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Leveling Up the Firm (Part 2)

In this episode of Summary Judgment, Josh and Aaron and Margaret continue 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.

 

0:00:00.4 Josh Fogelman: 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.

0:00:10 Margaret: Welcome back y’all! If you were listening to our previous episode, you know we hit pause in the middle of a juicy conversation about our firm and some of the ways we have approached the practice of law differently. I want to jump back into that. So Josh, what do you feel like we did really well or differently from our competitors?

0:00:17.5 JF: I think one of the things that we as an organization, and you and I in particular, did really well was like, there’s a lot of ego that can come with the practice of law, particularly when you’ve got a couple of young lawyers up and coming in the community that are having an inordinate amount of success relative to their level of experience per se. And it can be really challenging in that moment to be aware of your blind spots. And I think you and I did a really good job of recognizing that, yeah, we probably could have held the ship of float indefinitely, both practicing law and trying to manage the organization, with Margaret quarter-backing from the sidelines, and I think a lot of law firms do that. A lot of lawyers aren’t good business people. A lot of doctors aren’t good business people.

0:01:22.2 JF: And I actually see that in our community, some really skilled attorneys who are victims of their own success in certain ways, like they just can’t stop taking on new clients because they’re doing good work and people want to refer the cases to them, but they don’t have the tools in place to create an organization that can manage that kind of flow, influx and outflux of cases. And I think you and I really early on, when we were at that inflection point, made the decision and rolled the dice on doing just that, bringing someone in, Margaret into the organization whose expertise was taking that chaos and turning it into something productive. And ultimately, what’s great about that is the clients, potential clients and existing clients don’t usually get to peek behind the curtain.

0:02:24.8 JF: They’re taking their attorney at their word, or they’ve been referred to an attorney who’s been vouched for by the referrer, or they’ve read all the stuff online and think that they’re getting into a certain type of situation, only to later find out that they are just a number in an organization who they’re not getting their phone calls returned, they’re not being kept up to-date with what’s going on. And I think we made a pretty strong commitment very early on to not allowing us to become that. And knowing when we were getting to the point where it started to teeter on the edge of, “Man, maybe we bit off more than we can chew,” and that was, for the organization and for me personally, in my own personal life, bringing Margaret on to handle the organization was the best decision I think we’ve made. It’s allowed us to become and developed into who we are now.

0:03:30.7 Aaron Von Flatern: And we hear that from our lawyers and our staff who have been interviewed about, what do you like about working here? And Margaret is the name that comes up.

0:03:43.8 Margaret: Oh, well, thank you. I think though that it’s not me personally that is the difference maker, the differentiator in that situation. I think it’s the thoughtfulness with which we’ve built an organization that is mindful about how it’s in service of our team. And so we have a team on the operations side that can be in service of our team so that team can be in service of our clients. And so the practice that you guys have endeavored upon, the practice of personal injury law, from the sideline, what I have observed is that it can be an incredibly emotionally taxing practice. Compassion is a key value of ours, a core value of ours, and our advocacy, and our paralegals, intake staff, attorneys, all take those values to heart. And while they are in service to our clients and pouring out and making sure that they have provided the level of service that our clients need in order to resolve their case and make our clients whole, they have to be supported in the background.

0:05:12.0 Margaret: And so I think that that’s one of the things that we have been fortunate enough to do as an organization, is build a system that can be in support of that team so they continue to be in support of our clients and of our community. So our service-minded nature doesn’t stop just managing the case of one of our clients. It’s also, how can we be in service of our community as a whole? And I think that that is also something that is really meaningful to our team and their ability to give back to the community as a team and be connected to each other, not just in this practice, but in the practice of service outside the organization too is something that I think has been very meaningful for me to be a part of and witness, and I think that our team members are also really appreciative of having those opportunities to connect.

0:06:27.9 AF: Yeah, we’ve made a lot of great memories together as a team.

0:06:30.9 Margaret: And so I would say that I’m curious, from you all’s perspective, I know what my answer is, but as, what are we on, FVF version 4.0? 3.0?

0:06:44.8 AF: I said four.

0:06:45.8 Margaret: 4.0? Okay. So what do you both think is, are, maybe is, was the biggest challenge that we have faced to date in this kind of last iteration of FVF 4.0?

0:07:09.7 AF: So I will say that we faced a situation where our “baby lawyers”, we hired a crop of baby lawyers who got so dang good at what they were doing that we could take our eye off off of what they were doing. And that is not to say that we failed to manage them, it was more like failed to nurture them. And so I think what has been our challenge right now, and what is invigorating is to come in and say, “How can I take this proven lawyer?” This lawyer is not a baby lawyer who I’m just trying to train up out of nothing. Someone who is really proven themselves, taking high-level expert depositions, managing hearings, filing motions, possibly even contributing to appellate level work, how can I take a lawyer like that and get them to the level of excellence and mastery that we are all working on, including Josh and I?

0:08:20.4 AF: And that requires connecting with them, spending lots of time with them, inspiring yourself ’cause you can’t really inspire them to reach higher until you’re also fired up. And that’s been kind of a fun challenge, like getting them in to trial. At this level, personal injury law is a catch-22, because the better you perform at setting up your case, the more money the insurance companies will wanna throw at you, and the more money your client therefore has to lose in trial. And we always advise our clients in a balanced, even handed way. It’s like okay, “We could improve your situation, but the jury is an unknown quantity.” So right now we’re making a push to get into more trials, and that’s a fun challenge to have, I think, right now that we’re trying to get our really good lawyers to turn that corner into being really phenomenal lawyers.

0:09:22.4 JF: I think all of those things I agree with, and a lot of those challenges were exacerbated by the fact that we were struggling with those things, or not struggling, but working on those things during a pandemic when we all got placed remote. And the way that I came up practicing law, it was knocking on my boss’s door or Ross’s door to sit with them for an hour of their time, asking questions and learning face-to-face, that kind of mentorship that became more challenging when we didn’t have the ability to be together every day.

0:10:10.1 JF: And in keeping with a lot of different industries, we’ve done our best to balance remote work with effective lawyering, and coming up with some of the tools that we have in order to bridge that gap over the last six months, year, year and a half, to remain together and continue to have “office hours” for everybody in the organization, and doing these get-together round tables where all the lawyers come in and pitch a couple of their cases and coming up with some creative solutions to those problems, that’s really actually been a lot of fun. It’s been a lot of fun to face those challenges and address those challenges and see the community that’s shaken out of that in a time where the word community has taken on a different meaning.

0:11:12.9 AF: Yeah, I meet lawyers in the community who run firms and they’re like, “Wow! How often are you all in the office? Are you doing five days a week, three days a week? Are you making them come in two days a week?” And I’m like, “We don’t make anyone do anything.” It’s a very FVF way to approach it, which is like, let’s set up a collaborative space and let’s get energized around that, and then people show up really excited, and then we have a great day together and have a lot of fun together while getting a lot done. And kind of having those inspiring moments where someone says like, “Hey, I’m stuck on this case. This is my problem. I’m trying to get from here to there,” and someone else says, “I’ve been down that road. Here’s how I got over it.” That’s been a wonderful process, a post-pandemic miracle for us. I really feel good about that.

0:12:03.4 Margaret: Yeah, and I think that the key there, and that’s my biggest challenge, is having the right team members that can thrive in that type of environment. And so fortunately, from the beginning, as we have, and we have had missteps, but as we have grown the firm, one of the things we always say to people coming into the organization is they are courting us and we are courting them and we are going through the hiring processes. You have to be comfortable with a certain amount of instability in order to be successful in this organization. Not because we don’t have systems in place, and not because we don’t have the right people in the right place to make sure that the organization is sound, we absolutely do.

0:12:55.8 Margaret: But we are entrepreneurs at heart, and we are tinkers at heart, and we like to tinker. And we like to be a part of a dynamic work environment that can shift and change based on pre-pandemic, the needs of the organization and the team, the changing market as it shifts underneath us because we do not… PI is not a steady flow. There are peaks and valleys in this practice. And so one of the things that we have looked for in folks are people who are service-oriented, who can thrive in a dynamic work environment, and I think that that has set us up in a really good position as we have transitioned maybe into FVF 5.0 in a post-pandemic world where we don’t look like the average law firm.

0:14:04.6 AF: With inflation, we jumped to 5.3. [laughter]

0:14:08.4 JF: Well, you see it. I think you see glimpses of that when we get together as a team, and this is what’s brought me the most joy, I think, of going through what we’ve gone through together over the past few years and taking the time to invest in the people the way that we have. And now we sit at these attorney round tables with seven, eight, nine, 10 attorneys, most of whom have been practicing for significantly less time than Aaron or myself. And whereas five years ago, we would have been answering all the questions, “Well, how do I do this? What do I do here? What do I do in this situation?” And now I find myself sitting back and just listening and watching and hearing the exchange of ideas and information between the team, and it’s just incredible to see what happens when you foster that kind of growth and allow that kind of intellectual creativity in an organization… You demand that kind of intellectual creativity in an organization and to watch it sort of blossoming, has been really pretty phenomenal. So I look forward to more of that in FVF 5.35. [laughter]

0:15:25.5 Margaret: Well, thanks for letting me come back again.

0:15:28.4 JF: Yeah, thank you so much for having us and thank you for listeners for taking the time to hear what we have to say, and we hope that you learned something about us.

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