Sure, being a lawyer requires a strong analytical and pragmatic mind. But as Susan L. Dawson is proving, it also helps to add a dose of creativity and innovation to help diverse clients find solutions to tough business and legal challenges. As a founding partner of the woman-owned Waltz, Palmer & Dawson, LLC, Susan counsels national and international business clients across matters of corporate and business law, employment law and commercial real estate.
As a 10-year member and a past-President of NAWBO-Chicago, she currently serves as one of the newest Directors on the NAWBO National Board where she is using her voice to advocate for women business owners across the nation. Her many professional achievements include: AV Rated by Martindale Hubble®, selected as one of Chicago’s 2018 Notable Women Lawyers by Crain’s Custom Media, published in Crain’s Chicago Business; 2018 Certified Member of the Lawyers of Distinction by The Lawyers of Distinction Organization; consistently named 10 Best Attorneys for Exceptional and Outstanding Client Service by American Institute of Legal Counsel, 2015 Enterprising Women of the Year by Enterprising Women magazine and 2009 Influential Women in Business by Business Ledger.
This month, we spoke with Susan about her journey as a business owner, and ways she’s leveraged branding and marketing to drive growth. Read on for more!
Q: What inspired you to become a business owner?
A: I felt a drive to make a different kind of law firm. I saw the various ways law firms were run—the importance of “face time,” the rewards for the men who stayed late and the disregard for the women who had to leave at 5:00 to take care of their families. In many situations, the women billed more and were harder working, but they didn’t “play the game” so they didn’t reap the rewards.
I knew it could be different and I had a vision and a desire to make a firm that allowed people to be rewarded for quality work—even if it is provided around their family schedule and not during the traditional 9 to 5 (or in the legal world, 8 to 7). Fortunately, I met two women who shared the same passion. We combined our energies, and Waltz, Palmer & Dawson, LLC (WPD) was born! We launched our business in April of 2008 on the eve of the worst economic collapse in modern recollection. Yet we grew, and each year, we have added clients and employees. We believe it was our dedication to this different model—to treating our employees as human beings with lives instead of just numbers with billable and revenue targets—that has been a large factor in our growth.
Q: When did you join NAWBO and what has kept you a member?
A: I joined NAWBO shortly after I started my law firm. What has kept me engaged in NAWBO is the relationships I have built and the true sense of community NAWBO brings to its members.
Q: What are some ways you’ve been successful in branding/marketing your business?
A: It wasn’t until we embraced who we truly were that we became successful in our branding. When we first started our firm, we did not embrace the “women-owned” label. We continued to downplay who we were—trying to blend in as just “one of the guys.” But after growing and becoming more confident in our business, we realized that the only way to truly break through was to own it fully. We started by changing our logo. While professional, it has a distinctly feminine flourish. Then, our website and advertising and branding messages were tweaked to show our personality.
We’ve grown from there to simply embrace that being women makes us different. We approach contracts, negotiations, meetings and legal advice from a different perspective. I personally represent some incredibly forward-thinking businesses—some owned by men, some owned by women. These are representative of the communication style and level of services we provide. This is who we are.
Q: What’s the best marketing advice you’ve received as a business owner?
A: Figure out what makes you different and be true to that. Don’t be afraid to be who you are.
Q: What is the #1 legal question you get asked?
A: The #1 question I get asked is, “What do I do?” My clients are frequently faced with decisions and no answer is the clear, right answer. So that’s a tough one because I can tell them what the law says, what their options are and what I’ve seen happen in the past—but as a business owner, you need to make a decision. You need to make the call and it isn’t always easy.
At those times, I try to approach the question from my own perspective as a business owner. What would I do? I work with the clients closely to weigh their options and I ask, “What decision will let you sleep tonight?” For some, it’s walking away from the fight. Maybe they are owed money, or they are in heated negotiations over a contract, but they know they’d rather move on than face the stresses of litigation or continuing with negotiation. Others know they can’t walk away. So we work through it together and then I’m with them for the next step and the step after that, so they have support to move forward with the decision they made.
Q: What has been your favorite part of serving on the national board so far?
A: I love that I am now a part of something larger than just one chapter. Previously, when I attended national events, I was always trying to learn how to help my chapter. From the questions I asked, to the sessions I chose to attend, to the people I connected with, my goal was to gain information I could take back to help Chicago grow. But as my term as President passed, I began to be able to engage with members on a different level. I started to truly see the larger NAWBO picture—how we are all connected. Now, I get to meet and talk with people from all over the country, hear their stories and learn what they do, how their chapters work and grow and who they are.
I get to see outside of my corner of the world now and learn about how we are different and yet so connected. It’s the beauty of the NAWBO community. Our businesses are all different shapes, sizes and colors, but we focus on building each other up and developing a community of women. It doesn’t matter what corner of the globe you are on, NAWBO members are there to support each other, and I am so honored to get to be a bigger part of that.
Q: What’s something most people don’t know about you?
A: I am a complete sci-fi nerd! I love all things science fiction, but Star Wars is my favorite. I was 5 years old when I saw the first movie in the theaters in 1977 and clearly, it made quite the impression on me because now my whole office is dedicated to Star Wars. As a hobby, I love to build intricate Star Wars Lego sets—but I’m starting to run out of room!