Name: Laura Williams
Businesses: Williams HR Law LLP; Williams HR Consulting, Inc.
Industry: Law/ Human Resources
Tanya: So, the first question, an easy one, what is the name of your company, and what does it do?
Laura: I have two companies. So, the first one is a law firm. It’s a full-service labor and employment law firm – Williams HR Law, LLP. It provides advice and representation to employers. The second is Williams HR Consulting, Inc., a full spectrum HR consulting firm.
Tanya: What was your path to entrepreneurship?
Laura: I’ve always been entrepreneurial. I’m the youngest of four. My elder siblings used to send me to run errands back in the day. This was the 70s. My one sister loved sour cream and onion chips and coffee crisp bars. I’d have to cross a busy street, and I used to charge them a transfer fee. If chips were 25 cents, it was 10 cents a transfer. So, I’ve always been creative. They still joke about how, remember the days when Laura used to put a percentage on all the runs she used to make?
Tanya: A mogul in the making!
Laura: After I had spent some time as a lawyer in the public sector, I just felt that what we do and how we do it could be done differently. Law is very reactive. And when it comes to labor and employment law or HR issues within an organization, there’s no reason for us not to rely on the fact that human behavior is very predictable. So, I wouldn’t just say, “Okay, well, there’s a client that has an issue, and we’ve resolved the issue, and let’s move on.” It’d be like, okay, let’s pop the hood and see how this happened here.
The partners said, “Yeah, you’re a great lawyer, but you’re also a consultant.” Because it wasn’t intuitive for lawyers to take more of a proactive approach and really want to go and resolve what the issues are. Ultimately, I kind of followed that path and had that urging. That I wanted to launch something and do it a little differently.
I don’t know if you want to include this in the article, but when people used to ask me when I was launching a firm, what was I going to name it? I would say Scared S***less LLP. And so, my mother said, “Dear, that’s not very funny.”
Tanya: I’m totally including that!
Laura: Well, I got to tell you, but that’s one of the true realities of being an entrepreneur. And the ones that are successful, they do it afraid. You’ve got to push past that fear barrier because there are a lot of things that should cause you to pause, that you should be tentative about. And that you need to break through and forge ahead and take your lumps.
Because being an entrepreneur, entering into the business realm, you are going to learn a lot. And you’re going to learn a lot from your mistakes. And you don’t take them as failures, you take them as lessons.
Tanya: Absolutely. I love that. So, what would you say is your boldest business move to date?
Laura: When I was an equity partner with the other firm, the boldest business move was launching the firm.
Now, the real bold, baller move, which was crazy, is when I had an infant company, and decided on launching another one. So, my standard joke is, look, I’m trying to pass myself off as a redhead, but I’m actually a silver fox. And probably earlier than I should have been, because I did some things that people would be like, I don’t know if I’d do that now. But anyway, that, having two baby businesses when you are in a very busy time, and when you’re on a steep learning curve, I think that was pretty baller.
Tanya: I would concur with that for sure. What was your biggest financial turning point for your company? Your, “I made it” moment?
Laura: Well my dear, I haven’t made it. Once you think you’ve made it, then you start to coast. I’m always thinking, where can we take things? And not only from a financial perspective. Because one of the things I’ll tell you that I’ve said many times is I’ve never chased a dollar a day. But you do get to a point when your business gets to a certain girth, where you have to be smart financially, particularly if you want it to grow, if you want it to be sustainable, et cetera.
I will say relatively recently, one of the milestones was admitting my first partner and then changing the business from operating as a professional corporation to a partnership. And because now it truly is on track to becoming sustainable, creating that path to partnership was a big thing. Another thing that was a big move for the firm was creating a bonus incentive plan that is based on incentivizing collective behaviors.
When you think of a bonus, you think of self-interest. We framed it as an incentive for everyone to see the virtues of working together. That the sum is greater than the parts. And if we work together, we’ll be more profitable. And I want everyone to share in that profitability. So that’s something that has evolved. That is a huge, huge milestone for me personally because I wanted to do that for years, and it didn’t become feasible until two years ago when we became a partnership. So that’s huge.
Tanya: That’s amazing. I’m sure it has changed how your team works together. Now it’s not just their own individual KPIs. We need to be successful as a team.
Laura: Absolutely. Typically in law firms, the lawyers or those that are the direct revenue generators they’re incentivized. But I tell this story often because this is the truth. Before I became a lawyer, my sister was a legal assistant in some of the big downtown Toronto shops.
Understanding her work, it became very evident to me where the engine is in the firm, and that’s your support team, and people don’t get that. So, for me, there were periods when I had to incentivize the lawyers exclusively. But it was a big deal to create a scheme where everybody’s incentivized. And it makes the lawyers appreciate the value of their support partners. And the support partners to see the value in the contribution that they make to the delivery of the services to the client.
It really works. And it’s all behavioral and competency-driven. So we’re all held to the same eight competencies in terms of our behaviors and how we perform. And I wish I could say it was all hatched from me but I didn’t want to experience a steep learning curve. So, I engaged high-priced external consultants to help us build the framework and to put it all together.
Tanya: And I’m sure it has paid off tenfold more than whatever you paid out. This is what building a culture looks like. It’s not cheap, and it’s not fast, but when you do it well, the ROI is absolutely there. So that’s really, really good.
Laura: You get it. The truth of the matter is, yes, there is a lot of altruism in it. But it is good business. And good business should always be altruistic because this is the line I’ve been saying for years, you’re not going to meet your business objectives if you don’t get your people management issues right. Period, full stop.
Also, in terms of a business perspective, it is realizing we can’t service everyone. We’re not the right vendor for every client. Clients that want to shortchange their employees, we’re not their service providers.
Tanya: And that’s okay.
Laura: And we have two policies that I can put to you simply. Our vision is two prongs. From an employee perspective: no divas. From a client perspective: no a**holes.
Tanya: I absolutely love it.
Laura: Every complexity can be grounded in simplicity. So, my mind just simplifies and synthesizes things.
I just remembered a couple of other milestones we are really proud of: Our lease is up, and I bought our new corporate building. We’re just about to launch the construction, and it’s a big thing. Because we’re going to have a work cafe. We’re really doing it. Ping pong table, the whole bit. So, we’re going to have a really nice space coming.
We also became a case study for Ivey Publishing. So, business schools around the globe will be studying us.
Tanya: That’s huge! I think that what’s really interesting about your story is that people don’t think of lawyers as entrepreneurs. I mean, obviously, you’re still a business owner who’s in charge of building a company, but that also includes a culture. And it goes against what I’m sure is a lot of stereotypes about what lawyers are and what they do and how they serve people. I love that you’re really shifting a lot of what I’m sure law firm owners look like, how they operate, and how they sound. I really, really, I dig that a lot.
How has the lens of being a woman in your industry helped you? I can only guess the legal industry is predominantly male.
Laura: What is central to being an entrepreneur is identifying your core story. So, this is why I say I’ve never chased a dollar a day. Because the truth of the matter is if you’re truly coming at entrepreneurialism in the right way, what you are offering to the world through your business should be something that is innate or organic to you.
My dad was a professor of sociology and he also was a kind of forerunner when it came to race relations as well. My mother also was in leadership, very much a trailblazer. So for me, I am innately passionate about what I do because of my folks. But also, because they were such trailblazers I am now looking at everything they had to endure. I really see them as they had got huge kahunas in terms of what they accomplished and what they had to push through at that time to accomplish.
But they really raised us to say, “Look, there’s no table that you can’t pull your seat up to.” So that’s my long answer to essentially tell you that I have never done anything woman first or Black woman first. Has it come up in the context of the work that I do or in the business? Of course. But what I will say is that you have to flip and reverse it, in your own mind first. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to shift the mindset of scarcity-minded people. To see a possibility that people packaged differently than what they may be used to or exposed to, can do great things. So that’s how I’ve moved through those tough times.
Tanya: Coming through with the sermon! Second to last question: How has either global health or racial pandemics affected your business?
Laura: We. Have. Never. Been. Busier. Full stop. I’ve never personally felt more on purpose and fulfilled.
Laura: Organizations that are popping the hoods and saying, “Help us with our systems and processes. Review our policies so that they reflect equity. And they’re more equitable. Look at where we may have systemic barriers. Educate us on how we can overcome our unconscious biases.” I mean, we’re in a time that if we don’t seize it, shame on us.
This time has also been a reckoning for me as a Black woman. And as somebody that’s racialized and understands the toll, it takes on us to continue to put one foot in front of the other. And to sometimes put blinders on and endure experiences like dealing with a CEO that is absolutely, flagrantly discriminating based on how I present.
What I find is that, and this is the case for a lot of providers that are doing work in equity, diversity, and inclusion that happen to be racialized individuals, it does take a toll. Because oftentimes you are reliving different trauma. And so, while from a business perspective, numbers look great, I’ve had to be a little bit more mindful of self-care in this climate. But again, the paradox is I also am embracing the opportunity to really, really help, because our firm is being called on very heavily and intensely to assist with this work.
I gravitate to the good. I accept the fact that there is hate. I accept the fact that there’s evil. I accept the fact that we have to have contrast. We have to have bad, so you know what’s good. You have to have hate, so you know what’s love. That’s part of the human experience.
Tanya: I’m so glad that you touched on that because it is exhausting. I always put on socials, I’m just like, “Hey, y’all, I know Black History Month is in February. You know you can talk to Black people outside of February.” There are 11 other months in a year. “I promise you, I won’t disintegrate on February 28th. And you will get better content because by February 27th, I’m just like, I don’t want to talk about race at all, ever again.”
Laura: And by the way, how did we end up with the shortest month of the year?
Tanya: And the coldest! We’re a warm-blooded climate people. It’s going to be our villain origin story. We’re going to change that. So final question – how do you, or do you find a balance between your personal and your professional life? So how do you find a balance? Or do you find a balance?
Laura: So I have to make sure my assistant, Fran, is not listening
Tanya: Because Fran’s going to give the real.
Laura: I’ve been awful at it.
Tanya: I feel like most people are.
Laura: My name is Laura Williams, and I’m a workaholic. But one of the things that I have a hard time distinguishing is – am I a workaholic because I’m so passionate about what I do, and then I push it beyond what is humanly possible because I love what I do?
What I have come to realize is the fact that I do need to take longer breaks. I just came off a two-week vacation. I’ve really embraced the need for breaks. Not that I wasn’t taking breaks before, but longer breaks, more restorative time away from work.
Getting my walks in and trying to be consistent with that. Eating better. All of the things that fall under the self-care banner is part of how I create balance.
I’m coming to understand the real meaning of keeping more balance with your body, mind, and spirit. I do my meditation, devotional time in the morning. I do not allow myself to come under attack as best as I can in the morning. You got to nip it in the bud. So, things like that, that I’ve habitualized, help me keep on track and create a balance.
Tanya: Thank you so much. This was so much fun. Very grateful for your time.
Bold & Black is a monthly interview series conducted by entrepreneur and Canada’s Top 25 Women of Influence Honouree Tanya Hayles. Tanya is the founder of Black Moms Connection, an online global village of almost 30,000 and a national non-profit providing programs and financial tools through grant programs generously supported by BMO. The statements and opinions expressed by guests & interviewees are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bank of Montreal or its affiliates.