In this episode of Summary Judgment, Josh and Aaron are once again joined by Margaret Von Flatern, the COO of FVF, to discuss the steps they took to make FVF what it is today.
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.
0:00:00.0 Aaron Von Flatern (AF): Thank you for tuning in to Summary Judgment, where Austin’s Personal Injury Attorneys, Josh Fogelman and Aaron Von Flatern of FVF Law discuss the ins, outs, and in-betweens of personal injury cases.
0:00:15.5 Josh Fogelman (JF): Welcome back to Summary Judgment. I’m Josh Fogelman here. I’m here in the studio with my partner Aaron Von Flatern and our COO, Margaret Von Flatern. She’s joining us to have a discussion about how FVF Law went from two guys running round and round a room not knowing what they were doing to something of a grown-up adult organization, which Margaret, as our COO was more than an integral part of.
0:00:48.6 Margaret Von Flatern (MF): Well, thanks for having me back. And thank you for that shout-out. But I do think that I would also like to hear about how you guys approached the business of personal injury law long before I came on board. Because I do think that from the jump, you guys were focused on some business things that maybe other peers in similarly situated positions just haven’t done. So, what did that look like? And how did you approach the business?
0:01:26.6 AF: I appreciate you pretending like you don’t know how we were flailing around prior to you showing up and helping us grow up as an organization. I’m gonna kick that one to Josh cause I think he has a lot to say about the way he kind of conceptualized the balance between marketing interest, payroll interests, getting client cases done, and getting revenue in the door.
0:01:53.0 JF: Yeah, well, I’ll take a little bit of credit for a little bit of that. Yeah, I think when we first started the firm, we were fortunate to have a docket of business. We had a docket of business and an idea. We had bet very heavily on accountability to our clients in a public forum as part of the recipe for what was going to make us different. What I mean by that is we were leaning heavily on online platforms like Yelp and Google and the Better Business Bureau, which we talked a little bit about in our last podcast. We viewed those as really important tools to our success in that we wanted to make sure that the service that we were providing to our clients was more than just great advocacy. It was great advocacy and best-in-class customer service, making sure that we were there and available to our clients any time of any day, not leaving them hanging with unanswered questions as their case proceeded, keeping them up-to-date every step of the way throughout the process, listening to them, listening to their needs, and making sure that by the time the case was resolved, that they felt like we had provided them with service capable and worthy of a five-star review.
0:03:26.1 JF: And so with that sort of as the basis for our mission of how we were gonna grow the business, that allowed us to sort of determine and stress test ourselves for, Hey, are we capable of doing this? Are we taking on too much business? Do we need help? Do we need to grow? What other resources do we need? I’ll tell you from an organizational point of view, just a little nugget here. When I started in my own practice and managing my own personal injury docket, even at my own organization and what I brought into FVF Law, I was managing my entire docket of cases literally off of an Excel spreadsheet. And when I say an Excel spreadsheet, I don’t mean an Excel spreadsheet with lots of fancy columns and tabs and depth of pages. I mean one client got one row and into that row, all of the information went and sort of this ongoing narrative of a paragraph. And I’ll never forget, Aaron, this might have been sort of one of those defining moments in me understanding who was good at what in the organization. Aaron came and he had created, just in his spare time, this OneNote case management idea that took my Excel spreadsheet, which was a two-dimensional tool, and turned it into a three-dimensional tool. It was revolutionary.
0:05:13.4 AF: 50% more dimensions.
0:05:16.8 JF: Exponentially more dimensions. And that kind of really sparked in me an understanding of, oh, organization within this firm can mean growth, can mean better service, can mean better and more efficient use of our time. And I think that was kind of the beginning for me of, all right, we can take this to the… Between the two of us and what the mission of this firm is, and the help that we were getting at that time from Emily who was our paralegal. We can take this to the next level and it’s time to start doing that.
0:05:57.8 AF: Yeah, I think we had a lot of healthy anxiety back then that drove a lot of positive developments like that. Speaking to the kind of ethos that we had, we kind of treated it like a restaurant, and the people who came in were seated at the table, except they were all people you knew. Every single client we had… If you’ve ever waited tables, and I’ve waited tables. I can tell you, you kind of dread your friends or family coming in. They’re gonna come in, they’re gonna sit at your table, they’re gonna laugh and joke with you about it and not know that you got five other tables that you have to serve. And that there’s a person who needs iced tea while someone else dropped a fork on the floor, and they’re trying to engage you in an interesting conversation, and you have to be the host of that party. So, you’re multitasking and you’re also just really not wanting to let these people down. And that’s how we felt about our clients. That’s how we felt about our practice. It’s like we get paid in commission. That’s the nature of our business. It’s just like getting tips in a restaurant, and you don’t winna feel like your friends and family just gave you a tip that you didn’t really earn.
0:07:08.5 AF: And so, I think we both really brought it out of a sense of maybe honor and dedication, but also the sense of anxiety. We just were worried we’re naturally wired that way. And I think what, I think we’re kind of getting to in this conversation is the fact that in the background, I’m coming home every day either working still or talking about work with Margaret, who at that time was at a director-level position in this big company managing a team over three states and had a lot of acumen in the way teams work, which was really gonna be important later at FVF. At that time, we were a little smaller. But also, in financial projections and in balancing of risk and in where to direct your energy and when. And so, I had coaching at home, and I think I brought a lot of that in. It’s like sort of a nose for organization. That helped me. And then also what I saw in Josh was let’s not take our eye off the ball. This can be great, but if you don’t have any clients, it’s not gonna help anyone. And part of our mission was to change the perception of personal injury law in Austin, Texas. And you’re not gonna do that with three clients. You’ve gotta get more of a movement towards you. And I think one thing to Josh’s credit, you never took your eye off that ball. And I’m really appreciative of that.
0:08:40.6 JF: Yeah. Well, yeah kind of to the point we’ve spoken a little bit about before, it’s like one of the things that I think allowed us to level up was we took naturally to our own sort of responsibilities to the organization. Now that’s not, we both were practicing law very effectively full-time, but as far as the management of the firm was concerned and continuing to make sure we could keep the lights on and keep business coming in the door and operate the business with some degree of efficiency, we sort of naturally sort of migrated to our own strengths. I enjoyed the marketing aspect of the firm. I enjoyed the client development aspect of the firm. And you definitely were the person in the room who brought any sense of organization to the firm. Everybody at the firm knows that I’m the guy that starts fires [laughter] and then I walk out of the room.
0:09:46.5 MF: And it takes two of us to put them out.
0:09:49.1 JF: It takes a whole team.
0:09:50.6 AF: It’s taken more and more each year.
0:09:53.0 JF: It sure does. The fires get bigger and bigger and bigger. But I think that there’s value in a partnership of appreciating the good and the bad that the other partner brings to the table and being there for them without resentment or any sort of expectation of a thank you [laughter] and just getting done what needs to get done and having that sort of, that mutual respect. But yeah it became pretty clear pretty early on for us that the message that we were putting out there and the service that we were delivering to the community was something that the community wanted. And we knew pretty early that we could turn this little two-person shop into something really, really meaningful. And I think we both kind of felt a sense of obligation to do that, but to also do it responsibly.
0:10:55.7 AF: So, I think FVF 1.0 was us celebrating completing our very first case by going out to Uchiko with our families. Margaret was there, your wife Stephy was there. And we thought to ourselves, okay, well proof of concept, it worked. We got a case done and the lights are still on. FVF 2.0 would be us taking a week out of our practice, flying out into San Francisco together if you remember that.
0:11:25.7 JF: Of course.
0:11:27.0 AF: Attending a, basically, business consultant meeting, team building exercise for a week where we were asked questions like, What do you see in five years? What do you see in 10 years? What do you want out of your personal life in 20 years? And really starting to put those pieces together and figure out who we are. And then FVF 3.0 was when you said, “Let’s not hire a marketer who’s just gonna be putting our name everywhere. Let’s hire a brander who’s gonna be talking to us about what is our identity and how do we solidify that identity,” which I think was a brilliant move. So, we sat down and had what I would call corporate therapy with a branding expert who walked us through, what companies do you like? What companies do you not like? Why? Who do you wanna be? Who do you think you are? And all that stuff. And then FVF 4.0 I would say is bringing Margaret officially on into the business, stealing her away from the corporate world. And that was a huge turning point for us. I think that’s when we were like, we could walk around town saying, okay, we’re a business. We really felt like we were a business.
0:12:41.6 JF: We got to a point, and I wanna turn it over to you and ask a question of you Margaret in a minute, but I know that we got to a point where when we first start the organization, when there’s just a handful of people in the organization, our eyes are on everything. Yours and mine, our eyes are on everything all the time. And so, it’s really easy to hold the other members of the team accountable for what’s going on because you know when a ball has gotten dropped or you know when there’s a fire. And when you start growing and you start delegating more responsibilities to other people, and you’re still managing a docket of cases on your own, you have less and less time to look under the hood and make sure that everything’s firing on all cylinders. And I know for me personally, we got to a point pretty quickly where it became clear that we needed help. And I know you, Aaron, were lobbying pretty hard and getting a lot of support from Margaret who has an incredible career in managing organizations. You were getting a lot of help and advice on that in the back end and kind of approached me saying, “Hey, maybe it would be a good idea if we considered bringing Margaret on full-time.” What was it like, Margaret, from your perspective when you were sort of thinking about leaving your career to come and join this organization formally?
0:14:14.7 MF: Well, I’ve always been so impressed with the authenticity with which you guys have run the business from the beginning. I think that we have core values in our organization. My favorite one is transparency. And you both have modeled transparency and authenticity from day one. I think you talk about it when you talk about leaning into your strengths and coming to the table with humility and allowing yourself to be vulnerable and understanding where weaknesses are in both the organization or in our own personal abilities. And that is something that in my experience, that authenticity and that vulnerability and that transparency is not something that’s incredibly valued in the corporate world. And it’s something that I was super jealous of. Getting to go to work every day with a team of individuals and really show up as your true and authentic self, and to be able to lead with service and lead with empathy and show up for people in the way that you wanna be shown up for still holding everyone accountable, obviously, and setting the bar super high. But being able to do that with such honesty was… Getting to see you guys do that on a regular basis made me want to have a space where I could lead in the same way. And so, my desire for coming into FVF is that you guys made it a great place to be and a really warm and welcoming place to lead from.
0:16:26.1 MF: In addition to that, I think that we all saw that there was such potential in the organization. Not only were you practicing law differently as Aaron said, the way you were talking about practicing law was so different. And I wanna get back to that at some point, because to me, the choice to focus on the brand and the, who you were as an organization is such an important piece of the story here and really makes FVF, FVF. It’s not Fogelman and Von Flatern attorneys at law. Part of that because Fogelman and Von Flatern are very hard to say. [laughter]
0:17:17.2 JF: That’s a mouthful.
0:17:19.0 MF: It doesn’t roll off the tongue. But the organization thrives without it today. And it was always the intent that it could thrive without the two of you being the face and at the forefront. And today, it really is about the team. It’s not about Aaron and Josh, it’s about the 30 folks that we have behind the scenes and sometimes very much not behind the scenes, in front of the scene, on the stage, leading our organization. So, my why to come to FVF was 100% about making sure that we fulfilled the potential of this organization that you guys started and wanting to be someplace that really was a purpose-driven, values-oriented organization, and was truly living out their values every single day. Not an organization that just talks about values and puts it on a website.
0:18:21.7 AF: We’re not gonna name that organization.
0:18:23.2 MF: [laughter] We’re not gonna name any organization. No, none. But…
0:18:31.7 JF: We could.
0:18:31.8 MF: We could.
0:18:32.2 JF: But we won’t.
0:18:32.4 MF: But really does hold ourselves accountable to those values. And when… Because we are human and we are a team of humans, when we step out of line for a moment, we are here to check ourselves and to say, how does that support advocacy, education, compassion, and transparency? What are we doing today, both internally as we support each other as team members, externally as we support our clients, our community, in service of those values? So that’s why I’m here.
0:19:06.8 AF: I read our Slack channel occasionally, the general channel. And I look at the messages from all the team members, and I’m like, this group of people is just so interesting and diverse and compelling, and they’re motivated, and they’re energized. And Josh and I are not necessarily… We are not even close to the most interesting people in that room.
0:19:32.9 JF: Sure.
0:19:34.2 AF: That speaks a lot to your work because you have… I think you have a nose for building teams and for staying true to the culture, but also doing the work in the background that makes that possible. So, you can’t just grow to whatever our number is now, 25, 30 people because you think growth is a good idea. You’ll probably go bankrupt. If someone just tries to do this, say, okay, well let’s do what FVF did. They grew from two people to 30 people. How are we gonna do it? We’ll just add people. And it’s not gonna work. You have to have financial projections. You have to do the boring stuff in the background to set a platform that makes it possible to even hire those people at the right time, get the right people on the bus, as they say. And then you have to be able to foster that culture and keep it alive. And I credit you entirely with that. I think we had something going, obviously, but you came on in 2018 and since then we’re an organization that has reliable benefits, that has a whole structure to support people if they run into trouble in their personal lives, for example. And that to me is true success. Money or not, I think we’ve got a team of people that we care about who care about us, and we get to go to work with our friends. I think that’s awesome.
0:21:12.1 JF: Well, there’s so much more confidence when the organization has made a commitment to having a purpose, a very specific purpose, and a very specific culture. And you have all of these opportunities to be untrue to yourselves potentially for financial gain or because you feel like in the short term you need help in this particular environment. But when you have a leader in the organization at the helm saying, hold fast, we’re gonna stay true to this mission, even though it might seem like it’s painful for us to do it right now, it’ll be beneficial in the long run, not just for the organization, but everybody in the team. The whole family needs us to hold fast and not make a rash decision, whether it’s a hiring decision or we’re oftentimes presented in this line of work with opportunities to take quick money from insurance companies. And at the beginning, we could be very tempted to do that. And there are a lot of personal injury cultures out there that build their business on doing exactly that, just churning cases around. And when you have…
0:22:37.8 JF: When you have someone at the helm holding the organization accountable for not doing something that would not be in the best interest of their client, that would be harmful to the client or untrue to the mission, it really solidifies what those values are, and they become ingrained in the culture and they make the organization a place where people wanna be with predictability and stability and honor. And to your point, yeah, I think Margaret, when you came on board, it’s not that we weren’t doing those things, it was just… There was so much up and down with hiring and having to let people go that weren’t a good fit. And we didn’t have processes in place for airing grievances. We didn’t have processes in place for listening to the team to provide us the feedback about what was working and what wasn’t working, and we didn’t have the time and the energy to implement any sort of new solutions to problems that we had. And what’s been… Talking about leveling up the organization, what I think has been a direct contributing factor, significant contributing factor to where we are now, is someone… You specifically taking hold of all of those unknowns, all of those challenges that come with organizational growth and just owning them.
0:24:09.3 MF: Well, you guys were practicing law full-time?
0:24:12.7 JF: Yeah.
0:24:13.3 AF: Yeah.
0:24:15.0 MF: It’s a wonder to me how you can practice law full-time and make sure the payroll gets run and make sure that you’re engaging in your marketing the way you’re supposed to, and, and and. So, it’s no surprise that… It’s necessary. There’s a tipping point where someone has to say, you get to practice law to the extent that you want to practice law, and we’re gonna do the… We, because it’s not just me by any stretch. We’re gonna handle the business of running a business. And when the business of running the business is handled, there’s a lot… The folks who are employed by the organization can feel more stability because making sure their benefits are there and making sure some of these things are done is not an afterthought. At the end of the day, after the clients have been handled and their depositions have been taken and the mediations are done, and all of the trial prep is complete, it’s something that somebody can focus on and make a priority every day.
0:25:38.7 AF: Yeah. And that’s really special for us because as lawyers we’ve always viewed the license to practice law as a privilege, and it really is a privilege to wake up every day and know that with that license, with the cases you have before you, if you work hard enough and long enough, you can do something really special that day for somebody. And not to make it sound overly dramatic, but sometimes that work is like a movie. It’s that interesting. It’s that much of a game changer for that client or for yourself to go through that fire, come out the other side and feel like you did something. And to be trying to be on that path while also worrying about franchise tax filings, renegotiating the lease agreement, the IOLTA account spreadsheet and accounting, meeting with website companies, trying to settle on a new logo. [chuckle] This endless stream of stuff that wants to take you off the path of what is getting you out of bed in the morning, what is firing you up.
0:26:50.2 AF: And so, to me, it was a huge lifeline. And when I have new lawyers and people maybe listen to this podcast who are in law school or they’re starting a law firm or they’re already practicing, and they ask, well, what kind of advice would you give? My advice is generally: think outside the lawyer box. Get some businesspeople onboarded. You might not be able to afford an MBA or some high-quality corporate person like we got lucky with Margaret. But you can get some people that are business minded and entrepreneurial in spirit who are willing to dig into that minutiae to serve the bigger purpose. So that’s still my advice today.
0:27:36.0 MF: Alright well I’m going to hit pause on this conversation for now, but it’s by no means over. We want to keep these episodes easily digestible, so they don’t go on for hours. We’ll continue this is in our next episode, so stay tuned!