Physically speaking, and in reality right now, there is no floor for Cedar Grove Law ‘tiny law firm.’ Metaphorically and optimistically speaking, there is also no ceiling. Jonathan and Anna Williams launched Cedar Grove Law in September — on the Autumnal Equinox, to be exact — from their nearly century-old home in Cedar Grove, with the plans to turn the small outbuilding on their property into the firm’s office.
Renovating the space, which once served as the office for the pastor from a nearby church, hasn’t moved as quickly as the two had hoped, as plans to have the space useable by year’s end have slipped to maybe summer 2021.
But that hasn’t affected Cedar Grove Law’s outsized love for farms and the businesses that also love farms.
“This is area is such a hub for organic farms, artisans, and local businesses,” said Jonathan. “A lot of them aren’t set up properly or correctly. It’s just things they just don’t have time to do, but you have to take the time to get it done. It’s easier to spend a little time on the front end than getting burned and spending a lot of time on the back end. And getting out and promoting the work. Working collaboratively with the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) and trying to connect with groups like that. We’re participating with the CFSA annual conference coming up in November. We started doing that last year, and that’s a great gathering of farmers and different companies they’re involved with, like seeding companies, sod and all that.”
“My journey has always been kind of peppered with either restaurants or retailers who focused on organic produce and things like that,” Anna said. “I’ve always been passionate about that. The localization of it. Micro-local, too. We knew we wanted to land near Hillsborough because my mom lives in Efland. We’d always come to Hillsborough and hang out when we’d visit. It’s just so cool and so fun. And there’s so many fun farms around here, and so many things to do. We knew we would land close by and my mom is right down the road. I was in Alabama, seven or eight months pregnant, and we kind of dropped the bomb that we were going to start looking in North Carolina (to move). I promise, I kid you not, my dad called that afternoon telling us he’d found a house up the road from their house. The guy had just put the ‘for sale’ sign out and my dad told him to take the sign down. John bought the house sight unseen. We moved up here and Botanist and Barrel had just opened, the C&B had just started on that mural. It’s just been so fun. Boxcar Cheese was well on their way. Experiencing all of that coming together, it’s just so fun. We love it.”
The two of them, along with their daughter, Ada, a dog, a small handful of cats and a bigger handful of chickens, having been mostly working from home because of the coronavirus, much like many others. But unlike some businesses, Jonathan and Anna have used the time to strip down their plans for their practice to its essence.
“From an efficiency and environmentally friendly standpoint, too, we realized how much we were doing that is unnecessary in the practice of law,” Jonathan said. “When things get serious, you realize what you need and maybe want. And you have it because you want it, not necessarily because you need it. Dialing back, you realize just how much was unnecessary. I get it, some people need the office space, and need the actual frontage and such, but that really changed during the pandemic. People weren’t just walking in. And even now that restrictions have been pulled back some, there’s still a situation where you come up to the door, you’ve got to dial a number to make an appointment. What’s the difference from Googling it, making the call and saying ‘Hey, let’s just Zoom in. I can do it now, I can do it tomorrow.’ It’s the next best thing. Think about doing it in person, if you’re doing it right, you’re still keeping your distance. We’re not shaking hands. There’s such a shift. I don’t think you can call it cultural. Almost like an environmental shift.”
It’s a shift that saves on gas and has allowed John and Anna to sell one of their cars. But that’s not the only downsizing they’ve realized during the pandemic.
“There’s less storage of papers and we’re not mailing as much,” Jonathan said. “We just scan them and send them. We’re trying to cut back on actual hard copies. When you do this you realize how tiny you can be.”
Working from home, though, has not come without its challenges. John and Anna have wrestled with childcare for their daughter and keeping up with her schooling. The lines between work and Homelife can be a little harder to distinguish and keep separate. Also, living in a rural area creates spotty WiFi, which can be frustrating at a time when technology plays such a big part of maintaining an ability to do business and hold meetings over Zoom or just downloading a PDF.
“From a professional perspective, the pivot that has been difficult for me is the needs of my current firm and Cedar Grove Law have moved to technology,” Anna added. “I’m pretty sufficient and savvy. If I run into a problem on my PC or Mac, I can figure it out. But having to fix other people’s problems? Just this morning, I was trying to talk an attorney through sending a PDF with a signature option. For me, I can just do that. But I'm not really great at training other people to do that. That has probably been my biggest difficulty. I’m a people-person, I do a lot of business development. That is different. We still do Zoom calls and you still have conversations. It’s a lot more LinkedIn messages and a lot less coffees.”
Another effect of COVID-19 was the courts being closed. For Jonathan, a fair portion of his billable hours comes from showing up to court and arguing motions, which has been difficult for several months.
Jonathan and Anna have been practicing law since 2008 after graduating from the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., where the two met. That year was tough for most industries, including law, as the country was gripped in an economic downturn.
“When we started law school, being a lawyer was really great, but by the time we graduated, nobody was hiring,” Jonathan said. “In fact, they were laying off at about that time. A lot of these bigger firms that had been hiring everybody — a few attorneys every year — were no longer doing that. I got up to Nashville and started doing criminal defense work. Appointed work. Essentially a public defender. My background for about eight years was doing criminal defense. I did some other private work as well. Got into the civil side of it. So I guess I’ve been doing law for about 12 years now.”
Anna worked with larger firms and even now works with the Walker Lamb in Durham, doing estate law.
“I’m their executive director by day,” she said. “By evening and on weekends, I’m Cedar Grove Law boss. I’m the boss. I don’t have an official title. That’s kind of how it works for now. With Walker Lamb, I try really hard to kind of bring some of these pieces to a larger firm. John has worked in traditional firms, and my entire career has been in traditional law firms settings. I’ve always been passionate about trying to help the practice of law to advance to a place that is functioning more efficiently and understands they really are providing a service. Demand is not unlimited in the market place. We have to be competitive and think about how we’re billing. At the end of the day, the billable hours are only relevant to the people who are working. At the end of the day it’s about value. Are you getting a good value for the service we’re providing? As a baseline, law firms have to be really good at what they do. That’s the baseline. You’re not distinguishing yourself as a law firm by being really good at practicing law. You’re distinguishing yourself as a law firm, in my view, by being good to your people. By really engaging with the community around you. And firms have done that, generally speaking. I just feel like there’s ways to make it more visceral than it’s ever been. That’s kind of where Cedar Grove Law came from."
Both Jonathan and Anna have taken an organic approach to how they plan to grow their law firm, often canvasing the state, getting off the interstate, and taking the back routes.
“You can see how much land is here that people are farming everywhere,” Jonathan said. “There’s big farms, there’s small farms. In North Carolina, more often than not, it’s the smaller farms. I get all over the state and I think, 'why am I not connecting with these folks.’"
“Our idea, too, is to get out to their farms,” Anna said. “Especially when it comes to a land-use agreement, or any other kind of property sharing, farm sharing and that kind of thing. I think traditional law firms are just focusing on the paper of it. ‘Let’s just draw up that lease agreement.’ That is 100 percent part of it. The other part of it, though, from the client perspective, that little spot there that they don’t own but they want to use is important. Having a conversation with them where it is is really cool. I think we would definitely have people here once things clear up. And maybe we’ll have a little porch on the building so we can meet outdoors. But we love to go to their space, too.
Jonathan and Anna said they’re planning to do much of the renovation of the “tiny firm” themselves. It’s work the two claim to enjoy.
“It’s one of the rare ways we can actually work together on projects,” Anna said. “We both like to do it our way. We have a really good division of labor when it comes to rehabbing structures. I have a lot of ideas, give good input and am good at going to Lowe’s and getting supplies. And John’s really good at doing the stuff. I’m good at my part and he’s good at his part.”
While Cedar Grove Law has been operating for only a month, its founders said the local response has been strong, and the firm is getting references from other attorneys. Jonathan, who is a member of the Board of Directors for the Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce, said the firm also receives references from other chamber and board members.
“The chamber has been really helpful. They’re always interested in what they can do to help out and what we’re doing so if they came across and opportunity to send somebody our way. It’s been very satisfying,” he said.
“We have wonderful relationships with other attorneys who come across this stuff a lot,” Anna adds. “When you hyper focus on something like farmers or the entities supporting farmers, it can be a good referral network. There are a lot of estate issues that arise with farm ownership, so the firm I work with during the day is able to connect and make referrals to us. We have a few really great resources.”