When Stephen Burt decided he wanted to be a lawyer, he knew he wanted to help people. And that’s what he and his team do every day at the Orlando-based S.K. Burt Law, P.A.
Specializing in immigrant law, family law, and estate planning with an emphasis on assisting LGBTQ+ clients, the boutique firm was only months old when the pandemic hit. But Burt has been able to keep the firm afloat and continue to offer his services on a sliding scale to those most vulnerable — something, he says, he wouldn’t have been able to do had he taken a job at a bigger firm where he was not the owner.
Hello Alice recently spoke to Burt about finding his way to law, relying on his loved ones for support, and how networking can usually solve most of your business problems. What follows are his own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
You started your career as a high school band director. What drove you to change course and become a lawyer?
Teaching was definitely my trajectory for a good portion of my early adulthood, but I ended up not finding it as fulfilling as I had initially anticipated. Luckily, one of my friends out of undergrad ended up going to law school and asked if I ever thought about becoming a lawyer. It’d never even crossed my mind, but I looked into it and thought it was really cool. So I decided to sign up to take the LSAT three weeks later — which I would never recommend, by the way — and I somehow magically did really well. Then I applied to school and graduated in three years.
There are a lot of law firms out there. Why did you choose to start your own?
Well, there are two reasons. The first is because I couldn’t find a job. [Laughs] The second reason was a little more intentional. As a teacher, I learned a lot about the work environment I needed for my own mental health and my own abilities to succeed. A lot of law offices don’t take into consideration mental health, personal life, and people’s individual needs. That was something I knew I needed to thrive.
On top of that, my parents are business owners. My dad has owned a construction company for the greater part of my life, so I kind of have that small business mindset and grassroots, grow-from-nothing concept of work.
I also saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community that I really am passionate about serving and providing legal services to individuals who are in need. You don’t always do that at a big firm, because big firms are driven by money. Money is obviously necessary to run a law firm, but I have a little bit more control in my current position as a business owner to pick some clients who are in need and may not even have the ability to pay at all — and I really like that!
Do you find it difficult to be a good lawyer while also being a good small business owner?
Yes, it’s very, very difficult! Truthfully, one of the biggest ways that I’ve been able to work through that exact issue is through some of the Facebook groups that I’m part of and some of the smaller networks. For example, there are a handful of Facebook groups designed solely for solo or small practice lawyers who work by themselves or in small towns. So really, those networks have been absolutely incredible for me to be able to have the opportunity to learn how to how to manage both sides. There are some lawyers that only do the legal work and hire an office manager to help run the business side of things. But there’s also a good portion of us that falls in the middle somewhere.
For me, I know it’ll evolve. I’m having to split my time 50–50 between practicing law and running a small business. Often, the law takes over, and I don’t have as much time to focus on my small business. On the flip side, there are times where I have more than enough time to work on my business, and I’m frustrated because I can’t get the legal work to keep up. So it’s going to change over time, and I don’t know exactly what role I’ll take when it’s all said and done.
The hardest part of starting a business is usually figuring out how to pay for it. How did you fund your firm?
The costs of starting a law firm aren’t that great — we don’t have a lot of overhead, for example. So in terms of startup costs, I was really lucky to have been able to receive a little bit of support from my parents. But also, I didn’t take an income for the first year of the firm. I’m really lucky to have the full support of my husband, who has singlehandedly allowed me to take this venture on at times where there isn’t any income from my side of things after I pay my staff and cover our expenses. So that was an advantage that I had that I know other colleagues of mine don’t have. Friends of mine who I graduated law school with that tried to start their own business — they just couldn’t do it. They needed a steady income in order to survive. I’m really blessed to have had the support of my husband that allowed me to take a little bit of a risk there. I know that not everybody is in a position where they can take on that kind of investment.
Free and sliding scale services are part of your mission. But does that also make projecting month-to-month revenue difficult for your firm?
Yes, and that’s something that I’ve had to work on. I do have a staff to pay and bills to pay and expenses that come up throughout the course of running a business, so learning how to manage that has been a challenge. We’ve been lucky to have a business for almost two years now, and there have definitely been some ups and downs. None of our success would have been possible without my colleagues who have been so gracious to provide insight and mentorship over the years. Just like anything, I’ve learned the importance of being patient and not freaking out when you have a low month. Simultaneously, I know not to blow everything that I have when we have a good month. We’ve been able to grow through those challenges and rise to the mission.
If I were a lawyer looking to start my own firm, what would be your biggest piece of advice?
Take it slow, and know that it takes time to develop a clientele. In my first month in business, I had three clients, and they were all friends of mine!
The other thing is making sure that you’re putting yourself into positions where you can meet people. A lot of small firm lawyers, your number one source of clientele is going to be referrals. So you have to put yourself out there in places and positions where you’re going to meet people that you know are going to refer clients.
One of those resources for me is Orlando’s Pride Chamber. I’m in a networking group there and fostering relationships with those individuals who are other small business owners — creating a network, basically — has been of absolutely immeasurable value. It’s hard because that takes time out of my day, but, in turn, I reap the benefit of that. Plus, it’s been great to continue to dig into the LGBTQ community here in central Florida and find my place in the business community.