To embrace and acknowledge the contributions to this country by our diverse population, and to honor and celebrate Black and Woman’s History Month, Peter Bonnell on the Dun & Bradstreet Emerging Businesses team conducted a series of interviews with minority and women business owners. The interviews can be found on Dun & Bradstreet B2B’s Minority-Owned and Women-Owned Business Resource pages.
Dana DiRaimondo and Sarah Schroeder are the founding partners of DiRaimondo & Schroeder (D&S) LLP, a full-service business immigration law firm. D&S Immigration specializes in partnering with individuals and companies of all sizes to provide high-level, attorney driven representation, allowing the firm to customize immigration solutions to help meet each client’s unique needs. Dana and Sarah are frequent speakers, authors, and editors on a variety of business immigration topics and have been ranked as New York Super Lawyers Rising Stars.
I interviewed DiRaimondo and Schroeder to gain insight into their experience and benefit from their wisdom. They shared with me their story of leaving a reputable New York law firm to start their own venture. Tweet This Here’s the conversation we had:
What ignited the spark in you to start a new business venture? Were you trying to solve a specific problem or address a certain issue?
It was really the culmination of a few different things. We worked together for several years at one of the largest immigration law firms in the world and, while we admired the firm’s success and size, the spark to start our own practice really grew from our realization that the big-firm model wasn’t always best, especially for smaller and medium-sized clients. We felt that at big firms, the focus was typically on their largest, highest-volume clients and smaller clients were often left competing for attention as a result.
The other thing we wanted to address was this pervasive issue of many lawyers being unhappy with their jobs. While it is certainly not true of all lawyers, we did see it at various levels in the big firm setting and, since that’s not conducive to long-term career satisfaction, we wanted to figure out why and what we could do differently. Whether it was the rigid hierarchical structure, the office culture and politics, or what we saw to be a somewhat outdated business model, we felt the typical law firm setting did not adequately reflect the changing landscape in other business sectors. In that sense, we took a cue from other industries (tech, advertising, media, etc.), which were largely modernizing office cultures and structures to increase employee satisfaction and make individual employees more invested in the business.
We currently offer unlimited vacation, a flexible “work when you work best” policy that gives our employees the option to adjust their work schedules, and financial incentives to encourage business development. While the needs of our clients are always a priority, we also have an obligation to our current and future employees and these two things are not mutually exclusive. In other words, you can create a culture where you have happy and productive employees and and still produce excellent work for your clients. We want to invest in the success of our employees as much as we want them to invest in the success of the firm. We felt that creating this type of environment at a law firm could go a long way toward decreasing employee turnover and increasing client satisfaction.
What was the most instrumental, or a pivotal moment, in your business growth?
We started D&S with the expectation that we would have to build a book of business from scratch. We had a very large client base at our prior firm but did not go into this with the expectation that any of those clients would take a chance on a startup firm based in Brooklyn. So when we ran the numbers initially, we asked ourselves how long could we get by on very little revenue while we worked to build up an entirely new client base. Fortunately, we were completely wrong on this front. We quickly realized that, for many of our longstanding clients, the attorney mattered more than the firm letterhead and they were interested in continuing to work with us, even in a boutique firm setting. In hindsight, we are still very happy that we “prepared for the worst” and that the business was adequately capitalized so we could have stayed afloat for some time without as many clients our first year. In the end, however, client loyalty proved to be a pivotal part of our success and rapid growth.
What are some of the more significant challenges you’ve experienced? Tell us about a business failure that led you to future success.
The biggest challenge (or perceived challenge) we faced was leaving all the big firm resources behind when we started out on our own. This included simple things like an office services team, a mailroom, and an in-house IT department, as well as having global offices, significant industry and governmental contacts, etc. With respect to the more administrative luxuries, we quickly found that these are available in cost-effective forms to start-up businesses and putting in place this type of support infrastructure was quicker and easier than we anticipated. With respect to the global offices and industry/government contacts, those took a bit more time to cultivate, but we soon realized these are not exclusive to big firms, and we’ve built up a solid network of key resources.
Our first real test came when we were tasked with getting a well-known athlete into the U.S. for a tournament after the consulate erroneously denied his visa application with the tournament start date less than a week away. We were able to harness our connections with a local law firm to provide on-the-ground support, as well as escalate the erroneous denial to a high-level government official who was able to get the issue resolved in less than 48 hours. Being able to effectively advocate for our client in this situation and to draw upon a network of resources we spent considerable time and effort developing turned what could have been a significant setback for our client into a successful case of effective advocacy and was incredibly rewarding.
What are your strengths and weaknesses, and how do they impact your business? What are you proactively doing to address your weaknesses?
Lawyers don’t typically learn how to be someone’s partner as part of their legal training. Rather we start as someone’s employee or colleague and eventually progress to being someone’s boss. It’s rare in the corporate world that you receive any sort of formal preparation on how to successfully work with a business partner. While we were very aware of our respective strengths and weaknesses when deciding whether to leave the firm and partner up, at first, having different working styles and different approaches to client interactions, time management, etc., proved challenging. The minute we realized that this was the case, we worked with a partnership expert to help us work through this before it became an issue.
Part of the reason we have been successful is that we learned to leverage our very complementary strengths and weaknesses and use them to our advantage. For example, where one of us is very “ideas” oriented, the other is stronger with the actual execution. Put that together and we are able to effectively identify and execute a great idea. Similarly, one of us is great at coming up with a strategic approach to challenging cases and the other one is great at structuring written arguments, allowing us to successfully navigate difficult legal challenges for our clients.
We also have different networking styles but that allows each of us to connect with different people, effectively doubling our reach. We took what could have been a big issue early on and turned it into something that has actually contributed to the growth and success of our business.
What’s the marketing strategy that gave your business the biggest lift? What prompted you to implement it?
Marketing has always been challenging for us given that we are restricted by ethics rules that prevent direct solicitation. Rather than navigate those tricky waters, we focused initially on availing ourselves of speaking and publishing opportunities to help get our name out there and demonstrate our expertise. Although we knew we wanted to shy away from traditional direct marketing efforts, at least initially, our “brand” was still very important to us and one of the first things we did was engage a very talented graphic designer to give us a professional, approachable, and unique logo and website design that felt true to the firm image and culture we were hoping to create. Both avenues have proven to be an excellent source of new business and referrals.
We can’t tell you how many times a client will tell us that they reached out to us because they liked our website better than the other lawyers whose names they may have come across in their google search. Of course, a nice website has to be backed up by subject-matter expertise. However, because it is often the first impression a client gets of your firm that makes them pick up the phone for an initial conversation, we wanted to ensure our image and brand reflected both our approachability and our expertise.
Tell us a story about individuals that influenced you and what impact they had on you as a business owner?
We have a good friend who, around the time that we were considering starting our own practice, had just left a very high-paying hedge fund job to open a rum distillery. She gave up her TriBeCa apartment, took out loans, and completely downsized in all aspects of her life just to pursue her dream of owning her own business. It was a huge risk, but watching her succeed at doing something she loved served as a major source of inspiration and motivation for us. While we didn’t hate what we did, we didn’t necessarily love where and how we were doing it. Seeing someone who could be brave enough to make an even more drastic career change and still be successful was a big confidence-booster when we were deciding whether or not to actually pursue starting our own firm.
What is your best piece of advice for prospective female entrepreneurs?
Don’t let anyone scare you out of pursuing the career you want. We remember one instance where a partner at our old firm called us into his office a few weeks after we gave notice to make sure “you girls know what you’re doing.” While we have no doubt that his comments were well-intentioned, it wasn’t the first time someone would try to shake our confidence or make us question whether we had thought our decision through or even whether we were actually poised for success, and much of it had to do with the fact that we were young women.
Fortunately, we were unphased. We were confident that this was not a disadvantage and that being young, professional women would give us a fresh perspective and insight that would ultimately help make our firm a success.
What is a tool you wish you had available to you, or something you knew more about as a business owner?
Dealing with the financial aspects of running a business without a background in business or finance was a challenge for us and we’ve yet to find a software or product that helps us track and understand the financial big picture in a comprehensive way. That said, we know that understanding the numbers is critical to the success of any business so, out of necessity, we created our own tracking and reporting methods to ensure we always know what is coming in what is going out. As we’ve now developed a more detailed understanding of the financial side of things, we have also come to rely on our accountants to help us better understand the nuances of business finance, but it’s been an adjustment and an educational experience for us both.
How do you feel your community impacts your business? How do you feel your business impacts your community?
We made a very deliberate decision to open our firm in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was the first step in building a practice that was “outside the box” of a traditional law firm. We like the creative, entrepreneurial spirit of the neighborhood and didn’t want a formal, stuffy law firm feel, which is something that often makes lawyers feel unapproachable and clients can find intimidating. We trusted that most clients would not care about a Wall Street address or a marble lobby as long as we were providing exceptional service and competitive fees. Locating ourselves in the hip, creative, business hub that is Williamsburg was very much a physical manifestation of our desire to be progressive in our approach to structuring a law practice.
Both long-time Brooklyn residents, we focus part of our practice on developing international artistic, entrepreneurial, and female talent in our local community. We have provided pro and low bono services to local artists seeking visas, specialize in assisting entrepreneurs in obtaining visas to enter the U.S. market, and serve as mentors to promote women in business. In addition, we have a lot of local clients who have expressed their appreciation for having a law firm in the neighborhood, particularly one with attorneys who are approachable and understanding of their perspective as creative and small business owners.
We think it is critical to be able to tailor our service and advice and to understand the overall experience of a small business owner in our community. A lot of Williamsburg businesses are in creative industries (boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, etc.) and having a lawyer that understands their business realities and how these interplay with immigration requirements who can find workable solutions has aided these companies in successfully setting up shop here and hiring top foreign talent.
Visit Dun & Bradstreet’s Resources for Women-Owned Businesses for more information on everything from programs to contracting opportunities for women in business. Also, connect with Dana and Sarah’s firm on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to learn more about their services and immigration law.
Photo Credit: DiRaimondo & Schroeder, LLP