finances

94 – Delisi Friday – Building Your Leadership Dream Team

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his Director of Marketing and Business Development, Delisi Friday, to discuss how they built their leadership team.

The episode begins with a look at how the leadership team started. Michael shares how it started like many of his business decisions, based on a concept from Patrick Lencioni. He started by having regular meetings with his partners, but quickly noticed the flaws in that system – 3 lawyers were making decisions for everybody at the firm, without any input from the non-lawyer leaders who had “boots on the ground.” He found that decisions were being made with old or incomplete information and decided to include Delisi and Teresa (the firm operations manager) on the team.

“Lawyers don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.” – Michael Cowen

Delisi shares why she loves being on the leadership team. Not only does she provide a valuable and unique perspective in the decision making process, but being privy to the firm’s finances and operations has helped her do her own job better. Michael also adds that many team members feel more comfortable going to Delisi or Teresa with problems than they would feel going to him or the other partners.

“It’s uncomfortable to come to the person who signs your paycheck and tell them something that’s not favorable.” – Delisi Friday

Michael then goes into detail on how they formed the team and what they did. He explains that the foundation for any good leadership team (and a common theme in this episode) is trust. Building that trust has taken time, but he noticed that trust grew rapidly once the leadership team spent two days answering just five questions about the business. This is where their core values were decided, which form the basis for every decision made. If something doesn’t fit in those core values, everybody on the leadership team feels comfortable calling that out and vocalizing their disagreement.

“The debate needs to happen, and it takes a lot of trust to say, ‘Michael Cowen, I don’t think that’s a good idea and here’s why.’” – Michael Cowen

After a brief discussion on how they measure success in different areas of the firm and how they use those metrics in lieu of a prepared agenda for their weekly meetings, Michael and Delisi continue to talk about trust, conflict, and decision making in their leadership team.

Michael shares why it’s important for leadership team members to know if he says something critical about them, it’s coming from a good place rather than trying to put them down – and this vulnerability-based trust is really hard to develop. Delisi agrees and reveals she can take things personally and has had learn to be in the right mindset going into these meetings. And while most of their decisions are a consensus, not all are, giving the recent example of a vaccine mandate at the firm, which they decided against after a lengthy and heated debate. The most important thing, Michael says, is that everybody feels heard and the team is respectful of one another.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see in a business, and I also think it makes us a healthy business.” – Delisi Friday

After sharing how to look for disagreement in facial expressions and body language when it’s not being vocalized, with Delisi sharing an interesting comparison of this and voir dire, Michael opens up about how it isn’t unnatural for him to have uncomfortable conversations. But as he’s gotten better at having them at work, he’s also grown more comfortable having them with his family at home.

“It’s a skill that we have to develop, like anything else. And it’s a skill that really pays dividends.” – Michael Cowen

One of the most uncomfortable conversations for him was that of the firm’s finances, which he now shares the details of with his entire leadership team. At first, Michael shares, he was worried that they would panic and leave because of the ups and downs that happen in a contingency fee-based practiced- but nobody was criticizing, and nobody quit.

Recognizing the emotion involved in sharing your business’s finances with other team members, Delisi asks Michael if he felt relieved to share that burden with others. Michael says he did, and he encourages other firm owners listening to do the same, especially if there’s a team making business decisions involved. And while there have been some challenging times, especially during COVID, Delisi agrees that it’s important for her to have that information when she’s involved in making business decisions.

So, how big does a firm need to be to consider having a leadership team? Delisi believes that no firm is too small – even if that means the team is only 2-3 people. Whether you meet with your CPA or even just a trusted mentor once a quarter, the important thing is to have somebody helping you make decisions, set goals, hold you accountable, and reach them.

After once again recommending the book “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni (seriously, buy it), Michael ends the show on a sentimental note and encourages everyone listening to put in the effort to making their work family the best family it can be.

“We spend more time with our work families than with our own families. Let’s try to make it the happiest, healthiest family we can.” – Michael Cowen

This podcast also covers why your core values can’t be aspirational, how to look for disagreement when it’s not vocalized, how to assess a team’s performance, and much more.

55 – Jacob Leibowitz – Overcoming COVID-19: Working Remote & Staying Afloat

In this special Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael discusses COVID-19 with fellow trial lawyer Jacob Leibowitz. This episode focuses on adapting your firm to function in an ever-changing crisis situation, including insights on safety, remote work, technology, cash flow, and employee morale.

The show begins with a discussion on using technology to keep cases moving. Jacob emphasizes the importance of continuing to have depositions utilizing video conferencing technology. Their firm has chosen to use Zoom for depositions, mediations, and client meetings, and they have been successful with it. They discuss the pros and cons of Zoom, highlighting many useful features including video recording, “breakout rooms,” options to increase audio quality, and a way to share exhibits that Jacob argues is even better than the in-person method. The challenges of this technology for depositions, and in many states across the U.S., is the person who swears in the witness needs to be in the same room to make the oath sufficient. Jacob shares how the Supreme Court of Texas has assisted with this. The use of online notaries is also discussed and both Michael and Jacob implore the listeners to reach out in their respective state to determine if this can be a solution.

Originally, Jacob believed mediations via video conferencing would be extremely complicated, but he has been pleasantly surprised by the ease of using breakout rooms in Zoom. While some mediators have resisted, Michael is confident they will come around soon, telling them “Either you’re not getting paid or you’re going to do it this way.” Jacob echoes this thought by stating, “It’s here right now, and we have to adapt to it.” They apply this same reasoning to defense counsel who may have objections. Michael strongly believes if the defense doesn’t bill, they don’t make money, and they don’t survive. Jacob thinks it is the plaintiff lawyer’s responsibility to push the case, educate all parties involved on how to use the technology, and has been kind enough to create a Zoom Deposition Guide to share with everyone. This guide can be shared with defense counsel, mediators, and anyone else hesitant with this process. (A Zoom video tutorial for clients has also been created and can be found here)

The conversation shifts to remote work and how their firm of over 30 employees in different office locations has navigated the transition of physical office space to a virtual office space. The process began with Michael deciding to purchase company laptops for staff who did not have one. This was necessary because his IT company would only allow access to the server through a private VPN on a company-owned computer for security reasons. They discuss other challenges of remote work during a quarantine, including working with kids at home, server capacity, and cloud migration. Jacob then shares valuable advice for other firms to mitigate these challenges by advising “You just need to go full force into this, because you’re going to end up learning a whole lot, and you need to.” The reality is no one knows how long social distancing and a nationwide quarantine will last, so lawyers need to adjust accordingly.

On a serious note, Michael recognizes that regardless of technological innovations, the COVID-19 pandemic will disrupt firms’ cash flow. He shares his experience with a market panic and how he has been proactive in protecting the firm’s finances through pulling out money ahead of time and watching his finances very carefully. He also cautions other firms against laying employees off too soon, citing the proposed stimulus bill (which has now passed) would provide loan forgiveness to small businesses who use the money for payroll. He also understands that sometimes, you have to do whatever is right for your firm to stay afloat during these challenging times.

With all these sudden and extreme changes, employee morale can fall to the wayside. Jacob asks Michael what many listeners must be wondering – How do you keep employee morale up during this process? Michael simply states: “We’re overcommunicating.” His firm has focused on having consistent and frequent video conference calls to communicate on daily tasks, collaborates on larger projects, and even gather socially for a Friday evening virtual happy hour. He explains how important it was to tell his staff they could financially handle a 3-4 month quarantine and not have layoffs, and ensure staff of his focus on keeping everyone safe, be it their health or job security. Jacob compliments Michael on his efforts so far and adds that he feels morale has actually increased since the beginning of this crisis, noting that employees can see the massive amount of effort and reassurance given so far. Michael also believes “overcommunicating” applies to clients and referral attorneys and has made an effort to touch base with everyone in his network. This has led to his firm continuing to receive case referrals because they are being proactive.

Lastly, Jacob and Michael discuss their main takeaways during COVID-19. Jacob sees this time as an opportunity to gain skills to better your practice, spend more time with your family, and push your abilities as an attorney. Michael agrees and adds that it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself physically and mentally. He also emphasizes the importance of patience and thankfulness during these difficult times. Michael ends on a powerful note: “We all need to step up and be leaders – leaders for our firms, leaders for our clients, and leaders for our communities.”

This podcast also covers virtual court hearings, telemedicine, self-insured retentions, Microsoft Teams, why clients are liking the face time with attorneys using Zoom, virtual document signing (www.notarize.com), and the efficiency of technology.

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