What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Ted Lau
Ted Lau is the owner of Ballistic Arts, an award-winning high-touch digital marketing agency that focuses on growing sales leads for small and medium sized businesses.
He leads a team of creative professionals in digital marketing strategy, video production, graphic design and web development to provide effective ROI for businesses that want to raise brand awareness and garner tangible leads for their business growth. Ted is also a host on Canada’s #1 marketing podcast Marketing News Canada where he discusses the latest insights on all things marketing, advertising, and communications with today’s brightest minds in the industry.
Small and mid-sized B2B companies may not draw as much attention as B2C companies, but their business makes up the majority of North America’s economy. While their marketing may not be as flashy, B2B companies still need no-B.S. strategies that generate leads. That’s where Ted Lau, founder of digital marketing agency Ballistic Arts, comes in. He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about the importance of the digital marketing funnel; why tracking is the key to generating qualified leads; and why likes, followers and impressions mean nothing if they don’t increase revenue. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, it’s my pleasure to welcome Ted Lau, founder of Ballistic Arts, a digital marketing agency. Ted is speaking to us from Vancouver, Canada, although they have an office in Bellingham, Washington and they work all over the West Coast. Ballistic Arts combines innovative, creative storytelling with leading-edge analytics so they can really move the client’s needle. Ted leads a team of experts in design and branding video production, web development and lead generation. We’ll hear all about this and more today. Ted, welcome to the program.
Ted: Thanks, Sharon. Happy to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us how you got where you are.
Ted: That’s a long story. I’m starting to age a little, hopefully in a good way like fine wine. Basically, right after university, I started the business. I was trying to get into the film industry. I graduated four months or so after 9/11 so nobody was hiring, so I thought, “I’m just going to freelance and what not.” I worked on an indie film. I met the director at the time, and he and I got along quite well. He was like, “Do you want to start a business together?” I was kind of naïve in my early twenties, and I was like, “Well, yeah, how hard could that be?” There you go. We started setting off on our journey. We started as a video production company, and then one thing led to another. A lot of our clients were SMBs, small and medium-sized businesses, that didn’t have the wherewithal or the budgets to hire large agencies to help them do all their marketing.
This is, again, in the early 2000s. I had to make DVDs that people could stick into their machines, and a lot of them said, “I don’t even have a TV in here, but I notice that you design your own brochures, and it’s quite lovely. Can you design mine?” In your early twenties, you’re like, “Well, yeah, I’m starving. I’ll do whatever. Yes, I can do that.” So, we immediately got into the graphic design biz. A few months after that, people said, “Ted, this web thing, this interweb, the internet, I don’t think it’s going away. I noticed that you designed your own website. Can you help us?” I was like, “Yes, I think I can.” We started becoming a full media marketing agency, and we did creative work up until probably 2018 or 2019.
Then I bought out my business partner, which is whole other podcast if you want to talk about that. Then I wanted to start helping small and medium-sized B2B companies. That journey I had, that first 15, 16 years in the business, we went from small and medium-sized businesses to large companies. We worked in healthcare. We worked with a lot of large real estate developers. They got larger and larger. These are multinational companies, some of them, and it became a little bit—financially it was rewarding, but it didn’t feel like we were helping the little guy anymore.
I wanted to get back to our roots, and I noticed that a lot of business-to-business folks aren’t supported by the marketing world. They don’t actually have the inclination to seek out marketing, and marketers don’t really want to work with B2B. They find it boring. It’s not Lululemon. It’s not the L.A. Rams. They want to work with those companies typically, so I noticed that B2B companies were underserved. If you look at the stats, B2B, small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of the North American economy. They’re like 89% of the economy. So, I thought there was a good opportunity for us to support that, and we got into lead generation digital marketing for a lot of SMBs, a lot of B2B professional service companies, a lot of B2B distributors and manufacturers.
They don’t really need all this huge marketing, branding, blah, blah, blah. They need business. They need sales. So, I was like, “What if I helped you get leads?” That really perked one of my clients’ ears, and he said, “You know, Ted, if you could get me leads, I’ll never leave you.” That was basically it. Again, I didn’t really know how to get there, but I had a vision where I thought if we could marry the data and the creative and focus on one goal, not vanity numbers, but really focus on actually getting people business, leads, solid, qualified leads, not garbage tire-kicker leads, there was a place in the marketplace for that. It’s been very rewarding over Covid.
We actually started this division, I want to say, six or eight months before Covid, and not because I had a crystal ball thinking the world’s going to shut down with the global pandemic. It was simply me wanting to serve a particular community. I think Covid, as disastrous as it was for many people and as devastating as it was for many businesses, it was very helpful for us to be in a position to support these businesses. That division grew very rapidly over Covid because people were like, “Oh my goodness, we’re shutting our doors, but I got a little bit of government money. Can you help get me business and keep my doors open?” I was like, “O.K., no pressure.” We set goals. We created strategies and tactics around that and supported them in generating revenue, and it’s been very successful.
Sharon: Did you think about jumping ship and going back to the film industry at some point?
Ted: That’s a great question. I think the film industry, like of a lot of industries, is much more glamorous on the outside than it is on the inside. Like they say, this is how the sausage is made in the factory, whatever that saying is. I started noticing many of my friends who were in the film industry starting to get burnt out. They were working 12, 18-hour days, a lot of overtime, a lot of low pay, and it was a lot of grunt work. It took 10, 15 years to get into any kind of leadership role because there are union rules and whatnot, not to say there’s no place for the union.
I just found that it was very tiring for a lot of these folks. A lot of them ended up having marital issues because of it, relationship issues, health issues, addiction issues, and I thought, “You know what? This is not really for me.” I was tied to the hip by a lovely girl back in my college days, and I wanted to make sure I was able to seal the deal, as it were. Funny enough, she is my wife of 17 years. We got married in 2006. We started dating in 1999, got married in 2006. It’s 17 years this year, and after I bought out my business partner a few years ago, I brought her in as a 50-50 partner. We’ve been partners in life and partners in crime for a number of years now.
Sharon: Pretty good. It sounds very fulfilling.
Ted: It is.
Sharon: You do a lot of different things. How do you define digital marketing? You say you’re a digital marketing agency. That could mean a lot of things.
Ted: Yeah, absolutely. Great question, Sharon. The first thing is that, for us, it is anything that is online for the most part. I think a lot of folks will do PR and outreach and influencer marketing, those kinds of things. Those are not our forte. Our forte is around helping folks on things for the digital funnel. If you don’t understand the funnel, it’s top of funnel, middle of funnel, bottom of funnel.
The top of funnel is where you get the awareness. People who have never heard of your business before don’t know you from Tom, Dick or Harry. You’re just like every single person in your industry. Getting awareness is top of funnel, and activities like that that we support are things like digital ads, be it Google, LinkedIn, Facebook. We’ll even do Snapchat and Twitch and Pinterest. We’re exploring TikTok for some B2B companies. So, that’s getting the awareness out, but you also have things in top of funnel like SEO work. You have PPC, which is part of the Google landscape, blog writing to support the SEO efforts, video ads, YouTube ads. Whatever those things are just to get the word out.
Then the middle of funnel is the consideration phase. People have heard of you. It usually takes about eight to 10 touches for them to even realize you exist. Once they actually convert and come to your website, that’s the consideration phase. We need to have really good, thoughtful content on a website. Gone are the days when if you look pretty and half-decent, they’re going to just call you. You need to actually provide value. So, we do a lot of work around supporting website content creation, creating marketing strategies and actually executing on them. Maybe we’ll have video content that is not a video ad, but it’s something that educates the end user, the client’s client or prospective client about how they can improve their X, Y, Z in their life and business.
We then go to the conversion step, when they actually go, “O.K., I’m going to buy,” or “I’m going to at least consider talking to you and actually getting you to submit a quote.” That could be things like call-to-action improvement, conversion strategy management. It could also be email automation and those kinds of activities where they might come to your website but they leave. Remarketing, which is part of Google and all the other ad platforms, is when someone comes to your site and then they leave, and then you can creep them online, basically, for the next two weeks with ads. That’s another way of getting folks to consider you while they’re doing their day-to-day life.
That’s kind of what we do. We’re a full, encompassing agency, and everything we do is in support of generating qualified leads. We do a lot of A/B testing. Lots of folks will say, “I get a lot of leads, but they’re not very good,” so we have to actually do testing. We don’t just send out one ad. Gone are the days of posting an ad in the L.A. Times and you get one shot. If you got the pixel wrong or misspelled something, too bad. With digital, you can launch 10, 15 different ads in one go, and then the algorithms and the ad optimization work we do will be able to discern which ads are performing better and which ads are not. Then with the feedback of our clients, they’ll tell us, “O.K., this batch of leads, 50% of it was garbage and this 50% was O.K.” Then we’ll go, “Well, let’s look and see. The garbage ones, where do they come from? They came from this click through on the website. They came through this ad. They hit this article. They watched this video.” So, we’ll modify some of the messaging and tweak it, or maybe we’ll just turn off some of the ads and focus our money and improve on the so-so ads. Then over time we’ll iterate, and the next batch will get better. Turn off some ads, modify the so-so ads, get to the better ones, and then you get from better to best. It becomes this cycle, and we track everything.
From a marketing standpoint, traditional marketers don’t feel the need or the accountability to get qualified leads. It’s more about brand awareness, and there’s room for that in the marketplace. I think that’s totally fine, but for us, because I’m a small business owner myself, anything I do, any dollars I put it in, I’d better darn well see a return. I thought if I put myself in my clients’ shoes, if they’re thinking exactly like me, they’re going to want their marketing to actually provide a return. That’s really what we do.
Sharon: Do you still think there is a place for—you call it traditional; I call it regular—but the billboards and the Yellow Pages and whatever? Do you still think there’s a place for it?
Ted: I don’t know where you get the Yellow Pages, the actual book. I don’t think that exists anymore. I feel like they filed Chapter 11 a few years ago and they’ve gone digital as well. But to your point, TV, Super Bowl, billboards, all that kind of stuff, if you have the budget, it does help get the top-of-funnel awareness. I’m not going to say it doesn’t. If you have the budget to do it, great, but most of our clients don’t have the few million dollars to place the ad at the Super Bowl. Yes, you can do that. It’s expensive and you can’t track it all that well. If you look at all the Super Bowl ads that came out recently, if you go on YouTube—I’ve seen most of those funny Super Bowl commercials now as ads on YouTube, the one with Jessie Pinkerton and Walter White eating PopCorners—I think they’re called PopCorners, those chips. They did this spoof and it was great. It was one of the funniest this year from the Super Bowl. I’ve seen that ad several times now on my feed when I’m on social media. So, you can repurpose it.
Again, if you have the budget, sure, but if you have a limited amount of dollars you can spend, that’s probably not where I would go first. You can’t track it. It looks nice. It’s very vanity-like, it’s very ego-driven, but that’s probably also why I work with a lot of B2B folks. A lot of B2B folks are no B.S. types for the most part. They want to get the job done. If you’re looking for vanity metrics, yeah, put your logo on Center Ice or have, like I said, an ad on the Super Bowl or something like that. But I think for most SMBs, it’s not the way to go today.
Sharon: That’s interesting. When you said Yellow Pages, once a year we used to get their version of the Yellow Pages, which was so small I’d immediately toss it. Anyway, that’s dating myself I suppose, because today I would go right online. I guess with social media and Facebook and all of that today, aren’t websites a little dated? Are they?
Ted: It’s funny you say that. I remember going to a marketing conference. It was probably three years before the pandemic, and the keynote speaker was arguing the point that websites were going to become irrelevant. His kids were in high school, and they were creating a thought-out marketing campaign of some sort. They made up a business and did the marketing, and he asked, “Where’s your website?” They’re like, “Why would we need a website? We’ll do everything on Instagram.” That was very interesting. At the time, I thought, “Oh man, he’s right. Maybe websites are going to get irrelevant.”
My wife finds a lot of things for products on social media. For instance, I don’t know if you’ve seen the Super Puff jacket that’s been around the last little while. It’s kind of cold in L.A. It’s been windy, so all the soccer moms, all the women wear these super huge, Super Puff jackets. My sister is an anti-social media person, and she was like, “Why am I seeing all these women wear these jackets? Where are they getting them? I haven’t seen them.” She actually had to google it. My wife is like, “No, people have been following these people on social media. It’s on social media. It’s not on a website.”
To answer your question, there’s that part of it, but for a lot of folks, a website is the main point where you get to interact with your potential customers. It’s a way for you to show how great you can be. Yes, you have social media, but there are comments and all kinds of stuff. You do need social media; I’m not saying you don’t. You absolutely, 100% need social media, but there’s absolutely a place for websites. There’s a place where websites are not going to be irrelevant.
For instance, me and my wife went on a couples retreat just last week, over Valentine’s week. We looked at this beautiful resort online, and everything they said was spelled out on their website. The entire experience starts there. It in fact starts with their advertising and whatnot, but we had heard about their name and the property for a number of years, and we always wanted to check it out. We ended up going on the website, and it was like, “O.K., we’re sold because of the pictures, the content, the tone it sets, the videos.” There’s absolutely a need for websites.
We have a lot of clients that are distributors and manufacturers that manufacture a product and distribute it all over the country. Our job is to communicate effectively why this product is going to be important for this customer’s business. They sell permeable paving products. They sell them to parking lot developers and people that own construction companies and stuff like that. You’re not going to find a lot of opportunities to talk about that on Instagram on a regular basis. It’s a product you install and that’s it. This is not the B2C Hayabusa boxing gloves, where Mike Tyson is coming on and demonstrating the gloves. You’re not going to get a lot of that hype. So, you still need a website. Even a lot of B2C companies that are very, very prominent on social media, at the end of the day, you need someone to convert. They have to go to a place like a website to buy the product, to book a meeting, to book their vacation, whatever it might be. Websites are 100% going to be here to stay.
Sharon: That sounds interesting. I think that’s true, especially for places that might not do as well on social media like law firms or CPA firms. You get a referral, and the first place you want to go is the website. If they have an educational video, that’s wonderful, but that would be the first place. I think there’s a lot of room for that.
Ted: Absolutely. Speaking of law firms—I know this is the law firm podcast—we work with a lot of professional service firms, and a lot of the time there is the referral. There’s word of mouth, but what’s the first thing you do when you get word of mouth? You’re going to find them online. So, the website is the credibility piece. You have to look the part. Looking the part means how you to project yourself into your industry. A lot of law firms will talk about their practice areas, the expertise they have. A lot of content they produce and publish is really important. We were speaking to one of our clients out of Culver City, and they were thinking, “What if we promote webinars to have people come to our actual location, our office?” One, you get to see the office and get the atmosphere, but two, you get to hear from the partners about their particular expertise as to what to do, what to look for, how to avoid certain circumstances. It’s a way to build trust.
Ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do these days in marketing. Long gone are the days of the hypodermic needle theory, which was—there’s an ad. What was it? Lucky Strike Cigarettes. “They taste delicious,” or whatever it is. They inject it and now you’re thinking, “I’ve got to buy these cigarettes.” Long gone are those days. The power is now with the buyer. The power is with the consumer, the person that is going to invest the dollars for a particular service or product. So, we have to build that trust and position our clients as much as we can as the thought leaders in their industry, so when someone comes to their website and sees their content and follows them, they start thinking, “Oh man, they’re almost a pseudo-celebrity.” We’re doing a build in our basement right now. We’ve been following this interior design company for some time, and by the time we met them, there was a little bit of a sense of, “Ooh, we’re meeting the superstars.” That’s what you want to do. You want to start building up into this almost pseudo-celebrity with a follower, fan-club-type deal.
We have a lot of content on ballisticarts.com, our website, about marketing. Sometimes I’ll come onto a Zoom call or a webinar, and people actually say, “My goodness, your website has helped me because of all this content. I really understand how you guys work. You’re giving this information out for free. I can only imagine what you would do for me if I was paying.” That’s what you’re trying to do. You’re giving away almost the whole farm but keeping back enough that they want to hire you. To be honest, you could give away the whole thing and most people are not going to have the time or desire to do what you do, especially with law firms. You have to be licensed. You have to be called to the bar to actually practice. There’s no harm in providing more information than not so long as you cover all the legal liabilities when you’re publishing things. You’re giving away expertise and showing that you’re a thought leader and you’re trusted in your industry. We all know there are always bad players, bad apples in every industry. Every industry has a bad reputation of some sort. It could be home remodelers. It could be law firms. It could be marketers. There’s always a guy selling snake oil. So, how do we differentiate ourselves? That’s what we need to do.
Sharon: How do you differentiate yourself if you walk into a meeting of partners or lawyers, and they’re all skeptical and have heard from 14 companies like yours? How do you differentiate yourself?
Ted: That’s great. I’ll talk about myself a little bit later, but given this is for folks in the legal space, I would say—and this is what we do for a lot of our clients. We want to really understand who your persona is. Who is your target buyer? You could be in family law, but maybe your focus is child custody, and maybe it’s African American women between the ages of 28 and 42, and they live in this part of Southern California and do this kind of a job. These are the kinds of things they like, these are the kinds of brands they speak to, these are the kinds of things they do for fun. Once we build that particular persona, then we ask, “What pain are you trying to solve? What is the number one thing they come to you for time and time again that you can solve better than most?” A lot of our clients are like, “Well, we’ll serve anybody.” Yes, I know you can serve anybody, but who would you want to serve? Who are the ones you can do really well with, the ones you love serving? Then find out what problem you solved for them, and then from that, you find out the pain they have. People buy emotionally. They might seek you out logically, like, “I need a divorce lawyer,” “I need a child custody lawyer,” but they’re going to buy emotionally. They’re going to be like, “This person will help me get to my goal because of X, Y, Z. They will help me solve this problem.”
We talk about pain a lot in our marketing. What is the pain we’re trying solve? There are two different kinds of pain. For instance—this was the early, early days in my business. We were trying to incorporate the company nationally, and we were working with a lawyer. It took the guy almost a year and he did the incorporation incorrectly. He was somebody I knew, someone who was going to give it to me “cost effectively,” but it took, Sharon, a year. The sum total of a year. I was so angry that it took this long. I didn’t know anything. I was in my mid-twenties then. We were a partnership until 2005, and then we incorporated. I was so naïve, I didn’t know. I thought this was just the way it was. Then I found out that no, incorporation doesn’t take that long at all.
My pain was that I needed to find a competent person that wasn’t going to hide behind all this other stuff and give me excuses. So, I met with somebody else. We had lunch. We talked about my pains. She listened, and at the end of the day, she did the work. Then she introduced me to another lawyer when she moved on, and now my lawyer is an old friend of mine from college. We lost touch for 10 years, then all of a sudden, he resurfaced in the firm I was using. He became my lawyer, and he’s been my lawyer for the last 10 years now.
What I’m trying to point to is that if you can actually address that person’s pain and tell them, “This is how I’m going to solve it,” you’re going to win. Think about it. Tylenol and Advil have never said, “We’re doing mass layoffs because of the recession.” No, because they’re painkillers. The only kinds of companies that are recession-proof are the painkiller-type companies. If you can position yourself as a painkiller rather than a vitamin—a vitamin is like a Peloton. That’s why Pelotons were doing so great and now they suck. There’s nothing wrong with the actual business or the operations. It’s because they’re not addressing pain; they’re addressing an aspiration. That’s really all it is. If you’re able to address that and you know this is specifically who you’re targeting, then every piece of communication you do is based on communicating to that one person.
For us at Ballistic, we position ourselves talking to 11 to 50-plus employee-type companies that are B2B. They can either be professional services or they can be distributors and manufacturers. Because we know that, when we come into a situation where we’re meeting with somebody who is talking to three or four other people, I can actually address specific pain points we’ve crafted and talked about internally forever. We address it, and we know it works because these are the same pains that all my clients had when they came looking for us. That’s one. Two, like I said, we focus primarily on the results. Everything we do is about the actual conversion.
Another client of ours, they build playgrounds. They distribute out of Montana and all over the West. They put in playgrounds for schools and municipalities. When they came to us, they were like, “Ted, I want to do a podcast,” and I went, “You build playgrounds and you want to make a podcast? What’s the total adjustable market share?” I think it was maybe 300 to 500 people that buy playgrounds. “So, your entire, total, maximum audience is 300 to 500 people.” “Yeah.” “Why do you want to do this?” “Our main competitor started a podcast and we’ve got to do one.” I’m like, “Do you think a podcast is going to make you any money?” Immediately the VP said, “I don’t think so.” I’m like, “What if we helped you get business?” and they’re like, “Well, we’re pretty busy already. Every year we want to grow. We’ve kind of plateaued, but we’ve done what we’ve done. It’s all word of mouth.” I’m like, “Well, what are your goals?” When you sell a playground, you don’t need a ton of leads because each deal is like five, six figures. The average order size is much larger, so they need two orders a month. “How can you need two orders a month? What’s your conversion rate?” “What do you mean by that?” “Conversion rate. When someone comes to you, what are the chances of them signing with you? For every 10 people that come in, how many would you need? How many would sign?” They’re like, “I think it would be 20%. I think one in five would sign with us.” I said, “O.K., you need two new deals a month, and you need 10 solid leads a month?” “Yeah, I think that’s it.” Immediately, “I could do that. I can get qualified leads coming to your website.” So long as we can track that, they can then track back how much revenue they have.
We have a client out of Seattle. They’re a data research company, and they sell to Amazon and Nintendo, large, large companies. The work we’ve done for them, they can actually track back how much business has been attributed to us. We have another professional consultancy. They sell to hotels and golf courses and whatnot. They help people open new restaurants, and we account for 70% of their new business. It’s because everything we do is tracking towards revenue growth.
I don’t know about you, but if I had a golden goose that I could put a dollar in and I got five back, I’d probably want to work with that firm. That’s really what I’ve done. I present the case to a business, “O.K., we’re going to put our feet to the fire. We’re going to work with you, and we’re going to get these results. It’s not about any numbers, not about impressions, not about likes. Those are nice, but they’re not going to pay the bills. You can’t eat on likes.” That’s what we’ve done, and that’s our unique selling position. That’s the blue ocean, as it were. I found that a lot of marketers aren’t willing to take that risk with their clients, and we do.
Sharon: You say you’re no-bullshit marketing. That’s no bullshit you’re saying right now.
Ted: Yes, ma’am, that’s exactly it.
Sharon: When you have a roomful of CPAs, lawyers, professional service people, and they’re skeptical right away but they don’t even know where to start—a lot of people right now are very interested in redesigning their website. If they want a website, where do you start the process if they don’t know where to start or if they’re doing it themselves?
Ted: That’s a great question. I think in a lot of CPA firms and law firms, there are a lot of partners. There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so what we want to do is help them visualize. Any strategic meeting you would have with leadership is used for marketing, to talk from a business standpoint. I’m a businessman at the end of the day. I tell them, “I don’t care what you do. You don’t even need a new website.” A lot of times, companies come to us and say, “Why do we need a new website?” I’m like, “Actually, you don’t. Your website’s fine. You need some tweaks. You need business. So, let me ask you, what are your business growth goals this year?” That crystalizes everybody.
For the most part, especially the founding members, the entrepreneurs, the ones that grew this from nothing, they always have their eye on the ball, what the capital is like, what they need to hit their monthly goals and what they need to hit their annual goals. If they haven’t put it down on paper, they at least have some idea. Any successful businessperson needs to have that. So, I tap into that. I cut right to the point. I ask, “Forget the website or this and that. What amount of money do you need to make in the next 12 months for this to be a success?” They’ll tell me. They’ll tell me about percentages, or they’ll tell me about money. Either way, we find out what that is. It’s usually, “I need another million dollars.” “O.K., another million dollars. How many deals is that?” “I don’t know, maybe 10, 20 new deals a year.” “Let’s say it’s 24 just for math’s sake. You need two new deals a month.” I do the same thing, just backwards. “How much revenue is a deal?” “They can range from $5,000 for an initial engagement to $50,000 plus.” “Well, on average, what is it?” “On average, it’s $100,000.” Then they do the math themselves. “$50,000 because we’re doing the math for a million.” “So, you need 24 $50,000 deals.”
What kind of client is that? It’s this kind of client, the middle-age businessowner that is struggling. We’re talking about a CPA firm. Maybe they’re struggling with their CFO or they’re having cash flow problems. I don’t know; I’m making this up. O.K., what does that person look like? What are they like? Can you execute on that? I’ll actually ask them, “If I got you exactly that person, can you actually execute?” “Oh yes, absolutely.” I actually ask them. I fundamentally need this question answered: “If I brought you this amount of business, can you actually support it?” Because the worst thing that can happen is I open the floodgates and you can’t handle it. That’s going to mess up your reputation, and it’s not going to work. It’s like going to the gym and saying, “I can lift these weights,” and you actually can’t, and then you injure yourself. You can’t have that. So, I actually ask them, “Can you support the business?” “Oh yeah, we can definitely support the business,” or they think about it and they’re like, “Actually, we can’t.” It’s basically a financial proposition before anything else. “Based on this, you need a $100,000 a month. Our fee is X. Based on your margins, can you handle that?” and they go, “Well, yeah,” and I know they can.
Then, “Let’s work backwards. Now that your goal is this amount of money and this number of people, let’s do a digital marketing strategy plan to get you there.” It’s like visualizing running a marathon, but you don’t eat properly. You don’t sleep properly. You don’t know how to actually go to the gym. So, let’s create a workout plan for you. That’s exactly what we do. The first step we do is a digital marketing strategy plan. It is very inexpensive, but there is enough of an investment. It’s not going to break the bank one way or the other.
Then we create a full-out plan. It’s the next three to six to 12 months depending on the plan. This is what we’re going to do to help you hit your goal, and it’s very much spelled out. Based on their goals, this is the persona. We’ll do a competitive analysis. These are your three major competitors. We look at their strengths and weakness, and then we exploit the competitors’ weaknesses. “Well, they’re not good here, so this is the opportunity. This is where we’re going to go.” Based on the weaknesses of their competitors—maybe all the competitors have crappier websites than they do, so we don’t need a brand-new website right now. It’s basically the strategy we need to do based on the landscape and the goals. Then we create all the strategies and the tactics, which are in service of that. No vanity, no fluff, just straight to the point.
Sharon: If everything is in place and a professional service firm is doing all of that, videos, web development, graphic design they did a long time ago—maybe they refreshed it—how do you track it? Do you go back into the website? How do you track that?
Ted: We say, “O.K., great, you’ve done all this stuff.” Most CPA firms and law firms have a logo. They have a website. They might have dabbled in YouTube and they’ve tried some social media, but they’re coming to us because the results aren’t happening. It’s like, “I keep self-training, and I keep coming in last place or get no results in my marathon.” Now it’s time to hire a professional trainer. In fact, those are the folks we want to work with because they understand there’s a need for marketing, but they don’t care enough or know enough about marketing to make it work.
I know that as my business, I need a CPA; I need a lawyer. I’m not going to do it myself. I know I need one. When we first started, we set up our own books. Oh, my goodness, that was horrible, Sharon. But we did it ourselves because it was all we needed to do, and we didn’t have a whole lot of money. When we started making money, it was like, “How can we make the best use of our time?” For us, it all tracks back to results: what has worked, what hasn’t. If they go, “Nothing has worked,” then we’ll go back again to what your goal is.
It could also be something around messaging. Maybe everything looks great and it would be fine, but the messaging doesn’t ring true to the end buyer. Remember we talked about pain. Maybe the messaging is like, “We’re a law firm in L.A.” O.K., and? So? What can we do to make you different? What can we do to make you stand out and speak to that specific buyer? That’s ultimately what it is.
Sharon: What if this lawyer or CPA says, “O.K., now I want to see your results in terms of leads”? What do you show them? What do you show them in terms of revenue?
Ted: You mean after we’ve worked with them?
Sharon: Yeah, after you’ve worked with them. Let’s say six months down the road.
Ted: Oh, we track that. This is my company, and I have very, very talented folks that work at Ballistic Arts. I myself don’t do much anymore. I myself go on podcasts and talk to people like you, Sharon. That’s kind of what I do. I don’t even have Adobe or the software on my computer. I have very talented people do this, but I’m a leader. I make sure my team executes as well as they can, like the head coach. Sean McVay, head coach of the Rams, does not throw a football. He has to coach his team on how to throw the football, what the strategies are, what the plans are.
Every week, I meet with all my account managers and go through all their accounts, and I go, “O.K., what’s working? What isn’t?” There’s an actual lead goal, a number, for every client that is different. Some clients need 50 a month; some clients need five. Then we track. Based on that, is it red or green? Green means it’s on track. Red is off track. I go, “O.K., that client has been off track for the last three weeks. What are we doing? What strategy are we putting in place?” Then we chat it through. Again, because I’m not the super smart one, I just make sure they understand that this is priority, and they brainstorm. We have a brainstorming process in-house they go through. They do some A/B testing and all that kind of stuff to pinpoint where the issues are.
More often than not, it’s great. The results turn up. What you measure matters. I think that’s the saying. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter. What I’m trying to say is I make sure I keep my team’s eye on the prize. They’re not just doing stuff for doing stuff’s sake and then getting compensated. Their bonuses are all tied to results for the clients.
Sharon: I know you have a very talented team. It’s clear just looking at your website. If everybody is doing their job right but it isn’t resulting in the $50,000 or the $100,000 or whatever you need a month, what do you do? What if everybody’s doing their job right?
Ted: If they were doing their job right and it’s not working, we have found some clients are not skilled when the leads come through from a sales standpoint. So, we’ll track. “We’ve gotten 15 leads a month for you”—or whatever the goal is—”and you’re saying they’re not any good.” Depending on where they come from, we can actually see the quality of the lead. We’ll go through everything and go, “O.K., this is what they gave you.” Clearly, it’s a qualified lead.
I’ll give you an example of a client we worked with early on, the one that said, “Ted, if you do this, I’ll never leave you.” We saw a bunch of good leads, so I’m calling him to congratulate him on the great business he’s getting. He’s like, “I haven’t signed any business yet.” More often than not, we double the lead counts. This client only needed five, so we got him 10. “What do you mean?” “I don’t know. I emailed them. They didn’t email back.” “Well, did you pick up the phone and call them?” Oh, I have to call them?” “Yes, you do.” This is something Ballistic is looking into. It’s probably not going to be something in the next year or so, but how can we support our clients from the sales standpoint? I can only lead a horse to water. I can’t get a horse to drink. That’s what can happen.
We do have clients where I ask them, “What have you done?” but they don’t have any formal sales training, either. They’re really good technicians, but they don’t have any formal sales training. I am considering sending some of the folks in my network for sales training, but I’m trying to think of how we can support these clients. It doesn’t happen all that often because most of our clients we work with have to be established. Like I said, 11 to 50 employees.
You’re not a startup, usually, with that much of a headcount—well, you might be if you have good financing, but we don’t work with startups. We have tried, and that, in fact, is something we’ve steered away from because startups are attractive, but their model hasn’t been proven to the marketplace. It’s a great idea, but is the market taking to this product, to this service? We have seen that the entrepreneur starting the startup is very excited about their idea; they have to be. But they might not objectively understand that the market doesn’t want their product or service. I can bring in all the leads I want, but people aren’t going to buy it. They don’t see the value. That’s not something I can support because that’s a business model flaw, not a marketing flaw.
Sharon: Well, you certainly do a lot of things, Ted. I’m sure you’re very busy, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.
Ted: Absolutely, Sharon, it was a pleasure talking with you. If any one of your listeners has any questions, by all means, they can reach out to me on BallisticArts.com. We have a lot of resources they can tap into and listen to and watch and read so that they can educate themselves to be better marketers for their business. You can always find me on LinkedIn. There’s only one other Ted Lau. I think he’s in Hong Kong, and he’s a photographer, I think. There is a doctor in Hong Kong as well that is named Ted Lau, but he’s not me. So, you can find me on LinkedIn.
Sharon: Thank you very much.
What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Stephanie Chew:
Stephanie Manor Chew is award-winning law firm analyst andDirector of Sales and Head of the Elite Sales Team at Digital Law Marketing. For the last 16 years, she has been helping clients build credibility and increase their visibility online through the full lifecycle of digital initiatives. From custom search engine marketing and social media positioning, to targeted content and online reputation management, she makes sure that DLM clients get what they need, when they need it.
Gone are the days when you could simply outsource everything to an SEO agency and expect results. To rank on Google today, law firms must take an active role in overseeing and executing their marketing plan. Stephanie Chew, Director of Sales at Digital Law Marketing, finds that the company’s most successful clients collaborate with them to achieve the best possible outcome. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about why content is no longer king; why a firm’s intake process is the most important part of lead generation; and how consistent Google reviews can boost your SEO efforts. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Stephanie Chew. She is the Director of Sales at Digital Law Marketing, and she’s speaking to us from Annapolis, Maryland. The company is headquartered in Nashville but is basically a virtual firm and works all over the country. Digital Law Marketing encompasses a wide range of digital aspects today, and no law firm can live without them. From SEO to PPC to social media, a law firm can make a case for each of them, especially when they work together. Today, Stephanie is going to educate us on what’s new in digital law marketing, where we should start and what we can’t live without. Stephanie, welcome to the program.
Stephanie: Thank you so much for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Sharon: Stephanie, tell us your background. How did you end up doing this? You didn’t tell your mother this is what you wanted to do where you were little, I don’t think.
Stephanie: It’s funny; I always wanted to be in advertising in some respects. I was just telling my daughter this the other night when we were watching the Super Bowl. Watching the Super Bowl with my father, I was always so fascinated by the ads, and I always knew I wanted to do something around advertising and marketing. After college, I started with Trader Publishing Company, which is now Dominion Enterprises. It has changed hands a couple of times, but it’s basically selling advertising space to car dealers. Then it turned into apartment communities, like for-rent magazines, things of that nature, and then that led me over to the SEO world, the website world. Then I started working with law firms in 2009, and I’ve been here ever since.
Sharon: That’s a long time with law firms. I can relate. I wonder what would have happened if I had been in advertising when SEO started. I’m involved in SEO, but I thought advertising was my dream job and quickly found it wasn’t. What would you say that lawyers have to do differently in digital marketing?
Stephanie: They have to be a part of the partnership. In the first part of my career, we would come in and help firms and companies by putting ads in newspapers or books, and the firm or the business really didn’t have to do much. Now the most successful firms out there are involved with their marketing, maybe not as much as we are, but they’re a pretty big part of it. More than they ever have been. For instance, getting reviews is incredibly important now, so the firm has to work to get reviews. We can make a firm tell Google how amazing the firm is. We can create an amazing website with wonderful content, great SEO strategy, but if the firm isn’t getting reviews, they’re not going to get business. Now, more so than it’s ever been, the firm has to be behind the digital focus and be a part of what their partners are doing to help them become successful online.
Sharon: That’s interesting, because when I read a review, the first thing I look at is, “Is this a legitimate review or is something the company wrote?” I hadn’t thought about how involved lawyers have to be, how involved everybody has to be. It’s not just something done in the back room.
Stephanie: Right. The firms that are the most successful online, the lawyers are actually asking for those reviews directly themselves. We’ve seen firms where they’ve hired people to get reviews for them. They’re never as successful as the actual attorney asking for that review themselves. So, asking for those reviews is one thing we always push our firms to do because, like you said, you look at those reviews to see if they’re real or not. Most people look first at the newest reviews, the most recent review that was posted, and then they look at the lowest review. Those are the two categories that people care the most about. So, it’s important for the firm to be involved just as much as the marketing company to make sure your reputation is good too.
Sharon: Do you explain that from the very beginning, that they have to be involved?
Stephanie: Yes, and we will only work with firms that will be involved. We’re very lucky that we’re exclusive, so we only work with one firm per practice area per geographic location. If a firm isn’t a partner with us, there’s only so much we can do for them. But having that partnership, we are the best in what do. We like working with the best firms. It creates the best partnership for everybody’s success. But yes, it’s very important that they’re also a part of their own success up front.
Sharon: When you say success, is that lead generation? Is it just what they’re doing?
Stephanie: Yes, lead generation. Our goal is to help firms become visible online organically. Our main focus is search engine optimization, which is organic placement on search engines. We do paid ads, and we’re very good at doing paid ads as well, but it’s that organic placement that you get the most return from. The more rankings these firms have on the search engines, the more phone calls they’re going to get and then hopefully the more cases they get. It really does work that way. We can track a ranking on the search engines, and then we track their phone and work with them to hear how many cases they’re getting, and it really does work in that direction.
Sharon: Social media and the paid stuff aside, do you encourage lawyers to write articles? Does this help?
Stephanie: With our clients, we handle all of the writing because there are couple of different ways you have to write. Number one, you have to write to make sure you’re the voice of the firm and it makes sense. You’re writing about cases you’re looking to get, but you also have to make sure you’re writing so the search engines can recognize you. For instance, a very popular search phrase right now is “near me,” like “car accident attorney near me,” “car accident lawyer near me,” “dentist near me,” “best optometrist near me.” It’s making sure you get those “near me” keywords in your content, making sure your content includes questions and answers, because a lot of people are asking questions of the search engines.
We do have firms that like to write themselves. Attorneys are wonderful writers, but if they’re not writing so the search engines can recognize what they’re saying, it’s not going to help them become more visible when it comes to these search phrases. It’s a balance. We do all the writing for our clients with their approval, but if somebody does want to write here and there, we encourage that. We would just help with massaging the SEO and the content.
Sharon: Would you massage the SEO or the stuff that makes them go higher in the rankings? If they have a website already, would you say, “It’s wonderful, but we can go in and do some things”? What do you do?
Stephanie: 99% of the time, we rebuild and redesign and develop the website first. The reason we do that is because a lot of how your website is built is how you’re going to perform on the search engines. For instance, if you have a very slow website, Google does not like that. Your site speed is a factor if you’re going to rank or not. So, we like to go in and clean up the website so we have a good product to work with to then help with SEO. From there, we write content, build out the content, create site maps, really get to know the firm, their voice, and figure out the types of cases they’re looking for. Then we write content around that to help them rank on the search engines.
Sharon: Are you called in when they say, “We’re about to embark on a rebuild of our website”? It seems to me they already have one when they call you in.
Stephanie: Sometimes that happens, where we start working with a firm and they just rebuilt their website, and we have to give them the bad news of “I’m really sorry, but this website isn’t going to perform.” We wouldn’t take on that client because we want to set up the proper expectations of success for our clients. If you have a marketing company tell you, “Oh no, that’s O.K. Your website’s slow, but we could still work with it,” that would be a red flag because it won’t work as well as it could if you redid the site. It happens sometimes.
Sharon: Going back to the “near me,” I don’t even enter that, but that comes up as a choice to click on.
Stephanie: Yeah, that’s usually right.
Sharon: That’s interesting. What do you mean by content writing? Is that what you mean when you’re making sure the content—
Stephanie: When it comes to content, you have the content pages on the website. Some of the most popular content pages on a law firm’s website would be their practice area pages. You might have a page on wrongful death. You might have a page on car accidents. You might have a page on personal injury. Then each one of those pages includes content. The type of content on that page could be question and answer, could be including those words “near me.”
Google pulls from that content to determine how you’re going to rank based on the way the person is searching. You’ll see a lot of times where Google does an instant answer. If they’re asking a question, “what is the statute of limitations in the state of California for a wrongful death case,” a law firm’s content page could answer that question, so they’ll bring it up as the first result.
There’s also blogging. You want to make sure you’re blogging on a regular basis. In the past, it was as much content as you could put on there. The phrase “content is king” is gone. That used to be the way we spoke when you would push content, push content, push content. Now, it’s more about the quality of content versus the quantity of content. It’s making sure it’s good content that’s enriched with the types of cases you’re looking for, and written well so the search engines recognize you as an expert on that topic with experience and expertise in the discussion. Google will see that and help you rank better based on the content and what you’re saying.
Sharon: Is that per lawyer? Let’s say on the home page of the website you have banners or badges that say, “We’re the best.” Or is it in the bio?
Stephanie: It would be in a practice area page. When somebody does a search for a car accident lawyer, let’s say, Google wants to provide them with the most specific information they’re looking for. So, they’ll more likely pull up a car accident page from your website and show that over your home page. Your home page should be a summary of everything you do, and then the content pages are more specific on each practice area. When somebody does find you, they’re going to find that practice page usually over your home page, but all of your content should include things that are easily identifiable for Google.
Sharon: I always laugh when I see a bio that says they specialize in 20 different things, because how many can you specialize in? What would you do? Would you put everything the firm does? What would you do in order to come up?
Stephanie: With a bio, you really want to focus on that attorney and what they’ve done and that’s it. When it comes to the actual practice area pages, that’s where you would focus on that practice area. Then maybe you could put in a little sentence or two about which attorney does that, if that makes sense. There are ways of doing it. It’s not necessarily a right answer or a wrong answer. It depends on the firm, the market, the practice area. But there are ways you can incorporate that being specific to the attorney and what their expertise is versus what the whole firm does on the bio page, if that makes sense.
Sharon: It does make sense. Should you put successes like, “We won a case that was really hard to win for $10,000 and John Smith did it”?
Stephanie: Oh yeah, verdicts and settlements pages and verdicts and settlements in general are some of the most visited areas on the websites. People want to see numbers. There are some markets where they might not be allowed to put verdict and settlement numbers on their website, or the firm doesn’t feel like it’s appropriate to do that. But by the way, law firms that put their numbers on their websites get more attraction than the ones that don’t.
Sharon: The big question is do people choose a personal injury firm because they like the lawyer? It’s a nice, touchy-feely firm versus one that’s won all of these big numbers but they might not like as much. How do you choose? What’s more important?
Stephanie: That’s a good question. Again, it comes back to the person choosing and what’s important to them on why they’re choosing, but if you don’t have the big numbers, you definitely want to talk about what you’ve done. A lot of people want to feel that they can relate to that attorney. I always say talk as much as you can about things you’ve done to help other people. If I had a case that was specific and I read that that attorney has helped other people with the same thing I have, I’m more likely to work with them regardless of what the numbers are because I feel like they could help me. If you don’t have those big numbers, you want to discuss what you’ve done because people will be able to relate to that.
We’re also big believers in putting personal information into those bios. Talk about your hobbies, talk about your children, because people relate to things. There are so many situations where I’ve heard that this attorney got a case because somebody saw they had the same hobby, they went rafting or whatever it was, and their son had passed away, or that they were calling him because he had the same alma mater. Obviously that is a big one people gravitate toward. Outside of politics—I would stay away from writing anything related to politics—the more information you can humanize yourself with, it’s going to help people connect with you better and they’ll end up hiring you.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I’ve heard that both ways. I tend to relate to people, so I would like to know more about them. That’s interesting that you should put it in your bio. Are you usually called in the beginning or are they already underway? Why are you called in? Tell us about your business. That’s several questions, sorry.
Stephanie: That’s O.K. Usually we’re called in when a firm is looking to take their law firm to that next step and they’re looking for more cases. They’re not showing up online. They’re not getting phone calls. They’re not getting cases online. A lot of times, we’re called in to firms that have worked with referrals for pretty much their whole law career. They’re always getting referrals, and they’re tired of paying those referral fees to other attorneys. They’d like to generate cases themselves from the internet. Then we would be brought in to help them analyze what’s going on in their market and what their current web presence is. Then we can put together a plan to get them to where they need to be to generate more calls that generate the cases they’re looking for. It’s usually somebody that wants to make more money off the internet in some way, like they’re tired of paying referral fees and/or they’re looking for more visibility and better-quality cases. We hear that a lot; that we help firms create better-quality cases over anything else.
Sharon: Better quality meaning larger cases, bigger numbers?
Stephanie: It could be anything. It could be that it’s a firm that did a bunch of slip and fall cases and now they’re getting bigger and better quality personal injury cases. It’s medical malpractice firms that used to get a lot of junk calls and now they’re getting quality calls, things like that. We’re really good at SEO, and we’re really good at creating more rankings for somebody organically. Usually when somebody finds a firm organically, they tend to be better qualified, quality leads.
Sharon: Do you keep your eye on the changes in the Google algorithm?
Stephanie: Yeah, we have a SEO specialist that works with digital marketing. We’re all senior level, too. I always like to mention that because our SEO specialists are also very recognized in their SEO space. We have one Google Product Expert that works for us. She’s one of 50 in the world. She’s outstanding. We also have a Google Local Search expert who’s been nationally recognized. They’re the ones that keep up with the trends and how things are changing, and then we push that down to all of our firms. We’re constantly moving in different directions with content and with SEO strategies based on the changes in the Google algorithm and changes in how we as human beings search. It is ever-changing. If you looked back 10 years ago from today, it’s totally different to what we’re doing. Even a year ago, it’s a different strategy than what we were doing.
Sharon: That sort of leads me to the next question. When I search, you have to skip like 10 sponsored ads. Is it possible to be high organically?
Stephanie: Absolutely. It’s interesting because Google has put a lot of emphasis on their paid ads. They have a newer ad called the Local Services Ad. It’s been around for two years now, but those are the ones where there are pictures at the top of the page. They’re considered Google screened, but they’re driven by reviews and making sure that somebody answers the phone and other things in your budget. But the biggest driver of those is how frequently you’re getting reviews, which is interesting that Google is doing that. So, there are different types of advertising they’re doing, and they’re pulling in an organic element with those reviews. Below that you have your pay-per-click, which is the paid advertising for Google Ad Words, and then you have your local. But yes, local SEO is still the sweet spot of getting calls. The firms we see, the majority of the calls come in through that local SEO space.
Sharon: When you say you only take one practice area and one geographic area, do you have a map divided up? What do you call a geographic area?
Stephanie: It depends on the marketplace, but a lot of it has to do with where the office is located. For instance, we have a state where the firm has 10 office locations throughout the state. Well, they’re the only personal injury firm in that state because they have so many offices, so we’re not going to work with anybody else. It comes down to who their competitors are. Our whole thing is we’re not going to work with your competition. If it’s too close for comfort, we go to our clients first and have them tell us if it’s O.K. if we work with them, yes or no based on the competition, and we will or we won’t. We do not cross that line at all. We are 100% exclusive, and that’s why. We only have a handful of clients per state because it’s all we want. We don’t want to be the biggest SEO company out there. We want to be the best, and we feel that we are.
Sharon: What do you do if you’re in a room of lawyers, whether it’s partners or not, and they say, “Reviews aren’t a problem. Sally in marketing handles the reviews”? What do you do then?
Stephanie: It depends. Maybe Sally in marketing really does do a great job and she is getting multiple reviews a week. That would be awesome. We wouldn’t have a problem with that at all. But if Sally in marketing hasn’t gotten a review for six months, we can see that. We can say, “Oh, that’s great, but the best thing for firms is to get consistent reviews on a regular basis. Two to three reviews a week would be ideal.” We can show that they’re responding to them, that they’re engaging with that list, and we really push that.
We’ve had situations where we have gotten firms top ranked—I keep trying to say first page, but there are no pages anymore when it comes to Google. It’s about rank. You can’t even scroll. So, we could get somebody at the top of the rank of the search engine, but if their reviews aren’t good, nobody’s going to call them. We’ve done our job, but nobody’s going to call you if your reviews aren’t good. It’s a two-way street. We coach our firms. We encourage them. We do a lot with intake. We can audit phone calls and help them figure out how people are handling their calls. It’s a lot of coaching and encouraging and trying to do our best to get them to do their part, too.
Sharon: I think you just preempted my next question. You can have wonderful numbers, but if they fill out the intake form and nobody sees it—
Stephanie: Yeah, if they’re not answering the phone. We see this a lot. We’ll do audits with some of the most successful firms in lots of different situations. I’ll never forget there was a catastrophic injury/medical malpractice firm, and a lady called very upset saying that her daughter was just diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and the woman’s like, “I don’t know if we do that. Hold on. Let me check. Yeah, we do that.” Now the confidence is shot. There’s no way. These are not the people to hire.
Intake is such a big part of these firms. It’s probably the most important part that our lawyers aren’t paying attention to right now. Not all our firms, but in our industry in general. We’re doing a lot with our clients to help them with that, but in our industry as a whole, I feel like intake is probably the area that can be improved the most.
Sharon: People don’t talk about that enough, I think. They talk about how much money everybody is spending on SEO and organic, but not about when the calls come in, where they were sent or what happens.
Stephanie: It’s really a salesperson on that line if you think about it. As you said, firms are spending thousands and thousands, tens of thousands of dollars a month in marketing, but who’s answering that phone? All your dollars are going out the window when you don’t have the right person. They usually want to cut costs on those types of positions, when really it should be handled as a sales organization. Some of the more sophisticated PI firms, those large firms that are coming into different markets, are handling those as sales calls. It’s changing. I’ve seen firms do a great job, but I do think that’s one of the first things that is overlooked. Hopefully it’s coming to light now. More firms are starting to do better at it, but you’ve got to take care of all the parts.
Sharon: There are a lot of parts. I was laughing when you said content is king because that’s what people used to say. There was a time, a long time ago, when you could tell somebody, “Just write a lot about what you do and you’ll be O.K.,” but that’s long gone.
Stephanie: Yeah, it’s gone now.
Sharon: Would you say that a website is the hub of everything a person is doing when they’re doing paid ads and SEO?
Stephanie: I probably would have used to say that, but what I would say now is if you do a search for the firm’s name on Google, that is the new homepage. Whatever you see that comes up there is what I would be more concerned about than even the homepage of your website. The reason I say that is because if you do a search—let’s say you’re a car accident lawyer and somebody finds you by doing a search for car accident lawyers. They are going to see your presence on Google pop up first. Sometimes they’ll go directly to your website; sometimes they’ll look at your reviews before even looking at your website; sometimes they’ll look at where you are before doing that. There’s a lot of information they can find out before even getting to your website.
If somebody does a Google search of your firm name, on the right-hand side of that search is usually where you’ll see the Google information and Google reviews, but on the left-hand side is all those other directories out there, which could have bad reviews. That shows up before somebody even gets to your homepage. It used to be that your website is the hub of everything. It’s still incredibly important, and maybe it still is the hub, but when it comes to your reputation, you really need to see what Google has on your firm. What is your brand telling people before they even get to your website? What are all these directories saying? What are all these reviews saying about you?
Sharon: What are you seeing with all the sponsored ads? I just happened to look at your website, and there are about five sponsored ads before you even get to yours. What do you do? Is that part of it?
Stephanie: If you were to google Digital Law Marketing, there are other law marketing companies that will bid on our name to show up ahead of us. That happens. Or somebody could be bidding on digital marketing or terms like that, but people can see that they’re sponsored or paid ads. You can see that right there. Most people, if they’re looking for the real website, will pass those and go directly to the organic.
Now, some people search differently. Some people would click on the first one they see, but users are becoming a lot more sophisticated than they ever have been, so they understand what an ad is. Sometimes ads are the best result. Google has also done a good job with the ad program so that sometimes the best information you’re finding is in the ads. It depends, but it’s hard to get away from those ads. One thing you could do as a business is bid on your name. For instance, we bid on Digital Law Marketing, so we’re one of the first that pops up when somebody does type in our name. But you do want to make sure you’re aware of what is on the internet about your brand.
Sharon: It seems like the world has changed so much as a marketing person who’s interested in everything you’re talking about. For the firm to be at the top and on social media and everywhere, you need a bunch of experts. They need their own team. You can’t be an expert in everything or just a lawyer who’s interested in marketing.
Stephanie: You’re absolutely right. We touch on social media, but there’s so much more you could be doing with social media. There are so many different avenues and elements of everything. You could have, like you said, a whole team. You hire a company like ours to manage the website, the SEO, the paid ads. Then you have somebody that does social media video, optimization and things of that nature. Then you get somebody that just does PR. PR companies and SEO companies work really well together because it creates good results when they do. There are so many different things. It’s not just hiring one person and they can do everything.
Sharon: But the marketing person or the lawyer who’s interested should also be auditing calls or at least know what’s happening.
Stephanie: Yeah, and there are so many different tools now. We use something called dynamic call tracking where you can record every call. We’re constantly spot checking and listening to our clients’ calls to make sure the leads are being handled properly once we bring them to the law firm. If they don’t, they’re not going to see the success of their marketing dollars.
Sharon: Have you ever had to make changes because of the dynamic call tracking?
Stephanie: Yeah, we’ve had to. We’ve actually had to not renew agreements with clients. In almost 10 years with Digital Law Marketing, we’ve only lost a handful of clients, and two of those we actually let go ourselves. The reason we let them go is because they weren’t helping themselves and they weren’t helping to be a partner. At the end of the day, nobody would be successful. Lots of times we have these hard conversations with firms and say, “O.K., this what we found out. We did an audit and 40% of the calls aren’t being answered.” The firms are very receptive to it, and they make changes quickly. That’s why they hire us, because they know we’ll help them with making those decisions. We’ve had lots of hard conversations with firms, but if firms aren’t willing to help themselves, it’s hard for us to help them.
Sharon: I presume you’ve been in the position where you’ve come in to replace another SEO firm.
Stephanie: Oh, yeah.
Sharon: How long should a law firm wait to see results?
Stephanie: Good question. We ask all of our clients at Digital Law Marketing to give us one year of SEO. After that, it’s month to month. We don’t renew clients because if you don’t want to be with us after a year, then we’re probably not the right fit. But we don’t lose clients because we can show you within a year what we’ve been able to do for you. If it’s not us, then try somebody else. I would definitely give it a year.
Just yesterday, I had a call from somebody who was frustrated because their marketing company had been working for three months and the results weren’t showing up. I’m like, “You really need to give them longer than three months. Give them a good year. I’m not going to say you’re going to be at the height of your performance in a year, not at all, but you will see progression.” We tell people all the time, “We’ll be able to show you in the first 90 to 120 days how you’re ranking better, how you’re getting more phone calls.” We continually show that progression because it takes years to get really good visibility on search engines. You’re telling Google who you are over a long, consecutive period of time of building your brand, but you will see progression quickly. You’re just not going to see ultimate results for some time.
Sharon: You must have lot of people say, “A whole year? You want me to wait a whole year before I start to evaluate?”
Stephanie: People have figured it out now. It used to be more of a challenge five years ago, but people have figured it out. SEO takes a while. With paid ads you can see a return a little quicker, but it’s still not as quick as it used to be. With paid advertising, we tell everybody to give it at least three to four months. There are so many people that are doing paid advertising, so it takes a little longer. It used to be that you were able to see results in a day, but it’s different the way things are working now. It just takes time, but if you’re consistent and you’re doing the right thing over a consistent period of time, you will see the right results with the right company. You have to make sure you trust who you’re working with, too.
Sharon: That’s probably a big factor. One of the last questions, if you can tell us, is about how people find you. Do they only find you because of a web search, or do they find you other ways? How do they find you?
Stephanie: The law firm?
Sharon: Yeah, how do your clients find you, so they call you versus another company?
Stephanie: They could do a web search and find us that way. We are Diamond Sponsors of the American Association for Justice, the AAJ. It’s a national organization. We’re also sponsors of the National Trial Lawyers. We do travel a couple of times a year to conventions and meet new firms. A lot of our clients come from other clients because our clients tell our story a lot better than anybody else. On our website, we have a bunch of FAQs and testimonials from our clients, but they can look us up on Google, social media and through our website.
We have a form on there so we can do free SEO audits for firms. We’d love for them to fill that out and see if it’s something we can help firms with. We are working with firms all over the country, but we do have markets available, so we’d love to hear from anybody that’s interested in not having to hire a company again. A lot of times, people come to us and say, “I’m tired of switching companies every year or every two years.” Our clients don’t have to do that anymore. So, come to us and you don’t have to continually look further.
Sharon: That’s a big point of differentiation. For everybody listening, we’ll make sure to have the website link and any other links. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it, Stephanie.
Stephanie: Thank you for having me, Sharon. It was fun.
Stephanie: Take care.
What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Roy Ginsburg
Roy S. Ginsburg is an attorney coach and law firm consultant who has practiced law for more than 30 years. He works with individual lawyers and law firms nationwide in the areas of business development, practice management, career development, and strategic and succession planning.
Roy is also a prolific speaker and blogger. He travels around the country speaking at CLEs sponsored by bar associations on topics such as selling law practices, succession planning and more. He’s a regular contributor at attorneyatwork.com.
Succession planning is the most important topic law firm owners never want to talk about. But whether you want to sell your firm or pass it on to a top associate, deciding how you want to exit your career is better done sooner than later. As a legal coach, Roy Ginsburg helps attorneys prioritize their goals for succession planning and create a plan to achieve them. He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about which types of practices may be more appealing to buyers; how to help associates transition to owners; and what age attorneys should start thinking about succession. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, we are talking with Roy S. Ginsburg. Roy is a lawyer and strategic advisor to lawyers and law firms. He puts his 35 years of experience to work helping lawyers be more satisfied in their careers. He has several areas of expertise, but today, he’ll be talking about an area we don’t hear a lot about, and that is the obstacles lawyers face when they start the process of estate planning. That could be selling their firm to a different entity or turning their firm over to the next generation. Roy, welcome to the program.
Roy: Thank you very much for inviting me, Sharon. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. You’re talking to us from Philadelphia?
Roy: No. What I tell people is that I’m talking from a city that, until a few years ago, no one ever heard of, and that’s Minneapolis. They know about it now for all the wrong reasons, but, yeah, I’m talking to you from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Sharon: Tell us about your career.
Roy: I got to the Midwest initially through law school. I attended the University of Wisconsin for law school. For a year after that, I clerked for a justice on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and then I moved to Minneapolis after that to work for a large law firm here. I worked for a large firm for a few years, then I worked for a smaller law firm for a few years. I spent about a dozen years as an in-house lawyer. In all those times, in private practice and in-house, most of it was in the employment law area. That was the first 20. The last 20, I’ve pretty much been the consultant I am today.
Sharon: How was it that you came to be a consultant and a strategic advisor?
Roy: I wasn’t one of those lawyers who intensely disliked practicing law, though I’ve worked with plenty of those. I just thought it was O.K. and I was looking to do something different. In some ways, I surprised myself by having this entrepreneurial bug. The initial game plan was to be a CLE speaker primarily talking about business development and ethics. I figured lawyers would attend a CLE with ethics attached to it. They did, but it’s not so easy to get gigs if you want to do that on a national basis, which was the goal. I got them, but when you have three kids and hopefully all of them are attending college, it wasn’t enough.
Then I realized that coaching was becoming popular, at least in corporate America. I knew that from being in-house and working for a few companies. I figured if I can tell a hundred people how to build a marketing plan, I can do it one-on-one. That was initially how I got into coaching/consulting. Over time, people said, “Roy, can you help me with this? Can you help me with that?” The recession was here. Could I help people find jobs? Back in 2008, a lot of small firm owners would call me looking for help with practice management issues.
Most importantly for the purposes of this program today, I got lots of calls from senior lawyers, either solo or small firm owners, not knowing what to do. So, I saw business there. This was about 10, 15 years ago. I created my own website just for that particular business. Although I do all types of consulting and coaching today, I’d say about two-thirds of my time is helping solo and small firm owners with their succession planning, because they oftentimes just don’t know what to do.
Sharon: You must have been very busy during Covid with succession planning.
Roy: Yes and no. Much like a lot of America, for the first two months, in April and May, my phone didn’t ring. Everyone was trying to figure out how to live. Then June was business as usual. I’ve read and seen anecdotally that the pandemic was a mixed bag as far as retirement planning. It definitely incentivized some people to call and figure out what to do. On the other hand, it delayed some people because they thought, “What am I going to retire for? I can’t visit the kids,” or they realized during lockdown that they needed to have a busier practice and it was premature to retire. At least for the people that are calling me, it’s been a wash. I haven’t seen a tsunami of phone calls, but I also haven’t seen it drop off the cliff. It’s business as usual, and pretty steady at that.
Sharon: I’m thinking about how many businesses and restaurants and all kinds of people decided to pack it in and said, “O.K., I’m going to try something different.”
Rboy: Not so much. One of the things I pride myself on is I understand the DNA of lawyers. I’m a lawyer myself. They don’t like change. They don’t like to take a chance or a risk. I didn’t realize how unique I am by not only changing my life as a lawyer but being somewhat of an entrepreneur. I’ve learned from the coaching and consulting that’s not in the DNA of most lawyers, to think entrepreneurially. Like I said, they find themselves in the profession for no compelling reason, and they stay there because it’s a half-decent living. Some love it; some hate it; most are in between.
Sharon: Did you know you had this entrepreneurial gene before you started?
Roy: Not really. It surprised me as much as it surprised family and friends, I think.
Sharon: You say that practicing law was O.K., but it wasn’t because you had this craving, or you knew that wasn’t really what you were meant to do.
Roy: Correct. I’m like most lawyers. There’s a joke in the Jewish community: nice Jewish boys who don’t like the sight of blood go to law school. My brother’s a doctor, so I’m the lawyer. Anecdotally, I can tell you I’ve coached or consulted with well over 200 lawyers over the last 20 years or so, and I always ask every one of them why they went to law school. You think you can guess the number one answer? There actually is no close second answer.
Sharon: What else? What else was there to do?
Roy: They couldn’t think of anything better to do. Very few lawyers have a compelling reason, and this is across the board, whether you went to a premier law school or one of the ones in the box. They just find themselves saying, “Eh, it’s a nice living, not too bad. I get a little prestige.” If you’re really entrepreneurial, you don’t go to law school; you go to business school or you start your own business. That’s one of the many reasons why I think most lawyers are horrific businesspeople in general. Most lack any sort of entrepreneurial DNA.
Sharon: Did it take a while for this gene, this DNA, the entrepreneurial bug, to come out in you?
Roy: I kind of enjoyed it. Needless to say, I’ve been doing it for 20 years at this point, but I think I have been good at it. Like most lawyers, I’m not terribly creative. But if I see something, I’ll act upon the trend. My consulting business is a perfect example. I had no big plan to help senior lawyers exit. I saw the demand and said, “Huh, I think there’s something here,” and then went with it. I’m good at spotting a trend and acting upon it, but big-picture-wise, I’m not so good. I wouldn’t have thought this would be a good way to make a living as a lawyer. It just turned out that way.
Sharon: Why do you think prioritizing is so difficult for lawyers?
Roy: Lawyers tend to be very reactive. When they call me, for some of them, it’s a big, big deal because they’re in denial, like a lot of people when it comes to what they do. Even though they realize they’ve got to do something, they haven’t taken a step back. Lawyers, again, are not very reflective. They’re not sure what they want to accomplish, so they try to make a lot of money on a deal, or they want to make sure their clients are going to be well-served, or they want to make sure staff is going to be maintained. I don’t want to say those are conflicting goals, but depending on the importance of a goal, they may do some things differently when they figure out what they want to do for succession planning.
Sharon: Why is it harder for a law firm to do a succession plan? What are the obstacles they face versus another business?
Roy: Probably the biggest obstacle is it’s a very immature, underdeveloped marketplace, unlike a lot of other professional services such as CPAs and dentists, for example. That’s a mature marketplace. People have been buying and selling CPA firms for years. Same thing with dentists or any other professional service. Law, as you may or may not know, was ethically prohibited for a while, although lawyers got around that, at least the clever ones. It’s still on the up-and-up. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s even that possibility. A lot of people don’t call me for help because they don’t even realize they can do anything. It’s more out of ignorance.
Another fundamental difference between other professional services is each practice is pretty much unique. A million-dollar criminal defense law firm is completely different from a family law firm which is completely different from an immigration firm which is completely different from an estate planning firm. It may have similar revenues, but the only thing in common with those four practices is that they’re owned by a lawyer. They have a J.D. next to their name and they passed the bar, but it’s like comparing a grocery store to a gas station, and they happen to be owned by a lawyer. Even if you’re in a small town and there are 10 firms, oftentimes they don’t necessarily compete against each other. There may not be a natural buyer in the town or in the big locations.
A lot of younger lawyers don’t even realize they can buy a firm and that’s a strategic way to build a practice. Part of my job is educating younger lawyers about how one way to jumpstart their practice is to buy. They just don’t think like businesspeople. If you’re a small business lawyer, you do deals all the time, but they can’t connect that dot to themselves.
Sharon: Having a PR and marketing firm, I was told—I don’t think this is the case, but I was told from day one, “You’re not going to sell your firm. People don’t sell firms. They just can’t sell firms.” Are lawyers told the same thing?
Roy: Pretty much. They’re not necessarily specifically told by someone, but when they ask about it, they’ll find it out. In fact, the way most people find me—I’m in Minneapolis. My clients are nationwide; five to 10% are from Minnesota, which I think is very typical. Someone, a small firm owner who’s about 65, 70, 75, goes to their buddy or a colleague and says, “Hey, what are you doing about the firm now that you’re getting older?” and they say, “I’m not really sure.” They say, “Is there anything I can do?” “I don’t know.” So, they ask around town and realize there’s no one in town who can help them.
The good news for me is that 60- and 70-year-olds now know how to search the web. If you search “Can I sell my law firm?” or “How do I do this?” or “How do I do that?” I come up very high. Not that I want to pat myself on the back too much, but I don’t have much competition. So, it’s easy to come across me, and I say, “Hey, I can do something.” In other words, most people have no idea what can be done. All they do know is that sometimes they have internal people. I help those firms, but those who are solo or have no good candidates inside, like you said, they think there are no good options, but there are.
Sharon: You do come up very high because of your website and your blog. You come up very high when it comes to succession planning. Let me ask you this: when you say they don’t have internal people, do you mean they don’t have somebody ready to move into their position?
Roy: Yeah. Small firm owners have one, two, three, four, sometimes as many as five or six associates or people who’ve been there for a long time, and they’re thinking they want to sell it to the internal people and theoretically preserve the legacy. What they often call me for help with is how to price it and structure it. Is it realistic to get the money over this amount time? I also give them an idea of how much to ask for, because they’re often clueless about what their firm may be worth.
Sharon: When you say theoretically they want to preserve their legacy, do you think that’s important? Do these people think it’s important?
Roy: Again, that goes back to your question a few minutes ago: what are they prioritizing? To some, that’s a big deal. Others don’t care at all. Most are somewhere in between about preserving their legacy.
Sharon: Do you find that most people have an unrealistic expectation as to what their firm is worth?
Roy: Very much at times. Some firms aren’t worth much at all. Those are the ones who have goodwill, which is very personal. For example, if you’re a prominent criminal defense lawyer and you have a location in your city, your geographic area, your county, and you’re a solo, people call you because they want you; they don’t want anybody else. The best way I describe it to laypeople or even to lawyers about whether your practice has value, think about if it’s a Friday afternoon and you ride off into retirement sunset, and on Monday you sell the firm to me. If I answer the phone, will they work with me on Monday?
Going back to the prominent criminal defense lawyer, for example, no way in hell are they going to work with me. They’ll just go to the next name on their list. They wanted to work with the guy or the woman who sold the firm on Friday. Other practice areas, it’s going to be a different answer. They may work with me. So, I always tell lawyers the two-word answer about whether they’ll work with you on Monday is, “It depends.” My job as a consultant to my clients is to figure out what it depends upon. For some lawyers, they have nothing to sell.
The best example of a firm that has value, on paper at least, is estate planning. You know people are going to come back and revise the will. You know they are going to die and maybe need probate. It’s not so theoretical that the phone will ring. I think, given the nature of the relationship, a lot of people will assume the seller vetted the buyer. They’ll figure, “My former lawyer was pretty good at creating my estate plan, and I don’t know anybody I could call at this point without starting from scratch. So, yeah, I’ll work with them.” I’m sure you’re much like me. A lot of the people we’ve been working with, especially our doctors, they’ve all retired and we had to try someone new. Sometimes they sell the practice, and most people, especially with a dentist, they’re willing to try him once. The same thing with an accountant. It’s the same thing with a lawyer for certain areas. They’ll give him a shot. Others, there’s just no way they will give him a shot. It’s very, very dependent on the practice area.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I never thought of it that way. How do you turn it over if it’s dependent on the practice area? How do you turn a criminal defense firm over to a senior person so the name of the firm carries on, let’s say, as opposed to the person?
Roy: It’s going to depend. There are some criminal defense firms that are very prominent with advertising and people have no expectation they’re going to hire the person on TV. Personal injury is a good example. Those have value. In other words, the people calling up have no expectation they’re going to work with the person on the billboard or on TV. You can preserve the legacy. There’s a brand and there’s value there. In that respect, it helps.
Let’s say you’re a small business attorney. Let’s say you have a dozen really good, consistent clients. You’re like a general counsel for half a dozen or a dozen smaller companies. There, it’s certainly possible to transition the relationship, but that’s going to take time and effort. You’ve got to make sure there’s company chemistry. That’s a deeper relationship. So, I tell people if you have 10 clients like that, it’s unrealistic to think all 10 are going to work with the successor. It’s also unrealistic to assume that no one’s going to work with the successor. It’s going to be somewhere in between. It’s going to be very dependent on how they hit it off, but certainly you get an advantage as a buyer to get that introduction. There’s no guarantee it’s going to work, but you’ve got to believe some of them will work.
That’s why it’s very difficult to predict how successful a transition is going to be. Again, it’s very dependent on the practice area. Going back to estate planning, without that deep relationship, the odds improve significantly that when they call the former clients, they will work with the successor, as opposed to a small business attorney.
Sharon: It seems like you need a longer timeline. What timeline do you recommend to think about this?
Roy: I tell people that if all the stars are aligned, which they rarely are, nine to 12 months. If they’re not, 18 to 24. That’s just to make sure. It takes time to do a deal. The buyers want to do some due diligence. From the buyer’s perspective, it’s usually not the top thing on their radar to get done. They have client demands. It takes time, and sometimes when you get close to doing the deal, it falls apart. I’ve seen that happen. So, it gives you time for a do-over.
Oftentimes you don’t know how long these things are going to take. The age range for me is 60 to 80. I’d say at this point, I think 70 is the new 65, but I have many lawyers calling me in the mid- to upper-70s which in my view is probably—that gives you no time for do-overs at all. I can’t make this stuff up. I’ve had people sign five-year leases when they’re 77. I won’t tell them to their faces, but I’m thinking, “What were they thinking doing that?” A lot of people are, quite frankly, in denial. They think that just because they feel good at 75, they’re going to feel the same way at 80, and chances are you’re not. I’ve become somewhat of a pop psychologist for aging lawyers, talking them through the plans. Some intentionally delay. They put me off. They don’t return the phone call. Even when they pay me the money up front and I want to get moving, they’ll still delay.
Sharon: If I come to you with my firm and say, “I have an estate planning firm or whatever kind of firm; it’s a mixed bag of practice areas,” do you shop it around? What do you do?
Roy: Good question. For some, yes. I think that’s one of the things that quite pleasantly surprised me. Being a consultant here in Minnesota, I figured helping seniors with an exit strategy would just be a nice way to enhance my consulting business. I know a lot of lawyers in Minnesota; I’m very familiar with the marketplace; all good. Needless to say, I update my website. I’m getting calls from all over the country. Over time, I realized I can help these people, and what I realized once I got into this was usually the best buyers are going to be internal people or friendly competitors. It’s not like selling a house, where you just put it on some law firm listing site and you know people are going to look. Even if people did look, it’s so dependent on the practice area. You can’t sell a family law practice to a criminal law attorney. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing.
Oftentimes, my clients are going to know the best buyers. So, I work with them trying to assess who of your friendly competitors do you think has the wherewithal. I see things they don’t see and vice versa. It works. There are some clients where there are no obvious friendly competitors. Then, yes, I do help them find those parties, but I’m going to level with you; it’s not often the case. Oftentimes, the only way to reach these people is directly contacting them, and most don’t realize that’s something to even consider. It’s not as easy to find buyers as one may think out there. The marketplace is maturing, but I can do it nationwide because typically the sellers themselves, if forced to think about it, can find people who may be interested.
Sharon: Let’s say I’m in Oregon or on the West Coast and I want a certain practice we don’t have in our firm. We had an estate planning practice a million years ago and it didn’t bring in any money, but we want to try it again. Do we come to you and say, “Find us an estate planning practice”?
Roy: Yeah, but I’m going to tell you the same thing. You can probably do it yourself for a lot less money. I tell younger lawyers all the time when I’m doing business development coaching, one way to build your practice is to try and find some older lawyers in your area and ask them about their retirement plan. Sometimes they get them for nothing because the older lawyer has no idea there’s value there and they could actually sell them. There is no simple way for a younger lawyer or a law firm to do this.
You could hire a headhunter-type. I’m really not a headhunter in any way, shape or form, but when some of the bigger firms try to build a practice area, they will poach successful people from other law firms and ask if they’re interested in moving. Those aren’t necessarily a sales situation. Most of the law firms who do that want the business right now and need to beef up.
Sharon: Would you say business development is an important part of this? I’m thinking of an example where we were called in because the managing partner was a rainmaker. He wanted to retire in the next few years, and he wanted help in making the other people rainmakers or business developers.
Roy: That’s a problem with a lot of smaller firms where you have one rainmaker, one leader—even some firms with as many as 20, 30, 40 lawyers, you have one or two rainmakers, and the others haven’t done that for a variety of different reasons. As I’m sure you know, for most lawyers, rainmaking doesn’t come naturally. A lot of lawyers just want to sit at their desks; they have no desire to get out there. A lot of those firms, quite frankly, are going to fold up, and the younger lawyers who have been in denial thinking the gravy train was going to continue, it won’t.
Sharon: It’s one of the things people look at when they’re assessing a firm. They look at the books, but I presume they also look at how many rainmakers there are, how many people are bringing in business.
Roy: Yeah, for sure, but it really depends. One of the things I tell younger lawyers considering buying a firm and deciding whether it’s worth it is just look at it as another way of marketing. You can spend money on Google AdWords; you can spend money hiring consultants. There are a lot of different things you can do. One thing to do, though—and it’s going to cost money and time, but one way to least jumpstart the practice is to buy a practice.
Sharon: Would you say that one of the obstacles or one of the things that makes a law firm more difficult to sell or buy is that there’s no central place? I haven’t looked, but I’ve seen listings of CPA firms.
Roy: Right, that’s one of the many reasons. I actually thought for a time that was something I could make money off of, but then I realized there are a handful of smaller websites that market other businesses and they’ll have a legal section. But I’ve had clients advertise it. Typically, the people who respond are young lawyers who have no money; they’re still in debt and they don’t necessarily have the expertise. I’ll go back to what I said very early in this program: it’s just not a sophisticated marketplace. That’s why it’s hard even if you’re looking to buy. Occasionally I have listings on my website, but I have no illusions that people are going there all the time, like “Let’s see what law firms Roy is listing this week.” Even if they’re interested, it’s got to be the right location; it’s got to be the right practice. There are so many ifs, it’s not that you can just say, “Oh, that’s something I can buy.”
I will also say, as you’re probably aware, that some states are experimenting with nonlawyers owning firms, specifically Utah and Arizona. Once all states get on board—and I think they will, but it’s going to be 10, 15 years—then you’ll see a very sophisticated marketplace. For example, Raymond James and Merrill Lynch and Fidelity, they’re going to buy up estate planning firms left and right. The estate planning lawyers won’t know what hit them. Certain practice areas are going to be very, very vulnerable to nonlawyers coming in. Bankruptcy is another example, a lot of paper-intensive types of things. Then you’ll see someone, at that point, making a lot of money by having listings because you’ll have buyers out there actually looking. But now you have to be a lawyer, and typically if you have that kind of DNA, you never became a businessperson to begin with, so you’re not looking to buy firms.
Sharon: Take us through the steps if I come to you and say, “It’s time for me to retire, but I have no idea what to do. What do I do?”
Roy: I get asked that a lot, especially from younger lawyers. At least a few times a month, someone calls me up and they’re about 55 or 60. They’ve still got five, 10 years of practicing, which is realistic. They say, “Roy, I don’t want to screw things up. What do I need to do to prepare my law firm for sale?” I don’t know if you remember Obama. President Obama had a theory of diplomacy. His theory of diplomacy was don’t do stupid shit, as I’m sure you know. I’ll keep this PG rated. And that’s what I tell my clients. Don’t do something stupid. What’s something stupid? Signing a five-year lease at 77.
Until the marketplace becomes more mature, the time to make money is while you practice law, period. It’s not a good idea to build the practice for getting it ready for sale. Also, again, I pride myself on knowing the DNA. Everybody who calls me knows they should have a better process for this. They should invest more in this, but they’ve known that for the last 30 years. What makes them think that now, after 30 years, they’re going to do it and get it ready for sale? They’re not. They’re just going to go from crisis to crisis. So, I tell them, “Do whatever you’re doing to make as much money as you can now. The chances of doing that somehow detracting from the value is slim to none.” Given the immature place in the market, there’s nothing really to do other than to make sure you don’t mess things up that you’re presently doing.
Sharon: I feel like I’m opening a Pandora’s box. If I say I want to earn all I can while I’m practicing law, would I do anything different?
Roy: No, in fact, you wouldn’t. You’d try to get the work out efficiently. You’d double down on doing business development. You’d try to leverage some people. Just do the basics. But as you know from your experience working with law firms, getting the basics down sometimes can be very problematic for law firms. Going back to the million-dollar criminal defense lawyer who built personal goodwill, I tell people like that they’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is you made a lot of money in your career. The bad news is you’ve got nothing to sell.
But again, even if you’re an estate planning lawyer, it’s the same: keep track of your clients and make sure a buyer would be able to contact all the people. Have a good process in place. A lot of lawyers come to me and say, “Roy, I figured out the best way to create this or create that. I’ve got the best process, so that in and of itself is going to provide value to my law firm,” and I tell them, “Yes, I know you have a great practice, but you know what? So does everybody else.” They think they have a great practice. It’s going to be tough to convince somebody that the way you do things is better than the way they do things.
Sharon: It sounds like what we hear over and over, that the hidden gem—
Roy: No, there is no hidden gem. The hidden gem is usually the personality of the seller who has that unique rainmaking ability. As for getting the work out, occasionally you’ll have people that actually have figured out a way to provide the service better, but again, most lawyers won’t pay anything extra for it. What I tell people is if you have that sort of process, it may enhance the likelihood that it’ll sell faster and you’ll have more interest in the firm, but to quantity it is virtually impossible.
Sharon: So, what am I going to do? I have savings and I say, “O.K., I’ve been a big-deal criminal defense lawyer. I have millions of dollars in savings.”
Roy: Well, one thing you can do is if you have internal people, you can start transitioning some responsibilities to them so it’s not going to be such a hiccup if and when they take over and you do a deal with them. There’s really nothing special or unique besides figuring out the timing, of course. I get people calling me now and they say, “Roy, I want to get it done by the end of the second quarter,” and I’ll say, “It’s not going to happen. I can still help you, but it’s not going to get done by then.” It takes time, so give yourself enough time.
One of the things I definitely need to mention is if you die prematurely, or even if you live a long life but there’s some sort of disability, you’re going to leave a mess. I have worked with the grieving widower or widow. It’s not pretty. It’s not pretty at all when they die. Even if they die at more of a normal age, let’s say 70s or 80s, but the lawyer was in denial, and especially if it’s a solo practice with a minimal staff, this poor spouse—because that’s ultimately who’s got to figure things out—they don’t know what to do. No one plans for that stuff. All lawyers here, they need to have a contingency plan in place if they get hit by the proverbial bus. Needless to say, it’s a hell of a lot more important to have it when you’re 65 or 70 than when you’re 35 or 45. You need it nevertheless, but of course the chances of it happening increase. It’s so important to have something in place. I can’t predict the future; it’s above my paygrade as far as when those things are going to happen, but you need to have something in place if you do get hit by the proverbial bus. As we get older that’s more likely to occur. Of course, few lawyers want to acknowledge that and do something about it.
It’s going to be more and more of a crisis, I think, in a lot of states as the boomers retire, because we’re just seeing the start of the boomers. I’m 65 myself and I’m right in the middle of that. You have some of the senior ones dealing with it, but again, people aren’t retiring at 65 as much, especially as solo and small firm lawyers where they’re not booted out as easily in bigger firms. They tend to be booted out earlier than solo and small firm owners because they decide what to do. They don’t have any firm issues there.
Sharon: Do you work with firms that aren’t consumer? You’ve mentioned estate planning.
Roy: I work with all types of firms. Occasionally I work with bigger firms where there’s one or two particular rainmakers. Again, they’re in denial about what to do. The other lawyers don’t want to step up to the plate. Those are the firms I was mentioning earlier that are going to be falling apart. Everyone’s going to scatter once that rainmaker and/or leader retires, and they do the best they can to transition. In the bigger firms, it’s hard to transition clients because they don’t invest in the leadership to give it to the younger lawyers. They still want to make as much money as possible. There’s only so much money to go around in the bigger firms when they compensate the partners they don’t want to let go. Sometimes they have only themselves to blame when that occurs.
Sharon: Not letting go, that’s probably a big problem you run into a lot. Whoever has the relationship doesn’t want to let it go.
Roy: Exactly, they don’t want to let it go. Less money, less prestige. Even if you’re one of the younger lawyers who sees the accident occurring, it could be political suicide to raise it in a small firm. It’s fraught with a lot of issues. When it comes to the selling piece, most of my clients are solo and small firm owners with maybe half a dozen or a dozen lawyers, but on occasion, I’ll get called in to do more big picture succession planning for firms. That’s just transitioning clients, which, again, goes down to compensation and figuring out a way to keep the institutional clients in the firms. In some practice areas it’s easier to do, others not so easy, and a lot depends on the clients. There are so many different variables.
Sharon: You’ve given us a lot to think about when it comes to estate planning and succession planning. I think it’s just recently I’ve heard a lot about it, but thank you very much for it. I greatly appreciate it.
Roy: My pleasure. Thank you.
What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Tyrone Thomas
Tyrone Thomas is General Counsel at Doral Renewables. He has broad strategic and transactional experience within the renewable energy industry, having served as both Head of Legal at Plus Power, and Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Invenergy. Throughout his career, Tyrone has led diverse teams of professionals in connection with the development, construction, financing and/or divestiture of dozens of utility-scale energy facilities with a total value of over $7 billion. Mr. Thomas earned a BS in Urban Studies from Hunter College and a JD from the University of Illinois College of Law.
In the legal industry, every connection matters. This is especially true for lawyers of color and other underrepresented attorneys who know the feeling of being left out—and the feeling of finally being seen. Tyrone Thomas, General Counsel at Doral Renewables, credits his mentors with guiding him on his career path, and he does the same for young lawyers who reach out to him today. He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about what qualities he looks for in the firms and attorneys he works with; how firms can demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion; and what makes a good leader. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Tyrone Thomas, General Counsel at Doral Energy. In addition, he’s the company’s anti-hunger advocate. He’s speaking to us from the Chicago suburbs. Tyrone has been on the podcast twice before, but he was with a different energy company. Today he’ll tell us all about his industry experience as well as his experience being a Black lawyer. Tyrone, welcome to the program.
Tyrone: Thanks for having me, Sharon.
Sharon: Glad that you’re here. Give us a synopsis of your career path.
Tyrone: Sure. I’ll keep it post-law school. I worked in private practice for a few years. I was at DLA Piper in the Washington, D.C. office. I am still involved with DLA Piper from an alumni perspective, using them and adding advice when I can. I was with a firm called Hanson Bridgett, in San Francisco down in the financial district. Then I was with a small firm in the Chicagoland area called Gould & Ratner. In each of those spaces, my work primarily centered on development, whether commercial real estate development, development of GSA leasing properties primarily leased from the federal government, healthcare development, and everything in between.
Then I moved over to a company called Invenergy that now is probably the number one, if the not the number two, private producer of renewable energy in North America. I moved over to them in 2014.
Sharon: What is the name of the company?
Sharon: Invenergy, all right.
Tyrone: I spent about seven years there, eventually leaving as the number two on their legal team. I was the vice president and deputy counsel. I had a wealth of great experience there. I worked on a ton of really interesting projects that were cool from a practical perspective, but also great for the world in decarbonizing the environment. Tons of great employees. There were probably 400 people around the world when I started and almost 1,600 when I left. I went from having zero reports when I joined to about 27 when I left. I got to watch the company grow as I was growing in my career in that space.
I then went to a really great standalone battery developer named Plus Power based out of San Francisco and Houston. It was a brief stint there because of Doral, where I currently am. It ultimately made sense to transition to Doral, where I’m general counsel and where I work with a number of folks who I worked with in prior years, including the CEO. We crossed paths in Invenergy for several years. It all just clicked, so that’s where I am currently. I was head of legal at Plus Power, and here I’m general counsel/corporate secretary. I’m taking on more and more of a compliance role as well.
Sharon: What is anti-hunger? That was on LinkedIn.
Tyrone: When I present on LinkedIn, I try to present not necessarily where I’m working, per se, but the entirety of what I’m doing in the professional space. Primarily what I’m doing is working in the legal compliance function. I’m doing a lot of work around governance. I sit on some boards, and I’m looking at some for-profit boards right now to figure out the best fit for me.
Then, I consider myself an anti-hunger advocate. I spend most of my time that’s not on family or professional matters volunteering or donating to organizations that try to combat hunger and food insecurity. I have sat on associate boards and executive boards of various organizations. I’ve sat on the Executive Board of Directors of Beyond Hunger in the Oak Park/River Forest area here in Illinois, which honestly is probably one of the best-run and better-funded food pantries in the Midwest—I would say probably in the country. The funding is a testament to the community it’s in, but it also gives them the ability to serve a lot of constituents and continually chase new opportunities to serve more or in a different way, because obviously just giving someone food is not a holistic solution. This is one of the few food pantries I know of in the country that has two dieticians on staff, for example. There are nutrition programs and things like that.
I also run a small nonprofit called Conversation for Six, which is intended to lower the informational bar to entry for people who want to get more involved in the hunger space. The idea was germinated off of feedback I got from individuals whom I was trying to nudge to give more money or to center some of their corporate giving campaigns on hunger. A lot of folks told me they didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand what these programs are, what some of these terms are. It’s not unique to the hunger space. A lot of nonprofits have to pick and choose who their audience is. They focus a lot on the audience that is preaching to the converted, because the converted are proven givers. They are going to give more and donate more. They’re going to evangelize, but what sometimes gets left out is the entry-level folks.
I fund the charity myself. The goal of Conversation for Six is not to raise a bunch of money; the goal is to educate. I hired some freelance writers beginning in the pandemic, and they wrote a bunch of articles on foundational concepts. What is SNAP? What is WIC? What are the summer school lunch programs? What’s the idea of a food desert? Why is that term falling out of favor? It’s all these foundational things that will help someone then go on and engage with more involved food scholarship.
We also point people to those organizations. So, if you need help or you want to help, we point to organizations. There’s a resource directory on the site that has organizations in all 50 states and some international organizations where people can either get help or give help, whether it be their time or their money. We’re a nexus to get people to direct-access organizations.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this. I spend a lot of time doing it. I’m currently in conversations about whether it makes sense for me to join some local government boards that are focused on hunger, whether I can add something of value there. It’s a passion. It’s something I carry with me separate and apart from any legal or compliance or governance-related work I do for pay.
Sharon: Let me ask you this. If you walked into an office and engaged a recruiter or a marketer and they said, “Hey, here’s a bunch of money. Go put it in hunger,” would that influence you?
Tyrone: You mean if I was looking to take a job and they were also—
Sharon: Or in marketing. Would it influence you in terms of having a better feeling—
Tyrone: You mean in terms of whether their client would be influenced by this? I would say no, and I’ll tell you why. In our space, corporate giving is table stakes. Everybody has corporate giving. Let me start off by saying that feels too much like a bribe to me, so I want to stay out of the gray area. Everyone has corporate giving. When I made the comment earlier about influencing where they center their corporate giving, that’s a very real conversation.
When I came out of law school, you still had to be in a suit every day, but you had a jeans Friday. They would pick a charity, and everybody would donate. Everyone would give $5 as their payment to wear their jeans, and it would go to a charity. A lot of the charities were not focused on what I considered some of the base problems that humans face. I wasn’t the only one there. I am certain other folks would try to push for certain charities, like “Can we give money to these anti-homelessness charities?” That was in D.C. and San Francisco, both of which have aggressive homelessness problems. “How about charities working on hunger? How about ones working on reintegrating people into the workforce or supporting unwed teen mothers? Can we put money there?” If we’re putting it somewhere anyway, and most of the people are giving the $5, $10, $15, that’s your table stakes. A lot of the people who made a lot more money would give $50, $100, but nobody cared where it went. They knew it was going to a good cause, and this is not directed money with conditions.
I want to direct it towards these things at the very lowest level of a hierarchy of needs. Candidly, if someone tells me they want to put a bunch of money in the hunger space, I would tell them you should do that. You don’t need me to do that; you should do that, and I’ll talk to you about it. I’ll point you in the right direction. I’ll tell you about organizations that are doing great work and that are poised to be able to take that money and use it. There are some organizations that are struggling with certain types of resources, human capital resources, for example, and they can’t adequately use a large donation. An organization that had a budget of $100,000 or $10,000 last year would not be able to spend $1 million in one calendar year if you just dropped it in their lap. They would probably spend six months with consultants on a strategic plan, which they should.
I can direct all those things. I can speak to those things. I can tell you what I would do with a big pot of money that needed to be given away. It could go to a lot of different organizations based upon who they serve and how it would be effective. It wouldn’t influence my decision to use a firm or not. It’s something I’m talking to everybody about. Sharon, when we turn off the recording, I’ll probably talk to you more about it later. I’m talking to everybody. With your corporate giving, you should fold in hunger because it’s such a basic need. Without it, you can’t really talk about these other types.
Sharon: Should a marketer or a decision-maker try to match you with other people who are Black?
Tyrone: It’s interesting because it’s not uncommon. The answer is no, but it’s not an uncommon question because you will interact with people. There’s a meme that goes around about President Barack Obama shaking people’s hands, and the handshakes are different based upon the cultural identity of the person he’s interacting with. He’s going down a receiving line and everybody’s getting a different handshake. I think sometimes what people see is there’s a very small number of African Americans in the legal field, and there’s a much smaller number of African Americans in the legal field in positions of power and leadership. Candidly, because there’s such a small percentage, a lot of folks know each other or know of each other. It’s not because the person is a statistic. We still see this, but we saw this 40, 50 years ago in terms of women in the workplace. The few people who were there made an effort to reach out to other women; they made an effort to reach out to other people of color and mentor them and ask, “How I can I help?”
Back when I was coming out of law school and I had no business to steer anyone’s way, and I had no particular connection with a lot of the folks I was reaching out to for informational interviews, a lot of folks didn’t respond. I’m not going to knock them for that. But there were people who were doing very well and were very important, who were general counsel and CEO and managing partners, who were African American. They made a point to reach out to me, a 24-year-old, and say, “How can I help?” I’m not going to mention who, but I was at dinner with someone who has had a very prominent position and career, an African American probably in his 70s, a couple of weeks ago. It was a broader dinner, but he was there. We were at a table. We were talking, and he was a leader for someone who had been a mentor to me. I found out he had mentored that person 20 years before that person was a mentor to me. So, there is this small universe of folks who are trying to provide help that they themselves maybe didn’t get.
There’s a high likelihood that if you put me in front of someone in the legal space, I might know them if they’re African American because there are so few. But if I didn’t, that wouldn’t influence me. When we’re talking about law firms, private legal providers, those of us who are interested in diversity and equity and inclusion—as I am—we’re beyond that surface-level engagement. It’s great if you have someone and they’re the right person to put in front of me. That is great because you are showing me something, but beyond that, who’s going to work on my matter? What are your broader numbers? Not just what are your numbers—I think, again, that’s surface level—but where are you going, where have you been?
If you’re a firm of a thousand people and you have 12 African Americans, we want you to acknowledge that’s not a good number. Two, I’d love to know where you were last year, the year before and the year before. Did you go from zero to 12? Did you bring in one group? Was it a slow burn? What’s your plan going forward? How do you want to integrate folks into the business? What’s your plan? There’s recruiting, but what about advancement and retention? Who do you have in the partnership? Who do you have as income versus equity party? Who do you have on management committees? Who do you have leading offices? All of those questions are fundamental to understand what the firm does.
I know firms that do a lot of great work in this space, but the people who do the work I need are all white men over 55. That’s fine because I know the firm itself is doing a bunch of work. The fact that the people in the room with me, who I’ve become great friends with, are not representative of the firm’s push for diversity isn’t an issue, because the firm can come with their receipts and say, “Here’s what I’m actually doing,” and it’s enough.
Sharon: I can’t say I’ve been in this situation. It’s been a long time, but it used to be that there was tokenism. I remember being in meetings where everybody was, like you said, over 50, except for maybe a woman.
Tyrone: And they didn’t get to participate in the meeting.
Sharon: Right. No reason to be there, just to show their face. Let me ask you: did your ethnicity influence your decision to leave private practice and go behind the desk?
Tyrone: A little. It wasn’t the only reason, but it influenced it a little bit. The work we do as lawyers is incredibly important work, but it is work that oftentimes is very difficult to blend with any creativity the lawyer has. As the managers of the guardrails, it’s not incentivized in our industry to take risk. We understand and we report on risk, but it’s always incentivized not to take risks. Let me be clear: there are tons of people who do take risks, including people who are taking their firms to the next level. But on the individual contributor level, it’s not incentivized.
When I saw friends, colleagues, folks who were in the commercial space, they seemed to be able to incorporate their creativity in what they were doing. They seemed to enjoy what they were doing. I think the essence of what they’re doing comes through more because they work for a longer period. Sometimes on a transaction, when I bring in outside counsel for project financing, it’s 90 days from start to finish. I may have someone on my team working on that same project for three years. They know that project. It’s 200 landowners on a wind farm in the middle of some beautiful county in Nebraska. We know everything about those landowners that they’re willing to let you know. We remember the stories they told us about who owned the land before them and who owned the land before that person, typically in their family, and what their grandchildren are going off to college to do. You know them. You know this person doesn’t like that person, so if we do a dinner to celebrate all the people who are part of the project, don’t sit them next to each other. All those things add a little vibrancy, and they keep away the monotony with the work you’re doing.
When I got into private practice in-house, I was chasing a little bit of that, “Let me find more entertainment in why we’re doing what we’re doing.” I found it in this space, and I never looked back. I’ve been incredibly excited. That’s not to say that’s something I don’t hear lawyers talking about in private practice, but it was something I saw less of in private practice. I saw so many people in the in-house world talking to me about the why. They really understand the business and the business concepts, which is also very attractive to me—and still is, being able to take the hat off sometimes. I joke about it. “I’m not here with the lawyer hat on. Nobody get freaked out. I’m just here.” I was on a call this morning, “I’m just here to listen. I’m not here with the lawyer hat on. I’m going to be on mute. Don’t mind me.” I’m doing that from a quasi-commercial standpoint as well, because my involvement in the matter is going to inform strategy. It’s not about legal risk. It’s going to inform executive strategy going forward. That flexibility is really interesting to me. It keeps my days interesting. It keeps me from wanting to hang it all up and go do something else.
Sharon: That was going to be my question. Does the excitement keep you attracted to the industry? There’s so much new stuff going on in energy today.
Tyrone: It does. The excitement keeps me attracted. Candidly, it’s also the people. When you’re working on financing commercial office buildings, for example, there are a lot of interesting individuals. There’s a lot of interesting information you learn about the building, its tenants, its neighborhood, its owner, its prior owner. But there’s nothing like the partnerships—which is really what they are—we do with rural communities around the world in this industry. For my company, primarily in the U.S., there’s nothing like those partnerships. There’s nothing like truly doing what transactional law is supposed to be, which is where you’re finding a space where both of us want something and we can get it, and no one walks away feeling like they’ve lost.
We have folks who own land, and that’s their primary asset in a lot of these rural communities. They join these rural communities in large part because this is where the needs are for additional generations. For wind and solar specifically, it’s where a lot of large, undeveloped land is—undeveloped in terms of buildings. Land exists where you can stitch together the type of footprint you need for project: five, 10, 12 thousand acres for a solar project; 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 80 thousand for a wind project. You’re not using all that land, but you need buffers and a variety of other things.
When you go into these areas, these are agrarian communities. These are folks who have a lot of land. It’s their principal asset for a lot of folks. It has been in their family for several generations. They want to lease or grant an easement. They do not want to sell because they’re thinking 30, 40 years down the road after that project has gone out of operation. That’s still their land. It’s going to stay in their families, and it can go to their kids or grandkids. They’re thinking in that space.
So, you come in. You understand this is their baby. This is a part of the family. It’s a part of their heritage, and they have areas of it that, for one reason or another, they allow you to use for a certain price because it makes sense to them. They can’t farm it, or they are farming it and they’re just making ends meet on this crop. This crop is a loss leader. Or in some areas it’s rocky and they can’t use it, or they just don’t have the resources or the inclination to put it to a certain use. They’d rather put it to a different use, and you come in and say, “Look, I’m going to build this thing. This is going to be good for your community in terms of energy and hopefully bring prices down. It’s going to be good for the world and for our future generations,” which is what a lot of folks there are thinking about. “It’s going to be value-creative to you, and you’re not going to have to do any of those other things you typically had to do to achieve that value.” They think, “I would pay people. I would prep the land. I would buy seed. I would put it in. I would use all the herbicides and the pesticides. I would then have to pull it out. If I had a bad crop and I lost it, I’ve got the insurance. I can just make the money and then go focus on something else.” When we do that, you see that the human element is front and center.
I have met so many landowners. I’ve heard so many interesting stories. I’ve eaten at people’s kitchen tables. I have really gotten a feel for the human element of what we do. Similarly, I’ve seen operating facilities where we hire people from the local community—obviously, because they can drive to work—who are working at those facilities. At Invenergy, many of the people they hire happen to be veterans who could transfer a lot of the skills they got in the military. It’s so interesting to see that ecosystem. It’s not just an address. It’s a part of a community. It’s a piece of an infrastructure that now exists in that community.
Sharon: Is it selling against somebody, or is it convincing them to go from the loss leader crop to letting you use the land? What are you trying to do, exactly?
Tyrone: Sometimes there’s what people call a land battle, which is when there are several different developers, maybe not all renewable, who are trying to get use of the same land. Sometimes you’ll see these narratives in the paper about people taking farmland out of production. You’re not really competing against the existing use. It’s the same way that people who put up cash-for-houses signs on the side of the road are not really competing against homeowners who want to stay in their home. But you take the call because you’re interested, the same way any of us do when a recruiter calls.
Texas is a perfect example, but you see it throughout the Midwest and the east and everywhere else. In Texas, it’s very obvious a lot of times. You’ll see landowners who have hunting ranges on their land. They’ve got oil and gas activity. When they’ve got solar, they’ve got natural energy via thermal. They might have some battery storage. They’ve got people farming. They’ve got people ranching. They’ve got a dairy operation. This is their asset. They’re making use out of this land. This is their right as the owners of that property, within reason, depending on zoning and laws: to make whatever use of it makes the most sense for them and future generations. That’s really what it is. This person is farming soybeans because soybeans made sense. If all of a sudden, Levi’s came in and said, “I want to put you in my rotation of cotton farmers,” that person would look at the numbers and say, “Oh, maybe this makes more sense. Maybe the soil could support it.”
That’s all we’re doing. We’re saying, “Look, we’re looking to take up a certain amount of land in this area. We want to talk to you about what that looks like.” There are some people who say, “I want to keep farming my carrots, but what I’ll let you do is run these underground cables along the edge of my property by the road to connect someone over here that wants panels.” That’s what participation can look like. Maybe you’re just a buffer between us and the road. You’re planting a crop which is a visual barrier to whatever’s happening with the actual industrial facility. You’re what they used to call in the industry a setback parcel. There’s nothing happening on your land, but you’re part of the project. You’re getting some amount of money for being part of the project and agreeing not to develop anything else in that area. It really is just a conversation with the landowners who would like to participate and at what level.
Then you start to zoom out and see the tableau. “O.K., we’ve got a lot of people that would like to participate at a level that allows us to place panels over here. There are people who don’t over here, so maybe we can place them over here. Maybe there’s a way we can run some cabling here because that’s all these people want to do.” It’s a continual negotiation and renegotiation with the community to ask what the community will tolerate. All of these people are neighboring landowners. They have to be, so you have the rights to get from where you’re generating it to where you’re interconnecting it and sending the energy into the grid.
Sharon: So, it’s not really selling as much as a negotiation. You must get calls from recruiters every day. Do you look at the diversity of the equation that comes into this before you even talk to anybody?
Tyrone: Where I would work myself?
Tyrone: I do, but—this going to sound odd, but I think of an organization where I sit, especially as I’ve gotten later into my career and I’ve been in more leadership experiences, and now being an executive of the company, I look at them differently than the organizations I’m hiring. Part of that is because I have some level of control over increasing diversity or the implementation of a diversity, equity, inclusion program.
When I’ve led teams, they have often been the most diverse teams in the company. I’ve had a hand in that, and it’s been very intentional. Not in terms of quota and picking individual people, but I’ve been very intentional in setting up the opportunities for that to occur from a recruiting perspective. It’s making sure we’re reaching out to a broad enough universe of people so you’re not just tapping existing networks of people, because a lot of these friend groups tend to be very homogenous, and you need to spread that out. I’ve successfully gotten very diverse candidate classes for particular positions. We’ve been able to go through the process to find the right person. That person is a white man sometimes; it’s a white woman sometimes; it’s an Asian woman; it’s an Asian man; it’s a Black man or Black woman. It’s a variety of different people, but I’ve been able to get to that point by implementing a lot of the tools I’ve picked up over the years listening to other people who spend all their time steeped in work around diversity, equity and inclusion.
It obviously doesn’t end there. We’ll get the person in, but if I’m part of the organization, especially if I’m an executive or in a leadership role, I can come in and take a little more ownership over turning that ship. It’s something I’m always going to be interested in. You’re never going to put together a committee on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at a place where I work and not have me on that board. Similarly, you’re not going to start a corporate giving or matching program and not have me in that room talking about hunger. For third parties, however, I have no control over what they do, so there I’m just looking for other people who are doing that work.
Sharon: What if you had a lawyer in private practice who really wanted your business or wanted to get into the company? If they say, “Hey, you wouldn’t believe the diversity and equity program we have here,” would that sway you compared to somebody else who might call and say, “Can I come talk to you?”
Tyrone: That could sway me, but in the sense that I’m going to want to do more vetting. We talked about this in a prior discussion. There is a mechanism for choosing counsel. As with everyone, there’s obviously an inherent bias. People we’re already using are going to be first in line for potential new scopes unless there’s a strategic reason not to. When you’re at small companies, there’s always that issue of we have too many eggs in one basket; we need to diversify our providers—this is consultants and attorneys as well—and we need to have two or three people, at a minimum, that do this type of work on our small bench. You don’t want to get more than that. It becomes unwieldy.
In that case, if I’m adding someone to the bench, I might strategically say, “I’ve got four more deals coming by. We’ve got someone we’ve been working with who’s been really good to us. I’m going to give that person at least two of those deals. For the other one, I’m going to try to find someone else and be proactive about diversification.” In that case, I might start looking. Who else does this type of work, does it well, has the right people, has the right bedside manner, doesn’t have conflicts? I’ve been doing this long enough. You know who the other side uses. You know who the banks use, so this person will be conflicted out of representing you directly. It could potentially be a direct conflict. In those circumstances, I have a list of folks who I know do good work around diversity, equity, inclusion at the firm, who do good, professional work, and who I happen to like as professionals.
They’re not all people of color, and I haven’t worked with them yet. I haven’t used them yet. For a long time now, I’ve had a list in my head of people who are—I don’t want to say next in line, but are on a list. “O.K., I’ve got one of these types of opportunities. I need to find someone who’s outside of the fold.” I made a call to someone who had shifted firms a couple of months ago for a potential opportunity that’s coming up. I did it well in advance. This was a person I had worked with in the past, a really great lawyer, a partner leading a group at a very, very large firm. I reached out to him. It turns out he’s leaving that firm for another big firm. I will use him in the next 12 months. I’m certain of that, probably a few times.
But I’ve got that list. It’s rolling around. People join that list, to your point, by reaching out and saying, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing that’s great. Let me talk to you about it. There might not be an opportunity today.” Those are the good reach-outs. “There might not be an opportunity today but let me get to know you. Let me talk a little bit about what we do. Let me tell you who else we’re working for and why we can be value-creative for your business.” For a lot of us, the last thing you want to do is absolutely need someone and not know where to go. So, there’s always a list rolling around of great firms and great lawyers at those firms. I say to myself, “I’m going to figure out a way to use this person or to make a referral to someone who needs to use them,” because they’re doing what I consider to be the right things.
I’m all over these in-house things where people are looking for a lawyer who does this or that. I’m part of the ACC. I’m part of the National Association of Corporate Directors. I’m part of the LCLD alumni because I was a fellow there. Then there are friends. People will always reach out and say, “Hey, I need this. Does anyone know a lawyer that does X in this geographic location?” When I do, because I know that person’s elevator pitch and they’ve been rolling around in my head, I’m like, “How can I help this person advance what they’re doing because I like what they’re doing?” I immediately will either use them myself, or I’ll reach out and respond. I’ve referred countless people. I’ve been in the room with GCs of Fortune 100 companies who were like, “Hey, can I ask you question?” I’ve made that referral and people have been happy with that.
I’ve similarly had people I don’t know in some organization I belong to send an email saying, “I need someone that does this type of work in Alabama and Mississippi.” There’s a firm down there called Butler Snow that does great work in energy and infrastructure and other things in Alabama and Mississippi. A perfect example. I had a question the other day, and I shot out a note about who would want to use this firm, who they should use, whom I’ve used and whom I like, and hopefully they reach out. That happens all the time.
Sharon: Are you often in the position where you might look in a directory, or do you not pay attention to them? Do you look at directories or badges or Super Lawyers?
Tyrone: I look at them every year. I look at Super Lawyers. I look at Chambers. I look at the Legal 100—is that it?
Sharon: Yes, I think that is one.
Tyrone: I look at other ones. I get all those magazines. I look at all of them because our profession is large. It’s small compared to certain other professions, but there are thousands and thousands of lawyers. People are shifting practice groups, and people who were previously not as visible for one reason or another later become visible. So, I’m always looking at those things because, again, the table stakes is that you know what you’re doing. You have the right expertise. You have the right bedside manner. You’ve got the right rates or ability to be flexible when it’s called for. Sometimes it’s not. Then are you the right person, are you doing the right things, do you fit with the ethos of the company? It’s not just me as the procurer of legal services. Do you fit with the ethos of the company? There are people I like personally and I think could do the work, but they, for example, have done certain work that politically I cannot align with our company given what we do. You just can’t do that.
I’m not using one of these firms, but during the 2020 election, there were certain firms that were front and center on some fairly spurious legal challenges. I knew of folks at other companies who were discussing whether or not to cut ties with some of those firms. A lot of stuff happened in Pennsylvania. I’m from Philadelphia. I have a lot of friends in Philadelphia, and I know people at firms; I know people at companies that are headquartered there—our current company is headquartered there—or were doing work there who were using some of those firms. That was definitely a discussion. I’m not going to say everybody did it. I didn’t follow up on it. I definitely know from news reports that a variety of folks did drop those firms. I know some people who left those firms. I can’t mention them in particular, but I know one person who reached out because they wanted to leave that firm. I was able to put them in touch with someone who was looking for someone, and they were able to make a transition. This is an extreme example, but those types of things do happen.
Those types of things happen across the vendor spectrum. Every once in a while, there are clients where there is a case conflict that just doesn’t make any sense. There are people in this world who spend a lot of money lobbying to get rid of renewables or kill projects or get rid of incentives at the state level. I’m not necessarily going to work with lawyers who spend all their time representing those folks. It’s an easy example. I had a lawyer once reach out to me about a conflict I didn’t know about. She presented the conflict, which she thought was a nothing burger. It turned out she literally represented the folks who killed another project my old company had done in that same jurisdiction, but she’s like, “The representation is over, so it shouldn’t be an issue.” Obviously, we didn’t use this partner or their firm, but those are the types of things that come up and will influence the hiring decision-making process.
Sharon: I’m curious. It’s an out-of-left-field question, but I was looking last night at the board of Doral—is it Doral Energy?
Sharon: I was intrigued because you mentioned you had just come from Israel, and I saw that it was a heavily Israeli and Jewish company. I just wondered if they wanted somebody in the States. Do you feel like you’re outside?
Tyrone: That’s a good question. As a Black man in America in the corporate space, I am almost never in a room where I’m a majority. That’s just a baseline. So, with this company, I never felt like I was outside; I never felt other. The story of Doral Renewables is we’re a U.S. company which started as a JV with an Israeli company of the same name that is now publicly traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. They do a bunch of work in the solar, hydrants and some other spaces in Israel and Europe. They really didn’t have a footprint in the United States. Our company started as a joint venture with our CEO, Nick Cohen, who is not Israeli, but who I worked with. He and I worked together at Invenergy years ago. He’s a serial entrepreneur, we’ll call it. He’s had several other companies in the energy space that were ultimately successful, and that was my siren song. Nick and I remained friends and stayed in contact, and ultimately it made sense for me to join this company.
It’s been a great partnership with the Doral Group in Israel. One of the other passive investors is Migdal Insurance, which is the largest insurance company in Israel. We have strong ties to the Israeli market. A number of board members are in Israel and are from these companies which are large investors and backers. We recently did a deal with Apollo, which you’ll see in the press release. There’s a board member from Apollo that’s now part of our board, which is very exciting. The early backers of the company were largely out of Israel, so that’s a strong representation you see on our board.
They’ve been amazing partners in what we do because especially at the Doral Group level, they do what we do. That understanding is critical because you can have conversations without the need for in-depth explanation. Everyone’s working with the same baseline information. We were actually in Israel to discuss business and to do some celebrations of the Apollo/Bank of America deal that was publicly announced. I went over to take part in that and to have some discussions. A lot of folks from Israel are here. Periodically we’re there just making sure we’re maintaining a relationship. Even though people are distributed all around the world, we’re maintaining some level of face-to-face contact fairly regularly.
Sharon: Do they ask you for referrals? If they might not know somebody in the Midwest, let’s say, and they need an energy lawyer, would they ask you for a referral?
Tyrone: Technically no because it’s part of my role. I’m going to find the person and put them in the slot. But if someone else, for whatever reason, was trying to find a lawyer separate and apart from my scope, they would come to me, whether the Midwest or otherwise. The benefit of what I’ve been doing over the last several years is I know a lot of lawyers doing what needs to be done in and around the renewable energy space and the traditional energy space. Some of it has nothing to do with energy. Some of it is in the private finance space; some of it is in the trade and controversy space dealing with importation. I know a lot of lawyers doing this work. I have sat through a lot of pitches. I have a done a lot of deals with folks.
Again, I have gone to the trade shows and gotten recommendations, met people, interacted with them, but over time, I’ve developed a good list of folks who I know do this work, notwithstanding conflicts and/or retirements, which have been hitting me lately and making me feel old. Some of my favorite people have retired with a clear successor, but notwithstanding retirements and conflicts, I could tell you who you should be using, who I would say is tier one, who I would say is tier two, and who I would avoid. I’ve worked with legal service providers who ultimately did not give good service or who broke certain rules, sometimes around soft conflicts, so I could give that information as well to someone who’s looking for it. “Here’s who I recommend. Here’s who I know nothing about. Here’s who I would not recommend,” without going into any detail, of course.
I’ve got a wealth of that information, so people will tap me for that, especially because what we do is often done in remote areas of each state. I can tell you where to find a lawyer in southern Mississippi just like I can tell you where to find a lawyer in northern Saskatchewan. I can tell you who they are, what public deals I know they have done, how to use them and how not to, and where their expertise ends so you probably need to bring in a different firm. Those are the things I’ve had to learn over the years, so I share that pretty freely.
Sharon: Do you mentor pretty freely? If I’m a new lawyer and I’m a person of color and I say, “Can I talk to you for 10 minutes or 15 minutes or a half-hour?”
Tyrone: I’m almost always going to say yes. These days, that scheduled time might be several weeks out, but I’m almost always going to say yes. I always try to take the coffee. I always try to take the phone call. I don’t oftentimes take the dinner or the drinks from people I don’t know, but part of that is because I’ve got three little boys. I live in the suburbs. I’m not often in the city. I have a home office that I work in, so I’m not going to disrupt my daily family routine very often, but coffees, phone calls or meetings like that, I do those all the time. I’m happy to do them. I love when people refer folks, largely because it’s something a lot of people don’t have time to do or won’t make the time to do.
I still remember doing an ungodly number of reach-outs to people, which is the advice we got from our career office in law school, and the number of people who actually responded that I didn’t know, that I didn’t have any connection to. Almost none of them were people who did not have some prior experience with being left out or not necessarily getting the attention evenly. So, I’ll try to do that until I can’t do it anymore. I’ll always take the phone call. I’ll chat with folks. I’ve mentored some people in a more formal way, either way through the ACC Diversity Mentorship Program here in Chicago or through other mentorship programs at work or an internship program or things like that. There are other people who have just been put in touch with me, and we’ve kept an informal cadence.
There’s one guy right now who is at a firm. He worked for the government. I was the mentor for him informally, I think, several years ago. Now he’s a midlevel associate at his firm. I was at an event and someone, the head of a group, said to me, “I’m having a hard time hiring lawyers in this practice area”—this person was a person of color—“I’m not finding anyone. I’m definitely not finding anyone of color,” and I said, “It’s funny you should say that. I was just looking on LinkedIn the other day and saw an update by this person.” I gave the details, and they were like, “We should talk. We should absolutely talk.” Actually, I have the card of the person I was talking to sitting on my desk. I’m going to reach out to the lawyer first just to see if he will be interested in starting that conversation, but they happen. Those of us who do that mentorship—and I know you know this—we remember. We remember all these people. That’s why the elevator pitch is so important because it’s so memorable. I can’t remember everything, but I remember that tiny, little piece that allows me to think of you when opportunities come up, and I can try to make connections as necessary.
Sharon: So, you find them also on LinkedIn. Besides that lucky meeting, it sounds like LinkedIn has been pretty significant in what you’ve done.
Tyrone: It’s good to see things like this. In this case, I saw this person had an updated work anniversary or something like that on LinkedIn, so they were top of mind. I think LinkedIn is great for that. It’s also great for people being able to get a snapshot of what you’re doing professionally. I can’t tell you the number of times I hear, “Do you know such and such?” and someone pulls up their phone and pulls up LinkedIn and they’re like, “I don’t think so,” and I’m like, “This person did this and this,” and they’re like, “Oh yes, I think I do.” They’re connected to you, or they’re connected to someone else who’s connected to you. You start to see that LinkedIn is very useful for the core function it was created for all those years ago. I find it still very useful in that space.
Sharon: Having a written a lot of this stuff and believing some of it and not believing others, it says you are a proven people person, or something like that; you’re a proven leader. Can you give us examples of what that might be?
Tyrone: Sure. We don’t have enough time to get into all the details, but you know I know that managing people, which is an obligation, is more administrative and is different from leading. Leadership in and of itself can be dotted-line leadership and straight-line leadership. Dotted-line leadership is what happens when there’s a roomful of arguable equals, and someone walks in and stands up and just starts talking and leading the discussion and everyone else. That person is leading in that space. I’ve led teams that are cross-functional teams. You’re working on a transaction and legal needs to tie it all together. You’re bringing all the elements to the table, but you’re there to tie it all together. You’re there to run it through the mill of risk and to engage with the other side. I’ve done that a lot through my career.
Then I’ve done more traditional, straight-line leadership as well, where I’ve led people. I’ve been in people leadership. I’ve had teams of one. At the largest it was 27 direct and indirect reports. In those contexts, I think about those people. I think through my own gaze, about where I’ve had good leaders and where I’ve had bad leaders. Largely the bad leaders center for me, because it’s a good rubric of what not to do. A lot of time, they’re bad in very acute ways, which is easy for you to identify and say, “Well, that thing should be on the no list.”
I pride myself on being able to build teams and deal with interpersonal issues with those teams. Anyone who has ever worked for me has had a meeting I forced them to sit in where they talk about their career; where I tell them I don’t care if you leave here, I care how you leave. I don’t care that you leave. My expectation is that your career, unless you are literally at the end of your career—not that you’re a certain age because you can work until you’re 90 if you want—is that your career is probably going to extend beyond the four walls of this organization. What I want to understand is where you want to go in your career because I want to help you figure out what you need to do to get to that next step, what other skills you can learn here. How can we marry that with the scope I need from you here, so we’re doing double duty and we’re not putting you in a position where you have to choose, where you have the tyranny of the “or” here. You’ll be able to “and.” Then whenever you’re ready, I tell people, “If you come here and you do a good job, I’ll be your reference. I’ll write your recommendation.”
I had someone the other day that used to work for me a few years ago reach out because he needed a recommendation for a new job he’s going to, after the job he left working with me to do. I was happy to give it. I called up the folks and gave what I thought was a glowing recommendation because it was deserved. That’s a part of it. I like that because it’s true, and it also disarms a little bit. It gets people to be a little open. I like to be frank with folks. We are not a family; we are coworkers. We can use the term family, but I don’t mistake my family for this. That doesn’t mean we can’t be jovial. It doesn’t mean we can’t be supportive of each other. It doesn’t mean we can’t all get along in a way that gets the work done very well and makes this a relatively enjoyable experience for people 75% of the time.
When I do that, I find you get openness from the people you’re leading, but you also get a willingness to follow. When you’re in a position where you need to lead, either because you decided to or because the organization decided, it’s critical to get people who are willing to follow. I think some of that comes from being human. I think some of that comes from explaining where they’re following you. I’m not blindfolding you and taking the kids to Disney. I’m telling you why I’m trying to do something, what I’m trying to do to get there. Even if you don’t think it’s the right thing, you know I’m earnest in what I’m trying to do and what I’m trying to accomplish. So, you’re going to dig in and participate and help me get there.
That’s something I’ve done now for several years, and it’s something I didn’t come up with on my own. I learned from bad leaders as much as from great leaders. The LCLD Fellowship Program is an amazing program with a ton of resources on leadership. I read constantly on the subject. I’ve taken courses on my own dime on leadership, a master class and other things to try to home in on certain areas. I think it’s so important. It has such an outsized impact on people’s day, a large part of your day, and the energy you take home. It’s such a large part of your life in the working years.
Sharon: It definitely is. Tyrone, thank you very much. I really appreciate your time. I greatly appreciate it.
Tyrone: Thank you for having me.
What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Laura Terrell:
Laura Terrell is an executive coach with over 25 years of professional experience as a legal and business leader. In coaching, she partners with people to support them in reaching new levels of effectiveness and fulfillment in their professional lives. Her clients come from a wide variety of industries, including law, education, financial services, pharmaceutical, oil & gas, non-profit, health care, and technology. Some of them are senior corporate executives like CEOs and general counsels; others are entrepreneurs and small business owners, as well as professionals who may be returning to the workforce, making a pivot to a new career, or switching roles mid-career.
She has worked extensively and in-person in many international markets and financial centers, including New York, Washington, Chicago, Silicon Valley, Canada, London, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Singapore and China. Supporting start-up companies and their founders is also one of her interests, and she is an active private investor in early stage ventures.
Laura’s Blog: www.lauraterrell.com
Laura’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lauralterrell/
Laura’s Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lauraterrellcoaching/
Every lawyer must ask difficult questions at some point in their career. Should I go in-house? How do I become partner when I don’t feel confident? Can I use my skills in another practice area? As an executive coach to lawyers and a former attorney herself, Laura Terrell has helped numerous clients find the answers to these questions. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about the value of feedback; what questions to ask before moving in-house or making a significant career change; and how to create career opportunities instead of waiting for them. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Laura Terrell. Laura has been an equity partner at two Am Law 15 law firms, a senior-level appointee at the U.S. Department of Justice, the in-house counsel of a publicly traded company and Special Assistant to the President at the White House. Now she is an executive coach to lawyers. We’ll hear about that today. Laura, welcome to the program.
Laura: Thank you, Sharon. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
Sharon: I’m so glad to have you. Tell us about your career path. You’ve covered so much.
Laura: I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve had the opportunity to work in public service in the federal government in a number of different capacities, including, as you mentioned, at the White House and the Department of Justice in legal roles. I’ve also worked in private practice at two very large Am Law 25 law firms. That provided me with a lot of knowledge of the business of law and much of what your interviewees talk about on this podcast, which is marketing, branding, running a business, all of those important things. I’ve had the chance to work in-house as in-house counsel for a publicly traded company. That also has been an incredible part of my journey. So, I feel really fortunate. I feel, as a lawyer, I’ve had a lot of variety in my experience. I’ve had a lot of different opportunities that have given me different breadth and different capabilities along with way.
Sharon: Which is unusual, because I talk to people who have been lawyers for 20 years in private practice or in one area. There’s a lot to be said for that. You’ve really covered a lot of ground. When did you know you wanted to become a lawyer?
Laura: I wanted to be a lawyer very shortly out of college. I was primarily interested in finding a career in law that would help me to mirror my interest in legal matters as well as government policy and government enforcement. I spent much of my career working in areas where I was either an attorney for the federal government or working in a capacity where I was defending clients and working with clients who were under federal investigation or dealing with lawsuits by agencies such as the Department of Justice or the Securities and Exchange Commission.
What I didn’t expect was that I would develop a practice that was heavily based in financial and investigations issues. I didn’t have a financial background, but I learned very quickly about all kind of matters, including commodities markets, trading, options issues, a lot of the things lawyers don’t necessarily go to law school for. They were of interest to me because it taught me a lot about how money moves, about how businesses interact with capital markets and what’s important about that in terms of regulatory practice and regulatory enforcement.
Sharon: So, you didn’t want to be a lawyer when you were 12 or 10. You sound to me like someone who got a degree and said, “O.K., now what do I do? I don’t know. Maybe something different.” Finance is definitely different.
Laura: It is. I was an undergraduate major in government political science, and my interest was working in an area that involved federal government policy. I was tremendously interested in the executive branch and the regulatory enforcement agencies like the FTC and the SEC. I ultimately ended up working for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission as my first job outside of my clerkship and outside of law school. That was a surprise to me, but I always liked investigations work, putting puzzles together, working through facts, putting evidence in place, trying to figure out how it all connects. So, I did not grow up as a young child wanting to be a lawyer, but I saw very quickly in my college career that I was interested in finding a way to marry that policy side of my interest with an interest in legal enforcement and interaction with the court system.
Sharon: You must have a lot of opportunity to put the puzzle pieces together in what you do. It seems there are a lot of pieces you put together.
Laura: I have had a lot of opportunities. You mentioned a varied career. I think part of that is driven by looking for opportunities. That’s something I talk about a lot with clients. When I have lawyers that come to me, they’re often in a transition phase, maybe looking for a career pivot, maybe feeling stuck in a certain way. One of the things we talk about is that opportunities come to you, but you also have to look for opportunities. You have to find moments where there is something that makes you say, “This could help advance my career,” or “This could lead me to work in a different way.”
I’ve had those chances. When I had the opportunity to work in the White House, for example, I didn’t know that was coming. That came up in a very unexpected way, but it gave me a real sense of working across agencies, managing the administrative and executive decision-making process. Those were all things that also prepare you well for the corporate world, being able to manage different interests, understanding who the different stakeholders are. Those were things that gave me different skills that I think I wouldn’t have had with just a law degree.
My law degree is great; I’m proud of it, but I needed a lot of practical experience. Like a lot of people, I’ve found the things that interest me are beyond the bare bones of the law. My clients, for example, have legal issues, but they also need to be aware of where business intersects with those legal issues and what the practical business implications are for the questions that are coming up for them. I feel like a lot of experiences have given me that kind of understanding and ability.
Sharon: Now your business is more about being an executive coach to lawyers. Is that correct?
Laura: I’m an executive coach. I do work with lawyers. I do still practice sometimes in a pro bono capacity, but I primarily work with lawyers who are interested in working with a coach, maybe to reach a goal like making partner at a law firm. I’ve been there. I understand that, and I understand a lot of the challenges that come with that.
Some of my clients are interested in just finding a better footing in their work. Maybe they need to shift how they’re working, or they need to change their practice area because everything is evolving. One of the reasons I decided to become a coach was because I really like talking with people about what inspires them in their legal life. I feel like I have a lot of background that can be helpful as a foundation for understanding that. For example, I work with a number of government attorneys who are looking to shift into a different role, maybe a management role. Working in the federal system in particular, it can be a little bit challenging to try to get those next positions, but I understand that. I understand the hiring process and the evaluation at many agencies. That’s something I also enjoy working on.
Sharon: That sounds very difficult. I would think it takes a lot of patience in terms of a government attorney wanting to go into a more managerial role.
Laura: For some attorneys, it may involve leaving one agency for another and leveraging skills in a highly regulated sector like energy or education and leveraging those into another area. One of the opportunities in government service, particularly federal government, is often once you’re inside the federal government, the ability to move to another agency can be a bit more eased by the fact that you have years of service, you understand some of the issues that come along with practicing in an agency as an attorney, including the budget you have to work towards, getting approvals, the kinds of authorizations you need to take investigative or enforcement action. Those are things that can pivot among different federal regulatory agencies and branches. That can be a chance for someone who may not have thought, “Well, if I can’t make this move at the Department of the Interior, for example, could I move to the Department of Energy or the EPA or another agency where I have a new opportunity, but my background is helpful?”
Sharon: The background must be very helpful when it comes to branding or marketing a new practice area to be ahead of the curve.
Laura: I think that’s right. I encourage all attorneys to think periodically throughout their careers, “What am I branding myself as? What is it that people think of me when they come to me and ask, ‘What’s your practice area?’ or ‘What’s your specialty?’ or ‘What do you work in?’” Sometimes, I think attorneys get trapped in thinking they’re doing one kind of practice, but it’s really not the bread and butter of what they do, or that practice may be waning or waxing depending on the market. It’s important to think about, “Oh, I’ve been focused on commercial litigation, but I’ve developed a different ability in restructuring work. Could I convert that into bankruptcy litigation? Could I bring that in as another aspect of my career?” I’ve met lots of people that have worked in different kinds of trial work, for example, that have also converted that into investigative skills.
Sharon: You have to be thinking about your skills and what you’re really doing, but how do you transform that into staying ahead of the curve? You talk about the importance of being ahead of the curve and not letting it get behind you. How do you stay ahead? Is that one of the ways?
Laura: That is one of the ways. You have to constantly evaluate, “What do I want to be doing? What is the market demand for what I’m doing?” Also, “How do people perceive me in that market?” Maybe you’re hiding your skills a bit. Maybe you’re coasting, or you’re assuming clients know what you do. There’s a certain amount of marketing that has to be done, as you know, Sharon, like going out and speaking at conferences, putting out emails regularly, doing a webinar, something for your clients that gets them engaged.
I also encourage my clients to listen to their clients. If you’re an attorney in private practice, you should be listening to what your clients want. You may be selling them something that isn’t top of mind for them or is an area that is not mission critical for them. A great example is working with a pharmaceutical company that’s getting ready to spin off its oncology business but is really focused on its veterinary medicine practice. If that’s the case, you need to think about what their needs are going to be in that area and ask, “What is it that you’re looking for?” I think a lot of the rebranding and regeneration we need to do as attorneys is also based upon what you’re hearing from your clients. You need to have an ear to the ground, keep abreast of market trends, but also listen to what your clients are saying their priorities are, because clients’ priorities change too.
Sharon: I think that’s really important. I know one of the first questions I asked—and this is like 25 years ago—to a bankruptcy attorney was, “What do you do when there’s no bankruptcy work?” I’ve seen it go up and down since then, but what do you do? You have to know.
Laura: Absolutely. That’s a great example. I know several terrific bankruptcy attorneys who are quick on their feet in thinking through tough problems and getting to the heart of what is it we need to know. You know why? Bankruptcy litigation moves fast. Bankruptcy litigators don’t have the luxury of commercial litigation or civil litigation that can drag on for years. In a restructuring, you have clients that want to reconstitute their business as quickly as possible, address creditor issues, address debts, address pending litigation, so restructuring attorneys are really quick on their feet to think through that. They’ve got to be able to come up with ingenious solutions. They’ve got to persuade people. That makes them great attorneys when it comes to doing investigations that have a short timeline and require an adequate amount of evidence to be collected. They can actually come to a decision more quickly for a company, like, “How do you act on noncompliance without spending a long time doing something?” I find restructuring attorneys have a lot of great skills, even when the bankruptcy field is a bit less than active.
Sharon: That’s interesting. You could really build that into something different when the market isn’t as strong in bankruptcy. You could build it into investigations or other things that are interesting and important.
How did it come about? What was the catalyst for you becoming a coach?
Laura: I had been practicing for a number of years. It coincided with a change in my personal life and a relocation for me and my family geographically, but also just an understanding of where I wanted to go as an attorney. I’d been an equity partner in two firms. I’d had an incredible practice. I enjoyed traveling. I had clients all over the world, but I also wanted to connect more one-to-one with my colleagues, with people I knew that would say, “Do you have five minutes to talk to me?” I realized that five minutes wasn’t enough to dig under the hood of what they were doing.
I also enjoy working with more junior attorneys who are in earlier stages of their careers, where they’re asking, “How do I make partner at my law firm?” or “How do I advance in this corporation when there aren’t a lot of senior roles for me? Does that mean I need to take a leap and change to another organization?” I like working with people that are maybe not sure of where they want to go, but they know they want to make a change. I also like working with people that have a very definitive idea. For me, that’s really rewarding. I like the one-to-one. I also work with groups. I facilitate discussions and workshops with law firms and other organizations. I enjoy that as well, but the one-to-one is very personal. I just like helping people find the best path they want for themselves.
Sharon: You must have a lot of people coming up to after you give a talk on what you do. Do people come up and say, “Who are you and what are you saying? You talk about branding. How do you brand yourself?”
Laura: I tell people that I’m an attorney that likes to help other attorneys find ways to succeed on their own terms and based upon their own goals. I have a lot of diverse experience, so I can understand where they’re coming from. When someone says to me, for example, “I feel really alone. I feel like there’s no support for me in my law firm,” or “I’m not sure how I get that next promotion,” or “I don’t know whether there’s any path for me,” I’ve had some of those questions in my own career. I’ve helped other people work through those, so they’re familiar. I like to help people find the right resources, the right communication tools and the right ways to decide what they do next, how they leverage the things they know, how they find the knowledge they don’t currently have. I feel, as a practicing attorney, that I have a lot of depth and background that is relevant. People tend to trust me because they say, “Oh yes, you’ve been there. You understand this.” I think that does provide a foundation, if you will, for having the conversation.
Sharon: I think it does, especially the fact that you have a broad background and you’re still practicing. That must differentiate you as a coach. There are a lot of attorneys who are now coaches, and I think that’s great, but the fact that you are still practicing and you have this broad background can differentiate you.
Laura: I also spend a lot of time immersed in the legal industry. Many of my conversations and my meetings are with people who are not clients and are not going to be clients, but people that are friends or contacts within the industry. It’s important to ask them, “What’s on your mind these days?” or “How is your move working out at the new firm?” “What do you think is next on the horizon in terms of remote work for law firms?” or “What does this economy look like?” Those are things I get to ask other people about, and it’s as much a research mission for me as it is finding out what’s on their mind and what they’re talking about. It’s staying involved in the industry that I think gives a significance to what I do. I think it’s an extra incentive for people to find me as a coach that would be helpful for them.
Sharon: Do you find that the advice or the counsel you give has changed when you’re talking about somebody who’s working remotely now, in terms of finding more clients or showing your immediate superior what you can do?
Laura: I find that attorneys generally are people that have come out of very successful backgrounds. They’ve done really well in school. They have good grades. They have succeeded in law school. At times, that means that if they’re doing their work and all seems stable and they’re getting the work they enjoy, everything is O.K. I’d like to point out that it’s important to get outside of your work and your tasks to evaluate and consider what other people think of your work, what other people react to. If you don’t know how you’re doing at your firm, but you assume everything is O.K. because nobody’s ever tapped you on the shoulder and said, “We need to have a conversation. Maybe this isn’t the right place for you,” that can be a problem. A lot of times, law firms and even companies will not have a conversation and say, “Hey, this isn’t the right place for you,” until it’s too late.
You need to be constantly seeking feedback. I think that’s tough for attorneys. Attorneys are used to being the person in charge. They’re used to being the person that knows how to do everything. I’m sure you’ve seen this on the marketing front as well. Attorneys say, “Oh, I don’t need marketing. I know I’m good at this,” but do people know you’re good at this? Do people understand what your capabilities are? Are you putting the right pricing on your work? Are you putting the right information out there? Do you have the right, up-to-date skills you need, or are you lagging a little bit behind?
I think that applies in a world where people are working remote as well. It’s really easy to sit at your desk behind your computer and say, “I’m working pretty hard. I feel pretty confident in what I’m doing, and nobody has gotten on the phone to say, ‘Laura, you really need to change your approach.’” Have you asked? Have you gotten feedback? Have you said to people, “How do you think I’m doing?” or “What else could I be doing for you and your company? I know I’ve done this work. Tell me what your reaction is on this. Were there things you would have liked us to have done differently?” I think that’s a key aspect for attorneys to think about. It’s not enough to do good work and get good grades; you also have to be out there getting feedback and getting evaluation from the people around you.
Sharon: I think you raised several good points. First is feedback, which I think is hard for anybody to do whether you’re an attorney or not, but you have to keep getting feedback. You also have to remind people what you do, whether it’s finance or whatever. You have to remind them over and over, because they don’t remember the first time. At least, that’s been my experience. You have to remind them several times.
Laura: I think that’s true. You mentioned finance. When running a law firm or a company or even a nonprofit, there are business and financial deliverables that have to be met. The economics of the organization matter. For many attorneys, that’s something you don’t learn in law school. You find attorneys who say, “I didn’t go to business school. I didn’t know this was going to be part of it. I just know I bring in a lot of work and I have clients that generate a lot of money.” That may be the case, but you have to ask yourself, “What’s the overhead?” What’s the cost for the work you’re doing? What’s the rev cycle for getting that work in? What is your organization demanding? When you get that financial payout, are you making sure your accounts receivable are not aging? Those are questions that are not comfortable for attorneys, and they do need to look to other sources within their organizations to help them understand. It’s more than just practicing law. It’s practicing law within a business environment.
Sharon: Do you have attorneys who come to you and say, “I think I’d be happier if I were on the other side of the desk as a corporate counsel.” Somewhere in-house I should say. Not corporate counsel, but in-house?
Laura: I do have clients that say that to me. One of the things we explore as a first step in that work is to see if they can identify what they know about working in-house. They talk to people that are in fields or companies that might be appealing to them. It’s one thing to say in concept, “I’d like to change jobs to do X. Maybe I’d like to go to a law firm, or maybe I’d like to go in-house,” but you may have misconceptions or assumptions about what that’s like. That can be addressed by asking people who are there.
If you think, for example, that in-house life is going to be a slower pace, you need to talk to some people that are in-house counsel. In certain companies, it’s a very fast pace. It may involve being on call, particularly if you are working with overseas clients at different hours of the day. There may be a lot of travel involved. I have a client that recently joined a company in an in-house role, but one of the incentives for that person was to work in a role where they got the opportunity to travel, in particular to work in Latin America and South America, and to be part of the business where they have a lot of facility. For that person, that was important. For someone else, it might not be important. It might be less appealing to have the travel. It might be less appealing to have more erratic hours.
I think you have to investigate the particular culture of the workplace you’re looking at and ask the right questions. It’s something we talk about. Just saying the abstract, “I think I’d like to move,” my first question is, “Why is that the next step? What is it that’s appealing about that? What do you know about it already?
Sharon: Do you usually get a blank expression?
Laura: Sometimes I have people that have done some preliminary discussion. Sometimes I have people that say, “I’m not sure I would be the right person to work in this environment.” You also don’t know that until you ask the questions. I work with clients to try to find their resources and the people and the outlets that can give them better knowledge and help them make better decisions.
Sharon: Have you found, because of what you do and the clients you’re advising, that working remotely changes things? Do they have to reach out in other ways? What are you finding?
Laura: One of the things that has developed over the last couple of years with remote work during the Covid pandemic is people assuming that because you see someone on video, or you talk to them on the phone, that you are connected with them. We have different interactions when we speak with someone in person. I encourage clients to spend some time going to other offices or seeing if a colleague can meet them for a couple of coffee dates. Perhaps if you’re not in the office on the same days, make it a point to be in the office at least one day together during the week, if this is someone you work closely with or someone you have a need to be engaged with.
I think you need to ask yourself, “Who are the people that really need a good relationship with? Who are the people I need to engage and communicate with? Am I getting what I need professionally in that relationship by just doing it on a screen or a telephone call or over a text message or SMS?” Most people realize there is a degree of depth you get from in-person interaction.
I’ll give you an example. I have a client who recently went on their first long, overseas business trip with some colleagues. They’ve all been working very closely together for several months on a project, but this is the first travel they’ve done as a team in over two years. The client came back and said, “I can’t even tell you how different it was having dinner with people, having downtime, getting a bit more of the pattern of how they work, feeling the energy.” That in-person interaction can give you more understanding of how people work best, how people respond and even what they need from you.
Sharon: Is that one of the reasons you went behind the desk, because you saw law firms changing? Is this why you went behind the desk, in terms of being remote? I said behind the desk, but I mean corporate counsel or in-house.
Laura: Frankly, it was because I had worked as outside counsel for so many years. I enjoyed working in depth with a lot of my clients, and one of my clients said to me, “You know our business as well as you know yourself. Better than we do sometimes. Have you thought about going in-house?” That gave me the perspective that I really like being part of the business world. I wanted to understand more of the business piece of my client’s work and the holistic way in which things operated.
Now, sometimes that can be a bit messy. Sometimes you can say, “I’m not sure I really did want to know how the sausage got made,” or “There are some politics involved in this.” We’re accountable to shareholders, and that’s driving a lot of public disclosures; that’s driving a lot of our timing. That may be driving our budget, but I found that to be interesting. So, for me, going behind the desk and being the client, as opposed to being the counsel outside, was just a different aspect of lawyering I wanted to try. I found it fascinating, and I liked the idea of being part of the business world as well.
Sharon: I think that’s important. You knew you liked it, even if you didn’t want to know how the sausage is made or you didn’t care about the disclosures. You have to know that also. I guess it depends on what kind of lawyer you are.
What are the one or two pieces of advice you give to the junior lawyers you talk to? Junior being lawyers that aren’t yet partner. What would you say?
Laura: The primary thing I encourage junior lawyers to do is to get out from their desk and ask partners out to lunch, ask them if they have time for a cup of coffee. Spend some time getting feedback from even senior associates that are supervising you, not just relying on the paper that comes back with the edits on the memo or draft you wrote or the document review you’ve done and being told, “Great. We’re done. Good job. Move on.” Try to get in the weeds of the work that’s being done. Even if you are not in a senior role and you have a very discrete piece, try to understand what the bigger picture looks like. Sometimes that means sitting down with a partner or a senior associate and saying, “O.K., I understand why we did this document review,” or “I understand why we’re focused on this contract or this part of the deal, but what’s the bigger picture here? Can you help me understand how this fits?” It’ll help you understand a little bit more about your career.
So, I think getting out from behind the desk and asking questions is important. That’s often hard for young attorneys because what they’re told is, “You’ll get an assignment. You’ll do it, and then you’ll get the next assignment,” or “When somebody asks you to do something, just do it.” But fitting together what that means in the broader scope of the matter and the clients you’re working for is an important question too. Why is this important to the client now? Why are we doing it this way, when we know the better way would be to do this part of the legal work first? Maybe it’s because the client has constraints around that. I think being educated so you can understand the bigger picture earlier in your career is important.
The other thing I’ve told particularly young associates in law firms is that you’ve got to start understanding the financials. This is a business, and you have to understand how the business of the law firm runs. That means sitting down and getting information, like what does my billable rate mean? What is the number of hours you need me to achieve every year? Why is that relevant? What happens if we don’t hit budgets? Where do we make that up within the firm? Those are important understandings to have as well. You can’t just be a cog. You have to find a way to get from the assembly line to the senior roles and understanding where you fit within that is critical.
Sharon: Those are very good points. I think it would be scary for a young associate to ask a partner out because they’ll think, “I’m just trying to have them like me.” I don’t know. That’s a different kind of advice than I’ve heard before.
Laura: I have several partners that are clients that often say, “I wish associates did that. I wish they came to me and said, ‘Do you have time for lunch?’ because otherwise I feel like they’re just treading water, doing the work they’re supposed to do. I’d like to get to know them as people. I may not be able to have lunch. It may be coffee. It may not be this week. It might be next month because I’m going to trial right now.” But I know several clients that have asked for that and said they find it to be a sign that a young attorney is interested in more than just the four corners of the work assignment. I also think there’s no harm in asking. What’s the worst that someone can say? “I just don’t have time.” O.K., that’s great. Find another person you can ask.
Sharon: I think that’s a good point also. A higher-up, a senior associate, might want that feedback or that level of interest from somebody, somebody asking those questions. I think it works both ways.
Laura, thank you so much for being here today. You gave us a lot to think about. Thank you very much.
Laura: Thank you, Sharon. It was a privilege. Thank you.
What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Daniel Callahan
Daniel Callahan opened his own law office on St. Patrick’s Day in 1984. From there, he distinguished himself as one of the top trial attorneys in California and has repeatedly been recognized by his peers for his incredible accomplishments. Mr. Callahan was the winner of the prestigious OCTLA Trial Lawyer of the Year Award three times, in 2000, 2004, and 2012. Since founding Callahan & Blaine, Mr. Callahan has won many jury trials and obtained scores of seven and eight-figure settlements on behalf of his clients.
Callahan Consulting: Callahan Consulting | Law Firm Consulting by Daniel Callahan –
Instagram: Callahan Consulting Instagram
Daniel Callahan is a legendary California lawyer who has achieved record-setting verdicts for clients. What was the secret to his success? Preparation. By not putting off what he could do now, Daniel had the mental space to think about his cases creatively—and that led to astounding verdicts in seemingly impossible cases. He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about his tips for building a network; why current clients are more valuable than new ones; and why client bills are an underused selling tool. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Daniel Callahan. He is founder and head of one of California’s top litigation firms and has been a winner of the prestigious Orange Country Trial Lawyer of the Year three times. We’ll learn all about his career path and why he thinks his firm is successful. Daniel, welcome to the program.
Daniel: Thank you very much, Sharon. It’s nice to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. Tell us about your career path.
Daniel: It’s an unusual path, Sharon. When I left high school, I did not go to college directly. I went to work in construction because I didn’t really apply myself much during school. I graduated fifth from the bottom in my class. So, I worked in construction. I was doing that. A buddy of mine got me a job, and I’m chopping trees down with my McCulloch chainsaw, and that turned me into a wood chopper. I’m thinking, “What am I doing here?” I saw my buddy. “I know why he’s here, because he’s standing next to his dad who got him the job. My mother and father told me I’d be a good lawyer. Maybe I want to try going to college after all.”
Then, when I went to college, I thought, “O.K., now I’m with all those smart kids, so I have to work really hard.” I put them on a pedestal and worked really hard, and as a result, I had straight As through college. When I went to law school, I thought, “O.K., you were pretty good at college, but now you’re really against all those smart guys.” Again, I put them on a pedestal, worked really hard and finished in the top 10 and editor of the law review.
Then I went to law firms. I was recruited by several law firms. I went to Hawaii to practice initially with the oldest and largest firm in the state. I was there for two years. I learned a lot. I came back to California with another large law firm for another three years, and then I opened up my own shop. I was able to bring in more business than most people. I had enough to keep myself and two other associates busy, so I thought, “Maybe now is a good time to go out on my own.” I did that on St. Patrick’s Day of 1984.
Sharon: Wow! Let me go back for a minute. Why did your parents think you’d be a good lawyer?
Daniel: I think I was a bit argumentative. I could be kind of persuasive and argumentative at the same time.
Sharon: Did you decide to go to Hawaii because that’s where you wanted to be?
Daniel: No, not at all. I had never given a thought to Hawaii, but when they came to interview at the school, I accepted the interview and met with them. I got a call back. Two days later, they invited me to spend five days on the islands. They put me up at the Ilikai and gave me a car. In three days, you get to know the firm, and then you have two days to get used to Hawaii. It was so great! I took the job, but Hawaii wasn’t really for me. I preferred being back in California, where I went to law school at UC Davis. I didn’t go back to Davis, but I went to Newport Beach, California.
Sharon: Was it more formal?
Daniel: It was a very large firm, and I would not say they were formal. They worked really hard, but they also played pretty hard. I got a good grounding from them.
Sharon: It sounds like you have that, between everything you did. Tell us how that led to a couple of your biggest wins, because they’re big.
Daniel: One of the things I learned from my mentor at Allen Matkins was you cannot be faulted for working too hard. Remember, I always put the opposition on a pedestal anyway. I want to be really prepared. They taught me how to be prepared, how not to put things off until tomorrow if you can do it today, because you don’t know what’s coming tomorrow. You may have an ex parte hearing; you may have something coming up. If you planned on doing this but you put it off, now you’re crowded, and you can’t do your best job. That’s why I have been so successful. I almost over-prepare.
When I go to trial, I prepare. First of all, someone else usually works up the depositions and the discovery and all that. They bring it to me and give me an idea which depos to read first. I read all the depos. I summarize the depos myself. I match them with all the exhibits that I read. Then I prepare the examinations of each witness, both our side and their side, linking them to the exhibits, and then I practice the exams. I work with the person who’s in charge of my AV. When I want to do an exam, I want this coming up, and he’s showing me how to put it up on the screen. When we go through these, after a while he knows everything I’m about to do, so you can almost think as I’m thinking. That’s because of preparation.
I also prepare my own opening statements. I go through them two or three times the day before or two days before it’s scheduled. You don’t want to do it too much because it gets kind of old. It still has to have some life to it, but you want to do it a few times to get the bugs out. If I have a group of people sitting in a conference room listening to me, they’re instructed not to say a word during the opening, but after they can critique me. There is many a good idea I’ve gotten from those individuals. Some ideas I didn’t think much of, and I did not incorporate them. Many ideas I did incorporate. When I walk into trial, I feel like the 800-pound gorilla because I’m really prepared. I have all the exams for the entire case done. The only thing I don’t have done is a closing argument, and that’s going to depend on the testimony.
The attorneys who are listening to this should order a transcript of the trial and have a daily transcript. By the way, you should have it certified. If you don’t have it certified, the judge may not allow you to use it. I believe in quoting the witnesses I cross-examine heavily. I believe in doing video depositions. You ask the same question three or four times. You get different responses. You pick out the response you like the best, and then you put a number of clips together and show that either during opening statement or right as you call that witness. Before you even ask him the question, you can play from his deposition. By that time, you’ve destroyed him in the eyes of the jury before he even gets to open his mouth. That is a helpful tip.
I used that in one case called Beckman Coulter vs. Flextronics. That was a $2 million breach of contract case. We discovered a $300,000 fraud and we went to trial. Seven weeks into this trial, I amended the complaint to conform to proof that I had already elicited from the mouths of the defendants. I added two causes of action for economic duress, which is a subspecies of fraud. The jury came back and gave me $2 million on the first claim and $300,000 for fraud on the second, plus $1 million and a quarter of punitive. On the third cause, they gave me $180 million in punitive damages, and on the fourth $750 million in punitive damages, for a total of $934 million, which was and still remains the highest jury verdict in Orange County history. It was the highest in the United States up until about November of that year. How did that happen? Preparation, preparation, preparation. When you do that, when you are prepared, you can allow yourself to think, “What creative way can I go about doing this? How can I do something different?”
By example, I had a smaller case called Radco v. Diamond Walnut. Radco was a producer of urethane foam, and they sent it to work sites in California in 55-gallon drums. They sold it to a subcontractor, but Radco wasn’t paid. So, Radco calls me and says, “Dan, how do I get a mechanic’s lien?” I said, “Well, in California, first you have to do a 20-day notice.” “A 20-day what?” “You have to give the owner notice ahead of time that you’re providing materials to the job site, so he knows to get you paid. Where are these 55-gallon drums?” He said, “They’re locked in a warehouse.” “Well, can you go get them, drive them around the block, release possession and then do a 20-day notice?” He has to do the notice within 20 days of releasing possession. “No, it’s locked in a warehouse.”
I thought through my conversation with him. He said he had sold to Midstate, a subcontractor who could not pay their bills as due. Well, that’s the definition of insolvency. I remember from my days in law school studying the UCC that if you sold something to someone on credit while they’re insolvent, you can reclaim those goods and get constructive possession. So, that’s what we did. I got constructive possession back, even though the drums never left the warehouse. I then wrote a letter releasing that possession, served a 20-day notice and went for my mechanic’s lien. The in-house counsel of Diamond Walnut said, “That is ridiculous.” There was no precedent for it, but I argued it to the judge in Stockton, and he agreed with me. As a result, Diamond Walnut had to pay twice for those materials.
That is being creative. Sharon, if you don’t mind, I think creativity is so important. You have to allow yourself enough time to be creative. Here’s an example. I had a client who’s an SBA lender. He lent money to this company in Orange County who had acquired all of this collateral, which the lender had a security interest in. The lender was not getting paid. He was afraid that if they did the normal due demand letter, filed a complaint, waited 30 days, all this collateral was going to wind up in Mexico.
There are two ways to repossess collateral. There’s a self-help repossession under UCC 9-503. That’s what I did, but in order to make it look better, I put it on 14×11 paper, legal-size paper. I made it look like a form, although I filled it in with the correct statute, and then I had my signature notarized at the bottom, so now it really looks official. Then I went to the police department and said, “I need someone to come with me to make sure there’s no breach of the peace.” He said, “I’ll come with you to make sure you don’t breach the peace.” This was back in the early 80s, when not everybody had a cell phone with a video camera. So, I hired a guy from Los Angeles to come film, and the three of us approached the back of the warehouse. There was an officer from the Irvine Police Department, myself and the videographer.
The warehouse doors were all open, and I said, “Get that guy.” When I approached, I said, “My name is Dan Callahan and I represent the SBA. We’re here to repossess a collateral of loans to the SBA. We’re going to take the CEO down. If you want to be named in the lawsuit, you can go down too, but if you help me, if you identify the collateral right now, then we will let you go.” He went around identifying all the collateral that belonged to the SBA. One of the pieces of collateral was a forklift truck. We had a flatbed and a forklift, and we’re loading all this stuff up on the flatbed. All of a sudden, our forklift ran out of gas. Fortunately, they had a forklift, so we picked up our forklift and everything else and left. We were out of there within about an hour. Whenever somebody came from the back room to look, we had the videographer shoot them, “I got you.”
We went back to the office and had a beer with the client. I got a call from the lawyer representing the debtor, and he said, “Is it true all they had to do was say no?” I said, “Yeah, that’s true.” He said, “Oh, my god. Congratulations on your sting.” The reason I tell you that, Sharon, is because that shows some creativity. On the other one, I grafted the UCC onto the mechanic’s lien law. This one I went in on a self-help repossession, but I did a document. That is legal but somewhat deceiving. It looked like a court document almost. So, there are different things you can do creatively within the law that can get you results.
Let me tell you one more story. There’s a case I had where other lawyers had turned the case down. It’s a personal injury lawsuit. There are these two women who were running in the bike lane, and they got hit by an uninsured drunk hit-and-run driver who abandoned his car. He was caught nine days later in a laundromat with beers in his pocket. He was sentenced to four years. The other lawyers who looked at this thought, “There’s no money. Who are we going to sue? An uninsured hit-and-run driver?”
I went to the site itself and looked where it happened, and I noticed the bike lane. There are regulations for this in California. Usually, the bike lane is about four-and-a-half feet wide. This lane is 11 feet wide. Also in California, it has to be a properly marked bike lane, and this was not. Ordinarily the government would have immunity, but only if they follow the engineer’s advice. They had done it correctly many years before, but there had been a landslide covering the road. When they redid it and repaved it, they didn’t do the bike lane properly. They didn’t do it the way the engineer had told them many years before, so they did not have governmental immunity.
So, I sued the City of Dana Point and demanded $50 million, which was the limit of their insurance. They offered me $30 million. I told everybody in my office, “We’re not even talking about settlement. There is no settlement. You’re not taking your foot off the gas.” For anybody who’s listening to this, once people start talking about a settlement, there may be an inclination to take your foot off the gas. Don’t do it. Just keep it there. On the Friday before the Monday trial, they said, “O.K., we’re in. $50 million.” I got a call from an organization that tracks this, and they said, “Dan, that $50 million settlement is the highest personal injury settlement in the history of the United States.”
Daniel: That’s what I said, wow! They also said, “Oh, by the way, you also have the third highest.” I had one for $28 million. As it turns out, $28 million was third. $29 million had been the highest and became second. My $50 million took over. I don’t know where that stands right now, but I’m sure it’s pretty high up there.
Sharon: You can tell just by looking at your website and all the badges and awards. Let me ask you this because you alluded to it. You said you do consulting.
Sharon: Can you tell us a little about that?
Daniel: Yeah, certainly. I was a founder and managing partner of Callahan and Blaine, 28 attorneys in Santa Ana that do business litigation and personal injury. Now, I’m the CEO of Callahan Consulting. I consult with partners and associates from Callahan and Blaine, but also with other attorneys throughout the nation, giving trial practice and strategy advice. Also, I will be contacted by clients that are looking for a particular type of lawyer in a given community. Just last week, somebody needed a bankruptcy lawyer in Michigan. I researched it, and I found two really good lawyers. I presented them to the client. I arranged for a conference call between the client and each of these lawyers so the client could make up their own mind as to who they wanted to retain. I do this all throughout the United States. Usually, I get about one case a day that I’m trying to help somebody with.
So, it’s two things. I mentor attorneys, as I used to mentor the attorneys in my firm, and I also help clients find the attorney in the right specialty in their community that can help them. The way I’m compensated for this is normal. I get a referral fee when I set up a client with an attorney. I bill by the hour, and the hourly rate goes down. If you use more than five hours, then the hourly rate goes down. That’s just getting at the strategy, how to work creatively to get the best result.
One of the things that’s helped me the most is looking outside the box. That’s because I give myself enough time to be able to have that luxury, and that’s because I don’t put off until tomorrow what I can do today. It’s the lessons you learn in your first few years. You get burned once and then you’ll know. I was in trial one time, and I asked an associated to do a request for experts or expert designation. I came back from trial and asked, “Did you do it?” He says, “No, I didn’t have time.” I go into the court to try to get relief the next day and he said, “No, it’s too late.” So, I went to trial. I still won. I had to take their expert and turn him into my expert. So, you don’t put things off. You get things done.
Sharon: Would you say that’s something you practice in the rest of your life as well as in the law?
Daniel: Yes, I would. I try to teach my children. I have my daughter, Caitlin, and my son, Michael, neither of whom are lawyers, but it’s been drilled into them about preparation and its success and results. I think I practice that in many areas of my life.
Sharon: Do you think you need to have these big wins to be successful? Can you be a successful personal injury firm without huge or noticeable wins?
Daniel: Oh yes, you can be successful without huge wins. Many attorneys spend a lot of time trying to bring in new clients, as well they should, but what you should also do is pay particular attention to the clients you have. Make sure you communicate often and clearly with your clients. Make sure they’re comfortable with you at all times so they know what’s coming and what to expect. When that happens, they’re out there in the community talking about you, and then you get referrals through them. You build your base by working with existing clients who then will be more than happy to refer your business. If they perceive you as someone who cares about them, then they care about you.
That’s how I built my business. It was mostly from referrals from clients. Then it became referrals from other lawyers I knew, and then, because of the big victories, it became referrals from lawyers I never met but knew if they came to me, they were going to get a referral fee. It’s better to get a referral fee on a $10 million victory than a referral fee on a $1 victory. So, people come to me for that reason, and I try my very best to deliver.
Sharon: On your website you have both videos and a blog. Is it necessary to have both?
Daniel: 10 years ago, I would have said no, but now, yes. Videos are very important. People now want to see a video. When they go to your website, they want to see a video, not just a bunch of doubletalk. They want to see what the person is like and how he reacts on film. Do they like him? Do they not? Certainly, you’re going to pitch your wins and tell them what you can do for them. For blogs, it’s the same thing. Blogs are very helpful. People are interested in listening or watching or reading to see if they can learn something.
To get better at the very beginning, I would go to a lot of CEB courses because I figured I’m going to go there; I’m going to learn. I will always pick up something, and in the meantime, I’ll meet a couple of people. We’ll exchange business cards and I’ll expand my network. You’re in the back of the room, you get a cup of coffee, your doughnut, whatever they happen to have, and you meet people. You expand your network. Nowadays with the internet, people are expanding their networks all the time. But I find if it’s a more personal touch, not just somebody I met on LinkedIn, it goes further. So, yes, I believe videos are important, blogs are important, personal touch is important. Get out there and meet people. Get out there and tell people what you do. If it’s just a client, nobody’s going to know about you. You’ve got to go ahead and show a little bit of what you have to offer. It’s always a good idea to tell stories. When you tell a story to a prospective client about a case you won, that prospective client is putting himself or herself in the shoes of your client, thinking, “Damn, that’s good. I wish that was me. I wish my attorney would do that for me.”
I would go to parties and just talk to people at parties. That’s how I would meet a lot of people. I’d tell a few stories and get them encouraged. Your light is always on. When you want to bring in business, your light should be on 24/7. If you go out somewhere, keep in mind you are a lawyer. If you encounter somebody, you should be able to tell them about it and tell them what you can do for them. You don’t want to be pushy, of course, but when the opportunity comes, you are a salesman.
Some lawyers I used to work with felt embarrassed about going out and trying to get business. They want to be a pure lawyer where they just research and write and argue to the court, but they don’t go out to try to get business. Well, that person’s not going to advance. That person is not going to advance in a partnership, because partners tend to look at what this person brings to the table, how much business he has, what kind of book he or she has. You have to always be developing that book, not just so you rise in the partnership, but also for your own well-being. If you have a large book of business with reliable clients, then you have a very good platform for further development.
Sharon: Is that something a non-lawyer or a marketing director, let’s say, should be saying to a lawyer? Have your light on all the time?
Daniel: Yes, definitely. 24/7, have your light on. Be awake. Be alert. You picked a profession. I’m very fortunate because I’m good at bringing in business, but I’m also good at trying cases. In fact, I’m really good at managing a law firm with the numbers and everything, what to spend money on, what not to spend money on and how to spend the money. I do all three, which is a gift. I didn’t know I had that gift. When I used to chop trees down, I was a McCulloch chainsaw guy. It’s something you learn and develop. If you work at it, you’ll get it.
Sharon: Do you think it’s possible to learn the things you’re talking about? How to develop business, how to manage a law firm, that sort of thing?
Daniel: Obviously, when you manage a law firm, if you start out as a solo, it’s not as difficult as stepping in and managing a 28-attorney law firm. There are classes you can take. You can also hire one or two competent people for your office. One is in charge of your accounting; one is in charge of secretarial. Then just manage it. Just make sure you get the bills out on time.
Now, here’s something. Here’s basic 101. If you’re working and billing by the hour, when do you write your time down on your timesheet? When you do the work. It’s amazing how some people can leave at the end of the day and not have their timesheet filled out. They figure they’re going to do it later. I’ve had attorneys working for me, and I just can’t believe it. “What are you doing? Two weeks and you have not billed any time.” “No, but I have all my notes. I’m going to be doing my time.” That’s ridiculous. You need to do it on a daily basis because when you do it on a daily basis, you can actually capture all the time. If you look back a week later, you really can’t capture it, and you can’t be specific enough to sell your information on the bill. When you do a bill, you should write the bill in such a way that the person reading it thinks, “Wow, that’s a lot of work.” Don’t give them shorthand, “A little research.” You should say what you’ve done so they know, “Man, that’s a lot. O.K., I can see why they took an hour and a half,” or however long.
Your bills need to be a persuasive piece of work, and when they’re sent out, they have to be sent out timely. When you do something good for a client, they appreciate it, but the level of appreciation goes down over time. Let’s say you do something for him or her on November 1. You get a bill out on December 10, and they go to pay it maybe in January. By January, their appreciation of what you did goes down. “Oh, really? I guess I could have done that myself.” Clients often appreciate you more at the beginning when you do the work, but if you delay too long—and some people delay a month or two months before sending out their bill. When they do send out their bill, it’s not written like it’s going to make you perspire to read it. It has to be written in a sales manner. You want the guy to read it, appreciate the work and pay the bill. Get it to him quickly and get it to him clearly.
Sharon: It’s something that persuades them. Do you think the aspect of business development—because that’s what we’re so involved in—can be taught?
Daniel: Yes, it can be taught. There are DVDs on it. There are many people that will try to teach you how to develop business. There are a lot of them out there. I’ve spoken to several over the years, and some of them are worth their salt. Sometimes I get a good tip or an idea. People will say you should have a 10-second commercial. When somebody says, “What do you do?” in an elevator, you can summarize what you do within the time it takes you to go from the 10th floor to the ground floor. That’s called an elevator commercial.
Those are helpful, but if people still have business cards now, you also need to exchange business cards or email or text or something, and then follow up on that meeting right away. Whoever you just met, wherever it was, just say, “It was a pleasure meeting you. I enjoyed learning about your son, your daughter, your business,” or whatever it had been, and then note that and follow up. Like I tell my son, you should log everybody you’ve met and put them into a calendar so you follow up in a week. Maybe it’s, “Hey, by the way, I was thinking about you. I saw this may be relevant to your situation. Here’s an email.” Maybe it’s a phone call.
It’s just doing that again and again, and now you’re expanding your network intelligently. You’re not just getting somebody’s business card and hoping he calls you. You’re reaching out and talking to them about something that is of interest to them. When you talk to them, you don’t want to just talk about yourself. You want to find out about their business, their family and what they do for entertainment or travel, whatever you can know. Then, as soon as you get back to your office or home, log all that in and calendar it to get back to this individual. If you do that, you can commit to making three—I’d say five, but even four—phone calls a day to people you met. Or if not a phone call, an email. It doesn’t take that much time, but your network will grow huge. I don’t know how many working days there are in a year, but if you made four phone calls or emails every working day, by the end of that year, you would have a network that’s huge, which can pay off for you. When you want to bring in business, you’ve just got to reach out and touch somebody.
Sharon: I would agree with you, but do you think it’s true for the people who would rather research? They like the law, but they like it from a more academic perspective, let’s say.
Daniel: Yes, I think they have to learn to adapt. I like the law. I like research and writing and arguing; however, I also like to have a comfortable lifestyle where I have a book of business that I can always rely on. That way, I’m more likely to make partner because I have a book of business. Also, I’m more likely to get more and more business. The people that say, “I love the beauty of the law,” that’s good. We all do, but if that’s all you’ve got, when hard times come, you may not be with the firm much longer. You can find dime-a-dozen lawyers that love the law, who think they’re really good at it, that don’t go out and do anything to generate business. That’s not your best way to be a successful attorney.
Sharon: What is your one piece of advice to be a successful attorney? You may have said it already, but what advice would you give a new lawyer?
Daniel: Don’t underestimate your opposition. In fact, you may want to put them on a pedestal and fight the guy on the pedestal. If you put the guy on a pedestal, you’re preparing for Goliath. If Goliath doesn’t show up, but you’re ready for Goliath, you’re going to have success. The keystone is prepare and don’t delay. Don’t put it off until tomorrow. Get it done, and get it done now. If you have an idea for something you think may work, write it down. When you have time to look at it more, maybe you can incorporate that into your action as a plaintiff or a defendant. By the way, I represent plaintiffs and defendants. I’ve only told you about the plaintiff wins. I have numerous defense wins, and I practice the same methodology.
Sharon: Hopefully we can hear about those at another time. I want to thank you for being here today. Thank you so much.
Daniel: Sharon, I appreciate it. I’m happy to be here. Call me again anytime.
What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Andrew Elowitt:
Andrew Elowitt JD MBA PCC worked for over twenty years both in law firms and as the head of a corporate legal department before becoming a practice management consultant and professional certified coach. He is the Managing Director of New Actions LLC, a firm that specializes in talent, strategy and leadership development for law firms, businesses, and government agencies.
His work focuses on the people side of legal practice: how lawyers manage, lead, thrive, change, and find satisfaction. He is regarded as an expert on the use of coaching and emotional, social and conversational intelligences in leading and managing legal organizations of all sizes.
Andrew is a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management, an International Coach Federation Professional Certified Coach, Vice Chair of the ABA Law Practice Division Publications Board, and founding member of its Lawyer Leadership and Management Board. He is the author of numerous articles and is regularly invited to conduct workshops and retreats for his clients and to present programs to bar associations.
Coaching is a powerful tool that can help lawyers in all stages of their careers become more effective leaders, mentors, and professionals. The legal industry has embraced coaching over the last 10 years, thanks in no small part to the work of Andrew Elowitt, founder of coaching firm New Actions and author of books “The Lawyer’s Guide to Professional Coaching: Leadership, Mentoring, and Effectiveness” and “Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees.” He joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about how lawyers can face and overcome their resistance to change; why a growth mindset is necessary for lasting transformation; and how lawyers should choose the right coach. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Andrew Elowitt. Andrew is the managing director and founder of New Actions LLC. His firm provides high-level coaching, practice management consulting and retreat facilitation services to law firms and other professional service firms. He is a former lawyer and corporate executive. He’s also an in-demand speaker. He is a very accomplished author who has been on the podcast before with one of this coauthors, Marcia Wasserman. We’ll hear all about his journey today. Andrew, welcome to the program.
Andrew: It’s great to be back, Sharon.
Sharon: It’s great to have you. Thank you so much. Tell us about your journey. How did you get to where you are now?
Andrew: I had been practicing law for 15 years, first in firms and then I went in-house. It wasn’t something that hit me suddenly at 15 years. I realized I was a good lawyer and I was well-compensated, but my passion for the law, for legal practice, was ebbing. I wanted to do something more. I wasn’t sure what it would be, but I definitely wanted to have a second act.
So, I got to that point 15 years in, like I said, and it was a matter of some awfully good luck. My best friend’s weekend hiking buddy was a senior organizational development consultant who was putting on learning opportunities for an eclectic mix of people. I had known him socially, and I was introduced to him. I talked about what he was doing with the learning groups. He had a clinical psychologist, a college professor, an educational consultant, and a woman who did film editing and writing, so a lawyer in the mix made it all the more eclectic. Once I started that learning group, I was fascinated. It was like all the lights going on on the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. I went, “This is so interesting. I want to do this.” Then I started to train, and I probably read more in those first two or three years that I was training with my mentor than I had practicing law in the prior 10 years.
Then I made the transition into doing organizational development consulting. We were working with a lot of tech companies in Silicon Valley. Over time, slowly, I started to pick up more professional services firm clients, lawyers, accountants. A lot of my friends from the legal world were now in managerial positions. We’d get together and they’d say, “Andrew, we’re having this problem,” and I’d give them advice. After about six months, they said, “You know what? We’ll pay to have you go into the firms and help us with these things.” I went, “Oh my gosh, there’s a niche here.” So, I started working with lawyers then.
At that time, which was the early 2000s, coaching in the legal world was not well understood. People thought I was a life coach. They had all kinds of misgivings, and I had to overcome that initially in making the transition. At this point, coaching is very well known and respected and utilized, not fully utilized, but utilized in the legal profession.
Sharon: Do you think that’s more in California? When I talk to people in other areas of the country, they don’t really know what coaching is. They’re going, “Coaching, what’s that?”
Andrew: Yeah, occasionally I get that. I don’t think there’s a big geographic difference anymore. Maybe on the coasts there’s more understanding of coaching. The legal community has followed the business community. The business community was a much earlier adapter and user of coaching. You certainly saw that in the tech companies. One of the reasons why was because you had a lot of younger, relatively inexperienced managers coming in, and they needed help. Brilliant people, great subject matter experts, but they didn’t know how to manage, especially managing people. That’s one of the reasons why there was a lot of traction for coaching in tech centers, both on the west coast and the east coast.
Law has followed that, and I think it’s a matter of what the business models are for businesses versus professional services firms. As you know, partners or senior attorneys have their producer/manager dilemma. They’re the ones that are on the factory floor grinding out the equipment or the product. At the same time, they need to manage, but do they have the time? There’s a built-in tension there. Do I step away from billable hours to do the work? Do I step away from client development to do the managerial piece? It’s a built-in dilemma. You don’t see that on the business side. On the business side, with the executives I work with, which is anywhere from 40% to 60% of my practice, they are managers. Their job is to manage the people that report to them and to collaborate with the people in their organizations. It’s different than in law firms.
Sharon: Law firms are their own animal. One of the ways is exactly what you’re talking about. You have tension. What do you tell people who come and say, “I love the business side and I like client development, but I don’t like the law. I don’t like to write briefs. I don’t like to read them. What can I do?”
Andrew: First of all, that resonates with me because that was my feeling about the law. I know I was a good technician, but I much rather would have been negotiating. I think that’s one of the reasons why I was happy going in-house. I got to be the client, and I was more involved in the business affairs of my organization.
For those people, I think it’s great that they have wider interests. The people who like client development, they’re the future rainmakers in a firm. The people who like doing the managerial piece are really important. Now, there’s a problem because they may be very good at it, but firms are still slow in rewarding and incentivizing people to take on those managerial roles.
One thing we’ve seen in big law, the largest law firms in North America and around the world, is the emergence of professional managers. People that may or may not be lawyers are now doing the administration and the leading of firms. There can be challenges to that. In a lot of jurisdictions, you can’t have nonlawyers, people that are not certified as lawyers, being equity holders in a law firm. That makes the compensation and incentivizing issue a lot more complicated, but I think we’ll see more of a continuation in that direction. It’s great to have people in firms that are interested, passionate, experienced and competent in management. It makes a big difference in the bottom line.
Sharon: I had forgotten how it’s become so professionalized on the business side in many ways. I can’t remember; it’ll come to me later. I was trying to remember when I was at Arthur Andersen. There was such a big dichotomy between fee earners, non-revenue generators and revenue generators. I always felt like, “What are you talking about? We bring in this much.”
Anyway, you said you were doing training in organizational development or coaching.
Andrew: It started out with organizational development. That was the focus of our learning group. It was great for me. I was with people more senior than I in terms of work experience, not necessarily in terms of age. We started with a couple of learning groups in Los Angeles. Then my mentor, Don Rossmoore, got invited to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, PARC, to lead learning groups there, so we had other professionals and executive coaches that were in-house for Xerox. We had people from Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Sun. It was the whole list of tech companies. This is back in the 1990s. It fast-tracked me to have all those people available to learn from.
Our last learning groups morphed into a consulting group that was a bit informal. Very different from law firms, where everything is very structured. This was, “Do you have the availability? O.K., we’ll work together on this engagement.” I learned a tremendous amount there. We were usually dealing with larger issues throughout an organization.
What I found in doing that was I loved the strategic part, the systems part of that, but it really comes down to implementation. When it comes down to implementing the changes we’re recommending, that goes back to the individual. Often the individual executives and managers were having difficulty implementing the changes they knew they needed to make, including changes in the organization, changes in the team they were leading, or changes in themselves. It’s the individual.
That’s where I really began the transition into coaching. I didn’t think I was very good at it initially. I still feel that way. I had to unlearn a lot of qualities and approaches that made me a good lawyer, but not necessarily a good coach. For example, as a lawyer, you need to be prescriptive and directed. You’re there to provide a solution. A client comes to you with a problem, then, “O.K., well, this is what you should do.” That doesn’t necessarily work well when you’re coaching. It’s better to work more collaboratively with your coach-ee to help them come to their ideas and figure out what they need to do. I had to stop myself. I had to restrain myself from jumping to solutions and saying “Here’s the roadmap. Here are steps one through five. Do them.” That was me at the beginning. I had to sit on my hands and zip my mouth and go, “I have some ideas about this, but I’d like to hear from you first. What do you think would be a good approach?” It’s bringing them more into the picture.
That was one of the biggest and hardest changes for me, but I found I really liked working with executives. There’s something about working with people one-on-one I found very satisfying, far more satisfying than working with people one-on-one in the legal capacity. I went in that direction with executives and lawyers and a few other service professionals from time to time, but I wouldn’t identify myself in those positions. That’s pretty much the journey that I took.
Sharon: Do you find that you have to put on a different hat when you’re working with a lawyer, and then another hat when you’re working with an executive?
Andrew: That’s a great question. It depends on the lawyer and the executive. Sometimes I have to put on a different hat with the same person from one session to the next depending on where they’re at. With lawyers, Sharon, it’s usually a matter of the issues we’re dealing with. On the executive side, it’s pretty much pure management and leadership skills. Lately with the pandemic, resilience and finding a healthy work/life integration are huge, huge issues. For the last two or three years, that has been a theme in almost all of the coaching I’ve done.
On the legal side, it’s different. It’s not pure management and leadership. At the younger levels of an attorney’s career, we’re more often focused on issues of productivity, time management, work-flow management. They are on the receiving end of delegation and feedback, so a lot of it is helping them learn how to receive delegation and feedback and how to help them make the people giving them the feedback and delegation even better.
It’s a sweeping generalization, but I think it’s true that lawyers don’t have a lot of formal training in managerial skills. Some who came to the law after working in another area may have that. Some who took management classes in college or grad school, they may have some familiarity. But basically, when it comes to people management, lawyers don’t know a lot. They are replicating the ways they were managed, which means they may be using managerial and leadership approaches that are two generations old, which are not great with millennials and Gen Z. So, a lot of is helping people learn how to manage.
Now, I said I started with people at the lower level. As you get higher, then it is learning those managerial skills, delegating, giving feedback. How do you hold the people that work with you accountable? How do you collaborate with other people? As you go further up, it becomes more client-facing, so it’s about developing those client relationships. Then we get into business development. I’m not a business development specialist, but I’m very good at helping attorneys that have support for client development within their firm and may even have dedicated client development people.
They know what they should be doing, but they’re not doing it. It’s the classical example of the knowing-doing gap. This is something that’s not unique to lawyers. There’s something we know we should do, but do we get around to doing it? No. That can be the case with a lot of lawyers when it comes to business development. I’m very good at helping them understand what’s holding them back. Typically, it’s nothing external; it’s nothing in the firm or the environment. It’s something in them. We acknowledge what the inner obstacle is and we work past it and through it. I have a good record of getting them into gear and getting them developing clients.
Finally, when we get to partner-level, practice area heads and executive committee members, then it’s a lot about leadership and management. That’s where there’s the most similarity to the business side or the executive side of my practice.
Sharon: Do you work with people at all different levels, depending on where they are when they contact you or the firm brings you in? How does it work?
Andrew: For firms, it’s virtually all levels. Large firms will bring me in. I’ll work with their professional development or talent development people. Most often, they have a high-potential associate and there may be a couple of things that they’re struggling with. As I think most of your listeners will know, it’s expensive to find new people and onboard and train them. You don’t want to lose that human capital. So, coaching can be very helpful and cost-effective in helping those people overcome the problems they may be having.
It may be something like time management. You have an associate who’s starting to trend late on their deliverables. It’s the work they need to get to partners. It’s overly simple to say, “Oh, they need to work harder and faster,” or something like that. It may be an issue—it often is—where they’re not doing a good job of pushing back against the people giving them work. There are lot of people all over the world and there are a lot of associates. They’re hesitant to say no to a partner when a partner hands them a piece of work. What they end up doing is overloading themselves because they are overly optimistic about what they can achieve in a given amount of time. So, helping them learn how to push back is a way of dealing the time management issue.
Sharon: I can see how it would be very hard to say, “I don’t have time,” or “No,” to a partner. That must be very, very hard.
Andrew: There’s a skill and art to it, a lot of finesse. With some partners even more finesse.
Sharon: Is there resistance? It seems like there would be. Maybe I have an old image of it, but it seems like there would be people who say, “I don’t need coaching,” or “I’ve failed if I have coaching.
Andrew: Happily, there’s less and less of that. That sense of failure, I don’t run into that much anymore. Usually with younger associates, they may feel like, “I should know this. This is a flaw in me. I’m not doing a good job of this.” Often, they’re their most severe critics, so I make it very clear to people I coach that I’m not there to fix them. Seldom am I dealing with somebody who really has a risk of being fired from a firm. It’s usually developmental. Usually, they’re worth investing in, and the firm is spending money to help them become more productive and a tighter part of the firm.
The one thing you did mention is that some people think, “I don’t need coaching.” I’ll initially talk to a prospective coach-ee—and this works on the executive side or the legal side. I qualify them, which sounds like turning them into objects, but it’s coach-speak for talking to them to see if they’re coachable. Not all people are. Most are very earnestly interested. They want the help. They’re stuck. They don’t know what to do, but they know they need to do something. Occasionally, you’ll find somebody who points the finger at everybody else. They say, “I’m not the problem. It’s their problem, if you could just help them.” That’s not going to be a good coach-ee.
The other thing you look for is a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset think, “This is all the intelligence I have, all the social skills I have. What you see is what you get. I’m not going to change. There’s not a lot of room, if any room, for improvement.” Why spend time, energy, money on dealing with a person or trying to help a person who is saying, “This is where I am and I’m O.K. to be there”? There’s no upside potential. You want people with a growth mindset who are curious, who are saying, “I want to learn how to do this.” It’s a challenge. You want people who can say, “I’ve really messed up doing this. I can tell you about the last three failures I’ve had.” That level of self-awareness and candor makes for a great coach-ee.
Sharon: I’m thinking there are some similarities. Sometimes a partner will say, “I know how to do it. I did it this way. They can learn how to do it this way.” Can that change? They may be resistant, or maybe they’re not coachable. What do you think about that?
Andrew: There’s often a degree of resistance in making changes. There’s a reason why we are the way are at a given moment. Often, it’s because something has worked well for us in the past, and that’s fine. It makes sense to me. It got you to where you are. Why change it? You don’t want to take that risk. But that mindset ignores the fact that our world is changing really quickly.
Let’s use the example of working virtually. There were people that said, “No, I only want to have face-to-face meetings.” This goes for coaches and their coaching sessions as well as clients and people in their firm. But the world changed, and all of a sudden, we got a lot better working virtually.
Sometimes you do run into people who are resistant. If you’re coaching them, you can start to work with them on resistance. You can say, “I can see why this would work for you. I can see the track record. I’m curious. What do you imagine might happen if you tried doing this differently?” I will lay out a scenario of what different would look like. When you start to engage them in that conversation, that’s where you listen and hear what their fears are, what their expectations are, why their fears may be justified. Often, they’re not. They’re thinking something horrible will happen, and you can say, “There is that risk, but here’s the opportunity. What do you think?” So, you can subtly, gently shift them.
Sharon: It sounds like you have opened up people who were closed when you walked in.
Andrew: Yes, all the time.
Sharon: I know you went to the Institute of Management Coaching.
Andrew: No, my training didn’t include IMC. In terms of management training, I did get my MBA from Marshall School of Business at USC. The learning group supplemented a lot of that. A lot of it was self-study, but I also took workshops and got certified in Essential Facilitation. That was something I found extraordinarily helpful and is a big part of the work I do. There was also action science, which is, again, organizational development oriented. It helped me to understand the dynamics of organizations.
The other thing in terms of training was my coaching training. One thing about coaching that is very different from lawyering is how you become a lawyer. Typically, you’re doing your undergraduate work; you’re going to law school; you have to take the bar exam. There are a lot of steps, a lot of certifications, that help with quality control. On the complete other side of the picture, we have coaching. You want to be a coach? Go to your stationery store or big office supply place, get cards printed up that say “coach,” and you’re a coach. There’s very little in the way of, at least, governmental oversight. The last I checked, which was a few years ago, I think the only state that said anything about coaching in their laws was Colorado. It said that coaching is not considered a mental health profession, so it was excluding coaching. Nothing about what you have to do to be a coach.
So, it’s incumbent upon coaches to get training. There are a few organizations that sanction training and offer certification. I’m an International Coach Federation Professional Certified Coach. Boy, is that a mouthful! ICF is probably the leading and most well-known organization for certifying coaches. It’s not the only one anymore, but it is an effort to raise the standards of the profession and to make sure that people who are using coaches get somebody who knows what they’re doing.
Sharon: Did you have to take some training and go through at least one class? Or could you just send in your money?
Andrew: That’s a great question. There are some organizations where basically you’re paying to be on an online list of certified coaches in the area. That exists. I shake my head in dismay about that. As far as I see it, you have to go through an approved training program. Mine was Newfield Network. It was a nine-month program. I think we met three times for three or four days in person. There was a lot of virtual work, albeit this was so long ago that it was by telephone in between. It was rigorous.
There are several good coaching programs. ICF approves them. They have lists of them. What we’re seeing more of, both on the executive side and in law firms, is that they want people that are certified coaches. Certification of a coach doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the right coach for you or they’re a great coach, but it does mean they’ve taken it seriously enough that they put time and effort into it. They know what they should be doing. Hopefully, they’re also doing it.
Sharon: You’ve been a lawyer and an executive, but being a lawyer, I can see how that gives you so much of an advantage. I’m thinking about how many times we’ve had to write a press release and weren’t exactly sure—we did know, but we’re not lawyers. It gives you an advantage.
Andrew: Yeah, it does help. Especially in the past, it helped a great deal. If you look at studies of lawyer personalities versus the general population, lawyers typically are slower to trust other people. It makes sense. It’s not a bad quality to have considering how we need to protect our clients’ interests. But I found that lawyers and administrators in law firms are very happy that I have a legal background.
There was this one moment relatively early in my career where I was sitting across a managing partner’s desk. He was starting to explain to me realization rates, and I held up my hand and said, “It’s O.K.” He stopped and went, “Oh, that’s right. You’ve practiced.” His shoulders sank down a couple of inches, and he sat back in his chair and said, “That’s so nice that I don’t have to go through all that explanation.” Understanding the context of what goes on in a law firm helps a tremendous amount. So, that is good. With that said, not everybody has to have a legal background. But I think some of the most effective coaches I know do have that background.
Sharon: I can see how that would make you very effective, especially being on the other side of the desk in any capacity. If you were a lawyer at one point, you know about doing the work and getting the work. There’s a difference there.
I love the name of your firm, New Actions. That’s what all of this is about, right?
Andrew: You nailed it, Sharon. Especially when I started the firm, there was, like I said, a limited understanding of what coaching was about. Coaching can be these wonderful dialogues and interesting conversations you have with a coach-ee. What you want to do is get results—at least, that’s my philosophy—and the results are helping people make changes. Where they are doing is not satisfactory for some reason. They may be unclear about a direction. They may need new skills. They may have difficultly working with people in the system of their organization or getting past that knowing-doing gap we talked about. It could be all those things, but people have to start taking new actions to get new results, better results. That’s where the name came from.
Sharon: Do you think results last? Maybe they try the new actions once or twice and say, “Oh, that’s different,” but then they forget. Maybe I’m personalizing it. I’m thinking you forget.
Andrew: Yeah, as I said earlier, there’s a reason why people do the things the way they do. It’s easy for people to revert back. That’s one of the problems we find with training in a business or a professional firm environment. I’m sure you experienced that in doing trainings with lawyers and seeing they’ve learned all this new stuff. They’ll do it for a couple of months, but without reinforcement, people do start to revert back to old behaviors. The six-month mark is my ballpark estimate. I liken it to having taken a foreign language in high school. You don’t take it in college. You don’t go to that foreign country. You don’t use the language. You lose it. It certainly happened with me. That is a problem.
The difference with coaching is there is a reinforcement. Sometimes we do spot coaching or laser coaching. It may be three sessions. When it’s really short, we’re probably dealing with a specific issue or problem, but most executive coaching goes for six months. That’s our target area. Often, it may extend a little bit longer than that. In the first part of the coaching, you’re understanding the person, why they’re doing what they’re doing. Then you move into what they could be doing differently. In the middle third—and this is very rough as to the time—they’re practicing the new skills, the new behaviors. They’re understanding what works for them and what doesn’t. The last third is really more practice. It’s integrating those skills so they become second nature, almost automatic. That’s where what you learn in coaching can become sticky, if I can use that term. After you finish coaching, it’s going to stick with you.
I was just thinking of this while on LinkedIn. A former coach-ee of mine posted that he got a promotion, and I sent him a congratulations. I got back a comment saying, “Thank you so much for your coaching. I’m still quoting you.” I coached him about four years ago. That was the kind of gratification I was talking about earlier, the difference between being a lawyer and being a coach. I don’t remember what I said or what he’s quoting, but it stuck with him. He’s using it, and he’s in a global world now. That made me very happy. I had a big smile for the rest of that day.
Sharon: As a lawyer, when should I consider getting a coach? What would I be dealing with? What should I look for?
Andrew: O.K., two different questions. Often, the lawyers I’m working with, their firms have contacted me or they’ve been instrumental. With that said, one positive trend I’ve seen is that younger lawyers are saying, “I would like a coach. I need a coach.” Lately a lot of them are saying, “I’m overwhelmed. I’m stressed. I have too much work for my ability to handle it. I need to get better organized.” They’re initiating that.
The first step for a lawyer at any stage of their career is that you’re dissatisfied with the way things are. You may have a good idea of where that’s coming from. You may sense, “I want to stop doing whatever I’m doing now,” but knowing what you want to stop doing is different from knowing what you need to be doing differently. The analogy or metaphor I use is think back to being on the playground. We had monkey bars, I think they were called. Those were the horizontal bars that went across. You grab one and then you swing to the next one. What you learned early on as a kid was that if you don’t have some forward momentum, you get stuck. Then you would end up letting go and dropping to the ground. In making changes, you have to be able to release the hand that’s on the back bar. Sometimes in coaching, it’s unlearning what you were doing. If an attorney finds themselves in that position, that’s where coaching might help. It’s not a panacea. It’s not perfect for everybody.
I’m a good coach, but I’m not the right coach for absolutely everybody. Rapport is very important. Fit is a very important thing. Typically, when I work with somebody, I qualify them and they’re qualifying me. Do they want to work with me? It’s important that you feel a degree of comfort with your coach. As I’ve gone on, I think you can be too comfortable with a coach. You want a coach who can challenge you and be honest with you and be able to say, “No, I’m not saying this,” or “No, I don’t think is working for you,” or “Hey, it sounds like there’s an internal contradiction in what you’re saying to me.” A lot of coaching is helping people get past their blind spots. We all have blind spots. That’s not a failure. I think it’s wired into us. Having another person there, especially an experienced person who can help us see what those blind spots are once you recognize you have them, that opens up a lot of possibilities for taking new actions.
Sharon: You mentioned in some writings that you’ve helped people with difficult conversations. There are a lot of difficult conversations. Can you give us some examples in law?
Andrew: There are two conversations that come to mind. One I alluded to earlier, which is pushing back on partners. Just recently I co-presented at a professional development consortium summer conference. It was a program on helping passive and timid associates learn to push back and manage up. For all the talk about law firms being flat organizations—and it’s true; they do have fewer layers than a lot of business organizations—they’re still pretty hierarchical. Younger attorneys can be overly deferential and very uncomfortable in saying no or pushing back. It can be a lot of different things. I don’t have the bandwidth to handle work, like I mentioned earlier. How do you say that?
This can especially be a problem if you have one associate who’s getting work from multiple partners. Then it’s like, “Well, I’d like to do your work, but I’m slammed.” That can be a difficult conversation for an associate. In helping them, one learns that they need to do that and it’s O.K. for them to do that. Actually, if they’re just a passive person who’s not providing that information to the people who are giving them work, they’re harming the firm, harming clients potentially, and definitely harming themselves. That is something that’s come up a lot lately, at least enough that the presentation we did this summer was very well received and attended. It’s something that professional development managers and directors in big law are hearing from their associates. That’s one area.
The second difficult conversation is around feedback. This is difficult in a way because it’s not done enough. Often, in the rush of doing tasks and taking care of client matters, lawyers don’t hit the pause button and spend time with the people who report to them and give them feedback on how they did. I remember this when I was a lawyer. You would finish a transaction. Rarely did we have the time to do a debrief. What worked well? What didn’t? “This was great what you did. It really moved us forward. This is what you could have done differently that would have helped. Next time, maybe you can do it.” Feedback conversations are often missing.
The other thing in feedback conversations is that they can be very top-down and done with a lack of curiosity about what was going on with the associate. Those conversations can take a more collaborative tone, become more of a dialogue, be less about the problem. “Here’s the problem that came up on this case. We were slow in responding to every filing the opposition brought to us. Let’s get curious about why that happened. What can we, not just associates, but all of us as a team do differently?” Those sorts of conversations.
The hardest ones, Sharon, are obviously the conversations between partners in terms of strategy, direction, and compensation. Those are given to be difficult, and I do get pulled in to help. I’m a facilitator in those. I don’t have a dog in the fight. I’m just trying to help people understand one another’s perspective. What facts they’re looking at, what their rationale is based on, trying to change it from a legal argument with pros, cons and who’s going to win to more, “Let’s look at the whole business of the law firm. Let’s see what’s good short-term and long-term for all of us, not just part of us.”
Sharon: Each of these are very interesting scenarios. I give you credit for even being able to endure them, especially the first one. Covid probably changed this, but I do remember a partner saying, “What do they think evenings and weekends are for?” I always think of how partners would say, “This guy didn’t make it in terms of client development. It was clear they weren’t going to become a partner. I coached them out.” I always think about, “What did you say? How did you do that?
Andrew: I’m not sure what coaching somebody out necessarily means. Let’s stop here and think about lawyers as coaches. This is one of the things in my first book that I went into in some detail in one of the chapters. The skills for being a good lawyer, when you line them up against being a good coach, there’s not a lot of overlap. Lawyers, to be good managers and leaders, they need to take off their lawyer hat at times. If they’re coaching, which is a very potent, effective way of managing your people, you have to not approach it as lawyers.
For an example, as lawyers, we often ask closed-ended questions. We’re getting to the facts. In coaching, open-ended questions are much better. You want to see where the conversation is going to go. You want to learn more about what’s going on with the other person. In coaching, you also have to be listening very attentively, not thinking about, “What am I going to say in response to this?” Again, I’m going back to one of the shifts I had to make when I made the transition. As a lawyer, I’m thinking, “This is what I’m hearing from opposition. Now, how am I going to counter that argument? What am I going to say next? How do I want to navigate this conversation?” It’s more oppositional in that way. You really do have to take off the lawyer hat at times to be effective.
Sharon: Your first book, “Lawyers as Managers,” talks about that. Am I remembering that correctly?
Andrew: That’s the second book with Marcia Wasserman. The first one was “The Lawyer’s Guide to Professional Coaching: Leadership, Mentoring, and Effectiveness.” That was, I think, back in 2012. It’s available now. I think you can find used copies on Amazon. The ABA still has it as an e-book. Coaching in the last 10 years has certainly changed within law firms. At the time it was written, it was to help lawyers and firm administrators understand the potential of coaching. I’m happy to say I think that potential is increasingly realized. I wouldn’t say my book is responsible for that solely. Absolutely not, but it was one piece that helped.
In “Lawyers as Managers,” Marcia and I look at the role that lawyers need to take as people managers. Lawyers are generally good managers when it comes to technical aspects. You give a lawyer a spreadsheet, they’re probably pretty good at dealing with it. Things like budgets. When you come to the more interpersonal stuff, like client development, lawyers aren’t as good. When it comes to people management, there really was a lack of understanding.
Marcia originated the idea. We were at a meeting, and she said, “I’m looking for some materials on leadership and management for lawyers. Do you have any?” I said, “I have a few articles I’ve written for bar associations, but most of the stuff out there is general management and leadership. It’s tailored for the executive committee, the business community.” A couple of months later, we had the same conversation. I said, “Marcia, we’re going to have to write the book,” and she agreed. Little did she know what she was getting herself into. That, I will say, is the definitive book on people management for lawyers.
Sharon: To end, can you tell us about one of the difficult conversations you’ve had? I don’t know how many times I’ve stopped myself and just said, “I can’t do it,” or “I’ll go around it.”
Andrew: I’ll speak in general terms. Again, I’m going back to when I was first making the transition to coaching. I found a great deal of difficulty in having uncomfortable conversations where I had to deliver bad news. I had to tell somebody what they were doing was not working at all. It wasn’t even neutral. It was really harming them and other people. In short, they were really messing up.
I was very gentle. I was bypassing. I was softening, diluting, sugar-coating messages that needed to be heard. I realized that I was playing nice. I didn’t want to upset the other person. I didn’t want to feel my own upset in doing this, so I wasn’t providing value and the proof that they were making the changes they needed to make. This was maybe in my first two or three years of coaching, and I started to realize this isn’t good. I was stuck and working with my coach at that time. I realized I had to let go of my personal discomfort if I was going to be more helpful to my clients, and I started to make the change.
Now, I am honest. Sometimes people will say, “Can you predict or guarantee any results?” and I go, “No, absolutely not. Coaching at heart is a partnership. We’re working together. I can’t fix you. I can’t wave a magic wand. It’s on both of us. I’m here to help you, but just like I can’t wear your clothes, I can’t do everything for you. We’re going to work together.”
I do make three promises. One, I listen. I listen very attentively to what my coach-ees say and what they’re not saying. The second thing is I am honest. I am very honest. I will not hold back in terms of what I’m hearing or the impact it’s having on me. If a coach-ee is saying something and I’m not believing them, I’ll say that. I need to. If I think something is B.S., it’s the same thing. If I think they’re fooling themselves, same thing. There are times where I have to deliver tough feedback.
The third promise is I’m compassionate. I don’t beat people up in the process. I won’t sugar-coat, dilute, or bypass. I deliver the message, but I understand they have feelings. In giving them this feedback, it may affect their emotions and their own identity as a person and a professional. I’m aware of it and sensitive to that, but I still get the message across. I figure that in the first two or three years of my coaching, I was sugar-coating. For the last 22 years, I think I have a good record of being straight with people and getting results.
Sharon: Andrew, I’m sure you do get results. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Andrew: It’s been a pleasure. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Thank you, Sharon.
What you’ll learn in this episode:
About Reza Torkzadeh:
Reza Torkzadeh is a nationally recognized plaintiff’s trial attorney who has dedicated his professional career to the pursuit of justice by exclusively representing victims in personal injury and wrongful death cases. Reza has handled numerous high-profile cases in both state and federal courts, and has served in leadership roles in litigation at the national level. He has been featured for legal commentary by the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Los Angeles Daily Journal, San Francisco Daily Journal, New York Daily News, Metro News, Christian Science Monitor, KUSI TV, and many other news outlets and publications.
Through Reza’s leadership, vision and passion for representing the people, TorkLaw has established offices nationwide, in cities throughout California, Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Nevada, Texas, Washington State, and Washington, D.C.
Reza has successfully represented thousands of clients and after more than a decade of practicing law, “Representing the People” continues to be the core foundation and guiding principle of his practice and the firm.
Reza is a frequently invited guest speaker and has lectured across the country on the practice of law and the civil justice system. He is a proud Honorary Board Member of the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Charity, an active member of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles, and President’s Club Member of the Consumer Attorneys of California.
Whether it’s stigma or tradition, law firm owners typically don’t call themselves CEOs. But according to Reza Torkzadeh, founder and—you guessed it—CEO of TorkLaw, the most successful law firm owners are the ones that run their firms like any other Fortune 500 company. Reza joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about the importance of creating a strong team and culture; why law firms are really in the business of customer service; and why any firm that wants to succeed the long term needs to scale. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guest is Reza Torkzadeh. Reza has a successful personal injury firm located in Orange County, California. He recently wrote a book, “The Lawyer as CEO,” which we will hear all about today. Reza, welcome to the program.
Reza: Hi, Sharon. Thanks so much. I appreciate the opportunity and for having me on.
Sharon: It’s great to have you. Can you tell us about your career path? How did you end up where you are right now?
Reza: Oh boy! Well, throughout high school and growing up, I never thought of becoming a lawyer. It was never a career path I envisioned. I originally wanted to go to medical school and be a doctor. That was my study during undergraduate. I worked a summer as an EMT driving around in an ambulance downtown. I was doing all the things you would do if you are going to medical school and you are interested in that career.
In my last year in college, I realized very quickly that the lifestyle of a doctor is one where you need to absolutely love what you’re doing. My grandfather is a doctor. My uncle is a doctor. We’ve got doctors in the family, and I didn’t feel like it was something I loved and was passionate enough about to put in those long hours and to be on call and to make those sacrifices. But I knew I loved people, and I knew I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives. That’s what was driving my initial desire to go to medical school. I wanted to meet patients; I wanted to help patients and treat them. So, that was still there.
The next natural option for me was going to law school. I didn’t go to law school with the intention of practicing. I went to law school with the intention of using my law degree in some setting, in some business. During law school I tried a few different areas of the law. I worked at the district attorney’s office. I did transactional work. I did international business as a lawyer. After every position I knew what I didn’t want to do.
It was right around my third year that I discovered plaintiff’s work, representing individuals on a contingency-fee basis, where if you don’t win, you don’t get paid. That was very attractive to me. How great to be able to provide legal representation to those who couldn’t afford a lawyer and to make a meaningful change in their lives? To cut it short for this interview and podcast, that’s how I ended up doing plaintiff’s work, and I never looked back.
Sharon: That’s interesting. Most lawyers have wanted to be lawyers since kindergarten, so that’s interesting. Tell us about your practice today.
Reza: We’re exclusively representing plaintiffs. We never represent the defense or insurance carriers, and it’s 100% personal injury. We handle a wide spectrum of PI cases. The majority of our cases now, 10 years into it, are catastrophic injury or wrongful death cases, and we handle them nationwide. We’ve got an office presence and staff in about nine states right now.
Sharon: Wow! Had you been thinking about writing your book, “The Lawyer as CEO,” for a long time? Did it come to you because of your entrepreneurial background? What was it?
Reza: A great question. I wrote it almost as a way for me to reflect on the last 10 years of the law firm. I had a lot of growing pains, a lot of learning the hard way and experiences where I almost walked away from the practice altogether. I thought to myself, “What would I have wanted if I was first starting out my practice?” I would want a book. I would want to know examples. Every industry has so much support for how to do things, and yet the legal industry doesn’t. They don’t teach you how to be a business owner in law school. They don’t teach you how important the business side is. We are a profession. We’re lawyers, so we have to act accordingly; however, every law firm is still a business. You’re not going to do anybody any good if you’re not running it like a business should be run.
When I looked back on the last 10 years of starting and running TorkLaw, I thought about what I would have wanted on day one. It was really an exercise in vulnerability for me to write the book. I shared many things in there that I think are new to the legal world. We’re so used to hearing how wonderful all the lawyers are and their great results, and we’re not used to seeing the reality of what it takes to start a law firm. So, for me, it was an exercise in putting my thoughts and my journey down on paper.
It was also a way where I felt I could make a meaningful difference in the lives of all lawyers, not just new and young lawyers. Not a day goes by, Sharon, that I don’t get a random email or message from a lawyer that says, “Wow! You really inspired me to take action.” That was the goal from the beginning: to put this out there and share my experiences, my ups and downs, my failures and my successes, and then ultimately my realization that in order to be an effective business owner, in order to be an effective CEO, you need to take a look at yourself. You need to look in the mirror and come to the conclusion that the buck stops with you as a business owner.
Sharon: I guess that’s why the title of the book stopped me. As someone who spent their professional career marketing lawyers, it’s such a different thing than being an entrepreneur. How did the book change how you viewed marketing or client development?
Reza: Great question. A question I asked myself before I wrote the book was if I were a CEO of a Fortune 500, publicly traded company, how long would I have lasted in that role? My response was, “Not very long.” I would have been kicked out very quickly. I think as business owners, that’s a great way to measure your performance and your accountabilities. When you’re at the top and you’re leading an organization of 50, 60 or 100 employees, whatever it might be—it might be five employees—it’s hard for those folks to be as transparent as you need them to be to hold you accountable. So, I often ask myself the question, “If I were a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, what would my board of directors say to me?”
You’re absolutely right; I’ve been practicing for 15 years, and I’ve never heard a lawyer-business owner call themselves a CEO. Whether it’s stigma or tradition or whatever it might be, I think ultimately you have to decide whether you want to be the CEO of your company or not. Every organization, if it’s meant to thrive, if it’s meant to scale and grow and do meaningful work and make a change in the community, needs an effective CEO.
Sharon: Maybe a lawyer wants to be successful but doesn’t want to be a CEO. They want to focus on developing clients and marketing, and they say, “I’ll leave the CEO to other people,” like you. What do you think about that?
Reza: Absolutely. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s every person’s own path. They get to choose for themselves. I chose this one because I am more drawn to the business side. I’m more drawn to marketing. I’m more drawn to scaling and the big picture. I’ve been fortunate enough to find people on my team who are much better lawyers than I am, much better at doing the tasks than I am. So, it works. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer for a lawyer who says, “Look, I just love lawyering, and that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Sharon: Very early in my own career working with lawyers—I can’t even remember who it was—I heard a managing partner or a lawyer say they thought scaling a law firm wasn’t feasible. What are your thoughts about that?
Reza: I disagree. At our firm, we say we’re a customer service business that happens to practice law. We’re in competition for the consumer. The consumer is used to a certain level of customer service and experience that you get at Apple or Amazon or Walmart or Starbucks or FedEx and these national brands we all recognize. I think where lawyers and law firms have fallen behind is this element of customer service and customer experience.
I think you can absolutely scale. It’s no different than providing a product. You’re providing a service, and if you’re providing a good enough experience for your clients, there’s no reason why you can’t replicate that in other markets, in other practice areas. You have to have the right people. You have to have the right tools, the right infrastructure, of course, but if you’ve discovered a formula that’s successful in your own law firm, the only thing that’s stopping you from scaling is yourself. I think any CEO or business owner will tell you that if you’re not growing, you’re going in the wrong direction.
When I started practicing law 15 years ago, it was competitive. The personal injury industry has always been competitive, but not as fierce as it is today. There wasn’t the amount of dollars being spent on marketing as there is today. Now, you’ve got hedge funds and banks and venture capital firms that are dumping money into law firm marketing. In order to survive the next 10, 15, 20, 25 years, and in order to be competitive with these behemoths that are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on marketing, in a way you have to scale. You have to grow to stay competitive.
Sharon: Did the book change how you look at clients, how you market or how you develop your people?
Reza: Absolutely. The exercise of the book was itself a reflection. Our lives are so crazy. Oftentimes I describe it as being inside of a tornado. Writing the book allowed me to quiet everything down and put on paper what’s in my mind. It made me focus on the things we were doing. If I’m talking about customer service in the book, it made me focus on, “O.K., what are we doing step by step, A through Z, for customer service?”
It’s the same thing for marketing. One of the biggest realizations for me—and I included this in the book—was ego-play marketing, which is seeing your face on a billboard or on TV or hearing it on the radio. Just because you see it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s effective and that there’s a positive ROI on it. It made me self-reflect, to go back and dig deeper. Look, I don’t have all the answers and I continue to make mistakes, but an important takeaway is that you can always improve. You can always do better; you can always change. We’re not the same law firm we were five years ago, and I can promise you something: we’re not going to be the same law firm five years from now, either. We’re always retooling; we’re always changing. We don’t have all the answers, but I think there’s always a better way to do things.
Sharon: Do you think there will be a sequel, a third edition?
Reza: I don’t know. Not now. This one took me about 18 months to do. It was a massive labor of love. I wanted to create a book that was super easy to read. You could read it in one day. So, I spent a majority of that 18 months cutting back what was in the book and making it as short as possible. I wanted as many people as possible to pick it up and finish it and read it more than once. As of right now, no sequel. This is it. The response has been incredible, and this is not a money maker for me. 100% of the proceeds are donated to charity.
Sharon: Writing the book probably brought to the fore a lot of things that lawyers don’t do or mistakes they make. What are the top two things that lawyers should do differently or the mistakes they’re making? What do you think?
Reza: For law firm owners, I will tell you the two biggest mistakes I see—which I made also—is, number one, not focusing on culture, vision and values. That’s the first one. Had we not had those things in place, in writing, engrained in everything we do, we would not have been able to scale effectively. Number two is not having a process or procedure for recruitment and retention of teammates. Both mistakes we made and paid for dearly.
I think the most common way we hire is that you put up a job post, you get back hundreds of résumés and you can’t tell the difference between one or the other, and then you just pick one that might have some experience or might have worked for a competitor. You bring them in for an interview. You interview them, everyone interviews great, and then you hire them. Six months in, you realize this is the wrong person. This person sucks. I think doing that type of blind hiring is a mistake. I think desperation hiring is a mistake, and not having the culture be part of it and not having the right people is a guaranteed recipe for disaster.
Sharon: Do you think if somebody had said that to you when you were just opening your doors, you would have been able to say, “Oh yeah, I didn’t do it that way the first time,” or “I don’t know what my culture is”?
Reza: Yeah, I’ll tell you. This was my experience. It was my own ego for the longest time. I thought we had the best culture. I thought this was the best place to work. That was in my head; it wasn’t reality. I was dealing with office drama and turmoil. It was a toxic environment, and I kept telling myself, “This is the greatest place to work.” It really wasn’t. If someone early on, in year one, told me to focus on culture and a method to distinguish the players you’re bringing onto your team, I don’t know if I would have taken that advice. I learned it the hard way.
Sharon: I’m not thinking about it as advice. I’m thinking back on when I didn’t have business experience, and professors were asking me, “What about this, that and the other thing,” in a business environment. How would people know what their culture is? You could ask. You could say, “My culture is to have the best place to work.” Who knocked you on the side of the head to say it isn’t the best place? I’m asking two questions.
Reza: It was a one-day event that occurred, but it was an accumulation of the stress I was feeling working in the office. I was doing anything and everything not to go into the office. That’s how bad it got. This is a company that was my first baby, that I put my blood, sweat and tears and everything into. Now I was at a point, five years in, where I didn’t even like going into the office. I think that was a reality check.
Then losing half of my staff in one day was a reality check. It was an indication of my failures as a leader than it was anything else. All the things I was complaining about, all the things I was struggling with, really started from me. I was not being accountable. I was not the leader I should have been, and for the longest time I assumed I was. When you get to the point when you can take accountability for those things we’re all complaining about and see how it was my responsibility to correct them and make different decisions, I looked back and said, “Wow! I was a pretty crappy leader.” I was not making the decisions I should have been making to set an example for the rest of my team. I should have been making those decisions so the people on my team could be proud of who they’re working with and for. It took a good five or six years of pain to figure that out.
Sharon: My last question is—I have a lot of questions. I’m thinking about all the newbie lawyers, because I hear about them and see them all the time, who say, “I can’t work for anybody else. I’m going to hang my own shingle.” If they had read your book, would it have helped them develop the business into a client-focused business? How would it have helped them?
Reza: I hope so, Sharon. I think there are some fundamental things in there that every business organization can benefit from, but it’s like everything else: what you put in is what you get out. I meet with young lawyers all over the country all the time. I’m telling them what to do, and the majority of them won’t do it and don’t do it. They continue going along just how they were. I think for those folks, the book could be the spark. I don’t think the book is a blueprint on exactly how to start your practice and scale and be efficient, but I do think it’s a way to get some inspiration and a spark that will lead you down your own path.
Our core values are going to be different than everybody else’s. My vision is going to be different than everybody else’s, and the things that are important to me may not be important to everybody else. You’ve got to figure out your own path, but I think there are foundational things, like having your core values, having your vision very clear, making sure everybody understands what they are. You need to know every single person you bring onto your team, or at least make a best effort to go beyond just posting a job, pulling a résumé and hiring somebody. I say don’t make desperate hires and wait for the right person. It may take a while, but you’re better off waiting for the right person than bringing the wrong person into your organization.
Sharon: It’s hard to let go of the wrong person, yes. Reza, thank you so much for being with us today.
Reza: Thank you, Sharon. I appreciate it.
Sharon: I greatly appreciate it.
Larry Cohen is the president and co-founder of advertising agency Glyphix. His vision of a small agency of talented, skilled professionals doing great work for great clients is what drives the group. He’s a writer. Copy. Scripts. Children’s books. In addition to his work with clients, he understands the financial side of their investment in Glyphix…and keeps Glyphix financially strong and stable.
Brad Wilder is creative director and co-founder of Glyphix. Art direction and design are his thing. The national and international awards he’s won prove the point. Awards for almost everything… corporate identity, advertising, packaging, in-store merchandising, display and trade show booth design, interfaces, for clients like Nestlé, Mercedes-Benz, Baskin-Robbins, Xircom and Disney. He’s also a tech geek.
In the legal industry, advertising has done a 180. What was once considered tacky is now a requirement. And according to Larry Cohen and Brad Wilder, co-founders of advertising agency Glyphix, if you’re going to advertise, you better make it count. They joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast to talk about how to make the creative process run smoothly; why a strong website is a critical part of attracting top talent; and why even the best brands need a refresh from time to time. Read the episode transcript here.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst Podcast. Today, my guests are Larry Cohen and Brad Wilder, who are some of the professional forces behind Glyphix. Glyphix is an advertising agency which works across all genres but has particular expertise in the professional services space. They’re specialists in all kinds of advertising, websites, print, etc. I say specialists because they’re specialists in having their work stand out from the crowd. We will learn more about Glyphix today. Larry and Brad, welcome to the program.
Larry: Thank you very much for having us
Brad: We’re glad to be here.
Sharon: We’re so glad to have you. Each of you, give us your career paths just briefly.
Larry: Interesting question, because our career paths are almost exactly the same in the sense that—
Sharon: Larry, that’s you speaking?
Larry: Yeah, this is Larry. Brad and I met in high school at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. I was a writer for the school paper. Brad was the photographer and designer, and that’s where we met. After college, we got together and began working for an advertising agency called Mendelson Design. Back in 1986, when the Mac came out and gave us the tools to do a lot of great creative work for a very affordable price, we decided, “Hey, let’s start our own new agency.” We’ve been together since 1986. So, it’s been a very similar career path.
Sharon: So, you’ve known each other a long time.
Brad: Longer than we’ve known our wives, yeah.
Sharon: Can you tell us what Glyphix does in general?
Larry: In general, we do professional services-focused, full-service advertising, some marketing, no PR. We try and delineate those two things, but it’s soup-to-nuts advertising from brand building to SEO and social.
Brad: The bottom line for us is really helping our clients position themselves in the marketplace against the competition and keeping them ever-present in the minds of their potential customers and clients. That can start with the strategy, and then from there move right through to naming their websites, logos, branding, TV advertising, print. All those are different tools we have at our disposal to keep our clients front and center in front of their clients.
Sharon: How do you describe each of your roles at Glyphix? Are they the same?
Larry: No, our roles are very, very different. I came out of university with a business degree. So, for me, it’s the business, dealing with clients, doing some copywriting. Brad is our creative director, so he runs the creative. Whether we’re designing websites, shooting TV commercials, doing print ads, Brad’s the guy that runs the creative here. I think it’s one of the reasons we’ve survived together, as we have a good delineation between who does what with respect to each other’s talents.
Sharon: That is a good delineation. You’re not crossing over on each other. Brad, the first time I ever saw the agency was when you did something—I can’t remember which company it was for—it was advertising an x-ray. It was for a healthcare law firm.
Brad: It was for Fenton Nelson which is now Nelson Hardiman, health-care attorneys. What was the question? That was a great piece. It was so radically different at the time. No one had ever done it before.
Sharon: It was radically different. It was for healthcare marketing attorneys, as you say, and it really stood out.
Brad: To give some background on that, Fenton Nelson is a healthcare law firm specializing in all things healthcare. They wanted direct mail, not digital, but they wanted it to completely stand out. We actually shot x-ray film with a design that became a direct mail line. It was a full x-ray in an x-ray envelope. It was sent to all the healthcare agencies on their call list. It was 10, 15 years ago, and people are still talking about it.
Sharon: So, it was a real x-ray?
Larry: We actually had to source x-ray film.
Sharon: How did you come up with that?
Larry: That’s a great question. We came up with it because Brad and I always try to look for what makes a client unique, what makes them special. In this case, we interviewed Harry Nelson and his staff and they said, “We could go to any healthcare facility. We can walk through the facility and see what their issues are and where they’re going to get in trouble. We see things that other people don’t.” That gave us the idea that an x-ray allows you to see things other people don’t. That gave us a positioning line for the firm, and it was, “We see things other firms don’t.” It was a positioning that said, “We’re unique because our experience and expertise allow us to help our clients.” In that case, it was to help healthcare clients, hospitals, and facilities stay out of trouble.
It really came out of the client organically, and that’s what Brad and I tried to do. I think we’re good at helping clients find a position for themselves, find the thing that makes them unique. Are you the most expensive? Are you the most experienced? What is it that you’re the best at, and how do we translate that into a creative message? Then, how do we get that in front of our potential clients?
Sharon: Do you tell the client that even if they don’t ask for it? Do you tell them what you’re working from?
Larry: Yes, absolutely, because we want to educate the client. I think clients find it exciting. People love hearing stories, and every firm, every client has a story to tell. The trick is to find that story. I have to uncover that and deliver that story. It’s compelling. You think about great brands. Most of them have a story behind it: why the company was started, what problem you are solving for your customers. That’s what customers and clients care about. Nobody cares about what you do. They care about what you can do for them, how you make them successful. Our job is to translate what you do into why somebody should care.
Sharon: Is that how you got the name Glyphix? Is there something with Glyphix that tells clients that?
Larry: It was painful naming. We’re a creative firm, so we have to have a creative name; we have to do things differently. We went through hundreds of names. We kept focusing on the name “glyph” as in a hieroglyph. It’s using a picture or several pictures in a row to tell a story. At the time, everything that ended in X was much cooler, and we just stuck with Glyphix. Even our logo is a little “GX” man—it’s on Glyphix.com; check it out—that tells a story through pictures and simple storytelling.
Sharon: I was thinking this while I was looking at the website. You have these very simple line drawings that tell what you do. Was it you who came up with that, Brad?
Larry: Are you talking about the video?
Sharon: Yeah, the video.
Larry: We typically come up with work as a team. At Glyphix, we have a great bunch of people who work together as a team. At the time, we had a gentleman, David Allman, working with us. I think David and Brad came up with that idea. Then we had it animated, and we had a wonderful gentleman who did the voiceover. We wanted a very simple way to explain what we do to people.
Sharon: As I was looking at it, I thought it was great, but it’s like, “How do they come up with it?” I don’t know if I could have.
Larry: We’re very glad that other people can’t do it; otherwise, we’d be out of work.
Sharon: If somebody says to you, “What does the firm specialize in?” do you have an area you specialize in?
Larry: I’m not sure about the word specialize. We do a lot of work with professional services firms. We understand how they function and how they work. We work with dozens and dozens of law firms and accounting firms, helping them craft their position, understand the brand and keep it in front of clients.
Ballard Rosenberg is a firm out here in the Valley. We keep them in front of their clients by keeping them in the business journals every month. For other firms, we’ll get them on television. For others, we’ll put them on KCRW radio. For us, it’s helping our clients manage their brand. For others, it’s evolved into websites and doing some social media for them. I think nowadays people are so busy, it’s difficult to keep up with everybody. The key is keeping our clients front and center in the minds of their clients so when a need comes up, they remember them.
Brad: And I should say we don’t do only professional services. We just happen to be very good at it. Professional services, especially with law firms, they bring their own special challenges, and we’ve learned to work around those things. You often hear that working with law firms is like herding cats. We’ve gotten pretty good at herding cats, but we handle many other firms. Our newest onboard is an AI and machine learning company. It couldn’t be any more different than law firms, and the approach is very different from law firms, but again, we’re looking for that story, that one thing they do best.
Sharon: How would you say that working with professional services firms is different than working with a products firm, let’s say?
Brad: It’s super different, because with professional services firms—I don’t mean this in a negative way, but there’s a lot of ego involved because it’s personal. You’re talking about selling the people. With a product, you can get some distance in between them. I can go to a CEO or marketing group in a firm and say, “Hey, your product is this and that. Here’s the audience. Here’s how they’re going to respond.” There’s some objectivity you can bring to that.
With professional services firms, it’s very, very personal, especially when you get in a room with three, four, five partners of a law firm. They all have opinions. They’re all valid, but they’re all personal. Imagine taking five lawyers at a law firm out to purchase one car. You’d come back with a motorcycle. They have very strong opinions. They’re always very articulate. They’re very bright folks, so they all have valid opinions. Trying to get to a consensus is oftentimes difficult, as opposed to a product that stands on its own. Instead of telling a story about the product, you’re telling a story about the people at the firm, and you have to get them over that hurdle. The firm itself has a brand and that brand stands for something. If you can get to that point, they can put their own personal biases aside and do what’s best for the firm, but that’s a challenge sometimes.
Sharon: I’m sure that’s a challenge if you’re dealing with ego. How do you overcome that? If you have a managing partner who feels one way and a senior associate feels differently, or if you’re talking to an equity firm and the driver feels they’re going one way and the other people are going another, how do you overcome that?
Larry: It’s a great question. It’s challenging. You can start by listening. Hopefully, we can spend the first meeting or two really listening and coming back to them with a creative brief that says, “Based on all the input we’ve received, this is what we’re hearing. This is the direction to go in. Do we all agree on this?” We’ll never start a design, whether it’s a logo or a website or an ad campaign, until we understand who we’re talking to, what we’re trying to say, what our goals are. We try to get them all on the same page. That’s the first hurdle.
The second hurdle is when you show creative. Creative is subjective in nature. People like blue, but they hate green, and they like flowers, but they don’t like butterflies. Who knows? With that subjectivity, we try to bring objectivity to this process by saying, “Based on what we heard, this works well for you. Here’s why these colors work well. Here’s why these graphics work well. Here’s why this typestyle works well.” We bring objectivity and some rationale behind the design, but again, you can look at a painting and you can love it or hate it. It may be a Rembrandt, but you may still hate it. It’s hard, and you just take time. Sometimes these projects will go on for months and months because they’re debating in-house or they’re busy. We do our best to keep moving things along and trying to get to a final answer.
Brad: In addition to that, I think it’s partly common ground. If you have a lot of partners and they all have strong opinions, it’s sitting down long before any creative and discussing likes and dislikes, because personal likes and dislikes are every bit as valid as any other design criteria. In talking with you as long as possible, we try and pick out the common ground they all agree on to start with and then build outward from there. We build on the common ground and the trust that’s been created in the initial discussions. Then that’s where, as Larry was saying, we try and make it as objective as possible in a very subjective industry. That’s one of the biggest challenges about being in advertising.
Sharon: I bet it’s a challenge with a lot of professional service industries. Are you ever the order takers, as we sometimes get accused of being? Do people call you and say, “We need a new website,” and you go in thinking, “O.K., let’s look at the website. We may not need everything new.”
Larry: I would say definitely not. In fact, we’ve lost business in the past by saying, “This is not what you need.” I feel like our responsibility is to talk to the client and say, “Based on your goals, here’s what we suggest.” Now, if you want to ignore that, O.K., we can do what you’re asking us to do. But I’ll always give a client our best advice right up front, because otherwise I don’t think we’ll be successful in the long term, and they won’t be successful. That doesn’t work for us.
Most of our clients we’ve had now for, some of them, five, 10, 15 years. I think they know we will make the hard call and give them good advice. We may not be so popular, but I think in the long run, it serves them well. We try very hard to avoid being order takers. We always say, “If you ask for this, we’ll give you that, but here’s what we think you should do as well. Here are both options for you.” I always want to feel good that we gave the client the best thinking we could, even if they want to make a bad decision. That’s up to them, but I want to give them an option and say, “Here’s another way of going. What do you think?
Brad: We will never do only what the client asks for. I don’t want that to be taken wrong, but if they ask for something very specific, if they’ve got something in their mind they want to get out and see how it looks, we’re happy to help them with that process. But we’re always going to give another opinion or two about a possible better way to get them thinking in larger spheres or in different directions.
Sharon: Do you think it’s possible to rebrand? If everybody has a brand in their mind, is it possible to change that?
Brad: Oh, absolutely. Brands evolve constantly. If you look at the big brands, the Apples and Cokes of the world, they’re constantly evolving and changing and staying current. We do that very often. We just finished a project for Enenstein Pham & Glass, a great law firm over the hill in Century City. They wanted to tighten the name up to EPG. We had a great project we did with them. We redid the logo and updated collateral materials.
I think firms constantly need to be responsive to the changes in the marketplace. They need to stay fresh. Law firms oftentimes say to us, “We don’t need a website because nobody checks our website.” Well, the truth is when you’re hiring, that’s the first place they go. We’ve been working with a lot of our law firm clients and accounting clients so their site is designed in part to attract young talent, to bring people on board. Your website is your calling card. It’s your office. Everybody goes there and checks it out just to validate who you are. Oftentimes, you have to understand who is going there. If you are looking to hire, which every accounting firm we know of right now is looking desperately to hire talent, that’s where talent goes. They check out your site and get a sense of who you are.
Larry: And to see if it’s some place they want to join. The better the candidate, the better the website should be to impress in both directions. Most people think of a website as outbound. I don’t get new business from my website, especially in professional services. It’s usually word of mouth. But they’re always going to validate, and that validation has to be up to date. It has to be modern. It has to be credible for every law firm, and everybody knows this.
For 20 years, the professional services industry has been going through upheaval after upheaval because it came from a time when law firms, if they advertised, they were shysters. Now more than ever for law firms, you have to think about marketing and social and putting your best face forward. That’s a huge turn of events, and I think some law firms are still having trouble getting used to that idea.
Sharon: Do you think that in any professional service there’s room for traditional advertising, for print, for newspaper ads or magazine ads? Is there room for that?
Larry: Oh, sure. I think they all complement each other. As I said, for Ballard Rosenberg, we keep them current. They represent companies in employment law cases. So, for that firm, we keep them in front of the L.A. Business Journal, the San Fernando Valley Business Journal and some other publications where businesses are looking, where CEOs are reading those publications. I think there’s definitely room for that.
For other clients—I’ll give you an example. With direct mail, people think, “Why would you use direct mail for a law firm?” Well, we’ve got a number of law firms who don’t want to do traditional advertising, which I completely respect. They have a list of 5,000 clients they’ve worked with over the past 10 years who they don’t normally talk to. We put together a concept called an annual review. It’s an annual report that goes out, basically. It’s not the financials, but it’s a yearend review on what happened at the firm this past year. It talks about cases they’ve won and publicity and pro bono work and new hires. It’s a lovely booklet, and it goes out at the end of the year to 5,000 clients. Suddenly, it’s a non-advertising way to get in front of all those clients you’ve had in the past, remind them of who you are, remind them of the exciting things going on at your firm and why they should do business with you.
We’ve done this for a number of firms and they’ve gotten tremendous response. People say, “I love this. I get an update on what’s happening at the firm.” It’s a very non-solicitous advertising piece, but it still an advertising piece because it communicates what’s going on. It’s a communication tool. I think it’s traditional because it’s direct mail, but it’s been tweaked a little bit to be more contemporary. All these things combine to deliver an impression to your clients.
Sharon: That’s interesting. Given the amount of direct mail I receive, my first reaction to what you’re saying is, “Who would do direct mail today for any kind of marketing?” But I guess a lot of people do.
Larry: I think the key is to do it well. I agree with you. You get a lot of crap in the mail. 90% of it is garbage. Our job is to make sure that whatever we do, like that x-ray we did for Harry Nelson years ago, it’s got to stand out. We’ve done those campaigns for law firms. We have a lot of nonprofits we work with. Whenever Brad and I do a direct mail campaign, we always push the pedal to the metal on creative. How out there can we be to get some attention, whether that’s headlines, colors, different sizes, different materials? Brad and I have sent things out in tubes before.
Brad: Even bubble wrap.
Larry: The direct mail piece was sent out in bubble wrap because they were an insurance company. It was about protecting yourself, so it went out in bubble wrap. People went nuts. They were like, “This is so creative. I had to open it. I got a piece of bubble wrap in the mail. I had to open it up and see what was inside. You got me. I gave you the 10 seconds to read it.” So, I think the trick is to get creative.
Sharon: That makes a lot of sense. Brad, when it comes to picking the right photo, you did a little booklet on your website. What do you think about when it comes to picking the right photo? What do you both think about?
Brad: Actually, that one was very specific. That wasn’t actually about photo composition choice. We tried to educate our clients about aspects that are really different with digital advertising. The biggest problem we’ve had over the last five, six years is responsive web design. Every screen has a different ratio, a different dimension, a different pixel count, and website elements move depending on how big the screen is. Most people think of websites as the old desktop publishing page layout, where you put everything in. Then, if you want to move it around, it’s going to stay exactly the same, like a print piece. The web is not that way at all anymore. It is completely data-driven and responsive to the screen size. It’s a phone up to a 32-inch monitor. It still has to lay out properly, but it’s not the same.
So, we had this issue with photos. People would pick the exact cropping of a photo they liked, and it would have things on the edges and the corners of the photo that were very important to the composition. When we put it in the website, when the website responsive design would change for different screen sizes, the photos would crop differently and something that was important on the edges would get cut off. It’s a very difficult concept to understand, that even a webpage looks different on every screen. It’s a difficult concept for everyone to deal with. I know people in the industry who still have trouble with it. So, that booklet was to try and help clients understand that digital technology is not the way it used to be and there are adjustments that need to be made in that area.
In terms of regular composition of photos, we generally do it for the client. We alter it. We choose stock photos, and we work with them to find the photo they like. We are always keeping an eye on the images we give them to make sure they are proper for the branding with their approval. I totally forgot about that being on the website.
Sharon: How do you keep current? As you said, it changes so quickly.
Brad: Neither of us wants to answer that. It is insanely difficult. I personally spend probably eight hours a day in addition to work trying to keep up. I’m not the spring chicken I used to be, and it’s getting harder and harder, but I love the industry. In fact, I love the web far more. I grew up on traditional advertising. I’ve done print. My first job was for a print company, actually, on the presses. I know traditional, but I prefer digital. It’s more free flow. It’s more creative. Sometimes, when things have a lot of hard parameters, you have to get super creative, and the web has a lot more parameters than print. I love it.
I love being in it, but it’s starting to vulcanize a little bit where you need specialists. There are specific SEO specialists now in different areas. Social has become an industry in itself. We used to do it all in-house, and it’s starting to get too complicated to do that. So, we find the best we can. We don’t do PR, but I love the industry. If I didn’t love design and trying to make companies look better, I wouldn’t have been doing this for the last 30 years. It’s barely better than ditch digging, but I really love it, as an old partner of ours said.
Sharon: You have to love it. You have to bite the bullet, I suppose, to keep abreast of everything.
Brad: Absolutely. Larry, on the other hand, he wants nothing to do with technology. So, we keep him doing what he does best, and we try and educate him as best we can on the fly. But we have developers in-house, we have designers in-house, and all of them have to be more up to date on the nuts and bolts of digital marketing than you did before. It used to be that a designer had to know how to create something that will print correctly, but he didn’t have to know how to do the printing. Now, you have to learn a little about coding and what coding platforms there are for web and for social and APIs and all of that stuff. It’s getting into the weeds, but once you grasp it, it’s actually fascinating. It really is.
Larry: You’re talking about technology. Once we thought we had it all figured out and websites were a piece of cake, then the ADA comes along. Now you have ADA compliance issues. You have to really understand what ADA limitations are in terms of fonts and colors and be responsive to that. Technology is always going to be encroaching on the creative aspect. You have to learn how to balance the two of them.
Sharon: I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. You do have to balance, and it seems as soon you’ve learned it all, it changes. Let me ask you before we end, because you did write something about this. How do you know if your logo sucks and what do you do about it?
Larry: That’s a tough one. It’s hard to go up to someone and tell them their logo sucks. It’s like telling them their baby is ugly. They may love the logo or hate it, but if you say something about that, they’re going to take it personally. They should take it personally. Your logo represents you and your company, especially in professional services, and very few friends are going to tell you your logo sucks. That’s just the way it is. When someone’s building a company and building a brand, you don’t want to tear them down if you’re a friend.
So, the best thing to do is get a third opinion. Get an objective view. Every design firm, every ad agency will be more than happy to do a quick review of your identity. Every marketing design firm is going to have a different opinion about it, but they will be as objective as possible within their preferences. There are design rules that can’t be broken. So, if it breaks design rules, the logo needs work.
Brad: Things also just get dated. I’ll go back to the Cokes and the Disneys and the Apples of the world. These are companies that don’t need to change their logo, yet they do because society evolves. Things change, and you want to look progressive and contemporary. I think even just a logo refresh is a great idea. You don’t have to change the whole thing, but maybe bring it up, make it current. Fonts change. Colors change. There are lots of ways to refresh a brand. Plus, it gives you a wonderful opportunity to go back to your clients and say, “Hey, check out our new logo. Same great commitment to service, but a new logo reflecting whatever it is.” It’s a nice way to take a new look. It’s like painting your house. It gives it a new, fresh look.
Sharon: Larry and Brad, thank you so much for being with us today. You’ve answered a lot of questions and given us a lot to think about.
Brad: It’s a pleasure. It was great.
Larry: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
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