On Episode 24 of Decision Dialogues, Mark Willoughby and Mindy Neira are joined by Terry Lyons, founder and managing partner of Lyons & Associates, P.C., a firm specializing in divorce and family law. Terry talks about the shift that occurred in her life that caused her to leave the big firm where she worked previously and start her own firm, and how the inspiration from that shift came from a very unexpected place. She recalls important decisions with massive financial impact that she’s made, both good and bad, and analyzes the reasons for each of them.

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Transcript

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Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Mark Willoughby, and I’m a Principal and Wealth Manager of Modera Wealth Management LLC. Today, my colleague Mindy Neira, Senior Financial Advisor, and I will be chatting with Terry Lyons, managing partner of Lyons and Associates. Terry’s a certified matrimonial attorney and a founding member of the firm. Welcome everyone to the show, and I’ll hand it over to Mindy.

Thanks, Mark. And Terry, thank you for being here today.

No problem. Thank you.

Let’s jump right into it. I know you’ve told me your background, and a great story behind how you started your firm. So I’d love to hear, how did you come to this decision to start your own firm?

I like to tell people that I am part lawyer, part human. Besides being a lawyer, I have a master’s degree in social work. In my personal life. I’m a foster and adoptive parent. I’ve had five children in my home total, four have come through the foster care system to have been reunited with their biological families to weave out of adopting, and one child came to us not through the foster care system, but through a mentoring program. We met her when she was three; I was 19. And somewhere between three and high school, her birth family moved to Florida and she moved into our home and we raised her.

This young woman, remarkable young woman, first person in her family to ever graduate high school, go to college. She’s now getting her MBA. When she was 19 herself, a freshman in college, I was working at the big firm. I enjoyed quite the successful trajectory, everything that you’re supposed to have, everything that you’re supposed to want. Going for that brass ring.

It  happened to be some random Tuesday night, 11 o’clock at night, I’m there in my fancy office with books and papers piled everywhere making a gajillion dollars, and my phone rings at 11 o’clock at night. It turns out to be this young woman who herself is now a freshman in college. And she said, “Terry, I need to talk to you about something very, very important.”

Given this young woman’s challenges in life, a lot of things jumped into my head. “Was she in crisis? Was she dropping out? Where was she on the journey?” And I’m like, “Okay, what is it?” She says, “When I first met you, you were a freshman in college, and you were so poor that you used to take me for ice cream, and I had to choose between two scoops of ice cream, or one scoop of ice cream plus sprinkles.” At this point, I’m getting mad at her. Like, “This is why you called me, like what’s the point?” She says, “And I loved you then. What are you doing to yourself?”

And I hung up the phone and I sat back and I looked around my fancy office with all the trappings of everything that’s supposed to be success. And I realized that that young woman was supposed to be out enjoying her own journey in adulthood. And the fact that she was concerned about me, really caused a shift within me.

I decided to then start my own gig. I left a little while later. To the big firm’s credit, everyone there, incredibly supportive. Still on my side to this day, 18 years later. They taught me how to be a good lawyer, they taught me how to be a good professional, and I’m out on my own now, forging my own path, and I have a lot more time to go get ice cream. And thankfully, I’m not so poor—it’s actually worked out that I still you know, I can now get two scoops plus sprinkles. Without that intervention from someone that I thought I was mentoring, that turned around and mentored me right back, I wouldn’t be the entrepreneur that I am today.

Very inspiring, Terry. Thanks for sharing that.

Terry, just let me ask you, how does it make you feel that she has so much wisdom to have made the intervention she did with you?

One of the really cool things about being a foster and adoptive parent is you’re forced very quickly to come to this realization that children do not belong to us. We are given the gift of time with children. We are not given the gift of ownership. That’s been simultaneously heartbreaking and liberating, and so when those moments of wisdom come up from these children that I’ve fostered or mentored, it feeds the liberation and dulls the heartache a little bit, you know, less. So, it’s a good—it’s a good thing. It’s a great thing. 

Amazing.

Yeah, and I’m grateful for the journey.

That’s wonderful.

Yeah.

When you started your firm, what decisions did you make when you were starting? I remember us talking about, you didn’t want to be the typical law firm in New Jersey. There were some differences between how you started your firm and the others.

So I set about to change the way the legal industry operates. This is suicide 20 years ago, whenever I started, I said, “We’re going to have a law firm with no dress code. I don’t care that we handle multimillion dollar clients.” You’ll see I’m in a fleecy today. I’m actually wearing sweatpants. Our lawyers have unlimited paid time off. We have toys in the waiting room. People come to see us, if they have children or grandchildren in tow, I have toys in the waiting room. I have candy in every single room. I’ll show you right now—there’s candy in this room.

There is chocolate, Terry, right?

Yeah, there is chocolate. There is, right now, M&Ms, Twix, Butterfinger, Crackle. Sometimes we have Swedish Fish too. A lot of people like Swedish Fish.

No, no Milky Way? 

Um, no, let me see, I have a [Baby] Ruth, a Three Musketeer. I can send you some Milky Way. Are you a Milky Way guy Mark?

Yes, ma’am.

Oh my gosh, here we go Milky Way.

Look at that!

I got a dark—are you dark or regular?

Just wanted to make sure there was no discrimination going on at your law firm.

Understood, understood.

I really set about to redefine how lawyers operate. People want lawyers who are smart. Most times, when people come to lawyers, it’s because they’re at an inflection point in their lives. Equally, if not more important, I believe that lawyers need to remember that we’re humans first. You’d be surprised how this has resonated with our clients, and there are clients that choose us specifically because we are really really smart and can handle multimillion dollar issues, and I meet them in sweatpants.

It also has resonated with our employees and our workspace. People now seek us out to work here. I think my greatest honor, putting aside all the other bougie accolades I’ve received, my greatest badge is that we were chosen by NJ Biz as the number two best places to work in the state of New Jersey. People like coming to work here. People feel like they have a purpose. It’s a good gig.

Great! Congratulations, by the way, that’s wonderful.

Thank you.

It sounds great. You’ve built a great firm. But along the way, I’m sure there have been ups and downs. We’d love to hear about some of the decisions you made that you—let’s start with a decision that you made that maybe you regret, or was a mistake.

One of the common mistakes that I see many entrepreneurs make, including myself—most entrepreneurs have a healthy sense of narcissism. We wouldn’t start our own businesses if we didn’t feel like we had some ability to control the world. We also have this innate sense that we can fix anything. Again, if we didn’t have that sense that we could fix anything, most of us wouldn’t start businesses.

So probably one of the biggest mistakes that I made was failure to meet the moment when market, housing, crashed in 2008, ‘09, and ‘10. I made the mistake of failing to meet that moment. When every other business was cutting salaries, reducing staff, cutting expenses, I narcissistically thought, “Well, I don’t care that the market is retracting. I’m going to make sure that every single one of my employees gets a raise. I’m going to make sure that I keep spending as if I’m spending.” 

Long story short, I wound up coming out of that recession, completely maxed out with all my corporate debt, and I was $20,000 away from losing my entire business—and all those jobs that I thought I was protecting by being kind to them during the recession. I think the tragedy of that is that once the recession was over, and every other company that had met the moment, that had shed expenses, that had cut back and done what they needed to do, those companies were poised for growth. I was not poised for growth, because I was still saddled with the debt and all the bad mistakes I made because I failed to meet the moment.

Not only did I lose the opportunity, I’d lost two or three years of growth that I could have had coming out of that recession. I also was hampered in that I, then, for those next two to three years post-recession, could not give my employees the same raises, make the same expenditures, and everything that other of my competitors were doing. So now I was at a disconnect, and it actually hurt morale in the long term.

None of my employees remembered—nor would they, right? We all live in “what have you done for me now society.” I don’t blame my employees. When all their friends were getting raises at their jobs in 2011 and ‘12, and I couldn’t do it, they didn’t remember what I had done through ‘08, ‘09, and ‘10.

So the biggest mistake that I made as an entrepreneur—and I see a lot of my other colleagues as entrepreneurs making—is failure to meet the moment, failure to make hard decisions, and yes, we can control the world most of the time. But when certain circumstances come around, and we cannot control the world, we have to do a better job pivoting.

I can tell you I did not repeat those same mistakes in this last recession. I did everything we needed to do. I’m proud to say that now we’ve come out of it strong. All my employees, their salaries were frozen. I cut back expenses. People were happy just to have a job; I met that moment. And now that we’re coming out of it, now, all my employees are getting raises. And now I’m poised for growth. And now I’m about to open a third office. So by meeting the moment, sooner rather than later, it’s better for everyone in the long run. That’s a big mistake that I made.

I think I know what the answer is, Terry. But if you had the financial crisis all over to do again, what would you have done? And how would you have done it?

Two things: One, I would have reacted more nimbly when the crisis hit. The second thing that I learned was the importance of paying attention to data ahead of time. I actually knew a recession was coming this time—I had no idea it was going to be a pandemic, but I knew a recession was coming, because now I pay attention to indicators.

So in retrospect, so you are aware, and your listeners are aware, about a thousand families a year come through my company, in one capacity or another. And we get all kinds of data on these people as they come through our companies. And why did the market crash in 2008, ‘09 ‘10? It’s because the housing market, people had over-leveraged their homes. So 2011, ‘12, after I kind of recover, I say, “Hmm, what was I missing?”

I actually went back then, and I looked at the data of all of my clients, my thousands, you know, of families a year that came through my office in ‘06, ‘07 and ‘08, and I saw, “Huh, there’s patterns there.” What people bought their houses for, how much they owe on it, how many mortgages they’ve taken. And if I had paid attention to that data ahead of time, I actually also would have known it was coming. I actually saw a number of indicators at the end of 2019, that I believed a recession was coming. I knew nothing about COVID anyway.

So I think the two things that I tried to get better at as a business owner, is one, reacting more nimbly when crisis does happen, and two, to pay attention to the weather forecast, and the data points, so you’re better prepared when a storm may be coming. It’s a lot easier to withstand a hurricane if you already have your batteries and flashlight and extra water, than it is if you try to go out in the middle of it to get those resources. Those are the two lessons that I’ve learned. I spend most of my day just ferociously looking at data, looking at trends of human behavior.

Yeah, that’s great, not too different from how we help our clients, right? Having a plan, starting that plan early, starting it and sticking with it, and being nimble and making changes along the way. So it’s very common,

Right. And I think what you do is so terribly important, not only to have a plan, but to help your clients execute in a nimble and long-term capacity. Some people see those goals as an opposite. They don’t have to be if you do it well.

Very true. So let’s tie this to your personal life. How have the decisions you’ve made with your company impacted decisions you’ve made in your personal life with your family and at home?

So to start my business—the first three years I owned my business, I took out a mortgage against my home, and I paid myself $125 a week gross of taxes for three full years. And I did that because much like your industry, I had an intention of not building income, but instead building wealth. And there’s a difference between building wealth for tomorrow and building income for today. Without my family making those sacrifices you can imagine a lawyer that went from a big firm making a gajillion bucks to now putting a mortgage on my home, making $125 a week gross of taxes, how well that went over at home.

I will say in my experience, every successful entrepreneur’s had a spouse at his or her side. I’m lucky I have a wife at home. We’ve been together for 34 years. I’d like to joke—this is probably very unpolitically correct, so if you have to edit this out, forgive me. I tell people I’m just as miserable as every straight man I know because I have a wife at home.

Without her calling me to task where I needed to be called to task, and supporting me in those sacrifices. It’s easy to say or make the sacrifices but when you can’t go on the vacations you want to go on, or you can’t buy the cars you want to go on, or you can’t get your kids the extracurricular activities that you wanted…. It’s really easy to say do the sacrifices until you have to live it. Fast forward now. I’m 52 and I could retire today. I went from that to my wife and I could retire today and close up shop and have enough money to live. 

So most successful entrepreneurs live a few years of their life like most people won’t, in order to live the rest of their life like most people can’t. I think that I’m really grateful that I had the foresight to make those sacrifices. I’m grateful that my wife was along for the ride. I’m grateful for the colleagues that have helped me along the way.

And I think you probably as financial advisors have the same conversations with your own clients: Some initial sacrifices now, when you compound time and strategy, probably make a big difference for their life later. And so I can imagine that a lot of the difficulties that many successful entrepreneurs face you probably face in implementing those financial strategies with your clients on a daily basis. And how do you convince someone in their 30s, “Save money now, because I promise you’ll be happy in your 50s.” That’s not always an easy sell. What you guys do is important. Keep doing what you do.

There’s so much of that, that I can relate to, Terry, because I made a similar career shift, you know, in my early 30s, where only due to my wife could I make it because of the financial step back I had to make. But it sounds like very similar to what you did. I wanted to pursue a passion, which is helping families with their finances and investments. It hurt for the first three or four years. But it was the best move I’ve ever made in my life. Because to do what you’re passionate about, it’s almost not like work.

Very true. And, 50% of the world is employed by small businesses. We bring an energy and a character and a sense of self to the greater marketplace that other, large companies cannot deliver. Large companies are wonderful—they provide stability, they help all of our 401(k)s grow. I’m grateful for larger companies. Equally important to human commerce is us little guys that have that passion and create jobs for the other half of the world. So it’s not just the reward that we reap, Mark, as owners. It’s also the rewards of the different workplaces and vibes and energies that we provide for our employees. So it’s a pretty good gig when it works.

We enjoy being scrappy at Modera too. 

I love scrappy!

We like being scrappy, and being scrappy on behalf of our clients.

It’s a good thing.

So this makes me think of one of the questions, Terry, that we were talking about earlier this week is, you know, what are you curious about right now? Kind of taking this a different direction.

I am curious to see how humanity gets through the next fifty to a hundred years, particularly with technology. We as humans right now are going through the greatest evolution since Gutenberg invented the printing press, and a lot of the same questions that humans had to grapple with back then, we are grappling with now. Historically, the printing press was invented so that they could print the Bible. Shortly thereafter, people realized, “Hey, you could print more than the Bible. You could print love stories, and children’s books, and science books, and porn, and all kinds of things that may be good, bad or ugly.”

And then, when there was that explosiveness of information, democratization of knowledge, a lot of the same questions that we’re grappling with now, humans grappled with before. People asked, after the printing press was invented, “Should everyone learn how to read? Maybe we don’t need our farmers to know how to read. How much information is too much information? How can you tell what’s true or not true? This book is not true. The Bible is true, and this science book is not true. How can we discern that?”

So I’ll be really curious to see how humans get through this next evolution. I’ll be curious to see how we care for each other or don’t care for each other, when certain industries are completely displaced, when a million truck drivers are put out of jobs, when AI takes over. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I just think it’s really exciting. What I’m curious for is how we as humans come out the other side of this. And my advice, I’m sure that you already do this with your clients—I can tell by the way Mark and Mindy operate. I’m sure that you are working with your clients to be active participants in this transformation. I’m excited to see what’s on the other side of it. That’s what I’m curious about.

Great answer. I’ll ask our last question, which I did not prepare you for—we did not talk about this one—is what was the last non-financial decision that you made today?

Non-financial decision that I made today? Well, I’m actually having a debate right now and perhaps you can help me. My son is an elite athlete and plays high school football and the parents. Go and tailgate like 1000s of people go to these games and I’m having a dilemma whether to bring chili to the tailgate or empanadas.

Oh, that’s easy. That’s easy. It’s got to be empanadas.

I was gonna say chili. I could go for some chili.

Come on, Mindy.

This is my non-financial decision but you can see why I’m grappling. Okay, Mark—

Okay, well bring both!

Oh, good, now, Mark, that’s great. You’re telling me life is not an either/or proposition. But Mark, why empanadas? Try to convince me.

Here’s why. My daughter went on a school trip. She was lucky enough to go on a school trip to South America before the pandemic, and she had empanadas. And she has never stopped talking about the empanadas.

Alright, and now, Minday, counterpoint, why chili?

My point is a little more selfish. Yesterday, I wanted to go to lunch and get some turkey chili, and never made it. So I am still craving that chili.

You know what I need to find? I think I need to find an empanada place that can stuff it with chili. 

That’s a great idea.

That’s it.

That’s my current non-financial decision. I’ll let you know what I do. Maybe I’ll tag you on Facebook with whatever I decide to do.

Please do.

Do that. Yes, good luck, and good luck at the game for your son.

Thank you.

Thanks very much to Mindy and Terry for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate your time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.

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About Terry

Terry Lyons is the founder and managing partner of Lyons & Associates, with offices in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey. In addition to practicing matrimonial law and being a founding member of the firm, Terry has served as a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University in the Graduate School of Social Work in New Brunswick. She is admitted to practice in New Jersey State Court, New Jersey Federal Court, and recently was admitted to practice at the United States Supreme Court in April 2012.

Terry was recently honored by the American Institute of Family Law Attorneys as one of the “top 10 best female attorneys”. This distinction is given to select attorneys being recognized for their unparalleled success toward helping their clients. She was also appointed to the Board of Trustees for WINGS for Growth, and was previously on the Board of Trustees for SAFE in Hunterdon.

Terry graduated from Rutgers School of Law with High Honors. She also has a Master’s Degree in Social Work. She enjoyed a judicial clerkship with The Honorable Peter G. Verniero, a now-retired Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, New Jersey’s highest state court. A publisher of numerous articles on a wide variety of topics like family law, the admissibility of expert testimony in federal courts, and free speech on the Internet, Terry is author of the book Sticks and Stones, Life Lessons from a Lawyer. Terry has been featured in over 250 news media outlets across the globe.

Disclosure

Modera is an SEC registered investment adviser which does not imply any level of skill or training. For additional information see our Form ADV available at www.adviserinfo.sec.gov which contains a full description of our business, operations and service offerings including fees. Statements made in the podcast are not to be construed as personalized investment or financial planning advice, may not be suitable for everyone and should not be considered a solicitation to engage in any particular investment or planning strategy. Statements made are subject to change without notice.