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Crystal McDonough Talks About Balancing Life as an Attorney on the Road

October 22, 2019

Crystal McDonough, Founder of McDonough Law LLC, speaks with Kevin at the seventh annual ClioCloud9 conference in San Diego about her experiences as an attorney while traveling the country in a “condo on wheels.”


Kevin O’Keefe: Whom I talking with? 

Crystal McDonough: I’m Crystal McDonough. 

Kevin: And what does Crystal McDonough do?

Crystal: I am an attorney and I own McDonough Law LLC.

Kevin: Nice last name. Did you you have that before you got married or did you pick that up?

Crystal: That’s my married name.

Kevin: Good for you. Being Irish, I’m empathetic towards the Irish name. Where are you? I’ve met you the other night and I think I may have said, you know, like “where do you live?”. And so where do you live? Where, where’s your law office?

Crystal: Alright, so we have four offices, three of them in Colorado, one in Wyoming. Um, home is Colorado.

Kevin: The thing that piqued my interest was what, all of a sudden it was like, “Wow, how can that be where you guys are living?”. What’s the story about this?

Crystal: So I grew up in Grand Lake tiny, tiny little mountain town, ramping right next to Rocky Mountain National Park, way up in the mountains. And so, my heart’s always been in Colorado, but I love to travel. So about 2013, I convinced my husband to buy an RV and pack up the kids, the dogs, and head out on an adventure. 

Kevin: (1:23) As a lawyer too.

Crystal: As a lawyer, yeah. So we headed out for our first two week adventure, went up to Yellowstone and loved it. So I was hooked. 

Kevin: What was the WiFi like up in Yellowstone?

Crystal: Honestly I don’t even remember that, but, since then we’ve gotten a lot more sophisticated with our travel and a hotspots and things like that.

Kevin: But as I understand it, I mean your entire family of three children, you have three children?

Crystal: I have three kids, three teenagers. 

Kevin: You and your husband travel at the same time that you’re practicing law.

Crystal: Yes, yes.

Kevin: And you’re doing this out of a motor home or a very large sized trailer that’s being pulled by a truck.

Crystal: (2:04) Yup. We have a giant 40 foot fifth wheel, four slides, and a fireplace, and a kitchen island. So I call it my condo on wheels.

Kevin: So imagine somebody like me, who started practicing and graduated from law school in 1982. You know, you basically got to find, we’ll first it was in Ireland, we still had offices, but then, you know, we have an office, we have a firm, we’d come in in the morning, we hang our coat on the back of the hook. Um, you know, we have the hard line telephone. You know, the clients come in and meet us. Uh, we meet the clients at the office, we walked in the courthouse, you know, and here you are off in this traveling thing with the entire family. It’s so far fetched for what I could even imagine. What type of work do you do that allows you to do that type of work? And then how do you interface with clients today?

Crystal: (3:00) So this is by design. I knew this as second career for me. I went to law school with three little kids. My youngest was three years old when I went to law school. And I knew when I went to law school that I wanted to start a law firm. The goal was to be independent and to have freedom and flexibility to work and live around my family rather than being married to my job all day. So this was an intentional plan. I designed my practice so that we could be completely mobile and not tied to any one location. While we have physical offices, we rarely use them and, instead, I’ve designed our practice so that every single person in the firm can work remotely.

Kevin: And who’s we? When you say “we at the firm”, who are all these people? Are they lawyers? Are there other paralegals, assistants? What, who are they all?

Crystal: So started off solo and grew from there. I had a partner at one point and then, um, you know, as life goes, I found myself solo again and then decided to rebrand and started hiring attorneys and support staff, and paralegals. So I’ve got about 10 folks working for me now and I love it. And every single one of them gets to work remotely. I do have one paralegal that comes into the office because occasionally we have mail, but I’ve set us up completely paperless. So when I’m working with clients, we work remotely anyway. Most of my clients are very busy and don’t have the time to come into the office or they don’t live anywhere near one of our offices. I’ve got clients all over the country. 

Kevin: What type of work? 

Crystal: (4:41) So we practice natural resources, energy, business, and trust in the States.

Kevin: You know, I think when people first hear this they’re thinking, well you know, “what type of sophisticated client would even consider, you know, this type of thing?”. So it doesn’t bother those clients where you’re working or where your team is or anything about it. So long as they’re getting good quality representation.

Crystal: Exactly. And we’re always available. I always have my phone and my clients have my cell phone number. 

Kevin: So 24/7/365. 

Crystal: So, yes. They can reach me at always email, phone calls, zoom calls, you know, whatever works, whatever they need, we get the job done. 

Kevin: Where’s your husband? Is your husband working? 

Crystal: He is now a stay at home dad.

Kevin: Yeah. I would guess. You’re able to build this thing at the same time, you gotta go out to law school where your youngest is three years old. You know, I can only imagine. What’s it like for the kids? You know, mom is around or in the trailer, travelling all over. What do they think?

Crystal: They love it. So, in order to make the traveling work and started, we home-schooled our kids. It’s been just a wonderful experience for all of us. We’ll get to sit down at the kitchen table. I’ll be working on client work. They can be working on school and or I’m in my home office and if they’ve got questions they can come in and talk to me. My littlest, she used to have a little desk set up in my office and that was her desk and she would do her school in my office while mommy was working. And it was wonderful. When I took a break I could have lunch with them or snacks or cuddle with them. It’s been great.

Kevin: (6:16) As far as the area of the law that you’re doing, did that dovetail off of Wyoming as far as the energy area? 

Crystal: Yeah. I went to the University of Wyoming and I received my JD and my master’s. So my master’s is in natural resources and energy. And then I also worked for the school of energy resources as a graduate assistant. I got to work on amazing energy projects while I was a student. And in fact I actually worked for the state legislature. I was assigned by the school of energy resources to the wind energy task force in the state legislature. So I did all the research and assisted in drafting a lot of the wind energy policy, which was fascinating as a law student and in great opportunity it helped to jumpstart my career. So when I went out on my own and started my firm, I had clients in hand.

Kevin: Alrighty. And you were already on your way to knowing what you’re doing too, as opposed to trying to figure out what you’re doing. You know the idea of a distributed workforce today is a term that’s becoming involved. We use as our core software is WordPress. So I’ve gotten to know Matt Mullenweg who’s the co founder of WordPress, but he’s the principal on our, you know, a largest install of it, which is a multi-billion dollar company. They have no officers and Matt has people around the world. Last year I think he traveled 200,000 miles to make sure he got to spend time with them. And the only time their team comes together is if they want to do meetups, but they can say “okay we’re located in Canada, the States, located wherever. Let’s have a meeting in Athens”. And they do that. In our company, we moved out of regular offices, but we moved into offices at WeWork where we all are. But now we are going to distributed cause why would we call somebody “remote” like it’s a lesser thing. I got a new newish team member that will be running products I haven’t met. I’ll meet on Thursday. Lives in Austin that joined us about 10 days to two weeks ago. It’s an eye opening thing. What do you see as someone your age that where you practiced law, the internet existed and these new means of communication like you said, “I’ve got this in my pocket”? It’s totally different than someone my age that hasn’t seen it. It’s almost like I feel that we’re a little bit handicapped because we can’t see what you see. We haven’t communicated like you’ve communicated in this new world. I mean, I’m sure you’ve been asked the question by people that are saying, well, “how’s that possible? Could I really do this? That’s impossible for me to do that”? How do you look at it? Why do you look at it differently? What caused you to look at this differently?

Crystal: (9:12) Well, I looked at it, I think because I came to law firm from a different background. You know, I had three kids. We had already owned and operated several small businesses by the time I started law school. I was in my thirties when I started law school, so I’m now in my forties. And I think that having those backgrounds and experiences before law completely changed the way 

Kevin: It’s a paradigm. 

Crystal: It is. It is. I think differently. I look at things different. I see the possibilities differently. I really think that’s why I do still need help on the technology side. Sometimes my kids have to help me with my phone. Um, but you know, it’s been great. I hired one of my attorneys while I was on the road in Florida.

Kevin: (10:03) I asked my COO? I said, “Garry, come on, I mean, seriously? This person is going to lead our products? You know, we’ve never met him”. He goes, “I’ll tell you if it doesn’t work out, you know, we may never meet him. He’ll part ways or we’ll part ways with him”. Why’d you become a lawyer?

Crystal: So my path is a little bit different. I never set out to be a lawyer.

Kevin: But somehow you ended up in law school?

Crystal: I did, I love learning and I just continued to go to school. Um, while my kids were babies, I just kept taking classes and taking more classes and I ended up with multiple degrees and my husband looked at me one day and he said, is there an end to all of this? Are you just going to keep going to school? I mean, there should be a purpose. We’re spending a lot of money on this. So I started trying to think, okay, what do I really want to do? I started in program at the University of Denver, a masters program in environmental policy. And my first class was taught by a law professor that Ved Nanda from the DU law school. It was “global energy law” and everything he said that night just clicked with me. I grew up around natural resources. My dad worked for a water company that managed hydro and the Colorado river and my grandfather was a farmer and a rancher and managed his natural resources and, you know, took care of the land. He had oil and gas and it just kind of clicked for me. I came home that night and I said, “I gotta go to law school”. My husband said, “I don’t even have any idea how to do that, but we’ll figure it out”.

Kevin: (11:50) It’s different in the West because I was in the Midwest, then I came out to law school in California, in Northern California. Nobody’s concerned about, you know, water. Whether it was rights or water to the farmers. Ag stuff was so big and then classes on water law and I thinking “I never thought about this stuff”. Yeah. Uh, yeah, the West is much different. Um, what would you tell people, I mean, you were in a different business before, you just told the story about how you stumbled into law school. What do you tell young people about the, the opportunities that might await them as they see the law in law school? 

Crystal: There is so much work out there. People need and are looking for attorneys who can be counselors and can guide them through situations that they need help. And those can range from anything from business to various things. 

Kevin: This idea that there’s no more jobs left and there’s no opportunity. I mean, you probably have taught at law school and then some are like, “well, maybe there’s opportunities for you, but there’s none for us today”. “You know, we’re going to law school and paying all this money. We have all these student loans. We’re not gonna have any opportunities” and they’re saying, “woe is us”. You’re saying, “Hey, wait a second. There are plenty of opportunities”. 

Crystal: (13:06) There’s so much opportunity for people who are willing to look at law differently. What I think is the old traditional model of law, for me, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for me. Maybe it still works for, I know it works for many people. They’re still doing it, but that’s not what consumers want. Consumers want their attorneys to be accessible. The consumers want their attorneys to be responsible. They want to be paperless. They want to see commitment to the community and the environment. Consumers want to be able to use their smartphone to pay their bill. I have a client down in Texas. We manage his ranch in Colorado for him and we did some work for him. I sent him his invoice and popped up on his phone and he paid with his credit card and it was done. He called me and he said, “Crystal, will you please talk to my Texas attorney? I can’t convince him to send bills through email or text”. 

Kevin: It’s all over though. I mean, it’s the medical care. My doctor, I can email their team and they’ll spit it out and within an hour I’ll have a response. And I think it’s the greatest thing in the world. I’m showing it to people and I’m saying, “You see this? My doctor is responding in an email telling me exactly the situation”. That I probably don’t need to come in and here’s what’s going on. I love it. And I’m telling people about it. “Hey you gotta go to him”. You have those stats that Clio put, that Jack put up yesterday, and it’s shocking as far as the lawyers not getting back to people at all and all of that. You have a picture of the, cause I almost felt like calling out on, okay, “show me this thing that you can actually hold a family around and do legal work on them with the fireplace”. 

Crystal: (14:50) Yeah, I call it my condo on wheels because it’s so nice and comfortable. 

Kevin: That’s not all bad. How many square feet is it or do you know? 

Crystal: I don’t know. It’s 40 foot long and it has four slide-outs so I don’t know. I’m sure my husband can tell you exactly how many square feet it is. 

Kevin: You know that’s a good size. It’s the size of a good condominium. 

Crystal: Right, but you know if you’re going to live in for a month or two at a time or three months, you want to, you want to be comfortable. So this is it. 

Kevin: Can you see that? Thanks Melissa. What did you call it, the something on wheels? 

Crystal: The condo on wheels. 

Kevin: Yes, the condo on wheels. 

Crystal: We hauled the mountain bikes, we haul kayaks and paddle boards.

Kevin: How many days, or months, or weeks a year you’ll live in there at home?

Crystal: (15:37) So we tend to be on the road anywhere from four to six months and it kind of depends on what activities we have planned for the year. I typically like to go to Florida for the winter. I don’t like being cold any longer. 

Kevin: So will you guys head to Florida this winter?

Crystal: Not this year, not this year. We have a new adventure plan this winter. We’re buying horse property and we just bought our, our youngest daughter a horse. She’s been borrowing a horse for two years for Gymkhana and Four-H. So we decided it’s time to bite the bullet. She’s 13 she’s our youngest. So we’re all in.

Kevin: Pretty cool. And so when your kids go off to college or law school and they say, “Oh, you know, where are you from?”. “The condo on wheels” in addition to all their things. It’s a great inspiration for your kids. Great role model for your kids. You can do what you want. You can enjoy what you want. You can interact with the type of people that you want to and that the world is changing radically. Whether they’re professional like you, whether the business owners work in distributed workforce it’s very, very cool.

Crystal: Yeah, it’s exciting. It’s an exciting time to be in law and in business.

Kevin: Did you get to speak here and share your story or are you going to today?

Crystal: I am going to today at 3:15 and there’s a big slideshow of all of our favorite pictures. Our whole family sat down and picked out pictures to share with everybody here at the conference.

Kevin: So you tell your kids, “Hey, I’m going to this conference. This is what’s going on. Can you help me pick up pictures? I want to show up. I want to show a thousand people this, a thousand people what we do”.

Crystal: Yeah, so we’ve got a 30 minutes slide show loop. 

Kevin: That’s really cool. Thank you very much. 

Crystal: Thank you.

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