How this Women-Owned Franchise Law Firm Hires and Manages a Virtual Team
The legal profession comprises a range of practice sizes from solos who operate out of their homes, to big law firms that span several continents. Not only does firm size vary, but there are endless niche practice areas — many of which weren’t even around 20 years ago. 3D printing, Internet of Things, and even Esports all have their own niche practice areas these days.
How do you find yourself working in a niche practice area, and what do you need to do to position yourself as a leader in a particular area? On the latest customer spotlight, we chat with Nancy Lanard, Senior Partner at Lanard and Associates, about how she’s done just that, and cultivated her franchise law practice from the ground up.
Not only does Nancy specialize in a niche area of law, she was a pioneer of running a virtual firm long before it was necessary to continue operations due to COVID-19 restrictions. Check out the full interview below as we dive into these topics and much more.
How this lawyer started practicing franchise law
This transcript had been edited for context and clarity.
Sam: Hello everyone and welcome to another special customer spotlight interview. My name is Sam Alkoubey, Head of Sales here at PracticePanther. We work with so many amazing customers each and every day, and we’re always learning such valuable lessons from them. This is what has propelled us to become such a great software for these attorneys to benefit from, and their inputs are so important to us — we’re just so excited to share them all with you.
Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Nancy Lanard. She’s the Senior Partner at Lanard and Associates. Nancy and I have been friends for about five years now, and she’s been on the program that long, and it’s always such a pleasure to speak with her. She’s my mother from Philadelphia, I call her and we’re just so excited to have her on the show!
Nancy’s practice has a main focus on franchise law and has been in practice for over 25 years, and it’s actually 100% women-owned and operated, which we’ll get into a little bit more later on — but I just think that’s incredible. Nancy’s also been working remotely long before COVID-19 impacted a lot of regular businesses, so I’m excited to learn a little bit more about that as well.
With that, I just couldn’t be more excited to introduce you all to Nancy Lanard as we discuss her practice on this customer spotlight — Nancy, welcome!
Nancy: Thank you so much, Sam.
Sam: Awesome, just to kick things off here, give people a little bit of background, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and really why you became a lawyer?
Nancy: It’s an interesting question. I’ve been practicing for a long time now, I call myself the dinosaur in the legal world.
Sam: But you are not extinct.
Nancy: Thank you, I hope not! No, it’s funny — I kind of landed into the franchise part, I even landed into practicing law. I started out in college, I went to the University of Pennsylvania and I graduated in three years. In my fourth, I got my Master’s in Education thinking I was going to be like my mom and be a school teacher.
I was a Spanish major in college, and I thought I was going to teach Spanish and kind of geared myself for that all through that part of my life. I was fluent in Spanish — I even could dream in Spanish in those days. Of course, if you don’t use it, you lose it, so I can’t do that anymore, but I could back then.
Anyway I made the decision while I was in my master’s program, and I student-taught and then was a long-term sub for a teacher in junior high school, because in those days it was junior high school, seventh, eighth and ninth grade, and the kids were just horrible.
It’s a horrible age group, it’s a really tough age group! So I kind of thought “well, maybe this isn’t the right thing for me.” I love Spanish and I love teaching, but when you’ve got kids sitting there who can’t stand it, or are doing it because it’s required — it just wasn’t fun.
So I started thinking of other options, and law school was one of them, and I thought law school opened up a lot of opportunities to do all kinds of things even beyond practicing law. Once I was in law school, I realized I really loved learning the law, and when I got out of law school, I thought my focus in law school was also wrong.
I’ve always kind of thought about helping women, so I thought when I was in law school I was going to do domestic relations work, and work with women and help them. I did that for a short period of time after law school and did not enjoy it. I had to rethink things and went into working in a large corporation, so I worked for a 3 and a half billion dollar conglomerate initially when I made that pivot.
I loved it. I loved negotiating contracts, I loved handling acquisitions and sales of businesses, they were a publicly traded corporation, and I was able to really learn a lot. They made their bottom line every quarter by buying and selling other small businesses, so I did a lot of acquisitions and sales, and I just loved it.
And then from there I worked for a second in-house position, they have what’s called a leveraged buyout of a group of their manufacturing companies, and it’s where the owners or the management of the companies buy out the company itself. And I did work for them for several years, and then I went on to work for Nutrisystem, which was the third company.
Nutrisystem was at that time the largest weight loss company in the country, possibly the world, and had 1300 franchise locations and 500 corporate, so they had 1800 locations around the US. They were bigger than their competitors, and they had been around for 20 years, and that’s when I learned franchise law and I found my niche. It took a little while, but I found my niche and it was wonderful.
Sam: That path is crazy! It got you there though, so that’s wild.
Nancy: Well I made a few errors along the way, but you know what, I had some good support and good directions, and just kind of pivoted and I tend to land on my feet when there’s been diversity and issues in my life, and this has been the best landing.
Sam: That’s like a true character of a person, no matter how many times you fail or make a mistake, you still strike through it and come out stronger on the other side — I’ve always believed that.
Nancy: I think that too Sam, I agree.
What does it take to start a firm?
Sam: Elaborating on the last part — you worked for Nutrisystem, but then getting into your own firm, how did that progress and then really on top of that, what was the most surprisingly challenging aspect of starting your own firm?
Nancy: So again you will hear some pivots. Nutrisystem actually went into bankruptcy about 25 years ago, and when they went into bankruptcy, I literally wasn’t even paid the last week I worked there and it was crazy. But I have a law degree, so I said, “Okay, I will start on my own”
As you heard, I had never worked for a law firm. So it was a very tough pivot because I didn’t know the first thing about IOLTA accounts, I didn’t know about built timekeeping. When you’re in-house, you don’t have to keep billable time. I didn’t know about any of those things. So it was a challenge in every possible way, and it took some time to ramp-up.
I worked from my home at the time — I did have some health issues. Towards the end of my time at Nutrisystem, I had some health issues, so it just made sense for me to work from home so I could be flexible in my hours, and it grew from there. We eventually had five attorneys, I think it was five or six attorneys, and so I started that firm, I grew it, I learned a lot and really have always been the primary rainmaker.
In 2011 I started talking to two other individuals who were executives. Well, one was an executive in the franchise world, and I knew him, and he and I talked about forming a firm together because I thought he was a good litigator and I don’t litigate. So we had talked about that, and we decided to merge my practice and form a new law firm, so in essence, I started a second law firm. I brought my team of attorneys along, and that was good for the first few years, and then it fell apart.
Things were not good, the partnership was not good. It was a very ugly parting unfortunately, it didn’t have to be, but it was — it was worse than any divorce. I found myself starting over again, so the current iteration of my practice is the third firm that I’ve started! We’re now five years old, March will be five years old.
Sam: I don’t know if you knew this or maybe I’ve mentioned to you recently, but it was just a little bit after I started, way before I became Head of Sales. I was an Account Executive and we were just after that start-up period where we’re exponentially growing and everything, and I don’t think you know how nervous I was on our first demo!
Nancy: No! I had no idea Sam!
Tips on operating remotely
Sam: I was still learning just like you did! I was like “IOLTA, yea let me check into this for you.” This is amazing! Nancy, you touched on it a little bit ago, but you said you were working from home already, and now I know your practice has been remotely working for a while — so this wasn’t really a new idea to you. Obviously, there were a lot of people that were transitioning online in 2020, so tell me a little bit about how you’ve operated your firm virtually for so long. What really set you apart while everyone else was really scrambling to figure out how to use Zoom, and like we were talking earlier, not to be a cat on Zoom.
Nancy: I am not a cat!
Sam: That’s right, that’s right.
Nancy: Yeah, well, that’s a really interesting question that I haven’t really been asked that often, but when I was with the 3 and a half billion dollar conglomerate, I had my son. When I had my son, I went back, I took my maternity leave and they wanted me to come back to work, and I approached my boss, all-male, and I approached my boss and I said, “I’d like to come back to work part-time,” and I was told, “Oh, there’s no such thing as a part-time lawyer.”
That was the first thing told to me — and when I worked for their leverage buyout company, the General Counsel was a woman, and I was home with my son who was an infant, and she said, “we just formed this new company and I need help legally, do you want to pick up work or have someone come pick up the work and work on it from your home?” So that’s kind of how that seed even got planted in my head and we’re talking a long time ago, right, and because my son is probably your age or older, so… It was a long time ago!
Sam: You were like a pioneer of it…
Nancy: Well, it was really challenging, but in those days, all I was doing was keeping handwritten time and so forth, and only reporting to the General Counsel. It evolved, and as I said, after Nutrisystem, when I was leaving, I had some health issues, and so I started working from home.
Again, there were challenges. I kept everything in a ledger book for time keeping. I did billing through QuickBooks or something that was a desktop version, there weren’t online resources like there are today. I think I had a separate home line that was my phone for the office, everything was pretty old school, and then we started to grow.
My model always was, because of what was told to me when I wanted to go back to work part-time, my model was to give other women that opportunity, and that’s why we’ve always been an all-female firm.
They work the hours that they want to work, they work remotely from their homes, and as the internet has evolved and cloud-based programs have evolved, it has given everyone the opportunity to be able to do this in a much more efficient way. It’s been great because everything we do is cloud-based, our phone system is a voice over IP phone, we of course use PracticePanther, we use Box Drive for document storage — everything is in the cloud. It’s wonderful. It’s worked out phenomenally.
Sam: Yeah, it’s crazy the evolution of technology and how fast it’s moving, and that’s why it’s always important to either stay with it or really stay ahead of it, which you obviously have done such a good job of that! Now during that period when COVID was really hitting in March of 2020 and companies were scrambling, did any colleagues come to you for tips on maybe how to work better?
Nancy: All the time, all the time.
Sam: What did you share with them?
Nancy: So Sam, I’m a founding member and board member of an organization called Women Owned Law, which is for women legal entrepreneurs. I think you and I have spoken about it in the past. I also chair their virtual programming committee, which of course is a natural corollary for me because I do everything virtually anyway!
We have a monthly virtual speaker series and I have given talks twice now to Women Owned Law on virtual law practices and how they work, and in fact — we’re having our symposium in March, and I’m speaking on hiring and firing in a virtual environment as well. Training, hiring, and so forth in a virtual environment, so I’m happy to help anybody who is interested in learning more about how to do that. I’ve learned the hard way, so I know to do it. As I say, I’ve done it now for a while.
Sam: There’s an experience in itself obviously, and being able to share that knowledge and not just hoard it is just so special and really gracious of you. I’m sure they all appreciate that, and I hope they’re taking those actions and applying them as well, you know.
Based on some of the things you just said, I have two different questions. You obviously called out this amazing organization that you were a founding member of, Women Owned Law, tell us a little bit more, besides the virtual speeches, what’s the organization all about? .
Nancy: The focus of Women Owned Law is to help women legal entrepreneurs, so it’s women law firms and it’s also women legal support services firms. One of our board members is very, very active, I think she also was a founding member, and has a legal support firm that she owns that is actually a placement firm, so she does legal staffing and hiring. She helps you find the right attorney or the right paralegal for your practice. It’s a great organization because it’s very supportive obviously of women entrepreneurs in the law, and its mission is to be mentors, to be supportive, to have resources available to each other. I’ve made referrals through our network, and we’ve grown tremendously.
The organization is only a few years old and we’re growing and we’re always looking for sponsors so if anybody is out there wants to sponsor, they are always looking for sponsorship.
Sam: Touching on that, I know we spoke about it a little bit previously — but your firm is 100% women owned and operated. Again, that’s just something to be extremely proud of, especially with everything you’ve had to go through with the pivots and all the things that got you to where you are. So tell us a little bit more of the importance of that to you and the firm?
Nancy: As I said, it’s very important to me because I wanted to make a change in how the law perceives women and how we are able to balance our work life with our home life, and there should never be the choice that I was forced to make or was told I had to make. We live in a different era, but those choices are still being placed upon women.
Women aren’t paid equally, women attorneys aren’t even paid equally, they’re not made partner at the same time that their male colleagues are — and of course, if they have a baby, that sets them back tremendously as well. So my goal has always been to change that, at least in my own world, that I can control — you can’t control what happens in a big law firm and you can’t control what happens in big corporations, but to the extent that I can do something about it within my own realm, that’s my goal.
What do franchisee’s need to know about franchising?
Sam: Yeah, that’s one of the biggest things I love to talk to people about when they’re feeling down about outside things. Control what you can control, and the chips will be where they may.
Going back towards franchise law, what would you say is a good tip for people who are thinking about becoming a franchisee?
Nancy: Validate everything. That’s probably the take-away. Franchise law is a very niche area of law, which is part of what I love about it. It’s a subset of business practice, where it’s totally transactional — we don’t litigate, and we only represent franchisees, which are individuals looking to invest in a franchise opportunity. When I’m talking to an individual who’s looking to make this investment — and an investment in a franchise opportunity can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, could be even a million or more depending on the brand and what’s involved.
Fitness centers for example, there are large fitness franchises that could be huge, think of like a Planet Fitness. So they’re given something called a franchise disclosure document, and that’s part of what’s nice about franchising is that every franchisor must provide this individual or a group of people, this disclosure document that gives them a lot of information that they have to be able to evaluate and validate the system, but it doesn’t mean that everything in there is true. You need to validate that.
So to me, the most important thing to tell someone looking to invest in a franchise opportunity is to speak to franchisees that are already in the system, they’re your best resource, they’re out there in the trenches doing this. They can tell you what they like and dislike. I can tell you, there’s a brand out there and everyone who is listening to this, everyone that is watching it, we’ll know. I’m not going to say their name, but nonetheless, they’re everywhere — they’re in every town, and they do well financially, they’re financially a really strong franchise, but every single one of the franchisees I have ever spoken to anywhere in the country, hates it.
They say that if they had it to do all over again, they would not do it because the franchisor is not a good franchisor. The franchisor steals their customers, markets after them directly, does all kinds of things that are detrimental to them — and there’s been massive lawsuits, it’s really horrible. Nonetheless, these franchisees make a lot of money, so people still look to invest in them because they’re lucrative.
A franchise relationship is almost like a marriage — and the franchisor and franchisee need to really make sure that you want to be in bed with that party, and that’s why talking to franchisees and even former franchisees — and they’re all listed in that disclosure document — is a very important thing to do. I have blog posts on questions to ask them, and ways to validate and what to do, all of that’s on my website.
Sam: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense! Nancy’s website by the way is lanardandassociates.com. So if you want to check that out and look at those blogs and reach out to her as well, you should.
I was thinking also, we talked about it earlier just your path to becoming a lawyer and then owning your own law firm and working in the big law firm, so you have all these different experiences that maybe someone coming out of school doesn’t even know yet, or someone thinking about going to law school, or maybe even someone just thinking about taking their LSATS — what’s the one thing that you wish people would just understand about becoming a lawyer?
What should law students know about being a lawyer?
Nancy: Well, I love what I do, and most lawyers don’t by the way — most don’t like practicing law, and they can’t wait to retire, and they can’t wait to be done and do something else with their lives. I am not in that position. I love what I do, and maybe because I do have the flexibility to guide my life the way I want to. When you graduate law school, there are lots of opportunities, practicing law is only one of them.
The law degree gives you a way of thinking that’s completely different than how you learned in college or just by growing up, and so I think that’s what you have to remember, that practicing law is one avenue, and I think it’s a wonderful skill that you learn in law school, about how to think by questioning. Law school is taught by the Socratic method, constantly questioning and then questioning again, and then questioning again, and I think that that gives you a way of thinking that’s a little bit different, it’s a very critical way of thinking. I think that open doors to all kinds of things. A law degree can open doors to politics, it can open doors to a corporate job, just because of that unique way of thinking, you have a skill set that gives you an advantage over a lot of other people.
Sam: That makes total sense! Not only did it answer my question, but it has me thinking — I’m in a group chat with some of my closest best friends from when I was a kid, there’s like eight of us, and since we were six or seven years old, we’ve been best friends. Three of them actually are just brilliant lawyers, and when we’re talking sports or something, you see how they dig deep with questions, and just the way they’re thinking and they challenge each other, it always makes for a much more engaging conversation.
You’re right it leads to open doors to so many other things, like you said, whether it’s politics or these other things, not just being a lawyer, so… I completely agree. We talked about it a little bit, I know you were working remote a long time before COVID, but do you have anything to tell us about how maybe your business has changed since March of 2020. Were there any big changes or anything you want to share?
Nancy: Well, I didn’t have to do a lot of change because we were already set up completely virtually, we already had PracticePanther, we already had Box, we already had a voice over IP system that everybody’s tapped into, we had all the tools in place, so we didn’t have to scrape around and go looking for ways to cope in a virtual environment because we already had that.
So that piece we had in place, which was great. Now what we had to cope with was the fact that come March, when things shut down, we had no business because who’s going to buy a franchise in that environment. Now, I will tell you that two or three months into it, we did have things starting to trickle back, we saw a lot of home-based franchise businesses. In March when things first closed down, I spent three weeks, literally three weeks, all day, every day, talking to clients who had brick and mortar businesses, franchises — they wanted to know and explore what their options were to stop paying rent during that period of time where they couldn’t be open.
I didn’t charge them anything because I felt, “how can I charge somebody, how can I charge somebody anything at this time where everybody’s suffering so much,” so for three weeks, that’s what I did. I just felt like it’s my one little tiny piece that I can offer to somebody to help them through this if I can. But the problem is that there weren’t a lot of ways to help — many franchises have something called a “force majeure” or “Acts of God” clause in their lease, it didn’t allow for a virus as an exception and it didn’t allow for a government shutdown. Therefore they weren’t able to just stop paying rent, and then I always recommend business interruption insurance in any lease that we’re reviewing, and most of those companies denied it, and there’s a lot of lawsuits right now about that.
Most of the business interruption carriers denied it saying, “Oh, viruses aren’t covered, and blah, blah, blah”, but that’s crazy, because they were just trying to get around it. So we were impacted — business definitely was not at the level that it was the year before, or what looks like is happening this year, but I knew in the back of my head that when a lot of people are laid off from jobs, the first avenue that they do is go to look to get their own business and franchising is that avenue.
So I knew it would pick up eventually when there was a light at the end of the tunnel, we’re seeing that light now in December and January and February, we’ve seen a tremendous pick-up in people looking at franchising.
Sam: That’s great — and it’s just such a beautiful thing you said earlier about you understanding what a struggle these people were having and you were just offering your services to help them, not even getting paid. I really believe in good karma and I think it will come back and in some way some shape or form, maybe tomorrow or a year, or in 10 years, but regardless, that’s just an awesome thing that you were able to do for them, so… kudos to you for that!
Just one last question before we close out here. Like we said, you’ve been on PracticePanther for five years now, we’re old friends now from when you first got on. How do you think PracticePanther has helped you? How has PracticePanther been able to help you achieve those goals of being remote and tracking time and notes and all that stuff, and how has it helped you maintain those habits for your firm?