Anne Tyler Hall is the founder and principal of Hall Benefits Law, a boutique ERISA and employment law firm. She left Big Law without a book of business and created a successful and rapidly expanding law firm in a practice area traditionally dominated by large law firms.
Anna Rappaport (AR): You founded a boutique firm specializing in ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974). Given that this is typically an area of law that is part of a larger firm’s benefits and employment law practice, how did you decide to venture out on your own and start your own firm?
Anne Tyler Hall (ATH): I grew up in large law firms, and the ERISA practice groups serviced the corporate departments. We were really just helping them value benefits liabilities so that they could negotiate a purchase price reduction for the buyer. It’s very important work, but our “client” was the corporate group more than the end-user client. I was more interested in working directly with the plan sponsors, the client companies.
The culture of the large firms was so focused on the billable hour, people would work with their doors closed, and internally lawyers would be competing for work. It wasn’t the kind of collaborative, client-centered environment that I wanted. I would sit in my office, and I remember looking out the window and I just had a vision of doing this differently. So, I created a firm that allows me to practice law and live out my passion for helping businesses and helping companies avoid significant ERISA penalties and liabilities—to be proactive and preventive, and strategically design benefit programs without all the background noise of a big firm.
AR: In the beginning, when you first started your practice, how did you go about attracting clients?
ATH: In my roles at previous firms, I spent all my time in the back-office billing. So, I hadn’t really built much of a network. But, I did have a small network, and I started with that. Thankfully, there were people who believed in me and became clients and kept us busy, and those people made a lot of introductions. There were people along the way who made multiple introductions and those introductions would open up more doors. In my first year, I would do four coffee meetings in the mornings. I distinctly remember having to go home at one point and cancel a couple of coffee meetings in the afternoon because I had a horrible coffee headache. I’d had so much coffee, and I was so engaged in talking to people, that I had forgotten to drink water.
I enjoyed meeting people and talking about what they were doing. One of the hard parts was that, in the beginning, some of those people seemed to doubt I could do it. It seemed like they were thinking, “She’s leapt out, in her mid-30s, starting her own firm. Is this going to work?” I remember an individual told me at one point, “Well, we’d use you, but nobody knows your firm. So, we’re going to go with a big firm.” And that person actually came back to us two years ago, to use us for a project. But I’ll never forget it, because it was a challenge. But I enjoyed talking with people and networking, and getting to know about what they were doing and how we as a benefits firm could serve the market. For me, it was a kind of self-training, just putting myself out there and learning about the market and learning about the people and the players in the industry.
AR: When you went out on your own, what was the biggest challenge?
ATH: I basically lived like a college student for two years. My first year, I broke even. My second year, I tripled what I did the first year, but put it all back in the business. That was challenging, because I’d been accustomed to a nice income. I’d always saved and been careful with money, but that was a little bit demoralizing, because I basically didn’t make any income for two years. That was tough, and I can see that as being a real barrier to entry for a lot of attorneys. I had not anticipated that aspect would be so hard for me. I remember thinking, “Wow, I’ve worked so hard. I have a law degree. I have a master’s in tax law from Georgetown, and I’m making no money.” I did not yet have a family. I was not yet married. So, I was in a unique position in that sense.
AR: What kept you going, back when things were tough and before you were making much money?
ATH: I’d be neglectful not to say that I prayed over everything. That buoyed me in the difficult times. And I may get teary-eyed about this because there were certainly naysayers in this process. But I believed that it was my calling to do this. I did. I believed that I had transitioned out of large law because that was not the home for me. And I believed that the good Lord could work through me and help me create something special and unique. I suppose there are other ways to fortify oneself during the difficult times, but I can’t imagine what that would be. I remember when we first signed our office lease there were four offices. And my father came in and he said, “Do you think you can ever fill these?” I signed on for a three-year lease, and I remember I went into the office and prayed over it. So, you’ve got to have faith, I guess there’s some people whose faith is just in themselves. But mine was a faith in God, that he was putting me where he wanted me, and that I was to do my part, to do the hard work and roll up my sleeves.
AR: A lot of big firm lawyers with corporate practices worry that their clients will not want to work with a smaller firm. Is there anything that you are able to do for your clients as a boutique firm that you might not have been able to do at a larger firm?
ATH: We had a company come to us in April 2019. They had been acquisitive for the past five years, and they hadn’t kept great documentation as they did all these mergers. The result was that among the 13 related entities owned by that employer, their benefit programs had racked up $49 million in proposed IRS penalties. A large law firm was on retainer for them, but that firm was not comfortable representing them because there was too much exposure. So, we jumped in and disputed those penalties for six months, and they ended up paying $1,300Nothing beats that feeling. And the senior VP of HR afterwards said that our work had saved the business. They could not have sustained those types of penalties. We enabled that business to survive, and they went back into acquisitive mode because we got that liability off the books, and the banks were willing to loan them money again. So, that’s the type of direct impact that I didn’t feel that I was able to have when I was in the larger law firm model.
AR: For a firm of your size, you have a very robust marketing department. How do you approach marketing now?
ATH: I am aware of firms that don’t do much marketing, but I don’t know how they do it. That’s just everything we do. At HBL, we want to get the message out. We have an ERISA Learning Center. It’s all about client education. We can’t help people if they don’t know what we do, if they don’t know the issues. So, we do webinars and write articles and do speaking engagements and do Q&As for clients. That is just such an important part of our getting our brand and message out.
AR: You have said that the relationship with clients is very important to you, and obviously it is also a crucial part of business development. How do you go about developing a strong relationship with clients and prospective clients?
ATH: It starts at the prospect call. I think we do things uniquely, and the goal behind all of it is to build trust from the onset. With each project, we provide a work scope and a cost estimate so that prospective clients have some certainty around what we’re going to be doing. They are not just signing an engagement letter and committing to pay an hourly rate. Instead, we’re going to summarize what we’re going to do for them bullet point by bullet point. Then we give an estimate. Sometimes it’s a fixed fee. Sometimes it’s a billable hour range, but it’s a pretty tight range. As we get into the project, we stop if we discover additional issues, or if something pops up that may take longer to remediate. We stop and talk to the client so they don’t get that surprise billing. That was a huge transition from the large law firms where I worked previously. This has helped a lot to build trust and rapport, because they have a sense of what we’re doing, the amount of time that we’re going to be spending, and the cost involved.
The other thing that we do that is very important for building strong client relationships is that I really encourage our team to talk through different options with the clients, particularly because we’re involved with risk mitigation. Sometimes clients are comfortable with some risk. So, we don’t just say, “This is the black and white letter of the law. This is what you have got to do.” Instead, we offer the most conservative approach that entirely mitigates the exposure, we walk them though the do-nothing approach, and we also offer a middle-of-the- road approach. We work with talented business people, and we help them understand what their exposure is so that they can make informed, pragmatic, and thoughtful decisions for their business. This collaboration that allows us to build trust and create great relationships with our clients.
Anna Rappaport, J.D., PCC, is the founder and principal of Excelleration Coaching. She has over 20 years’ experience coaching lawyers on business development, leadership, and career strategy.