For Autumn Witt Boyd, the shift to life online was no shift at all. She launched her digital law firm in 2015, and has built a thriving business largely on serving clients who need legal guidance as they navigate the development of their own digital footprints. Boyd shared her expertise in what it takes to build a relationship-based business almost entirely online.
Q: How did you make the decision to launch a virtual law firm rather than a more conventional approach?
A: I didn't really intend for it to be virtual, but I came from a background that was virtual. I was telecommuting for a law firm based in Colorado, so I was in Chattanooga in my yoga pants working from my home office for 7 years. It was actually kind of difficult — this was before Zoom and Dropbox. I had young children, and the hours and the travel of the law firm I left were not working for me. I thought I'd be a startup lawyer, and my background was doing copyright law. But most startups are not thinking about legal, much less anything as specific as copyright, so it became clear that market wasn't going to be a good fit.
Q: How did you shift your focus?
A: I was trying to teach myself business — I had a strong legal skill set and no business training — so I was learning about marketing and finance and running a business, and I was listening to podcasts. Every podcast had a Facebook group that went with it and they were pretty vibrant. I saw people asking legal questions, and no one else in there was a lawyer. I started answering questions and being helpful — it was totally accidental. I was forming these relationships online. It did happen that most of my clients were not and are not in Chattanooga, but it's been really wonderful. We've really leaned into it in the last five years.
Q: How has the business expanded?
A: It was just me in the beginning and I added people little by little. I also had a baby in the second year, so my first hire was a virtual assistant so I wasn't answering emails during maternity leave. I had twins first, and that was a tough pregnancy and a tough year, so I wanted to be ready. But our third child was easy — we were super lucky — but I told all my clients I was going to put things on pause, so I wanted some back-up. She started as an assistant but is now the business manager — she runs the place.
Q: Is your team local or remote? Both?
A: I posted that first role as a virtual position, but I used MomSource — they're also a client — to help me find her, and I ended up hiring someone in Chattanooga. She works from home but she happens to be here, so we can meet in-person when we need to. We have her, a paralegal, one other attorney and a marketing person. I'm the only full-time employee, and everyone but our paralegal is here. She's in North Carolina and comes to our firm retreat once a year. That's nice, the blend of having the virtual team, but the in-person is important from time to time. And we're all in the same time zone, which was good.
Find the firm here.
Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles to building an online business?
A: For my particular business, there are more advantages than obstacles. We are all moms with kids still at home, so one of our key values is flexibility. Normally, everyone's kids are in school and we're able to work while they're in school and at night after they're in bed. We do keep pretty regular business hours, and that has been important to have times you know you can communicate in real time when you need to. There are times when I need to hop on Zoom and have a quick call and need to interact. You don't need the behind in the chair from 8 (a.m.) to 6 (p.m.), but some predictably has been really important.
Q: What are some of the biggest benefits of your business approach?
A: I do have an office in North Chattanooga, but I don't need as much office space, so that is definitely a cost saving. Only annual retreat is the only time everyone is here at the same time. It's also allowed me to recruit really really good talent that wanted part-time work and in the legal field there isn't a lot of it. The other attorney in our firm was a partner at a firm in Michigan and moved here with her husband's job change. She's amazing and our clients love her and I could never have afforded her but I'm able to offer her these benefits of working from home and a flexible schedule. We are able to achieve a lot for being a part-time workforce.
Q: Do you encounter clients who are a little wary of this set-up?
A: We are lucky in that our client base is very tech-savvy and mostly running online businesses and working remotely. They are used to never having that one-on-one, in-person connection. We do have a couple of local clients who like to come to the office or I'll go to their office — that's maybe 10-20% of our clients. We have curated a very intentional client experience since it is virtual. We send local products — local hot sauce or candles and bath salts. I love sending clients a little bit of Chattanooga even though they're not here. We send them a welcome video. For a virtual experience, we try to make it high-touch. It's a relationship business being an attorney.
Q: Do your clients ever seem put off by the relative informality of the virtual approach? Do they miss the theater of the formal law office?
A: Our client base definitely skews a little younger. They still want really good work, attention, updates, but they would be annoyed to have to drive downtown and find parking. Some of that theater is a little bit inconvenient for the client, frankly. With local clients, it saves so much time. Even in a small town, it adds 30 to 45 minutes to a meeting to do all that. They see that upside more than the downside of not coming and having a fancy coffee. We have a pretty intentional sales process — we kind of try to weed people out who are not tech savvy. If they're local, it's fine, I don't mind, but that's such a small part of our business. We send an online survey, we schedule a Zoom call. We have pretty solid systems and processes — all it takes is one person who can't get things to work to slow everything down.
Q: How has the coronavirus crisis affected your business?
A: I do miss the social interaction at the moment. I normally do a lot of lunch dates because it gets lonely and I'm an extrovert. I sent out an email maybe week two updating our clients that I would have to cut back my hours a little bit for involuntary homeschooling. We're not doing in-person clients. It has been business as usual except for some reduced hours. And very few people are doing trademarks in this climate — we're doing more crisis management right now. We already had the technology in place, everyone knew what to do and most of the clients are familiar with the technology. But we're very low-tech with my kids. I had to buy them a computer. The twins are 8 and my youngest is 4.
Q: How do you market your business?
A: Because we are looking for online business owners, we go to the places they are. I have a podcast because I found a lot of my clients have podcasts. People do find us that way. We do a lot of pitching me to go on other people's podcasts — those are people we love because they're already listening to podcasts. I do a Facebook Live on Wednesdays, and a lot of our business is referral-based. Since we're not in person I can't just go grab coffee and remind people I exist, so I do a lot of travel. There is some magic of being in the room with people. Every time I go to a conference I come home with clients. In-person is still magic. I don't see a way of replacing that. It's funny, 2020 was going to be my year of more travel. And, of course, have to have a beautiful website.
Q: Who are your clients? What industries do you tend to represent?
A: Many are coaches — some life coaches, some health and wellness coach, business coaches and strategists, a fair number of consultants who left a corporate job, graphic and web designers, clients who create online education and e-courses. One client in Nashville is a weight loss coach. She was an in-person personal trainer but she has developed an online community, coaching on video, and now it's a mostly virtual business. Locally, I have a client who designs comic book fonts, the letters you see in comic books. He sells his fonts as digital downloads. We have lots of clients who sell digital products. The common thread with most of my clients is that the intellectual property is at the center of the business.