Josh and Aaron recently sat down with BBB Podcast host, Jason Meza, to talk about what makes FVF Law successful and how our unique approach to personal injury law has kept the firm growing. Tune in to hear about what makes FVF different, our 2020 BBB Torch Award for Ethics win, how Team FVF adapted to COVID-19, and more.
Listen HERE or read the transcript below.
Introduction: Welcome to Decoding Business. Decoding Business is produced by Better Business Bureau, serving the heart of Texas. Here’s your host, Jason Meza.
Jason Meza: People first, attorneys second. That’s the mantra of our guest today. Personal injury law firms are in a particular industry that’s known for shark attacks, tough business tactics and big dollars, especially when clients turn to the legal industry for help. Flip the script, there are law firms who hope to change that perception with a message of trust. FVF law firm out of Austin, Texas, a 2020 BBB Torch Awards for ethics winner, part of the Super Lawyers Rising Stars and the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum. Their message today is one of hope. In light of COVID-19, there is hope that law practices can change the dark image and operate with the eight standards of trust that BBB operates with. To the interview now, speaking with Josh Fogelman and Aaron Von Flatern of FVF law firm from Austin, talk to us about starting your business, main challenges, struggles and the opportunity you found.
Josh Fogelman: Yeah, so we started the law firm towards the end of 2014. Just to give some background on it, prior to that, through a series of really challenging events, Aaron lost his boss and mentor, and I lost my mentor, and Aaron’s boss, who was Ross Ehlinger. I was working for a local law firm in Austin, Aaron was working for Ross Ehlinger, when Ross passed away, and then our firm sort of merged in wake of that and Aaron and I were handling a pretty complicated construction litigation case at that time together. So Aaron and I had gotten to know each other really well by that time, and we sort of understood the synergy that we had. And I guess, when something tragic and catastrophic happens, which we lost Ross Ehlinger and I lost my dad within about 10 days of each other, it sort of changes the fabric of who you are as a person and really makes you take a step back and take a broader look at what you want to accomplish with your life.
Jason Meza: Right.
Josh Fogelman: And Aaron and I had some deep conversations about where we were headed in our careers and what we really wanted in life, and we decided that we wanted to have control over this practice of law, which is a privilege that Aaron and I both take extraordinarily seriously. So, we made the decision that we were going to start FVF Law. We had a really, a pretty solidified vision about what we were wanting to do in terms of sort of changing the way that personal injury attorneys are perceived in the community, rather than being looked at as a nuisance, someone that’s just on your TV blaring at you all the time. We really wanted people to understand that personal injury attorneys, the ethical ones, the good ones, are really there to help, to educate and inform people who are in a very vulnerable place in their life, who have been harmed, who don’t know what to do, their lives have been turned upside. So we knew that that’s what we wanted to do.
Josh Fogelman: Getting started was a challenge, because just like any business, in order to start a business, you have to have customers and cases. So Aaron and I, we had done a pretty decent job of developing a pipeline of business just by doing the things that we knew we wanted to continue to do, which was provide outstanding service to our clients in a way that was meaningful to them, and that was beginning to show up in the form of positive reviews and positive feedback on the Internet. So, we really leveraged that to be comfortable with a jumping off point and go ahead and get started. But it was scary, you know? Scary because you never know when that phone is going to ring. Personal injury cases are typically taken on a contingency fee, which means we don’t get paid any sort of income until a case resolves, and that can be sometimes two or three years down the road.
Jason Meza: Right.
Josh Fogelman: So, it was definitely a nerve-wracking situation, but it was one that Aaron knew sort of in our heart of hearts that that’s what we wanted to do. So, with that, I’ll let Aaron talk about some of the struggles that we went through in getting the business launched.
Aaron Von Flatern: Man, Josh you really hit it all I think. I think we looked around and realized that we really enjoyed doing something that the community also kind of needed, and that is a different kind of personal injury law. We treated it like every case was our last one, and we wanted to make sure our clients walked away with every single thing they could possibly get, and knowing that their lawyers had turned over every rock possible. We really enjoyed that process, we like doing it, and we realized that we were entering this new era of reviews, online reviews are driving everything. The Better Business Bureau is sort of the original version of that, but people are looking online and doing their homework and doing their research before they hire. And so, we felt like we were really well poised to launch into that market well, given that we already liked what we’re doing. And we also realized that we had special values and we wanted to build a team around that. And so, having a values based, mission-driven law firm was not something we had seen much of, at least in the personal injury space in Austin, and so, we felt like there was a chance there.
Jason Meza: Okay. What takes a law firm from good to great? You kind of answered this in your first response, but what elements in your business do you preach?
Aaron Von Flatern: Yeah, there’s a book called Good to Great, and I remember reading it as we were building this law firm on an airplane heading to a conference to learn about building law firms. And I think what I take is that, or what I took from that is, you have to treat it like a business, you know? Build a team. Build a high-quality team. Get the right people on the bus, so to speak, before you leave. And making sure you’re getting help. It’s very easy in this business to be concerned about whether or not you’re going to get that next client and therefore, you don’t want to hire anybody, you’re just going to do it all yourself. Well, that can be very limiting, and we found early on that we limited ourselves quite a bit until we just took that leap and hired some people and got some help and started to build that good team. And the big, big thing is just being, like any good business, being accountable to your clients and being accountable to your people. Making sure that they can rely on you to do what you say and follow through.
Josh Fogelman: Yeah, I would add to that. There are a couple of unique challenges to this particular type of business. Kind of going back to what I said before, you’re working with people who are vulnerable, and there is such a disparity of knowledge and understanding about the insurance claims process or the personal injury claim process between you as the attorney and most clients who are already overwhelmed, that there is plenty of opportunity to take advantage of people, and there are, unfortunately, personal injury attorneys out there, even in our community who do that, take advantage of people, and settle their claims quickly and for less money than what that person rightfully deserves. And when you’re first starting a law firm and you don’t have a consistent paycheck, there can be a lot of temptation to do that, getting money in the door now so that you can keep the lights on.
Josh Fogelman: We were never prepared or going to forego our ethics or our principles at the expense of our clients in order to make the law firm work. And so, at some point when you get to a point where you’re like, “Gosh, man, we’ve got a bunch of really good cases and a bunch of really good clients, we really wish one of them would pay now so that we can make sure that we’ve got paycheck.” You just have to take a leap of faith and say, “We’re just going to forge ahead. We are going to press on, we’re not going to take the cheap money, we’re not going to take money at the expense of our clients. We’re just going to move forward and do what we do.” And taking that leap of faith is a really challenging process in starting this business and getting a business like this off the ground, and part of, in my experience, the process of trying to achieve greatness. Aaron and I were talking about this yesterday, and greatness is something that you are always striving for. I don’t think it’s ever a place where you are.
Josh Fogelman: If you’re not continuing to try to be great, then you’ve given up and you should probably find a different career. But in addition to that, knowing what you don’t know and recognizing your shortcomings and surrounding yourself with people who can fill in those gaps for you and develop a type of synergy that works, is a must in that journey. Aaron and I not only… We are both very lucky, I think, in that we have a synergy that I’m not sure either of us really recognized fully what that was going to be like, as our relationship developed and as our partnership developed, but I at least, speaking for myself, feel extraordinarily grateful to have Aaron in a partner, because he brings a unique perspective to the table that I never would have had on my own, that has been integral in our success. Period, end of story.
Josh Fogelman: But that’s also true with the team that we’ve built, and it’s been hard finding the right people to fill the right positions. But knowing what you don’t know, recognizing your shortcomings and having a partner or someone you trust who’s not afraid to talk to you openly about what some of those shortcomings are or about… What your strengths and weaknesses are, generally speaking, it is something that I personally have needed in order to continue along this path.
Aaron Von Flatern: 100% agree, with the good comments about me. [laughter] Of course. No, no Josh has been exactly as he described, kind of a different complementary type of person, and that’s what you need to find in a partner, is somebody who has strengths that you don’t have, and whose weaknesses you can help with.
Jason Meza: Okay. COVID-19. Talk to us about the impact of the pandemic on your business and the legal industry as a whole. Every business, every industry hit by COVID in a bad or a good way, but everybody has been affected. How did it affect you?
Josh Fogelman: We have always stressed the importance of care for our team. Our team is our family, and we treat them like our family. So when things got real in March of last year, we were extremely quick to shut down the doors to our office and begin the process of building a remote network of our entire team, which with every organization presented numerous challenges, but we were very confident in the team that we had built, that we were going to be able to bridge some of the gaps and make it work. You know, the biggest challenges, I think were, of course, understanding how we were going to be able to continue having the synergy that we were used to being with each other all the time when we couldn’t be together anymore, and also keeping morale high. And we were never really concerned that much about the productivity of our team. We trusted our team implicitly, and they have demonstrated time and time and time again that that’s not really something that we need to be concerned about, just super autonomous, high-functioning people.
Josh Fogelman: But keeping the morale high was really challenging and something that we had to pivot. Fortunately, we pride ourselves in being sort of creative outside-the-box people, not only in the way that we practice law, but in the way that we run our organization. So, we were really quick to… And Aaron and Margaret and Caitlyn in our organization really led the charge on a lot of this stuff. We were really quick to develop daily, at first, stand-ups, so everyone could just be in a group together and realize, “Hey, look, we’re all experiencing this for the first time, but we’re going to experience it together and we’re going to experience it as a family and we’re going to forge ahead and we’re going to push through this and we’re going to make it work. Even if we have nothing to talk about, we’re going to talk and just check in on each other and see how we’re doing.”
Josh Fogelman: Which led to weekly stand-up meetings where we would just check in with each other, say hello, and now we kind of have our weekly leadership meeting. Something that was really cool that we did I think, too, we had a couple of firm office parties that were virtual, gift exchanges, and we all got together one day and everybody… We handed out Amazon gift cards so that everyone can rent the same movie, and we watched, I think it was Batman, together as a firm with everyone starting and hitting play at the same time, and the firm organized Tiff’s Treats to be sent to everyone and Uber Eats gift certificate so that everyone could still have that sense of community. And we learned a lot about our team, we learned a lot about each other through that process, but most importantly, I think we learned that with the right mindset and the right people who love and trust each other, you can pretty much make it through anything.
Aaron Von Flatern: That was so fun. [chuckle] The Batman movie, something I completely forgot about. I think it scared our children quite a bit as we watched it together, but we had a lot of fun chatting with each other on Slack, which is one of those programs that helped us get through it. I wanted to say about COVID-19 that I was really impressed with our team. You know, a lot of people have this idea of there being a genius who runs a business with a thousand helpers, as opposed to what really happens and what really works in business, and that is that you rely on your people to be the genius. And we didn’t top down say, “Here’s the solution to our firm’s COVID-19 issues.” It was like everyone got together and just figured things out on the ground in real time and made it work, and took ownership of making it work, and took ownership of making sure our clients were okay, because this was an especially traumatic time for clients who were already, as Josh said, vulnerable and they added some urgency to their cases.
Aaron Von Flatern: We were, I think as productive as we were before, which is a testament to the team. And so, it was an interesting experience. Unfortunately, it’s not over, we’re looking forward to getting back into live trials and giving jury arguments to real people, but for now, we’re getting through with virtual hearings and virtual trials, and I think the legal profession will go on.
Josh Fogelman: To kind of add on to it, a component about what we’ve seen in the legal profession, it’s been really crazy to see a historically slow moving, late adopting industry be forced to pivot and figure out how the practice of law can continue. And there were just mass adoption of Zoom hearings and Zoom mediations. And I would really go out to give kudos to the Travis County court system as a whole for developing processes to make sure that those hearings could continue and the judges stepping up in getting trained on even being able to handle Zoom trials. But we’ve seen decades of evolution occur in one year in the legal industry and it’s really been pretty fascinating to watch.
Jason Meza: If you just joined us, we’re talking with Josh Fogelman and Aaron Von Flatern of FVF law firm, a BBB accredited business. Why is being A plus accredited and a 2020 Torch Awards Winner important to your clients and the business?
Aaron Von Flatern: So in a word, validation. I would be excited if we won the Torch Award for Ethics in the category of personal injury law, if we were only competing against other personal injury law firms. But to get that award as a personal injury law firm while competing against any type of business in this area, in this region is a testament to something that we didn’t think was possible, really, and that is to elevate a business that’s historically had negative connotations to a place where people could see that it has a place in the marketplace, that there can be an ethical way to do this. So, it’s really validating for us having embarked on that mission trying to change the way people perceive personal injury law, and it’s also a testament to Better Business Bureau, because I think through this award, they’re making stuff like this happen. If more industries would reach first for ethics, they would get to excellence, they would find success, they would make the money that they’re trying to make.
Aaron Von Flatern: And by putting the emphasis on ethics, I think the Better Business Bureau is doing a great job of promoting that. The accreditation itself, the post accreditation is something, of course, we strived for since I was a kid. Better Business Bureau has been the original force for knowing whether a business was trustworthy, and I’m grateful to have that accreditation for our firm.
Josh Fogelman: Yeah. We work in an industry full of sharks. And the public at large knows that, and it’s really unfortunate. So like Aaron said, when we established this organization, this was the type of presence that we really wanted to have. Getting this type of an award from the Better Business Bureau doesn’t just speak to how we operate our business and how we treat our clients and how we treat each other, it’s also a testament to the fact that we do our jobs really, really, really well. So, across the board, we think that this award pretty well embodies who we are as people and who we are as an organization. And when you can wake up in the morning and look your team in the eye and say, “Look what we achieved, look what we did together,” it creates a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging, and it justifies all of the challenging days of long hours and putting out fires in order to provide the type of service to our clients that we promise we’re going to provide and say, “Look, we did it, and we’re going to keep doing this.”
Jason Meza: Okay guys, why Austin and why now? What makes the city of Austin and Central Texas special or unique for a place to practice law?
Josh Fogelman: The simple answer to that from my point of view is, it’s my home. I was born and raised here. I went to UTL, you know, I graduated high school in Anderson High School, went through AISD my whole life, my whole childhood. And I’ve watched the town grow and I’ve watched the town change in some ways for the better and some ways, not so much, I would argue. But one thing that has stayed true with Austin is that the people in Austin care about each other. It’s a warm place with warm people and a really strong sense of community. The mindset of Austinites value things like quality of life, we’re all here for that, we’re all here for that reason, and kind of strangely enough, a lot of what we do is advocate for people whose quality of life has been impaired. So, to be able to advocate for people in a community full of people who understand what that means has been useful and helpful in helping us kind of deliver the message of the importance of what it is that we do as advocates. We really love it here.
Aaron Von Flatern: Yeah, I couldn’t say it better myself. I think Austin is a special place, in part because it’s building. It is a blank slate, and people are open here to new things, to do different things. There has not been a super dominant personal injury law firm that has everything locked up. There was an opportunity for someone new to come in, and there was an opportunity for them to do it in a different kind of way, and for people to be open to do that, because that’s sort of what this town is about, is open to differences and new ideas and creativity. So I think it’s been a perfect platform for us, it also is my home. I coach my son’s little league team here, and I find… I just get great satisfaction out of knowing that our firm is a pillar in the community and that we’re doing the right thing. Most of the time working to get people whole if we can, from really bad events and give them a spark of something positive and when something positive comes out of it, they go on to attend nursing school, or start businesses or do things in our community they’re excited. And I love being a part of that.
Jason Meza: Alright, final question. What advice do you give for young lawyers, attorneys who are starting out perhaps struggling at this point, what do you say to them?
Aaron Von Flatern: For me, it’s take stock of the privilege you have as an attorney to wake up every day and know that you have an opportunity to do something special by the end of the day. Every single day in our practice, there is the opportunity to do something life-changing for somebody, if you dig deep. And it may require you to stay up at 2:00 in the morning working on something. But very few people have access to that kind of meaning in their lives, and so, the first thing is to access the meaning of what you’re doing and to love it, and if you love it, the sky is the limit. Finding a good partner I think is the main other piece of advice I have. If you want to go do this for yourself, don’t try to do it by yourself, you’re going to have all the flaws that all humans have, and if you don’t have someone to help make up for those, you won’t be serving your clients as well as you could.
Josh Fogelman: With any area of the practice of law, it only makes sense to do it if it’s fulfilling to you, if it’s truly a calling to you, and personal injury, the practice of personal injury law is a fantastic calling. As Aaron said, it’s deeply fulfilling, you really do get to make a positive impact in people’s lives, change their lives, and it can be easy to lose sight of that in some of the organizations that are out there who are looking at the practice as more of a business, promising big pay days and things of that nature, but don’t lose sight of what the practice is all about. Be patient, learn to hone your skills, which is challenging and takes a lot of time and a lot of experience to do, but it’s so rewarding when you put forth that effort to find yourself in the position of having people come to you and relying on you and asking you for their help and being able to advocate for them in a way that allows you to sleep well at night knowing that you put your best foot forward and had an opportunity and really had an impact on somebody.
Jason Meza: Alright, Josh, Aaron, thank you for sharing your time, your talent, information, continued success for FVF Law firm, really hope you do well, and I appreciate your time today.
Aaron Von Flatern: Awesome. Thank you, Jason.
Josh Fogelman: Thanks, Jason.
Jason Meza: Decoding Business, produced by Better Business Bureau of San Antonio. I’m your host, Jason Meza. Catch you next time. Reach out to me, 210-260-9843 for show ideas and for sponsorships. In addition, if you’d like to partner to learn more about joining Better Business Bureau serving the heart of Texas, call us, 800-621-8556. Stay safe.