Episode 12 – Gregory Seeley: Serving Small Businesses with an Award-Winning Team

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Episode 12: Gregory Seeley

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Gregory Seeley

Gregory Seeley

Director of the Corporate/Business Division, Seeley Savidge Ebert & Gourash

Gregory Seeley and his co-founding partner have built a 20-attorney firm with a diverse practice centered around the needs of small and medium-sized businesses and their owners. In 2014 it was named one of Northeast Ohio’s top workplaces by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They launched the firm in 1978 with a core concept that was radical at the time: the client is always right and always the priority. Along the way, they compiled other guiding principles that Greg shared in this interview.
Full Interview Transcript

Michael: My guest today is Greg Seeley, the co-founder and director of the corporate business division for Seeley, Savidge, Ebert & Gourash. It’s a 20 attorney firm with a fairly diverse practice, and in 2014, the firm was named one of northeast Ohio’s top workplaces by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I’m looking forward to hearing how all the pieces fit together. Thank you for joining me, Greg.

Gregory: Well thank you. Thank you for having me.

Michael: You bet. So tell us about the firm what are the areas of practice?

Gregory: Well we are pretty much centered upon small business, and though we have certain types of specialties that are beyond just a small business person, we basically deal with some of the Fortune 500 companies on the same basis as we do with many of the middle marketers’ small business. We’re able to basically focus on the services they need to carry out their goals. Therefore, we’ve got straight corporate lawyers, real estate, from that aspect, obviously, unfortunately we have litigation in this environment, so we have a full complement of litigators.

We have a labor law, primarily from the management side. We’re all focused on the business side of it. We don’t really represent unions, we really don’t do much plaintiff’s work, meaning the personal injury. With a lot of the small business, though, we do focus on issues that might arise for that type of owner. It may be estate planning, it may be, unfortunately, some type of family law dispute, but that’s pretty much what we do. Personally, obviously I spent 95% of my time in the corporate business side of the law.

Michael: Right. I saw also before you went into private practice, you were with the Ohio Division of Securities and the Department of Commerce?

Gregory: Yup, that’s right. I always refer to it as my fourth year of law school. It was a good area for training. I learned a fair amount about securities work, and frankly, and also negotiating. It’s an area that I still continue on, we still do securities work, we do private placements, and a number of securities related issues are resolved by our group. But that was, as I said, the first job right out of law school. I was learning a lot more than I was probably delivering.

Michael: That’s how it always works, huh?

Gregory: Yeah.

Michael: What’s the mix of sort of the types of small businesses that you see a lot of in northeastern Ohio?

Gregory: Well, I think that we have somewhat of a reputation of being willing to sit down with people that are pure startups. They think they have a great idea, if we share that thought, we will do our darnedest to try to find a way for them to try to achieve that goal. In some cases, doesn’t always work, but the fact is that we don’t close our door to someone who wants to try to develop a business. That’s one aspect of it. But on the other hand, are those companies that are interested in expanding their business. And so because of the marketplace that we are often involved in are probably broader than just a straight lawyer, but we’re a business advisor.

We help with the thought of how do you fund an expansion? How do you maybe close down a division and focus on a high growth area? Or if you have certain proprietary information, how do you protect it? How do you create a brand? We’ve been involved in a lot of new technology projects. We’re in the process…We prepared a private placement, not too long ago, that’s still on the street, but it’s a cancer treatment that trying to raise $8 million, and it’s out of New York. So we do certain type of work beyond the borders of Ohio.

Michael: Right. Yeah, so I was thinking about that. I know the Cleveland clinic’s really big there, and there’s a lot of sort of related medical….

Gregory: Right. Well they do obviously direct care of patients, but they also have a venture group that will invest funds to innovative medical approaches or products. And in fact, we have another relationship with a client that is a startup, and they’ve developed a relationship with the clinic, and it centers in the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, which is headed up by Dr. Roizen. And they are attempting to commercialize certain type of products that would fit within the wellness sector. So again, it’s somewhat new for the clinic, and it’s obviously brand-new for our client.

Michael: Right. That’s awesome. Years ago, I spent some time in Cleveland and was going out to see a lot of light manufacturers and steel service centers. Is that still part of the mix there, or is that no longer the case?

Gregory: Well it’s sort of an interesting dynamic right now because Cleveland has never lost its expertise in manufacturing. The size of the manufacturing sector has been reduced, but with the advent of more and more technology, a lot of the manufacturing companies that still exist have instituted high tech means and processes that have created a whole new type of job. Frankly a very skilled type of job, and I would say that manufacturing is an active part of the economy for northeast Ohio.

Michael: Yes, that’s great. You spent those early years, before private practice, working for the state of Ohio, and then what kind of brought you into the practice, how did you…?

Gregory: Well, I have to tell you that my father was also a lawyer, and when I retired from public life, I joined a firm that he was a senior partner, and there, I met my future partner, Keith Savidge. And what we did is we left that firm. In fact, my father joined us, and we ultimately created then the current firm. Of course we left because we thought we could do it better, and we were dedicated to certain types of principles, which meant that you treat the client like the customer is always right, and that you respond to the client in a timely fashion. Early on in my career, lawyers weren’t real prompt in returning phone calls or responding. And of course maybe that complaint still exists, but the fact is that that’s something that we try to focus on, and that is that usually when a client is calling, there’s a real reason for it.

Michael: Yes, what a radical idea, huh? Customer service in the…

Gregory: Really. So that’s how we started. We started off with 4 lawyers, and we’ve grown to 20. It’s an interesting mix. You mentioned earlier about receiving the award on one of the great workplaces in northeast Ohio, and frankly we’ve been able to put together a group of people that frankly really enjoy, I think, being with one another and working on projects. We have a good mix of older people, as you can see from my gray hair, and youthful recent graduates. And it’s fun now at this point in my career in being able to help mentor that group and to see if I can pass on what little knowledge I still have to the others.

Michael: You mentioned founding principles, and I’m sure you’ve sort of developed some others as you’ve gone, and I love that idea of operating from a base of principles because it takes a lot of the guesswork out of things.

Gregory: Well that’s right. One of the elements is that you need to always be prompt in responding to clients. You need to be truthful. It’s very easy to tell a client what they want to hear. It’s more difficult to make sure that they understand the scope, and the peril, or the upside of some of the decisions they want to make. And I think that that means that you have to be somewhat innovative, but at the same time, you’ve got to be transparent and be able to provide them the information that they need when they need it.

Michael: Can you think of any times or a time when operating from either of those principles has been really hard to adhere to?

Gregory: I think every lawyer comes across the circumstance where there is a client who wants to do a transaction or wants to take a step in a direction that, in my heart, I know is not the right thing. And it just depends on whether or not you’re persuasive enough to be able to bring it to their attention and to have them make decisions, not from an element of a group of emotions but have thought it out. But it happens, it happens a lot. People are in the mix, they’re in the trees, and it’s hard to find their way out of the woods sometimes, but that’s part of our job.

Michael: Right, right. Can you think of a story of a time where you saw something pretty clearly and you were able to kind of bring someone around?

Gregory: Well I think that there’s a number of different circumstances where sometimes people want to get too close to the gray area, and you have to tell them that they can’t go there because otherwise it’s going to put them in jeopardy. It’s somewhat difficult for me to detail that type of situation, but the fact is that there are times where, as I said, with the press of business sometimes the press of making a payroll or whatever, that sometimes the client wants to make a decision without real foresight.

Michael: Yeah, I understand. There’s another thing that I’ve observed too though is that sometimes attorneys…it’s almost like there’s often very little upside to suggesting…how do I put it, approving a decision that does have an element of risk going forward. So the safe thing to do as the attorney is to always sort of advise against any sort of risk of any kind, right? How do you sort of know when you’re just being very conservative generally versus, what you described is not the case? I mean that’s clearly “Hey, let’s not break the law here,” but sometimes it’s just like, “Hey, maybe you want to take an aggressive action and sure there’s a small chance it can result in litigation, but it probably won’t,” right? Do you have thoughts about how to advise clients in those areas? That’s a pretty broad question, right? But sorry for that.

Gregory: That is a broad question, but I think that the answer is, and I hate to say it, but sometimes you have to read the client, and sometimes that’s it’s easier said than done. Clients are not necessarily in a position of being able to make a decision one way or the other not to be an obstacle to their goal, but to make sure that they have knowledge of what the upside is and the downside. And I do a lot of M&A, merger acquisition, and often either the buyer or seller is confronted with various types of issues. Well I always refer to myself, I’m a dealmaker, I like the idea of trying to reach a favorable conclusion.

So yes, there’s risks on both sides of that, but I think that the key is that in those types of circumstances, there’s also the art of compromise. And if the client is not willing to compromise, then they’re probably not a candidate for being involved in the M&A arena because it’s mandatory. If they aren’t willing to compromise, they probably should go into politics.

Michael: Right. Got it. What are some of the things that you’ve done over the years to foster the development of a strong culture?

Gregory: Well one thing that I find is that as the amount of technology has grown, that many of the interpersonal skills that we’ve developed over the years were discarded. Right now, under normal circumstances, 35 years ago, you and I would be sitting at an office across from one another. We’re using technology, but at the same time, we’re actually face-to-face. And face-to-face interaction, I think, is the fundamental way of developing an internal culture.

I, on a regular basis, sit down with every lawyer that I’m working with in the firm, and sometimes we drift off of the particular issue for me to find out how their life is, or how their kids are, or what they’re doing for the weekend. I think it’s important to develop a relationship with everyone, and it goes beyond just strictly, “What’s the answer to this research question?” Fundamentally that’s probably the most important thing I can do with the staff and the lawyers that I’m dealing with.

Michael: Got it. So that’s how you handle yourself, but what about creating circumstances so that everybody, at all levels of the firm, is mindful of those interactions?

Gregory: Well I think that part of the way I do my periodic sit-downs has created an environment where other lawyers now are doing the same thing. Not that every lawyer does it exactly the way I do, but I think that a number of them will take time to go into other offices and take some time to talk to people. One of the hard parts is that you’re sitting at your computer, and rather than get up and go to the next office, you immediately send an email over. It’s impersonal, and so I won’t do it. And I find that more and more of the lawyers that I deal with have stopped doing it as well. They’ll come over and talk and bring it up. You can learn a lot from the people you’re working with when you see them face-to-face.

Michael: Right. I’m curious, are there other key principles that have guided you over the years? Talked about being responsive to customers, being truthful even when it’s kind of hard…

Gregory: Right, yeah. I think that obviously sort of maybe is somewhat taken for granted, the key is always to be prepared to be able to be knowledgeable about the areas that you need to be knowledgeable or to be willing to admit to the client that you don’t know. Obviously the older I get, the less I know, and so I rely on more and more people to help me find those answers. But you know, lawyers have that tendency to just say, “I’ll come up with the answer for you,” or they’ll come up with an answer without really doing the preparation that’s necessary. So it’s really important to make sure that you’re competent for the area that the client is asking some advice.

Michael: Well the other thing that was interesting to me about the diversity of your practice is does that create…I mean different practice areas have different market realities, different rates, right? So does that create scenarios in the firm that you have to be mindful of in terms of managing or just finding a way to have everyone working on the same team, recognizing that maybe different people have different earning potential because of their practice area?

Gregory: Well that’s sort of an age old question, I think. Obviously a newer lawyer coming out who’s still learning their way, you’re going to recognize that that particular person probably is going to spend a lot more time on a particular subject than you can bill a client. So what you have to do is you have to be mindful of it and recognize that you can’t really expect the client to pick up the training. I see that as an opportunity to have that younger lawyer learn.

And it’s something that the law firm itself has to write off because in the long run, you want that lawyer to be successful. And that’s the only way to do it is to provide them the opportunity to do it without getting them concerned that they’re spending way too much time on a particular issue, but trying to explain to them you’ve got to do it completely, you’ve got to be competent, you’ve got to be prepared to respond to questions. And then the billing partner needs to make sure that it’s a fair bill for the client. And plus obviously certain lawyers have greater experience in other areas or have maybe in the same area, and obviously rates will be different based upon on the experience level.

Michael: Yeah, that makes sense. I’m curious too in terms of…Well let me frame a scenario and see if this is something that you’ve encountered that…I’ve been talking to some folks about changes in the marketplace and how it’s had an impact on the opportunities for mid-level practitioners to get hands-on trial experience because there’s lots of attorneys out there at that level and that cohort and then there’s still more senior attorneys who are still in first chair position. And so I wonder is that something that you see, and then if so, I’m curious if you have any suggestions for what are ways to get people opportunities to gain trial experience in that context?

Gregory: I may not be the ideal person to talk about litigation, but let me say that it would be unfair to the younger lawyer to be pushed into a first chair position until they’ve had a chance to work with certain litigation cases that are not as complex that would even require a second chair. There are opportunities for the younger lawyers to take on certain types of litigation that will help hone their skills. At the same time, they need to have a mentor, and they need to have an experienced trial lawyer that will be working with them.

And again, it’s one of those things where I believe, and I believe that my partners agree with this, and that is that sometimes you have to actually just sit down with the younger litigator and walk them through certain role playing in working through that. Then at that point, I think it’s something that you bring the litigator along to be able to get to the point of being first chair, but it takes a while. It’s not something that happens overnight, that’s for sure.

Michael: Yes. Yeah, and I think it kind of is…So look for opportunities on simpler cases, lower exposure cases, just so that they can kind of build up the chops and then kind of move into more complex things.

Gregory: Well that’s right, and as long as they have a mentor, even on maybe simpler types of pieces of litigation, at least they have a go to person to be able to bounce ideas off of or sound off on a particular approach to various causes of actions that have to be proven.

Michael: Right, okay. When did the firm start to…Has it been a gradual growth from 4 to 20 or were there periods more rapid or…?

Gregory: We’ve had, over the course of the decades, I think we’ve been up to maybe 21, 22 and we’ve dropped back into the teens. Right now we have been on a growth trend, and we’ve had the opportunity to bring on a couple of lawyers that were with other firms, a lot of laterals. I think that the smaller firms probably do better with certain laterals because you bring on a real base of expertise, and they in turn help further with the newer lawyers. I think it’s important keeping that type of mix.

Michael: Right. Do you have any thoughts on how to be attractive to laterals? I guess just be who you are and sometimes there’s a fit.

Gregory: Well one of the things that we try to offer to lawyers that might be in a smaller firm or even same size firm, and that is that we have quite a diversification among the lawyers in a number of different areas that may not be overly common in our basic size. And so I think we’re somewhat attractive to those people who may be in a smaller firm with a much more specialized business or with a solo who is probably in a situation where they’re referring out certain type of business because they don’t handle all of that. That’s one of the things that we look at.

Michael: Right, right. Are there any other thoughts that come to mind around this topic of law firm excellence? Maybe key elements of your philosophy that you’ve been relying on over the years that might be useful?

Gregory: Well I guess one of the philosophies I started off with, and I still deal with, and that is that if I get up in the morning and I don’t enjoy what I’m doing, that it’s important to move on. And I think that the practice of law can be very broad. When we first started the firm, I mean I was doing certain types of minor litigation, corporate and many other types of things, because at that point, there were four of us. So we all doubled up trying to help one another during that time period. Today it’s more difficult because the lawyer coming out of law school oftentimes becomes somewhat pigeonholed in a particular area.

And I guess one of the attractions, I think, to our size type firm is that we’re in a position maybe giving a little more exposure to the lawyer in different areas that makes, I think, the lawyer better rounded in his expertise or her expertise, and I think that’s really important. I think that there’s a need to make sure that lawyers, if they’re a litigator, that they have some idea about real estate or something about corporate law. It just makes you a better lawyer, and number two, I think you’ll enjoy the practice that much more. And I can say that at this stage of my life, that I still get up and I enjoy coming to work and practicing law again. But when the time comes, it’s time to move on.

Michael: Yeah. Well, right. So the idea of finding the type of practice that you enjoy most as an attorney is really important to long-term happiness. I mean would you agree?

Gregory: Absolutely. If you’re planning on doing it for a long period of time, it makes it a lot easier that what you’re doing, you really enjoy. But you won’t always know that unless you have the exposure to a number of the areas of the law.

Michael: Yeah, that’s really interesting because I think there’s so much complexity. There’s new laws every year, there’s more and more things happening that there’s a benefit to specialization because you can develop true deep knowledge in a narrow area, but you lose something too from not having a broader perspective?

Gregory: Exactly, and I think that over a period of time, that specialization will become more intense. But early in your career, there is a benefit of being able to have that overview in a number of different areas.

Michael: Yeah, I can see that.

Gregory: There’s always plenty of time to become a rigid expert in one area.

Michael: Right, right. Well, great. So, Greg, I really enjoyed the conversation. Any other things come to mind that I didn’t ask you about?

Gregory: No, not really. You always hear that there’s too many lawyers, but there’s never enough good lawyers.

Michael: Right. Well you know, I had a conversation, a podcast conversation, yesterday, and the topic came up artificial intelligence. And the person I was speaking with commented, “It’s really more of an issue for the new attorneys coming out than it is for the practitioners who are in the latter stages of their career.” But I don’t know, have you any thoughts on that or where things are headed with that?

Gregory: It’s interesting because we’ve done some work for a company that specializes in mega-data mining where for discovery purposes, rather than having a human go through several million pages of documents that you put in the keywords, it’s become so specialized. I mean obviously that does reduce the amount of time that a lawyer actually has to go through documents. But overall, if you look at it, that’s probably the right thing to do for the client.

Thirty-five years ago we didn’t have millions of pages, but today when we have emails and email strings that go on forever and a day, it’s a good thing that artificial intelligence has come about. And I suppose it does have an impact on the younger lawyers who in some respects are learning their craft when they’re going through documents as part of litigation. But I think that artificial intelligence in the areas of negotiating or actually going into the courtroom, I don’t think lawyers have to worry about that part.

Michael: Right. Yeah that makes sense. Well, great. Greg, I want to thank you for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Gregory: Thank you, Michael, for having me.

Michael: You bet.

Key Links

Show Notes

  • Building a diverse firm around all the needs a small business (or owner) is likely to have [0:40]
  • Doing work with start-ups and advising clients in more ways than just their strict legal needs [3:30]
  • Working with start-ups that have medical products [4:50]
  • Manufacturing expertise in northern Ohio [6:35]
  • Moving from his first job working for the State of Ohio into private practice [7:50]
  • Leaving the firm where he worked to start his own firm [8:20]
  • At the time, the idea that “the customer is always right” went against the grain [8:45]
  • Greg and his partner a team that they enjoy working with, that they enjoy being around [9:45]
  • Guiding principles that have served the firm well [10:45]
    • Put the client first
    • Be prompt in responding to clients
    • Be truthful with clients, even when it is the hard thing to do
    • Be transparent with clients; provide them the information they need when they need it.
  • What to do when it is hard to adhere to your principles? [11:45]
  • Gauging how conservative your client needs you to be [13:50]
  • Steps they’ve taken to foster the development of a strong culture [16:45]
  • Face-to-face communication is the most effective kind [17:00]
  • Leading by example [18:30]
  • More guiding principles [19:50]
    • Be prepared
    • Be knowledgeable or admit to the client when you don’t know something
    • Don’t wing it when providing answer; make sure your advice is rooted in sound preparation and knowledge
  • Creating the conditions so new lawyers can become successful [21:50]
  • Newer attorneys can progress most effectively when they have a mentor who can help guide them [25:00]
  • Creating a firm that is attractive to prospective lateral acquisitions [28:00]
  • The importance of liking what you do when you wake up in the morning [29:21]
  • The diverse nature of their firm makes it a good place for attorneys to start their career; they get exposure to many different areas of law [30:10]
  • Finding the type of practice you enjoy most is really important to an attorney’s long-term happiness [31:25]
  • Artificial intelligence will help attorneys do paperwork but attorneys will have to handle negotiation and litigation for the foreseeable future [33:14]