As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Witt who runs a successful law firm in Huntington, West Virginia where she practices intellectual property law, specifically trademarks and family law.
She graduated in 2018 from Mitchell Hamline College of Law, and is a member of the West Virginia State bar Intellectual Property Committee.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia and always wanted to be an attorney. However, life happened and I ended up with a Masters Degree in Education and teaching high school English for around nine years.
I always regretted not attending law school, and Mitchell Hamline had obtained ABA approval for a hybrid law degree option. This was back before “virtual” was the new normal. The program allowed me to work full time, and complete law school with half of the course work being completed online.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I had always wanted to be an attorney and wanted to help others in difficulties they face. Growing up, I was fascinated with the OJ Simpson case, and watched the trial along with the rest of the country.
My mother worked as a nurse, and my father was a coalminer in West Virginia. They always instilled in me the importance of an education, and having a career that I could always support myself, without the need to rely on the assistance of anyone else.
When the opportunity came up to attend law school, and still be able to work and take care of my children, I knew it was the perfect chance for me to achieve my dream. I can remember taking law books to the park, and typing papers while kids slept, but it is all worth the coffee and dark circles to be able to have my own law practice today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was first starting out in law school, I had the tendency to always talk faster the more nervous I became. My law school was located in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my Appalachian accent was difficult for some of them to understand.
We had a mock oral argument in front of several judges in Minnesota. I of course, was very nervous. After I finished giving my argument, one of the Justices looked at me and said, “ I have no idea what you just argued you were talking so fast.”
We all had a good laugh, but then they taught me the importance of slowing down when I speak. I was not going to win my argument that day, as I blew through my points so quickly nobody could process my argument.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My children have helped me get where I am. They have been so wonderful for all of the time I had to spend studying, and always cheered me on. I can remember being so exhausted while studying for the bar exam, and my young daughter made me a card telling me I could do anything, and my son would always bring me my favorite caffeine, Coke Zero.
Having them witness me graduating law school as a second career student was a really special moment for us all. They sacrificed along with me to get where I am today.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I first started by solo practice things were scary, as I was a young attorney, and was uncertain if I would be able to make it. However, I continued to push forward and things were finally picking up.
Then enter stage left, COVID. COVID shut down the court system for many months, and we only had phone or zoom hearings for emergency hearings only. I was not getting any new clients as people were losing employment, or sick, or scared of the uncertain times.
I had to learn to adapt my business to reaching clients virtually, and really focus on which practice areas were sustainable with this new normal we were all facing.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I rely upon my family that is always supporting me, and God when things were so hard. My kids are always my biggest cheerleaders, and my faith allows me to push forward and continue my passion of providing legal services to those who need it.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today my business is successful and my team has expanded. I went from a law office working at the kitchen table to a downtown office with a paralegal and receptionist. I have been able to reach clients all over the United States in my Federal Trademark practice, and get the great joy of helping business owners protect their brands.
When the Court had slowed down to an almost halt during COVID I began to look at what areas could I do virtually, how can I use this online platform to help clients. I had always loved Intellectual Property and pivoted my practice to focus on Trademark Law. I took courses in my spare time and did many virtual CLE’s. I expanded my practice area so that I could reach out to business owners who are looking to protect their logos or business name, course names, etc. and do it with an attorney who can assist them virtually.
This practice area can easily be completed virtually, and I invested in software that allowed me to seamlessly share documents with my clients virtually. They can sign anything from their smart phone, and I can keep them updated on their case. Many clients have never been in my physical office, but through video chat and document sharing their legal representation has been smooth and simple for them.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
My company strives to give compassionate legal representation. Often times as consumers of any type of business our world has made us feel like just another customer or client. My office strives to make each client receive a personalized experience with our firm.
Each client has different preferences or needs for their particular situation. Some businesses want to meet with me in my office, while some would like for me to sit down in their restaurant and eat the food they plan on trademarking the label for, and then some of my clients prefer to take care of everything online at their convenience. I work hard to make each of my clients feel as if their preferences are taken into account, and give them compassionate and zealous representation for their legal issue.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
When I first started my business I was doing everything on my own. I did not have the budget to contract out anything, so I felt like I should always be doing something. Marketing, researching, networking, and planning for the business was taking up all of my time.
I realized quickly that I had to start blocking out my evening hours for no work. It is so important to know that if you are burning the candle at both ends you will quickly burn out. Your business will be there for you the next day, and there is no award for being overworked. I found that when I was fresh and had taken a break the evening before, I was much more productive.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Many people have had bad experiences with the court system, and lawyers in general. Outside of my intellectual property practice, I am also on the court appointed list in my county. I serve as Guardian ad Litem for children and counsel for respondent parents in abuse and neglect cases. This has allowed me assist in helping put many families back together, and help them get introduced to services that will improve their lives, and the lives of their children.
Sometimes these children and parents have never had a good experience with the court system, and a smiling face and compassionate representation goes a long way. Some of my best days are when I can sit in the floor and play games with a child, and see them returned to their parents, or a loving adoptive family.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- You cannot do everything all the time.
When I first started my business I felt as if I had to do marketing, research, meet with clients, court appearances, and billing daily. I ended up just going from inbox task to inbox task, and working on each of those things for a short period of time. This meant that I was constantly starting and stopping each task, and really did not make a good use of my time. I felt like a hamster on a wheel.
One day, I realized I had worked for hours and still did not have much to show for it as I had hopped from task to task. I finally realized that there was no way I could do all of these things in one day, and that by doing certain things on certain days, and blocking my time I could be much more productive. Time blocking has literally saved my sanity, and helped me to run my business much more effectively.
2. You do not need a large office space.
When I first started my law office I worked from my kitchen table. Then, I got a desk in my half office, half dining room space. I was so worried that I had to have an office to meet clients in, and I was terrified I would not be able to sustain my business that way. However, I found a small co-working space with a private office to meet clients in, and saved significant money on overhead by not leasing a large space.
My office is now in a larger space, but I did not need it for quite some time. In reality, I could work from my couch except when meeting with clients on most days. There are many places that have co-working spaces with conference rooms that you can use to meet with clients. A lot of my business clients like for me to meet with them at their place of employment, and nobody cares if you are in a huge office. They are hiring you for your ability to represent them in a case, or whatever your area of expertise is, not for your office.
3. You have to make yourself network.
I am not a natural extrovert. Networking is something that always made me feel very nervous. However, once I realized that it was the key to meeting others in my field, and making great connections to expand your business, I had to make myself stop being nervous and start networking.
Networking allows you to discuss issues with others in your field, make connections for referrals, and make valuable connections to bounce ideas off of. This is especially important if you are a solo practitioner, and want to run an idea by someone else. If you can’t walk down the hall and ask someone in your office, one of your colleagues will be a great resource.
4. Figure out how to manage your stress, because stress makes you less productive.
Stress is there when you first start your business, and as your business grows. I was not prepared for the amount of stress running your own business brings. I remember early in my business I had a full court schedule one day and woke up very sick. I did not have any other team members at that time, and panicked because I did not know how I was going to let everyone know I would have to reschedule. Luckily, I had met several kind colleagues and they were able to cover my court appearances in several hearings, and I was able to reschedule the others.
The stress of thinking your business cannot go on if you are unable to work is an entire new level of stress. I had to quickly learn to put systems in place for when I get sick, or one of my children does at the last minute. I found that walking in the evenings with my kids are great stress relief for me. I also realize that after a particular long day, it is helpful for me to just have some quiet time before I jump in with making dinner and helping with homework. Exercise always helps me run off the stress, and I strongly think everyone should just plan for a way to deal with the nervous energy that comes with being a business owner.
5. Map out your week on Sunday.
The Sunday scaries don’t have to be scary. Take some time on Sunday to look over your calendar and map out what you need to do for the week. This will prevent you from lying in bed on Sunday night thinking and worrying about your week. It will also prevent you from starting your Monday morning in a panic, and giving your week a stressful start. Taking some time to plan your major tasks for the week will help you be more productive, and overall will lower your stress level.
There are a lot of methods that people use and recommend to plan your week. I simply use a word document with a list of tasks and mark them out as they are completed throughout the week.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I have definitely realized that it is so important to have a group of colleagues you can go to when you need a second opinion. Just because you own your own business does not mean you live on an island.
I often talk with other attorneys who are thinking of starting their solo practice right out of law school and are nervous. I try and tell them it absolutely can be done, and I am always more than willing to share what worked for me, and more importantly what did not work for me.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I think with many things you do learn more from trial and error. As what works for one business owner or person might not work for another. We are all different, and are efficient and successful in different ways.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
Our world has experienced so many changes recently, and it has been difficult for so many, if not all of us. I think a movement that all of us could benefit from is to bring kindness everywhere we go. The grocery store, the subway, the barista at the coffee shop all deserve our kindness. A simple smile and a thank you to a person who you are interacting with has a ripple effect. That kind word or smile could totally transform that person’s day, and will in turn give them a smile and kind word to share with someone else.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My website is www.wittlawpllc.com