The Business Side Of Law: Angela Lennon of Koenig | Dunne On 5 Things You Need To Create Or Lead A Successful Law Firm

An Interview With Eric Pines

Eric L. Pines
Authority Magazine

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Find a community. Being a business owner/starting your own law firm is certainly daunting. Having good people around you to support you on the hard days and celebrate your wins will make it sustainable. If you don’t have them within your own firm, connect with them in the bar association or by other means. For me, having meaningful relationships throughout our local and national legal community often gives me the inspiration and boost I need to push forward.

Law school primarily prepares lawyers for the practice of law. But leading or starting a law firm requires so much more than that. It requires the entrepreneurial skills that any CEO would need to run a business; How to manage personnel, how to hire and fire, how to generate leads, how to advertise, how to manage finances, etc. On the business side of law, what does an attorney need to know to create a successful and thriving law practice? To address these questions, we are talking to successful law firm principals who can share stories and insights from their experience about the “5 Things You Need To Create Or Lead A Successful Law Firm”.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Angela Lennon.

Angela Lennon is a partner at Koenig|Dunne, PC, LLO. Angela focuses her practice on divorce and collaborative divorce. She is a leader of the Nebraska Collaborative Divorce Professionals organization, a member of the Nebraska Bar Association, and is on the Executive Council for the Omaha Bar Association. Angela earned her Bachelor’s degree from Vassar College and her juris doctor from Creighton University School of Law. She was a contributing author of Divorce in Nebraska: The Legal Process, Your Rights, and What to Expect, published in 2013. Angela has also spoken and written on the topic of the legal profession embracing technology to increase access to justice. She is the author of “Step-by-Step Guidance: Empowering Pro Se Litigants Through Technology,” published in the Nebraska Lawyer Magazine and she has been featured on the Omaha Bar Association’s “Bar Talk” podcast discussing Untie Online. In December 2019, Angela Lennon and her team launched Untie Online, a Koenig|Dunne Divorce Service to expand access to the justice system in Nebraska. Untie Online is an affordable online divorce service that provides divorcing spouses step-by-step guidance, personalized and customized legal documents, and attorney support.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Who has been your biggest mentor? What was the most valuable lesson you learned from them?

I am very lucky to be surrounded by great people. In terms of my career, my biggest mentors have been the partners at my law firm and I am still learning my lessons all of the time. A few of them have been to 1) make sure your natural strengths aren’t out of balance 2) the value of living wholeheartedly 3) the power of vulnerability and authenticity.

From completing your degree to opening a practice and becoming a business owner, your path was most likely challenging.

Can you share a story about one of your greatest struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

One of my biggest challenges has been “getting out of my own way.” Early in my career, I was hustling and grinding to “prove my worth.” I was only fulfilled if I was achieving and executing at the highest of levels for other people’s acceptance. This isn’t sustainable and doesn’t make room to step back and figure out what you enjoy doing, what is meaningful to you, etc.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

The work of a divorce lawyer is certainly hard. Having a larger sense of purpose and a clear vision/mission you are working toward helps push you through the hard days. Most of us went to law school “to help people” but by being really clear about your WHY for your practice makes the hard days worth it.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Right now I am working on our “Access to Justice” project. We have created an online limited scope divorce service called Untie Online. By leveraging technology, we’ve reimagined what legal support can look like when going through a divorce. Untie Online provides a platform with access to all of the information and resources you need to complete your divorce, ability to fill out your own divorce forms, and ask an attorney questions along the way. This is offered at a very reduced cost to allow more people to be able to access the justice system with attorney support.

Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

We are a full-service divorce law firm in Omaha, Nebraska. We focus on divorce litigation, collaborative divorce, mediation, and have an online, limited scope divorce service called Untie Online.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success?

Having grit to stick out the tough days, having a growth mindset to see the big picture and work toward creating the reality that I wanted, and being willing to do the hard work.

What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Many lawyers are achievers, disciplined, hardworking etc. What sets me apart is being able to flex my strengths as a strategic/futuristic thinker. One of my talents is that I can dream a big dream, but then I can put pen to paper and figure out the path for getting there, and then follow through on execution of the plan. For example, creating the vision for our Untie Online divorce service and then leading the execution of the plan allowed me to exercise these strengths.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

While I do not think going to a top-tier school will hurt your chances at being successful, I do not think where you go to law school is the primary factor in success. I think the connections you make and the relationships you build during law school and after graduation in the legal community have a much bigger impact on success than where your diploma says you graduated from.

Managing being a law practitioner and a business owner is a constant balancing act. How do you manage both roles?

Being a practicing lawyer and running a law firm is a tricky balancing act. At our law firm, we are very intentional about each of these roles. At the Chief Operations Officer at our law firm, I have an intentionally reduced caseload to be able to serve my clients at full-capacity and attend to law firm business. While it might seem counterintuitive to the profitability of a law firm to reduce the case load of those running it — overall we have seen growth and profitability when we are paying attention to running the law firm above all else.

Can you help articulate the entrepreneurial skills a lawyer needs to run and lead a successful law firm?

Once of the reasons I love working at a small to mid-sized law firm is getting flex our entrepreneurial muscles. Understanding the “why” behind your business or your vision is a primary motivator for any entrepreneur, and I believe the same goes for those running law firms. Some of my top strengths of “strategic” “futuristic” “achiever” are foundational characteristic of my entrepreneurial spirit. For lawyers to run and lead a successful law firm, I think first and foremost you need to have a clear vision and be able to articulate that vision to your team, your clients, and the legal profession.

As a business owner you spend most of your time working IN your practice, seeing clients. When and how do you shift to working ON your practice? (Marketing, upgrading systems, growing your practice, etc.) How much time do you spend on the business elements?

Shifting from working in your business to working on your business is counterintuitive for lawyers who live and die by the billable hour. You have to believe that investing in yourself, your systems, and your law firm is worth the trade off in hours not spent billing. One of the things that has made this shift easier is hiring a really excellent team of people from lawyers to paralegals to support staff. It was scary letting go of having a full case load, but knowing that we have brilliant lawyers who will care for our clients just as well, if not better than you, is so rewarding. Currently, I spend roughly 50% of my work on serving clients and 50% of my work is in the operations of our law firm.

Can you share some specific, non intuitive insights from your personal experience about how a leader of a law firm should:

  1. Manage personnel: I think managing people is the hardest part about owning a law firm. If you invest your time and energy anywhere, I recommend first figure out how to become a good leader of people. For me, this will be a life-long pursuit and something I’ll continue to figure out and evolve as I get more experience in working with our team.
  2. Hire and fire: One lesson I’m still learning is to hire before you think you need to. Trying to anticipate when you’ll need to hire a new support person, paralegal, or attorney is tricky. But, if you wait to hire after you’ve already hit critical capacity with your team, then your team, clients, and your work suffers. Being willing to take a risk to hire before you are at max capacity allows you to appropriate onboard and train a new person as well. The hardest lesson in firing is that if you have a top performer on the team, but they are detrimental to the team, your vision, etc. you have to let them go. Despite the short-term financial hit you’ll take due to loss revenue, we’ve found that the overall health and well-being and success of our firm depends on how we are collectively as a team. Taking away the negative energy of an employee who “is not the right fit” creates energy and space for everyone else to succeed.
  3. Generate leads: Figure out where your best clients are coming from. Then be specific and consistent with building the connections or taking the actions that get you more of the type of leads you want. For example, our top leads come from our clients and other attorneys. For years we have focused on taking excellent care of our clients and building relationships with other lawyers in the community to continue to generate the types of leads we want. It doesn’t happen overnight, so you have to be willing to be consistent and patient. Don’t spread yourself to thin chasing every type of lead or lead source.
  4. Advertise: Make your advertising authentic to you and your brand. You don’t have to be like everyone else.
  5. Manage finances: Work smarter, not harder. If you do the work for a client, make sure you have a system set up that gets you paid for your work. The account receivables that many law firms carry is really astounding to me. Be transparent with your billing practices upfront — clarity is key.

Here is the main question of our interview about the business side of law. What are your “5 Things An Attorney Needs To Know In Order To Create A Successful And Thriving Law Practice”?

  1. Take the long view. Overnight success doesn’t happen overnight. Small consistent actions will accelerate your success. For example, we receive most of our clients through referrals from other lawyers. This means, we need to build relationships with lawyers in the community. When I first started in practice, I knew basically no one. But, we have a business development plan and I chipped away at it month after month. In the beginning, I was discouraged by not receiving as many direct referrals as I liked — but by being patient and consistent and trusting the process, over time those small consistent efforts paid off.
  2. Niche down as much as you can. While it is tempting to take any case that comes through the door, by niching down right away, you will attract your target clients and become known as an expert in the community for your specific practice area. It’s much easier to be an expert in one area of law then it is to be a general practitioner and it’s much easier to market yourself when you focus on one specific area of the law. For example, I am a collaborative divorce lawyer. We made the scary choice that I would invest in my collaborative practice, which meant I would not take on the litigated divorce cases that came through the door. It was hard to say no and it was hard not to accept clients who want your business, by being strategic and thinking about your long term vision, you end up attracting more of what you want and building your reputation and expertise much more quickly.
  3. Invest in your technology and systems early. This one is so hard when you are busy working for your clients and not on your business. But, this is the piece of the business puzzle that will allow you to have peace of mind, allow you to bring on other team members, and have your business run smoothly without you micromanaging fires that pop up every day. For us, we have a checklist or procedure for just about anything. We also have state of the art technology that allows us ease in our practice and best of all, allows us to support our clients better.
  4. Don’t be fooled in to thinking that you are the ONLY person who can do it ALL. This is a tough one you have to learn early. If you are the only person who can draft the pleadings, then you can’t grow your business. If you are the only person who can talk to new leads, you can’t accept more clients. Find people that you trust, investing in developing them, and then let them do what they are best at. Our Founding Partner is always looking at “what is your unique contribution” that you are best at and then ONLY do that — and hire other people to do the things that they are best at.
  5. Find a community. Being a business owner/starting your own law firm is certainly daunting. Having good people around you to support you on the hard days and celebrate your wins will make it sustainable. If you don’t have them within your own firm, connect with them in the bar association or by other means. For me, having meaningful relationships throughout our local and national legal community often gives me the inspiration and boost I need to push forward.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The legal profession is filled with really good people who often get a bad rap. We have a specific set of skills and experience that only a few people have (less than 1% of the population in America). That being said, I would inspire lawyers to use their skills and experience for good. In our County, we have a massive access to just gap. I would encourage the legal profession to band together to think creatively about how we can use our skills and knowledge for the greater good to address this issue.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Our websites are www.koenigdunne.com and www.untieonline.com. You can also check us out on Instagram at @untieonline and find me on linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/angela-lennon-a1417857/.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.

Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at eric@pinesfederal.com.

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Eric L. Pines
Authority Magazine

Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach