Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
My name is Stewart J. Guss, I own and operate a personal injury law firm with a national presence, 7 offices in 3 states, and over 100 employees. 20 years ago, I was a solo practitioner with no employees (and very few clients!)
I’m focused on continuing to grow and develop my business so as to be able to provide the highest quality legal services and results to the broadest range of people in need. Of of the big differentiators for our firm (and part of the key to our success) is that we strive to focus on an excellent client experience as well as excellent legal results. We are a “client first” law firm and truly think of our clients as part of our family.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
After I graduated law school, I went to work for a small civil litigation law firm doing appellate work (i.e. fixing other lawyers’ mistakes.) It was a great way to learn my trade! After a while, my boss and I realized that I wasn’t the greatest employee (wanted to do things my way, not good with authority, etc.) We had a parting of the ways, although I’m happy to report we are still friends to this day. In hindsight I think I’ve learned that sometimes the worst employees make the best entrepreneurs.
Trust yourself and your vision. If you’ve prepared, and done the research and due diligence, then jump in and do it. Don’t waste time second guessing yourself, once you KNOW you’ve got a good plan, then execute on it.
So, after talking to my beloved, hard working wife, we decided that I would hang out my own shingle and practice law on my own. For the first year or so, most of my cocktail party conversations went something like this: People would ask me what I do, I would tell them I was a lawyer. They would ask me what kind of law I did, then I would ask them, “What kind of lawyer do you need?” They would tell me, and I would inevitably respond, “Oh, what a coincidence, I do THAT kind of law!” Hey, please don’t judge - when you need to pay rent and keep busy, you do whatever it takes! LOL!
After a while, I was able to build up enough of a docket of what I really loved (personal injury law) to really focus on that. I came to realize that if I were to succeed as a personal injury attorney I had to trust myself enough to turn away other matters and focus on injury cases only - so I did.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
So there I was in 1999, all by myself, in a rented office with a desk, a file cabinet, and a phone. A phone that I stared at. A LOT. Waiting for it to ring. While my total office space nationwide today is around 40,000 square feet, here is a picture of the EXACT 12’ by 12’ office in which I started off in my current building, by myself, around 20 years ago:
I was the guy that made the coffee in the morning. I was the guy that cleaned the coffee pot at the end of the day. I was it, I was the guy who did everything. So how did I get from there to today? I don’t know EXACTLY how it happened, but I have a few ideas…
A couple of years into my practice, I had a friend call me out of the blue. We had worked together at my first firm, but then she moved away. She was moving back to Houston and wanted to see if I needed help. I took a chance and hired her. (Part time.) And then I panicked! What in the WORLD was I going to have this person do? I had to pay her! What was I going to give her TO DO?
Well, I figured it out. I learned how to train, how to delegate, and how to supervise. (As a side note, I will tell you, that almost 20 years later this is STILL my single largest challenge as a boss.) Then things started to click. As I had my friend / employee working on more administrative matters, it freed me up to start thinking about business issues and marketing. I even decided to pay someone to build a website for my law firm on the interwebs. (This was back in the day when AOL was still a thing, people were on MySpace, and Facebook was just a way for Mark Zuckerburg to pick up girls at Harvard.)
Little by little, I was able to spend more time and attention on marketing, and really focused not only on getting great results for my clients, but for giving them a really “customer service” experience as well. My docket started to grow, along with my staff, and here is one of the KEY things I did at this point: I invested in myself.
What do I mean by that? Well, I had started to make enough money that I could fund a little retirement account, put some money in the stock market, etc., but I didn’t. Instead, my business model looked (and still looks) something like this: Every time I made a dollar in profit, I took a dime for myself and my family, and looked for ways to invest the other ninety cents into my business. Whether it was marketing, payroll, software, office equipment - whatever it took to grow the business. I had enough faith in myself and my law firm to realize that my rate of return on investing IN MYSELF would be far greater than I could ever make in stocks, bonds, or money market accounts.
I still hold to this philosophy to this very day, by the way. Everything I’ve built in my business so far? I’ve done it by reinvesting the vast majority of the profit from the business. I’m lucky enough today to own a law firm producing a solid 8 figure revenue every year, and I’ve never borrowed any money to fund and grow my business - not one penny. After 20 years of hard work, dedication, trusting in myself, and constantly reinvesting in myself and my team, I’m lucky enough to have the foyer to my office today look like this:
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, though a combination of smart moves, learning important lessons by making dumb moves, and making sure to hire and retain the best and brightest in my field, I am at the beginning stages of building a national personal injury firm. We have 7 offices in 3 states, and are currently evaluating several new offices in additional metro areas around the country.
My bottom line financial model remains the same - I am funding the growth of my firm and marketing efforts via reinvestment of the vast majority of our profits. 20 years after I started, I still feel that investing in myself is a far better way to maximize ROI than investing in stocks, bonds, cryptocurrency, or beanie babies.
Because the legal field is 100% a service industry, it comes as no surprise that my single largest operating expense is payroll. While some business owners see payroll as a financial “burden” to deal with, I have a different view - I see it as a further investment in my company’s growth. I learned early on that happy employees lead to happy clients, and that the opposite is true as well. Although we don’t always bat 100%, myself and my executive and management team really strive to take GREAT care of our employees, and not just in terms of pay scale. We make sure to offer top level benefits (health, dental, vision), we bonus generously and regularly, and we also enjoy hosting two major “company wide” parties every year, as well as multiple interdepartmental outings regularly as well. I really feel its critical to have EVERY member of your staff feel appreciated, wanted, and to enjoy what they do.
Our second largest operational expense is marketing. This is where we really strive to get the most “bang for the buck.” Our marketing model is almost entirely digital, so we are able to highly refine and target the “eyes” that we want to see us. When I talk to up and coming attorneys and other entrepreneurs about marketing models, I like to use this analogy: Spending money on billboards and television is like flying a helicopter up 10,000 feet over a city and dropping 100,000 leaflets, hoping that a dozen or two will end up in the hands of people who need a personal injury lawyer, right then and there. These “old school” methodologies are GREAT when your goal is to establish your brand, but that has never been my marketing model. My marketing department works extensively on SEO, AdWords, Facebook, and other digitally driven means. As a result, if you don’t need a personal injury lawyer, you will probably never have heard of me. If, however, you engage in online activity in one of our markets relating to having been in an accident - I should (hopefully) be just about everywhere you look.
As far as my personal contribution to the firm: I’m lucky enough now to have an executive staff and many really top notch attorneys overseeing numerous divisions and areas of operation so that I can spend most of my time as a “visionary” and leader, rather than hands on implementation of various operational strategies. While “the buck stops here” when it comes to critical aspects of my business, the day to day operations of my various offices and departments are being managed by thoughtful and conscientious executives, managers, attorneys, and leaders who all share the same bottom line vision: Excellent legal results as well as an excellent customer service experience for every single client. Of course, the most critical aspect of that recipe are my employees. Not just management, but my "front line" staff who go above and beyond every day to take care of our clients and their cases.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned plenty of lessons on my journey, some of them - the hard way. I think some of the most important lessons I’ve learned are as follows:
First - Trust yourself and your vision. If you’ve prepared, and done the research and due diligence, then jump in and do it. Don’t waste time second guessing yourself, once you KNOW you’ve got a good plan, then execute on it!
Second - The obverse side of this coin is very simple: Don’t be a prideful and stupid idiot. Don’t be SO sure of yourself that you are unable or unwilling to learn from your mistakes. ALWAYS be willing to learn and listen, and adapt as necessary. If one of your employees has an idea, LISTEN and CONSIDER what they are saying. Just because you are the boss and they may work in the file room, that does NOT mean that you’re right and they are wrong! Always be proud of your accomplishments, but NEVER be too proud to admit you screwed something up, or that someone has a better idea then yours (again, even if it is the file clerk!)
Third - Be ready to let go. (This one was SO hard for me!) Don’t spend your time thinking that it is YOU that has to do EVERYTHING, because either: a) you’re going to be better at it (maybe you will, maybe you won’t); or b) that it’s faster to do it yourself than to train someone to do it right. A good friend once told me, “If you don’t make the time to drain the swamp, you’re going to spend your life fighting alligators.” This is so true.
Third and a half - Learn to delegate, but delegate RESPONSIBLY. What does this mean? Simple - don’t just tell an employee to “handle” something. Instead, take the time to TRAIN them to do it, show them the “ins and outs” and explain WHY. This may end up with you spending 4 hours to train someone to do something you could do in 5 minutes, but BELIEVE me, this is SUCH an important skill. WATCH them, COACH them, spend even MORE time checking back on their work and making sure that they are doing it right, and to your standards. Over time, as they demonstrate their proficiency and willingness to hold to your standards, then go back one paragraph to rule number three: Let it go.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The cornerstone of any modern legal practice is practice management software. The best of these products are extremely targeted, specific, and customizable. We are currently transitioning from our current software to a new cloud based SAS service. Because we take both the integrity as well as the security and privacy of our clients EXTREMELY seriously, we took over 6 months to vet and decide on our new software. Furthermore, implementation is expected to take another 6 to 9 months. Because we value our clients (and the sanity of our staff), we wanted to make sure we made the switch as seamlessly and painlessly as possible. (Wish us luck!)
In addition to the core software, we (of course) use the Microsoft 365 platform for word processing, email, spreadsheets, etc. We also use MailChimp for newsletters, as well as Survey Monkey to send periodic surveys to our clients to assess client satisfaction. (What is it with all of these primate named services, anyway?) Our IT and technology teams are always looking for new products and solutions to make lives easier for our employees, and provide greater service and more transparency to our clients. As most of you know, it's an ongoing, never ending process.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
This is a great question, but unfortunately my answer is bound to disappoint: I pretty much just made up what we do and how we do it as we went along. I wish I could point to a podcast or book that was influential to my operational success, but I can’t.
We simply implemented a process, experimented with it, tweaked (or discarded it) as necessary, and developed things from there. No secret, just hard work, ingenuity, and a “Menlo Park” mentality.
Thomas Edison once said that his success was 1% inspiration, and 99% perspiration. I completely agree.
Be careful about how you capitalize your business. Sometimes borrowing is necessary for capital expenditures, but my advice is to try as hard as you can to fund operational expenses from current revenue.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Whether you are starting a law firm, or any other entity, I’ve got a few pieces of advice. Plan your moves carefully, and make sure you are fully prepared. When you execute, keep close track of your progress and allow yourself the flexibility to change course when necessary. On the other hand, don’t change course prematurely as you’ll end up “overcorrecting” and steering wildly side to side on the road to success for your business.
Also, be careful about how you capitalize your business. Sometimes borrowing is necessary for capital expenditures, but my advice is to try as hard as you can to fund operational expenses from current revenue. Trust yourself, but try and avoid “getting out over your skis.” Most of all - make sure you enjoy what you do, and stay happy.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you would like to know more about my law firm, please visit us at www.attorneyguss.com.
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