Kelly DuFord Williams of Slate Law Group on disrupting the traditional law firm space and building a business where employees can thrive
Describe your business in a few words?
Slate Law Group is a forward-thinking, accessible San Diego-based boutique law firm that provides legal, tax and HR services for small to medium sized businesses and corporations.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
I was inspired to start my own business because I saw how traditional law firms were not set up in a way that allowed people to flourish, and I wanted to build a different culture. It was important that I create a space where employees could thrive, feel valued and maintain a personal life. Law firm culture is also not supportive of women with children, so I created Slate as a company where your chance of becoming a partner was not impeded by not working 12-hour days or needing to pick your children up from school. Beyond creating a different type of legal culture, I also wanted to provide a higher level of transparency and professional service to my clients. I saw that millennial businesses were looking for something different from their law firms and did my research to understand what key points were missing. My goal was to build a business where my clients would feel listened to and understood where their money was going rather than feel overcharged.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
Growing up, my dream career was to be a DA, so after receiving my law degree, I worked as a law clerk at the San Diego District Attorney’s office. Soon after I moved to Las Vegas and achieved that goal, I felt incredibly proud of my success, but there was still a missing piece that I realized only entrepreneurship could fill. When I moved back to San Diego and founded my first firm, I merged my passion for law with my drive to create my own business.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
When I started my career as a deputy district attorney, I was surprised to realize that my dream of being a lawyer was not enough to satisfy my entrepreneurial drive. Even while working my longest hours in that role, I maintained multiple side hustles and could not be satisfied with just one career. I realized that my spirit of entrepreneurship would never go away, so I decided to follow my passion and found my own law firm.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
I knew from experience that law firms were often over-marketed in stagnant ways, so I wanted to find an innovative approach that would connect with my target audience while still reaching my end business goals. Our strategy was detailed, and we used focus groups to learn more about what millennials wanted from a law firm and how they reacted to different messaging. I also wanted our marketing to be as authentic as possible, even making Slate’s business colors a combination of my favorite colors to wear – blue, black and grey. I was confident in our abilities and knew that Slate had something different to offer, so even if people didn’t know our name yet, we would stand out in a crowded space.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
It is vital for business owners to know their flaws and hire for them in order to build the most robust and diverse team. Oftentimes I didn’t go with my gut on hires that I intuitively knew were wrong and eventually had to let them go, which is never fun.
I highly recommend reading “Profit First,” by Mike Michalowicz, which helped me grow my business and overcome the challenges of starting my own company. It taught me the importance of cash flow and how to save in your business while still taking some salary as you grow and scale. That being said, I also never took a salary for the first two years of my business – part of the process!
I also really enjoyed and believe in “You Are a Badass” by Jen Sincero because it helps you get into the right state of mind when you are having difficult times.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
In October 2020, I opened the doors to our 10,000-square-foot office space, which symbolized everything that I achieved even when facing a global pandemic and managing a new business. Months before, I had to create a new LLP as my old partner was my husband and after our divorce, we had to dissolve the business after 3 years of working together. I had no line of credit with the new LLP, so I ran on cash flow alone. I never thought I could run a firm completely by myself, so as a 34-year-old single mom with sole custody of a one, three and five-year-old, I am very proud of the diverse team I have built in the last year and a half. I am also so proud to have watched multiple interns become practicing lawyers, with one even becoming a partner at my firm.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
I usually attend the second or third interview, so when I meet a candidate, I am usually hiring for culture because my team has already assessed the skill levels required. The question I always ask is, “Why do you want to practice law?” I believe in passion for the law and justice and that question usually gets to the heart of why they practice law or want to be on the team.
I also like to ask people the open-ended question, “Tell me about yourself?” or “Is there anything you want to share?” because they usually get to the grit and offer a deeper understanding of what drives someone and whether they will fit in with the team culture.
It’s nothing too fancy and I leave the skill-based questions to the first interviewer, but those simple questions can tell you a lot about someone.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Luckily our services fit most businesses, so we have provided pandemic-related guidance to many companies during a very turbulent time. We have helped businesses navigate the Paycheck Protection Program and a variety of new government regulations, as well as the challenges of opening and closing their businesses with little advance notice. As remote and hybrid work has quickly become the norm, businesses, including our own, have been presented with a new set of legal and HR issues. Like everyone else, we’ve had to get comfortable with a lot of change in a short period of time, but we feel very fortunate that our business is continuing to grow.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
After the year that was 2020, I have no idea! We’ll continue to grow, but I have learned on this entrepreneurial journey that it’s very difficult to plan ahead in an environment that is constantly changing. But growth is always the goal.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
As a single mom who was already going through a divorce and the rebranding of my business (in 48 hours!) at the beginning of the pandemic, I learned to modify my daily routine and introduce boundaries. Working from home presented us with a wonderful opportunity to be present in our families’ lives, however, learning to create boundaries and delineate work time from family time can be difficult. My life still contained the same meetings with clients, vendors and court hearings that it had before, but then it all started happening from the comfort of my home office. Working from home blurred the lines between work and life, and I realized the importance of setting boundaries to make sure that I blocked off time to be present and focus on the important things in my life, like family, exercise and friends. Boundaries and routine are the most basic necessities for mental health.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
I wish that I knew to stop questioning everything! It was difficult to trust my instincts at first, but now I operate under the philosophy of running with it or not doing it at all. You are in it, keep swimming.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
I have stayed grounded through caring about the lives of others instead of getting in my head. The people that rely on me, whether it’s my children or my employees, have gone through their own challenges and needed support in various ways. It was a practice in knowing when I needed to be strong for others and when I could take care of myself. It was also incredibly useful to establish routines for everything in life, including diet, exercise and work. This gave me time to disconnect and time to get things done. At the end of the day, it’s important to recognize that what your team is going through may also be happening to you and to check in with yourself also. It’s helpful to remember the healthy habits you had before COVID hit and if a few of them are missing now – add one back in every few weeks.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
While work life balance isn’t always possible, I fully believe in work/life integration. My best tip is to make your office kid-friendly with toys, activities and areas for remote school. It is also important to stay present when spending time with loved ones and set any needed boundaries to ensure that separation. Things change, however, so it’s also important to evaluate your boundaries and habits and readjust when they aren’t working anymore.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
As complete and perfect as my life looks from the outside, my home is a mess – clothes everywhere, kids screaming for things, my closet looks like a bomb went off in it half the time. You don’t even want to see what “packing” looks like for me, or the kitchen after I cook, which I love to do! Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, so my day-to-day life is definitely not as pretty as it seems on Instagram even though I try to be as truthful as possible on social media.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
First, create a routine, because just like babies and toddlers we all need structure to function. Have a closed-door policy in your routine for a few hours a day when you need to focus and let your team know when it will be “open.” It’s important to have time to focus on the important CEO stuff. Second, get sleep and make sure you eat, which sounds simple, but I know we all forget this sometimes! Third, in the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey, say “YES!” to everything and once you get to a place where you’re busy and leading a team, learn to say “no” more often and “yes” only when needed.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
Two of my favorite Beyoncé songs sum it up! From “Flawless,” “Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.” From “Diva,” “Diva is a female version of a hustler.”
These two songs capture it perfectly and I recommend giving them a listen anytime you need to be inspired.