It takes a lot of courage to buck the traditional career path and launch your own business as an attorney, but for Elizabeth Christy, it paid off.
Christy founded the Elizabeth Christy Law Firm in Vancouver about 10 years ago after she failed to find a traditional job moving up the ranks in another lawyer’s office. As a new business owner, she kept her costs low, found new ways to build up her client base and grew the business to where it now has six employees and is looking to hire more.
“The biggest challenge going out on your own is trying to learn the ropes on your own,” Christy said. “It’s important to find people you trust. You have to network, and you also have to find clients.”
Christy grew up in Lake Oswego and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon and her law degree from Golden Gate University Law School in San Francisco. She caught the lawyering bug from her father, who is also an attorney, she said.
“He sparked my interest,” Christy said. “I actually always wanted to be a lawyer, even when I was a kid. I always sort of new that this was a good fit for me.”
Christy decided to specialize in divorce and family law because she was drawn to the human connection, and the idea that her services can help local families through difficult issues.
“I think just being able to help people through difficult times in their lives is rewarding,” Christy said. “I like helping families. It’s the most interesting area of law for me.”
She decided to practice in Washington because she wanted to establish herself in a new community, she added.
“I just wanted to be independent and start out on my own,” Christy said. “Clark County has a very close knit legal community. You get to know people a lot faster. And Portland is much bigger and much more crowded.”
But when she first got to Clark County, she faced one big problem: she couldn’t find a job.
“I wasn’t having any luck and I was ready to jump in, so after a few months I decided I’m just going to go out on my own,” Christy said. “It turned out to be a very good thing for me.”
Christy didn’t advertise much at first, and she decided to try to keep her budget as low as possible. During the first few years of operation, she even lived with her parents, putting all the money she gained back into building the business.
“I did that for a few years until I had a good income,” Christy said. “I know not everybody can do that, but I think it’s really important to minimize the amount of debt. I started with very little, just a few thousand dollars.”
Instead of paying for a big advertising spur to launch her business, Christy went to other attorneys and asked for cases they didn’t want or had conflicts of interest about. She also used the Clark County Bar Association referral service to find clients.
“It took a little while, but after that I started getting referrals from other clients,” Christy said. “Now I do a little advertising online, but we still get a lot of people through word-of-mouth.”
Vancouver’s close-knit law community was also a huge help to Christy as she set up her firm.
“There are a lot of nice attorneys, people who love what they do,” she said. “People are very collegial. It’s a nice community and a good team feeling.”
Lawyers in Clark County often socialize with one another through events put together by the Clark County Bar Association and its sub-groups. And that led to some great mentoring opportunities, Christy noted.
“It’s hard because we have to work against each other and compete with each other, and we have conflict,” she said, “but most don’t take it personally.”
Christy explained that she’s also found a lot of helpful mentors in the local law community.
“I asked them a lot of procedural questions, questions on how to interpret case law, questions on how to set up my office,” she said. “I think finding good mentors is the most important thing any business person can do.”
Taking care of your mentors and making sure they know they’re appreciated is another important tip she has for other businesses.
“I think people should not just look at mentoring as take, take, take,” Christy said. “I took my mentors to lunch, to dinners – all the time. I just wanted them to know how much I appreciate them.”
Christy practices mostly in Clark County, but is licensed in both Washington and Oregon. Her father practiced in Portland before he retired.
Being licensed in two states has given her firm a good niche. Most lawyers only practice in one state, but with Vancouver and Portland tied so closely together and families often straddling the state line, there’s still a strong need for attorneys who understand the laws of both states, she explained.
“We’re so close, yet so far apart,” Christy said. “It’s a strength for us in the market. Not many attorneys practice in both states, but family issues often cross state lines.”
Clients seem to appreciate Christy’s personal touch, at least if you look at the testimonials on her website.
“Elizabeth is a top-flight attorney, and I cannot recommend anyone more highly,” said K. Brown, one client on the site. “She is ultra-competent and sharply focused, and will advocate solidly on your behalf while maintaining the right balance of class and decorum necessary to make real headway with the ‘other side.’”
Her clients are most often families with children that are going through a divorce. The other large area is modifications to agreements like parenting plans and child support, she said.
“A lot of people come to me to resolve things out of court,” Christy said. “That’s been a positive development.”
Over the past 10 years, her law firm has grown to employ three attorneys and three paralegals, and it’s looking to hire one more attorney this year.
“Business has grown significantly every year we’ve been in practice,” she said.