18. John Gomez, Gomez Trial Attorneys Building a Titanic Firm and Persevering Through a Pandemic

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John Gomez is the CEO and lead trial attorney at Gomez Trial Attorneys. After discovering his affinity for trials, but not enjoying work as a prosecutor, John set out, along with a colleague, to establish Gomez Trial Attorneys, which soon positioned itself as San Diegos largest plaintiffs’ trial firm.

In this episode of The Rankings Podcast, John tells us about the early days of the firm and the events that changed its fortune, and he explains how Gomez Trial Attorneys has handled business throughout the pandemic.

Transcript

Chris Dreyer:

Sometimes we have to walk down a few wrong paths before we get to the right one. And for my guest today, big corporate defense and federal prosecutions were definitely not the right paths for him.

John Gomez:

When I came out of law school, I was doing corporate work for big companies, and I kind of knew that I wanted to try cases and so I took a job as a federal prosecutor in San Diego. And so I figured out that I was really good at, uh, winning trials, but I didn’t really like, um, putting, you know, what I perceive to be largely poor Mexicans in prison. And so, you know, I said, okay, like, I’m good at winning trials. What job can I have that rewards a propensity to win trials? And how can I work for the little guy? And so that all came together and I said, okay, well, I’ll go be a plaintiff’s lawyer doing personal injury work. So that’s where the idea came from.

Chris Dreyer:

My guest today is John Gomez, founder and president of Gomez Trial Attorneys. Since founding his practice in 2005, John has made a name for himself as one of the top trial lawyers in the country, having recovered over $550 million for his clients. And he has solidified his firm’s position as the largest plaintiff’s trial firm in San Diego. Join us as we discuss the lessons John learned from building up his own practice and what he thinks are the most important things for any law firm owner to remember when building up theirs. John reveals what it’s like for him and his firm during the early days of the pandemic, who he turns to for inspiration, and why John hires nearly exclusively from his firm’s law clerk program. That’s coming up on The Rankings Podcast, the show where founders entrepreneurs and elite personal injury attorneys share their inspiring stories about what they did to get to the top and what keeps them there. I’m Chris Dreyer, stay with us. Okay. John had told us a little about how he came to set up Gomez Trial Attorneys, but I wanted to find out more about what the early days of the firm were like. And what the key moments were that took it to the next level?

John Gomez:

So the early days were that I called up a paralegal that I still have today, Amy Collins. And I said, Hey, do you want to go form this firm? And she said, yes. And so we got some space and we had a card table and we had a boom box, we had six cases. Uh, the computers weren’t quite turned on yet. Uh, we were waiting for the phone to be turned on and then the phone got turned on and we would just sit around cause nobody would call. So we would say, Oh, let’s go to the hardware store, you know, pick up something for the office. So we’d walk down there and then she’d say, Oh, we got to make a copy. Let’s go to Kinko’s. So he’d walked down there. And so, um, the beginnings of the firm were, uh, what I would call inauspicious, you know, kind of, you know, there wasn’t much going on, but we had big dreams.

Chris Dreyer:

And so she was like your Jerry Maguire in the, in the, in the movie.

John Gomez:

Yeah, she was the one that came. She was, she was the one that jumped on board, the ship that didn’t look so great at the beginning.

Chris Dreyer:

So, so tell me, you know, you’ve turned Gomez Trial Attorneys into a massive success. So what were, what were some of those early turning points that really got a jumpstart and took the company to the next level?

John Gomez:

Yeah. So probably six months into the firm’s existence. One of the files that we had involved, a wrongful death of a young man here in San Diego and a very, very high profile case, it was called the American Beauty Murder. And so, you know, since then it’s been on the TV shows and stuff. And so we tried the civil case against this young lady, Kristin Rossum who murdered her husband. And the County of San Diego where she worked, basically, she was a toxicologist had stolen fentanyl from work was high on meth that she got from work and killed her husband so we sued the county too. And so, um, we’re basically tapped for money at that time, but the news was in there every day, it was a very, very high profile event and we won the case. We won a verdict of $106 million. And so, you know, we were like right here, we were like, just about to crash, big win. And so the phone started ringing, you know, and thankfully, you know, that was the beginning of hopefully, you know, some other success stories.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah. So there was just a ton of momentum I’m sure from the press, from, from just everything, not only even from a cash standpoint, being able to, to invest in some of these marketing initiatives. You know, after you, you got this big win and you went to that next level, you know, and you started to grow and you, you hit this next chapter, you know, what were some of the, the mistakes, maybe on that journey that you encountered? Well, you know, were, were the, was it hiring, firing, um, marketing mistakes? What were some of those mistakes that you learned from?

John Gomez:

Yeah, a hundred percent. You know, my biggest mistakes were personnel involved. And so, you know, what I would say is I would bring in, you know, senior people that I didn’t really have a great relationship with or that loyal, you know, they didn’t have that loyalty toward me. And I vested them with a lot of responsibility, you know, invested in them heavily. And so, you know, that for sure, you know, would be the biggest mistake I made. You know, now if I’m going to go, you know, put someone in another office or, you know, put someone in charge of a practice area. You know, I, I have a relationship with that person, you know, I know there’s going to be some sense of loyalty I prefer to hire from within. Um, so for sure, you know, I would say a combination of that and bringing in kind of senior people that I didn’t have a great relationship with and trust them too much. And then also I would say, you know, um, not, not firing quickly enough, you know, holding onto people that really weren’t excellent fits or excellent contributors. And so now, you know, I feel like I have a great, great, great team, you know, very hardworking, talented people with some degree of loyalty to the firm. And so like, I feel like that is a recipe for success.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah. Let’s, let’s dive into that specifically. So are there, are there any tips, any for our audience, like what are those things that you look for or look at, or, or maybe what’s, what’s your hiring process like when you’re trying to identify these people that are the right fit?

John Gomez:

Well, um, you know, like our new lawyers now, uh, pretty exclusively, yeah, exclusively for the last, maybe five years have come through our law clerk program. And so we’ll hire these people in while they’re still law students. Right. And so we get a very good look at, you know, their character, you know, their work quality, you know, their work ethic. And so, and we also have our relationship with them. And so they’re with us for, you know, two years or something. And so, you know, at that point we have a pretty good idea who they are, how committed they are to this work. And then of that group, we’re going to, you know, offer some of them permanent jobs. And so that’s such a much better way to do it than to just go out and hire someone cold, you know, because… And we’re getting good, you know, work quality from these people in the meanwhile, you know, we’re not paying them a ton while they’re in law school. Um, and they’re doing quality work they’re contributing. And at the same time, you know, we’re getting a good feel for who they are and whether they would be a good permanent fit.

Chris Dreyer:

I love that. I think of it, you know, in, in almost in like football terms, you know, you’ve got your, you got your special teams that don’t really have that starting position and offence or defense, but you get to see how the’re, you know, their work ethic and, or, or you think of it like, uh, it is like an internship. And then you’re not guessing and trying to do these like trick questions or you come to the meeting late and see how they respond or whatever. So I really liked that you get to know them on a much deeper level.

John Gomez:

Yeah. A hundred percent. I mean, like if you, speaking of football, I play college football. So can you imagine, you know, you, you, you, you’re out there for your first game and you’re like, Oh, you look like a good wide receiver, you go play wide receiver. You know, we have the opportunity to conduct spring practice. So we get to see them all a spring. We have them in the fall camp, you know, so we get a good look at them before we put them in the lineup.

Chris Dreyer:

I may or may not have researched that you played football and might’ve thrown that in there. Um, you know, looking back now at… you’ve hit these different milestones. So what, what was, you know, a proudest moment, a moment you look back and you’re, you’re especially proud of a big success. What was a contributor to getting there?

John Gomez:

Um, you know, It’s funny. Cause I was pondering that question and thinking about trials and I can’t really point to a trial or litigation. I would say the thing that I’m proudest of is how we’ve responded as an organization to this COVID-19 crisis. You know, I feel like, um… so I’ll tell you what happened. Like basically it was like a Friday, you know, things were escalating. I knew we were going to be, kind of, you know, physically out of the office, and by the way I’m in the office, you know, it’s me and a receptionist that comes in for the mail and we have 25,000 square feet, so I feel pretty safe. Um, so you know, so over the weekend, you know, um, me and my partners really reflected on how we’re going to handle this. You know, one, it didn’t take us long to get everyone equipped, to work remotely. That wasn’t really the big deal. The big deal was going to be. You know, how do we lead? How do we manage and how do we pivot, you know, through this, um, time? And so, you know, I made a commitment that weekend. I said, look, because I looked at our financials and our projections, and I knew that we were fine. You know, I knew that, you know, even if we weren’t signing cases or even if we weren’t. Resolving cases for some period of time, we were going to be fine. And for the reasons that I told you before, you know, I feel really good about our team. I feel like we have no one on the team that’s not a contributor and loyal. And so, you know, I, I made a decision. I was going to announce that Monday, first thing in a zoom meeting, you know, which we have every day that we weren’t going to fire anybody. And, and that we were fine financially, you know, and that we were going to get through this. We were still going to have our retreat. We were still good out bonuses. Everyone was going to be fine. You know? And since then, you know, I feel like we’ve done a whole lot in terms of culture in terms of keeping everybody happy and engaged and, and committed, you know? So I feel very good about that. I feel like the team has, has become closer. I feel like our productivity has actually gone up. And we pivoted very hard to take advantage of what we perceived to be emerging practice areas. And so, um, you know, I looked at this and the team looked at this and we immediately sort of, you know, focused on, um, you know, all derivations of opportunities that would arise from this crisis. And, you know, when I say opportunities, you know, I don’t mean to sound opportunistic, but people are going to need help after crises. And so business interruption cases in particular, you know, I, I feel like we were at the very forefront of that. You know, we have been, I think, uh, among the national leaders in those cases, you know, we’re doing, um, cruise ship cases. You know, we’re looking at nursing home cases, meat, packing cases, um, employment cases, you know, um, and actually, you know, we, as a team have been busier than ever. And at the same time, you know, our core practices, uh, personal injury and, and sexual abuse have been, you know, still, you know, rocking.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah. You know, the first thing that you’ve mentioned there, when you got the whole team together, and you said, Hey, nobody’s getting fired, nobody’s losing their bonus. So all of that anxiety that they’re probably feeling and just uncertaint – because people don’t work as well out of stress and fear, you know? So immediately it just got rid of all that. And then after all that was behind you, now, it’s like, Hey, what can we do? What can we pivot to? And I think that was extremely smart and getting first in, right. Because people are gonna start to copy you and model you. And then there’s going to be multiple pages on the internet, but getting first in, you get to kind of carve out your own landscape, so to speak.

John Gomez:

Yeah, I totally agree. And the funny thing was like that very first week, you know, I was getting all these calls, you know, this from laid off all these people at this firm laid off all these people. And I was thinking to myself, are they really that cash light? You know, and or how can they really predict with such certainty that this event is going to cause them to actually lose revenue? You know, like, like that, like over the course of like two days. And so we’ve found that, at least on a personal injury side, you know, cases are continuing to resolve, you know. And, and, and I would say, you know, at least for us, you know, the, the percentage of cases that have resolved has increased. You know, I, I know we’re not gonna be able to try cases for a little bit, but you know, it just seemed very reactionary, very panicky. Um, and you know, not a way to, I don’t think lead an organization.

Chris Dreyer:

Yeah. So, you know, and I think that’s really smart. I, I think, you know, the doors are gonna open back up and I think it’s a smart, you’re doing the evergreen type strategies. John’s positioned his firm to weather the storm of COVID so it can keep helping his clients throughout the pandemic, but his firm isn’t just focused on settling cases. It’s just as committed as benefiting the local community too.

John Gomez:

Sometimes I kind of struggle with the idea of growth. You know, but then I think if we, if we grow as an organization, then we can help more people in the community as lawyers, one. You know, and then two, you know, if we grow then, you know, I’ve got employees and team members here with families. And so we think about all those people we’re supporting, you know, financially and otherwise. And then, um, we’ve always been very, very community oriented in terms of, you know, our work out in the community and in terms of financially supporting charities and good causes. And so, um, you know, that’s kind of the backbone of what we do. Um, and in terms of our mission statement, it’s one of our guiding principles, you know, we always improve our community. So like, you know, for instance, right now, you know, I’m very involved in my church. And so. You know, the church is doing a lot of communities, so we’ve given them a bunch of money to them. You know, we, we are going out in the community, delivering foods, um, you know, hospital workers, firefighters, police officers, you know, donating a bunch of masks. You know, one thing I did for my people, I gave them, uh, like a $500 allotment to, to, uh, buy takeout, to support local businesses, you know, and I told them they have to tip a lot. Um, so we did that. You know, we’re just always, you know, we feel like it’s super important, you know, cause, um, no, we don’t have a great name, personal injury lawyers. So, you know, I think that’s a mistake in perception on the part of the public. And so we want to correct that, um, you know, for, for us and for other lawyers and also just, you know, it’s just consistent with our principles.

Chris Dreyer:

I really love the mission. And, you know, it’s, you’re putting that karma out there, that goodwill. And people talk about branding and marketing a lot of different ways, but a lot of people talk about it as know, like, and trust. And you’re being likable, new community. You’re helping your fellow, you know, community, and I just think that’s really powerful on its own there. And I, the mission is incredible because it kind of just rounds everything together.

John Gomez:

Yeah, it’s a super long play. You know, like I think a lot of lawyers, um, may under emphasize the value of brand. You know, you’re not going to get that immediate return. You know, it’s not like a pay-per-click or, you know, your SEO is going to come up on personal injury. But you know, over time, if you consistently build your brand and your brand is consistent with values that the public admires. You know, over time, you’re going to get that return and we don’t do it for that reason. You know, it’s not like we’re trying to make more money, but, but it’s a nice by-product of things. And I think you’re right.

Chris Dreyer:

Let, let’s talk about your, your personal growth here. So what are some of your favorite business books, um, you know, that you read and have kind of influenced you as, as an individual?

John Gomez:

Um, I really like, uh, John Morgan has written two books. Um, Can’t Teach Hungry, Can’t Teach Vision. I really like those books. Um, there’s um, a book called CBN First by Bob Crumley, which I really like. Um, I really like, uh, Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink. Who’s a retired Navy seal that lives here in San Diego. LI lke, um, uh, Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins is not really a leadership book, but it’s a book about sort of personal strength. Um, you know, those are the books I like.

Chris Dreyer:

So, so who are, who are your mentors and, and what was their best piece of advice for you?

John Gomez:

Yeah, when you say mentors, you know, I’m going to, um, define that as people I want to be like. You know, and I know all these people and I’ve talked to all these people and they’ve influenced on me. But, um, I would like to be a combination of four people who have influenced my life. You know, the first is, um, John Morgan, who I referenced earlier, um, I’m a big admirer of what he’s built. Um, and he spent time to talk to me about business development and management and, and growth. And so, you know, I like, you know, what he’s done, um, from sort of a business management and growth perspective. Um, so then he would be one. And then I would say, uh, there’s a guy in California, Brian Panish. I’ve tried a case with good friend of mine. Very, very well known, um, big, big verdict lawyer. So, you know, I like to try cases and try cases with him. Um, I would like to have his success. And big cases. And he’s a good manager as well. He runs his firm very well too. And then I would turn to Mark Lanier. Um, I attended his, uh, Trial Academy last year. I thought it was very, very, very good, you know, I’m admire of him and I do mass torts, I try mass torts. And I’m an admirer of him in that world. So I’d like to be able to hit the big, you know, like a trucking case kinda like Panish hit the big, like Vioxx case, like Lanier run my firm like Morgan. And then the final guy is, um, I have a lawyer, my firm who’s of counsel named Jude Basile who used to run Jerry Spence’s trial, trawlers college. And so he comes at law from a very human and compassionate perspective. And obviously he’s been a huge influence on me. If I can mold all that together, that would be my ideal meeting. And so those guys are my mentors.

Chris Dreyer:

That’s incredible. So that’s like the rising tide raises all boats, the you kind of the year, a combination of the people you spend the most time with. And I like that. So you’re always looking, you know, what can I learn from, from other individuals know today, John, what are your high value activities? What, what brings the most value to, to Gomez Trial Attorneys that you do?

John Gomez:

I would say there’s four things, you know, that, that I do now. One is just, you know, be a visionary. And so, um, you know, I have sort of plans for the firm and, and ideas for the firm, you know, that I’m pretty certain that nobody else in the firm would come up with if I didn’t come up with them. And so I’m, you know, I have a vision for how I want to see the firm in the next 10 years. Uh, so I would say that’s one. You know, two, being a leader, you know, like I talked about before, and again, very distinct from being a manager, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m able to delegate, you know, and, and allow the teams to do their thing and allow the groups to do their thing. But I can lead, you know, as a visionary at a higher level, uh, three, um, I’m a trial lawyer and so, um, you know, I’m always looking for an opportunity to lead by example, lead in combat. You know, like I’m like the general at the front, you know, um, leading the troops, cause we’re a trial firm, you know, all my lawyers try cases and if I can’t then… And then, you know, I believe I’m a, I’m a very good, um, developer of business. I would say I’m a Rainmaker. So I like people, you know? So if you like people that are kind of people, then they tend to like you back. Um, and so, you know, I get a lot of opportunities for the firm by virtue of that. So, um, so I would say visionary leader, trial, lawyer, Rainmaker. Rest of the stuff I’m not very good at.

Chris Dreyer:

John knows exactly where his and his team’s efforts are best focused within the firm. And coupled with this ability to delegate, he’s able to ensure that everyone is doing what they do best and where they add value as well. But in addition to assembling great teams and allowing them to play to their strengths, I wanted to know what other words of wisdom John had for law firm owners looking to grow their practice.

John Gomez:

Yeah. You know, um, one, you know, you got to do sort of a gut check and see if you really are committed to growing a successful practice, you know, and there’s going to be sacrifice in that. You know, like if, if that is not something you’re willing to commit substantial energy and time and thought to, then that’s not, you know, in your cards. And so as a threshold issue, you know, my advice would be make sure that that’s what you want. Cause some, some people might be very comfortable with kind of status quo or getting by, or, you know, and that’s fine and wonderful, and lots of great people like that, you know. But if you really want to, you know, grow and have a bunch of success, I think you have to realize that you’re going to have to give up some things and, and, and really commit a lot of time and energy to it. So other than that, I would say some other mistakes I think I made early was, you know, never, constantly asking the hard questions of yourself, you know, your team members, uh, your organization always re-examining, you know, never being content. And so, you know, you don’t, you just don’t say, oh, I’m not super pleased with this part of my operation, but you know, I’m, I’m going to leave it at that. You know, you always have to be, you know, uh, well what’s going on over here and why am I not happy with that? And could we make that better? You know? And I think if you are, you know, open and honest, You know, like they, they know now that if I’ve got a problem with something, I’m going to say it, or I have a question about something I’m going to say it, including myself. Um, you know, then that is the advice I would give. Always be reexamining, always be getting better. And then thirdly, um, you know, there’s going to be some risk element. You can’t, you know, like I’ve been like this a few times. Um, and so, you know, you want to be smart with your risks. But if you truly want to have success, there’s going to be some risks component of it. Um, and so you have to be able to tolerate some element of risk I think.

Chris Dreyer:

What excellent advice from John. I particularly liked what he said about re-examining. Just like SEO. You need to constantly be assessing what is and isn’t working to make sure you’re putting effort into the right activities. You’ve been listening to The Rankings Podcast. I’m Chris Dreyer, a huge thank you to today’s guest John Gomez for joining us. You can find all of the links from today’s conversation in the show notes. And we want to hear from you. What is your role within the law firm? Are you a visionary, a leader or something else? Drop us a review and share your thoughts. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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