In the fall of 1993, a 30-year old African-American male, Michael, came to my office for a consultation. Michael sustained a brain injury when he was struck by a motorcycle after exiting a bus at an unsafe and dangerous location in a busy intersection. I knew nothing about personal injury law, but I was convinced that Michael’s case had merit and promised to help.
After immersing myself in the procedures of personal injury law and the medical and legal aspects of proving a traumatic brain injury, Michael’s case settled for a modest sum after one week of trial. I was disappointed in the result and disgusted by the racism of a juror, but I had found my calling. There was nothing that would ever be as fascinating and gratifying as catastrophic injury law, and I made a decision to devote the rest of my career to the most seriously injured.
My Big Chance
In 1996, I got my big chance. An associate’s position opened at a nationally prominent catastrophic injury law firm and I jumped at the chance. I was thrown immediately into the fire with trials of complex injury and medical malpractice cases. There was no partner looking over my shoulder at the trials—I was the one and only lawyer for the injury victim in court and everything rested on my novice trial skills. Somehow I survived.
Truth be told, I had more than my share of defense verdicts. I found that juries are unpredictable, have little attention span and often render verdicts that have nothing to do with the evidence (or logic). Discouraged, I fought on.
In 1999, I became a non-equity partner in the law firm and I thought my future was bright. Little did I know.
A BIG Wake-Up Call
In the summer of 2007, I handled a complex case involving an extremely dangerous grade crossing. The grade crossing had been the site of way too many collisions between trains and tractor-trailers, and I had been determined to do what I could to prevent another wreck. I was facing the best railroad defense lawyer in the business and the case involved complicated and novel issues of law and fact. Worse yet, I was learning railroad law on the fly.
After a week of trial, the case settled and I was happy with the result…but my bosses weren’t. Shortly after the trial, I was asked to meet with the senior partners, and I was told that I was “incompetent”. The assessment made by the senior partners was tough to swallow after years as a “partner”, but this prompted a radical change in my mindset.
I realized that working for someone else had no security–I could be fired at any time, even as a partner with a history of great results. I had to begin planning for my departure from the firm. To be ready for that day, I needed one thing more than anything else: CLIENTS.
A Long Overdue Epiphany
I realized—perhaps for the first time—that the practice of law involved a lot more than technical proficiency. Even the most gifted trial lawyers struggle to make a living and it finally dawned on me why: being a great trial lawyer means nothing WITHOUT CLIENTS.
I realized what few lawyers ever admit: getting clients is the most important thing lawyers do. While lawyers will begrudgingly admit that marketing is important, few ever do anything to improve their systems for getting clients. I was determined to avoid this mistake.
I began devoting my time and spare money to building marketing systems—online and offline. I immersed myself in books and seminars about marketing and learned everything I could. Slowly things began to change. New clients and referring lawyers began calling me from across the country and a little at a time, my marketing efforts were paying off.
The Best Thing that Ever Happened
On June 2, 2010, I was called into a meeting with the senior partners. At first, we made small talk and then one of the senior partners dropped a bomb, “John, it’s time we part ways.” I knew eventually the day would come where I would have to fend for myself, but I was the guy bringing the clients to the firm. As the guy bringing clients to the firm, I thought I had job security…I was wrong. I had no idea at that time that this would be the best thing that would ever happen for my career.
I had little to work with: no secretary, computer or office equipment. But I had one thing that counted more than anything: CLIENTS. Four months after being fired, I settled a case for $2 million and I was off to the races. Still making tons of mistakes and learning about law firm management on the fly, but having fun and kicking some butt.
A Struggle that Ends on a Good Note
Fast forward to the summer of 2016. Following a deposition, a long-time adversary/defense lawyer pulls me aside and volunteers, “I must say, you’re happier than I’ve ever seen you.” Wow, didn’t expect that! But the defense lawyer was spot on, I was never really happy working for someone else. My life was comfortable and I paid my bills, but that isn’t what life is really about.
Life is about taking a chance (sometimes an extreme risk) to live the life of your dreams. There are many more ups and downs in solo practice than I ever could have imagined, but with small, incremental improvements that are made on a daily basis, anything is possible. Taking a risk of not really risking anything at all—failing to take the chance is the real risk.
I wrote my second book, The Law Firm of Your Dreams, to help show you the mistakes that I’ve made and the policies and systems that have made a big difference. I hope you can implement some of them to build the law firm of your dreams. You may not agree with everything, but take what you can and start building the systems and policies that will give you the law firm–and life–that you’ve always dreamt of.
And just maybe one day, you’ll thank your lucky stars that your bosses fired you.
Your Takeaway from this Story
Without this backstory, you would not be able to relate to me. I’d just be another boring lawyer. You share your backstory because you want prospective clients to know about your weaknesses and vulnerabilities. If they can relate to where you came from, they will follow you. This is how you become a leader.
Redemption stories are powerful because they show the benefits of going through hardship and meeting challenges. Most lawyers never use this tool.
The degree of success you achieve in life is directly proportional to the amount of pain you can tolerate. –Jon Morrow
No one wants to hear about the perfect lawyer. Yet most of us try to put on a perfect façade and alienate the prospective clients we are trying to reach. Once your clients know you’re not perfect—that you have flaws—they will empathize with you because you are just like them: imperfect.
A Lawyer’s Brilliant Backstory
Florida injury lawyer, Craig Goldenfarb, Esq., uses his backstory in his TV ads. Craig’s most effective TV ad tells the story of his parents and how their experiences as lawyers made him want to become a lawyer.
The story does not scream, “Hire me. I’m the best lawyer on the planet.” The story mentions nothing about settlements, verdicts or Craig’s skills, but rather tells his backstory, namely, why he became a lawyer. This is powerful stuff and turns out, is very effective in generating new clients. Why? Because no other lawyers are doing this and the prospective clients can empathize with Craig’s story.
Does this work? Craig has 50 employees and is one of the premier injury lawyers in the ultra-competitive market of south Florida. You can be the judge.
photo credit: m-a-s-h-i-m-a-r-o Rainbow via photopin (license)