How can lawyers build a sustainable law practice? Putting in the right systems and processes will definitely help. But sometimes it's about starting with an uplifting approach and attitude that cultivates connection. In this podcast, Steve Benmor shares how his divorce law practice was (and continues to be) founded on respect for others: his team, his clients and 'fellow' counsel. Note Steve's significant choice to replace the more traditional 'opposing counsel' with 'fellow counsel'.
Ultimately, this approach isn't just a recipe for a sustainable law practice. It's a recipe for an authentic life.
Our guest today is one of Ontario’s most recognized divorce lawyers, Steve Benmor, a Divorce Strategist & Family Mediator at Benmor Family Law Group and the innovator behind Benmor Family Law Strategies.
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You're listening to Get in the Driver’s Seat! We’re telling stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I’m your host, Sandra Bekhor, Practice Management Coach for lawyers, architects, consultants and other professionals at Bekhor Management.
Hello and welcome to the podcast. This is Get in the driver's seat. We're telling stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I'm your host Sandra Bekhor, practice management coach at Bekhor Management. I'm excited to introduce our guest today, one of Ontario's most recognized divorce lawyers, Steve Benmor, a divorce strategist and family mediator at Benmor Family Law Group and the innovator behind Benmor Family Law Strategies. Welcome Steve!
So Steve, when we started talking about doing this podcast together you said something interesting... that's not the first time you said something interesting just to be sure. But we were talking about how the vast majority of law firms are small in Ontario and despite all the resources that we have these days the web, these podcasts, social media and other tools that are around, they still struggle. Most firms still struggle today. One of the ways to break out of this hand to mouth cycle is to build a team and let that team be an extension of your brand, so that you're not always the go-to person. You've done that successfully with your with your team and your team continues to grow, so I was hoping you could shed some light on what works.
I've been practicing family law now for 30 years and there was the period when I was a practitioner and married with children and then there was the period when I was a practitioner while I was going through a divorce and then there was a period when I was a practitioner having the experience of divorce in my background and in my history. The reason I mentioned those three stages is because it very much affected my perception of law, my perception of legal service providers and the sort of expectations that I had as a consumer of legal services. It really did a remarkable job, in a positive way, of explaining to me in real life what it was that my clients really need, really want, and that in combination with a concept, or an axiom, that I very much believe in which is the Golden Rule. 'Treat your fellow person as you would want to be treated' has influenced in a very impactful way how I treat my customers, my clients how I treat fellow counsel, a lot of times people use the word opposing counsel. I don't see them as my opponent. I see them as part of my team. Our clients have a problem and we're on the same team to try to solve the problem. We're not opponents. We're not enemies. We are trying to help people move on to the next chapter of their lives. So the underlying philosophy of what it is that we do is so important to me that I have communicated that and continue to communicate that to my clients, to fellow counsel, if and when it comes up with judges and mediators and definitely with my team. When we talk about small firms, the the vast majority of firms in Ontario are five lawyers or less. In fact I think it's 95 percent of law firms in Ontario are made up of a size of five lawyers or less. So Sandra when you talk about law firms that are struggling, you know a firm has different definitions of struggling. Some might say we've got way too much business and not enough time we're struggling.
Some will say we've got so much time and not enough business, we're struggling. Some will say we've got too much of one kind of business and not enough of another. Our financial statements are really, really healthy but we're struggling. So a lot of it has to do with how we define struggling. I spoke to somebody yesterday. They're struggling not because of any of the above. They've had a turnover of staff, people come, people go. The clients don't suffer. The financial statements don't suffer. They're doing really really well. They're doing well in terms of the client service. They're doing well in terms of revenue. They're doing well in terms of goodwill and a generation of new business. But they're not doing very well with respect to the maintenance and the cohesion of their team. So you know when we talk about success and failure as a lawyer there's so many ways to measure that. In my case, I measure it by looking at each person that I interact with and asking myself what would I want if I was them. So I asked myself what would I want if I was the guy working for Benmor. What would I want if I was the guy being served by Benmor. What would I want if I was the guy that Benmor was arguing arguing a case to, who wanted me to make a decision in one way or the other? So I'm constantly thinking of that axiom, 'treat your fellow man as you'd want to be treated' as in real time, in the moment. I think about very deliberately what am I doing and what is the impact of what I'm doing and that is the message that I share to my team in order for whoever is dealing with my team to get the same exact treatment.
That's beautiful. That's exactly what extension of the brand is, so that they understand what the culture is intended to be and they understand how to play their role as individuals so that the group collectively communicates the same idea. How has that shared understanding helped you in terms of the building of your practice and minimizing the idea of struggle? You were right Steve, struggle is different for different firms and that's why all marketing plans start with objectives. You have to be clear about what is it that you're trying to accomplish because it's not the same for every firm. But because you've actually done this... and it's funny because I actually wrote down in my notes preparing for this podcast exactly the phrase that you just used I thought okay well his firm does talk about values and vision but what is it that I got? I wrote down, like treating people the way you want to be treated. I literally wrote that which is what you opened with.
People get a little queasy when it comes to those three taboo topics: sex, politics and religion. Well, lawyers as a group, oftentimes say things that are controversial because lawyers take cases that are sometimes very difficult cases. Those difficult cases sometimes change the law and change society, whether we're talking about Sunday shopping or medical assistance and death or abortion rights or the rights of same-sex couples. Lawyers are at the forefront of societal change. so when we talk about you know the the situation involving lawyers in private practice it's very easy to just do what everybody else has always done and not do anything new or different. I joined the legal profession in the 90s and I worked under some senior lawyers. Their expectation was whatever they did, I should just follow them. Well, I actually don't think that's true. I think lawyers are smart and creative people. They tend to carry quite a bit of authority with the people that they interact with. If they use their leadership position to positively influence others then it actually is far more valuable than just that one transaction, that one client, that one case, because what you're really doing is you're creating a ripple effect like when you throw a rock in the water. Those ripples keep going out and out and out. That precisely is what I'm doing at my office by influencing the immediate circle, my team, the circle outside of that, my clients, the circle outside of that, allied professionals, like mediators, judges and other lawyers, the circle outside of that, the next generation of people that I have touched, whether it's any one of the other circles that I mentioned already. The most obvious is the effect that I have on the children of my clients. So I am highly attentive to the impact of my silence, the impact of my voice, the impact of my advice and the impact of the role that I play. So when we talk about the taboo subjects, I am not shy to admit that I am a religious person and I really am proud of my Jewish faith. I pray every day and I go to synagogue at least once or twice a week. I study Torah which is the Jewish Bible, regularly. Whenever I go to synagogue on Saturday, our Sabbath, and I sit down, the very first thing that I do before I pray, before I do anything, I put on my prayer shawl, the second thing that I do is I sit down in my prayer shawl and I open up the prayer book to page 12. In my prayer book, at the very top of page 12 is Leviticus 19 18. that says in both English and in Hebrew, respect your fellow man as you would want to be respected or love your fellow man as you would want to be loved. That's something. I actually re-read it like three or four or five times as I meditate on my life. I must have read that thousands of times by now because I don't ever want to rest on the fact that oh yeah I already know that. No, I deliberately want to be reminded of it all the time, so that in every interaction, with every person I'm constantly aware, hyper-aware of the fact that they want to be treated a certain way. I need to figure that out because it's never the same for two people. You know, I could have at any moment in time 100 clients. They don't want to be treated the same as 99 others. They want to be treated their own way and that's my job. My job is to figure out how to do that and meet their needs because if I meet their needs I'm helping them meet the needs of other people that they need to help sometimes. It's their spouses, sometimes it's their children, their staff, themselves so I know that if I do it right I'm doing it right by way more people than the people that I'm doing it right to.
Right, because your very presence is influencing the way other people will carry that forward. That's the ripple. To bring this full circle back to where we started, how has that minimized the struggle?
Well, for one, it has made my work more fulfilling. Nothing can be worse for a person, to be resentful of either their day, their life, their relationship, their home situation. So resentment builds a lot of negative behavior, not good. So for me, I actually go the other way. I want fulfillment. I want to enjoy what I do. I wanna feel like I've helped, achieved. So by being purposeful in that respect, it brings greater joy and fulfillment, which then is noticed by the people that are around me and mainly my team. It's an interesting thing, Covid has created a situation where the sort of things that people normally would have seen when they work together in the same office, they don't see as much, because they're working from home or they're not in the space at the same time. So in the last few months, I have tried really hard to create space together live. I've actually had to insist that clients come in. It's funny, in the middle and late stages of Covid, a couple years ago, a year and a half ago, people would be like well can we just hire you and just deal with you by phone, by email, by video? Yeah and it worked for us. It was totally fine with us lawyers and it's fine with the clients. Then as we got out of Covid, clients I would offer them, you want to meet live or did you want to meet by phone, by Zoom? Oh by phone, by Zoom is fine with us. I've now gotten to the point where I am saying to the clients, I know it might be fine with you to do this meeting by phone or by Zoom, but I would really like for you to come in. If that's not convenient, then let's find a time when it is, could be the weekend or if it's really that difficult for you, I'll come to you. Now that's controversial. Those lawyers that I worked for in the 90s, they would not be cool with that. But we also didn't have the internet and we also didn't have social media and we also didn't have zoom in the 90s either. So for what it's worth, we are able to use some of the techniques of the past, involve some of the novel IT and innovations of the present and find a medium where we still serve the client the way they need to be served, whatever that means. I try really hard to bring humanity back into the work that we do because it's so easy in the era of internet and zoom and social media and Ai and chat CPT to sort of go well you know we don't need human contact anymore or we need less of it. We could rely on technology more, there's a role for technology and there's a role for humanity. It's our task to find the right balance, no different than finding the right balance when your foot is on the clutch in a manual transmission car. If you go too much one way, the car will conk out. You gotta find the right balance and legal services, particularly in the consumer side of law, I'm referring now to criminal law, estates law, family law, real estate, landlord, tenant, human rights, the stuff that involves people not some corporation on Wall Street buying a corporation on Bay Street, but more of the people oriented, which is, by the way, what 95 percent of law firms in Ontario do. That's where you got to know what the role of technology is and you got to know what the role of humanity is and you got to find the right balance. There's no question that people still need, want desire and may not even be consciously aware of the fact that they need human care because it's just so easy to say yeah you know I'll just pick up the phone and call or let's zoom.
What you're describing sounds like respect.It sounds like it's one of the foundations of your firm and it's a tool, that sort of understates it, but it's one of the ways that you have brought your team on board to sort of continue with your brand. But there are other aspects to getting the team on board and extending the brand through other people and there are challenges to doing that. I've seen it with clients. I've seen it where you know the new lawyers will come onboard and they're not straight out of school, these are people who have many years of experience under their belt, but they are hesitant. They're hesitant to run meetings by themselves, they're hesitant to go to court, they're hesitant to write articles, hesitant to get on social media or to reach out to their networks and say hey look at me this is what I'm doing and invite people to events. So part of it is about supporting them and overcoming their limits, the reluctance, the hesitation, the apprehension. Have you encountered that? How have you dealt with it?
Yeah you know it's funny sometimes the limitations that you're describing are outside. I mean let's be frank there's a lot of people in society that have had ceilings over their heads that they could not get through, women, people of colour, people of different faiths, immigrants, people that live in certain parts of Toronto or Ontario. I mean there's a whole host of bases for why people have had limitations that have prevented their personal growth. Potentially, equally, there are limitations that reside inside of us. For many people, those limitations are not because of the colour of their skin, their gender or their immigration status. Those limitations come possibly from the way they were raised as children, maybe the way their grandparents were raised. It could be intergenerational. Whatever the situation might be, there is definitely an internal and an external explanation for why some people are limited in their growth in business, professionally, and also personally. So there is a limit to what an employer or a lawyer for a client can do. Now, here's the funny thing, I have a very small firm and I treat the people in my firm as though they are my children or at least my siblings. So I treat them like family. They feel it, you know small little things. We celebrate everybody's birthday, everybody's accomplishment. Somebody has a good day or a bad day, we're there, much like a parent or a sibling would be for them, whether it's professional or personal. You know I travel a lot. I bring gifts back, how I would bring gifts back for my own children. So they experience me as a father or as an uncle and by doing so it affords me the ability to say things that a father or an uncle would say to help them break through that ceiling that they've created or that has been put on them by society. This is where it gets even funnier. I'm in a line of work, and I could have been in so many other lines of work. But I'm in a line of work, and I'm not referring to law, I'm referring specifically to family law, where people come to me and they have to share everything with me, even the really embarrassing details of their past. As a result of that relationship that I have with them, it affords me the opportunity to say things to them from a place of care and concern, professionally speaking, that will allow them to overcome some of those challenges that have been imposed on them or they have imposed on themselves, because it's coming from a place of trust, respect and understanding. The things that I say to clients to help them, they often don't hear from other people because they haven't let those other people in on their lives. But the nature of my work is they have to let me in because they've put their personal lives in my hands. In some cases I have clients that bring to a meeting or to a zoom or phone call another family member and I have to check if the family member that they're bringing knows what I know. Sometimes they don't. Oftentimes I hear that the family member has learned something about their own family member from me, when I would have thought they would have known that for 30 years before I entered the picture. But they don't. So when we talk about helping people achieve their greatest potential, the person that creates that trigger, that opens that door, that shows them the light, that person has a really big responsibility. They can really get it wrong. I try to respect that role that I have and to get it right. I have erred before. But it hasn't deterred me. I keep on going. I had a team meeting yesterday with my entire team. We have team meetings every two weeks. Some would say they're like Tony Robbins conventions because I pump them up. I also educate them. We also discuss substantive client file work and other elements of the firm. But I treat each meeting as an opportunity to raise people up. It's not easy because everybody's different. But you know I convey at each meeting something of value that will give them the hunger, the drive, the ambition, to want to make the next two weeks better than the last two weeks. It's fulfilling to me. It's fulfilling to them. That's what drives it forward. If people said to me that it's not working for me please stop... in fact it actually happened one time. One of the team members said you know you keep on pushing this idea of joining a charity and becoming more involved in the community. It's a fantastic idea. You do it. Others do it. But by you constantly pushing it, you're putting too much pressure on me and I can only do so many things at the same time. Fair comment. I pulled back on that person on that topic.
That's great. You know what you're talking about comes up a lot in coaching meetings. Essentially it's giving and receiving feedback. So you did both. And you walked the talk by receiving it well too. One of the ways that I like to talk about this that really just takes the pressure right off of people, lawyers and other professionals, especially when somebody's new at having people management responsibilities, so you know the newly promoted partner, the newly promoted associate and all of a sudden they're responsible for somebody else. They run into 'oh I have to be critical' and they don't want to be critical. So what I have found helps is to help them to understand if they get involved in the person's career plan and really understand where is this person trying to go, what would they like to see happen to their career in the next year, two years, three years. Then to start to see their role in assisting that, making that happen. Okay now let's start talking about giving and receiving feedback so you go into the meeting with this individual that has told you they would like to go from here to here. Well you're seeing these errors on this report. That is part of the step.
That is part of the process. If you don't help them with overcoming those issues, they will not get where they want to go. So therefore the nicest thing that you can do is to give them the feedback. You give it to them in that spirit of 'I am here to help you get where you want to go'.
Absolutely. It's not uncommon for people to be unaware of the obstacles on their journey. They're aware that they can't get to their destination. They're vividly aware of that. They know where they are and they feel like it's hopeless. They can't make partner. They can't get a certain number of clients. They can't get a type of case or type of cases that they want. They're not attracting the right staff. I mean whatever the situation might be professionally. Then of course there's the personal side. They're not hanging out with the right people or they're not meeting the right partners and so forth. I mean oftentimes there's no examination of why, like what is going on? It could be internal. It could be external situation that you've placed yourself in. It could be both. But that's where growth is found. First you have to identify. I mean going back to the ahafta, which is love your fellow men as yourself, if you think about those words 'love your fellow man as yourself' don't you first have to figure out if you love yourself? Like first you have to figure and actually now that you think about it, you have to figure out how to love yourself before you could love the other person like yourself. Don't you first have to figure out who you are? Because first you've got to know who you are, then you've got to love who you are, not so easy. Then after you know who you are and you love who you are, now find out who the other person is, not easy either. Then you've got to figure out how to behave in such a way to the other person as though just as much as you love yourself. This is a very complicated although very short axiom from the Torah, from the Bible. But way complicated because there's so many levels to it. So when we talk about the limitations and helping people achieve their goals, whatever that goal might be, making partner, building your firm, making more money, having more time to yourself. Even though you've got a busy law firm, all of that goes right back to the beginning of what I said, which is you got to know who yourself is, you got to then love yourself and then you've got to treat the people that are around you the way you want to be treated. If you do all of that, you're gonna figure out in this equation what the limitations are in that. It may not be easy, but it's worth the analysis, the examination and the journey.
I totally agree Steve and I think you're speaking about this from such a well-intentioned, purposeful place that you know... forget the systems. They will fall into place. If you are starting from this well-intentioned spirit of really caring for your team members and, beyond that, the clients and everyone else that you impact, everything else will fall into place. It just will. The thing is that nothing stays static anyway. So you know there's parental leave, there's vacations, there's changes in their desire of the type of work they wish to do and life changes. I mean we just went through a pandemic and you know you're changing yourself. So if you have this type of an intention, you're able to ride the storm. You're able to ride all these changes in life that we all have to encounter. Sometimes that is the best way to continue to stay the course.
you know it's funny, in my earlier years of practice when I was an associate, I got to see a lot of complaints against the lawyers that I worked for. That was one of those moments in my life where I understood how there could be expectations that are met and expectations that are failed. Nothing is worse for everybody. Nobody wants to feel like they have disappointed somebody. But a lot of people just do the same thing over and over and over again. Some people actually just get numb to the complaints and the disappointments of others. Anyway that wasn't me. I learned my lesson from working for other lawyers that were complained about. I listened very carefully to what those complaints were. Even in my early years when I opened up my own office, I got some complaints too. Rather than brush them under the rug or point the finger back at the client or the lawyer or the judge, I took it personally. I grew from it. I'm around people that do that too. So it's not like I'm so exceptional in that. I've put myself in a space where a lot of people around me approach life in the same way. So it actually is very normal to do it this way and and it doesn't feel so strange or different or challenging. But there's a lot more people in the world than just the few people that are around me. I interact with them too. I see that they have expectations. In some cases, I have to say to them, you know that's a reasonable expectation for you. But it's not a reasonable expectation for the other person. So you may want the government of Canada to issue you a passport when you walk in the office today at four. I get it. You want to fly out next week. You want that passport now. But it's not a reasonable expectation for the passport office to have it ready for you tomorrow. They've got a different set of expectations. For them, if you get it in six weeks you're lucky. I'm just using that as an example. But the reality is there's a lot of people out there that if a lawyer says to them what you want I can do for you. It'll take a month. They don't get it. They don't understand that. Why would it take that long? So that's where communication is so important. There's a lot of lawyers, quite frankly a lot of professionals, that will make promises to people because they want their approval, they want their business, they want to give the yes. So there's this hunger to give the yes. But sometimes, it's short-sighted. By giving the yes and knowing or learning shortly thereafter that you can't meet that expectation that yes is going to be followed up by a bucket full of disappointment. Not good. Far better to say - I hear you. I'd want what you want. But I'm going to be honest with you, it's just not realistic. It's not going to happen. But this is what could happen. That's a far better conversation and by the way, it builds tremendous loyalty and trust. People are going to be like okay you know what he's telling it to me how it is. He's not telling it to me because he wants me to feel better.
You're a communication Ninja! Really that's at the heart of those complaints against lawyers. Really it's all about communication. So it sounds like those early experiences that you had were formative.
They were. You know we don't excel in law. We practice law. There's no such thing as I'm an excelling lawyer. Nope. We practice law. What does that mean? I'm a better lawyer today than I was yesterday and better this year than I was last year. Why? Was it because I read another case or I had another client? Nope. It's because I had more experience. Isn't it funny that it takes us decades to get to the point where you've got the level of experience that could really move mountains and then you retire and then the next generation moves in. They invest 20 to 30 years and then about 15 years later they retire. That's just the nature of the beast.
Yes in my business too. It's the perfect segue for my last question which is all about the future of the profession. You have had decades of witnessing all the changes;
globalization to tech, remote work and I'm wondering what you think is next.
What I think is next is... first of all I'm really excited about next because next are more lawyers, not less. Check the numbers. There are more lawyers going to law school and graduating today than there were before. That's number one. Next we have more female lawyers than ever before. Next in Ontario we have way more lawyers that are not white males and many Ontario lawyers that speak another language other than English. So on the first level next is really excellent for diversity and multiculturalism because lawyers quite frankly, in my opinion, like doctors, dentists, accountants and financial advisors, really need to reflect the population that they serve. They need to understand their needs, their culture, their way. They interpret data, their philosophy, like you know different cultures even have a different philosophy when it comes to money or real estate or relationships. So everybody has their own heritage. Lawyers need to be able to serve people who come from different heritages in Ontario, which is so multicultural. So it couldn't be better for the next generation to have a large number of lawyers, including a large number of lawyers that are multicultural, to be able to serve that population and let me not disregard the importance of the number of non-straight lawyers in Ontario, which is another representation that was critical. So that's just next in terms of the population of service providers. The other next is we've got about half a million people coming to Canada every year, many of them coming to not just Ontario, but to Toronto. There's a lot of people coming here. In 10 years that's going to be 5 million people in Canada, many of whom are going to be in Toronto. So there's a huge demand to come here. I can tell you I know why. It's a great country to live in. Toronto is a great city to live in and I'm not even in the tourism industry! So Toronto for law and lawyers is absolutely great and it's only going to get better. Then, and I know this is where you are going Sandra, technology and law. Well it's gonna get even better there. Why? Because we're gonna harness technology and make what we do even better for people. We're not gonna be replaced by robots. No different than you know fax machines and cell phones didn't replace humans. It just provided us with another tool. Yes Chat GPT is going to be a really a big player in law and in other areas as well. It will be a very big player. But it will not replace lawyers. You cannot have a robot put his hand on the table and look at someone in the eye and say I know what you're going through. I've had other clients go through what you've gone through and I am going to help you get through this. Me and you. Chat GPT can't do that. Chat GPT can't look somebody in the eye and give them a facial expression that reduces their anxiety level and makes them feel like tomorrow has hope. So there's a lot that I don't know about technology, AI and Chat GPT, so I'm not going to pretend to be what I'm not.I mean we all don't know the extent of some of this technology. But you know with what we've already gone through, just in the last 25 years has been a mammoth amount of new technology and it has improved the delivery of legal services. It's my expectation, at least in the next 50 years, that lawyers are going to play a very big role in people's lives on many levels and that a lot of the technology that is threatening to replace lawyers will be used by lawyers to help people in a positive way and to navigate some of the negative intrusions of technology. So you know I think there's going to be an explosion of work that lawyers are going to have their hands on. Don't forget a law degree is not just a degree to be a practicing lawyer. People with law degrees are in so many other lines of work from academia to government to policy writing, working in Fortune 500 companies or running small family businesses. Lawyers are everywhere. I'll tell you it's one of the few professions where the skill set is so versatile. I was going to be a dentist. If I was a dentist, I could only be a dentist. Maybe a professor of Dentistry. Maybe work for a company that makes dental appliances. But it's still very limited. Law has huge opportunities out there and it's only going to get better.
It's interesting how your answer to that question... first of all I love the enthusiasm! But beyond that, it really did tie to the first thing that you said. It was about humanity and using tech where it's appropriate. But having the balance in mind, all the way, so that you get the most out of it. It always goes back to maintaining that humanity, like when you called up your family law clients and said - no I want to meet with you in person.
That's right. I'll tell you I'm at the point in my career right now where I know that I am making a difference in people's lives and I've sadly had to attend and speak at way too many funerals and one thing that stands out is the importance of the eulogy. When the family goes up to the podium to give the eulogy, you know they often don't say well that person argued 36 cases and won 18 of them or that person drove a such and such car or bought and sold such and such properties or had such and such in his RRSP. What people talk about is what Maya Angelou taught us. People don't remember what you said. People don't remember what you did. People remember how you made them feel
and that is love your fellow man as you would want to be loved. That's precisely what I do everyday, both personally and professionally. Or at least I try to.
On purpose. Yeah, that's so great. Wonderful. Thank you, Steve, for your time and your insights. To our listeners, if you are interested in learning more about Steve's divorce law practice, please go to https://benmor.com/ or https://benmorfamilylawstrategies.ca/. You've been listening to Get in the Driver's Seat, stories about leadership moments in small to mid-sized professional practices. I'm your host, Sandra Bekhor. Practice Management Coach at Bekhor Management. Take care, everybody.