You would be surprised what you do not need to get ahead. In short, not having what you need forces you to learn to do anything and everything, without having what you need.
In my work as a coach and consultant, I speak with business leaders across multiple industries about their most significant challenges. One common theme continues to emerge — rapid change and disruption are the new norm in business, and the only constant is the demand for resilience. At the heart of resilience is the ability to adapt and recover quickly from adversity. I am certain that more than intelligence and talent, resilience is the single most important trait required to succeed in today’s highly complex market.
My “Rising through Resilience” interview series explores the topic of resilience in interviews with leaders across all walks of business.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Tina Willis, a personal injury & car accident lawyer, based in Orlando, Florida, and owner of Tina Willis Law. Ms. Willis handles serious injury, accident & wrongful death cases. Ms. Willis is a former law professor and big firm defense lawyer, who now spends a lot of time educating her clients about how to get the most money possible from their cases, then fighting hard to get them every penny they deserve.
Thank you so much for joining me! Can you share your backstory?
I’m the owner of a boutique auto accident law firm in Orlando, Florida. I opened my own practice representing accident victims after spending years defending insurance companies and large corporations.
On a personal level, I was raised by my grandparents in a small town just outside Orlando. My grandfather was a grove worker foreman and my grandmother stayed home to raise me. We had very little money. But they still taught me the power of determination, compassion for others, and faith that I could do anything. The lessons that I learned from them gave me the strength to overcome our poverty, by studying hard in college and law school, and ultimately graduating second in my class (of 225 law students) at Florida State University, College of Law. My academic performance then propelled me into countless opportunities with unlimited growth potential.
In terms of hobbies, I’m an avid distance runner and camper, with dreams of traveling the country in an RV that I own with my husband, so that we can run all over the state and national parks. I’m also an adoring cat owner, so much that I recently paid to have my most beloved pet of all time, Pluto, genetically preserved, and plan to have him cloned probably in 2020 (he died on June 24, 2019).
What are the top three factors you would attribute to your success?
The first and most important is an unwavering belief that good things will happen, if I work hard enough, and take carefully calculated risks. The second is that, while growing my business, I kept my personal expenses very low, including a small mortgage. I also invested most of my income and was very thrifty overall. Not having to pay high bills, and eventually having enough invested to live without my income, gave me the freedom to take risks with my time and money. The third is that I am absurdly committed to protecting the time that I need to eat well, exercise, sleep, and spend down time with my husband and friends. Protecting my health and sanity gives me mental and physical strength that makes me very tough (and hard to beat) when I am working toward my goals.
What makes your company stand out from the crowd?
We really are different through good old-fashioned customer service and commitment to doing our very best for every single client. We prioritize service, above profits, which means we are a low volume law firm. Many personal injury & car accident law firms practice in a high-volume way (true story), which often requires compromises in customer service, and time spent on each case. That approach leads to higher overall income for those law firms. But it is not the best approach for maximizing the value of each individual case.
I learned what I consider an old-fashioned way of providing service from my grandparents. We may not be as efficient as those who have layers of assistants handling many aspects of their practice, some of which really should be handled instead by actual lawyers. But our clients always feel like human beings, and they know lawyers who really care about them are working very hard on their cases.
How has your company continued to thrive in the face of rapid change and disruption in your industry?
We really have not changed much in the twenty years since I’ve been practicing law. The law is stubborn and really cannot be rushed or automated. Of course, we utilize new technologies, such as software to run our practice, and marketing. But I essentially ignore and have almost no awareness of “rapid change and disruption,” and just keep my head down and do my best for every client, thoughtfully considering every important issue and strategy in their cases, and my presentations and arguments, every time. That approach has worked very well since day one.
According to a recent KPMG study, resilience is the underlying trait of most successful businesses. How would you define “resilience?”
To me, resilience means taking only a limited amount of mental downtime after setbacks, which we all have, then having the mental and physical strength to quickly resume working just as hard, all over again. We all must adjust mentally when we experience difficulties. But I just give myself a short time to feel bad, then get right back to the business of working on my goals, and mentally force myself to stop thinking about (i.e., compartmentalize) any losses. Basically, you must be able to “take a licking and (quickly) keep on ticking.” That’s a simple cliché, but so true in business.
Also, as I mentioned, keeping business and personal expenses low has helped a lot with my resilience, because of the stress reduction. Being resilient would have been much more difficult (for me) if I had ever been afraid that I was not going to be able to pay my mortgage payment, or office rent, the following month.
When you think of tenacity and endurance, what person comes to mind?
Thankfully, my husband. He works harder, and has more resilience, than anyone I’ve ever known. And my husband really cannot be shaken. Whether good or bad, he starts every morning with a smile, ready to tackle a long list of work and personal projects. I have often called him the “energizer bunny.”
Almost regardless of how bad the news might be, he stays filled with optimism, and never wavers in his willingness to work hard on every major goal in his life, from his work as an HVAC contractor, to renovations of rental properties we own, to smaller things like training for a 5K road race or gathering supplies for a Christmas party.
Just to give one of countless examples, two years ago, and again two months ago, he had two major hip surgeries. Many people really struggle during the painful recovery from those surgeries. But he was working hard almost immediately, even while still using crutches (which were required during the first six weeks post-op). He was running around the inside and outside of our house putting up Christmas decorations, even on the roofline of the house using a ladder, all while using crutches, and in a lot of pain. And he was still doing many other household jobs and supervising his business and our finances. That’s serious tenacity!
My husband puts 100% into every important task in his life, never gets down for very long, and always encourages me with his work ethic and faith that things will work out in the end. With him by my side, it’s much easier to get myself going again when bad things happen.
Was there ever a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway?
When I first decided to start my own law practice, I had little money to spare to start my business, and no money whatsoever for marketing. So, I decided that I would build my own website and teach myself search engine optimization (“SEO.”) And my office was literally an electrical closet in a small building in my small town (Winter Garden), just outside Orlando, Florida. I had no assistant and no fancy software to make my life easier.
During that time, I met with several prominent local lawyers who had successful personal injury law firms and shared my plans. Every single one of them told me that there was absolutely no way, without money, that I would be able to generate clients through website marketing in the insanely competitive business of personal injury and car accident law.
One particularly memorable lawyer shared that his firm spent over six figures annually to pay a full-time, in-house website marketing professional, who had his own staff and budget. So, he said that I could not possibly get anywhere online by myself and handle the actual legal work that came along. Plus, personal injury lawyers do not get paid until the cases conclude, which can take one to three years, and we front costs for our clients. So, he explained that he never could have started without a 100K loan from his parents.
I promptly decided to ignore his very strong warnings, which, despite my being a potential competitor in the early stages, I believe were sincere. He really was not worried about me online because he thought I was somewhat nuts for attempting to rank my website without hiring professionals, in such an absurdly competitive business as personal injury law. And I really had no clear plan, other than a belief that I could do anything that I set my mind to accomplish.
Additionally, I was desperate to have complete freedom from being an employee who was controlled by others. The desire for total freedom was my strongest driving force. I also had no financial choice, if I wanted to generate clients for my personal injury law firm, besides teaching myself marketing.
Therefore, I spent thousands of hours learning how to generate clients for my law practice, which I started in 2012. When I first started, I had no idea just how much work would be involved, nor whether that work would ever pay off in any meaningful way. But I still had almost child-like faith that good things would happen, if I worked toward my goals every day, and kept my business and personal expenses as low as possible.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever?
After working at some of the largest law firms in the country, back in 1998, I was going through a divorce after an ill-conceived and short-lived (six month) marriage. At the same time, my grandfather, who had raised me, at least I thought, was dying. His doctor told me that he was dying on the phone, when I was living in New York, after having just moved to get married. I traveled back to Florida to take care of him, and that caretaking ultimately spanned 12 years of my life (thankfully, the doctor was wrong, and my grandfather recovered, but was very sick for the following 12 years).
Those two events (divorce and extensive caretaking) took a major toll on my career. To have more time for caretaking, once I moved back to Florida, I did not pursue another big law firm job. Instead, I started a small business doing much lower paid contract work for other law firms around the state of Florida, from my home, working part-time, while caretaking.
Although those events hit me hard professionally, I discovered that life outside a big law firm was far superior and allowed me to become way healthier than most of my former law firm colleagues, largely because I had a flexible schedule. So, I could take care of myself through nutrition, fitness, and overall life balance. I became an avid long-distance runner, too.
And I met my new and much better husband (at least for me), and we’ve been together happily now for almost 20 years.
Professionally, after my grandfather died, since I was “off track” with the big law firms, I decided to take a chance by teaching myself marketing and starting my own small personal injury and car accident practice. This practice area suited me very well because, having been raised with very little money, I was very sympathetic toward those who were fighting big corporations and insurance companies, particularly because of serious injuries or death, caused by those corporations or their clients.
I have worked extremely hard, and spent thousands of hours, teaching myself SEO and marketing. Thankfully, I have had tremendous success online, generating my own business, and earning far more money than I ever dreamed possible, even when working at the bigger law firms.
At the same time, since I’m self-employed, and set my own schedule, I’ve had the flexibility to maintain my healthy lifestyle. So, I’m an extremely fit person, unlike far too many of my former big law firm colleagues, who don’t have time to stay healthy because they spend every waking hour working.
I wouldn’t change my history for anything, particularly since I have schedule flexibility, good health, and, at the same time, the ability to help worthy & sympathetic people with their legal problems, which has generated a very nice income. I was never cut out to be a corporate & insurance defense lawyer anyway (which was how I started my professional life), since my heart has always been, and will always be, with the little guy.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency?
I think my entire childhood contributed to my resiliency. My family was very, very poor. So, I have had to make more from less most of my life. I learned to make good things happen without much money from an early age.
One simple example is decorating our house for parties or guests. For many years, I had to make our very modest home look nice, so I just did my best with whatever we already owned.
On a more substantive level, I had to find a way to attend college with no money or connections. And law school. And then I had to get law firm jobs without connections, which many other graduating law students had.
You would be surprised what you do not need to get ahead. In short, not having what you need forces you to learn to do anything and everything, without having what you need.
What strategies do you use to strengthen your resilience?
Well it feels like my current boss is Google. Since my marketing is intimately tied to Google, anytime there is a change in the algorithms (which happens semi-regularly), my entire business can be shut down.
Also, when I first started my practice and marketing efforts, I invested a few thousand hours into developing my law firm’s presence on what was then Google’s social media platform, Google Plus. I developed valuable connections around the world, with other lawyers and professionals. At one point, I even had a web-based weekly show, which I hosted with another lawyer and friend on the platform. I also created and administered several legal communities on Google Plus.
My belief, at the time, was that my website rank would increase if my Google Plus profile was extremely active and popular, which was true for a few years. Plus, I learned about other important aspects of online marketing, from several close friends, including a few of the best SEO professionals in the world, with whom I’ve stayed connected.
But Google Plus, itself, came to a crashing halt a few years ago. Google just abandoned the platform. Since I had spent countless hours developing my profile, including drafting detailed original content posts, and videos, this was a major blow to my online marketing strategy. So, I needed a hefty dose of resilience to shift my focus to other aspects of online marketing and social media.
And my calls took a major hit when Google Plus first ended.
The good news is that we transitioned some of those efforts (though not nearly as much time) to other social media platforms. And I still have many lawyer and other professional friends around the world (some of whom I still meet in person on a regular basis), which I never would have developed without the time that I spent on Google Plus. So, all was not lost. Still, losing countless carefully crafted social media posts, and thousands of followers, and the boost those things gave our website, overnight, was a major loss, which was totally out of our control. We had no choice but to shift our focus and marketing game plan.
We also regularly experience fluctuations in calls due to changes in Google algorithms, or changes from online competitors. Therefore, we have developed our workday patterns around the need to constantly monitor our online presence, and competitors’ strategies, so that we can always quickly shift our approach, anytime we experience a decline because of something caused by Google and/or our competitors.
Not receiving any calls, because of Google changes, doesn’t happen as often these days, since we now generate many referrals from past clients. Still, having my phone stop ringing overnight because of a Google algorithm change, on many occasions, but continuing to work just as hard on marketing and handling my clients’ cases, certainly has strengthened my resilience!
How can leaders create a more resilient workforce?
Keeping everyone informed about any setbacks (and victories) in business, then asking everyone how they would solve problems, then showing them that the owners are still working hard with faith that we will overcome problems, creates a resilient workforce. Basically, business owners must lead by example. They must be shining examples of resilience. And they should continuously request and seriously consider feedback from everyone on their team.
Extensive research suggests that people who have a clear purpose in their lives are more likely to persevere during difficult times. What are your goals?
Professionally, I am passionate about the legal rights of those who do not have the means to hire lawyers to fight big corporations and insurance companies. I am vehemently opposed to laws that are almost always carefully crafted to hurt the little guy (usually by big corporations and their lobbying efforts). So, we do everything in our power to make sure we help every client maximize their individual case value. And I tell everyone who will listen (including online) about the unfairness of many laws, and proposed laws. So, my professional goals are to communicate about injustice, whenever given the opportunity, then fight like crazy for my clients, under the laws as they exist today.
On a personal level, I try to keep myself and my husband healthy and happy (we have no children). That includes a serious commitment to daily exercise (usually long runs, but also weight training, biking, and swimming), and cooking and eating healthy. We have run and biked countless miles over the years and chopped and prepared an awful lot of fruits and vegetables! We set personal goals around our fitness, such as when I hired a coach to train for a race (which I did last year, and again this year, when I ran a couple of half-marathons after completing lengthy training programs designed by a coach). Fitness and health-related goals, small and large, are basically constants in our lives.
Also, working together, my husband and I try to bring joy to our extended family, friends, and employees, through simple things like hosting holiday parties, organizing regular get-togethers throughout the year, and being helpful friends when needed. We believe social connections are important to happiness and health, so we make a real effort to maintain those.
We also stay focused on taking great care of our cats. My husband and I spent almost four years providing extensive daily care for our cat, Pluto, who had lung cancer. We also performed almost round the clock care for several months during that four-year time span (when he was first diagnosed, and needed open-chest surgery, then again right before he died). About six weeks after our precious Pluto died, which was beyond heart-breaking, we brought home a new kitten, to join our other three aging cats. Although I’m still grieving Pluto, six months later, our new kitten, Simba, has been more fun than work, and has helped slightly ease the pain. But animals have always been a big part of my purpose in life.
Lastly, we are trying to position ourselves to be able to work remotely, in our RV, for a few months per year, several years from now. In the meantime, we regularly enjoy plenty of long beach weekends in our RV (and sometimes even tent camping and paddle boarding in an outdoor activity group we joined a couple of years ago). We love camping, campfire conversations with friends, long runs on the beach, and paddle boarding in the ocean and nearby lakes and rivers. So, we plan to continue those fun and invigorating outings.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
Never, never, never give up.
Thank you for all of these great insights!