June 3, 2020 – Uncertainty continues. While an economic reopening is slowly occurring county-by-county, the COVID-19 pandemic means businesses, including solo and small law firms, will need to find innovative ways to serve clients and stay connected.
Sarah Ruffi of Ruffi Law Offices S.C. in Wausau – a solo practitioner and a frequent speaker at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s annual Solo and Small Firm Conference – recently discussed how solo and small firms can stay top of mind in their communities.
The year started off great for Ruffi, who practices primarily business and real estate law. Then coronavirus. “The phones went silent,” she said. “It was like entering the twilight zone.” COVID-19, Ruffi said, has significantly changed her approach to law practice.
“I was bound and determined I was going to keep a positive mindset,” she noted.”I chose to look at it as a way to clean up things, make sure that my systems and processes are working. I viewed it as an opportunity rather than a death sentence.”
Ruffi says this global health emergency also gives solo and small firm lawyers a chance to rethink how they connect with clients and potential clients. New matters dipped significantly in the spring months as individuals and businesses deferred legal work.
“It has given us the opportunity to rethink how we connect with other people. Even though we are separate doesn't mean that we have to stay separated. It just means our contacts are different,” Ruffi said. “We don't get to see people in person and shake hands. But maybe we connect more on Zoom or Google Hangout, or over the phone.”
Ruffi says innovation is often triggered by necessity, and lawyers have been forced to find innovative ways to offer services outside the traditional context.
Lawyers can also be a community cornerstone in tough times, Ruffi says, to help people and businesses see different perspectives they have not thought about.
For instance, safe-at-home orders left many pressing questions for businesses. Am I considered essential? Must I close my doors? What am I going to do now?
When things were going down in March, Ruffi ran into an acquaintance who owned her own business in the community and the business had to close down.
“She was in complete despair at the time and had was so frustrated and angry and all of the feelings that you feel when something is ripped away from you,” Ruffi said.
“During the course of our conversation we talked about her business and how she could monetize what she does while her doors were closed by the government,” Ruffi said.
Could a new service offering or product add value and help her actually expand her business once the doors reopen? “Watching the look on her face and the life in her eyes change before my eyes is what it's all about,” Ruffi said.
“We all go through events that impact our lives and our businesses and it's how we respond to those events that determine what our character is. Are we just going to give up or are we going to say ‘okay, well that was interesting. Now, how can I move on?”
“The biggest takeaway I that I tell people is to really focus on the future,” Ruffi said. “The past is a snippet in time. It doesn't control our future. We can still use our creativity and our ingenuity. Business owners take risk every day. As solo practitioners, we took a risk going out on our own, opening our doors wondering if clients were going to come.”
“This is just one more event that we can add to our story of how we responded. Did you go stronger or did you give up. And the biggest message is: don't give up,” she said.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Ruffi says she has experimented with new technology tools to stay connected, such as Facebook Live to give webinars that she would normally do in person.
“You still have to do client development. You still have to get out there,” notes Ruffi, who says lawyers need three contacts per week to maintain their business, and five to grow. But Ruffi says client development does not have to be four lunches and a happy hour.
“I look at my client development contacts as anybody I come in contact with,” she said. “It's all about building a relationship, having people understand and know what you do, what you're like, and how you're going to perform your services and take care of them.”
“Pick up the phone and call them and say ‘hey, just thought I would check and see how you were doing. I've had those conversations with a number of my business clients to find out how they've been impacted and what's going on in their business.”
Inspiration in Words
In this video, Wausau Solo practitioner Sarah Ruffi of Ruffi Law Offices S.C. also talks about what inspired her to write a book published last year, “Be Happy in Both Worlds: You Can Have a Successful Career and a Happy Family.”
“I opened my doors the day after my oldest turned two years old and my baby was six months old and we went from the verge of divorce to me having a new spring in my step, excitement to go to work and a burning desire to make it all work,” Ruffi says about starting her own law firm. “But I was going to make it work on my terms not on what I perceived to be the traditional way of practicing law.”