Pamela Schaefer has been a family law attorney for the past 22 years. Her practice is focused on family law, including divorce and custody, probate law, estate planning, and estate litigation, as well as guardianships and occasional adoptions. She also handles family issues that revolve around unmarried parents and custody, as well. Pamela had gone to nursing school right out of high school and became a registered nurse. She worked in nursing in maternity and pediatrics for about 12 years. However, in her mid-20s she became interested in practicing law. Pamela Schaefer completed her bachelor’s degree in political science and then attended law school at night at the New England School of Law while continuing to work as a nurse during the day.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
When I was younger and I got started in nursing, I really thought I wanted to be a midwife. I had worked with some midwives and worked in labor and delivery and I did some home care. But as I worked with some postpartum and prenatal patients, I just realized that, as nice as it is, the midwives worked really, really hard, but didn’t get a lot in compensation. They also really didn’t have so much of a life outside of their work. So, I realized pretty quickly that it probably wasn’t going to be a good long-term career for me.
I had always thought about law school, but, at the time, I don’t think I believed in myself enough to go through with it. As I got older and gained a little bit more confidence, I figured I’d give it a shot. When I finally went to law school, I thought I would do something in the medical profession as an attorney and focused on that. When I graduated, I worked for an HMO Association for a year and half, and I was so bored. It was really dry. It was not super interesting to me, but it was a good way to get out there.
I decided to start my own practice. Actually, when I found myself under-stimulated at the HMO Association, I took a course about representing women who had been victims of domestic violence, restraining orders, and other issues related to them with a friend of mine from law school. I volunteered for that course and I really enjoyed it. I found out that those cases often turn into divorce.
Of course, when I began my practice, I naturally needed to open it up to be available for anything and everything that would come my way so I could make a living, but it seemed I naturally attracted divorce cases and clients with family law issues. But I really enjoy it. Even though you wouldn’t naturally think that would connect with nursing, it seems to be a very similar clientele to what I had in the pediatric and maternal child health world—I’m just focusing on a different angle of their lives. I really enjoy that connection and seeing people get to a better place.
The estate planning side of my practice came about as a way of just staying open to things, but here in Massachusetts, the jurisdiction of family courts includes probate as well, so the two things are in the same court. I was kind of surprised. Sadly, a lot of times the estate litigation isn’t so different from divorce. It is very personal and driven by family matters and people who have suffered some real losses. Estate planning and family law matters are often intertwined.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My day has changed a lot over the past year or so. It used to be I was in court three out of five days a week. Now court is over Zoom. I actually work in court a lot less these days because of the way the pandemic has been handled. Until recently my employees and I were all working from home and coordinating digitally or electronically. We have just recently come back to the office.
Today I had a Zoom consultation with a potential new client. I had a hearing yesterday on Zoom for another client. I will be busy coordinating what’s coming up or reviewing things for a hearing that may be coming, talking to people on how their litigation is going, or what stage their case is at, and what our next steps are. Every day a variation of all of those things. I have client contact on at least a couple of those levels each day, which is really my favorite part of my job. I also have a paralegal who handles a lot of logistical stuff for me. We work together. She really helps keep things moving in the office so hopefully I can have enough time to keep in contact with my clients.
How do you bring ideas to life?
So much of my work is about emotion. Typically, it’s really about coordinating with the client. I start out by asking them what their wish list is—how they would have things in an ideal world without having to consider anything else. Then I try to weave their response into what might be realistic for them to expect, what I can do for them, what we might manage to obtain, and then I tell them which things are not realistic. I try to understand what is most meaningful to them and focus on the things that are most important. Then I put together a plan for how that’s going to work from that point forward, whether it’s primarily custody of their children or a financially focused plan.
What’s one trend that excites you?
It’s not happening as quickly as I would like in the rest of the world, but the rapid technological changes are exciting because the legal world has been super slow to get on board and has been behind other industries, especially in the area of family law. For the past couple of years, the Appeals Court—and I do handle appeals on occasion—has gotten into the digital age by providing electronic filings, updates by email, and minimizing the use of paper, whereas the Family and Probate Court had not. But the pandemic has catapulted the Probate Court into the 21st century, now. We’re pushing them to move forward technologically, and that excites me because it really helps with everything.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I think being able to delegate certain things to my staff really, really helps me to be more productive. It took a long time for me to realize that I can’t be as productive as I like while being in charge of every little thing, so being able to let go of some things and delegate work has helped me enormously in being productive.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I think I would tell my younger self to slow down. Back then, I enjoyed all of my work as well as taking care of my children, but as a single parent, I always felt I was running from one thing to the next and handling a lot of responsibility. If I could go back in time, my advice to myself would be to slow down a bit, try to take it all in a little bit more, and enjoy the present moments.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Honesty is the best policy—I really believe that—but I have learned over the years that there are some occasions where it’s not always appropriate or people don’t need to hear everything. I still do believe, more often than not, that honesty is the best policy, but I don’t always need to be blatant with everyone or so strikingly honest. Definitely in my younger years, I sometimes said more than was necessary and I didn’t always appreciate that I could taper my communications a little bit.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I’ve been bringing my dog to my office with me for about 10 years and it’s been really nice. My clients love having him here and it’s been a really positive experience. I can recall maybe one person in 10 years who wasn’t comfortable with having him around, and we solved that by putting him in another room and closing the door. Often before court or after court, clients are really happy to see him. It’s a stress reliever and a therapy type of thing. It wasn’t intended for that, but it’s turned into that. People just want to see him. He’s an English cocker spaniel and a very sweet dog.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
One of the biggest strategies that’s helped me grow was learning to delegate more and more over the years. Even years ago, when I had staff to help me, I would still hold on to doing all the financial parts of the business. It is a struggle to have enough time to be a lawyer and manage all the office tasks. As I’ve grown and matured and my business has grown, I’ve learned that the best thing I can do for my business and myself is to hire someone else to do some of those things.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I think one of my failures has just been feeling responsible for my clients to the extent that I want to fix everything for them. I overcame that by realizing that, one, that’s not my job, and two, I have to draw some boundaries of what my job is in order to be successful, but also to help people with what they hired me for. Over the years, that has been tough at times. I’ve spent a lot of time with many of my clients—sometimes over really long periods—to the point where I’ve gotten to know them on a very personal level. At times, we’ve gotten very close. But I still have to maintain boundaries. That can be tough, and it’s taken some experience to handle it properly. There have been times when I’ve gotten too close or felt too responsible, and I have seen that it has not helped. We all have instances where things don’t work. I’m far from perfect, so over the years, I’ve had clients that may not have been, in retrospect, the best fit. As a consequence, I’ve learned to set those boundaries. If you don’t set proper boundaries, you occasionally learn a hard lesson. But next time, you definitely remember.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Over the years, I’ve used a certain piece of software for lawyers. When I first opened my practice, it was brand new, and it was specifically for family and probate lawyers. It’s grown to be applicable to a number of types of legal practices now. But in all honesty, the software is not as good as it could be and certainly, as much as it has been helpful, the company that makes it could improve it.
The software that I use—I won’t use their name—but they had different forms. So, when I typed in, say, one of my clients’ information into a main category, throughout the course of representing them I could continue to call that up and it would insert the information for a motion or for a complaint or whatever document we are creating. It’s super helpful and saves me a lot of time, but I really think it could use more improvements and possibly be more customized. With some improvements, I think it would be an excellent business idea. So, if somebody who had the knowledge base created something similar that was really well done, they could kill it. I would sure buy it!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
One of my credit cards has a promotion that if you go to a restaurant or order food to go, they’ll give you money back. The credit card companies have done more of that lately. They want to get the industry going again because so many restaurants have been hurting so much due to the pandemic, so it was a good reminder to me to support some of my local restaurants.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use a program called Clio that’s a huge time-saver. It’s a piece of software designed for a legal practice. It’s mostly formatted for billing, but it keeps track of time and payments and automatically generates reports. It also allows you to pre-fill forms, such as invoices, that can be edited and altered, and it makes sure they’re accurate. It’s more than just a billing software because it also helps to keep track of your time. It has an automatic timer, and it organizes our documents, so if I open a document on my computer, Clio knows the client it belongs to and it keeps track of how long I work on it. It’s a huge help for the practice.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Right now, one of the books I’m reading is called The Energy of Money by Maria Nemeth. It’s more about your mindset, not so much about finances. The title makes it sound like it’s more about money, but it’s mostly about our own concepts and experiences and the ideas that we have grown up with that affect us now, and how the ideas we have can create a ripple effect into our lives.
What is your favorite quote?
“What doesn’t kill us can only make us stronger.” Life is like that. Sometimes my clients will feel like they’re not going to make it through, but they do come out stronger in the end and so have I through the years. We have to remind ourselves of how far we have come sometimes to appreciate our growth and progress.
● What I love about my job are the connections I make with people, including clients, colleagues, and employees at the court.
● Perseverance is part of my story and certainly a part of finding the career that is right for you.
● I would not be successful in my business without the support of my employees. It’s a team effort to provide good service to our clients.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.