Matchmaker at heart: Area lawyer serves as legal 'connector' for her clients

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

After spending 14 years of her career as a divorce lawyer, Lori Williams decided it was time to take her talents in a new direction that would bring people together rather than help them go their separate ways. In June 2004 she launched "Your Legal Resource," a unique referral service that connects clients with the best attorneys for their particular situations.

"I enjoyed my work and my clients, and I generated a good income, but I decided to pursue something that would bring me joy, use all my gifts, and allow me to make a difference to others every day," says Williams. "I'm a matchmaker at heart, a relationship builder -- not a relationship ender."

Williams says that research showed 75 percent of Americans chose an attorney by asking a friend or family member for a reference, with less than 35 percent being satisfied with the services they received. That is why Your Legal Resource goes beyond the casual "I know an attorney" referral and takes the time to understand each case and each client's financial situation and personality before recommending an attorney who will be a good "fit."

Williams heads a network of reputable and dedicated lawyers who practice in a variety of disciplines in the Metro Detroit area. In addition to making referrals for individuals, the company acts as a resource partner for small business, providing strategies for networking and marketing to help small business owners succeed and expand.

A 1989 graduate of what was then Detroit College of Law (now MSU College of Law), Williams says she first became interested in law when a recruiter from James Madison College, the pre-law program at MSU, visited her high school in Trenton, where she was raised.

"At that time I was thinking of being a legal secretary. Then I went on to MSU and thought I'd be a paralegal, but as I gained more confidence, I saw no reason I couldn't become a lawyer," says Williams.

Williams was a full partner in the general practice law firm of Ahles & Tollefson, P.C. until 1994 when she began specializing in family law as a solo practitioner. With the establishment of Your Legal Resource, her focus has shifted from the practice of law to the business of law.

"The most frustrating part of the practice of law, for me, was the inefficiency," says Williams. "In divorce cases, as with most litigation, there's a lot of waiting in court to have your turn with the judge. I felt bad that clients had to spend time and money waiting around and sometimes accomplishing very little. The best cases were resolved between both parties and counsel and merely formalized at court."

Williams says her clients would sometimes joke as their cases ended, "You did a great job, but I hope to never need your services again."

"If I were in their shoes, I wouldn't want another divorce or post-divorce litigation either," says Williams, who left the practice of law in 2003.

"I thought I had left for good," says Williams. "But in January 2004 I was in a small group at my church, and we were studying the book 'The Purpose-Driven Life' by Rick Warren. It was very powerful and life changing for many people, myself included, because it revealed to us what our true purpose and passions were."

That is when it became clear to Williams that she was put on this earth to connect people.

"At first I laughed because I had made a career out of ending relationships. But then I could see that even as a divorce attorney, I was connecting my clients with other resources they needed as they went through the painful divorce process."

Williams was fortunate to be taking the church course with a friend who was a coach, so together they started brainstorming what a career as a "connector" might look like.

"She guided me through the process of looking at everything I had liked about my legal career, and from that exercise I created Your Legal Resource."

Initially, her core service was to help individuals and small businesses in need of legal advice or representation connect with the right legal specialist for them. She drew upon the expertise of a team of attorneys she had known personally and professionally from her years of practice.

"I'd known them for 5 to 20 years either from working with them, working for them, arguing cases against them, or having successfully referred to them for years," says Williams. "All of them had experience in their areas of law and had been in practice for 10-30 years. More importantly, they treated clients and other professionals well, provided valuable service out of their expertise, and provided that service at an affordable rate."

All of Williams' business comes to her by referral, mostly from people in her non-lawyer network who direct others to her.

"Most people know when they need a lawyer, and most people know a lawyer or two; however, they don't know the right lawyer for all areas of law. That's the resource I provide," says Williams. "I connect the right client with the right lawyer in all areas of law in Michigan."

Williams' services have evolved to include legal consulting for solo and small-firm attorneys, making her a resource to both the clients in need of legal services and to the legal community itself.

"I guide solo and small-firm attorneys through the process of generating more business through effectively branding and marketing their services, becoming skilled at networking, and developing referral relationships and strategic partnerships," explains Williams.

Her own experience has helped Williams understand the many hats a solo attorney or someone practicing in a small firm must wear.

"Most attorneys would rather practice law and not have to be the networker, marketer, operations manager, finance department, biller, collector, etc. I can direct these attorneys to the other resources they need and work within their budgets," says Williams, who also provides hands-on consulting to help fellow attorneys improve their networking and relationship-building skills.

Williams is also a frequent public speaker on the topics of networking, relationship building, and finding your purpose and passion in your career. In January, she was a key organizer for a workshop for attorneys called "Effective Strategies to Improve Your Law Firm's Bottom Line" that was held at Troy's Automation Alley.

"Lately, I've also been facilitating lunch-and-learn sessions for attorneys and other professionals. I'm bringing in speakers who can shed light on how to improve business through marketing, technology, and social media."

Williams has fond memories of her growing-up years in Trenton and credits her parents, Bob and Lois Tollefson, for instilling core values in her and her sister's lives.

"We were fortunate to not incur debt with our education. My parents paid for college for each of us, and I split the cost of law school with my parents," says Williams. "They taught us work ethic, good Christian values, and how to handle money properly. I'm very grateful for the upbringing I had. I have two sons, ages 11 and 15, who I'm trying to pass on that education to. They attend Birmingham School, and I've been very pleased with their education so far."

A typical day in the office for Williams means phone calls with clients and making referrals to one of the attorneys on her team. She also provides consulting services to attorneys who are not on her team, designed to grow their practices. Additionally, she attends networking events and fulfills responsibilities for her roles as Ambassador of the Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce and as membership chair of the Women's Bar Association - Oakland County Region of the Women's Lawyers Association of Michigan.

"I also weave marketing into my days in the office, and I write a weekly blog as well as two monthly e-newsletters," says Williams, who also makes time to mentor women law students through the Women's Bar Association and to volunteer at her church and at City Mission in Detroit.

Williams admits she would not be able to accomplish all she does without taking care of herself, too.

"I've been a member of Beverly Hills Club for about 18 years and love working out four to five times a week. I also enjoy tennis in the summer and fall, and cooking becomes my creative outlet in my personal life."

While every client is important to Williams, she admits that she especially enjoys helping someone disadvantaged in some way get the proper help to overcome a difficult situation. Last year a counselor referred a client with a medical malpractice claim, and the case settled for the maximum allowed by law, $600,000. Another case, in which an elderly pedestrian was hit by a car, settled for $100,000. But Williams says that even the small gestures mean a great deal to her clients, such as when an estate planning attorney goes to the home of an elderly client so the client doesn't have to travel to the attorney's office.

"Frankly, my business wouldn't exist without the awesome team who provides the legal services and the loyal professionals who refer the clients to me. It's really a team effort, and I enjoy leading a winning team."

Published: Wed, Mar 10, 2010