Over the last 25 years, Atticus has been fortunate to coach thousands of successful attorneys. Certain attorneys have stood out over the years due to the persistence, creativity, and bold innovations they employed to better serve their clients and grow their practices. As part of our 25th Anniversary Celebration, we have dedicated this space to profile these attorneys, their ideas, and insights. Hopefully, we have done it in a way that honors them and educates the legal profession with a few Best Practice Principles for law firms.
Michele Fuller: Team Builder Extraordinaire
If there’s one word to describe Michigan Elder Law attorney Michele Fuller, that word is inspirational. Rarely do we come across someone who embraces change and implements new ideas at the rapid pace of this attorney. A recent recipient of the Women In Law, Elder and Disability Lawyer of the Year Award, bestowed by Lawyer Monthly Magazine, this mother of four is a graceful blend of enthusiasm and intelligence who builds on her past training and experience, but is not attached to it. As someone who “hyper-specializes” in special needs planning and elder law, she finds herself at that rare intersection of doing what she loves, serving the kind of clients she loves, and being well paid for it.
Getting to this place wasn’t easy and it didn’t come overnight. As a child she dreamed of being an attorney and being the best in her field. Although trained in international law, she gravitated to Elder Law because it was a newer area of practice and offered her room to grow as it gained momentum. When she started coaching with Steve Riley, Atticus Practice Advisor, five years ago, she had just leased space that seemed impossibly large. Now, with the growth of her firm, she’s bursting at the seams and contemplating her next big move.
You’d think that someone this accomplished would be a little arrogant. But not Michele: as the leader of her growing firm, she works hard to take her ego out of the equation and gives her team credit for much of her success. Several years ago her team was composed of an entirely different group of people, but because they were so resistant to change, she recognized not all of them would be able to grow along with her. Today, with a new team in place, she feels the right people are on the bus and they’re a great match for her vision – when she wants to implement new ideas, they’re there to help her execute and even improve on them.
Michele and her team didn’t become such good collaborators by accident. Over the last several years she’s invested heavily in her team’s education and training, well beyond the substantive training you’d expect a firm to provide. She brings team members to the Atticus Dominate Your Market™ (DYM) Program every quarter and relies on their on-the-spot input to help her hone her quarterly objectives. They benefit from being exposed to new ideas firsthand, and she benefits from the speed with which they can execute once they understand the concept. Needless to say, this team is special and she admits to being amazed by how much they take the initiative and innovate on their own. Since she’s a big-picture thinker and not detail-oriented, they’re the perfect complement to her personality.
Prompted by the DYM Program, her leadership style has moved from the Heroic Style, which depends exclusively on the efforts of the firm founder, to a Post Heroic Style, in which she acts as more of a coach for her team. A shift like this requires a high degree of trust, and a willingness to allow her team the freedom to make a few mistakes. For her, it’s like raising children – if they don’t get to make a few mistakes, they never learn. Controlling too much means no one else has the chance to be successful. Trust like this is hardest to maintain when it comes to client care, but due to her ambitious efforts, she can now state, “The team members at the firm are zealous advocates and supporters of our clients.”
She’s recently added an associate to her team who handles most of the technical work of the practice, leaving her free to meet with clients and design creative strategies to protect their loved ones. This new-found freedom means she’s not experiencing the burn-out many of her colleagues suffer and, in fact, feels more energized than ever by her practice.
This freedom has also allowed her the time and space to work on the writing she enjoys. Already the co-author of two books, Special Needs Trusts: Protect Your Child’s Financial Future, and Finding Grace, which chronicles a client’s experience while caring for her aging mother. She is currently at work updating the NOLO seventh press edition of Special Needs Trusts: Protect Your Child’s Financial Future and is working with Kevin Urbatsch to adapt his special needs trust administration book to comply with Michigan State Law. Given her outgoing, people-oriented personality, this is not necessarily something you would think she would enjoy, but she follows her coach’s advice to set aside large chunks of time to whittle away at a task many would find tedious.
Whether it’s sharing her extensive knowledge through publishing, public speaking, or designing the right plan to meet her clients’ needs, Michele’s innate creativity and flexible approach has brought her to the point where she really can focus on the big picture – and trust her well-trained team to handle the rest. In a complex, ever-evolving practice area that requires sophisticated strategizing to serve its clients, it’s the best of both worlds.
Mark Metzger: Keeping His Competitive Edge With an Ancient Tradition
Elder Law & Estate Planning; Business Law
When Mark Metzger, a business and estate planning attorney in Naperville, Illinois, began to hear that the Mindfulness movement, currently gaining traction in the legal profession, claimed to calm the mind, sharpen one’s ability to focus and be fully engaged in the present moment, he was skeptical. But just intrigued enough to look into it further.
Rooted in the ancient Buddhist practice of meditation, mindfulness is meditation stripped of its spiritualism. Traditional meditation involves sitting quietly for periods of time, sometimes repeating a mantra or focusing on the in and out rhythm of the breath. Mindfulness seeks the same end in a secular fashion, requiring practitioners to be able to sit quietly to become fully present.
To learn more about the subject, Metzger picked up Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier, in which the author recounts his own pursuit of mindfulness. Metzger was immediately put at ease by Harris’ irreverent and questioning approach to mindfulness. Adopting meditation wasn’t an instant fix for Harris, and Metzger found the author’s skeptical approach to enlightenment appealing.
Convinced that the potential rewards were worth a little experimentation, Metzger decided to give mindfulness a try once he completed the book. During his initial forays into meditation, he sat quietly and experienced the extreme discomfort of being alone with his thoughts that Harris had written about. With his distractions stripped away, he was able to tune in to the stream-of-consciousness chatter constantly running through his mind.
Ancient Buddhists called this chatter the “Monkey Mind.” Modern scientists have speculated that some of this inner dialogue may originate in the amygdala, one of the most primitive and fear-driven parts of the human brain. Designed in part to anticipate danger, this primal part of the brain can go into emotional overdrive and anticipate threats around every corner. Ordinary events can morph into potential catastrophes when the amygdala is left to its own devices. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have any insight into this phenomenon and can become obsessive.
Regrettably, for lawyers, there is no shortage of legitimate issues to obsess about — in fact the legal Monkey Mind can be fraught with even more negativity because the stakes are higher and the risk of failure even more pronounced. It’s no wonder that most attorneys thrive on constant distractions — they provide relief from the unrelenting negativity of our mental chatter.
To help him avoid distractions during his initial attempts at meditation, Metzger downloaded “Headspace,” an app that advertises itself as a sort of “personal trainer for the mind.” With 30,000 users, it offers guided meditations for practitioners at every level. Like most practitioners, Metzger started with short five or ten minute sessions, but can now sit for longer and longer periods of time. His stated goal is to reach an hour.
An hour is a huge commitment of time in anyone’s life, let alone that of a busy and successful attorney. But Metzger considers his ability to meditate that critical to his well-being. In fact, some of the literature he is reading suggests mindfulness is something akin to a superpower. It gives him an edge when he can observe the inner-workings of his brain and counter negativity before it takes hold.
For him, this sense of control over his emotions is one of the biggest benefits of mindfulness. When negative emotions threaten to cloud the issues, he can see through them and tap into the logical side of his brain more effectively. In addition, new solutions sometimes bubble up during his periods of meditation, helping him to be more innovative.
Not surprisingly, not everyone believes that techniques such as these are useful for lawyers who endure almost supernatural levels of stress. But Metzger has become an advocate of the practice, encouraging his stressed-out colleagues to give it a try. After all, the pressure to bill more hours, work with demanding clients and be available 24 hours a day will only get worse as the legal profession continues to grow and become more competitive.
Metzger believes the only thing you have power over is how you react to it all. If you can develop new techniques to manage your emotions, shift your inner dialog and calm yourself, your chances of managing your stress levels and focusing long enough to get things done really increase. He’s living proof that using ancient techniques to survive the modern age will help you maintain not only your sanity, but also your competitive edge.
The Remarkable Cheryl Hepfer
Family Law & Collaborative Law Attorney
There are many remarkable things to note about Cheryl Hepfer, not the least of which is that she was admitted to and earned her degree from law school in 1972, prior to the Higher Education Act prohibiting discrimination based on gender. At that time less than three percent of law students were women and there’s no question that they had to work twice as hard to be taken half as seriously. Today women make up more than half of all law students, but the social barriers to entry in 1972 were enormous. To earn your way in before those barriers were lifted was an extraordinary feat.
The fact that Cheryl went on to earn her degree and then become one of the most celebrated family law attorneys in Maryland is no surprise. That she also became president of both the American and International Academies of Matrimonial Law is just further evidence of her persistence and leadership in the profession.
When Cheryl began working with Atticus she had successfully run her law practice in the Bethesda area for many years. Already named a SuperLawyer and designated a Top Lawyer by the Washingtonian, she wanted to ensure she was managing her firm well while taking on higher level leadership roles in the AAML.
Many attorneys will seek out coaching, especially when faced with juggling new roles and responsibilities. That’s not uncommon. But many of these attorneys, so willing at first, are reticent about implementing new strategies when push comes to shove.
Not so with Cheryl. Her proactive approach paired with a large measure of determination meant she got rapid results and moved on to tackle the next issue.
But determination is not enough to shape a career. Helping to propel her is her caring and creative approach to marketing. She focuses on building trust and rapport with her clients no matter how difficult their issues. In addition, months and sometimes years, after her work with clients was complete, she’d pick up the phone and check in, genuinely concerned about their well-being. A great many of her astonished clients responded by sending friends and family her way when the need arose. Not surprisingly, her rate of referrals from past clients was very high.
With her referral sources, her marketing strategies reflected not only a caring attitude, but a sense of fun. Prior to tax season, for example, she’d send the many CPAs she worked with chocolate covered coffee beans with a “prescription” to take as needed to get through their busy season. These weary referral sources appreciated the clever gesture and remembered her when they had clients in need of her services.
Always interested in supporting good causes, she partnered with the Red Cross for their annual Blood Drive. She and her team sent out postcards that read, “Divorce Lawyers are Bleeding Hearts,” successfully promoting the Red Cross and bringing in much needed blood donors while quietly raising her firm’s profile.
She also partnered with Habit for Humanity and sent out post cards that read, “We’re divorce attorneys…and nail-bangers.” Again, her passion for raising roofs helped her also raise her profile. At Atticus we call this win/win marketing: doing well by doing good.
In addition to these marketing activities, her leadership positions in the International and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers made her a sought after authority on matrimonial law and she’s been interviewed by national media outlets such as CNN, ABC’s Nightline, The New York Times and National Public Radio.
Now a partner at Offit Kurman, Cheryl could simply rest on her laurels as an accomplished rainmaker and expert attorney. Instead, she feels a responsibility to mentor young lawyers and shares both her substantive and marketing knowledge in both formal and informal settings. She also teaches and mentors young attorneys as part of her work with the AAML.
We hope these young lawyers understand and appreciate the drive and dedication it’s taken for her to develop such an outstanding career. As a woman who gracefully overcame significant gender barriers, dealt with some of the legal profession’s most difficult clients, and has given up large chunks of her personal life to leadership, this expert attorney and seasoned rainmaker has a wealth of knowledge and insight to share.
Richard West: The Checklist Approach to Self-Management
Family Law Attorney
We recently featured some of our most outstanding clients on a Practice Development Series call aimed at highlighting attorneys who, despite their busy lives, manage to implement change and become more efficient. Richard West, a leading family law attorney in Orlando, and SuperLawyer, is one of those attorneys.
Always in search of new ways to improve his effectiveness, he read The Checklist Manifesto and was inspired to develop a checklist-driven approach to organizing his day. What resulted was a checklist that outlined his core functions and helped him focus on what he had to do on a daily basis to have things run smoothly. He shared his checklist with us and it became the basis for the Atticus Daily Focuser which so many Atticus clients have adopted.
For him, a successful day begins with working out, a fact confirmed by researchers who study superior performers. Recent studies have shown that the positive effects of early morning exercise have a cascading effect on the rest of the day. Whether it’s from prevailing over your own resistance to exercise or the fact that it supplies more oxygen to the brain, the exerciser is more focused and thus more productive. Though he recognizes that he can’t exercise every day, Richard believes that having his workout prominently featured as the first check box on the list makes it happen more often than not.
The next most important feature of his list is the three blanks he must fill in with his top priorities for the day. This is what he must get done — even if nothing else gets done, and requires him to focus on those things that are the best use of his time. To help him decide which three priorities to tackle depends on a variety of factors. He checks both his appointments for the day and reviews his calendar for the next two weeks to assess his current slate of court dates and deadlines. He considers the needs of his team and the promises he’s made to clients. His aim is to stay well ahead of his deadlines by looking down the road and working backwards to figure out what he has to do on any given day to meet those deadlines and avoid issues. He tries not to overload himself on a daily basis knowing that unanticipated issues will arise that will have to be addressed.
Also important to him, and worthy of a spot on his checklist, is the task of emptying his inbox. This means checking everything his associates and paralegals send him for review. If he doesn’t review the team’s work in a timely fashion he becomes a significant bottleneck. For him, this is one of the most difficult parts of the checklist to accomplish, but discipline in this area pays off in terms of reducing wait time and maximizing the flow of production for the entire team.
In addition to checking voice mail, answering e-mail and clearing his desk, the next most important item on his checklist is to plan the next day. It gives him peace of mind and, in his words, reduces the “mind traffic” when he gets home. This is the last box he checks off on any given day.
And once that’s done, he leaves – no matter what time it is. While most attorneys would continue to put in the time — even when they’re past the point of being effective, he does not. Instead, he rewards himself for his daily exercise in discipline by leaving, even if it’s two o’clock in the afternoon. For someone who values balance in his life, this is very motivating.
That he builds in this reward is important: it takes almost superhuman strength to approach work in such a disciplined and proactive fashion every day, fending off the fifty plus distractions that derail us daily.
Years ago biologist Thomas Henry Huxley wrote about maintaining such focus, saying that, “Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do — when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not.” What Huxley doesn’t say, but what contemporary behavioral economists and psychologists have added, is that human beings will continue with behaviors that are positively reinforced.
If Richard didn’t reward himself for rigorously making himself do what has to be done, even when he doesn’t feel like it, he’d burn out. His disciplined approach would be unsustainable. His ability to step away once his priorities have been accomplished is crucial – it not only rewards him in terms of productivity, but the free time allows him to recharge his batteries so he can attack his work the next day with energy and enthusiasm. Contrast this with how exhausted many attorneys feel after putting in a long day of time spent less efficiently. They don’t view the next day with anything like energy and enthusiasm.
This is truly the meaning of working smarter, not harder. And it underscores Richard’s belief in the Atticus concept that in order to have a balanced life, you can’t be a slave to your practice. In addition to the personal time that he earns on a daily basis, he makes time for travel, taking several two or three week trips a year. Because he has trained his team to plan and problem-solve according to his high standards, these trips are not a cause for alarm for them or his clients.
All in all, Richard’s focus on results combined with the way he manages his time and energy, while not easy, is a great example for anyone who wants to excel at being an attorney and living a balanced life.
Greg Stokes: Creating a Client-Friendly Firm
Personal Injury Attorney
Just after graduating from John Marshall law school, attorney Greg Stokes was hired to be a “gopher” for a Madison Avenue law firm. He was tasked with visiting firms all over Manhattan to pick up and drop off documents. Despite the fact that he was young and inexperienced, his powers of observation were well-formed. Traveling around the city, he was struck by the fact that though every firm was different, they all seemed set up to intimidate. From the imposing architecture to the subdued way that people conducted themselves, the serious atmosphere was palpable every time he entered the lobby of one of these imposing firms.
Only one firm stood out. Making his rounds one day, he visited a new firm and encountered one of the firm’s partners who, instead of being rushed and distracted, seemed relaxed and approachable – possibly even fun. He took the time to engage Greg in conversation and made him feel important despite his junior status.
It was an encounter that would influence Greg for the rest of his professional career. He walked away vowing that if he ever started his own firm he wanted the atmosphere to feel friendly and welcoming in the same way that rare Manhattan firm had.
Many years later, that vision became a reality. Greg now owns one of the most respected personal injury firms in Atlanta, Georgia with his partner Neil Kopitsky. But he doesn’t take himself too seriously, the atmosphere he tries to create is client-friendly and far from intimidating.
But, as he’s quick to admit, that was the easy part. Success in those early years brought with it a lot of stress and some unanticipated problems.
On the plus side, Greg’s ability to create a firm with a friendly approach combined with his natural enthusiasm for helping people quickly attracted clients– so he was making money. That part of the equation was working. But at the same time he struggled with how to quickly scale his firm to meet the demand and to build a team that could deliver on his promise to take good care of clients. He felt his firm was like a runaway train about to go off the tracks. Not knowing quite how to gain control, he invested a lot of time and energy in his firm but lived in constant fear that the whole operation was going to crash and burn.
It wasn’t until he began working with Atticus Practice Advisor Gary Holstein that things started to stabilize. It was then that he learned how to slow down and control his runaway train.
Putting in Place a Dashboard
The first step required him to buy into the idea that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. It sounds simple, but he felt out of control because his runaway train had no dashboard. He lacked the information he needed to drive the train. There was nothing to indicate how fast he was going, what direction he was headed and whether he had the fuel to get to his destination. Working with Gary, Greg assembled a dashboard containing the key indicators that would provide the feedback he needed to keep everything on track and moving forward. Together they modified the basic Atticus Dashboard to enable him to run his practice with precision.
He calls this dashboard the “Seven, Six, Five Dashboard.”
It is so named because he keeps an eagle eye on three critical numbers every week. His goal is for the firm to open seven new cases a week, send six new demands per week and settle five new cases per week. If they meet these goals, he knows three of his most important systems are working: his marketing systems have to be in good shape to predictably deliver seven new cases a week; his team and the substantive systems they use have to be productive if they can submit six new demands per week and his settlement systems must be working if the firm can get five settlements a week.
Reducing his main focus to these three key metrics not only gave him a sense of control but freed him up to innovate in other areas of his practice, such as client service.
The Unique Client Experience
Not content with status quo level client service, Greg innovated further to implement something he calls the Unique Client Experience. To help each client feel taken care of, his case managers reach out to them every two weeks by phone during their treatment phase. This serves multiple purposes: it makes the clients feel taken care of and allows the team to support and encourage the clients as they undergo treatment. The clients are pleased with the attention, the team is able to keep their cases moving, and good clients don’t deteriorate into bad clients. Not surprisingly, the firm gets a healthy percentage of their referrals from these happy past clients.
Making Marketing Fun
To create Top of Mind Awareness with a database of 8,000 past and present clients, the firm publishes an email newsletter, constantly upgrades their website with user-friendly videos, and liberally uses something Greg has dubbed “pirate swag.”
Pirate swag refers to all the fun and unusual items branded with the firm logo. He and his team go beyond the norm with funny customized calendars and a wide array of entertaining desktop items that bring a sense of serious fun to their marketing. When Greg goes to lunch with a referral source he’ll hand them a gift bag containing the latest pirate swag and say, “We really appreciate your business and we hope we continue getting clients from you.” Because he and his team have sought out such interesting and unusual items, this goes over well every time. He knows the difficulty of maintaining top-of-mind awareness in a highly competitive market like Atlanta and this is his way of standing out from the crowd. Fortunately for him, it works.
The Team Makes the Difference
Before coming to Atticus, Greg believed that he was someone who readily embraced change. Unfortunately, he discovered he was more resistant to change than he suspected — at least when he was acting alone. Things shifted when he began to involve his team in the coaching process and solicited their support for his ideas. Their interest and ongoing involvement helped him systemize his firm, energize the Unique Client Experience, and support him in his quest to always improve the firm’s Top of Mind Awareness. With their help – and a healthy amount of pirate swag — he’s been able to fulfill the vision that he began to formulate in Manhattan many years ago.
Lonny Balbi: A Game-Changing New Approach to Client Intake
Family Law Attorney
From the earliest days of Atticus, family law attorney Lonny Balbi has traveled down from Calgary, Canada, to participate in high level coaching programs. He was one of the original members in an advanced group coaching program called, “The Collegium,” and still participates in annual Atticus retreats in Boston. Over the years his dedication to fitness, his upbeat approach to life and his legendary innovations have been a source of inspiration for attorneys both in Canada and the United States.
One of the most talked about innovations he has introduced over the years was something he called the “Matrimonial Assessment.” This was his answer to the problem of clients undervaluing his initial consultation and was also designed to prevent clients from scheduling a consultation with him to “conflict out” their spouse. As one of the leading family law attorneys in Canada, he’d been the victim of this pre-emptive strategy numerous times and didn’t want to continue to waste his time with clients who weren’t serious about using him — but simply wanted to prevent their spouse from doing so.
In an effort to solve these problems, he essentially “productized” his initial consultation by re-packaging it and adding considerable value to more thoroughly meet the needs of his clients. His first step was to schedule more time to interview the client to assess their needs and desired outcomes. His typical clients are high net worth individuals who work in Canada’s booming oil business, and their financial issues tend to be complex. This means that their uncouplings are often more contentious. He wanted to make sure these clients had a chance to tell their story with a lot of detail. Dedicating more time was important not only because he wanted clients to feel heard, but because he also wanted time to formulate and discuss his strategies to help them reach their desired outcomes. To further their understanding he creates a customized timeline to help clients comprehend the phases of the process up to and including a trial, if necessary.
Given that highly stressed individuals, like those anticipating a divorce, have a difficult time retaining and processing new information, he records the assessment meeting and includes the recording with the client’s take-home materials. This allows the client to review details on their own and reduces some of the phone calls he receives later on.
To increase the educational impact of his meeting, he added more take-home materials such as a redesigned welcome package full of relevant information. He also makes recommendations to clients about seeing other professionals if they need additional psychological support. From his well-stocked library, he also supplies clients with books to inform them throughout the process. Clients also receive a video called Keeping Your Children Out of the Middle of a Divorce – a self-produced program which gives clients tips and strategies from two psychologists on how to reduce conflict in separation proceedings.Before the end of the meeting he introduces the client to his key staff members and the “Designated Hitter” who will assist with the case.
For this enhanced consultation package he charges a substantial fee. This had the effect of separating the serious clients from those who only sought a meeting with him to “conflict out” their spouses, and it also resulted in reducing his personal caseload to fewer, more high-value cases, which had been one of his goals. When clients come seeking a simple divorce or other family law services, they are given the option of having a Matrimonial Assessment with a less-expensive associate who charges a lesser price for the package. This allows the firm to offer tiered levels of service and appeal to a wider demographic.
Instituting the Matrimonial Assessment was a radical departure from Balbi’s traditional approach to client intake. It was ultimately a game-changer for his firm, but at first it was a risky move to impose on an already successful practice. He went through a lengthy process to refine his new intake approach, which required a great deal of time and patience. Nonetheless, like so many of the attorneys who have the courage to break away from the traditional way of doing things, Balbi followed his instincts and took a calculated risk. And he made it happen with the optimism and enthusiasm that are not only the hallmarks of his character, but epitomize the entrepreneurial approach.
James Joseph: Turning A Crisis Into An Opportunity
Family Law Attorney
Garden City, New York
Prior to joining Atticus in 2003, family law attorney James Joseph from Garden City, New York, had been diagnosed with a chronic leukemia. Fortunately, he is now in perfect health, his cancer history an ancient memory. However, when diagnosed in 2001 at the age of 34, he didn’t look or feel sick and was leading a normal life. Aside from quarterly check-ups with an oncologist who monitored his numbers, it was manageable with a few lifestyle adjustments. He came to us determined to build the family law practice he began in 1999.
Before long he’d implemented a great many changes firm wide and was enthusiastically growing his practice. Unfortunately, it all came to a halt when doctors informed him that his condition was worsening. Abruptly, the lifestyle changes he’d made over the years were no longer enough. His health was deteriorating and he needed a course of chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant in order to combat his leukemia. One tough decision after another followed as he prepared himself mentally and physically for these procedures. The most daunting part of the process was not just the transplant itself, but the mandatory three to six month recovery period in which he had to isolate himself from others in order to protect his immune system.
We routinely help attorneys see that with better time management skills they can take control of their time. After they’ve systemized their practice we urge them to take a two-week vacation. We know no better way to test the progress they’ve made in building their systems and strengthening their team. For many attorneys – usually those who lack confidence in their team – two weeks away is impossible to contemplate and they will only risk a week at a time. Those clients who embrace the idea sometimes get so organized that they can take a month off. Typically, they have a great time and the firm is not only still standing but actually stronger when they return a month later.
But an absence up to six months long? Only a life-threatening condition like leukemia could motivate an attorney owner to be absent for that long. Even a naturally optimistic person like James knew that it could seriously damage the firm he struggled so hard to build. Since many small firms are founder-dependent, very few can survive an owner’s absence. James’ firm was no different. Despite the fact that he had two associates, he was the firm’s top producer and most avid promoter. He believed its survival rested firmly on his shoulders.
After much discussion, he was able to see that his forced absence was an opportunity to challenge his team and take his managerial skills to the next level. Mastering both of these leadership skills had been important to James when he first came to Atticus. Now that his firm’s survival was at stake he was motivated like never before.
His first concern centered on providing uninterrupted care for his existing family law clients. With two trials coming up and a lot of clients depending on him, he prepared his associates to cover his cases with his continued direction. In order to stay in constant communication, he formulated a plan to be in touch by e-mail and telephone during his recovery. He set up a remote office from his hospital bed and had daily telephone meetings with the team to strategize and give direction. His goal was to make the transition to his associates as seamless as possible for his clients while still providing them the best possible outcome.
Understandably, he worried that his clients, used to his very personal approach, wouldn’t feel as confident working with his associates. Fortunately, when given the choice, all of the clients opted to continue with the firm and he worked to reassure them that he was overseeing everything in the background. This is the same shift we ask of many attorneys who want to transition to the “team approach” instead of being the only point of contact with their clients. Leveraging like this is important for the maturation and growth of most firms, but it’s not an easy task under the best of circumstances, let alone when the attorney is dealing with a life-threatening illness.
Compounding his concerns, James worried about how much to disclose about his illness to the group of referral sources who regularly sent him business. He didn’t want this group to lose confidence in the firm and take their business elsewhere once he revealed his planned absence. The firm needed a stream of new clients in order to survive. After a great deal of debate, he sent a letter to each one that explained the situation he was facing and asked for their support. The huge outpouring of understanding and help that he got in response went a long way to relieve his concerns. And the fact that his firm continued to get referrals was a testament to how much he was liked and respected by his colleagues and other professionals.
Ultimately, due to his ability to see opportunity in the middle of a crisis, and the good will he’d built up in his community, he pulled through. He not only survived the bone marrow transplant, but his firm survived the long recovery period that followed.
Today, 14 years post-diagnosis, James is in perfect health and back at the helm of his divorce and family law firm. He’s an active participant in the Atticus Dominate Your Market® program and continues to seek innovative ways to serve his clients. In a program that promises to help attorneys maintain a competitive edge, he has an additional advantage: he’s a little wiser than most about the importance of building and leading a strong team. By strengthening his team, honing his managerial skills and focusing on a high level of client service, he managed to turn one of the worst crises an attorney could suffer into an opportunity for personal and professional growth — proving that it’s not the strongest that survive, but those who can best adapt to change.
Joe Seagle and Philip Richardson: Calculated Risk-Takers
Real Estate Attorney
In the Atticus Dominate Your MarketTM Program — a group populated by some of the most entrepreneurial attorneys we know – real estate, bankruptcy and estate planning attorney Joe Seagle and his partner, attorney Philip Richardson, stand apart from the crowd because of the advanced innovations they’ve made. Not because they possess the typical risk-taking entrepreneurial personality profiles typical of many in the program, but because they don’t. Their inventiveness comes more from their mutual obsession to remain on the cutting-edge of a very competitive market and their belief that’s only possible if they’re dedicated to extreme levels of client service.
This obsession has given rise to some of the most interesting innovations we’ve seen in the program. But, like so many Atticus attorneys, success begins with the way they manage their time. In this case, they divide and conquer.
While both enjoy working on the business, Joe has a love of the law that compels him to spend a lot of time working in the firm and title company. Licensed to practice in three states plus the District of Columbia, about 70% of his time is focused on substantive work and supervising his team. An uber technician by choice, he cherry-picks only the most interesting and complex cases because he enjoys the intellectual challenges they present.
With Seagle focused on the substantive side of the business, Richardson, former in-house counsel for Starwood Vacation Ownership, Inc. and also licensed in multiple states throughout the south, is free to spend more time working on the business. In fact, almost 90% of his time is spent managing referral relationships, developing new business and most importantly: listening to the ever-changing needs of their clients. While most of the firms we know would make this same claim, this firm takes listening to clients seriously – very seriously. They’re obsessed.
Seagle, who often wakes up at night thinking about ways to improve client service, describes it this way, “When clients start to discuss the hassles they’re experiencing, not necessarily with us, but with any aspect of their transaction — that’s when we pay close attention. We want to be the go-to providers for our clients, and their issues spark the ideas that lead to our innovations.”
Most recently, for example, client concerns led these partners to develop a very sophisticated software application based on the exact reporting needs of their large institutional clients who wanted to be able to aggregate and analyze all of their case-related data. To provide this level of convenience for their clients meant a huge investment of time and effort for Seagle and Richardson – with no guarantee that the end result would be what they wanted. Finding software developers who could turn their idea into a reality involved multiple false starts and continual frustration. Driven by their desire to stay on the leading edge of change, they persisted — even though this project proved to be a significant distraction from their everyday business. Ultimately, their persistence paid off: their new software provides an even greater level of service to their clients and further differentiates them from their competition.
Maintaining a competitive edge is increasingly difficult in a crowded field. For these partners, the quarterly Dominate Your MarketTM meetings serve as a personal firm retreat which forces them to step away from their everyday business and review the progress they’ve made. Like many attorneys, they’re so focused on what’s not working that they don’t take the time to acknowledge any real progress they’ve made. When asked to report on the successes they’ve had, they’re encouraged by the fact that there are significant wins hidden among all the ideas they tried to implement.
As their record of success grows, so does their judgment about where to focus their time and attention. Monitoring their projects in a disciplined way, along with their shared natural tendency to not take risks, ensures the risks they take are very targeted. The ever-changing needs of their clients, both large and small, provides them with an ongoing roadmap for change and improvement. For Seagle and Richardson, taking calculated risks and seeing problems as opportunities gives them their competitive edge.
Commercial Litigation Attorney
Siegel, Hughes and Ross
Jack Ross, a board certified commercial litigation attorney in Gainesville, Florida, with the firm of Siegel, Hughes and Ross, is someone who personifies great persistence. He attended the Atticus Practice Builder in 2005 and was first exposed to the Atticus time management system. He liked the Time Template and our approach to getting more done in less time by curtailing interruptions. He decided to experiment with it by adopting the habit of daily, closed-door production time we call the “Power Hour.”
Adopting this simple-sounding new habit is easier said than done. We watch many of our clients make this same decision, and then struggle to make the behavioral changes needed to make it happen. We understand — it’s difficult to change years of responding in a reactive fashion to constant interruptions.
But Jack was determined.
Like most trial lawyers, he’d experienced the extreme productivity and hyper-focus he could tap into when up against a deadline. His goal was to tap into that level of focus every day — by design, not just when he was up against a hard deadline.
For him, like most of our clients, an hour or two of production time seemed impossible to carve out of a morning filled with ringing telephones, staff questions and constant interruptions. He had to retrain his staff, his clients and worst of all, himself, to make it happen. After trying unsuccessfully to establish this habit, and failing time after time, he decided he’d try one more technique to train himself.
He decided he wouldn’t go to lunch until he’d had an hour or two of closed-door production time in the morning and accomplished his most important production priorities for the day.
With great persistence, he patiently delayed lunch day after day until his morning production time became a permanently-ingrained new habit. That required a very high level of commitment and the discipline to delay gratification – two characteristics that are becoming increasingly rare in our on-demand society.
Now Jack describes his day this way: “Imagine that you can go to work in the morning with a list of things you want to accomplish. You close your door and manage to accomplish everything on your list. You aren’t interrupted by numerous phone calls and are not disrupted by multiple emergencies. You go home at a reasonable hour after having generated a reasonable amount of revenue for the day. I have those days on a regular basis as a result of the things I have learned from Atticus.”