Ep. 1: Amy Martell of Whole Family Law and Mediation

Amy Martell is a mediator and Collaborative attorney, and owner of Whole Family Law and Mediation in Marshfield, Massachusetts. She’s on the board of directors of both the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council and the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation. She’s part of the Massachusetts Collaborative Law training faculty and authored a chapter on ADR for the recently-published LexisNexis Massachusetts Family Law Practice Series. She’s an avid food enthusiast and novice gardener, and lives with her wife, their two children, and a gaggle of egg-laying chickens.

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Episode Transcript:

RACKHAM:

Welcome to the ADR Initiative. This is the podcast where you'll hear from successful mediators, arbitrators, collaborative law attorneys, coaches, and other alternative dispute resolution professionals about what they do, how they got here, and valuable lessons they've learned along the way. I'm your host, Rackham Karlsson.

Today I'm talking with Amy Martell. Amy is a mediator, collaborative attorney, and owner of Whole Family Law and Mediation in Marshfield, Massachusetts. She's on the board of directors of both the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council and the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation. She's part of the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Training Faculty, and authored a chapter on ADR for the recently published LexisNexis Massachusetts Family Law Practice series. She's an avid food enthusiast, novice gardener, and lives with her wife, their two children, and a gaggle of egg-laying chickens. Welcome to the show, Amy.

AMY:

Thank so much, Rackham. This is great. I really appreciate you hosting this.

RACKHAM:

I'd like to just jump right in. Obviously that short bio only scratches the surface of what you do. Why don't you flesh that out a bit and tell us about your professional journey to where you are today?

AMY:

Oh my goodness, and for me it really is a journey, and people sometimes say, how the heck did you get where you are from where you were? I sometimes say I have a meandering journey, but it is all synthesized. I actually never ever intended to go to law school, or to be a lawyer. I thought it was one of the most soulless, heartless things a person would ever do. I had been encouraged to go to law school by my father years ago, because I was argumentative, but I was also interested in social justice, and interested in peacemaking, and interested in music.

I went to school for music. I became a music teacher, and a performing artist, and I studied Musicology, and from there I actually went ahead, and studied music therapy, and became music therapy, and became a music therapist. I got my master's in music therapy.

Then at some point during that process I felt like there was something else that I wanted to do. I was working with children in foster care, and I wanted to become more active in political work around that area. I explored what it would take to go into public policy, and eventually found my way into law school, intending to go into public policy work, and never intending to practice as a lawyer.

While I was in law school, I was introduced to a mediator, and placed in a family law practicum during my first year. It had been my second choice for a practicum. I was into mediation during that time and went, okay. This is how all of my different life interests are going to come together. Mediation captured immediately my interest in deep listening — How do we listen to each other? How do we interact? How do things synthesize, and also, how do I help people problem-solve in a way that is centered in a collaborative mindset?

I just went from there. The rest of my law school was all dedicated to developing the skills necessary to go into being a collaborative attorney and mediator, and I went ahead and became a judicial law clerk for the Probate and Family Courts, and I went into private practice.

RACKHAM:

That's great. Did you ever practice in the courts? Other than being a clerk, did you ever practice in the courts, or has it been exclusively out of court from the beginning?

AMY:

I did. Painstakingly. I worked as an associate with another private attorney. She and I actually still share an office but we have separate practices now. She encouraged me to get litigation experience, and I actually was encouraged by other attorneys to have some experience litigating, to know what the alternative was. It was painful from day one. I tried to apply a collaborative mindset while I was litigating, and I found it tricky at times, although not impossible but it was ... I hated every minute of it. I did it for about two years.

RACKHAM:

Two years. Did you have in mind that whole time that eventually you wanted to stop, or was there some moment when you said, “That's enough. I'm not going to do this anymore?”

AMY:

The whole time I was doing it I knew that I was building towards opening my own practice. Actually, when I took the associate position with the other attorney, we both knew that it was a temporary stopping point for me to develop some skills. She and I were open to the idea that it might work out long term, but I always knew that I wanted to develop an exclusively litigation free, or out of court resolution practice.

RACKHAM:

Did you start doing that before you went out on your own, or was it a combination that you went out on your own, and the moment you were out on your own, that's it. No more litigation?

AMY:

When I went out on my own, that's it, no more litigation. It was … I did finally hit a wall while I was working with my colleague, and said, “I can't do this anymore. It is time for me to develop my own practice.” There were other pieces of it. There were aspects of practice management that have always excited me, and interested me about running my own work. That was part of the motivation of setting up my own practice rather than continuing to work with her, but I have ... I had to finish up a couple of cases during the first ... I don't know, maybe six months of opening up my practice, and since then I haven't taken on a litigation case since.

RACKHAM:

That's fantastic.

AMY:

It's wonderful.

RACKHAM:

Tell what that's been like. One of the big concerns that I hear from people is I won't be able to pay the bills. I won't be able to get enough business. I do it. You do it. We know a number of other people who do it. Has that been a problem for you?

AMY:

No, it's not a problem. My quality of life is so good. You and I both have young children. I make my own hours. I get to structure my time the way that I want to structure my time. So, if I want to take a Friday off, I take a Friday off. I never have to worry that something's going to get scheduled on that day because I have complete control over it, and more importantly, I have control over the ... I'm the one who's doing the work. I get to be the person who's facilitating the process for the clients.

I'm not relying on the personality of the attorney on the other side, although I do take a number of collaborative cases. There is that interaction in that realm. It's great. I've compared my income at time to other litigators. Do I have the same overhead? I don't. I don't know that there's a possibility of having the volume of work, and the additional billings that come with high levels of discovery, and sitting in court, and being able to do work while you are in court.

Some of the litigators I know can really bill a tremendous amount. I'm happy with the level of work I have. I'm paying all my bills. I'm making a good living, and it's absolutely possible.

RACKHAM:

The flip side of what you just said about litigators of course is a lot of times, and it's not 100% of the time but a lot of times, they have payment problems. They’re knee deep in a case. The judge won't let them out. Their client isn't paying. I've certainly met litigators who were tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars owed by a client, and then of course, they’re afraid to ask for it because they’re afraid of being counter-sued.

AMY:

I have a couple of those in my history, and it does. It sucks. I don't have any problems. I don't have any receivables for current cases. The only receivables I have are left from that that first year of practice when I had those residual litigation cases that needed to settle. They are not massive. They are just a little niggle ones that have stayed on my books. I don't have any problem with people paying me. People pay me as they go along, and we can talk about strategies for that, but that was actually one of the motivating factors for me to finally say, enough, no more, I don't want to do that, was a huge, huge bill.

Compared to other litigators, I don't even think it was as huge as other litigators have, but for me it felt huge. I love this client. I hated the fact that I had to send him these invoices at the end of each month, because his wife was so difficult, and the other attorney was so difficult, and the case was not a case that should have ever become that complicated. I just said I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want to be part of that problem.

RACKHAM:

Yeah, that's so true. I had one client when I was still litigating who I actually created a sliding scale for her, just so that she could afford to keep me in the case, and it still took her over two years to pay eventually. That was long after I'd already decided that I wasn't litigating anymore.

AMY:

It's painful. I don't think … I always say to my clients, one of the goals for me for opening up my practice is so that you can have more resources for you and for your family. I don't need your ... That's not what I'm looking for in terms of building my practice.

RACKHAM:

That's great. There's so many benefits that we offer to the clients, and also so many benefits to us as practitioners. You were talking about practice management earlier, and it sounds like there's some aspects of that that you are kind of jazzed about. Do you want to elaborate on that?

AMY:

Yeah, I think that I'm always looking for new and refined systems that can streamline my work, make the process more accessible, and more user friendly for my clients. From a business end, there's practice management on one hand from the business event, and I don't think I do anything fancy in that regard. For instance, when I was working with another attorney who was a very traditional attorney. She'd been practicing for 20 years, phenomenal attorney but she was still using and she still does to this day use big, paper binders for all of her client materials, and I was adamant about going paperless for a number of reasons, both for efficiency purposes, for environmental purposes, for my own mental health purposes of not having mounds and mounds of paper.

That was one of the practices that I wanted to put in place from the beginning. From an efficiency standpoint, for clients I'm always looking to refine the client materials I have. How can I use technology? I learned so much from my colleagues about that, but how can I use technology to help them understand where they are in the process, make sense of the different issues that they are going to need to resolve, and how they are going to solve them, and what is the information that they've collect?

Again, how can I keep the process as efficient as possible, and as ... I don't want to say comfortable, exactly, but I sometimes say make a really sucky experience a little bit less sucky.

RACKHAM:

I think that's so true. I think the clients appreciate it too. When people think about adopting a new technology, or a new system, they sometimes ask: but why would I do that? How can I pass the cost along to the client or whatever? Even if you are not a tech fan at heart, it's something that you offer to the client. It's something that they appreciate, and it's something that makes them that much more likely to refer somebody else to you, because they had such a smooth, clean, well thought-out process.

AMY:

Absolutely. I think what my goal … and I'm not there yet but any stretch is ... So, I forgot — one of the important steps in my path is that between being a music therapist, and discerning my next step is I worked as a bartender, and I was bartender at Number 9 Park, and Upstairs on the Square in Cambridge, which were both high end, phenomenal restaurants, and one of the skills that I think I took from, or that I brought to bartending, and I think are still applicable in whatever you do — certainly as a mediator — is the ability to tune into a client’s needs, and anticipate what their concerns are going to be or what they are going need.

I usually was at the end of the bar. Even before a client at the bar had started thinking, “You know what? I think I actually want to get the bar tender over here,” I was standing at the end of the bar, because I could sense it just from how they shifted in their seat, and my goal as a practitioner is to create systems where before the client says, “Oh, you know what? I'm not sure what I should be doing here as far as financials,” I want that all to be seamless.

They don't even ... I'm anticipating the different concerns they may have along the way just as far as process and supporting them in the process. Obviously, the issues are going to unfold. The dynamics are going to be something that need to be addressed in the moment, but at least from a structural standpoint that they know where the forms are. They know how to fill out the forms. They know what issues are going to be decided, where to get that information, who's providing what information, who has already provided what information, that all of that is seamless.

RACKHAM:

Really being out ahead of the problem, and anticipating it, and setting people up for success.

AMY:

You and I have done this stuff. We can see. We know where there's opportunities for things to get sticky, and the individual people that we work with they are always going to bring their own life and their own circumstances. The little things like whether or not somebody is going to ... knows about, I don't know, some bit of information, or has filled out some document. Sometimes those tiny little bits of friction can actually accumulate, and snowball, and create a greater amount of challenge for the process.

If we can anticipate that, and reduce the opportunity for that to be an obstacle, I think that's an important piece of what we offer as practitioners.

RACKHAM:

That's so true. I want to switch gears here just a little bit, and I want to hear about the bad, because some of the biggest lessons that we learn are from the mistakes we make along the way. Can you tell me about one big mistake that you made in the process of building your business, and what you learned from it?

AMY:

I can think of so many. One big mistake that I think I made is, it's so hard when you are building a business because finances are tough; it's hard to just ... It feels like it could be hard to justify paying somebody else to do work that you can do well enough. I think I would have been better off getting my assistant onboard earlier in the process, that I had somebody who was with me that could do more of the work. I spent a lot of time doing non-billable, non-critical work, and I think having awesome support staff is more important than we are willing to recognize. For me at least as a practitioner.

I know plenty of people who make it through without support staff. So having a great support practitioner onboard from the beginning.

RACKHAM:

Do you work with somebody who you meet with face-to-face? Do you have a virtual assistant? How does that work?

AMY:

Yeah, I have somebody in the office now who has been wonderful. She's taken over all of the administration, and initial direct client contact work. Some of those initial calls she's now taking, and fielding, and she's great.

RACKHAM:

You were talking earlier about practice management, and tools that you use. What's one tool, what's one digital tool or online resource that you think every ADR professional should have in their toolbox? If I told you I was going to take it away from you, you'd say, "No, no, no. I need that."

AMY:

I can't live without email. I use email for ... I feel like as I use email as my storage system. I use email as my information, client tracking system. I have a practice management system, but my first go to is my email. I don't know that that's critical for ADR practitioners specifically but I think that's critical for everybody.

RACKHAM:

One thing I do know about your email is that you have your own domain name, and your email is @ your domain name. I see a lot of professionals who still have Gmail, or Hotmail, or Yahoo accounts, and if I were giving somebody advice who's just setting up their practice, and looking for an email solution, I'll tell them you need to have your own email address.

AMY:

Yeah, and if you want to use Gmail, you can still use a Google business account, which allows you to create, use your own domain name but still use the Gmail server. You can have all the same tools as Gmail offers but it has your own domain name. You know, speaking of domain names and practice information, I do think that's something that's interesting, and can be critical for ADR practitioners. Have the word mediation in my business name has been something that I think has contributed to the success of my firm.

I'm easily findable online. My website is easily findable, and it keeps me — I don't even have to do very much. The truth is that I haven’t done a whole lot on the back end of my website as far as search-ability, and I know that I'm always ... I tend to be first or second in people's searches, still, and I think the number one reason is because I have mediation in my domain name.

RACKHAM:

Yeah, that's great. I don't have mediation in my domain name, and that was deliberate when I was setting up my practice. Well, initially I was the Law Office of Rackham H. Karlsson, and then when I cut out litigation, I did a re-branding to Zephyr Legal Services, and at that point, I knew that I wanted to have a very flexible business name so that down the road it could adapt with whatever I chose to do at that moment.

If at some point I decide I'm only going to do collaborative law, I'm not going to do mediation at all, then I still have a domain name that works for me.

AMY:

Perfect, and that kind of foresight I think is critical to people as they are building their practice. It's so easy to just come up, and be the law offices of blah, blah, blah, and then not only does that not give you the ability to be specific about what you do, it also doesn't allow you to transfer your practice at some point in time down the line, or grow your practice in a particular way.

RACKHAM:

That's so true, and that's one of the reasons I did it. You see these A-list firms in Boston who are changing their letterhead every couple of years. That's a huge process, and then some of the smaller practices I've seen use just a brand name, essentially, that can just grow and adapt with whoever the partners are. Somebody can leave. That's fine. Somebody can come onboard. That's fine. The firm just keeps going along as it is.

AMY:

While you were talking I thought of a system that I think is critical for ADR practitioners, and that is to get a great billing system. A seamless, super easy billing system, and I have found there is a credit card server that I have found to be so easy. My processing service has been so easy that it makes payment for clients very easy. It makes payment at the time of service easy because I can just recharge a card, and I think you do the same thing, correct, where you have the ability to recharge a client.

RACKHAM:

That's right. I take a credit card pre-authorization for every client. When I do my bills, I run the card automatically. They get a detailed invoice so they have the option — they never have, but they have the option — of challenging a charge, but from a billing standpoint, I don't have to send out the invoice, and wait to get paid. They don't have to deal with having this bill hanging over their head. It's just very clean.

AMY:

Do you ever have clients who want to pay by check?

RACKHAM:

I've had one, and it wasn't because they were concerned about using the credit card except that they didn't want the credit card company to know that they were seeing a divorce attorney. It's not that they didn't want somebody else to know, somebody in their life. It was the credit card company. Which processor do you use, by the way?

AMY:

I use LawPay.

RACKHAM:

LawPay. Me too.

AMY:

It makes it so ... The interface is really simple, and straightforward, and it makes doing all of my bookkeeping very easy too.

RACKHAM:

Going a little bit more low tech now, what's one book that you think every ADR practitioner should read? Whether it's about ADR theory, or the law, or business development, whatever you think would be essential.

AMY:

The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. I think it should be on the reading list of every human being in the universe. The Arbinger Institute is a conflict resolution think-tank. There's another book that they have called ... I can't remember. Their first book has a different name, and it deals more with business conflict. I think the framework for how it frames the way that conflict arises is straightforward, simple, and you can see it played out at the table, and it informs the way I do my mediation, informs the way I interact with other people and resolve conflict in my own life.

RACKHAM:

That's great. Thank you. I'll put a link to that book in the show notes. Just starting to wrap this up here. What's one piece of advice that you would give to somebody who's thinking about starting or growing an ADR practice today?

AMY:

Don't feel that you have to compromise who you are as a human being in order to make a living. I would encourage anybody — it may be that you want to combine your practice, and do a number of different practices but do it because you are interested in it. Do it because you believe in it, and do it because you want to do it, and because you can see a specific reason for both the work that you do professionally, and the work that you are doing for your clients, but make those choices consciously, and mindfully, and allow your practice to be something that feeds you, too, that keeps you interested and engaged, because you will be a better practitioner if you are excited and are interested in the work that you are doing.

RACKHAM:

That's fantastic advice. And if somebody were interested in your services, what's the best way for them to find you?

AMY:

Probably by email. They can get to my website at www.wholefamilylaw.com. They can also find me at email amy@wholefamilylaw.com.

RACKHAM:

Great. Amy, thank you so much for your time today. That's today's show. Thanks for listen. You can find notes for this episodes including links to any books and other resources mentioned at zephyrlaw.com/initiative. I have some more great guests lined up, so be sure to join me next time for another episode of the ADR Initiative.