Decision Dialogues
Decision Dialogues

Episode · 1 year ago

The Importance of Flexibility - Ep 04

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

For episode 4 of Decision Dialogues, Mark Willoughby and Laurie Kane Burkhardt speak with Tracey Spruce, founding member of Spruce Law, LLC. Tracey’s decision to start her own law practice, in the midst of her second pregnancy, was a rousing success thanks to a great deal of flexibility. Tracey has stuck to that philosophy ever since, and says she has “no regrets” about any of the decisions she’s made with that in mind. Get the full show notes and more resources at ModeraWealth.com/DecisionDialogues.

Are you paving the way for the life you want facing decisions that may affect you personally and financially? The decision dialogs podcast, brought to you by Modera Wealth Management, presents personal stories about navigating through life's pivotal moments, narratives that we hope will inspire you as you create your own story. You'll learn what influence their next steps and gain insights that could help you with your own critical choices. Welcome to decision dialogs. Thanks for joining us on decision dialogs. Were thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby and I'm a principal and wealth manager and the Chief Operating Officer of Madeira Wealth Management Llc. Today, my colleague Laurie Kane Barkhart, who's a principal and wealth manager at Madeira, and I will be chatting with Tracy spruce of spruce law LLVEC. Tracy's firm provides legal representation to businesses in a variety of employment and business litigation matters across a range of industries, including high technology, healthcare, biotechnology, nonprofit, education and professional services. Wow, tracy works in a lot of different industries. Welcome everyone to the show and I'll hand it over to Laurie. Thanks, Mark and Tracy, thank you so much for joining us today. Thanks for having me. You and I've known each other for a few years and so glad that you agreed to participate in this new podcast series. So I know a little bit about what you do, Tracy, just from what you've shared with me over the years, but I would appreciate if maybe we could start by you sharing an overview about your business, what you do and how you got started. Sure. So. I'm an attorney and I practice primarily in the field of employment law, supporting employers with respect to legal compliance and policies and training. Sometimes we do internal investigations and when things go wrong we will represent our clients in litigation. I've been doing this for twenty three years and I've always been an employment lawyer. It's where I started. I find the subject area fascinating and entertaining and it's always changing, so it keeps me on my toes and I've worked in a whole variety of different environments, starting with a large Boston law firm. Then I went in house to a Tech Company and was there inhouse employment lawyer for a while. From there I went to a Boutique Employment Law Firm and that's when I started thinking about starting my own practice. I was pregnant with my second child, I had...

...a pretty long commute and I had started to gain some of my own clients. It was a pretty small staple, but I began to think I could probably do this on my own and fortunately I had a very still have a very supportive husband who said let's do it, and so all I needed was a laptop really, which is the beauty of this job, and I found a small office space in Boston where a friend of mine was practicing law and there was an empty office. So it was really quite easy to plug in and start my own firm. And that was fifteen and a half years ago and the firm has taken a couple of different shapes since then, but it has been spruce law, lllc since two thousand and twelve. Wow. Well, a lot to unpack there, they're sure. Is the first thing that I that I thought I wanted to ask as a follow up question is you talked about your field being entertaining. Where is that coming from? Well, if you think about a workplace, maybe not yours, you know, think about like a hospital, and if you have ever watched gray's anatomy or er and you've seen some of the shenanigans that people get up to, I will say it's not that far off of reality in terms of what a large workplace like that might experience. And so, human nature being what it is, I always say the truth is stranger than fiction, or, to put in another metaphor, I can't make this stuff up and I sort of imagine that someday I'll write a book about all of the things I have seen and experience as an employment lawyer, with some of the foolish or remarkable things that people have done in their workplaces. I know you you are incredibly busy and juggling work and family priorities are just an ongoing challenge. Tell us a little bit more about how do you manage some some of those competing efforts and how is that changed over time? You talked about you went out on your own, just as you know, when you were pregnant with your second child, and your kids are both teenagers now right and I know from being the parent of two young adults that you never forget how they can really consume so much of your energy. Yet you've grown a successful business. So have you manage to kind of juggle that? It's been harder at sometimes than others, but overall I would say I have always been very good at drawing boundaries between work and home. I tend to work very efficiently, I think. In fact, I've been told this by bosses many years ago, when I still had bosses. I pack more into a regular eight hour day than most people do over...

...a couple of days and I think that has really enabled me to draw those boundaries in a way that still allows me to get all the work that needs to be done done and do it on time and do it well. I'm not someone who historically would go home, have dinner with the kids, put them to bed and then go back to work. That has just never been my style. I'm also not a night person, so I don't work very well late into the evening. I will say that in the past couple of years that's adjusted a bit for a variety of reasons, partly because I took on an elected position in my town as a member of the school committee and partly because my kids just need different things at different times. So now I've sort of forced myself to be a little bit more flexible, whether that's going into the office later, whether it's working a little bit at night or maybe doing some more work on the weekends. But overall I think the amount of work is still about the same because I really insist for myself and for my employees on a reasonable work life balance. That's great and I know your your husband, Trevor, is extremely supportive, but he's high powered career person himself who's ambitious and you know, I'm guessing that, that the two of you are constantly trying to figure out how to how to juggles. So, without being too probing, what can you share about how the two of you make those kind of decisions so that you can each be responsible in your careers? When the kids were little and in daycare, I would get up early and go to the office and I would be there at like thirty or seven, because I had arranged with my employer at the time that I could leave at for to go pick them up, and so trevor would get them ready in the morning and drop them off when the daycare opened at eight and then I would pick them up around five and that was how we bounced it for as long as they were in daycare, and then we did something similar when they were going to school. One of US would do the morning duty get them off to school. We usually had sort of an after school nanny to get them off the bus and take them to whatever activities they have, and then the other one of us, who didn't do the morning duty, would be the one to come home and relieve the nanny. And we both been really fortunate because he, for most of his career, also had very good work life balance and worked for an employer that was supportive of that. So neither of us was in a job where we had constant, unpredictable emergencies or couldn't really plan for these things, and we've actually talked over the years about how incredibly lucky we were when the kids were young to be in the jobs we had and to have the employers we had or, in my case, to...

...be self employed in really be able to structure our work lives around our personal lives. Can I jump in for a little your luck? Can You bring us back to your mindset about what led you to decide to launch out on your own at that point and and sort of what was tough about that decision? And what was easy about that decision? Part of it was just wanting more control, knowing that with two kids it was going to be harder to manage the whole picture, and I thought, whether it turned out to be true or not, I would have more control over my schedule, my workload and what I was doing on a daytoday basis, and I would say for the most part that was true. That was really what drove the decision to go out on my own, was control. But there was another piece of it too, which was that I was trying to build a practice and I was trying to build a stable of clients, and when you work for someone else you have to operate based on the structure they've set up for their firm and I was finding it a little bit more difficult than you might have thought to build my business in a way that I wanted to do. And so, just by way of example, I had an opportunity to take on one case with a very, very large organization and in order to give me the case they were trying to negotiate my rates down pretty low, and I was willing to do it because I thought this is an investment in the future. If I do well on this case, I'll have this client, and the firm I was working for the time wasn't willing to do that and that was sort of, to me, the trigger to say let's do this, and the only difficult part about that decision really was trying to map out what my income might be and how to plan for that and whether we could live just on Trevor Salary, which we were able to do. We sort of pretended I wasn't working and just took the time to let me build the business and I've never ever regretted it for one minute. It has been. It was the best decision I've ever made professionally. I made it almost on good instinct, I will say, because I know you know we're talking about. How did you come to this decision? Almost every career decision I've made has been made on gut instinct, and it it was always the right decision. Not to say that they all were perfect and rainbows and UNICORNS, but I've never regretted a single one and this is the one I I certainly don't regret. I am so glad I launched out on my own and for those who might be contemplating making a similar change in their own sort of careers. was there anything that took you by surprise that you really didn't expect in that first couple of years out on your own? What took me by surprise was how quickly...

...my business grew. I was very nice surprised. It was a really nice surprise. I was fortunate, and I actually have been fortunate over most of the time on my own, to not have to do a lot of marketing. The business just grew sort of through referrals getting to know people. I have this habit of developing really good relationships with opposing counsel, who then become friends and sources of referrals, and so it struck me over the first couple of years that I never had to do a moment's marketing or pounding the pavement. Or let me, you are doing marketing when you're having those conversations with opposing counsel. I suppose that's true. I didn't like giving US second of credit. Yeah, I know it doesn't as much as my partner Barry Caplin, says. It doesn't hurt to be nice to people and that that, whether you call it intentional or unintentional, that was your marketing strategy. Did that carry through from all your previous positions in the other firms. Did you get some business from people that you connected within the firms that you'd worked with before you went out on your own? Absolutely yes. So I think the lesson for anybody who's considering going out on their own is you have the opportunity to market from the first time you start working. Yes, it's all relationships. That's that's how I've built my business is through relationships. For sure. We're there any big decisions you made in that first few years at the business that you would you'd have met a different decision now that you have the perspective of x number of years on your own? Tracy, I want to say yes, but nothing specific is coming to mind. The only thing is that one client I mentioned that I wanted to make the investment in, hoping it would grow. It did enormously. It became my biggest client for many, many years, and so it maybe not in the first few years after starting my practice, but a number of years after that I kept saying to myself, you've got too many eggs in that basket. You've got two man eggs in that basket. I knew I did intellectually I knew I needed to diversify, but there was so much work coming from that client. It enabled me to hire three people, you know, who still work for me. And then the time came where there was a reorganization in a merger and I did not end up with the business. So, in retrospect, I would have listened to my instincts better about diversifying, because it really hit me hard. But I was able to leverage other relationships and other business after going through some slow periods and things really came back. But it was scary. It was scary, I'm sure at that we had something similar happened to us in our...

New Jersey Office. We had a very large client to decided to go elsewhere and it forced us to go back to the drawing board. Effectively. Yeah, it's not a comfortable position to be in and it would have been fine if I were on my own, but I have three employees and I cared very much about not letting anyone go. So they stuck with me and I stuck with them. Understood, I'm sure all of the all of those decisions have been opportunities for your for your staff, to appreciate what the firms values are and you you know as the head of that firm, you know it's it's you've placed your stamp on it. So I'm just curious hot can talk a little bit about what you learned and how you've been operating differently since that hurdle. As it mean that you will you approach your relationships with your clients any differently now? I would say no, because that situation was somewhat somewhat unique in that the surviving organization just had relationships with other lawyers already and I don't think there was ever any chance I was going to be able to keep the business. Wasn't anything about us. At least that's what I believe, or maybe I've told myself. But I do think I need to do a better job and I've been trying to do a better job of promoting us and promoting our work and the quality of our work. It's easy when you have a long term client relationship to just glide along because they know historically what great work you've done, but suddenly, if there's a change in your relationship within that organization, they don't necessarily have that history and if you're not sharing it with them, probably nobody is so self promotion is always been hard for me and I've learned that I really have to do a better job at it. And it doesn't necessarily mean you're constantly bragging about yourself, but pointing to objective factors that demonstrate why someone should hire you and why someone should work with you. If you tap into either existing or former clients and ask them to to talk to perspective clients and help you with that process. I don't think I have ever done that and there's confidentiality issues, I'm sure that you have to have to deal with any way, but clearly your you know. If you haven't done it as that, was that a conscious decision or you just felt like you it wasn't necessary? I haven't felt like it was necessary. I don't know that it's a conscious decision. I will say, though, that many of my new clients are referrals from existing clients or someone I'll work I'll have worked with at a client, will leave that client go to a new place and I'll keep the old client and get the new client because of the...

...relationship. So I definitely view existing clients as my greatest resource for new clients, but not because I ask them to help me with that. Mainly, I think, because we do really good work, we're really attentive. Our clients think very highly of us and if they you know, if a General Council or an HR director goes to a new client, they remember us and they hire us and if all goes well, we still keep the other one. So that sounds like you don't need to because you've got something in your magic sauce, that is that is working at this point to make it happen organically. I think a lot of it is luck, but I'm sure we have something to do with it. To think about all that, the pivot points that you've are, at least some of the pivot points that you've been through and in, you know, the past fifteen years, in all the learning that that you've done, what's one of the things you wish you had known when you started down this route of, you know, opening your own practice? My goodness, and what you're thinking about that, tracy, this might be a different way of putting this. Do you think all your prior experience at the different firms or necessary for you to be able to go out on your own? Absolutely so. You would never have contemplated going out in your own straight out of school or after two or three years working in the workforce? I didn't contemplate it and I don't think I would have had the confidence to do it. And, and I guess this answers Lawrie's question too, I frankly when I did it I didn't have that much experience. I'd only been practicing for about seven or eight years, which, well, so you are less than ten years in when you launched yourself. Yeah, and at big firms these days you don't even make partner after seven or eight years. So so you jumped out of the airplane without your parachute attached. Pretty much. Okay, my husband was my parachute. You had a parachute, but yeah, yeah, so having, you know, a solid partner personally is is so important to be able to take a risk. And do you eat? Did you feel like you were really taking a risk? Definitely, definitely. When we modeled my potential income with what little data we had, it was significantly less than I had been making. But we also look at how much less I could work to make the same amount when you're working for yourself. And for us that was an important factor because it meant I would be able to take on more with the kids. You know, somebody has to kind of be in charge there, and so it really, it really worked out. But there have been times when I've looked back over that period...

...and thought I can't believe I had the guts to do that, because sitting here today, you know, there are times when I think, Gosh, do I know what I'm doing? And somehow I always do, but I can't believe I thought I knew what I was doing when I'd been practicing for eight years. itselves me, Tracy, just listening to you for the last twenty minutes, that you've said it yourself. You're somebody who really trusts your good instincts. Yes, absolutely, which is something that not everybody can lay claim to. Some people's good instincts aren't so good, but it sounds like they have served you very well. They have. Yeah, they've served me very well, including, I would say, with my husband. One other quid question. When you decided to launch on your own, did you keep it low tech, did you work from home for a period of time before committing to an office list or did you jump in with both feet? I jumped in with both feet. Mainly well, for two reasons. One, the office was so cheap. It was in downtown crossing. It was five hundred dollars a month. I mean, you know, it's really I thought if I can't make five hundred dollars a month that I'm doing something very wrong. And the other piece was two lawyers that I knew pretty well. We're also renting office space in that suite. They had also gone out on their own after having been at larger firms, and I thought it would be really valuable to be around others who were a little farther ahead of me in the development of their practice, because one of the things that's really hard when you're the only person you know, that you're the only boss, is you don't really have people to bounce things off of, to help you think through these difficult decisions or analyzes, and I really wanted to have that. So maybe somewhere deep down inside I did realize that this was a big risk and I needed to have some support. So that, for me, was a no brainer. So two things there. You didn't put a large financial obligation around your neck, right, but you also were able to collaborate, it sounds like, with the other two lawyers. Did that work out as you hoped it would, the collaboration aspect? Yes, in fact, I was on the phone with one of those lawyers yesterday because we still collaborate with each other. He's on his own as well and you just need people to run things through and help you sort of noodle over a challenging problem. So he's an informal colleague. Yep, absolutely, but it sounds like you you learned the vast you of of collaboration from probably from your your prior work, even though there may have been things about working in working for somebody else, that ended up being not the overriding factor. Yeah, and I would say I probably learned the most about collaboration from my inhouse experience because when you work at a...

...law a law firm, whether it's large or small, so many law firms train their young lawyers to focus on what is the law and deliver the legal advice. And when I was in house at a company, I began to see the practice of a law from a very different perspective, and in part that's because I had so many different stakeholders to work with. I had to work with the business people, the finance people, the operations people, and realize that if I was just sort of spouting off what the law is, nobody was going to listen to me. What I had to do was sit down with them and understand what are you trying to do here? What's Your Business Goal? Okay, now let me see if I can help you get there. Here are the various paths, here's the pros and cons, and then let them make that decision. And that was the Lens I took to launching my own practice. Is I view it as very business focused, very collaborative with the client, as opposed to sort of ivory tower or dissemination of legal principles. It sounds like that that may have been very valuable advice that I don't know if you were explicitly given or you just kind of you absorbed it through experience, but can you can you think about how what kind of advice might you have been given in the in the past that you that you really laughed on to, that really has helped you? I think early on in my career I definitely was advised to get an understanding of the full context of a client's situation instead of just the narrow legal issue that I might have been asked to look at. So don't just research this issue. Obviously that's the core assignment, but along the way, if you see other red flags or other things the client should be thinking about because of what you know about their situation, then bring those to our attention. And so that really was helpful in terms of advising me to keep the big picture in mind. There are obviously the detailed legal issues that you always have to run down and make sure you've turned over every rock so you could advise your client properly, but never lose sight of the big picture. I guess is is the advice and that carried with me into the company I worked for and then, I think was built on from there, because the big picture included what is this company trying to do or what is this individual trying to achieve with their particular project, and really helped me. I would say we've legal advice into the business structure as a posed to just sort of laying it on top of it. I have something I'd like to ask. So you've run your own firm for Hallo. Now Trace your remind music. It's fifteen and a half year.

Seen and a half years sounds like you have no regrets about it. None, but you're surely not telling me that there's not something that you hate about running your own business. There's got to be something. What is it? Oh, I hate everything about running my own business. which part do you hate the most? I do not have a good grasp of financials and so I have an excellent bootkeeper who helps me with that, although no matter how many times she tries to explain to me what my pnl says and what my ballot sheet means, I still don't fully understand it. So I really dislike that aspect of it. What are the decisions that you find hardest to make as a business owner? I think the hardest ones are the ones that carry long term financial impacts, and examples are whether to hire someone. I've never had to let someone go, thank goodness, but it's fifteen years you've never had to let somebody go. One of the things that's unique about my firm is we have an incredibly flexible environment. Nobody is committed to work a certain number of hours per week or month. My team it's three lawyers. They're all mothers. They have all worked at other law firms, large and small, with all different experiences and what I offer them is extreme flexibility. Tell me how much you want to work and I will try to make that happen. Tell me where you want to work, I will try to make that happen. And so when work slows down from time to time, I would probably have to let someone go if everybody was committed to forty hours a week and wasn't willing to reduce that. But for the most part everyone, I think, so appreciates the flexibility that they have that when things slow down, I would flex themselves, they would flex with me. Yep, sounds like you have a really good relationship with your three folks. I think I do. Yeah, it sounds like it. As you've been talking, Tracy, I feel like you have really reaffirmed what I always believed to be true, in that you've built quite a successful practice, and I'm just wondering how you how you look back and reflect on so far. What do you consider one of your biggest personal successes? You mean with a client or with just my business, whatever, whatever, whatever popped into your head when I asked that question. What popped into my head, although again this is self promotion, which I've already said, I'm not very good at. Last year I was named one of the top women in law in Massachusetts, and it's a large group, so it's not like I was one of three or anything. It's, you know, maybe one of two thousand and twenty five. That great...

...elations. Thank you. It's it's great recognition. It was and you have to be nominated by a peer, a woman, and then you have to get fro letters of recommendation from from others in the field and I was really taken aback in a good way by the letters that people wrote for me and saying things about me that I never knew they thought or that I hadn't fully appreciated, including some who were one supposing counsel as, as I've said, I tend to develop pretty good relationships with those folks and even though that's a less visible outside of the legal world, less visible accomplishment, I would I just felt really proud of having been recognized by my peers and then to to read the really meaningful things that people I've known and worked with or against over the years had to say about me. It's pretty cool that. It was cool, very very sweet affirmation. Yeah, I have one other kind of broad question Tracy. You know, as I read your introduction and I look at the range of industries that you provide legal services to, how in the heck do you keep up with all of these industries? Well, our particular practice area doesn't require us to have a deep understanding of each industry the way you might have to if you were intellectual property lawyer or transactional lawyer. So it's employment law driven. Yeah, employment issues tend to be the same no matter where you work. I will say that's changed a little bit with covid because as the state has issued guidelines that are sector specific, we've had to really become more intimately familiar with the sectors in which our clients operate, in which rules apply to them and which don't. Employment Law is largely a function of federal law, so it kind of applies everywhere. And then, of course there are the Massachusetts laws on top of that, which is where our expertise really lies. But I've certainly learned a lot about a lot of different industries. In particular, I would say healthcare and biotech and nonprofits. Those tend to be sort of the bulk of our clients. Bok Okay, okay, you mentioned Tracy Covid and, and that was on our list of questions to at least think about. Can you talk about how you've adapted Your Business and running your business during two thousand and twenty? Yeah, lucky for us, you know, in the same way that I was able to start my practice with a laptop. As long as everyone has a computer, we can really do our work from anywhere. Courts were closed for a period of time, so that wasn't a factor and even now they're still kind of running on a limited in person basis, but everyone just sort of gathered their things and...

...went home. The one thing I did do was purchase video conferencing software. There's plenty of free apps out there, but if you want to have a meeting longer than you know, forty or forty five minutes, you need with more than two people. You need a better system. So other than that, everyone else is still working at home. I'm the only one coming into the office. I've always worked better in an office, so for me it just is more productive. But I've let my team know that they should do what they're comfortable doing and hopefully they'll be back here at some point, because it's pretty lonely I've bet. Yeah, now, well, it sounds like your business model. You've been fortunate that you've been able to adapt it. Let's shift gears and end with more fun question. Think about what was the last non financial related decision that you had to make, maybe even today, about anything, anything, anything. So, because Thanksgiving is so different this year, we decided that we were going to host driveway Mimosas and our neighborhood and just serve up a couple of different breakfast drinks and told our neighbors to bring their own glass and their own chair and will serve the bubbly. So I had to decide what we were going to serve in our driveway on Thursday. The Times we live in. Yes, that's right. Thanks very much, Laurie Kane burkhart and Tracy spruce for letting US listen in on their conversation today. We appreciate your time and perspectives and thank you for tuning in. We hope you'll join US next time on decision dialogs for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now. Thank you for listening to decision dialogs. We hope you found today's stories helpful for your own decisionmaking. If you like to listen to more episodes, you can subscribe on your preferred podcasting APP or visit our website, where you'll also find show notes and important disclosures. WWW DOT wellcom. Forward Slash decision dialogs. This has been a production of twin flames studios.

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