By Martha Chan, V.P. Marketing, Divorce Marketing Group, Divorce Magazine and Family Lawyer Magazine.
Guest speaker: Steve Mindel
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HERE IS THE TRANSCRIPT OF THE PODCAST:
Hi my name is Martha Chan I am the vice president of Family Lawyer magazine and Divorce Marketing Group. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with a highly successful family lawyer who has managed to have a great career, a great personal life and also being a difference maker. We will be exploring the key to success for his law firm, his personal career as a family lawyer and a rainmaker for the firm, as well as the various aspects of his life outside of the office.
My guest today is Steve Mindel. Just a little bit of an introduction—Steve Mindel is the managing partner of a law firm called Feinberg, Mindel, Brandt & Klein in Los Angeles California. Steve had his own law practice until he merged with other firms to give birth to Feinberg, Mindel, Brandt & Klein in 1996. Today the firm has 15 lawyers, with five different practice areas. The firm has been voted as the best family law firm in Southern California by best of LA TV viewers in both 2010 and 2011.
Steve graduated from UCLA in 1981 and from USC Law Center in 1985. He has been a certified family law specialist since 1998 and has been named a super lawyer every year since 2004. Steve is a frequent lecturer and is often interviewed on TV for his comments on celebrity divorce. He volunteers at multiple organizations, currently he is on the board of the Pacific Coast Soccer Committee and was the past president of his Synagogue and now he serves on the dinner committee. He ski’s frequently and has a black belt in karate. Recently I read on his Facebook page he even has a black eye from his karate. So without delay let me start my interview with Steve. Hello Steve, welcome and thank you for agreeing to do this interview with me—
Wow, all I can say Martha is what an introduction, I loved it, thank you.
I know. Steve I have to say I’ve known you for over eight years. I certainly know a lot more about your career and your firm than your personal life and simply saying what I just said about you, I feel a little exhausted, never mind living your life and doing all the things that I had just mentioned. I know for sure that’s not a complete list of all that you do, which is really why I wanted to interview you, because I wanted to speak to a family lawyer who has a successful life. By that I mean a balanced life between work as well as your private life. For me you are a shining example of that.
I was just going to say that I think that’s the whole key to everything: you find happiness in what you’re doing and you want to integrate your personal life and your family life, so its kind of a fun situation that we have.
Yes, good. So let me start by asking you something about your firm. Your firm has grown to 15 lawyers since 1996 and has lots of accolades and lots of awards. Tell me, as one of the partners who manage the firm, what are the top three reasons for your firm to be so successful? I know that other lawyers who are listening to this would definitely want to hear what you have to say on this topic.
Well I think the three most important things are the fact that:
- we do really good strategic planning in our firm,
- we are invested in our clients and
- we manage our clients’ fees.
And what I mean by those things are as follows.
Each year we do strategic planning. In most firms the strategic planning is the manager or the owner of the firm sitting down with the accountant at the beginning of the year and saying—what do we think that we’re going to do because I have to make tax estimates. And all of the planning for the firm is done based on the financial demands of the firm. But in our firm we’ve always had a much different approach to it. I’ve always sat down with all of the staff and tried to design where the firm is going to go? What are the areas that we are going to do business in and how are we going to grow those areas?
And what I mean by that is—in our firm we have 15 attorneys, we have out summer associate from last year coming in in September, so we’ll be 16 attorneys. And of those 16 attorneys, 13 of them do family law—14 of them do exclusively family law or do mostly family law. One does probate estate planning and the other does probate litigation and doesn’t do any family law. And so each year we’ve had to try to figure out what is our firm going to look like over the next five years and we kind of have a five year plan and we look to it each year. And for instance when—In 1996 when our firm became a real firm, with more than just a couple of attorneys, we were probably 40% general civil litigation, about 20% corporate transactional law and about 40% family law. And over the years we’ve made a strategic decision to continue to grow the family law portion of our practice to where now our family law practice is probably a little better than 80% of our overall business, about 10 to 15% of our business is civil litigation and 5% of our business is probate.
And that’s come from good strategic planning on the part of the partners and we start the planning process each year around September and the first part of October we have a basic budget and a basic plan which we present to the partners of which we have six partners and the office administrator and myself make a presentation to the partnership. In October we get the feedback from the partners as to what we’re thinking, get their feedback, incorporate it into another draft and by the first week of November, we have the next partnership meeting where the strategic plan is then approved and that’s essentially a five year plan.
And if you don’t do some kind if serious planning every year where you have your budget, your staff needs, your attorney needs, your networking, your marketing, then you’re going to kind of be a rudderless ship and I’m Jewish and the Jews have a saying which is—if you don’t have an end plan, all the roads are going to take you there. So at this point what we try to do is we try to create a plan, then we create—You know we reach our goals and then we develop a plan to meet those goals and then every 60 days or so, we’re reviewing the goals to see if we’re going to be accomplishing the goals or if we have to modify the goals.
And so clearly the kind of strategic planning is probably the most important thing that any law firm can do, whether or not you’re a sole practitioner, which I used to do this with—When I was a sole practitioner back in 1990. I would sit down with my secretary and my one associate and we would try to figure out what the plan is going to be and we would design a plan and we’d make goals and we’d have rewards for ourselves, a trip—We’re all big skiers so we would take a big ski trip and we would say if we did this kind of a—If we reach these many goals, we’re going to go to our local ski resort —Big Bear, if we reach these many goals, we’re going to go to the local big ski resort, Mammoth and if we reach these kind of goals, we’ll go anywhere we want and go skiing. And we were fortunate, we got to ski in Taos, New Mexico and in Vail and in Telluride. We had some really exiting ski trips, because we’ve done well over the years.
That sounds great and it sounds like the process is expansive as well as inclusive. I think that getting input from all the concerned parties certainly is a good way to go. So tell me about the other two reasons for your firm’s success?
Okay, the next thing that I think is important for us is that you can have the best plan in the world, but if you’re not invested in you clients, if you don’t love what you’re doing as a lawyer, then your clients are going to get that feeling.
For me for instance when I first started practicing law—I was a corporate transactional lawyer at one of our big firms here in Los Angeles, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton and I was practicing with my 150 closest friends. Well that was very interesting work, because I got to work on the multi billion dollar bankruptcy matter, I was still the first year associate reporting to the junior associate, reporting to the junior partner and so on and so on—that you get through six to seven lawyers within the firm.
And there wasn’t any satisfaction, because I didn’t have clients that I could touch. So I started volunteering at the Los Angeles Free Clinic in their family law department, which is where I learned family law and I realized that what I really needed was that personal touch with the clients. Each attorney that we have in our office is also reaching for that same goal, when we interview people that want to work in our firm, one of the things that we look for is why did they choose to be a lawyer and why did they choose to become a family law lawyer. And if the answers to both of those questions aren’t because “I love clients” and “I need that interaction” and “I need to help”, then they’re not the right lawyer for our practice.
That feeling comes through directly to the clients, when a client comes into our office and sits down with us, we may not be the cheapest, we may not be the best, we may not be anything else, but at the end of the day, the client leaves the office knowing that we’re concerned about them and that for us they’re the most important person in the world and their problem is the most important thing to us. And so that feeling permeates everything that we do in our office, from our policies with regards to returning phone calls and emails within 24 hours to drafting extremely beautiful pleadings, to going to MCLE classes to making networking and marketing presentations, everything we do is client centred. That comes through loud and clear to the clients and that’s what makes us grow.
I think that is so true. It sounds like you have a certain culture within your company that you are aiming for and maintaining. So in your interviewing process you want to make sure that they’re not just good at the law aspect, but also is a fit for the culture that you have created for your firm. That sounds great, now the third reason which is managing client fees.
Yeah, managing client fees. I think the biggest problem that clients have is that when they come into the office, they’re so used to buying consumer products—family law clients are primarily consumer oriented clients. And what I mean by that is, they’re not big corporations, they’re not Wickes, they’re not sophisticated in the way that they purchase legal services. In major corporations—Shell, Xerox, Exxon, these companies have teams of lawyers within the company that understand how lawyers work and how to deal with lawyers. And yes they have to pay outrageous amounts of lawyer fees as a big entity, but they know how to mange the fees.
Our clients are pretty unsophisticated, because this may be the first or second or maybe third time they’ve ever hired a lawyer. Usually the only times they interface with lawyers, is if they get some kind of criminal matter, maybe a drunk driving or a shoplifting or maybe they get a will or an estate and then the third thing that happens to people frequently is they get divorced. So they don’t have any idea about the fees and so when they hear the hourly rates—200/300/400/500/$600 an hour, they can’t dimensionalize that because it doesn’t mean anything to them, because they’ve never consumed before. And as a result of that, they’re not—Clients many times are not very helpful to you in how to manage their fees.
They ask you to do things that are extremely expensive that will yield little results to them and so if you’re not—If you don’t in the very first meeting with the client discuss with them how you manage the fees and how you’re going to look after them, its not necessarily that you’re going to be the cheapest or that you’re going to be able to get their job done inexpensively, its about managing the job. Lawyers present an interesting dichotomy to clients and that dichotomy looks something like this: when you remodel your house, a function that many people have had experience with, you get bids from ten different contractors and the contractors come out and they look at your house and they say—okay to add this bathroom to your house its going to be $25,000. And then they break it down how they’re going to spend the $25,000. Its tiles, its fixtures, its paint, its flooring, its demolition and so on and so forth, right?
And so you know what the price is and then you can shop—compare that price with the other people’s price and you can compare the materials and so on and so forth. When you walk into a lawyer’s office, you come in with this project—I want to get divorce and the lawyer says—great, here’s my retainer agreement, give me $5,000, I bill at $400 an hour and just let me start working. And then the client looks at you and says—but when are you going to stop working? And you say—well when I’m finished. Well how do I know you’re finished? Well when I say I’m finished. And so the clients immediately are put in this position of having to trust you as if you’re their banker with their money because they don’t know what you’re going to do, they don’t understand what you have to do, and you’re telling them to just give you lots and lots of money and an open check book and then at the end of the day, you’ll give them a finished product and they’ll be happy. That’s a complicated problem for our client, because it’s not the way that most consumers in America think.
Most consumers in America think—you go to the auto mechanic, your radiator is busted, its $500 to fix your radiator, there’s a fixed price and they do the work. Very rarely do we hire people kind of on an hourly basis. I mean even our other professionals, our doctors, our dentists—you go to your dentist and they look at you and they say—gee you need a filling, the filling is a $150. And they don’t say—well I’ll bill you time and materials and at the end of the filling I’ll tell you what you owe me.
It’s very, very complicated. So if you’re good at managing fees and by managing fees I don’t mean being the cheapest or the most expensive, I mean just being able to manage the issue of fees. You have an open dialogue with your client, you talk to them regularly about their attorney fee issues and you explain to them what they’re doing, then clients will be more satisfied with you than if you don’t do that. Since we work on that quite frequently, with our clients, with our attorneys, with each secretary and our billing department, everybody has the same kind of motive going forward, which is to make sure that the client understands why they’re being billed for certain functions. If you can do that effectively, you’ll have happier clients and happier clients will refer their friends and relatives.
That certainly makes sense, I totally get the analogy. So I would imagine that if a law firm that is thinking of growing or better managing its success can follow these three points that you have just discussed and be more successful or do you think that these are things that are unique to your firm?
I think that practicing law in general is not a mystery. I think that there are certain basic fundamentals that people have to understand and the first one they have to understand is this is a business. Yes we are professionals like doctors or dentists or accountants or architects, but first, it’s a business and you have to run it as a business and all businesses run on client satisfaction. So everything that you do in the practice of law has got to be aimed towards client satisfaction.
You know understanding where you’re going, knowing your marketplace, so you can provide the best services possible to clients. Being invested in making your clients come first and showing that by managing and working with the client with regard to the fee issues, are all designed for client satisfaction, there is no mystery. I mean there are a million law firms, most of which are actually profitable, unlike lets say different types of businesses, like lets say the restaurant business. Look at how many restaurants fail each year. That’s a lot of those basic concepts that we just talked about, restaurants aren’t able to accomplish so they fail, even if they are the best chef in the world.
Fortunately practicing law is not nearly as risky as being a chef opening up his own restaurant. It’s just about knowing the basics and getting a good business coach. If you have a good business coach, that’s the best thing that you can do in opening a law practice.