What it takes to be a corporate COO, mother, blogger, and leader with Sigalle Barness of Lawline
In this episode of On Record PR, we go on record with Sigalle Barness. Sigalle is the chief operating officer (COO) of Lawline and founder of Chief Operating Mommy blog. At Lawline, she provides leadership envisioned to ensure the proper process and people are in place to effectively grow the business. It’s also her job to ensure Lawline’s financial strength, stability and profitability. At Chief Operating Mommy, she shares her experiences being an executive and a parent.
More About Lawline
Lawline is the leading national provider of online continuing legal education (CLE) for attorneys. Lawline offers CLE courses in more than 45 states, including more than 1,500 online courses taught by the best practitioners in the nation. The educational resources support, inspire and advance attorneys in their professional growth. In fact, attorneys who have completed the courses get 5 million credits with Lawline and rely on them as an authoritative resource for CLE compliance.
I’m honored to say that I have not only presented many CLE courses for Lawline, but I’ve known Sigalle since the early days of the business when social media was considered a fad in legal marketing.
This episode was recorded in the summer of 2020. We’re still figuring out what going back to the office will look like after coronavirus, and there’s a lot of things that have changed.
Where are you currently located? Are you working from home?
I’m working from home, and I’m in New Jersey. Lawline is actually based in New York City. Our office and our studio is located right by Wall Street in the financial district of Manhattan. Since early March, the entire company has been working remotely.
Gina Rubel: Wow. And I remember going into that building so many times and the green room and, , having to learn to speak to a camera when you’re, you’re only person talking and there’s no one else in the room and you’re recording. So it’s really interesting. I think we’re all learning how to do that now.
You’ve been providing online webinars and courses to lawyers, and by lawyers, for more than a decade. What have you learned about online platforms that you can share with our listeners?
Before the COVID-19 situation and the pandemic, we really differentiated ourselves as a business and in the industry for continuing legal education, as being a studio–produced but primarily online, continuing education platform. The reason we chose this was because we believed very deeply in the ability to create options for people to choose what they want to watch and when they want to watch it. That way, they can find personal freedom in their lives and be able to focus on the things that matter to them, while still continuing their education in a way that fits their lives. Online, on demand CLE courses were really important for us. It was something that we leaned into as an organization. It’s studio produced because we focused very deeply on the quality of programming. We provided a setting that gave people the opportunity to highlight themselves in a way that was pleasing to see.
Post COVID-19, we are not studio produced anymore. At the end of the day, this is what we leaned into. We found that this is what people came to us for and appreciated. It also allowed us to provide a lot more content, and in more of a specific way, than perhaps live events such as events where people come, and they’re at the will of the agenda. We allow people to create that agenda for themselves.
A lot of states have allowed our attorneys to get more credits online than normal because of COVID-19. Has that increased your volume of business?
Yes, it has. We are very fortunate, and we are extremely grateful to say that we are still continuing to thrive as a business through these times. We know that we’re in rare company, and we remind ourselves of that every single day.
Almost every single state has changed its rules to allow and accommodate for online learning. Most states have allowed it to be completely on demand. Some states have said that even though they have certain live, in-person requirements, you can watch courses live online. We also provide live webcasts of our programs to ensure that we accommodate, and we always have done that. Almost every state now is not like I would assume. I think every single state has changed its rules that had a live, in-person requirement.
What did it take for you to go from graduating law school and entering the legal industry, to starting this alternative role?
When I graduated from law school, I graduated during a different crisis. I graduated in 2010, and there was a recession. There were not a lot of jobs in the legal field. People were getting laid off. People that had positions were being deferred. It was a really tough time. I didn’t have any financial aid. I took loans out. I completely invested in myself in this endeavor, and I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans. I entered the legal field through this environment. Whereas before, I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to do as an attorney, I ended up scrambling, while studying for the bar, to figure out any job that I could possibly get by constantly applying. I worked extremely hard, and I ended up getting a job.
I was a landlord tenant. I represented landlords in the Bronx by doing landlord tenant litigation. It was not what I wanted to do, but it was a job, and I wanted to learn how to litigate. I definitely learned a lot during that time.
I also moved, and I did some other types of litigation for about a year and a half. I practiced before I moved to Lawline. I quickly learned that I enjoyed meeting other lawyers. I loved learning from them, and I also loved mentoring others.
I really loved that part, but I could not fight people every day. It was not a thing I knew, and I realized early on that I’m not adversarial. I don’t like confrontation. I’m not afraid of conflict, and I can have conversations, but I didn’t want that to be part of my work every day. I made it very clear to myself and recognized what I needed.
Then, I started to look for jobs that provided me the connection that I wanted around education, around relationships, and being around attorneys. I wanted to express my love of the profession by progressing in the right direction where I can make an impact but without having to be on the other side of the lawyers and writing every day. That’s how I found Lawline.
I’ve spoken to a lot of different attorneys like us who have made a decision to try an alternate path at various times within their legal career. It’s a journey, and it really depends on how much is enough for you. I think between the recession and not being able to find a job, or finding jobs that didn’t fit, that expedited the process for me. It helped me realize faster that where I started out in my career wasn’t where I wanted to go in life.
Gina Rubel: A lot of what we’re doing now is we’re looking back and using those lessons to help the new generation of attorneys. It’s okay if you get an alternative career opportunity. What we learned from 2008 to 2011 does resonate with where we are now in 2020 as a result of COVID-19, the recession, and the economic downturn. We don’t know which law firms are going to come out of this, and certainly some have taken a major hit, but there are alternatives. You’re now the COO of Lawline, and you’re happy.
I hope this brings hope to others listening who aren’t sure where the world is going to take us. We’ll all be okay.
Sigalle Barness: We will. I actually just did a Peloton ride this morning and they’re just so inspirational, the instructors. And I am sure this is a very famous saying, but one of the things they said was courage is not about not having fear. It’s recognizing that fear and saying that it’s not going to stop me. That’s where we were all at. We have to recognize our fear. We have to look at it, we have to feel it and we have to see it. Then we have to just keep saying, “it’s not going to stop me and I’m going to get through it.” That’s what courage is. That’s what strength is. And that’s what I continuously try to tell myself during these times.
Gina Rubel: It’s funny, during the prerecording we just connected that we are both Peloton riders. Who’s your favorite instructor?
Sigalle Barness: They’re also good, but I would have to say Robin Arzon is my favorite. She’s also a former lawyer. Talk about alternative careers, right? She’s a former lawyer and she just hits the balance of fun inspiration, but she doesn’t let you get away with not that being at your full potential at every moment within those classes. I look to her and she makes my day every time I take her.
Gina Rubel: I have two and equally love them both. Robin, for the same reasons, and she’s a Philly girl, and Christine D’Ercole.
Sigalle Barness: Christine has the best cool-down ride. She hits you right in your heart and empowers you. I use this cool-down ride over and over and over again on days that I’m feeling down. She is very good at identifying moments when we’re negatively talking to ourselves saying, “are you being kind to yourself right now? What are you actually saying? Rewrite that for yourself.” It’s really important because we spend so much time editing text messages, emails and work correspondence for the benefit of others. However, we do not apply that same self-care for ourselves. We need to be better at that. She’s very good at pointing that out all the time.
Gina Rubel: What I think is so important here is you and I are both senior executives in our corporations. We don’t sell Peloton. We don’t get anything for talking about Peloton. It’s more about the common interests. The common need to find place to take care of oneself and vent. And to be inspired by others, no matter their sexual orientation, their gender, their race. It’s just this incredibly diverse group of people who inspire us. We need that level of inspiration as corporate leaders, just as much as anyone else.
Sigalle Barness: 100%. It is so important. And it is now a ritual for me every single morning. It makes or breaks my day. I need it.
Gina Rubel: I’m learning to need it. Some mornings I still do the self-defeating, “I’m so tired. I’ve got so much to do today and if I don’t get it started, I’m never going to get it done.” It’s interesting because one of my personal pet peeves is when people say, “well, how do you do it?” My stock answer is, “I just always do my best.” But my feeling is, “are you serious? I’m exhausted. I’m a mom, I’m a CEO. I’m trying to take care of myself.” It’s a funny question to me.
Sigalle Barness: This is thing that I learned from class: there is a moment in the class where the endorphins hit, and you’re sweating and you think, “this is the part that I’ve been working for.” There is about 5 to 10 minutes before that where it’s super painful and all you want to do is get off the bike. It’s really hard. But the more you do it, the more you feel that pain before, and then get that payoff, the more you start to welcome that pain beforehand, because the payoff is coming.
How do you find joy in the difficult part? Knowing that the difficult part is necessary to achieve that next level from the hard work you are doing. So, in moments of difficulty, I say to myself, “there is a payoff at the end of this. I don’t know what it is but I have to welcome this moment because I know that there is going to be beneficial for me.” I remind myself of this every time I have those moments where I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to do something on the bike, or I don’t want to do a project for work, or I don’t want to have a difficult conversation with someone.
Another thing is thanking yourself for showing up. At the end of the day, once you get on the bike, or once you get into that first meeting, or once you get into that difficult conversation, you showed up, you’re there, it’s going to happen. Just be kind to yourself and thank yourself for showing up that day. Whatever that means you showed up.
I’m going to bring it back to Lawline. What has changed in terms of how you produce Lawline content now?
At the beginning of March, all of the information started to come in. Our CEO, David Schnurman, moved with his family last August to Barcelona. They’re living abroad, and I’ve been managing the business here in the U.S. Obviously, we talk all the time. We had a conversation at the beginning of March while he was in Barcelona, and he said, “Things are bad here. We’re getting quarantined.”
About two weeks before the stay-at-home order started, we decided that we were going to go completely remote with working. We wanted to get ahead of it. We wanted to make sure that everyone had what they needed to work remotely, and we wanted them to start to understand what that process looked like. It was a very grueling two weeks because regardless of the fact that we were still an online continuing legal education platform, we’ve never done things remotely. We didn’t film our programs remotely. We still had a studio and were in-person-based, in that sense. We had to quickly understand what a remote environment looked like. We had hundreds of hours of programs that were scheduled for people to fly in from all over the country, and all of the world, to our studio.
We had to reschedule all of those things. We had to get them set up on Zoom, and a lot of people’s computers weren’t up to date either. The incredible amount of teamwork, not only for my internal team but also our faculty across the country, made it work. It was the culmination of people that gathered together, who still cared about educating attorneys during this time, that made it work.
The big difference is that all of our programming is now done on Zoom. It took a little bit of enabling from our development team to ensure that the Zoom technology was integrated with the technology that ensured compliance. Obviously, it’s an extremely important part of this whole process. We got that done in two and a half weeks. Now, we’re doing programs remotely all across the country and across the world.
Gina Rubel: This is what agility and leadership is all about. We realized in January how bad this was going to become. We have a client based in Washington state, and we were helping to close their office with them. We did prepare as well. We sent people home with their laptops and had everyone test them a week before the full lockdown. We told everyone to work from home, and we’re probably not coming back to the office in any sense of what it used to be like for at least the remainder of this year.
Sigalle Barness: We all also made that decision. We’ve made it clear to our internal team, as well as our faculty, that we will be remote at least through the end of this year as well.
What do you look for in a topic? How do you determine if a topic is going to be viable and if people are going to want to download it or want to watch it live? What does that process look like?
We are both data-driven, and we’re gut-driven. We do a little of both. First and foremost, we have a lot of processes in place to be extremely data-driven. We have created processes in which we get a lot of assessments from the people that use us, from various different channels. We use Net Promoter Score (NPS). It basically asks people to rate their overall experience with us as an organization. We utilize that information to help keep a temperature on how we’re doing. After every course that people watch, they have the ability to not only assess the program that they just watched, but also provide feedback on other content or areas that they wanted to see and learn more about.
In addition to that, we have reviews where people can review us as an organization. They also have the opportunity to suggest areas that they want to learn about. We even have our team of program attorneys that speaks to our faculty and asks them, “How’s it going in your business? How’s it going in your firm? What are you struggling with? What do you wish you could learn more about? How can we help you?”
Then, of course, we have our program attorneys themselves, who have their own amazing women on this team, that just understand what’s going on in the legal industry. They’re constant readers that are constantly talking to people. They have their own inputs on subjects we should be talking about. As the pandemic came out, it was very clear which areas people were struggling with. One of the huge topics, I think, unsurprisingly, is trying to figure out not only how to keep working and making money during this time but also how to stay sane. There’s a lot of that type of content.
We’re very good at channeling. There’s a lot of inputs. We channel it in a way where we are able to do an analysis on our programs. The program attorneys meet quarterly to analyze and review all of that data. Then, they make decisions on the content moving forward.
Gina Rubel: I’ve known David since he started the organization. One of the things that always impressed me was his dedication and commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. That’s one of the things that I’ve liked so much about Lawline over the years is that there’s a conscious effort.
Sigalle Barness: We try very hard to be extremely inclusive. We do what we can to ensure that we eliminate implicit and explicit bias. That is not tolerated. Especially, in light of everything that’s going on in the world now, we have doubled down a lot on those efforts.
We created an anti-racism task force to explore our internal processes and to ensure fairness and equity with regard to our hiring, our onboarding, our retention and our growth of all of our employees. We also compiled all of our previously created and new programs and created an anti-racism library. It focuses on everything from litigating civil rights plans, police brutality, voter suppression, distract, disrupting implicit and explicit bias, and representing peaceful protesters. We’re pledging a lot of money to nonprofit organizations like The Bail Project, National Lawyers Guild, Mass Defense Committee (MDC), and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). We are continuing to lean into this and make this a priority of our organization, to ensure that we’re taking real action moving forward.
Gina Rubel: I know it’s always been a priority, and it’s always been ours, where we’ve doubled down as well. There’s a new organization called the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance (LFAA). It was formed over the last couple of weeks. It just launched with over 125 signatures as of a few days ago. It’s predominantly made up of Am Law 100 and Am Law 200 firms, and it’s needed, welcomed change. We often tell our clients that you really need to show action. It’s not just words and thoughts. I think it’s an important part of our conversation today, given where we are in the world and talking about agility, flexibility and change.
Sigalle Barness: Absolutely. For me, it’s just absolutely exciting. I love being able to impact people through education, and I love the ability to be able to support attorneys, the very people that are helping shape the landscape of our country. I get to be a small piece of that by being able to support that process. I couldn’t find a better calling for myself.
What are some of the traits of a good presenter when it comes to a CLE seminar? What are some of the traits you look for in people as to whether or not they would be a good fit for this?
They have to have expertise in the area, and they should care deeply about the topic. They have to be able to feel comfortable in front of a camera and speak to a room, where there’s no one else there. In these situations, with Zoom at least, they have our producers that they can look at sometimes, but generally speaking, they haven’t been able to do that. For us, it’s more than that. It’s finding people that are able to speak to people in a way that breaks down concepts without all of the jargon. We all know the jargon as lawyers. We all get it.
We all know that we know how to say it, but to be able to speak to other attorneys as people and say, “I see where you struggle. I’m going to break this down in a way that makes total sense.” These are people that are coming for the sake of teaching.
There are a lot of marketing benefits and referrals that come from doing these programs. I’ve noticed that the people who come are truly passionate about sharing knowledge in a way that’s practical, and in a way that can be actionable after the program. Those are the ones that are the most successful. Those are the people where the audience comes back, they watch more of their programs, and they follow those faculty over and over again. Those people have this benefit of getting a lot of referrals after the fact, and they’re getting a lot of business.
Gina Rubel: In the past, I’ve had to talk attorneys into why they should do more CLE presentations. There’s that old school response of, “Well, I don’t want to give everything away.” I always say, when you show your thought leadership and your expertise, people are going to come to you for business. We’ve gotten calls as a result of people seeing programs that we’ve done, on all lines.
Sigalle Barness: When you give for the sake of giving and not for the sake of getting something back, you will get back. I’ve seen it in practice so many times. Like you said, that thought, leadership, kindness, and consideration is remembered, and it’s appreciated. There’s also no downside. Even if you don’t get something in return, the worst that happened is you actually helped someone.
Gina Rubel: I have also found that speakers sometimes want an immediate gratification, and they don’t understand that this is a long process. People don’t call you just because they heard you speak. We’re in a needs-based industry. They call you when they need you.
You’re not only the COO of Lawline, but you’re also with Chief Operating Mommy blog. Can you tell us about that?
I’ll give you some context about it. In 2018, I gave birth to my first child, my son. It was a very difficult pregnancy. I was very sick throughout all of it, but I was so happy to have a healthy son. Three months later, I was pregnant again with my daughter and had two babies. I was very sick between both of those pregnancies, but I am very grateful to have two beautiful children that are healthy and happy. During that time, I also knew David, who is always amazing. He promoted me in between my two maternity leaves and made me the COO of the company.
I was in this moment where I was becoming an executive. I was becoming a mom twice over in one year. We all know the transition to being a parent is hard, even just one time, but I was bombarded. I was also dealing with a lot of health issues. I realized I was going through a lot, and my outlet has always been to write. I love writing. I was an English major in undergrad, and I had various blogs in the past.
I started writing about my experiences and my struggles, trying to help people get through issues that they were probably also navigating. That was the inception of Chief Operating Mommy. I don’t get to write on it as much as I want to now, but I try my best to identify the things that I’m struggling with. There’s no agenda there. It’s therapeutic for me. I also try to help others that are going through the same thing that I am. To me, going through the process and sharing my journey helps me better understand what to do moving forward.
Gina Rubel: I did read one of your other blogs as well, and it was top things you learned in the last decade. You said that where you work is just as important as what you do. What I’d like to leave our listeners with is to remember that you can do whatever it is you want to do with your career. Sigalle Barness is one of those examples.
Sigalle, I’m thrilled you can join me today. I’ve enjoyed our conversation, and I’m sure our listeners have as well. How can they get in touch with you if they wanted to learn more?
We’ve been talking with Sigalle Barness, COO of Lawline and founder of Chief Operating Mommy blog.
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