It’s not every day that attorneys discuss chickens, small law firm best practices, Venn diagrams, and boundary-setting within one conversation! Imagine my delight when these topics and more presented themselves in Woven Legal’s informative interview with this week’s Attorney in the Spotlight, Rebecca Creel.
Rebecca opened her firm, Creel Family Law, LLC, in 2018 after over a decade in practice. While she readily credits numerous mentors for contributing to her success, it’s clear Rebecca’s career experience and drive to continuously grow both professionally & personally have forged a confident, tenacious advocate whose clients are in very capable hands.
MG: Thank you for spending this time with me today, Rebecca. Before we jump into questions regarding business, can you tell me about your family? I believe you have a son, correct?
RC: Yes, my husband and I just celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, and we have a 4-year-old. I have a big sister and an identical twin sister who has three children, though. Interestingly, if you did a DNA test on my twin’s kids, they’re also mine. So depending on who you ask…
MG: Collectively, you have FOUR kiddos! (Laughing) Wow, that’s really cool. How do you find some balance in having a family and running your own law firm – especially now during a pandemic?
RC: I grew up in a very, very small town Hemingway, South Carolina. One of the things I missed about “home” after moving to Columbia was the “farm.” My mom taught school, but I regularly worked with my neighbor on his farm bottle-feeding calves and taking care of their horses, and we always had a big garden. My mom has the greenest thumb! Now, having a child, I wanted him to have some of those same experiences. So, we have a “backyard farm,” we like to say. We have chickens and a big garden. Tending to the chickens has been weirdly helpful in my practice because it has demanded mindfulness of me – free from demands of work or family. I literally get up with the chickens! I go out and tend to them and have that moment of quiet time to myself. Just to have that kind of moment of Zen (laughing) in the morning has been really nice. And I think without the focus of it being a chore that I HAVE to do…I don’t know that I would be able to (consistently) carve that space out for myself.
MG: It sounds like what I’ve heard called “singleness of purpose.”
RC: Yes, that’s it. Now we have four little hens and are getting 28 eggs a week, which we’re sharing! (Laughing) The hens have names like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Chicki Minaj (Laughing)…
MG: (Laughing) Those are great names! How fun! But, I grew up in the country and had a horse…yowza. It’s a lot of work which I didn’t find cathartic! I’d better stick with our two dogs and two cats.
MG: Is there a particular saying or motto which has aided you in your career?
RC: Sure, yes – I have carried one through my whole life, and it’s something my mom would say when we were little girls, “Attitude will take you places money won’t.” We grew up with a single mom working very diligently within a school system to keep all the bills paid and everything done. In the face of the difficulties we faced, she encouraged us to approach problems with a positive attitude. If you view challenges as stepping stones rather than roadblocks, you can utterly reframe even the most difficult problem. Doing domestic litigation, which is an incredibly emotionally taxing practice, approaching the issues faced by clients with the mindset of problem-solving is critical. In fact, I have plenty of lawyer-friends who think I’m nuts for doing solely family law work because it is so emotionally difficult. But, to sustain as a family court lawyer, a good attitude, a sense of positivity, and compassion for your clients is a must. I can thank my mom for (providing) that among about a thousand other things.
MG: What resource(s) have you found to be the most helpful in overcoming challenges you’ve experienced since passing the Bar 13 years ago?
RC: I was very fortunate to work with some really fantastic lawyers throughout my career and learned a lot by just working alongside them. But, I think the number one resource (which helped me in my career) has been the incredible mentors I’ve had through the years. I worked for (now) South Carolina Family Court Judge Monét Pincus, who was incredible to me. Then, I worked with Ken Lester and Catherine Hendrix, who are just titans of this industry. Honestly, all along the way, there have been many other lawyers who’ve provided me with their support. And, I think with the Family Court Bar, there may be a little bit of a misconception (outside of our section) that because Domestic litigation is so challenging and because people’s issues are so contentious – that the adversarial process is acrimonious. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the members of the Family Court Bar are so incredibly supportive of each other in their practices and are giving of their time. If I have a question about some nuanced issue in a case and I need to bounce ideas off someone, my colleagues and mentors are always there. I try to be just as available for them, too. My staff knows if an attorney calls with an issue they want to discuss or get feedback on unless I am in court or with a client, those calls come straight through. Particularly with the job market being as difficult as it is right now for young lawyers – many of them are hanging out a shingle straight-away. The problem is that law school teaches you how to pass the Bar, not how to be a lawyer. Thankfully, the South Carolina Supreme Court has a mandatory mentoring program. I think it’s so incumbent upon us as more experienced members of the Bar to offer a hand to pull new lawyers up – the way my lawyer meteors helped and taught me when I was just starting out. So, I would say the most important resource for me was mentorship.
RC: Number two is technology. I’m very lucky my husband works in the IT field and has worked with law firms as well as other companies. He was really able to help me understand the importance of embracing technology in a law firm. And, he helped me recognize – as a younger lawyer – what a great resource I could be to elder statesmen. Then, when I opened my own practice, I placed a high priority on incorporating technologies to allow for ease of workflow, remote working, and information sharing within and outside of the office. My employees, who have young families themselves, understood early on they could work on the moon as long as work was getting done. This all made for an especially smooth transition when first faced with the pandemic.
MG: We’ve touched on the emotions which can, at times, accompany Family Law. What skills and tools have you found the most helpful in those moments when clients’ emotions are high?
RC: Those kinds of issues present themselves so frequently in the Family Court environment because we are dealing with the most intimate parts of people’s lives. My friend, a Criminal attorney, jokes that family court is the drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll of the law. And it really is.
MG: (Laughing) I LOVE that! That’s definitely going in our interview…may I?
RC: Sure! But all joking aside, family court is difficult because you are working with people in crisis. I remember speaking with my Law Clerk one time and reminding her that when people come to see a Family Court lawyer – unless we’re doing an adoption which is certainly part of our role – clients are coming to us on the worst day of their lives. I hope to never lose sight of that, but it is also why I love this type of work. Helping people navigate from crisis to a new life chapter is incredibly rewarding.
RC: My undergraduate background was in Finance and Psychology, which positioned me well for family court because we largely deal with feelings and money. Other than adoptions, the most common matters that bring people to me are divorce litigation. And, statistically speaking, outside of the loss of a child, or the loss of a parent, most people say the most difficult moment in their lives is the end of a marriage. Recognizing that people are coming in on the worst day of their life is so important – but equally critical is making sure clients fully understand my role in the process. Setting boundaries with clients is always difficult (as a lawyer), and all the more important in Family Court.
In fact, I think it’s why a lot of people are turned off by the practice because they have difficulty in setting and maintaining boundaries with their clients. I give my clients a worksheet on day one that says, “Client Expectations,” for them to review. I want to start off with a client understanding what I can and cannot do for them. If a client is surprised by the expectations I have of them or what my role and boundaries are, they are likely going to be unhappy. Accurately preparing clients on Day 1 is a best practice – and maybe prepares them so they won’t be surprised on Day 201.
RC: There are times throughout the process when we need to reference back to the Client Expectations worksheet. In our initial (new client) conversation, I talk about our system of representing them, so they understand what to expect from me, our staff, and the myriad of other people in the divorce process. I also explain what litigation looks like. Making sure clients have read and understand the process is Number 1. Number 2 is explaining to new clients, and this may sound kind of “crunchy” – the importance of a “holistic approach.” Let me explain…with new clients, I have often used a notebook to draw a Venn Diagram to demonstrate the three issues with Family Court. Those are legal issues, financial issues, and emotional issues. The legal (bucket) typically includes our client, their spouse, and any children. This is the area in which I can help them. Then there are the financial issues. And, for the most part, we can help with this as well – although there are times I have to refer a client out to a financial advisor or a tax specialist to assist. The third (circle) I draw as part of the Venn Diagram represents the emotional issues raised by a case. I ask clients to remember my role is to deal with their legal and financial issues. But, we recognize that dealing with the emotional issues is critical as well. I encourage everyone to work with a counselor or a therapist. Even under the best of circumstances, Family Court litigation is hard. It requires a skillset only a (mental health) clinician can provide a client. I try to explain, “Your sister, your best girlfriend…whoever is on your team and rooting for you is so important. But those people can’t equip you with the endurance skills needed to navigate the process.”
RC: Clients need three people in their lives: a lawyer they can trust to listen to them, a Financial Advisor to help them plan for the “new normal” after the divorce, and a therapist to help them transition into the next chapter.
MG: This is really beneficial. Did you take this approach – make this recommendation from the very start as a new attorney?
RC: Well, I had good mentors, as you know. But, I was on the cusp of going into the psychology world versus the legal world, so I have always had a deep respect for what a therapist could offer people, both in crisis and in the stress of our everyday lives. Also, I’m a married person and a mom and, I can’t undersell what impact that has had on my practice. When we first got married, my mother-in-law gave us a gift (one which I now also give to couples we are close with) of three marriage counseling sessions. Her idea was to see a therapist while you couldn’t be more in love. This way, the therapist can get a “baseline,” but more importantly, when you need to talk with someone, you are not looking for a clinician. You already have a therapist you know and trust.
RC: To do this job with any level of success, you have to have a passion for the people you’re working for. My hope for everyone I counsel is that they successfully navigate the process to the other side, ready to start a new chapter. Without question, clients who deal with all three parts of the end of a marriage – legal, financial, and emotional – have better results long term.
MG: I really like that holistic approach – caring for the whole person, not just their divorce proceedings. Can you share what software and tools you rely on in your firm? Have your husband’s recommendations driven choices on what software your firm uses, for example?
RC: I have always been a rather unapologetic nerd. I was always comfortable in the digital environment. I have been working on computers, playing video games – those kinds of things – since I was a little kid. But, in looking at both hardware and software when establishing my own practice, I looked to other lawyers…other law firms who were using technology in a way that seemed interesting to me. I’m not afraid to ask questions, and fortunately, very few lawyers who I have asked for recommendations or advice have ever been hesitant to share their expertise.
RC: My husband and I knew we didn’t want to be like many lawyers we’ve seen who are unwilling to invest in the necessary technology. I think of my computer and all of the peripheral devices that I use, such as my smartphone, camera, my note-taking device (reMarkable 2), even down to the internet connection as an income-generating instrument. Every time you touch your devices, they should be generating money. And if you are working off of an eight-year-old clunker that’s slow to connect (to the internet or place calls) and doesn’t have good functionality, then you are limiting your ability to make a profit as a lawyer. Being willing to adopt appropriate technologies is essential to running a successful practice. It’s similar to deciding to bring on a paralegal. Attorneys are sometimes afraid when taking on someone’s W2 wages. But, attorneys almost always realize (the return on their investment) is that the paralegal’s support allows them to function in their highest order. This same thinking translates into being open to technology.
RC: And we’re very fortunate in South Carolina. Our Bar Association is great about promoting and keeping us aware of updates and new technologies through seminars and CLE programs, so we can have access to what’s trending and could help make our lives a little bit easier. And for the older guard, I know technology can be intimidating. But, I tell (attorneys struggling with adopting technology) it’s no more intimidating than it is to learn complicated case law. The right software in a law practice can be an absolute game-changer.
MG: What beliefs or things you thought you knew for sure have changed dramatically with years of practice under your belt?
RC: When I went into law school, I didn’t really know any lawyers very well. Sure, I was familiar with the profession and knew it was something I was interested in pursuing. I was probably much like young lawyers or people fresh out of law school today who seem to have in their mind what success means like, “I’m going to be on Bar Review,” or, “I’m going to clerk for a judge,” or “I am going to be an associate at a skyscraper law firm and then go onto Partner.” I don’t think many people really know what that means. It was of real benefit having worked in lots of different environments as a law student. I would encourage a young lawyer or law student to take advantage of (trying out) different kinds of practice areas and different size firms. But as I grew throughout my legal education, and then ultimately in my practice, that definition of success to me radically changed.
MG: How so?
RC: Well, I’ve had job offers at very prestigious firms that bring large salaries. And, growing up poor in the country, that’s a thing to consider. But, at one point, I went to a hard-core, 10-day program in Houston in 2011 called National Family Law Trial Institute. The program kept us engaged and working 20 hours a day, and it was the most intense thing I had ever done professionally, including the Bar exam. I met a lawyer, part of the faculty at the time, Roger Dodd, who’s an internationally recognized expert on cross-examination, and he is just amazing. Roger said something to me that struck me so incredibly deeply, which even ten years later – was so impactful. The program in Houston teaches an incredible model for approaching motion practice and trial. After a long day of work, one of my classmates, a lawyer from Boston, Roger, and I were in the hotel lobby talking about our day. My classmate was teasing me because I was in a seersucker suit. It was summer, after all! He pointed out he could never have gotten away with wearing that (type of suit) to court in Boston. He said, “They would laugh you right out of the courtroom!” I felt bad for their lack of fashion sense; I teased him back. Roger replied, “If you want to be truly great at this job, just be who you are. You will be able to do things as a young woman from the South, which he will never be able to do. And, he can do things that you’ll never be able to. Learn ‘the language,’ but don’t back up from speaking in your own accent.” I really took that to heart – even when identifying for myself what success looks like. Success, for me, is serving my clients well – helping them transition in a very difficult time, retain a passion for the job, and being able to go home and enjoy my family.
RC: The law, people say, is a jealous mistress, but I think that is only because we have a historical mindset of what success in the practice looks like. I decided I was going to flip the script, and I was going to do it my way. It is possible to have a successful practice and a passion for the job and a happy family life, but it requires discipline and support. I have had the support of great mentors and also my husband…he actually did my logo design for Christmas one year before I was ready to go out on my own with the sentiment, “You’re doing this one day.” And, so we did.
MG: What a great gift. Rebecca, I know we already touched on boundary setting, but I would like to revisit the topic for a moment. Before COVID, I attended a fun event at a friend’s home where I was introduced briefly to a very young, new dentist who set up a practice near our neighborhood. My heart went out to this poor woman because all night long, I saw people kind of cornering her in the party with their heads cocked back, mouths wide open, pointing to a problematic molar or loose crown! Can you relate? Do people often ask you for impromptu professional advice? And, if so, do you have any specific language you could share to help handle these situations?
RC: I joke that I am so glad I went into the law because no one’s pulling their shirt up to show me this weird mole on their back. (Laughing) I typically respond with something like, “I would love to speak with you, but I want to give your questions the attention they deserve.” So, if it’s the ball field or a public place, it’s obviously not the right setting for their conversation. I tell them to give my office a call so they can go through our consultation process. I often say, “We’ll make sure we set up adequate time for you and me to talk.”
RC: People often begin by saying they have just one question…a simple question. But, I do have to let them know, the law requires that they go through certain steps to make sure their case is handled in the proper way – going through certain steps to ensure their matter is being managed in an ethically sound way. And, guiding clients through our consultation process also allows us to pick and choose cases in which we are a good fit.