Podcast: Growing Your Practice Sustainably
He started his firm with only a webpage and a cellphone, but he now has offices in California and Idaho. Learn how he’s expanded his practice while keeping costs down, and about the importance of truly caring for your plaintiffs. Today, Ryan Sargent talks about growing your practice sustainably.
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Join us as we sit down with the country’s best attorneys to talk about their processes and practices, as well as their outlook on the always-changing legal landscape. New episodes every month!
KATIE WOLF: Welcome to the Filevine Fireside. I’m your host, Katie Wolf, and today we are talking to Ryan Sargent. He started his firm with only a web page and a cell phone. He now has personal injury law offices all over California and Idaho. Ryan Sargant is here today to share some of his secrets for growing law firms sustainably. Thank you so much for talking with us today Ryan, we are excited to learn about some of the inter-workings and innovations of your practice there.
RYAN SARGENT: Thanks for having me Katie, I’m glad to be here.
KATIE: Could you tell us a little bit about who you are, and how you came to be an attorney?
RYAN: Yeah so early on, I wasn’t one of those types of people that when they were growing up said, “Hey, I want to be a lawyer”. And even getting into law school wasn’t my first plan. I guess when I was an undergrad, I decided that going to law school might be a better option than maybe doing a Master’s in Business. I really didn’t have any intention of practicing as an attorney when I was starting out. Once I got in, I started liking the idea of being an attorney and practicing and ended up getting a job at a law firm that exclusively practiced plaintiff’s personal injury right out of law school, and so I started out there. After working there for a couple of years I realized there were some things that I would prefer to do in my own practice, how I wanted clients treated and cases handled, and you can’t really do that unless it’s your law firm. So I left there and started my practice with essentially a cellphone and a laptop and just kind of grew organically from there.
KATIE: So often we see that attorneys come from these legal families where their father and grandfather founded the firm that they work in, what was it like to come into this practice outside of any family context? You say that your friend’s father was maybe a sort of a mentor, were you able to find other mentors as you moved forward?
RYAN: You know one thing that I did attribute some of the success I’ve had is once I started my office and found some of the difficulties that I was facing, I just started talking to other lawyers. You kind of find that most attorneys, and this is not a dig at the profession, but most attorneys like to talk about themselves if you ask them questions, and so I got a lot of good insight as to how other offices were doing things. And frankly, from doing that, you find that there are so many different ways to run a law practice. So you kind of just take little tidbits of stuff that you like and apply it to your own practice is what I found to be really helpful.
KATIE: That’s cool. So if there were somebody who is currently in the situation that you were when you first started your practice where somebody who just has a laptop, and a virtual address, and a cellphone, what are some of the things that you gleaned, those tidbits you mentioned, that you gleaned from other attorneys that you would like to pass on to them?
RYAN: So, I think when I started out I was a little naïve into essentially what it took to run a law practice. I think I was fortunate in that I was already in a niche, I think that’s something that’s really important is to really know and focus on what you’re doing, and to try to be the best that you can at one particular thing, especially in law. There’s so much specialization, so I think that’s step one. Picking your niche and staying with it. And then just, at first, I wasn’t really looking outside at other lawyers, it took me about a year to realize that whoa! I can just call other lawyers that I know or even lawyers that I didn’t know. I’d take them out to lunch and ask questions. I think I would have done that prior to opening up my office and came up with a better game plan. I just kind of learned as I went, and so I think just planning and not just the details on what type of practice you want, but even down to what type of case management software are you going to use? What computers to buy? What phone system? The details. The internet is the great thing because you can find a lot of that stuff right now pretty easily with a few Google searches. It wasn’t as much available back when I started my office. So, I guess those are a few things that I would have done differently.
KATIE: Even so, you’ve moved from having a single laptop, and a virtual address, to practicing law all over California and Idaho. What do you credit with the growth of your firm?
RYAN: Well I think part of it is just being patient. We’ve had slow, gradual growth, and I think the other thing is technology and implementing some systems and processes, and then also just the internet. I call the internet “the great equalizer”, we are able to compete with big law firms because we have the same types of resources that they have, so our case management system, being paperless, we’re able to market to areas all over through the web, and everything is cloud-based, we can text all of our clients, stuff like that. Even in the last year, we’ve really focused on our systems and processes and how we work, and what we do day to day, and how we keep track of that. We’ve built up a lot of analytics it’s almost like a money ball for lawyers, some of the stuff we look at. And that’s not stuff I came up with, we’ve hired consultants and other people in our industry to help us with that stuff. I’m not necessarily an innovator on that stuff it’s just more of in the last year we’ve been really focused on implementing the stuff that we’ve learned and the stuff that’s helpful for us. Like I said, with the internet and technology that we can use, it makes it really easy to be able to grow but grow in a way that’s organized. I don’t know if that answers your question.
KATIE: Absolutely, yeah! And it sounds like a lot of your growth has come through choosing a good team to work with you. What do you look for in people who you want to bring into your legal team?
RYAN: The focus in our office is, we do all plaintiff’s and personal injury, so our clients have always been injured or harmed in some of way. They’re going through a lot in their life and so we really want members of our team to be able to empathize with our clients and to be good listeners, but also we want people that are going to work hard, and be able to kind of have a balance in their lives of working hard when they’re here, but also having other things in their lives that fulfill them. So we have a little bit of an opposite culture of most law firms in that we work really hard when we’re here, but I don’t remember the last time anyone was in my office at 7:30 at night, or on a Saturday. It’s very rare to find that at our office. And part of that is because we try to work really efficiently when we’re in the office. We don’t necessarily have criteria of “Hey! We want someone that was on law review, and someone that did moot court”, it’s more of are they going to fit within our team, and the goals that we’re trying to accomplish for our clients.
KATIE: Well I think you’re going to get some job applications out of this interview because that’s pretty amazing to hear from the manager, the main partner of a law firm. When you were first starting out, when you made that terrifying leap from working with an established firm to starting your own, what were some of the principles that you most wanted to bring into your firm? What were the things that most motivated you to start something on your own?
RYAN: One thing I really wanted, especially within the plaintiff’s personal injury field, there’s a lot of offices that the clients just don’t get the attention that they need, and so we’ve now set benchmarks, for example, client communication. How often are we talking with clients? A lot of lawyers work reactively to when their clients call in, and we try to work proactively, so we have a rule in our office, every client every 30 days. Are they calling us? Or are we calling them? We want to be the ones calling them and being proactive on that stuff. And it’s a fine line because as an attorney, your biggest asset is your time, so you also want to be efficient with how often you’re communicating with your clients, but in our industry as an injury lawyer, you want to make sure that they feel important, that every case is important, so that’s something we try to do, we are always getting better at it and working at getting better at it, we’re nowhere close to being where we want to be, but.
KATIE: That was one thing that I discovered when I was researching your firm was, again and again, that was the thing that stuck out to people was your focus on clients, and on client satisfaction, and on frequent communication with clients. And I know that part of that it’s just the right thing to do as a human who’s working with people who are hurt, and I want to ask if it also, if there are ways that it helps your practice in other ways, beyond just being a good, decent human.
RYAN: We didn’t always do that, it’s just something we learned how to do as we grew and as we just tried to continue to get better. I think that it’s something that we kind of learned as we went through maybe some growing pains and realizing that hey, to be able to maintain the level of customer service that we want, we have to be more organized. We have to have reports and have some data and have a way to keep track of all this stuff. Figuring out exactly what we wanted to accomplish and then having the software to be able to keep track of it is really how we’ve been working towards that goal.
KATIE: You mentioned earlier that you were thinking about going to business school, and instead wound up in law school sort of as a means of winding up in business at the end. Do you think that your ability to think in terms of a business person aids your work as a lawyer now?
RYAN: My dad is an accountant and he always worked from the house. For a handful of years, he had an office, but he was always there when I came home from school, he was at all my sporting events, my mom as well, but it was just kind of nice to have someone around. Even though he’s a professional, he’s also an entrepreneur in his own right. So that was always really something that I wanted as I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted the freedom to be able to go to soccer practice when my kids have soccer practice, to go surf in the morning if I want to go surf, go on vacation when I want to go on vacation. Not that I don’t want to answer to someone, it’s just I want that freedom to be able to make those choices when I want to make them, and so I think that’s something when I made that jump, that was kind of the end goal, is that I want to be able to have the freedom. And it’s not all, you’re not always doing what you want, you end up working more than you thought, there’s a lot more stress, you know there’s a lot more on your plate that you have to deal with when you take that role, but the upside to it is tremendous and also very rewarding.
KATIE: How do you manage that stress you mentioned? Do you have any tips?
RYAN: I am not the person to ask how to manage stress. It’s something I’m always trying to figure out, like I said, running your own law business is very difficult. There’s a lot of different stuff you have to do and it’s also, it’s something that is as great as the technology that we have and the internet, it’s a 24-hour game that we play especially in plaintiffs personal injury. We get calls at all hours of the night sometimes there’s a potential client that we need to speak with on a weekend or on Sundays. Managing stress is difficult. I think learning how to realize when it’s time to turn it off. When you’re at home, be at home, when you’re at the office, be at the office, but it’s something I haven’t perfected by any means. It’s just something that’s difficult to do the practice of law is not a stress-free job. It’s something that especially in personal injury, you never finish everything that needs to be done but I think being organized and having some sort of system in place to just make sure you’re getting what needs to get done when it needs to get done is really important.
KATIE: Technology is rapidly and dramatically changing the legal industry right now, and sometimes it’s blamed for difficulties that are in the industry right now in terms of fewer people getting jobs as lawyers and law schools shutting down. But it’s also touted as a way that clients can get legal assistance more efficiently and in less expensive ways. In your time as an attorney, how have you seen technology change this industry? Or when you talk to other attorneys who have been doing this for a long time, what do you see as the big changes that have happened?
RYAN: Well I think you have a couple different things, like obviously with the internet and cloud-based solutions where there’s a lot of different things, a lot of tools lawyers are using like Filevine, and texting their clients for communication-wise. But I think that question is a little more industry-specific. I think part of your question was it’s making less jobs for lawyers, well and you’d get into the realm of companies like LegalZoom were people can go online, they don’t need to necessarily hire an attorney to get a contract, they can get one on the internet. So there’s a lot of things that make it a little more cost effective for someone that might not be able to pay an attorney 250 dollars an hour to get a basic contract down, but now they have those types of tools and I think part of it is just automation on that stuff, for us, the more efficient we are, the more money we make. Within personal injury being efficient automating documents that we do over and over and over again so for example, letters of representation and insurance company, we don’t have to type those out, there’s no cut and paste, it’s just a click of a button and it’s in a PDF and we’re ready to send it via Fax by eFax, it’s stuff like that that really make things quicker.
KATIE: Speaking of technology, do you ever think about new technologies like driverless cars and how that might change the personal injury industry?
RYAN: There’s been a lot of debate within personal injury lawyers as to how autonomous cars will affect our industry or when. I think that obviously eventually down the road that’s going to be something that’s not going to put personal injury lawyers out of business, they’re going to have to adapt and there’s just going to be less vehicle accident cases which the bread and butter for most plaintiff’s personal injury lawyers is. I’m more concerned about the technology in vehicles already on the road. You go down to the car dealership and buy a 2018 vehicle, and most of them come standard with a bunch of different safety features, for example, backup cameras, and radar cruise control or sonar cruise control, and cross traffic monitoring, and blind spot monitoring and lane changing notifications if you don’t signal. There’s cars that automatically brake if a vehicle is in front of you and you haven’t braked quick enough, stuff like that. That’s going to change the industry quicker than autonomous cars in my opinion. Knowing that that stuff is already here it’s something where I think people keep a hold on their cars a lot longer than they used to, but that stuff is coming and that’s great. Personal injury lawyers don’t want more accidents, they want people to be safe. They want insurance companies to do the right thing and so I think eventually if there’s no more car accidents, that’s a better place to live, that’s a safer place to live and I think the personal injury lawyers that are like myself and friends of mine that are doing this because they want to help their clients and help their clients as people that they care about, that’s something that’s better for us as a society. Will it change my business? Absolutely. But there’s always going to be people that are being harmed and insurance companies that are taking advantage of people and trying to keep their money to themselves and not pay out what they should, so being adaptable to what the industry is doing is just something that is coming. How quickly? I don’t know. What are we going to do differently? I’m not quite sure. But the writing is on the wall, it’s just a matter of when.
KATIE: At the point where there’s no more injured people I guess you can just start surfing every day and living the blissful, future, utopia where no one’s ever hurt!
RYAN: Maybe but then I’ll be retired, and I won’t be on a podcast talking about legal stuff. But for now, I’m ok doing what we’re doing.
KATIE: For the moment new technology it seems is wreaking havoc on the streets in terms of everyone is looking at their phones all the time while they’re driving. Have you noticed a lot of that happening?
RYAN: I think as the tech safety stuff has gotten better, people are not as injured in accidents. But there also has been a tremendous spike in obviously texting and driving, or distracted driving is a better term because not everyone’s texting. They could be on Youtube or on social media and you see a bunch of accidents where people are snapping while they’re driving, stuff like that. So there’s been a spike but most of the time when we have accidents like that, how the accident occurred, once the insurance company admits liability, it’s not as much of an issue as to what are my clients going through and what are their injuries and their damages but absolutely it’s a problem. I think it’s something that will be rapidly fixed in the next couple years with just even now Apple did an update that makes it, you have to actually want to, you can try to text while you’re driving, the phone knows you’re driving and won’t let you text you have to click a button saying “yeah I want to text while I’m driving”.
RYAN: There’s safety features built-in in the vehicles when you plug your phone in, it doesn’t allow you to turn it on unless the person, the user, actually bypasses it. But absolutely it’s a big problem. I think there’s research that shows that distracted driving, distracted drivers, are more impaired than drunk drivers almost by a multiplier of 10. From that perspective, it’s extremely dangerous. There’s a lot of people being injured because of it. But I do think that in a couple years that the technology will change with voice search and stuff like that where people won’t necessarily be looking at their phones to send a text message. I mean the technology is already here, it’s just people aren’t using it because it’s not as easy and doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to. But I think that’s something that may change quickly in the next couple years.
KATIE: If you’re listening to this while you’re driving, don’t look at your phone. Public service announcement.
RYAN: And if someone hits you, give my office a call.
KATIE: And if someone hits you, call Ryan Sargant.
RYAN: At 844 Sargant, shameless plug
KATIE: At 844 Sargant. Yeah, we allow that here. I have a question that I am just personally curious about, which is, how is it to practice in both California and Idaho? Is it super different when you’re moving across those jurisdictions? Or how do you manage that?
RYAN: I mean essentially there’s laws that are a little different, there’s nuances, but the process is the same. The cases are the same. Traveling can be difficult at times because you know, I don’t like being away from my family, but the way my office is run, I can do things most of our clients we can communicate with phone calls and emails and text messages and being able to share documents electronically. So you can communicate with people all over from pretty much anywhere and so our clients are spread out and sometimes I really enjoy the face to face interaction with clients, but at the same time a lot of our clients don’t want to be bothered with it so as far as it being difficult to manage our client’s cases, in different states, it’s not an issue at all. The way our office is set up with cloud-based phones, cloud-based software, stuff like that, it makes it pretty easy.
KATIE: What are the moments that make your job worthwhile?
RYAN: You know I think that the level of customer service that people generally require in 2017 is very high. And you know, if you go online and look at online reviews, it’s very difficult to get a 5-star review from a client. And so I think it’s a tall order that you know that starting off that clients expect a lot out of you, but I think it’s just rewarding when we have clients at the end of their case that are happy, and frankly in personal injury cases, the more injured someone is, or the more money we recover for one of our clients, the more injured they are typically. So when you have a client that regardless of what their injuries were, regardless of what their outcome is, that’s really happy and appreciative for the work, and the time, and also just ourselves that we put into their case, when they’re happy, we get a lot of satisfaction out of that. Getting good results for clients, that’s great. But when we get a client that’s happy, or when we get referrals back from prior clients, that’s the best. When we have someone that calls our office and says, “Hey, so and so, your past client told me to give you guys a call! You did a great job on their case.” That’s the best. And that’s really how our practice has grown is by those types of referrals and so I think that’s a win for us. The other part that I get satisfaction of is being able to kind of outside of our goals associated with the cases that we’re working on and our clients that we’re representing, it’s just being able to spend time with my family and getting home and being a part of their lives and not being in the office all the time. I cherish every moment I get to spend with my wife and my kids and so the more I get of that and the less I have to work to do that, the more I get out of my profession I think. Because having a work/life balance is something that’s very difficult to do. I read a book and it talked about, it was actually a referral from a good friend of mine, John Paige. Part of this book he recommended that I read it, it talks about no one that is successful in business has a perfect balanced life. If you take a Venn Diagram and you have your personal life, and your business life, there’s that intersection in the middle. And to be successful you have to count your balancing act because there are times when you’re going to have to work 18 hours, there are times you’re going to have to work on the weekends. And that may be an extreme of balance, right? You’re putting everything you have into your work. But there are times when you have to do that but it’s a matter of knowing when you can scale that back and there’s times when you need to be that extreme with your family. Maybe someone, a family member, has some health issues or something personal going on and you’ve got to be there for them and spending that time is really important. It’s difficult to do. It’s something I haven’t completely figured out yet, but I think it’s a good example that getting value out of your work is great, but there’s a lot of other things that you can find value in and I think that’s really important.
KATIE: Thank you so much for talking with us Ryan, and thanks for the work that you do, helping folks.
RYAN: I appreciate it, and I appreciate your time.
KATIE: This has been the Filevine Fireside. I’m Katie Wolf, see you next week!