culture

98 – Delisi Friday – Scaling Your Law Firm, Your Way

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down once again with his Chief Marketing Officer, Delisi Friday, to discuss law firm growth and how they’ve scaled their firm over the years in the way that best suited their goals.

The pair begins the episode with a look at the motivation for their most recent hiring expansion and how they knew it was time to grow. Delisi shares her frustration on the marketing and intake side, where she would receive a new case and have to decide between overwhelming an attorney with an already large docket or rejecting a case she would normally accept.

Michael echoes this sentiment and adds that rejecting “bread and butter” cases from referral partners was hard to do at times but needed to be done to ensure that the proper time and care was being put into existing cases; and that his staff was not going to be stretched too thin. This is how they knew it was time to hire 3 new associate attorneys.

“I always want to market our firm honestly, and I want us to fulfill our promises as well.” – Delisi Friday

Following this, Delisi asks Michael how he knows when the firm needs to grow and how to figure this out. Michael breaks down his answer in two points:

  1. “If I see the workloads on my people are becoming unhealthy.”
  2. “If [I’m] having to turn down things [I] wish we could keep,” paired with asking yourself, “Am I having to turn down enough things that justify hiring someone else?”

Adding onto these points, Michael says he saw that his firm was at the point where they had to hire more lawyers or start saying “no” to cases at a rate that he felt would damage his referral relationships. To this, Delisi brings up the firm’s weekly docket discussions. During these meetings, she not only brings up the number of cases on attorney dockets, but also the phases of those cases to properly assess if they have the bandwidth for more cases. Michael then discusses doing something similar in his monthly attorney development meetings and adds that a further challenge is getting lawyers to trust him enough to tell him when they are overwhelmed.

“I have to prove to them that I’m worthy of their trust … [by taking] steps to help and not punishing them for being overloaded.” – Michael Cowen

Delisi then asks Michael how he decides how he’s going to grow, to which he explains why he looks for what the pain points are and what type of hire would resolve them in the most efficient and logical way. This leads them to discuss the pros and cons of hiring an experienced lawyer, which has historically not had the best “hit rate” at their firm. This, according to them, is due to the firm’s established culture, procedures, and systems, which many experienced lawyers may find difficult to adjust to; having been trained in and working under different systems and procedures beforehand.

“I can’t do legal work, market the firm, and run a 33-employee firm.” – Michael Cowen

Michael then touches on the fear associated with growth; more specifically the fear of letting responsibilities go. He goes on to say that finding and hiring the right manager to cover those responsibilities and run with them is essential. By hiring and promoting the right people, such as his firm operations and intake managers, Teresa and Delisi respectively, most of those fears and anxieties have subsided while productivity and efficacy have only increased.

Building from this conversation, Delisi asks Michael what he’s learned along the way from scaling his firm and his advice for other lawyers, which he breaks down into 3 main points.

  1. Do you want to grow?
  2. Is this a temporary bump, or do you have a sustainable flow of business where it makes economic sense to grow?
  3. Do you have the cash flow to grow?

Throughout these points, Michael notes that growth is not for everyone, and it’s not the only way to build a successful and profitable practice.

“You should grow if it’s going to fulfill you, and if it’s what YOU want to do.”– Michael Cowen

Delisi then adds how every year, they seem to bring in roughly the same number of new cases without even realizing it, month-to-month. Michael clarifies that while this doesn’t sound like growth, the value of those new cases grows with each year, which reflects the growth model his firm follows. This is tracked through a concept learned from former podcast guest Chad Dudley, called the 5-Star Case Rating system, which assigns each case a star rating based on a variety of factors, and helps to accurately analyze a lawyer’s docket and the firm’s entire case load.

“We may have the exact same number of cases that we did last year, but the type of cases, the quality, and what our projected attorney’s fees are going to be vastly different.” – Delisi Friday

Michael then shares that growth isn’t always about adding more lawyers, but frequently requires more paralegals, marketers, or other positions. This leads Delisi to dig deeper into the onboarding and training process for all these new hires, especially the young lawyers.

Michael answers candidly, sharing how large the time commitment is to bring someone completely new and inexperienced up to speed. But, from his experience, the more time you put in up front, the better the outcome is in the long run. He elaborates on this sentiment by sharing his lengthy 3-step deposition training process with new hire lawyers, an incredible training strategy which everyone considering hiring young lawyers would benefit from hearing.

Delisi then references Chad Dudley’s podcast episode once again, sharing his fantastic quote about how being a great tennis player doesn’t necessarily make you a great tennis coach. This leads Michael to share that, while he’s a great teacher, he doesn’t see himself as a great coach, something Delisi commends him for realizing.

“We have a promise we make to our referral partners that if you’re nice enough to bring us in on your case, we are going to do the case to this standard. Which means I have to enforce those standards at my firm.” – Michael Cowen

Michael and Delisi then discuss some of the challenges they’ve faced when hiring new lawyers. For the most part, it boils down to setting expectations and being willing to have tough conversations when those expectations aren’t being met. This has led them to their current strategy of hiring 3 lawyers who are all relatively young in their careers, something Michael has been very happy with, citing their energy and willingness to learn and adapt.

Delisi agrees and adds that these associate additions have required the senior attorneys to communicate more with each other, which has led to more idea sharing and even a hint of competitiveness, which has been fun and rewarding to see.

The pair wraps up the episode with their final thoughts on law firm growth. It’s been a wild, scary ride, but if you plan for it and grow at a rate you can handle while keeping an eye on your finances, it can be very rewarding.

This podcast episode also covers how to know when and why your lawyers are overwhelmed, why Michael likes promoting paralegals from within, a look at some of their past hiring mistakes, and so much more.

80 – Tim McKey – Peak Performance: Developing Systems for Optimum Success

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down for the second time with Tim McKey, co-founder of Vista Consulting. As a business consultant who works with law firms, Tim was welcomed back to the show to talk about the effects of COVID-19 on law firms, measuring success using KPI’s, organizational culture, hiring, optimum vs. maximum, new trends in the industry, and transparency at your firm.

Michael and Tim begin their conversation with a look at remote work and how to measure the performance of your team members when you can’t see them. Tim’s solution doesn’t vary whether or not there’s a global pandemic. He insists you should ALWAYS measure success using KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators). This strategy focuses on the output of the employee, not the input. For example, a common KPI for a paralegal is to contact every client and conduct a meaningful check-in every month. Measuring this produces an objective number which can be used to evaluate performance and coach the team member on.

Michael then speaks to his experience using the KPI dashboard, and how he used to struggle to stay on top of it. Tim explains how the highest performing firms have somebody assigned to it, such as an Operations Manager. Some firms find success in the owner managing KPI’s, but Tim says it all comes down to what the owner is passionate about and good at. The goal is to remove as much of the other “fluff” as possible and hire great people to do the rest.

A brief discussion about the merits of having daily meetings leads Michael to ask Tim how to maintain culture when many are still working remotely. Tim explains that it’s even more crucial to intentionally develop culture when you’re not meeting in person. You do this through daily meetings, social events, strong core values, and reminding everyone of their part in the firm. After sharing an enlightening example of a receptionist and their huge purpose in the firm, Michael proudly recites his firm’s core values. He says them at the beginning of every meeting to remind his team members (and himself) of why they do what they do. This has also helped make decisions in the office and staying true to their values.

Tim adds that defining your core values makes the hiring process a lot easier, which leads Michael to dig deeper into Tim’s advice for hiring good team members. Tim insists that finding a good cultural fit is even more important than finding someone with the right skills, because it’s easier to train skills than values. His hiring process, which he calls “intentional hiring,” takes a LOT of time. He brings the prospective team member into the office, has them sit beside people, and explains to them in detail what their values and KPI’s are. Even with this lengthy hiring process, Tim says, “You’ll never bat 1000.” But, as Michael agrees, you can’t measure the cost of a bad hire. This thinking is why his firm is now creating an internal paralegal training program to help him continue to promote from within.

After a conversation that tied culture to college football, which will resonate with Alabama and A&M fans alike, they move on to discuss Optimum vs. Maximum, first in the context of intakes. Most lawyers saw a downturn in intakes during the pandemic, but Tim shares how there are two ways to a grow a law firm – get more cases, or add more value to the cases you already have. Citing The Dip by Seth Godin, Tim explains that while your reservoir of cases may be low, it’s not dry. Work on pushing the cases you DO have over the dam. Michael then ties this in beautifully to how far you push a case. It makes sense to push certain cases all the way to trial, but on other cases it’s better for the lawyer and the client to settle earlier on.

As a business consultant for law firms, Tim is always ahead of the curve when it comes to news and trends that effect how law firms do business. Something he’s keeping a close watch on is non-lawyer ownership of law firms, which recently became legal in both Utah and Arizona.  He and Michael discuss the possible consequences of non-lawyer ownership, most notably consolidation of firms into large national practices. Michael says he’s already noticed this happening in large markets, and he’s very glad he found a niche in trucking litigation. Tim agrees within the next 10 years, it’s going to become very hard to be a general firm if you don’t have a huge advertising budget.

Tim and Michael end their conversation by talking about transparency. Tim shares an enlightening “10% rule” that he encourages every lawyer listening to consider. And while he falls on general transparency as much as possible, he acknowledges some limits to that.

If you’d like to learn more from or work with Tim, you can visit his website, email him at tmckey@vistact.com, or call his cell at 225-931-7045. He also has his annual conference coming up May 6-7 in Dallas, Texas, which will have in person and virtual attendance options.

This podcast episode also covers a creative way to take advantage of the competitiveness of lawyers, why daily meetings and word choice are so important, the problem with traditional recruiters, developing “a discipline” in your team members, why Michael has two types of “clients” at his firm, deciding who can work remotely vs. who needs to work in the office, and so much more!

 

14 – Steven Gursten – Remarkable Customer Service = Extraordinary Law Practice (and Life)

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Michigan trial lawyer and owner of Michigan Auto Law, along with 3 other law firms, Steven Gursten. As an early adopter of internet legal marketing, Steven has built his firm to become extremely successful in Michigan and is recognized as having the TOP verdict in the state 8 out of the last 12 years, as well as success throughout the country.

Steven recalls in the first 10 years of his practice making it a goal to be a great trial lawyer and have attorneys all over the state refer him cases. To get there, he still recommends lawyers set aside 30 minutes to an hour every day to read and study some area of law. IE: Mondays would be opening statements, Tuesdays might be cross examining, Wednesdays – closings, Thursdays – medicine, and Fridays he wanted to become an expert on the Michigan no-fault law. Even now, Steven utilizes the massive amounts of information he’s accumulated, learned from, and still references. Similarly, Michael recalls and shares a story about learning through the process of proofreading a book another attorney in his office was writing and both agree the continuation of learning after passing the bar is extremely important.

Fast forwarding from 4 attorneys in his first practice to now having 20 attorneys across 4 diverse practices, Michael and Steven discuss the two very different disciplines of running a law firm vs. trying cases, both of which they do very successfully. He also goes into detail on some of the systems he has put in place as a solid foundation, in order to handle the hundreds of cases coming through his different practices, and how much he has embraced different technologies throughout the years. Steven also brings up a great point that in today’s online society, good lawyers will now more than ever be rewarded and bad lawyers will be punished because of Google reviews, Avvo, and other similar review sites, which makes customer service even more important. Meanwhile, those same systems are the ones which help great law firms stay on top of their cases and communicate with their clients to avoid the potential pitfalls easily avoided through systematic communication. Topics such as discussing what not to post on social media or making sure the client is going to their doctors’ appointments can have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of impact on a case when communication is stagnant. Steven goes on to say that the same type of communication can also have a huge impact when it comes to keeping referring attorneys in the loop on shared cases, citing a recent case he referred to Michael in which he was extremely impressed with the follow up.

The conversation shifts when Michael asks Steven how he’s able to have the other 19 attorneys in his office use all of the systems he has in place. Without hesitation, Steven points to the culture of his firm which has guided everyone in the same direction, keeping them on the same page, regarding the inner workings of the practices. He is also quick to point out that establishing this type of culture starts with the ownership of a firm, and regardless of tenure no attorney should ever be above talking with their clients, which is something he tries to instill in each of his attorneys. Steven also shares some of the small things they do to build the culture, such as whenever they receive a great review, they send it out to everyone in the firm to further demonstrate its importance to the firm as a whole and praise those who are walking the talk.

So many great insights on running a successful firm (too many to list in this brief description) come from Steven and Michael throughout this episode, even down to the psychological testing Steven does with everyone in his firm which helps shed light on their ability to deliver a quality customer experience. Steven also shares several thoughts for those who are trying to build their practices, which any attorney can leverage to not only work in their practice but also on their practice.

The conversation transitions to traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) to which Steven again delivers a mountain’s worth of information in rapid succession. Steven is gracious enough to lay out not only the basics of how TBI cases are identified but also the more intricate and subtle ways clients who’ve suffered from a TBI are not only identified but also misunderstood, as Michael asks him questions to bridge the gap between customer service and delicate TBI cases. Steven’s view of customer service is engrained so deeply in him that even during this part of his conversation with Michael, he can’t help but note its importance when working with those who have suffered a TBI.  Things like displaying a positive image online in order to be seen as approachable, being cognizant of the tremendous diplomacy it takes to work with clients who have had a TBI, and doing everything in your power to genuinely make things as easy as possible on the them. Perhaps THAT is why he doesn’t encounter many of the problems or issues other attorneys do.

Background on Steven Gursten
Steven Gursten is recognized as one of the nation’s top attorneys handling serious auto accident injury and wrongful death cases, and No-Fault insurance litigation. He is head of Michigan Auto Law, the state’s largest law firm handling car, truck and motorcycle accident cases for more than 50 years.

Steven has recovered top-reported verdicts and settlements for car and truck accidents for multiple years, including a $34 million truck accident settlement in 2014 with Ohio co-counsel.   In this capacity, Steve was named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly “Lawyer of the Year,” after recovering one of the largest truck accident settlements in Michigan history, as well four other top-reported trial verdicts in previous years.

Steven frequently lectures at legal seminars throughout the country on trial advocacy, trucking litigation, and traumatic brain injury cases.  He is the annual moderator and speaker at the “Advanced Motor Vehicle Litigation Seminar,” offered through 360 Advocacy.   He is the current President of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and a Past Chair of the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Trucking Litigation Group.  Steven is also the chair-elect of the AAJ Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group.

In addition, he serves on the executive boards of the Melvin M. Belli Society and represents the state of Michigan in the Taos Trial Lawyers Society, an invitation-only group of distinguished trial attorneys from around the country.

For more info on Steven Gursten visit:
https://www.michiganautolaw.com/firm_profile/attorney-steven-gursten/

04 – Tim McKey – The Business Side of Practicing Law

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen talks with Vista Consulting’s Owner, Tim McKey, who has been consulting on operational matters with successful plaintiff law firms since 2008.

Tim’s CPA background steers his focus toward numbers and metrics but he concedes that there is a lot more that goes into running a successful practice such as culture and human resources, which allows him to approach firms from a holistic stance. As a client of Vista, Michael shares that he has a personal appreciation for Vista’s value to plaintiff firms, which he also acknowledges has allowed him to sleep better at night knowing the firm runs smoother than ever.

Michael explores with Tim his launching point in working with plaintiff firms; and discovers the strategic decision Tim made after owning his own CPA firm, which drove him to work with attorneys in a big way. Tim also describes his passion for helping firms define success and desire to help CHANGE the score instead of just KEEPING the score as a substantial motivation. During his transition to the consulting world, Tim lightheartedly recalls how similar the process turned out to be for his first two clients; those being a plaintiff’s attorney and business at the polar opposite end of the spectrum (tune in to hear what the other business was). The process Tim uses to examine and analyze a firm is noted to work regardless of years in practice and focuses specifically on tightening up potential deficiencies within the firm and its client acquisition practices.

While being empathetic to the fact that attorneys, in general, are not introduced to business practices before setting out to run their own law practice, Michael recalls his early days in another law firm where trial and error was the modus operandi of their operations, long before he was introduced to Vista’s techniques. The difference between effective and efficient systems and processes are the cornerstone to what Tim advises throughout this episode as he offers listeners insights into breaking down their firm’s data to a dashboard view of the practice and what to do next.

This podcast concludes with Tim explaining things a step further to amplify the importance of having a project point person throughout the process of using what he calls the “public restroom theory.” It’s a wild analogy, but it hits home tremendously to anyone who tends to have lists of 100 “great ideas” being worked on by the firm. And for anyone who has felt the pain of turnover in their office, Tim talks about the mentality of “hire slow and fire fast,” along with the tools, training, and expectations being a key part in the onboarding process to set an employee up for success.

Background on Tim McKey

Tim co-founded Vista Consulting in 2009 with a vision to help plaintiff law firm owners reach their full potential. Tim has traditional CPA experience with local, regional, and national CPA firms. However, it is through Tim’s prior consulting practice that he found his passion. He has worked with many business owners assisting them with defining and attaining success in their business and personal lives.

Tim’s experience and interest allow him to assist Vista clients with developing a realistic vision of their firm into the future, creating a strategic plan to achieve that vision while working with firm owners in designing their desired lifestyle. Tim assists his clients in reviewing firm tax entity structure and accounting systems analysis, and financial reporting.

For more info on Tim McKey visit https://www.vistact.com/meet-the-team/tim-mckey.

03 – Mikal Watts – The Do’s and Don’ts of Running a Successful Law Firm

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael talks with one of the nation’s top trial attorneys, Mikal Watts about his pursuit of the goals he established at a very young age which forced him to make some tough decisions early on in his career. Fear, exhilaration, and even his wife thinking he was crazy couldn’t keep Mikal from doing what had to be done before it was too late in his career.

Mikal describes the choices that were made when he initially started his own practice and their unlikely, yet practical, reasoning. Mikal also recalls his first big solo case and how literally moving some furniture around helped him put his best foot forward and became a pivotal moment for his practice. Mikal offers advice on the do’s and doesn’t for those looking to start their own firm, in addition to some of the sacrifices and deferred gratification that comes with the territory.

While there have been many to date, Mikal shares with Michael some of the verdicts that he has been most proud of thus far, such as his first case against Chrysler, and how those cases have added to the value of his practice beyond just the dollars and cents. Mikal delivers practical keys to success for the courtroom and how to truly connect with the jurors in the room, which by the way, have become keenly proficient in detecting BS (both factual and unscrupulous).

At the same time, both Michael and Mikal recognize and discuss the absolute need to break subjects down into their simplest terms (Mikal’s metaphor for tire tread is simply priceless). Humility and modesty shine through as Mikal describes his firm’s ethos and attitude for sharing with other lawyers, not unlike Michael and his firm, and the inherent benefits that come with such an inclusive environment, for both the firm and more importantly the clients they serve.

This podcast concludes with an important discussion of the biggest threats to the legal industry to which Mikal’s thoughts may surprise even the most seasoned attorney.

Background on Mikal Watts:

Mikal Carter Watts is the founding Partner of Watts Guerra LLP. He was born in Corpus Christi, TX in 1967. Mikal attended The University of Texas in Austin where he completed his undergraduate degree in two years. He then went on to the UT School of Law, where he also graduated in two years at the age of twenty-one. Following college, Mikal accepted a position working for The Honorable Thomas R. Phillips, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, as a briefing attorney from 1989-1990. In 1997 Mikal opened his own law firm in his hometown and in 2006 he relocated to San Antonio.

Mikal was married in 1993 to his lovely wife Tammy. Together they have three children, Taylor, Hailey and Brandon as well as two grandsons, Caleb and Austin. His interests include spending time with his family, attending church, Spurs basketball games, and Longhorn football games.

For more information on Mikal Watts visit http://www.wattsguerra.com/lawyers/mikal-c-watts

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