Reza Torkzadeh is an American plaintiff’s attorney based in Irvine, California. Reza has served in leadership roles in litigation at the National level and is currently serving as Chairman of the Dean’s Circle at UC Irvine Law School. He is widely regarded as one of America’s Top 100 High Stakes Litigators. He is also one of the Top 100 National Trial Lawyers 2019. Reza is a frequently invited guest speaker and has lectured across the country on the practice of law and the civil justice system.
In this special episode of the Filevine Fireside, your host Dr. Cain Elliot interviews Reza Torkzadeh about his new book, The Lawyer as CEO. Hear about Reza's experience growing a law firm, get a behind-the-scenes look at his reasons for writing "The Lawyer as CEO," and learn about balancing your law firm's business and legal needs.
I want to thank everyone again for joining us here on Filevine Fireside. My name is Dr. Cain Elliott. Today I'm joined by Reza Torkzadeh, who's the founder and CEO of TorkLaw Professional Injury Firm. We're going to talk today, as we often do, on [inaudible 00:00:24] it's a new thing that I think everybody out there should be reading who's interested in the space, in the area. Reza's written a new book called Lawyer CEO, which I read. I got it on Kindle, but available at fine book sellers everywhere, at least that I can find online. Reza, so first of all, thank you for joining us on the Filevine Fireside.
Oh, Dr. Elliott, thanks so much and thank you for the opportunity and for having me on.
Yeah. So let's just jump right in. I wanted to ask... I really like the way that you've approached this book. And just to give everybody who hasn't read out there, your future readers, a little introduction to the work, I think what we can say you're trying to do... And correct me if I'm wrong. But I think what you're trying to do is really take your readers through a process of how you go from just being a practicing attorney to a leader in an organization, how to become a real CEO that's leading a business.
And I was reminded of the first time I stepped into a law firm and one of the partners there... He said to me, "Cain, the thing you need to understand is we became lawyers because we're not entrepreneurs." And that was his introduction. And I thought it was really interesting because what you're describing here is the fact that that may not be part of training and background. You don't go to law school to get an MBA, but it's an essential part of the work and most attorneys will come to some point in their careers when they understand that being a leader in a legal organization, whether that's part of a private legal practice or whether that's part of an in-house corporate council team, but those leadership skills still deeply matter and that those are something that people can learn and learn from others and their experience in that.
I'm wondering... You have a couple of different I would say realization moments in there... The necessity of that on your side. But what sticks out for you of the moment where you sat back and said, "This is what it's about: not just the practice, but how I lead others?"
Yeah. I will tell you for me it was the realization that our law firm was not what I wanted it to be and what I had assumed it was. And whether it was my own ego or whether it was really a blind spot, at a point, I think year five or six of the firm's life, we were running a company where that did not have a good culture, that was not a good place to work. Now, we were doing great legal work. We were getting great results. We were making money, but the problem was it was very difficult to scale. It was very difficult to grow. And I found myself spending every single day dealing with internal battles and struggles.
And you're absolutely right, doctor. They don't teach you how to run a business. They don't teach you how important core values are to a company and how important culture is to an organization. And to be honest, I never really put any value in that myself either. I just figured I'm going to do great legal work. The vision was to be a customer service business that happens to practice law. And that's something that I repeat regularly all the time because really at the end of the day, it's about your clients and ultimately what their experience is with your organization. Not just your law firm, it could be any business. And they don't teach you those things.
And so I realized after a lot of pain, as I describe in the book, and a lot of really challenging times and stressful times filled with unknowns and anxieties, I realized that, look, I was failing as a leader and I wasn't leading an organization... We were I think around 30 people at the time and these are folks who relied on me to lead and to lead by example and their families relied on me. And it's a huge responsibility and it took a few events to happen for me to realize I as a leader was failing. And it was at that point that I think things really changed for us and really we made the necessary changes and focused on the things that I think have a meaningful impact on the organization. And it was taking it from where we were and where I thought we were and really changing the culture and the atmosphere and the environment and creating really what I had originally envisioned in this law firm.
Well, one of the interesting things when you're bringing that up... Because at the center of the book is this section where you're talking about how you build culture and how you develop it. It's right at the center of the book and you highlight a couple things there. You say it matters how you treat your employees. It matters how you treat your clients and how you're communicating with all of those groups to help everybody move forward.
I didn't see this word in there, but one of the things that had occurred to me that was right at the heart of that that can be a pretty hard I think for a lot of people, especially with the legal background or especially those who are involved in litigation all the time or negotiating with others, is a lot of lawyers get, even stereotypically, very good at getting a hard outer shell. You get tough in that way. But one of the things that I thought you kept highlighting in this book is you've got to be really actually open to being vulnerable to really lead in this role because just a tough shell doesn't make you good at listening and it doesn't bring out the communication skills you need.
What I was wondering is, for those who are listening today, for you how does that communication function rotate around? Are there certain hard skills you developed about how you do that or soft skills you take into that? How do you make that communication happen and really open yourself up to that kind of thing?
Yeah. I think that's a great question. You lead with compassion and it's easy to ignore problems. I think it's easy to get angry quickly. I think it's easy to take the shorter route, but the truth is we're dealing with people. Our team members are people. They've got lives. They've got ambitions. They've got visions. And so I think it's leading with compassion.
And you're right. Vulnerability is really the key word here because this exercise that I went through in writing the book... It took me about 18 months to do it. I was very vulnerable and I shared things in there that I think we don't often hear from lawyers and business leaders as a whole. And that is the realities of running and being a business owner and running an organization.
So I think it's leading with compassion and that compassion comes with... I have two young daughters, eight years old and five years old, and watching them and their experiences in life and really looking through that lens and then looking at my team members and the purpose that I play and the role that I play in the organization. And it's not necessarily practicing law every day, but it's being there to provide support.
And really my job is to truly now make sure that TorkLaw is the best law firm to work for. It truly does have a culture where you come in and you do feel supported, that you do have a career pathway to grow and excel in your career, in your position, and make more money and work at a place where you're really proud of and you can have dignity and say, "Look, we are making people's lives better. We are providing a platform for a young lawyer where they can work on large cases and it could be any position in the firm."
So it's knowing what my responsibilities are and that's creating a safe, stable environment for my team members to really excel. And I'll say this over and over again. We would not be TorkLaw without every single person that's currently working here. And we have incredibly talented people who are way smarter than me, who are way better than me at the things that we do every single day. And I think that's the real secret sauce, is being able to attract those folks and supporting them in their roles and the things that they get to do every single day to make us all better.
And I think what's really nice, at least within the text... One thing I got out of it was when you're describing your own growth pattern into this role, you're also describing this vulnerability that I think also comes with a lot of... Really difficult thing to do in any position. Like you said, not specific to legal, but you've got to have a lot of trust. What you described there is a perfect example of... An associate coming in to have a place to grow into. I think everybody knows the situation. People come out of law school every day... Do not know how to practice law. They've just gotten a law degree, but they're not practicing law. And that apprenticeship is tough and it takes a lot of work, but also to let people go out there and do the work instead of micromanaging every part of it... It's extreme amount of trust.
But I think what was interesting is that you've tried to describe the fact that you have to engage in that kind of trust so that you can invest your time and energy in the pieces that are most important as a leader. That if you sat there and worked on every part of issues that arose, the daily fires that you call them in the office... Or I call them around here the evils of the day. You get too focused on the evils of the day. And if you don't do that, I think your description to readers was, "Listen, you're missing out on giving people a vision, a motivation, for why they're there. You're not leading by example. You're just saying, 'If I control this, it will all go well,' rather than saying, 'I trust you to figure it out.'"
One of the things about growing into that role that I wanted to ask you about is... Because I love how the book opens where you say, "Listen, there's a reason enterprise law firms are doing really well, they do what they do. They've got their jam. Other firms are doing what they do." You're really inviting your readers here to discover their own firm. You've discovered what it means to run TorkLaw, but you're not prescriptive in the sense of, "Here's the recipe of how you're going to do your law." You're actually telling people you're going to have to do something different. That's pretty hard. I know attorneys get signals all the time of, "You grab these 10 steps, these 10 billboards, and you're going to knock it out." Can you describe how you came to that position and maybe tell people who might be interested readers about what you're trying to get them to discover?
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And this was my journey for sure. And when I first started the firm... And I've been in practice for 15 years and we started TorkLaw 10 years ago so we're celebrating our 10 year anniversary. But I had some degree of imposter syndrome. I had some degree of always watching my competitors and watching those who were making waves in the industry and trying to be like those people, to the point where I would dress like them and try to speak some of these master trial lawyers and orators. And I did that for years and it was so fake and it was so difficult for me to do that because it wasn't really me and we were growing and we were growing at a slow pace, but it wasn't until I realized that people truly appreciate authenticity... People respect authenticity and truly there's nothing more powerful than really just being your authentic self.
And it was at that moment that I realized, "Wow. All these billboards I see, all these commercials I see on TV and the radio... Maybe those guys aren't doing as well as you think." Maybe they're not as profitable. Maybe they're not attracting those cases that you think they're getting. And I just laser focused on doing it our way. And I started just being myself and dressing the way I wanted to and talking like a normal human being and started attracting incredible talent, started attracting ways to really market ourselves that set us apart and made us different.
And I think every organization and every leader has a unique value proposition and you really just need to find what yours is. And I'm talking about yours in terms of other law firm owners, but for us it's just being radically authentic, which is one of our main core values, and being a human being and not worrying about... I have a chapter in there called the Jones, Jones, and Joneses. It's like, "Stop worrying about your competition, Stop worrying about what their ad spend is. Stop worrying about all of these external things that are distractions for you and start worrying about your own operations. Start worrying about what you're spending to get cases and what your cost for acquisition is and what is your strategy for attracting talent? What is your strategy for retaining that talent?" And stop worrying about others.
Yeah. I think that one of the things that you see throughout your book and I think if you look around the industry, at least the way I feel... When I talk to attorneys where I say, "Damn. This guy or gal has got something going on. Their organization stands out as different," it's always because you hear that voice that is unique to them. It's not people doing the same thing over and over. To your point, there may be so many billboards up because there's not enough volume coming in in other ways. It may be the case that... I have a friend, Jim Hacking, who runs an immigration firm. Jim's thing is his emails. And when you get emails from Jim's firm, if they're sent out in mass or not, you still hear Jim's voice in every one of those emails.
And I think that's one of those things of... When you're talking about the client relationship and with your own team, everybody actually wants to hear you. They don't want to hear a robotic voice. If they did, they could ask Alexa for something and hear a robotic voice. I think clients are looking for the connection of professional services. If you're talking about delivering quality, it's about getting a piece of that quality that comes specifically from you. And if you are the leader, you have a responsibility to give that an authentic voice, like you said.
I want to ask for selfish reasons obviously. As a legal futurist, as someone who works in tech, you put an emphasis here on the fact that you invest in technology. You care about it. You think it's important to building the culture of the organization. I like the fact that there was a twist on it here, that it wasn't just an efficiency operation, but it was that there was a core part of the culture of the firm you've tried to create. I wonder if you could tell everybody a little bit about that and why you think that's so important and why you may be onto something if others think you're batshit for wanting to do that.
Yeah, absolutely. And beyond the reasons of efficiency, transparency, and having access to data, which I think is going to really be the future of what's going to drive the growth for every single law firm... And I'll tell a quick story and I talk about it in the book. I have always been a tech geek and I would always look for the latest and greatest technology. Any 1% that I felt technology could help us improve, we would test it out. And I had our leadership team and other folks thinking that I'm crazy. And now we're talking pre COVID. I would get resistance when we decided to be a paperless office 10 years ago. Not a single piece of paper. They thought I was crazy. People still had paper files back then. When I decided to do cloud based phones, these are very expensive. They were very expensive at the time and no one understood.
And the reality is I didn't really even understand and I don't think I appreciated how important these things were. And I could go on and on about the technology and using Slack, and this was all pre COVID. But what happened is when COVID happened and we all had to go home, all we had to do is drive home, plug our computers in, and it was as if we were still sitting in the same office. The phone system worked the way it was supposed to work. Our paperless system worked. And then all of a sudden I looked like a genius.
I didn't predict COVID. I didn't know it was going to happen. I knew I was spending a shit ton of money for technology that I really didn't truly appreciate the value of, but while our competitors were playing catch up, we were rocking and rolling and we had the best year we ever had in 2020 during the shutdown for new incoming signups. And then that's an incredible thing. Everybody's off the roads. Everyone's at home. And we weren't worried about how are we operationally going to work because we had already figured that out pre COVID. We were really focused on, "Okay, how can we now capture more of the market?"
And so technology is a key piece of what we do as a company, as an organization. We are testing new technology every day. We're developing new technology every day internally to help us get better. And that's been our philosophy from the beginning, is try to get 1% better every single time you look at something new. And being this tech geek, I think technology will always play a pivotal role in everything that we do. And look, the majority of the stuff that we look at and we test and we try to develop we abandon. But the one or two that we continue to work with and continue to develop we feel really move the needle for us.
Yeah. Well, I think it's really important what you're saying there because whenever I talk to clients and think about our customer success journey and when we try to impart best practices to firms, I always want to tell people first things first when you look at technologies, if you're looking at how we're going to win by a hundred percent getting everything fixed with a new tool, you're going to be desperately disappointed. That's not what you're going for. But what adds up over time are those 2%, 4% wins.
And if you get another... One thing I heard... One time I was at a conference in Vegas and a vendor in an adjacent space that works in robotic process automation was saying, "Our biggest win is if we take an organization and add 14% to 18% efficiency." Huge win. The idea of taking 12%, 14% across an organization adds up monumentally for the team.
It was funny. When you were mentioning people going home during COVID, my first thought about clients who hadn't wanted to go paperless and just use our document management system and go that direction, I was thinking, "I am now at an age..." And I'm only 39, but, "I'm at an age where I'm not wanting to carry a stack of [inaudible 00:20:41] home." I cannot imagine wanting that on my back, much less my crew trying to do that. How many mail rooms we still have running in legal that require people just sifting through all of the paperwork... All of those things add up as cost to your employees over time.
And I think one of the things that you're highlighting that I think is so important is focus on mini murders though that you can get rid of, those little things that take away from joy your team might have of interacting with one another, ease of interaction. Those things really add up and make a difference over time. Especially I think to your point when you're growing a team and you try to grow, the scale of that pops on top of you really fast. It seems like a small thing. There's a couple people in the office. "Okay, do we need a chat application to talk to one another?" But then you get above 10 people and it's not as easy to get 10 people in a room at a time and make sure everybody's on the same page, knows what's going on.
Yeah. You're totally right. And I'll say one other thing. Pre COVID, when I announced to the firm that we are no longer allowed to internally email each other and we're moving to this thing called Slack, it was as if I told them we're closing up shop and we're now going to be a hamburger stand. And so be ready for the pushback and be ready for the fear of something new. But I will tell you Slack has totally transformed our practice and we wouldn't be able to survive without an application similar to Slack.
Well, there's two things there that I want to just put together for anybody listening that happen in the book. So one thing I think that's interesting is you've got two things. One is don't just borrow models from other places, especially if you are in a small practice you started and just getting going. Trying to pretend you're an Am law 100 or 200 firm... There's no reason to think that's going to be successful for you. The recipes can be different. I like one place where you said, "Do you actually know if that's going to downscale and work?" That kind of model.
And the other thing that you've noted, which I thought was interesting in there, is you said, "And do you know that that model has legs or longevity?" Sure, that firm has been around for 50, 60 years. If that's the model they're still using, is that going to be the winning model in the next 10 years when you're running your firm? You have to sit back and actually think there's no reason that's the same model in perpetuity. And then on the other side you're saying try to grow something organically and different.
So I'm wondering when you're using something like Slack or if someone out here is listening and using Slack or Teams or something else... They're getting started with an application like that. Are there different ways you engage with the team or you promote engagement in new forms like that that you think are helpful?
Yeah. I think you want to create what we do... And I'll share that as an example. Is we have different channels for different things. So we have a channel... And by the way, we stole this from another organization, so these are not unique and original thoughts. We just saw other companies and organizations outside of law, how they're doing things, and we'll pick pieces from places that we think would really, really help us.
But our Slack channel has multiple different channels for various things, one of them being announcements and sharing the wins throughout the day. But one of the key add-ons that we added to Slack is a program called Bonusly where the staff gets to recognize one another for achievements and give each other points. And we've tied that to our core values so in order to give away those points, you also have to hashtag one of our core values in there to actually deliver the points, which is really incredible. And then what we do is for every hundred points a person gets, you're entered into a raffle where every quarter we give away $2,500 to the winner who gets picked, which is great.
That's a lot of money to just win in a raffle, but the real important part for me is to see not who's receiving the points, but who are the folks that are giving out the points and what are they recognizing their teammates for? And it's made a profound impact on our culture, on how we all integrate together and work together. You think about half of our staff is currently in Las Vegas. Half of our staff is currently in Southern California. We have a few staff members throughout the country. Most of them have never met in person. And so to be able to watch folks from both coasts recognizing each other and bringing them together and in a common language and common purpose... It's pretty incredible.
And it's those little pieces of things that we do on Slack... I send out a weekly email to the whole firm that includes our KPIs for the week, but we also do shout outs. So we will shout out key team members for really stand out things that they've done and we link back to these selfie videos that we had them record. So since they're not meeting each other in person and they see a shoutout for one of their teammates, they can click on that person's name and it takes them to a video where they'll now get to really meet them on video and get a feel for what that person is like and what their interests are.
And so we really try to bring it down to the level of who is this person? Who are these folks? How are they doing? What are their lives about? And ultimately we're all human. We all have the same aspirations. We all want the same things. We all want health and happiness and we want our families to be happy and families to be safe and we all are striving to win. And I think when you bring all of those things together in one place, it really makes a difference. And to me personally, I think that's the only way you can really scale and scale in a meaningful way.
Well, if I could ask you one last question to bring a bunch of these themes together, one of my favorite images that you use in the book is you say, "Listen, law is a professional service. It's the service industry. It matters that everybody engaged feels like they're in that." And I like this example you gave when you said, "If people feel like they're coming into a Motel 6, but you're expecting to be paid like you're delivering the Ritz, there's a problem there." And you bring that together with both how the team feels and how the clients feel.
I'm wondering on the client communication side, any practical tips or strategies or ways that you've approached this where you think, "Am I giving my clients the Ritz?" Or what are the kinds of questions you're asking yourself and your team about that delivery of the client experience that makes them feel like they are getting that Ritz experience as opposed to the motel?
Yeah. Well, by the way-
I'll interrupt you to tell the audience there's a very nice set of images in the book as well to give you a very clear picture of what we're thinking of here.
Well, look, the Motel 6 and the Ritz both do the same thing. How are the guests... How do they feel after they leave the Motel 6 and how they feel when they leave the Ritz? What do they remember? You walk into the Ritz and it's got its own custom scent and there's crystal chandeliers and there's Italian furniture and there's very nicely dressed employees there and, "Yes, ma'am. Yes, sir." And they're there for you. And it's the small things. It's the chocolate on the bed. It's the amenities in the room.
And you can just decide who you want to be and where you want to be intentional. We're very intentional with the client experience because at the end of the day, no ma matter how much money we get our clients, millions of dollars or hundreds of dollars, what they are left with... And this is proven. I've proven this over and again. Is how we made them feel. And we have gotten millions of dollars for clients who swore they would never talk to us again or refer us to clients because they didn't like the way we treated them and we've gotten hundreds of dollars for clients who are our biggest fans and refer us cases all the time. So on one end we failed and on the other end we didn't fail.
But it wasn't tied to the money. It's not the amount of money that you get. It's the human impact you have on someone's life. Were you there to answer their calls? Did you return their calls? Were you respectful? Were you compassionate? Were you empathetic? Were you thoughtful about these people? So if our client is having surgery, we know that the client's having surgery, then what do we do? We're going to send them a gift basket when they get home. We're going to send them flowers to the hospital. Every single client gets a welcome box from our firm. And in there are tools and things and swag that just really makes a difference. When someone says, Oh shit. I hired a lawyer and look what I got. I got this box! This isn't an Apple. This isn't Google. This is my law firm. Check out these guys."
But be where your clients are. If your clients are communicating via text, then make sure you have the platform where you can communicate via text. Some people don't like to talk on the phone. If you have clients who are talkers, then you got to call them. You got to talk to them. We have clients that are like this, that just want to communicate by mail. Just go where they are. Some clients want to communicate on social media, so be where your client is. Understand that without the clients we are nothing. We got nothing without the client.
So when you get the client, no matter how big or small the case, treat them like you would any other human being. These are human beings. Treat them in a way where you really want to change their lives and make a meaningful impact and be memorable because I'll tell you, those small cases and those clients that you represent... I know a lot of folks don't like to do the small cases, minimum impact, but look. You treat those guys well, I promise you that if their experience is good, then it's going to pay back tenfold and they're going to be your biggest fans.
And so really just understand from the perspective of the client what they're going through. This is, as a PI firm, a challenging time, probably the worst time in somebody's life to either get into an accident or lose a loved one. Be there for them and just be that human being and be that support system beyond just following up with their claim or filing a lawsuit and litigating the case. Be a human being and be the support system and reassure them that, "Yeah, you picked the right firm. We're here for you, whatever you need." And I think that really makes... That's the thing that's really going to set firms apart. There's a lot of-
Those relationships that are built on trust like that... That builds up over time. One of the things I always tell young employees who come in here and I say, "Listen, legal's a unique space and it's got a lot of crazy stuff going on. But the one thing that's always served me well is building up trust and relationships with people in every direction because that's the stuff people take away and remember." And I think that's exactly right.
I want to say thank you to our guests this week for Filevine Fireside, Reza Torkzadeh. It's been a pleasure. The founder and CEO of TorkLaw and the author of The Lawyer as CEO. I hope everybody goes out. Give it a glance. Give it a read. It's really worth your time. And again, thank you for appearing.
Well, thank you Filevine. Thank you Dr. Elliott. This was a lot of fun.