10. Stewart Guss, Stewart J. Guss Injury Accident Lawyers Building Great Firms Through Strong Teams and Streamlined Processes

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Stewart Guss is a top 100 trial lawyer and has taken his firm, Stewart J. Guss Injury Accident Lawyers, from strength to strength over its hugely successful 22 years.

In this episode, Stewart shares with us some of his secrets on motivation and streamlining intake that took him from a solo practitioner working out of a 12 by 12 office, to a practice owner with eight locations and over 120 staff.

Transcript

Chris Dreyer

If you’ve started your own firm with dreams of practicing in a niche you love, you’ll know that securing those specialized cases doesn’t just happen overnight. Some attorneys are lucky enough to bring clients from their old place and some get a little help from referral sources, but others have to hustle and take whatever comes their way until they can focus in on the type of cases they’re passionate about. Just like my guests today.

Stewart Guss

Well, when I first started practicing law, uh, I, um, went to work for a small litigation uh, boutique firm. Had a good time there. I did a lot of personal injury. I also did some appellate work and business litigation. And then in 1999, I decided to hang out my, uh, hang out my own shingle. Uh, I knew that I wanted to focus on personal injury law, but you know, at the time, uh, you know, I understand that the folks listening to this podcast probably range anywhere from solo practitioners to, you know, to folks with hundreds of employees. Um, so, but most of you will probably relate, uh, I’d go to cocktail parties, people would ask, what do you do? I’m a lawyer. What kind of law do you do? They’d ask me. I’d say, well, What kind of law do you need? And they’d tell me, and I’d be like, Oh yeah, yeah, that’s what I do. That’s what I do. Well, suffice it to say, um, I, I was lucky and successful enough and building up a client base so that, you know, within about a year of my, of my, uh, opening shop, I was able to focus on, uh, on personal injury and, and the rest, as they say is history.

Chris Dreyer

My guest today is Stewart Guss, founder of Stewart, J Gus. Injury Accident Lawyers. Stewart has over 25 years of experience as an attorney, 22 of which he spent running his own firm. During this time, Stewart has perfected the art of running his practice all while pursuing excellence as an attorney, earning him a top spot as one of the top 100 trial lawyers in the country. Join us as we discuss what you need to do to get the best ROI on your marketing efforts. How to upgrade your intake process and why you shouldn’t make success your only motivation. 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. Stewart’s firm wasn’t an overnight success, nor was it the legal powerhouse with over 100 staff that it is today. I had to ask Stewart about the initial years of his practice and what he did to get started and how the transformation occurred for Stewart, J. Guss injury accident lawyers.

Stewart Guss

Well, so, um, the way I like to act, explain it is I worked in a 12 by 12 office, uh, in a, uh, an executive suite. And, uh, I get to work in the morning, I’d make the coffee and if a fax had to be sent, I sent the fax. A brief need to be written. I wrote it. Needed to be typed, needed to be filed. I was my own messenger. Uh, and then of course at the end of the day, um, I cleaned the coffee pot and I went home. I actually didn’t hire my first employee until about two years after I hung out my own shingle. And, and I’ll tell you one of the funny things about that is when I hired my first employee, I literally thought to myself – now remember I’ve got a hundred and about 120 staff members – I literally thought to myself, what am I going to have this person do? How can I occupy there? I’m for 40 hours a week?

Chris Dreyer

Uh, so you’re wearing about a hundred hats, if not a thousand hats.

Stewart Guss

Yeah, exactly. And I’m, and I’m, and I’m by nature. So such a control freak. I didn’t want to give any of those hats up. So obviously, obviously I figured out that part.

Chris Dreyer

Uh, obviously you did. So what, what was the big turning point in your firm? Like what, what changed it? What took it to the next level?

Stewart Guss

So, okay. So, uh, just to, just to clarify, you did not pay me to say this, uh, this, this comes, this comes from, uh, my heart and my experience. Advertising, marketing, but smart advertising and marketing and, um, you know, being able to, uh, being able to reach the audience that needs you when they need you. I know that you focus obviously on, on helping your clients with digital marketing. If I could let me tell a quick story about how I look, how I look at the concept of digital marketing. Um, digital marketing is like guerilla marketing. You know, you spend every penny wisely and, uh, with, you know, with forethought, with intention, um, The differentiator. We still have a lot of, I still have a lot of brothers and sisters, uh, in the, at the plaintiff’s bar that are advertising with billboards and television and old school. And look, if you’ve got that footprint and that name recognition, you know, that, there’s nothing wrong with doing that. Um, but the way that I looked at advertising and specifically digital advertising is if you do billboards and television,, what you’re doing is you’re taking a helicopter and you’re flying it to 10,000 feet above your market area. You’re dropping out a hundred thousand leaflets, right. And you’re hoping that 10 or 20 of them will land in windshields that are cracked or bumpers that are broken because they were just in a car accident. But 99% of those leaflets that are dropped will not hit your target audience when you need them. But if you focus on digital marketing, you’re able to, to reach essentially, um, a really large number of people who need you, but they only see you when you need, when they need you. So when you go with digital marketing, whether it’s SEO or pay-per-click or Facebook advertising, um, people aren’t going to know who you are until they need a personal injury lawyer. And then, if you’re doing things right, you’re the only face they’re going to see.

Chris Dreyer

Let me, let me jump in here, Stewart. So basically what you’re talking about is you’re highly focused and highly sensitive to direct marketing with consumers that have intent.

Stewart Guss

Absolutely. Absolutely. And from my perspective, you know, keep in mind, I’m not trying to brag and I, and I give, you know, 99% of the credit to, to my teammates and the people I work with and I’ve picked up along the way. But thinking about the fact that 20 years ago, I was cleaning my coffee pot at the end of the day, uh, sitting alone in my 12 by 12 office. Uh, and now today, you know, I’ve got 120 people in, in seven offices in three different States. Um, And I was able to do that. I, you know, my marketing budget is pretty big, but it’s also really focused on, on digital. So ultimately from my perspective, while I might, might not be getting, um, a lot of branding out of it, I get an awful lot of traffic and leads.

Chris Dreyer

Absolutely. So let’s talk about, you know, when you started acquiring a lot of clients and, and, and there was mistakes that, that happened and, or things that you learned from what were some of those early mistakes that you learned from?

Stewart Guss

So the funny thing is, um, like I said, there are a lot, I, you know, I’m at the plaintiff’s bar nationwide with some really intelligent, um, men and women who are excellent advocates for their clients. Um, the one thing that I’ve learned is almost a universal, um, constant in our business; um, the one thing that we are generally really awful at is, um, handling personnel issues and, and that was really true for me. Um, you know, it, it honestly going to trial, practicing law, um, doing the research, filing a brief, um, is actually really easy relative to the much more difficult task of managing people. I’ll just disclose my two weaknesses and I’m still working on them. We’re number one at tendency to over after I learned to delegate and I figured out what, you know, what that first employee would do, I would tend to over delegate. Um, not circle back and make sure that, you know, execution was right on spot. Um, and the other, you know, and, and that’s a lesson that I’ve learned. You have to reach – you know, I went from not delegating at all to just delegating and trusting that it would be okay. And you have to reach that happy, medium. The other big lesson that I learned is, um, and this is one that I struggled with for a lawyer. I generally don’t like conflict. I don’t like arguing with people. Uh, ironic. I know. But when I have to give, um, Pointed feedback or directed, uh, correction to my attorneys or my management, I always struggle with that because I never liked to hurt people’s feelings. And one of the biggest breakthroughs that, that, that I’ve come to as a manager was realizing that giving that feedback is not just about my interaction with that attorney or that manager, it’s about my obligation and responsibility to the entity as a whole and to the other hundred and 19 employees that are depending on, um, you know, my entity being a success in order to be able to put bread on the table and a roof over their head.

Chris Dreyer

A key factor in any law firm, success is their intake process. Bottlenecks here can drastically hinder any efforts to function correctly, let alone grow, but Stewart’s firm has no issues in that department. In fact, his firm boasts one of the most efficient intakes of any law firms in the U.S. So what is the secret of optimizing your intake procedure?

Stewart Guss

So, so first, um, I, I, you know, I can only claim a very, very tiny proportion of, uh, my success. 99% of my success is based on the people that I’ve hired and trained and trusted to execute. Um, the, the biggest turnaround that I got from my intake department, you know, when I was originally, um, starting to grow and doing intakes, I would have my, um, case managers and other, you know, and attorneys and other legal staff doing intakes. Intake would come in, they transfer it back to a case manager and attorney, um, to do the intake and, you know, it worked okay. But after awhile, a little light bulb went on from my head. I’m asking people to do intake. I’m asking people who are already busy to take time out of their day to complete an intake, to make them even busier. So from a business perspective, and from a management perspective, I came to the realization that the smartest way to handle intake is to have a completely separate intake department trained and supervised by attorneys with plenty of, um, escape valves in terms of looping in attorneys to assist with the process. And one of the key things that I’m really proud of is that. We, we don’t necessarily hire legal staff and teach them how to do intake. We hire from a very diverse pool of individuals with different life stories and different life experiences, because we want our intake staff to mirror our client base as much as possible. Um, the intake staff is not there to give legal advice or make a decision about a case. Um, they’re there to gather information and, and, and help the process along. But ultimately, if you think about it, hiring a, uh, you know, in my case, a relatively young diverse staff, um, that, that mirrors my potential, uh, you know, client base, it makes my perspective, clients infinitely more comfortable talking to someone who’s just like them and talking about, you know, their car wreck and their injuries and the effect on their life. Um, that, that, I mean, that’s my one big piece of advice in terms of people who are getting ready to set up their own intake department.

Chris Dreyer

There are tons of takeaways there. So, you know, when you have these individuals focusing on one priority, one set of skills, you lead to expertise, and then you can have your attorneys focusing on, you know, becoming experts of practicing the law. So now with the over a hundred employees, you got the intake system work and you got your marketing work and direct marketing. It’s, it becomes more of an HR situation where you’re having to constantly hire and find the best talent. So what are some lessons in regards to the HR side?

Stewart Guss

From my perspective, managing people is, um, truly my biggest challenge as, as an attorney and as the owner of, uh, uh, you know, the decent size enterprise. Um, but really the trick, it all begins with hiring the right people. And what I found is that, um, when you’re interviewing, when you’re looking at resumes, you trust your gut, but not a hundred percent. Um, my biggest mistake when I was still highly involved in, in, in hiring all of my staff, um, I’d get a good feeling for a person or I’d like them personally and I would be inclined to want to offer them a job. And what I realized is that you don’t want an office full of friends. You want an office full of highly skilled and talented professionals. And just like with the intake department, you know, I think diversity is very important in the intake department. I feel the exact same way about every other position, where we staff at my firm, um, different people with different backgrounds, different ideas about life, different philosophies. Um, you know, I think that just like the United States, our strength is our diversity. Um, I feel in a microcosm way, the exact same way about staffing at my firm. So I might not personally be, be inclined to be friends with every particular employee that I, that I hire. Um, but we’re hiring the right people for the right position, um, to do the right thing by our clients and that did not come naturally.

Chris Dreyer

That’s great. That’s great. So your firms. It it’s it’s growing, it’s expanding rapidly. You’re opening a new offices. You’re, you’re constantly exploring new opportunities and, and marketing is an extreme focus. So how are you positioning for your firm, your firm for growth now?

Stewart Guss

Yeah. So ultimately what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to, um, explore untapped opportunities. Um, and as corny as it sounds, what I look for are untapped opportunities to do good in the world. Um, so, you know, my operating philosophy has always been: don’t focus on making money, focus on being a good lawyer, doing good in the world and, and I think I’m proof of this, that the, the money that the client base, the success will follow. So, um, so we are, we are constantly on the lookout for, um, you know, different areas or opportunities where we think. Just basically people are being treated unfairly or taken advantage of. Um, and we look to, you know, we look into these areas and decide, is this something that we want to get into, whether it’s a particular type of, um, of automobile tort or for example, um, there is unfortunately a, um, Uh, just a massive amount of, uh, negligence going on and a lot of nursing homes around the country, so that’s one of the areas that we’re looking at at, uh, at getting into more. You know, again, and it’s not, yeah, it’s our business and, and we hope we make a profit doing it, but the idea of being, you know, we, if we come in and we aggressively pursue, for example, nursing home cases, then we can be a part of the solution that makes nursing homes safer and better for, you know, everyone else.

Chris Dreyer

You know, and there’s not a lot of careers that can do that. If we’re being honest, you can have a direct impact on many people’s lives.

Stewart Guss

I mean, you know, our goal is to try and our goal is to try and make a positive impact. You know, both on the lives of our clients and their families, but to the extent that we can, um, society as a whole. This is why we are, we’re also involved in, in mass torts, uh, regarding, um, you know, bad drugs or bad medical devices. Uh, unfortunately the regulatory scheme, you know, the FDA has, has essentially been crumbling in size and scope for decades. So, uh, to a certain extent, you know, as personal injury lawyers, we’re the front line, we’re the, we’re the watchers on the wall as it were between, um, you know, greedy, profit driven drug makers and device makers and the safety of, of the public.

Chris Dreyer

I love those philosophies. I love like just your mindset on this and how you do your job and, and grow your company in general.

Stewart Guss

Chris, I, I’m a big believer in, I’m a big believer in karma, right? So, so my whole philosophy about life and about business is to put good out in the world. Um, cast, you know, cast the bread out on the water. Don’t expect anything in return for it just do as much good as you can every day. And ultimately karma will will will, you know, bring the benefit back to you sometimes if it does great, if it doesn’t take joy in the fact that you’ve been able to do good in the world.

Chris Dreyer

That’s an excellent way to look at it. And then you get that reciprocity, even when you weren’t expecting it. Exactly. Getting, getting to this next level you’ve you’ve had to continuously, continuously improve. You’ve had to look for areas, uh, you know, that you can draw from knowledge. Are there any business books or mentors that come to mind that have helped you develop?

Stewart Guss

The best book about management and leadership I have ever read in my life is a book called Call Sign Chaos by General Jim Mattis. And it talks about his rise through the ranks, um, and the lessons that he learned, oftentimes the hard way, about how to manage and lead and, and motivate people. Um, he, you know, he’s a very successful general, super smart guy and, um. You know, when I make decisions, my decisions are very important. They affect the cases of our clients, uh, when he makes decisions, um, his decisions affect the life or death of his soldiers that report to him. So in some ways he’s under, you know, he’s under a lot more pressure. Uh, not that I don’t take my cases or my clients seriously, his decisions are literally life and death. And he’s really learned, I think, he’s really mastered the, uh, the ability to get that balance between over delegation and under delegation supervision, versus knowing when to, you know, just let your people run. It’s a highly recommend the book.

Chris Dreyer

I’m going to have to add that one to my list for sure. Yeah. You know, also at your organization, it’s important to have the right tools. So are there any, is there some top software that you can recommend to our audience on, on growing their firms? Growing and managing?

Stewart Guss

So, uh, I will not say anything about our current case management software because it’s pretty good and it’s got us to where we’re going. Um, I’ll give a shout out. We are in the process of transitioning over to, um, GrowPath, which, uh, is a product, um, uh, based out of, um, North Carolina. Uh, it’s a very successful law firm there that’s developed this internally. Um, they’ve decided to roll it out and set it up as a separate business division. It’s smart. It’s agile, it’s powerful. Um, it has, uh, you know, good AI built into it. Flexibility. So I can’t give a full-throated endorsement because I’m not live on it yet, but we’ve, I’ve spent a lot of time behind the wheel and doing research. So if, if, you know, if you have a law firm with more than about 10 or 20 folks, um, and you’re frustrated with your current case management software, um, get in touch with folks at GrowPath.

Chris Dreyer

Awesome. Yeah. I’ll have all a link up GrowPath in the show notes and everyone listening will have access to them. Let let’s talk. It let’s do a couple more questions there, Stewart. Let’s you know, now that you’re in this position, your position’s changed, right? You’ve removed many, many of those hats, and now you have some activities that just bring tremendous value to your organization. So at this stage, in your business, what are your high value activities? What are those actions that bring the most impact a year from now?

Stewart Guss

Yeah, and that’s a really great question. And, and, and I think I’ve got a pretty good answer for you. Um, I’ve got a team of, um, I’ve got a team of lawyers and executives, uh, working for me. I’ve got, you know, managers, supervisors, and, um, depending on what level in the organization they are, they’re either worried about what they’re doing this minute, this hour, or what the game plan is for this month or this quarter. Okay. And they’re great at executing that, um, I sort of see myself not just as a, as a leader and a motivator, but, um, in a certain, in a certain, uh, per in a certain perspective, sort of the, the chief visionary. So I let the rest of my leadership and management worry about operations on a day-to-day, week-to-week and month-to-month basis, and they’re really focused on what we’re doing today and, you know, cashflow for next month. Whereas I spend a lot of time looking at, um, where we’re going to be in a year. Or two years or five years. So I trust my top people to look at the road right in front of us and make sure we stay between the lines as we move forward. And I am looking as far out on the horizon as I can, um, that that’s where I spend most of my time.

Chris Dreyer

That’s amazing because you know, many times, if you’re in the weeds doing the work, you don’t, you can’t have your head up. You just don’t have the ability to have your head up and look and see the big picture of what’s going on.

Stewart Guss

Well, having, having, uh, having an executive structure and leaders like Sean and Tiffany and Brant, Sasseen, Jason Ruen and Scott Whitehouse. Um, having such talented and, and capable leadership at the firm really allows me to step out of the weeds and, um, and focus on, on, you know, a long-term vision for where, where the, uh, practice is going. Hey, it’s actually, it’s, it’s funny. I think one of the key things that a manager has, or a leader has to learn is you, you, you have to have an open ear for respectful dissent. So I do have a couple of, I call them “Eeyores” in my, in my upper management staff. And I started giving them a hard time. You know, what, if I come up with what I think is a great idea, you know, and then they just rain on my parade. I’m like, Oh man, seriously, Um, but at the end of the day, when you, when you create an atmosphere that allows for respectful dissent, just because I’m smart, doesn’t mean I’m always the smartest guy in the room. And if someone’s got a better idea or sees a hole in a, uh, you know, in an idea that I have, I, you know, I have to, I have to let go of my ego and understand that sometimes my ideas are not the best.

Chris Dreyer

And then you get those unique perspectives. That’s how, you know, it’s it’s you don’t want the yes-people, you want people that can go. Drive new ideas and new innovations and help with that growth?

Stewart Guss

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Chris Dreyer

I don’t think many people would argue with Stuart’s role as the visionary of his practice. Even his method of filling his inner circle with respectful dissenters to keep as big ideas grounded is inspiring. But if you haven’t got a crack team of ideas, people on hand to help you grow your firm, who can you turn to for advice? Well, thankfully, Stewart has some suggestions for you.

Stewart Guss

You know, my philosophy about life and about business is, um, you know, we’re all in this together and, and a rising tide lifts all boats. So whether you’re a fellow personal injury lawyer, or another practice area or completely different business, I’m always happy to share whatever limited wisdom I have. Um, the two nuggets of advice that I always, um, will give number one, um, recognize the fact that you are the best investment that you can make. So when you’re running your business, every time you make a dollar color of profit, put a dime in your pocket and take the other 90 cents and put it back into your business. And that is literally how I went from, you know, me cleaning the coffee pot at the end of the day ’cause I was the only person to the size and scope of the firm I’ve got today. I’ve trusted in myself. And knew that I was my best investment. Uh, my firm was, and when I got big enough, I realized that it’s not me I’m investing in, it’s those 120 people, all of whom I liked, uh, that’s where I’m investing that 90 cents of every dollar. That’s that’s my first bit of advice. My second bit of advice, and this is really, this is specific to the practice of law. Very simple. Get up in the morning, go to work. Um, when you’re faced with a decision, you have to make, do the right thing. The next time you’re faced with a decision, do the right thing, lather, rinse, repeat. And as long as you always do the right thing by your clients, by your employees, by your community, um, you, you are almost guaranteed to succeed.

Chris Dreyer

Absolutely. One of the greatest assets your firm has is you. So don’t forget to invest in yourself. There was some fantastic advice there from Stewart, and it’s amazing how with the help of some smart marketing and savvy people skills, he was able to evolve his one-man operation into a business empire with multiple offices across three states. Truly inspirational. You’ve been listening to The Rankings Podcast. I’m Chris Dreyer. A huge thanks to today’s guest Stewart Guss for joining us. You can find all the links from today’s conversation in the show notes, and we want to hear from you. What is it that motivates you to grow your law firm and succeed? Drop us a review and share your thoughts. Thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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