01. Sara Williams, Alexander Shunnarah Trial Attorneys Removing the Barriers to Entry: Digital Marketing as the Great Equalizer

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Sara Williams is an attorney, an educator, and a top-notch personal brand builder. On top of a thriving legal career at Alexander Shunnarah Trial Attorneys (where she recovered more than $15 million for her clients just five years into her time at the firm), Sara dedicates a lot of time to mentoring, advising, and advocating for professional women and young attorneys via her blog, newsletter, and YouTube channel where she unpacks practical strategies for building a successful legal career. I spoke with Sara about the importance of mentorship, the barriers to entry facing women and people of color in the legal field, and how she defines career success at this stage in her life.

Whats In This Episode

  • Who is Sara Williams?
  • Sara’s law school experience at Cumberland School of Law
  • The importance of a mentor who has accomplished what you would like to accomplish
  • Creating educational spaces where students can be their full selves
  • Redefining career success and self-worth
  • Why digital marketing is the great equalizer
  • Why equity in business starts with equity in our homes

Transcript

Sara Williams

I think. Philosophically that digital marketing and being able to market the way you can now is the great equalizer. I think it is the thing. And this is why I’m passionate about speaking about it to women and people of color. To me removed the barrier to entry.

Sonya Palmer

Law as an industry of insiders and getting your foot in the door can seem like no small task, but things are changing. And technology is providing access and opportunities where they had previously been denied.

Sara Williams

I don’t need to be a member of your country club. I don’t need to be a member of the boys club. I can go directly to the source myself for an inexpensive entry fee.

Sonya Palmer

According to a recent survey, only 19% of managing partners in US law firms are female. We would like to see that change. Hello, and welcome to LawHer the show where we celebrate the trailblazing attorneys and entrepreneurs who are changing the game for women in the legal field, be inspired by their stories, learn from their mistakes, and look forward to the future they’re helping build for the next generation of women in law. I’m Sonya Palmer, your host and VP of operations at Rankings.io, where we help elite personal injury attorneys dominate first-page rankings with SEO. This is LawHer.If the name Sara Williams sounds familiar to you. Don’t be surprised
she is everywhere right now. And for good reason, named a rising star by Alabama super lawyers magazine. She’s an attorney and educator who on top of work at Alexander Shunnarah Personal Injury Attorneys. Where she recovered more than 15 million for her clients just five years into her time at the firm. She also devotes a lot of her time to advising and advocating for professional women and young attorneys via her blog newsletter and YouTube channel. She’s one of the best and the boldest in the field. And I am so happy to welcome her as our very first guest to the show.  I spoke with Sara about the importance of mentorship, the barriers of entry facing women and people of color in the legal field, and how she defined success at this stage in her career, let’s dive in.What did six-year-old Sara want to be when she grew up? Did you always envision law? when I grew up, I wanted to be an author, I wanted to write fiction. I actually was an English lit major at Florida State. So I think you traveled around a lot when you were younger.

Sara Williams

I did. I’m an army brat. So we my dad tried to keep us and duty stations for a six-year time period. So like when I was born, We spent six years in Holland, and then we moved to White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. We were there for six years and then we moved to Nuremberg, Germany, and we were there for three years and then he retired. So we moved back to Tallahassee. We were alone a lot, there’s an adjustment when you’re an army brat too. Like making friends. Luckily I have two older brothers, so I had friends, my mom read a lot. I read a lot. So that was primarily my motivation for wanting to write like I read, I’m just now getting back into reading, like as much as I did when I was younger For law school. It was really just more practical when I made the decision. I knew at the time I didn’t really like children and it was like, what do you do with an English degree? now I feel like my parents probably would have encouraged me to actually write. But I feel like back, in the late nineties it was like, you need to figure out what you can do to work. So it was one of those practical decisions okay, What are my skillsets, reading, and analysis.

Sonya Palmer

There you go. I’m going to derail here a little bit and ask you what you’re currently reading.

Sara Williams

So I have two books going, so I like to read in the morning, like a book for personal development. So right now I’m reading Brenee Brown’s new book. And then at night for my wind down, I like to read. For fun, and so I just finished as a fantasy book. I’m a fantasy nerd. So I ended up reading a lot of young adult books. Yeah. It’s a good escape. It’s good fiction. there are actually even studies, that if you read at the end of the day fiction, it helps close your brain down. So I’m in the middle of Brenee Brown’s new book. it’s really good. She does a really good job of naming things I think that it’s important to understand, especially as a lawyer, the emotional, triggers, and the range of emotions that people experience.

Sonya Palmer

Every great legal career has to start somewhere. And that starting place is well law school and good, bad, or ugly. Every lawyer’s got stories about their expense. I asked Sara who attended Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham. If her experience was what she expected it to be.

Sara Williams

So I really had no expectations for law school because I had no frame of reference if that makes any sense. I didn’t have any lawyer mentors, even though at the time I applied, I was working full-time for the Attorney General’s office in Florida for victim’s compensation, I didn’t interact with lawyers. And so I had no frame of reference. I knew I would have to read a lot and I knew I would have to write a lot. I had this whole plan of one day doing the joint MBA program and doing corporate law because studies showed that was where the jobs were. But luckily law school was the place where I found myself and became passionate about being a lawyer.

Sonya Palmer

Is there something you wish you had known or a resource you would have had before you started?

Sara Williams

Yes, I wish I had mentors who I think it’s important to have mentors who have walked the path that you’re walking. And like my mentors at the time were my youngest aunt and her husband, my uncle, Doug, my aunt, Cynthia, and uncle Doug. But they were very MBA, business-minded. And they help guide me and help make good, found financial decisions. guiding me through those things. But nobody really said Hey, when you get there, this is how you need to study. And so most of that, like I had to stumble through. it’s really important mentorship, to work with people who have accomplished what you want to accomplish now that I am practicing, I realized people are so open to that. And I think, had I. Getting outside of my comfort zone or having a teacher in high school or college, some advisor said, Hey, okay, you’re thinking about going to law school. Let’s connect you with such and such, but I didn’t have that. And so I try to be that person And then when people reach out to me, I try to connect with them just because I feel like that was a gap for me, that in terms of being prepared for law school,

Sonya Palmer

On top of practicing attorney, you’re also a trial advocacy professor at Cumberland School of Law and Mock Trial. You teach via blogs, newsletters, your YouTube channel. You are everywhere, girl. Continuing from that mentorship, how do you see your role as an educator as that part of what drives your passion for education?

Sara Williams

Initially, I’d never thought I would like to teach, but teaching something that you’re passionate about is completely different. And as long, as much as I’m passionate about reading teaching, it is definitely not in-writing teaching. It was not something that was passion-driven for me when it comes to trial advocacy. for me personally, it opened up. So many opportunities for me, but more importantly it’s a strange thing. It was the avenue for my self-discovery. I think when you’re in your twenties, you go through a period where you either figure out who you are, or you don’t figure out who you are and you suffer from not figuring out who you are into your thirties. And so for me, the trial advocacy program was the first, it really was the first space where I felt accepted for every aspect of myself where I didn’t, I did not feel like I had to pretend to be something else and I had to be taught to bring that voice out. because that was so important for me. I just think that it is so important, especially for women. Law students and law students of color to have a space where they are encouraged and allowed to feel safe enough to be themselves. And so that is my perspective on teaching. First and foremost, I try to create an environment where People can be them and understand and know that it’s okay. So that does drive my passion for teaching just because I think that it’s the key to being successful. Is there a cause you’re really proud of something that defined success for you? I’m in such a weird place now about success. If you had asked me that question two years ago, I would have said. I have an eight-figure verdict, a $12 million verdict against the bus system here in the city of Birmingham on a case where everyone told us, they are captain y’all will never get past the cap take the money, and my partner and I did not. And it turned out all right, for us. But I will tell you I’m out of place now. And I think it’s just, the pandemic has created a lot of space for reflection where success for me is now. what are my contributions to the world? Like obviously my clients were very appreciative of the work that we did for them, but if I never get another eight-figure verdict, I will be happy. And I think a lot of lawyers. We define success by our results and what I have learned from me and my homegirl, Brenee Brown has learned as it has taught me, is that I think when we do that, we end up hustling for our worth. your self-worth is defined by. Really things that are outside of your control. Like, all I could control was how well I tried the case, how prepared I was. I couldn’t control what those 12 people did, but I. So much of what we as lawyers typically define success as is based on things outside of our control. And I think that’s the reason why a lot of us are so unhappy. So for me now I define success as. What am I contributing to the world? So when my students email me, I just got an email last week from one of my students who was in my advanced trial skills class, but he wasn’t on the trial team and he doubted that he could do it at a certain level. And throughout the course Of the semester. I really encouraged him to be himself. And so he got a job with a great firm and never expected that either. And so he sent me a really nice email about my contribution to his career. And that for me is a success. Now. It’s what am I leaving in this world?

Sonya Palmer

I love that. I saw you were reading Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is The Way and what you just said is a very solid, stoicism principle, which is control what you can control, and then the rest is up to something else. I find that super important on everyday life and the big stuff and the little stuff. In 2013, Sara made a big career shift and joined Alexander’s Shunnarah Personal Injury Attorneys known around the Southeast for their expansive marketing campaigns, including their almost ubiquitous billboards. I asked Sara what motivated her move and how Shunnarah or the billboard guy as she has jokingly referred to him won her over.

Sara Williams

So I was an insurance defense lawyer and, back in 2013, I just had my daughter and one of my partners left to join Alex’s firm. And we were like, what’s because at that time other than I think Morgan and Morgan, there were not any hybrid. Large marketing firms that have that litigated. And there, there weren’t, there were not any in our state. And so he said, look, I’m going to litigate their cases. And I was like, all right, good luck. And then a couple of months later, he said, listen, there are so many cases I need help. Would you come and meet with Alex? I guess I met with him in March or April. So Milan was three or four months and I was like, you’re my friend as a courtesy I’ll meet with him. I’ve got a deposition somewhere and I’ll stop by on my way home. it was a meeting that was scheduled for an hour. We ended up talking for three hours and now he’s one of my best friends. But for me, the thing that I felt when I met him was that he was looking to build something and that was exciting to me. But he also, the first thing he said to me was. If you come to work here, I will make sure that you can always take care of your daughter. That was just important to me that’s, his motivation always is, are my, lawyer’s ability to take care of their families. And I think sometimes he sacrifices too much of himself to ensure that we can take care of, our responsibilities and we have enough cases. And I had never met someone who would be my boss that, cared deeply enough on our first meeting. my gut told me that it was the best move and it ended up being a good move. It may have been the hormones from just from being postpartum too. aI tell people all the time. Cause I am very risk-averse. I do not know if I had not been postpartum. Just three months out from having a baby and hormones still raging. I don’t know that I would have come over.

Sonya Palmer

So has working there changed sort of your viewpoint on the marketing self-promo, getting yourself out there. Has that influenced sort of your outlook on it at all?

Sara Williams

Absolutely. And I think since I’ve been here, the market has changed. And it’s continuing to change as you all know. I think that the world is obviously changing I think there used to be a time when you had to be a member of the country club, or you got cases if you were known at the courthouse and people aren’t really watching TV they’re streaming, and phone books are dead and, billboards for us, it’s a branding mechanism, it’s not really a call to action. and I think. What is happening now is people are even getting more away from the big brands. And that’s why I’m very passionate about lawyers branding themselves individually because I think. It’s weird. I think people want to hire a person, right? It’s because a lot of my clients, even those who come through the firm will say, I looked you up, I saw your Instagram, I saw your Facebook. I saw your LinkedIn. I saw your YouTube, but you have to be out in these same streams. And so it’s an interesting concept. But I think. Philosophically that digital marketing and being able to market the way you can now is the great equalizer. I think it is the thing. And this is why I’m passionate about speaking about it to women and people of color. To me removed the barrier to entry. I don’t need to be a member of your country club. I don’t need to be a member of the boys club. I can go directly to the source myself for an inexpensive entry fee. Billboards are expensive. TV can be expensive, especially if you’re in a market like ours, where it’s really competitive, but Facebook and Instagram, those ads, even a new lawyer starting out can have some sort of budget set aside for that. And yes, it definitely has changed my perspective, because if an Arab man with the last name Shunnarah in the state of Alabama, can dominate marketing the way that he does, to me, if that’s not a clear sign that like doing these things removes the barriers to entry, I don’t know what it is.

Sonya Palmer

You’re absolute. I love what you said. It’s an equalizer. It’s an absolute equal. And as things get more and more competitive, the pandemic has just driven everybody online. Legal was already extremely competitive, but you’re right to promote yourself because I do think that people probably more than ever are looking to connect with a person and not just a brand or a firm,

Sara Williams

and here’s how we know I’ll say here is how I know in my heart that it is the removal of the barrier to entry all of the bar, organizations across the country are trying to figure out how do we slow this down? How do we control the folks who are marketing digitally? And that is because those organizations are primarily being run by the folks who either don’t market, who have had to rely on their networks, who have relied on their family connections. And they are scared. And to me, there’s only so much they can do right. At the end of the day, it’s going to change. It’s going to come. You can fight it. You can try to change the rules too. Legislate around it, but it’s gonna happen, you cannot close us out of the marketplace, lawyers, or just like any other business. And I think that to me is the clearest sign that it’s effective when folks have to start changing the rules that’s a clear sign that it is effective and effective for people who were typically marginalized.

Sonya Palmer

In Alabama, only 34% of state bar members are women. I asked Sara to dive a little deeper into what she sees as the hurdles in the legal profession that have led to that very disappointing statistic and what steps she thinks can be taken to less than the gap..

Sara Williams

And this is why I, when I stepped down as managing attorney. And decided to pursue thought leadership. it is so frustrating to me to sit in rooms with men who are very intelligent but not any more intelligent or skilled than the women lawyers I know. And so I think the barriers for us are. One, is our socialization. I think women have been socialized to be selfless, and this is something that I battled. we give to others before we give to ourselves. And we’ve been taught that being selfish is a bad word and selfish is not a bad word. Like I have to take care of myself first. , I think so many women feel pressure to put their dreams and goals and ambitions to the side for a family and their husbands and their children. And so I think that we cannot change that statistic until in our home. Like the equity has to be in our homes before it can be in business. When we don’t have equity in our homes, then you end up in a situation where maybe you have a position at the office. I was the managing attorney of one of the largest firms in the Southeast. I had all the things, I get the cases I have the staff like. Equality at the firm. Got it. But the problem is at home, right? I’m still scheduling hair appointments, scheduling the vacation, and doing all of these things. And so even though I have the same opportunities, I don’t have the same amount of time because of these responsibilities here. And so I think that. That is another reason why I’m passionate about women marketing for themselves. I think the only way for us to have the equity and the leverage to demand the flexibility that we need to balance both is for us to be bringing in the revenue and the cases your labor is not enough. It always says cases of king and revenue conquers all, and like that has stuck with me. I’m like, yeah. At the end of the day, I don’t have leverage if I’m not bringing in cases. And I have a lot of leverage.

Sonya Palmer

What are some ways you take care of yourself?

Sara Williams

So lately I have, cause I’m like on this mission. So in the morning, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Hal Elrod’s Miracle Morning routine. So I’ve started doing miracle morning. I started in December. I meditate. Get up, read, meditate listen to some calming music, do affirmations and work out. And that is my time. And I have decided to be selfish with that time. And so irrespective of what I have going on like I’m going to do that. And if that means going down in my basement and sometimes my child will walk past me and her hair is not up in a ponytail I’m like, Her dad knows how to put a ponytail. Like it’s not gonna, it’s not going to be the end of the world if she has one, rough hair day. But for me, My mantra for 2022 has been, I deserve to keep the promises that I make to myself. And so that is the time that I’m carving out for myself every single day to take care of myself.

Sonya Palmer

If you could change one thing about your industry, what would it be?

Sara Williams

The thing that frustrates me the most about the legal industry is its inability to innovate quickly. Like I was just having this conversation with a professor at Cumberland that like as fast as the world is moving, especially here in this state, but I feel like I get the sense that it’s in a lot of other states too, the. The industry just doesn’t seem to be moving at the same pace. the pandemic right. Should have pushed us into innovation. We had to learn to adapt. We had to take depositions by zoom. People are trying cases by zoom. But it’s weird. It’s as soon as, certain lockdowns were lifted, people forget like you spend all this money on this equipment and now you’re demanding to be in person. And it’s just, and here we are back with a spike. Half of our office is out. I had a status conference the other day. Every single lawyer was either coming out of quarantine or was in quarantine, but you still have judges who refuse to have status conferences via zoom and judges who refuse to have hearings via zoom, and lawyers who refuse to take depositions via zoom. And law firms that don’t allow parents to have flexibility in their work schedules. These kids are being sent home and left and daycares are being shut down. And it’s we learned like we can survive It’s so bizarre to me. Like we literally spent a year and we learned we could survive in doing this thing. And then we come into this year and we’re like all right back to normal. It’s just, that is so that’s the thing that frustrates me the most about the legal industry because I think that is what hurts women. Because we right now are the ones who are carrying the bulk of the load when it comes to dealing with this pandemic. I think it’s a control issue. I think. It’s a generational issue. I think it’s a control issue and I will tell you, I am very worried about every woman in my life. ’cause I feel like we are just like hanging on a thread like we’re one shutdown away from just calling it, and I think that part of that for women lawyers is that law firms and the industries refusal to just get with it.

Sonya Palmer

Equity and business is a societal issue, but Sara Williams is not the type to defer her success while waiting for the world to change using practical positioning strategies, like personal marketing and building a leverageable portfolio of cases in revenue. Sara is making her mark now and mentoring young attorneys on how to do the same. If you’re just getting started in the industry, take a page from this avid reader’s book and bypass industry gatekeepers by promoting yourself digitally as early. And as often as you can. A huge thank you to Sara Williams for sharing her story and unbelievable insights with us today, she really is an incredible role model and mentor. And if you found this valuable, be sure to check her stuff out online, she has got a wealth of amazing resources available. You have been listening to the first-ever episode of LawHer with Sonya Palmer. If you liked what you heard, please leave us a review or a five-star rating. It really goes a long way. And I will see you next week on LawHer or will shed light on how another of the brightest and boldest women in the legal industry climb to the top of her field.

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