In this episode of Summary Judgment, Josh and Aaron are joined by Margaret Von Flatern, the COO of FVF, for our Season 3 premiere to discuss the inception of the firm and what led Josh and Aaron to decide to partner together to launch FVF Law.
Listen here or read the transcript below. FVF’s Summary Judgment podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, and more.
Intro: Thank you for tuning into Summary Judgment where Austin personal injury attorneys, Josh Fogelman and Aaron Von Flatern of FVF Law, discuss the ins, outs, and in-betweens of personal injury cases.
Aaron Von Flatern: Welcome back to summary judgment. It’s been a while since we podcast-ed. We are here in an upgraded studio, sounding hopefully a little bit better than we used to when we were broadcasting from the pandemic. In the above the garage room and or the shed or
Josh Fogelman: Master bedroom.
Margaret Von Flatern: Closet.
Aaron Von Flatern: Exactly.
Josh Fogelman: Yeah, that’s right. That happened.
Aaron Von Flatern: And speaking of the female voice that you just heard there, we have another upgrade for you in the podcast. We have brought in Margaret Von Flatern the firm’s COO of FVF Law. This is the podcast where we talk about our law firm, our practice, how we do it and how we’re trying to do it better, right Josh?
Josh Fogelman: That’s the idea, yeah.
Aaron Von Flatern: Okay. And so I’ve been instructed to try to make this interesting and therefore I’m going to try to talk as little as possible and get you guys involved. And we have specifically asked Margaret to be here in order to help us moderate this conversation. And so I’m going to pass the mic.
Margaret Von Flatern: Hey, guys. Thanks for having me here. I’m excited to participate in the illustrious Summary Judgment podcast. I think, as Aaron said, we’re going to talk a little bit about the firm and the inception of the firm today. So why don’t we kick it off with how did we get this thing going?
Aaron Von Flatern: You want to talk about Uchiko?
Margaret Von Flatern: I do. I want to talk about the last time Josh paid the bill at Uchiko.
Josh Fogelman: It’s traumatic. I’ve buried that one away.
Aaron Von Flatern: All right. Uchiko is a restaurant in Austin, Texas, run by Tyson Cole, who is a … is he an Iron Chef? Master Chef?
Margaret Von Flatern: He’s a good chef.
Aaron Von Flatern: He’s excellent. And he is very proud of his sushi. And for Josh Fogelman and I to go pay for it, we had to be feeling really good one night in the year 2014. Talk about it Josh.
Josh Fogelman: Yeah, well, 2014 was an eventful year, actually, followed by a more eventful year of 2013. And I guess if we want to really go way back to kind of how the firm started, Aaron and I got to know each other through kind of a mutual friend, someone that I had grown up with that Aaron had actually gone to work for in his first job out of law school, kind of an internship situation. I remember getting a phone call from my friend saying, Hey, I got this guy. He’s looking for a job down in Austin. Thought of you. You know of anybody that’s hiring?
And I said I’m not sure, but let’s see what we can do. And so Aaron came down and met, I was working at a local law firm here in Austin. I was just an associate there as well. But we all kind of got together and Aaron was actually eventually introduced to my boss’ close friend, Ross Ehlinger, and Ross was a really beloved member of our community that had actually just gone out on his own and started his own law firm that happened to be working out of the same office as my law firm.
And kind of as fate had it, Ross was interested in and looking for someone to come help as his business was getting off the ground. And so Aaron and I ended up sort of under the same roof, but in different law firms. And we were actually working on a handful of cases together. One kind of really interesting and complicated construction litigation case in particular. And we just got to know each other that way. I mean, that was kind of a really interesting case for both of us that we were both cutting our teeth on in the litigation world.
Aaron Von Flatern: We got to know each other and we got to know panic attacks and what it was like to have multiple town hall meetings with about 30 homeowners in a construction defect case and was there four office complexes involved and six or seven lawyers on the other side and repeated inspections with engineers and experts and all kinds of lawyer fights and motions. It was a pretty rocky case that had its ups and downs, but it worked out well. And I guess we should probably talk about some of the ups and downs that happened in our personal lives during that case.
Josh Fogelman: Yeah, Yeah. So, you know, we were really deep in the throes of this. I can’t even – it would violate client confidentiality to go into the insanity that that case was for both of us. But what made it even crazier is literally in the middle of that case and within ten days of each other, unfortunately, Ross Ehlinger passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. And then ten days later, actually, during a deposition that involved that case, my dad passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. At that time it really threw me back and caused me to become introspective about, where I was headed, what I wanted to do with my life, what was my purpose, what was my mission, where was I going, what did I want and who did I want to do it with? It’s kind of interesting how great things can be born out of tragedy, but that’s certainly how it was for me. And after a lot of reflection and thought about sort of the state of my own personal life and the state of my own professional life, I kind of approached Aaron and we had known at that point, at least I knew at that point that we got along really, really well. We seemed to complement each other really well. It was kind of difficult to articulate how that exactly was the case. But I mean, we kind of went through the fire on that case and developed a pretty strong bond and friendship and brotherhood really.
Aaron Von Flatern: And I should point out that one of the defense lawyers on that case, the only defense lawyer that really we had struck a bond with during that case, you know, where we kind of felt like we could trust this person. He ended up coming to your father’s funeral and eventually joining FVF Law firm. And he’s an amazing partner of ours now, Mark Farris. And I remember that, I hate to go back to the funeral, but, you know, Margaret and I left and in the parking lot, I remember Margaret telling me, I can see why you want to practice with that person. And I think she was referring to the poise that you had in that moment and the way you were able to articulate your feelings and the way you were able to be vulnerable in front of a lot of people. It’s one of your gifts. And I think that is what draws people in. That’s what draws juries in. And I think that’s what’s drawn a lot of great people to our law firm. So personally, that was, you know, at that time, I think we were both just doing what we could to survive right there, just moving forward. Next step. Next step, next step. And then the rubber’s started to hit the road where we’re like, all right, how would we actually do this? How would we actually launch a firm? And what a lot of people don’t realize is that in the background of all those decisions was Margaret, who had been a business person in a fortune 500 company at the time and had a lot of the kind of grown-up insights that you only get from experience in the big, big places like that. And so we were drawing from each other and also drawing on some of her wisdom to get it started. And I think it was organic, but we both brought a similar amount of intensity to what we were doing, and I think that was the key.
Aaron Von Flatern: Yeah, that’s scary, right? Because you are sort of staring into the abyss and you don’t know what’s down there and you have kind of two choices and you either jump in the water or you walk away. And I think we decided to jump in the water and we had a lot of really incredible support, not only from our family, Margaret and Stephie, my wife included, but a lot of support from the community of personal injury attorneys and other attorneys in the Austin area. Even support from my old boss, whose organization we were both leaving at that time and, you know, you look back on those decisions and it’s a little bit crazy. But at the same time, I look back and I would never, ever do anything differently. And so grateful for how things turned out, you know, one of the things to do when you’re starting something like that, I didn’t really think too much about this at the time. It was more just like, I really am enjoying practicing with Aaron. We have a bond and we have a way of working together that seems to be effective and we’ve got to know each other really well. It’s hard to really think about a partnership as some sort of really super long term commitment. At least I, I don’t know that I thought that deeply about it. At that time. I was more focused on, I really like this guy. I want to do this. I’m going to do this with him and let’s see what happens. What’s been interesting to me kind of about that too, is like at the time I couldn’t really like I said earlier, I couldn’t really articulate what our sort of strengths and weaknesses necessarily were or how we were complementing each other. I just saw that it was working. But what was interesting to me was to watch how that evolved. Never, as I look back, we never even had sat down and had a conversation about, okay, well here is going to be your role, here is going to be my role. It just evolved naturally, and we sort of took the lead on those things that we felt we were stronger at in the organization or maybe wanted to do or, you know, sort of just tended towards naturally anyway. And, you know, we’re going on, what, nine years now? And like, there’s never we’ve never had that discussion.
Aaron Von Flatern: Yeah, we were lucky in that regard. Never. What does that have to do with Uchiko though?
Josh Fogelman: This is my way of just deflecting.
Margaret Von Flatern: So, I mean, you guys have talked now about, you know, the bond that brought you together and also, you know, some of the things that you saw in each other that made you believe that you would be good partners both in the practice of law and and the practicalities of business. Is there something, was there there were parts of the process of starting your law firm that surprised you, like once you decided to move forward as the things started to progress? Are there things and, you know, as you guys like to say, “hanging a shingle” that were unexpected or surprises along the way in the beginning?
Aaron Von Flatern: I would say what surprised me was long, long hours that I didn’t mind. You know, I think working really intensely, really hard and being scared about whether you were making the right business moves, whether you were making the right moves as a lawyer, you know, losing a lot of sleep. But liking it because it was exciting to get this stuff done. And, you know, we were getting feedback from clients. They were happy. That was really good to us. The idea that we could do this differently and that we were in control of that narrative, that we could start to change the conversation about personal injury law in Austin, Texas. You know, we started to notice that, hey, you know, people have been spending millions of dollars on billboards for decades, you know, and now all of a sudden the clients are doing the talking and the clients are on the Internet. They’re providing those reviews. And the reviews for our work were pretty detailed. You know, they were going into depth about why it was working, and I think it had to do with the fact that we really connected with our clients, really enjoyed them, and we enjoyed being at their service. We enjoyed getting their cases done and seeing where their lives went next.
Josh Fogelman: For me, it was interesting. I didn’t expect starting a business to expose my weaknesses the way that it did. I’ve always been a pretty confident person and sort of felt like I could do anything. But I’ll tell you, like you start a business and you realize there are just so many moving parts. And as an organization begins to grow as quickly as ours did, fortunately, how much management of people and places and things was required and how I found myself uncomfortable in being able to manage those things on my own. It became really clear to me very quickly how important it was for me to have a support system around me, not just a family, but in my partner and in you [Margaret] and in my wife, you know, to control the chaos. Because at the end of the day, really, there was a lot of chaos when we got started. You know, we didn’t have any training in how to start it. It’s not like we went and took a class on how to start a business. We just decided to do it and we ripped off the bandaid and did it. And there were a lot of lessons learned for me in that regard and still ar.
Aaron Von Flatern: Yeah, we made a Google doc and we put every issue we could possibly think of in there and we kept working on dumping links and texts and, and you know, whatever. If we were working on our logo, we would put stuff in there under the logo heading. If we’re working on our tax ID with the US government, we’d have like a whole section for that. And so we just put one foot in front of the other in order to move forward. What we found pretty quickly was there’s a sort of myth of, you know, the self-starting business person does it all and wins the day, right? Like in reality, we didn’t really take off until we got help, right, Josh? I mean, we started with half a paralegal. We were sharing a paralegal with our former firm under a collaborative agreement with them. And we realized that we were our own worst enemy. You know, we had to get out of our way in order to not grow for a growth state, but grow for our clients, you know, be a more robust firm for them. And, you know, so hiring our first paralegal, looking back on it, it’s like it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But at the time that was huge for us. That was a big corner that we turned
Margaret Von Flatern: Maybe talk about how both scary that decision was and how beneficial it ended up being for the organization. Because I know, you know, as the beneficiary of the good work that the firm does, being able to carve out resources to hire those first staff members, that’s a huge risk that you’re taking. So now we’re not just risking our two households, personal livelihoods and financial stability, now we’re taking on those additional responsibilities. So maybe talk about, you know, how did you finally come to that decision and what did that feel like?
Josh Fogelman: You know, kind of to your point, it’s a little bit of a catch 22 because you’re drinking out of a fire hose and you know, you need help. At the same time, in the personal injury world, you’re not getting retainers from clients or hourly paychecks. There’s no guaranteed source of income. So you’re banking on being able to get cases across the finish line. And you also know that once you’ve finished one case, you need another one to take its place. So you’re sort of frantically signing up any client that will have you at that time, you know, in a way that further reduces the amount of time that you have to commit to the clients you already have. So you have to have help, but you’re afraid to pay for the help because it takes time to train the new paralegals or other team members that come on board. And your family’s relying on you to put food on the table. So where is the paycheck going to come from? You know, that’s a scary decision to make. But once you make the commitment to do it and you say, look, I’m already all in on this, like we’re either going to thrive or we’re going to fail. But mediocrity is not in our vocabulary here. It’s not an acceptable outcome for this organization. And you pull the trigger on bringing on help. You realize, man, I wish I had done this sooner. And, you know, again, kind of to the point of understanding what your strengths and weaknesses are, you bring someone on that’s the right fit for the position. What they bring to the table helps exponentially compared to what you have to, you know, output to have them there.
Aaron Von Flatern: Yeah I think the energy that you get from other people also helps drive you forward. So, you know, Emily was our first paralegal, Emily Yuras
Margaret Von Flatern: Employee number 001.
Aaron Von Flatern: 001 that’s right. And you know, we gotten a referral from another lawyer who had worked with her in the past, but that firm broke up. And prior to that, she had been a barista at Starbucks. And, you know, we didn’t really know it at the time, but that’s exactly the kind of person we needed, somebody who was used to delivering excellent customer service. You know, Starbucks, say whatever you want about their coffee. They have a great culture of delivering that high level of service. And she came to us with that mindset. She wanted to serve our clients and help us, you know, move the ball forward. And we felt honored by that, you know, and it helped us to work better as lawyers. And so we started to notice that it was a very positive, virtuous cycle. And we brought on Scott Butler as a case manager. And then we started to actually bring on lawyers to help us get cases done. And looking back, it seemed pretty linear. But, you know, I can tell you there were times when even as we were growing and we were happy and we thought, things are going great, we would still have days where we would be waking up at like four in the morning to drive to Dallas. And, you know, I remember Josh showing up at my house and I had overslept and we had a deposition on a huge case in Dallas at this really fancy law firm. And I think I showered in like a minute and a half and, like, ran out of the door putting the belt in my pants and, you know, we got in the car and went and probably didn’t have the best deposition of our lives on that on that day. But on that particular case, we just kept fighting, you know? And I think that what this firm means now and what it meant then is that we have a lot of heart. So we don’t always have it together. Sometimes we are running out the door, putting the belt in our pants and just barely getting in the car on time. But when we finished that case, defense counsel for the biggest target called us and just complimented us on like… I think they really underestimated us, you know, And we liked that role.
Josh Fogelman: Yeah absolutely. We might have underestimated ourselves a little bit. And, you know, we really came into our own on that case. I mean, that was a very, very hard fought victory where we learned a lot about ourselves and a lot about the practice of law and advocacy and professionalism.
Aaron Von Flatern: Yeah work always wins. That’s what we learned.
Josh Fogelman: Perseverance. Not taking no for an answer.
Aaron Von Flatern: Absolutely.
Josh Fogelman: But as a side note, it’s funny, you know, going back to Emily Yuras, you know, I look back on that interview and the funny thing about it is at that time it was just these two yahoos that didn’t really know what they were doing. And you have this interview which really was pointless because the job was hers if she wanted it. *laughter* It was just a matter of like…
Aaron Von Flatern: Aren’t we supposed to have an interview like this?
Josh Fogelman: Yeah, right. But like, this person’s going to spend her time working with us? YShe’ll take that bet on us. Hired! And now, looking back, you know, I think people seek us out as an organization to come and work for FVF as an organization because of what we have become and what our culture is. At least that’s what I hear. So, you know, what a transition that’s been as well.
Margaret Von Flatern: So that’s a great segway into talking about what were the initial goals. Like we know what FVF is, but what were the initial goals for FVF Law?
Josh Fogelman: Well, I think, you know, for me, my impetus for starting the organization and maybe the primary reason why I knew Aaron was the right person to do that with is I had been exposed to the personal injury community here and we have a lot of really great lawyers. There are fantastic advocates in our community and in the state that do right by their clients. But there are also people, like any industry, there are people in our industry that might not necessarily have their clients best interests in mind all the time. And I, you know, it was I reflected on sort of the state of that and what my license to practice law afforded me the right and the opportunity to do as far as advocating for people and being one of the good actors who could really use that tool to change somebody’s lives for the better, to educate people who were in need, people who were hurting and lost. And I think that idea of using that tool for good, of being a resource in the community that people could call and not be nervous about and know that when they were talking to me or talking to Aaron, they were going to get an education, they were going to be informed, they were going to be treated with dignity, they were going to be treated with respect. Whether or not they had a case that was one for us to take or whether we were going to tell them, you’re better off handling it on your own or you don’t have a case. Just having those values from beginning to end and embodying that into an organization was something that I felt like could help bring purpose to my life and be a good use of my time. So that’s kind of where I was coming from.
Aaron Von Flatern: Yeah, a purpose is a good way to put it. I think I felt purpose initially in reviewing what Josh had done and what he was doing as an advocate because he had been practicing longer than I had. And some of the things that I witnessed him do for his clients, to me at the time, I remember thinking, man that’s a lot. That’s a long walk for a short drink of water. Sometimes Josh would do things, like be on the phone with some health insurance provider, try to get to their general counsel in order to get them to review an unfair decision they had made on like $30, you know, And I was watching him do stuff like that and realizing that there really is a lot of honor in our work. Just as you look at any community. I always think of of life is like a village, right? Like the sun comes up on the town and there’s, you know, a coffee roaster working diligently on getting the coffee, there’s a journalist working on getting a newspaper out, and there’s a tailor trying to get the clothes ready. A lawyer is working on his client’s case and that can be a very honorable thing. Unfortunately, in our modern world, personal injury lawyers have done themselves a pretty big disservice in unwittingly creating a narrative that there’s something wrong with this work. I had worked on both sides. I worked eight years in the insurance company. When I first was hired with Ross Ehlinger, he was working on State Farm cases as well as plaintiff cases. And I had seen that on both sides there’s validity. If someone gets catastrophically injured and their families are affected by that, the universe is out of balance until we fix that and both sides have a job to do. They have a role, and there a fairness problem when people think they have to choose between going it alone with the insurance company or calling some unsavory character on a billboard. They think that’s their only choice. So I started to see that t we were trying to do was something we needed to get the word out on. Fortunately, we had this great platform on the Internet. Josh had developed already some Yelp reviews and we started to pile them on. Yelp reviews, Google reviews, Better Business Bureau reviews, and let the clients tell the message that what we’re doing is very important. We felt that we had a huge responsibility to that work, you know, to those people who were in that unfair position to get them where they needed to go. It developed a virtuous cycle where we were holding ourselves accountable to those reviews. And those reviews ended up inspiring us to be better at our work.
Josh Fogelman: Yeah, those tools, the Yelps and the Googles and Better Business Bureaus, we really utilize those to help keep ourselves honest and remind us of what our mission was all the time. There was no deviating from what we promised people we were going to do and how we were going to do it.
Aaron Von Flatern: And to this day, we’ll read them aloud and staff meeting because it fires us up.
Josh Fogelman: Absolutely. That’s why we do it.
Margaret Von Flatern: Yeah. You know, when Josh is talking about what the marketplace looks like for personal injury lawyers in central Texas, it makes me think that, you know, there are great P.I. attorneys in town whose names don’t you don’t ever hear. And there are attorneys whose names you hear a lot. And I think what’s really great about FVF and what you guys have built is the fact that we let our clients be noisy for us. Right? Right. We don’t bang our own drum too much, but we let those clients really sing the praises for us. It’s because of this great thing you guys have built and this amazing foundation that you established nine years ago.
Josh Fogelman: Well, it’s not just that the client singing the praises helps us objectively recognize that we are achieving our mission. It feeds us. It’s the fuel that we consume that reminds us as an organization, everybody on the team would say this, that even though it can be really hard, it can be really stressful and challenging sometimes when you have someone who you’ve helped come back and be so vocal about how meaningful your help was to them at this very difficult time in their life, it’s easy to come back and keep doing it.
Margaret Von Flatern: Well said. I appreciate you guys letting me crash your podcast party. This is fun!
Josh Fogelman: You’re welcome here anytime.