I’ll do it. Like don’t get into that. I wouldn’t fall into that trap. You know, the people who touch with a 10 foot pole that oh, if they pay me this much be careful of that.
But otherwise, I think it’s I think it’s true and you’re sort of stuck with the amount your quote, but you know you learn from that as well. Well, and I think that, you know, if you do charge, I mean, it was like 20% of my gross annual revenues to be. I mean, if I left that money on the table, that’s a huge amount of money you can generate over the course of a year. You do one or two of these a week, and you’re charging $250 or $300 times 40 weeks. Do the math on how many 1000s of dollars you can do. Don’t minimize, and I don’t need to tell you this, that your listeners that don’t minimize the value of doing paid consultations. And you’re right, if it’s, yeah. You know, people are, like, don’t get me going down that road, I could just coach all around it right now. But I won’t
Davina: I’d say you’re very passionate about it. Because you’ve seen a lot of people leave money on the table and not. And it also sends a message right from the beginning that I’m busy, my time is valuable. But you know, I what’s your what’s your going to be your experience, you’re, you’re paying for this. And what you’re experiencing is going to be something that’s a paid service, not a free service, right? So I think that says a lot.
Sarah: You can give away, you can give away your time, you just need to decide what you do give away for free. I think if we all look and there’s patterns, right, we all get the same calls about the same information. And we basically have a script on how we, how we counsel around that. And sometimes people call and like in Connecticut, there’s a date that that’s on a summons. And people call and go, oh, my God, I have a court date next Tuesday. And they’re such an a panic about this date, they think is a court date on Tuesday next week, that they can’t hear anything I’m saying. So I give away explaining what that date is that they don’t really have a court date, this is what it means and they can get them out of their panic. And that so I’m willing to give away that for free.
Which isn’t that big a deal? Because then it gets us we can then concentrate on. Okay, now what’s really going on? And what can I sell them? And then they’re, they’re listening? And then you know, anybody who, who’s so stuck on sees, like, you don’t answer the question, what’s the fee? You don’t you go, oh, hang on, let’s talk for a few minutes, let’s figure it out. Because they’re just asking out of fear. But the other the other great thing about this is, is if you do it often enough, you’re earning enough money that you can choose when to give away your time, you can choose how many pro bono matters to take per year, you can choose to spend 45 minutes on the phone with somebody when when you normally might try to get them scheduled instead.
But you go you know what, I’m just going to help this person you have the luxury, when you’re earning the right amount of money to choose who to give away your time with and who to charge. That’s really the lesson, I think is that if you’re giving it away to everybody, you never really have the luxury you’re constantly hoping that that person you’re giving away your time to will then be the person that opens their wallet and pays you $5,000? I don’t think so. Sort of background thinking.
Davina: Exactly. So let me ask you this
Sarah: So paid consultations actually lead to big retainers.
Davina: Absolutely, absolutely. So let me ask you this, what do you say to an attorney who says, you know, other attorneys refer people to me, and I feel like I need to, you know, talk to them, because you’re referred by another attorney, and I need to not charge for that. And I find that I’d make 1000s of dollars if I have a conversation with them.
Sarah: With the with, okay, well, every you know, you have to figure out whether this much free time actually does lead to real, you know, retainers. And the other thing is I hear that a lot like, oh, well, when they come from that person, I feel like I can’t charge. Why? Have you had a conversation with Joe and asked him if he has an expectation that you’re going to work for free? Then you got to manage that relationship with Joe. Because that’s not fair.
Davina: I don’t really think that people I don’t think that people who are referring generally have that expectation. I think these are stories we tell ourselves about it.
Sarah: Exactly. And there’s again, there’s a oh, you came from Joe, listen, here’s what I offer. You know, I’m happy to I know what your question is, let’s talk about A B and C. If you need more help than that, then let’s get you scheduled. And this is what the charge will be. And, you know, if you’re afraid they’re gonna say no, then you got to address that. And or just practice, put it at 50 bucks. And when people start saying yes, then then put it at 100 then keep raising it until you realize that they aren’t saying no to any amount that they think you’re gonna say, $5,000 for all this value, you’re gonna give them and you say $450 and they’re like, oh, I’ll sign up for that all day long.
But yeah, I think it’s about managing. And I always say to me, like, I’ll refer people to another attorney and like, what do you think their fees are? And I do, I never I say I never quote another attorney fees, it’s not on to me. I have no idea what they offer and how much they charge and they go oh, okay. Okay. Okay. Like they don’t demand that I provide a $1 figure. They’re just afraid that it’s out of their range. That’s usually what questions about fees are early on, is they’re just afraid to steer.
And when you assure them, it’s not going to be 1000s just to get on the phone with someone for 20 minutes, then that fear goes away. Then they’re reassured. Because the public thinks that attorneys just charge ridiculous amounts for no value. So when you start to spell out the value, and then you, you know, you quote, a rate that’s very affordable to them, they’re just, they’re, you’re their favorite person, you can get five star reviews all day long for doing that.
Davina: Well, that’s always good to ask you, I was gonna ask you next kind of segwaying away from attorneys charging to to, in your own situation. You’re, you’re in a practice area, where you’re actually you’re dealing with people who say, right in front, I got financial problems, okay. So they’re coming in telling you, I’m poor, I’m broke. I’ve got financial problems, right. And then, I imagine that so many attorneys would then feel guilty charging these people who have just said that they are broke and, they’ve got no money. So how did you work through the mental? Or did you ever have an issue with that? Did you have to work through sort of the mental mindset around money to not kind of buy into their money story or not having trigger your own money story?
Sarah: Well, the funny thing is, every time we sit down, my husband and to or write our mortgage check every month, he looks at me goes you did it again. I’m like what what he says, you got money out of people who don’t have any money. And it’s, I have taken a lot of coaching around sales, its sales. And, you know, do the cashiers at McDonald’s feel guilty about, you know, the cost of the fries? Does the the cashier at the grocery store feel bad about the cost of that gallon of milk? No, that person came to buy those fries, or buy that gallon of milk, people call me. And they want help. They have a problem. It’s actually I had an attorney who worked for me, and she’s a good friend of mine, too, who was not a great solo, she had a really hard time charging and quoting consult fees.
But she said she pointed out to me, people are calling they’re ready to buy. And it was it was like, it blew blew me so give them something to buy. So I do I look at someone and go haha, I’m gonna, you know, this person is desperate to save their house. And I’m gonna say much money I can get out of them. No, I say this is what my fees are for this service. And they’re based on data. The data, the fees are based on data of how much it costs for me to run a foreclosure defense through my firm. And we did this through KPIs. I can’t remember what that’s called. It’s where you take every step of the case, who does what, how much do I pay that person? Or what is the value of their time? How much time does it take times number of hours, number of dollars, and then you multiply it by a multiplier in order to add in profit and overhead and things like that. And I know how much it costs to run.
Davina: The Key Performance Indicators.
Sarah: Yeah, thank you, thank you. I know how to run. I know how much it costs to run a foreclosure defense for my practice, because I assigned most of the work to a paralegal. And so my KPIs are x and I charge 3x. And we charge it over time. And I actually do a flat fee, flat fee monthly. So that has been very sustainable.
Davina: It’s predictable for them. Predictable for the client.
Sarah: Exactly and the monthly is a fraction of what their mortgage would be. So just to be apologetic for charging them a third of what their mortgage would be is just look, I’d be apologetic about the wrong thing. Because if they can’t pay that, then they really can’t pay a mortgage, and maybe they should move out and find a new place to live. You know, and that isn’t really that’s not, it’s not like black or white, oh, you’re in or you’re out. It’s just that if someone isn’t willing to pay that they’re not a good fit for my firm. Right?
Sarah: They don’t get it. Something else is going on.
Davina: Yeah, I imagine then there’s you, what you’ve done is you’ve sort of created a process or strategy for sort of helping them see how they, not only can they afford to hire you, but it’s, it’s going to be much more cost effective for them to hire you than it is to continue down the path they’re on, right?
Sarah: Yes, and, and you know, I like that I do have a monthly subscription. That’s, that’s what the subscription service that they pay monthly, because they see it coming out of their account every month. And I think it inspires most of them to get the work done, they need to do that I can help them so that we can get out of foreclosure faster. Sometimes people will pay for a year and I can’t get them on the phone. I can’t get them to do what they do. But we keep getting their money. And I’m not gonna apologize for that they have the option of using me, we’re here for them, we’ll help you save your house, or you can sit there. And as long as the court’s not pushing the case forward, you know, you think you have all the time in the world that’s on you. And so that’s the option I give people and then I think it helps sustain my business so that I can continue to do this work for as many people as possible.
Davina: Right. The reason I asked you that question is obviously not because I think you should feel guilty or bad but because I want you to share your story so other people can hear it and go, and it might help them other women law firm owners, it might help them to get over their stuff and start saying, you know, like, it is not your responsibility to, to manage another person’s emotions around their money or to be in their pocket book, it’s, it’s your responsibility, offering this thing for you to help solve a problem and you can choose it or not.
Sarah: I’ve heard another coach say, get get your get your mind out of out of their wallet, right? And it’s not an, we don’t, no lawyer should, I don’t like to use that way. Let’s, would a man make a decision on fees about emotion. I think that if you have data, if you say, okay, I do traffic tickets, I do DUIs, I do, you know, no fault divorce, whatever the term is, right? Simple divorce. This is the amount of time I spend this is who in my office spends this much time, this is what we pay them. And there’s not much my time, you know, we we came up with a formula that my paralegal spends about an hour per week per client.
And I spend about an hour per month per client. And then there’s all the other administrative stuff. So when you lay out the life of a file, and you figure out how much time it actually takes, then that you you price accordingly. So that’s the formula and that helps with the person who tries to negotiate your fate, oh, could you do a little better? And you say, no, because this is the formula, we’ve determined, this is what it costs to help you. So this is what you pay, and they’ll feel okay, or they’ll walk away. And that’s fine. So you have a procedure in place and a policy in place that this is our fee for this type of file.
You as the firm owner can always make exceptions. I’m making lots of exceptions right now, because of COVID. And the way foreclosures are being handled in my state and in the country, and things like that. So I’ve had to go outside the box a little. And you always have that option. But I’m keeping an eye on my numbers.
Davina: I know, you know, we’ve had moratorium on foreclosures. I mean, are you you guys, are you dealing with that? And how are you dealing with that? Because that’s that kind of brought that business to a halt. So how did you sort of pivot and shift and deal with that in your law firm?
Sarah: So in the last year, so this is middle of May 2021. And so things basically shut down in second week of third week of March of 2020, including foreclosure defense. So I had a lot in the pipeline, I had a lot of people, a lot of people who were in the process of modifying their mortgages. So we saw those people through the through to the end, we we’ve had other people continue on that process of applying and getting mortgage modifications and watching them and guiding them through that process. The cases, the people who were behind before March of 2020, who might have already been in been in foreclosure, there’s no real moratorium that applies to them. And I don’t want to I don’t want anybody listening to this and go yes, there is. But you know, there’s some rules and some exceptions. But there’s been a lot of activity on cases that were already pending. And we have a judicial process here. So those were just sitting for a long time.
And then now they’re they’re picking back up. So I’ve been able to I’ve been getting calls consistently from people whose cases are waking up. And in the meantime, I will say that, between last summer and this winter, I was doing a lot more consultations, I was calling people who had said they would maybe call back and talk to me about that I was sort of scrounging in my leads in my old you know, all the notes are all people who call the office to see who could I who can I sell something to I need to bridge a budget gap right now, who can I give some value to who could I help with, you know, something for an hourly fee, and I was finding that I was selling a lot of my time by the hour. But when you have a pure flat fee practice where you’re only doing an hour per month per client, you shouldn’t have to sell your time by the hour. But that helps. And knowing how to do the paid consultation really saved me.
Davina: Right. Exactly, exactly. So you also help people fight like if somebody’s trying to collect a debt them correct. So I’m curious is this just I’m just curious about why you haven’t included bankruptcy in your practice? Because I would imagine when you have a lot of people who are dealing with debt collection issues and foreclosure issues, bankruptcy may be a solution for them in some cases.
Sarah: Absolutely. And I probably give away more business to bankruptcy attorneys than I keep. But I think that one is I would have had to learn a whole new area of law and I was not mentored in it. We didn’t do that Consumer Law Group. When I went on my own, and I wasn’t feeling desperate for a cash generator, right. I knew how to generate cash through the debt defense, as long as I wasn’t misleading people into paying their debts and struggling with debt defense when they should have just gone to file bankruptcy. So I became very, you know, I created a network with the local bankruptcy attorneys told them what I do said if you got someone who can’t file bankruptcy, because of whatever, a little over income, they have an asset that that’s preventing them, send them my way, you know, when I said that If they really should file, I’ll send them back to you.
And also, when you think about it, if you’re developing in my mentality around it was I was developing a debt defense practice. If I could have earned more pushing them into a chapter seven than defending them, then I would have that’s a conflict, I think. I think that’s what conflict as pushing everybody to this thing that’s more profitable, what I think have created the conflict if the person really didn’t need it. Right. And I think there are, it’s very individualized. But if you don’t owe that much, you probably don’t need to do that, to your credit, or the expense of the full bankruptcy, versus the strategies I’ve developed for debt defense in my state.
Davina: Right. So you actually wrote a book, Got Debt, Dispatches From the Frontlines of America’s Financial Crisis. What made you decide to tell that story in that way? And why was that important to you?
Sarah: I think that the way I did it was, I would, things would happen, and I’d write about them. Things that happen. I had a blog, like in 2008 2009, I got my website. And I think I just started writing things as blog posts, you know, 1000 words, 500 words, something like that. And, and I would keep that keep that material, because it was interesting to me, I would tell a story. Like I can’t believe this happened, I got to write about it. And I think I also had a fantasy of maybe writing a novel and sort of including these things. And then I in early 2015, I got a writer, I started working with a guy who’s who was a former attorney, and he wanted to be a writer. And he had already written some amazing work. And we were talking and I said, you know, I really could get my blog, you know, I don’t have time to blog. I just am not doing and he’s like, well, why don’t I help you with that.
And we got to know each other. He understood what I did. And he started writing blog posts for me. So some of the some of the material in the book was actually his material that I’ve, I’ve modified and edited. So he helped generate a lot of the work in the book. But it was always from stories that I was going through, or things that were happening. And when it came when we got a couple 100 pages of stuff together, we put it in a book. And the tough part was editing it in a cohesive way. This is actually Volume Two, the first volume is kind of a hot mess. But this one was a little more cohesive. And I just think it’s interesting. I’ve been told it’s a good book about adulting. Like a girlfriend and lawyer, friend of mine read it. So I’m giving it to my teenagers because you talk so much about money and the mentality around money and the money around mentality around credit. Credit scores. It’s important for my girls to learn that.
Davina: Yeah, I might have to get that for my my twin nephews that just, they are just, they’re matriculating. They’re just got into college. And so this might be great time for me to give them that. Do you find it, I want to, before we wrap up, I want to make sure we sort of touch on marketing a little bit, because do you find it to be to have been a good marketing tool for you?
Sarah: I probably could have done a better job launching it and doing all of that. I think part of that was me and my shyness around it. I I what it is too, any book you write, and it doesn’t have to be 250 pages, it could be 25 or 50 pages. Because I learned this from someone who wrote a book about marketing, it’s a business card, nobody will ever throw away. So it could be a great, thank you. Hey, you know, thank you for this or, you know, I get on the phone with people. And maybe they’ve helped me, right, maybe you’re on the phone with a new potential client, and they don’t end up hiring me for whatever reason.
But they’ve counseled me through something new, you know, we’ve all gotten into these conversations where you talk about your parents or your siblings or something and you get some insights you can, you can send it as a thank you gift, I get a lot of people who were freaked out about credit and like a look, just get my book, just get my book, you’ll understand better why I say you shouldn’t worry about your credit score. So it can be one of these things where you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, every time someone calls you as freaked out about their credit score or the practice area, you can just dive in and I give away all the proceeds. I didn’t want to use my clients stories and then put money in my pocket. So periodically, I’ll take the the what do you call profits, whatever Amazon pays me and I write a check to an organization.
Davina: I just published a book myself, and it’s it’s on law firm marketing in the virtual age. And so there’s tremendous, it is such a helpful tool, when you get asked a lot of sort of foundational questions about a topic over and over again, to be able to say here, read this. This is a great place for you to start, right. And you also get a lot of local press. And I want you to talk about sort of how that came about and how you how you created that for yourself. Because I’m sure there are a lot, a lot of people listening who will think oh, I’d love to do get more local press and raise my profile in the local community.
Sarah: Yeah, this will, you know, it’s it’s, I’m thinking it’s sort of like a five pointed star. So the writer I was using, he would be like, hey, you should write an editorial about A, B or C and I’m like, great. Write it for me. Right. And so he would do that. So it’s it’s true. It’s like you’ve got to set aside a little time to go when you’re really emotional about something, or when really something piques your interest, and you’re like on the edge of your seat about it, take a half an hour and crank out 500 to 750 words and save that that has value, you can use it in the moment, send it in to the local papers editorial, or you can use it, you keep you save up enough of those in there your book.
The other thing is, you know, there’s some pretty noteworthy noteworthy newsworthy things related to foreclosure in my state. One was, there was a very, very high profile murder. Very, very difficult, terrible story. And the guy who killed his wife went into foreclosure. And I was sure I was just like, I’m going to be the one that the news comes to with questions about the foreclosure process, right, I just decided that the fact that they’re covering this foreclosure, I wanted to be the one to give the commentary whether it was on camera, or just helping the reporter so so you got to be a little obnoxious sometimes and be like, I want to be the one to talk about that. And then we have another problem here in the state related to home foundations that are crumbling.
And so I wanted to make sure that I was the attorney voice related to what a homeowners do, you know, some people just have to walk away from their homes, which means they’ll go into foreclosure. So I want it to be, again, the perspective there. So I think that anybody who’s got a little what was what is like your pet thing, right? Your pet thing about divorces, your pet thing about DUIs, your pet thing about your banker about bankruptcy, find a way to, you know, be the voice of that when the press or you know, need information about it. And it’s not that hard to do you keep a reporter’s business card in your Rolodex couple business cards in your Rolodex. And it’s not that hard.
Davina: Yeah, for sure. That’s I was in marketing for years and was involved in getting a lot of PR and stuff for a big law firm I worked with. And it did you make that you create those relationships, you know, with those people, and they, hey, I can I can be there. And I think the other thing is being available, being available when they call because reporters are on deadline.
Sarah: Oh, and we have a new policy in the office because I get this message. And I was like four hours later, I didn’t understand what the message was. And I was like, to my staff, like, any time a reporter calls, you find me, you put a 911 text to me, there’s a reporter who wants to because they need to be in your office in a half an hour with a camera, because they’ve got to go live at four o’clock or 4:30 or five o’clock. So and they have to, they have to absorb and digest so much information to make a comprehensive story that don’t be shy with the information, overload them, and they will know what to filter out. But they’re like, oh, my God, thank you. You just saved me. So like trying to get my head around the Connecticut foreclosure process? Like how was I going to do that in a half an hour?
Davina: Yeah, and I’d probably keep it probably keep a jacket handy, especially if you’re sort of working much more casually these days, because of the Zoom court and what no. So keep a jacket and lip sticking handy or something.
Sarah: I use a scarf. A scarf is my, it dresses up anything.
Davina: Yeah, that’s a great, that’s a great tip. That’s a great tool. So I love it. So and did you did you notice in it, have you noticed an impact since people are kind of used to seeing you, you know, on the news around these kinds of stories?
Sarah: Well, I’d like to think that it involves an immediate uptick in the calls. But you know, I think that somebody who needs bankruptcy, somebody needs a foreclosure defense isn’t going to isn’t like waiting around and going, Oh, well, until I saw you on TV. I wasn’t going to call right. It’s like, you’re a lot of what we do as lawyers as time sensitive. I mean, I think if it makes you more visible and Google, I think if it lends you more credit, when someone is googling you before they actually call you because that’s what people do they get they might get your name from their attorney or their neighbor or their their somebody, but they’re going to then go and Google you.
So go, who yourself what comes up? What do you want to be in there. And it helps that it’s rounded out with TV appearances, you know, and you can link to them on your website, as well usually, or put the NBC or the CNN logo on your website. And that lends a little cred, but it’s the person the person in crisis, they don’t really have the luxury of like going with the person with the most TV stuff, they might actually be turned off by too much of that thinking you’re you’re not approachable or not reachable. So I don’t overplay that stuff. I don’t play it up too much. Because I think that that’s what’s going to make them pick up the phone.
Davina: Right? But right, because they may think they may think well, she’s out of my out of my league in or out of my price range.
Sarah: So I mean, I’m not saying don’t put on your sight, it’s just now that I think about now that you asked the question. You know what, it’s an ego thing I’ll admit, because I have the I did a did a little rant, I do these little short videos, and I post them on my YouTube channel and I put them on my Facebook page and then LinkedIn and stuff and so they get some views. But the one about the high profile murder that by far has the most views of all my videos and it’s more of an ego thing like oh yeah, that one’s getting some play. Yay.
Davina: Interesting, because I actually didn’t see that one. But I was like, but I was looking on your site. And so I guess I missed that one. But I’ll have to go look at it now. Because I’m curious.
Sarah: So it’s on my YouTube channel. It’s just the one about the particular murder or whatever. Yeah. So
Davina: Yeah, I’m sure that that was probably very interesting for you. Right. So, how long have you had I didn’t ask you this earlier? How long have you had your own practice?
Sarah: I went solo in October 2006. About four years after becoming an attorney.
Davina: Yeah. Okay. Great. And, and you have do you have you have some another attorney who works with you and your practice?
Sarah: You know, I did. But in this last year, I’ve shrunk my staff, they’ve two of my staff, my associate and the paralegal went to a closing firm, a real estate closing firm, because real estate is crazy. So they, they’re at a friend’s firm working for working for her, and I’m thrilled for them. And it’s working out, okay. I want to say as far as starting my own practice, I started in ’06, but it really wasn’t until the middle of 2014, some time in 2014, when I really hit that burnout. And that wall decided to make some changes that I really call it that I really have a business. So it took me a while to figure out that I really liked business. And I really like talking about business. I like running my practice like a business. That’s fun and interesting.
Davina: Yeah. So what if you had before we wrap up here, let me just ask you one last question, then if you had some gold nugget that you could share or piece of advice for another woman law firm owner who may be behind you kind of in the growth journey? What would that be?
Sarah: I think my biggest regret that I didn’t do enough of. And it’s ironic, since I help with people with money problems is I really wasn’t working off of a budget. I was very intimidated about playing all the numbers out what am I actually spending? What do things cost? And a household budget as well as your business budget? I think your household budget comes first, what do you really want to be making? And why? And, you know, I learned I had to have this sort of shoved on me when I was taking business coaching, which is, it’s probably really smart to have someone come in and clean our house every week. Why should I spend the money and the time of time, I should say, cleaning my own toilets, for example.
So add that into your household budget, you know, do it do you want to live in a bigger house, better house, different school system, better car, you know, pay off your student loans sooner? All those things, create a really a great one, I would say aggressive create three household budgets. What are you spending now? What you know, would you like to be spending and what’s your fantasy budget, and then tailor how your business, you know, throws off profit according to those budgets. And that make decisions based on data with with your budgets. And I didn’t do enough of that soon enough. But doing a budget and staying on top of my budget in this last year of COVID has kept me sane, though, so nervous about reduction of revenue, and how that was going to affect my ability to pay payroll, and certainly clients and live my life. And the budgets really helped.
Davina: It’s kind of interesting, too, because you want something you said earlier, is that you also worked the phones, and you got more creative about getting clients and getting revenue and getting money in the door and all that because so I listening to something recently, a book, and the author was talking about creating, you’re creating the life you want. Because I love your idea of the three budgets, creating the life you want, when you start putting down what I want, you see the amount of increase that you need. And then then you turn on that sales person in you and say, okay, this is what I’m going to do, I’m going to go after adding this amount of money. And when you’re looking at the data, you’re much more focused on you know, here, it isn’t black and white.
This is what I’m making now. And this is the lifestyle I’m living. And I want to live this lifestyle, how much more is it actually going to take? Not if not a fantasy, but a real actual numbers. If I sat down and look at if I want to take three vacations a year, how much do my vacations cost? If I want to buy a bigger house, how much is that additional amount of mortgage and adding that up and say, okay, I’m gonna need an additional X amount per month. Now, what am I going to do to get that? So it can work but your budget can work for you in different ways, not just as a, you know, a lot of people view budgets as being punitive. You know.
Sarah: If you don’t think you have money issues or money mindset issues, doing this budget is going to bring them out unless you’ve been doing it and and you’re you’re past this point, but anybody isn’t isn’t already being honest about how they want to live and how much money you know, and it’s important to budget in enough to put aside for your own retirement. It’s important to budget you know, I use the profit first method as well, which really is helpful for that. And it’s important to put aside enough to have extra for the emergencies and stuff that you know, or, you know, I had a point in time where I thought I might have to help support my mother. What amount is she going to need? And I started budgeting that in. So it’s great. I wish I had done it sooner and used it as a as a tool.
Davina: Yeah, it’s not sexy, but it but it definitely gets sexier when you start to see money adding up.
Sarah: It’s tedious. It’s so tedious at first and then it becomes exciting and interesting and fun. It’s true.
Davina: Well, Sarah, I so appreciate you being here today. I’ve enjoyed our conversation so much.
Sarah: Thanks for giving me a chance to talk so much. I like telling my story. And I love hearing about other women’s origin stories or other women attorneys, what happened, what their evolution is. So I’m gonna go back through all your episodes and make sure I don’t miss one.
Davina: We have some, we have some good ones. I’m very, we’ve been doing this for our third year. And I’ve interviewed we spent our fact this week we’re celebrating our 100th episode, which was published last week. So yeah, 100 episodes, and I’ve interviewed some really terrific women lawyers and other experts to help us out as we’re growing our businesses and, and you just been added to that that list. Fabulous. I appreciate it so much. What a great interview, thank you.
Sarah: Thanks for the time. Thanks so much.
Davina: We hope you’ve enjoyed today’s episode of the wealthy woman lawyer podcast. If you have we invite you to leave us a review on your preferred podcast platform. The more five star reviews we have, the more women law firm owners will be able to positively impact. Your thoughts and opinions are so important to us. If you are a woman law firm owner who wants to scale your law firm to a million dollars or more in gross annual revenue, and do it in a way that’s sustainable and feels good to you ,then we invite you to join us in the Wealthy Woman Lawyer League. The league is a community of highly intelligent, goal oriented and driven women law firm owners who are excited to support one another on their journeys to becoming wealthy women lawyers. We’ll be sharing so much in the league in the coming year, including these exclusive million dollar law firm framework that until now, I’ve only shared with my private one to one clients. For more information and to join us go now to www.wealthywomanlawyer.com/league. That’s www.wealthywomanlawyer.com/league. League is spelled l e a g u e. We look forward to seeing you soon in the league.