For episode 4 of Decision Dialogues, Mark Willoughby and Laurie Kane Burkhardt speak with Tracey Spruce, founding member of Spruce Law, LLC, an employment law firm in the Boston area. They delve deep with Tracey about her decision to branch out and start her own law practice even as she was pregnant with her second child over 15 years ago. A great deal of planning and some help from her supportive husband led to success for Tracey, who says that she has “no regrets” about her decision.
Tracey’s willingness to be flexible has been the common thread woven through her success and decision making. Tracey has managed what she dubs “extreme flexibility” in her employment practices as a key to her firm’s success, as it has allowed her to make sure that she is doing right by her employees—all mothers—and has allowed her practice to flourish.
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, and the Chief Operating Officer of Modera Wealth Management LLC. Today, my colleague Laurie Kane Burkhardt, who’s a Principal and Wealth Manager at Modera, and I will be chatting with Tracey Spruce of Spruce Law, LLC. Tracey’s firm provides legal representation to businesses in a variety of employment and business litigation matters across a range of industries, including high technology, healthcare, biotechnology, nonprofit education, and professional services. Wow, Tracey works in a lot of different industries! Welcome everyone to the show, and I’ll hand it over to Laurie.
Thanks, Mark. And Tracey, thank you so much for joining us today.
Thanks for having me.
You and I have known each other for a few years. I’m so glad that you agreed to participate in this new podcast series. So I know a little bit about what you do, Tracey, just from what you’ve shared with me over the years, but I would appreciate if maybe we could start by you sharing an overview about your business, what you do and how you got started?
Sure. So I’m an attorney, and I practice primarily in the field of employment law, supporting employers with respect to legal compliance, and policies and training. Sometimes we do internal investigations, and when things go wrong, we will represent our clients in litigation. I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and I’ve always been an employment lawyer. It’s where I started. I find the subject area fascinating and entertaining, and it’s always changing, so it keeps me on my toes.
And I’ve worked in a whole variety of different environments, starting with a large Boston law firm. Then I went in-house to a tech company and was their in-house employment lawyer for a while. From there, I went to a boutique employment law firm, and that’s when I started thinking about starting my own practice. I was pregnant with my second child, I had a pretty long commute, and I had started to gain some of my own clients—it was a pretty small stable—but I began to think I could probably do this on my own. And fortunately, I had a very—still have a very—supportive husband, who said, “Let’s do it!”
And so all I needed was a laptop, really, which is the beauty of this job. And I found a small office space in Boston, where a friend of mine was practicing law and there was an empty office. So it was really quite easy to plug in and start my own firm. And that was 15½ years ago, and the firm has taken a couple of different shapes since then. But it has been Spruce Law, LLC since 2012.
Wow. Well, a lot to unpack there.
There sure is.
The first thing that I thought I wanted to ask as a follow up question is you talked about your field being entertaining. Where is that coming from?
Well, if you think about a workplace—maybe not yours—you know, think about like a hospital. And if you have ever watched Grey’s Anatomy or ER, and you’ve seen some of the shenanigans that people get up to, I will say it’s not that far off of reality, in terms of what a large workplace like that might experience. So human nature being what it is, I always say the truth is stranger than fiction—or to put in another metaphor, I can’t make this stuff up. And I sort of imagine that someday I’ll write a book about all of the things I have seen and experienced as an employment lawyer, with some of the foolish or remarkable things that people have done in their workplaces.
I know you are incredibly busy, and juggling work and family priorities are just an ongoing challenge. Tell us a little bit more about, how do you manage some of those competing efforts, and how has that changed over time? You talked about, you went out on your own, just as you know, when you were pregnant with your second child and your kids are about teenagers now.
And I know from being the parent of two young adults, that you never forget how they can really consume so much of your energy. Yet you’ve grown a successful business, so how have you managed to kind of juggle that?
It’s been harder at some times than others, but overall, I would say, I’ve always been very good at drawing boundaries between work and home. I tend to work very efficiently. I think—in fact, I’ve been told this by bosses, many years ago, when I still had bosses—I pack more into a regular eight hour day than most people do over a couple of days. And I think that has really enabled me to draw those boundaries in a way that still allows me to get all the work that needs to be done, done, and do it on time and do it well.
I’m not someone who historically, would go home, have dinner with the kids, put them to bed and then go back to work. That has just never been my style, and I’m also not a night person, so I don’t work very well late into the evening. I will say that in the past couple of years, that’s adjusted a bit for a variety of reasons—partly because I took on an elected position in my town as a member of the school committee, and partly because my kids just need different things at different times. So now I’ve sort of forced myself to be a little bit more flexible, whether that’s going into the office later, whether it’s working a little bit at night, or maybe doing some more work on the weekends. But overall, I think the amount of work is still about the same, because I really insist for myself and for my employees on a reasonable work-life balance.
That’s great. And I know your husband Trevor is extremely supportive, but he’s a high powered career person himself who’s ambitious, and I’m guessing that that the two of you are constantly trying to figure out, “How do you juggle?” So without being too probing, what can you share about, how do the two of you make those kinds of decisions so that you can each be responsible in your careers?
When the kids were little and in daycare, I would get up early and go to the office, and I would be there at like 6:30 or 7:00, because I had arranged with my employer at the time that I could leave at 4:00 to go pick them up. And so Trevor would get them ready in the morning and drop them off when the daycare opened at 8:00, and then I would pick them up around 5:00. And that was how we balanced it for as long as they were in daycare.
And then we did something similar when they were going to school. One of us would do the morning duty, get them off to school—we usually had sort of an after school nanny to get them off the bus and take them to whatever activities they had, and then the other one of us who didn’t do the morning duty would be the one to come home and relieve the nanny.
And we’ve both been really fortunate because he for most of his career, also had very good work-life balance and worked for an employer that was supportive of that, so neither of us was in a job where we had constant unpredictable emergencies, or couldn’t really plan for these things. And we’ve actually talked over the years about how incredibly lucky we were when the kids were young, to be in the jobs we had and to have the employers we had, or in my case to be self employed, and really be able to structure our work lives around our personal lives.
Can I jump in for a little bit here, Laurie?
Can you bring us back to your mindset about what led you to decide to launch out on your own at that point, and sort of, what was tough about that decision and what was easy about that decision?
Part of it was just wanting more control—knowing that with two kids, it was going to be harder to manage the whole picture, and I thought, whether it turned out to be true or not, I would have more control over my schedule, my workload and what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. And I would say for the most part that was true. That was really what drove the decision to go out on my own—was control.
But there was another piece of it too, which was that I was trying to build a practice and I was trying to build a stable of clients, and when you work for someone else, you have to operate based on the structure they’ve set up for their firm. And I was finding it a little bit more difficult than you might have thought, to build my business in a way that I wanted to do. So just by way of example, I had an opportunity to take on one case with a very, very large organization, and in order to give me the case, they were trying to negotiate my rates down pretty low. And I was willing to do it because I thought, “This is an investment in the future. If I do well, on this case, I’ll have this client.” And the firm I was working for, at the time wasn’t willing to do that. And that was sort of, to me the trigger to say, “Let’s do this.”
And the only difficult part about that decision really was trying to map out what my income might be, and how to plan for that, and whether we could live just on Trevor’s salary, which we were able to do—we sort of pretended I wasn’t working, and just took the time to let me build the business, and I’ve never, ever regretted it for one minute. It has been—it was the best decision I’ve ever made professionally.
I made it almost on gut instinct, I will say, because I know, we’re talking about how did you come to this decision? Almost every career decision I’ve made has been made on gut instinct, and it was always the right decision. Not to say that they all were perfect and rainbows and unicorns, but I’ve never regretted a single one. And this is the one I certainly don’t regret—I am so glad I launched out on my own.
And for those who might be contemplating making a similar change in their own sort of careers. Was there anything that took you by surprise that you really didn’t expect in that first couple of years out on your own?
What took me by surprise was how quickly my business grew.
That’s a nice surprise!
It was a really nice surprise. I was fortunate. And I actually have been fortunate over most of the time on my own, to not have to do a lot of marketing. The business just grew sort of through referrals, getting to know people—I have this habit of developing really good relationships with opposing counsel, who then become friends and sources of referrals. And so it struck me over the first couple of years that I never had to do a moment’s marketing or pounding the pavement or—
Well, let me—you were doing marketing when you’re having those conversations with opposing counsel.
I suppose that’s true. I didn’t—
Yeah, you’re not giving yourself enough credit!
You know, as much as my partner, Barry Kaplan says, “It doesn’t hurt to be nice to people.” And that, whether you call it intentional or unintentional, that was your marketing strategy. Did that carry through from all your previous positions in the other firms? Did you get some business from people that you connected with in the firms that you’d worked with before you went out on your own?
So I think the lesson for anybody who’s considering going out on their own is, you’ve had the opportunity to market from the first time you start working.
Yes, it’s all relationships. That’s how I’ve built my business is through relationships, for sure.
Were there any big decisions you made in that first few years of the business that you would have made a different decision now that you have the perspective of X number of years on your own, Tracey?
I want to say yes, but nothing specific is coming to mind. The only thing is that one client I mentioned that I wanted to make the investment in, hoping it would grow. It did—enormously. It became my biggest client for many, many years. And so it—maybe not in the first few years after starting my practice, but a number of years after that, I kept saying to myself, “You’ve got too many eggs in that basket, you’ve got too many eggs in that basket.” I knew I did. intellectually, I knew I needed to diversify. But there was so much work coming from that client. It enabled me to hire three people, you know, who still work for me.
And then the time came where there was a reorganization and a merger and I did not end up with the business. So in retrospect, I would have listened to my instincts better about diversifying because it really hit me hard, but I was able to leverage other relationships and other business after going through some slow periods and things really came back—but it was scary.
It was scary, I’m sure. We had something similar to us in our New Jersey office—we had a very large client who decided to go elsewhere, and it forced us to go back to the drawing board effectively.
Yeah, it’s not a comfortable position to be in, and it would have been fine if I were on my own, but I have three employees, and I cared very much about not letting anyone go. So they stuck with me and I stuck with them.
I’m sure all of those decisions have been opportunities for your staff to appreciate what the firm’s values are. And you, as the head of that firm, you know, you’ve placed your stamp on it. So I’m just curious: Can you talk a little bit about what you learned and how you’ve been operating differently since that hurdle? Does it mean that you approach your relationships with your clients any differently now?
I would say no, because that situation was somewhat somewhat unique in that the surviving organization just had relationships with other lawyers already. And I don’t think there was ever any chance I was going to be able to keep the business—it wasn’t anything about us. At least that’s what I believe—or maybe I’ve told myself. But I do think I need to do a better job, and I’ve been trying to do a better job, of promoting us and promoting our work and the quality of our work. It’s easy when you have a long term client relationship to just glide along, because they know historically what great work you’ve done. But suddenly, if there’s a change in your relationship within that organization, they don’t necessarily have that history. And if you’re not sharing it with them, probably nobody is.
So self-promotion has always been hard for me, and I’ve learned that I really have to do a better job at it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re constantly bragging about yourself, but pointing to objective factors that demonstrate why someone should hire you and why someone should work with you.
Do you tap into either existing or former clients and ask them to talk to prospective clients and help you with that process?
I don’t think I have ever done that.
And there’s confidentiality issues, I’m sure that you have to have to deal with anyway. But clearly if you haven’t done it, was that a conscious decision, or you just felt like it wasn’t necessary?
I haven’t felt like it was necessary—I don’t know that it’s a conscious decision. I will say, though, that many of my new clients are referrals from existing clients, or someone I’ll have worked with at a client will leave that client go to a new place, and I’ll keep the old client and get the new client because of the relationship. So I definitely view existing clients as my greatest resource for new clients, but not because I asked them to help me with that. Mainly, I think, because we do really good work, we’re really attentive, our clients think very highly of us—and if a general counsel or an HR director goes to a new client, they remember us and they hire us. And if all goes well, we we still keep the other one.
That sounds like you don’t need to because you’ve got something in your magic sauce that is working at this point, to make it happen organically.
I think a lot of it is luck. But I’m sure we have something to do with it too.
Think about all that the pivot points that you’ve—or at least some of the pivot points that you’ve been through in in, you know, the past 15 years—and all the learning that you’ve done. What’s one of the things you wish you had known when you started down this route of, you know, opening your own practice?
Oh, my goodness.
And while you’re thinking about that, Tracey, this might be a different way of putting this: Do you think all your prior experience at the different firms was necessary for you to be able to go out on your own?
So you would never have contemplated going out on your own straight out of school or after two or three years working in the workforce.
I didn’t contemplate it, and I don’t think I would have had the confidence to do it. And I guess this answers Lori’s question, too: I, frankly, when I did it, I didn’t have that much experience. I’d only been practicing for about seven or eight years, which
So you were less than 10 years in when you launched yourself.
Yeah. At big firms these days, you don’t even make partner after seven or eight years, so…
So you jumped out of the airplane without your parachute attached?
Pretty much. My husband was my parachute.
You had a parachute, but yeah.
So having, you know, a solid partner, personally, is so important to be able to take a risk and do it. Did you feel like you were really taking a risk?
Definitely, definitely. When we modeled my potential income with what little data we had, it was significantly less than I had been making. But we also looked at how much less I could work to make the same amount when you’re working for yourself. And for us, that was an important factor, because it meant I would be able to take on more with the kids, you know, somebody has to kind of be in charge there.
And so it really worked out. But there have been times when I’ve looked back over that period, and thought, “I can’t believe I had the guts to do that.” Because sitting here today, you know, there are times when I think, “Gosh, do I know what I’m doing?” And somehow I always do, but I can’t believe I thought I knew what I was doing when I’d been practicing for eight years.
It sounds to me, Tracey, just listening to you for the last twenty minutes that you’ve said it yourself—you’re somebody who really trusts your gut instincts.
Which is something that not everybody can lay claim to. Some people’s gut instincts aren’t so good. But it sounds like they have served you very well.
They have, yeah—they’ve served me very well, including, I would say with my husband!
One other quick question, when you decided to launch on your own, did you keep it low tech? Did you work from home for a period of time before committing to an office lease? Or did you jump in with both feet?
I jumped in with both feet—mainly, well, for two reasons. One, the office was so cheap. It was in Downtown Crossing, it was $500 a month. I mean, really, I thought if I can’t make $500 a month, that I’m doing something very wrong.
And the other piece was, two lawyers that I knew pretty well were also renting office space in that suite. They had also gone out on their own after having been at larger firms, and I thought it would be really valuable to be around others who were a little farther ahead of me in the development of their practice. Because one of the things that’s really hard when you’re the only person—that you’re the only boss—is you don’t really have people to bounce things off of to help you think through these difficult decisions, or analyses, and I really wanted to have that. So maybe somewhere deep down inside, I did realize that this was a big risk, and I needed to have some support. So that for me was a no brainer.
So two things there. You didn’t put a large financial obligation around your neck.
But you also were able to collaborate, it sounds like with the other two lawyers. Did that work out as you hoped it would? The collaboration aspect?
Yes. In fact, I was on the phone with one of those lawyers yesterday because we still collaborate with each other. He’s on his own as well. And you just need people to run things through and help you sort of noodle over a challenging problem.
So he’s an informal colleague.
But it sounds like you learned the value of collaboration from probably from your prior work, even though there may have been things about working for somebody else that ended up being not the overriding factor.
Yeah, and I would say I probably learned the most about collaboration from my in-house experience, because when you work at a law firm, whether its large or small, so many law firms train their young lawyers to focus on what is the law and deliver the legal advice. And when I was in-house at a company, I began to see the practice of law from a very different perspective. And in part, that’s because I had so many different stakeholders to work with: I had to work with the business people, the finance people, the operations people and realize that if I was just sort of spouting off what the law is, nobody was going to listen to me.
What I had to do was sit down with them and understand, “What are you trying to do here? What’s your business goal? Okay, now, let me see if I can help you get there. Here are the various paths. Here’s the pros and cons.” And then let them make that decision. And that was the lens I took to launching my own practice. I view it as very business-focused, very collaborative with the client, as opposed to sort of ivory tower dissemination of legal principles.
It sounds like that may have been very valuable advice that—I don’t know if you were explicitly given, or you just kind of absorbed it through experience—but can you think about how, what kind of advice might you have been given in the past that you really latched onto that really has helped you?
I think early on in my career, I definitely was advised to get an understanding of the full context of a client’s situation, instead of just the narrow legal issue that I might have been asked to look at. So don’t just research this issue. Obviously, that’s the core assignment. But along the way, if you see other red flags, or other things the client should be thinking about because of what you know about their situation, then bring those to our attention. And so that really was helpful in terms of advising me to keep the big picture in mind. There are obviously the detailed legal issues that you always have to run down and make sure you’ve turned over every rock so you can advise your client properly, but never lose sight of the big picture, I guess is, is the advice.
And that carried with me into the company I worked for, and then I think was built on from there, because the big picture included, “What is this company trying to do, or what is this individual trying to achieve with their particular project?” and really helped me I would say, weave legal advice into the business structure as opposed to just sort of laying it on top of it.
I have something I’d like to ask. So you’ve you’ve run your own firm for how long now, Tracey? Remind me, is it—
15½ years. Sounds like you have no regrets about it?
But you’re surely not telling me that there’s not something that you hate about running your own business. There’s got to be something. What is it?
Oh, I hate everything about running my own business!
Which part do you hate the most?
I do not have a good grasp of financials, and so I have an excellent bookkeeper who helps me with that, although no matter how many times she tries to explain to me what my P&L says, and what my balance sheet means, I still don’t fully understand it. So I really dislike that aspect of it!
What are the decisions that you find hardest to make as a business owner?
I think the hardest ones are the ones that carry long-term financial impacts, and examples are, whether to hire someone. I’ve never had to let someone go, thank goodness.
In 15 years, you’ve never had to let somebody go?
One of the things that’s unique about my firm is we have an incredibly flexible environment. Nobody is committed to work a certain number of hours per week or month. My team is three lawyers; they’re all mothers. They’ve all worked at other law firms, large and small, with all different experiences. And what I offer them is extreme flexibility. “Tell me how much you want to work, and I will try to make that happen. Tell me where you want to work; I will try to make that happen.”
And so when work slows down from time to time, I would probably have to let someone go if everybody was committed to 40 hours a week and wasn’t willing to reduce that. But for the most part, everyone—I think—so appreciates the flexibility that they have, that when things slow down—
—they would flex themselves?
They would flex with me.
Yep. Sounds like you have a really good relationship with your three folks.
I think I do.
Yeah, it sounds like it.
As you’ve been talking. Tracey, I feel like you have really reaffirmed what I always believed to be true, in that you’ve built quite a successful practice. And I’m just wondering how you look back and reflect on, so far, what do you consider one of your biggest personal successes?
You mean with a client, or with just my business?
Whatever popped into your head when I asked that question.
What popped into my head—although again, this is self promotion, which I’ve already said I’m not very good at—last year, I was named one of the top women in law in Massachusetts, and it’s a large group, so it’s not like I was one of three or anything. It’s, you know, maybe one of 20, 25 that—
It’s great recognition.
It was, and you have to be nominated by a peer—a woman—and then you have to get letters of recommendation from others in the field. And I was really taken aback in a good way by the letters that people wrote for, me and saying things about me that I never knew they thought, or that I hadn’t fully appreciated, including some who were once opposing counsel.
As I’ve said, I tend to develop pretty good relationships with those folks, and even though that’s a less visible—outside of the legal world—less visible accomplishment, I just felt really proud of having been recognized by my peers. And then to read the really meaningful things that people I’ve known and worked with or against over the years had to say about me.
That’s pretty cool.
That’s very sweet affirmation.
I have one other kind of broad question, Tracey. You know, as I read your introduction, and I look at the range of industries that you provide legal services to, how in the heck do you keep up with all of these industries?
Well, our particular practice area doesn’t require us to have a deep understanding of each industry the way you might have to if you are an intellectual property lawyer, or a transactional lawyer.
So it’s employment law driven.
Yeah, employment issues tend to be the same no matter where you work. I will say that’s changed a little bit with COVID, because as the state has issued guidelines that are sector-specific, we’ve had to really become more intimately familiar with the sectors in which our clients operate, and which rules apply to them and which don’t.
Employment law is largely a function of federal law, so it kind of applies everywhere. And then of course, there are the Massachusetts laws on top of that, which is where our expertise really lies. But I certainly learned a lot about a lot of different industries—in particular, I would say, healthcare and biotech and nonprofits, those tend to be sort of the bulk of our clients.
You mentioned Tracey, COVID, and that was on our list of questions to at least think about. Can you talk about how you’ve adapted your business and running your business during 2020?
Yeah, lucky for us, you know, in the same way that I was able to start my practice with a laptop—as long as everyone has a computer, we can really do our work from anywhere. Courts were closed for a period of time, so that wasn’t a factor, and even now, they’re still kind of running on a limited in-person basis. But everyone just sort of gathered their things and went home.
The one thing I did do was purchase video conferencing software—and there’s plenty of free apps out there, but if you want to have a meeting longer than 40 or 45 minutes with more than two people, you need a better system. So other than that, everyone else is still working at home. I’m the only one coming into the office. I’ve always worked better in an office. So for me, it just is more productive. But I’ve let my team know that they should do what they’re comfortable doing. And hopefully, they’ll be back here at some point because it’s pretty lonely.
I bet. Well, it sounds like your business model—you’ve been fortunate that you’ve been able to adapt it.
And let’s shift gears and end with a more fun question. Think about, what was the last non-financial related decision that you had to make, maybe even today?
So because Thanksgiving is so different this year, we decided that we were going to host driveway mimosas in our neighborhood and just serve up a couple of different breakfast drinks, and told our neighbors to bring their own glass and their own chair and we’ll serve the bubbly. So I had to decide what we were going to serve in our driveway on Thursday.
The times we live in.
Thanks very much, Laurie Kane Burkhart and Tracey Spruce for letting us listen in on their conversation today. 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.
Tracey Spruce is the founding member of Spruce Law, LLC, an employment law firm established in 2012. Her firm and practice are focused on assisting employers of all sizes in complying with federal, state and local employment laws. Tracey has performed dozens of workplace investigations to assist employers in fulfilling their obligations to undertake a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation when employees raise concerns about unlawful discrimination or harassment or other inappropriate workplace conduct. Her investigations have been praised as fair, detailed, and reflecting thoughtful and critical analysis of complex workplace dynamics.
Tracey provides proactive employment counseling aimed at helping clients avoid conflicts and costly litigation. Prior to branching out to first found her own practice in 2005, Tracey worked in employment law both at law firms in the Boston area and as in-house counsel. Tracey earned her undergraduate degree cum laude from Middlebury College in 1991, and graduated summa cum laude, Order of the Coif, from Boston College Law School, earning her J.D. in 1997. In addition to managing her practice, Tracey has served on the Andover School Committee since 2018.
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