Episode 6 – John E. Tyrrell: Building an Entirely New Culture After a Merger

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John E. Tyrrell

John E. Tyrrell

Managing Member, Ricci Tyrrell Johnson & Grey

In March 2014, John Tyrrell had been Managing Shareholder of Hollstein Keating for ten years. He and his partners dissolved that firm and joined a seven-attorney practice group from the Lavin firm to found a new law firm: Ricci Tyrrell Johnson & Grey. From day one, they sought to draw on the strengths of both firms but also, to build an entirely new unique culture. Now, 20 months into the venture, the firm has grown into a balance of equal thirds: the original two groups plus subsequent new hires. John reflects on their progress and lessons learned.

Full Interview Transcript

Michael: My guest today is John Tyrrell, one of the founding members of Ricci Tyrrell Johnson & Grey based in Philadelphia, and also the firm’s managing member. He was also the managing shareholder of a predecessor firm, Hollstein Keating, that was dissolved and re-formed together with a group of seven lawyers that came over from a different practice, the Lavin firm. I’m really excited because mergers are one of the hardest things to get right, so I’m really interested in hearing about that experience. Thanks for joining me, John.

John: It’s a pleasure, Michael. It’s great to be here.

Michael: Thanks. I’m really interested in hearing about the firm in its present state. So, I wonder if you can just tell me where you guys are at currently.

John: So we are now 20 months in. We started in April of 2014. As you mentioned, we started as two halves – the entirety of an existing law firm, which was Hollstein Keating, and a practice group from the Lavin firm. We’re doing great. We’ve had a chance to grow, both physically in terms of our office space and it turns our staff and attorney numbers.

And we’ve got to the point now where we’re really in three parts, we have three components to our composition, which is the folks who were at the Hollstein Keating firm, those who came over with the Lavin practice group, and those that we’ve hired since then who have only known Ricci Tyrell as their lawyers.

Hollstein Keating was an 18-year enterprise that was formed from a larger law firm, a well-known law firm that had been around for about 100 years, and was generally, most of its existence of a law firm that consisted of more than 100 attorneys named Clark Ladner Fortenbaugh & Young.

Hollstein Keating existed for 18 years. The entirety of the Hollstein Keating firm became part of the Ricci Tyrrell firm. The Lavin group is a very well-known, very well-respected product liability specialist firm in Philadelphia started by…its founding member was George Lavin several years ago. We were fortunate enough to get 7 people from that firm, and those were the 2 components that we put together back in April of 2014.

Michael: Right. Okay. So, can you tell me a little bit about your experience before founding the predecessor firm? What were you doing as an attorney in that larger practice?

John: I was a young attorney actually at the larger Clark Ladner practice; I spent the first seven years of my career there. And I’ve always been a litigator. Hollstein Keating was a pure litigation firm, the Lavin firm is a litigation firm. So, we’ve all been trial attorneys for our careers. Myself and most of the people here, coming from the different avenues we’ve come from, are heavy in the product liability world as defense lawyers.

So, what happened was that the Clark Ladner firm was divided into department, as customary, and it had a casualty department – personal injury, property damage, etc.–that department essentially became Hollstein Keating Cattell Johnson & Goldstein. I became a shareholder in that firm within a year of being there, and then I managed that firm for the last 10 years of its 18-year existence.

Michael: Right. Okay. And so, can you tell me about the transition from Clark Ladner? I think you mentioned when we were chatting before we started that it gone out of business prior to your…

John: It did. Clark Ladner actually dissolved back in 1996. Hollstein Keating open its doors the very next day.

One of the challenges with the Hollstein Keating enterprise was trying to convince clients who were used to being serviced by a law firm that at times had been as large as almost 200 lawyers and was generally a 6-figure lawyer firm that they could be just as easily and is effectively serviced by a 10-attorney firm.

We were the same lawyers servicing them, but there were certainly a hurdle of expectation and a hurdle, of question that we had to get over. And we were extraordinarily successful in doing that. We managed essentially to have 100% retention rate of our clients.

And we did it, putting a lot of miles on the frequent flyer tabulation. We went out and spent the first couple years of Hollstein Keating’s existence getting out and meeting with and working with our clients face-to-face using every opportunity and every excuse we could to get in front of them, and make them feel comfortable, and make them know that they could get the same service from a 10-attorney firm that they were used to getting from a big firm.

And that really started us on a model of what I think has continued to Ricci Tyrell’s trademark, which is personal service. We are a firm that is not a traditional insurance defense firm. We generally have a clientele that consists of insureds that we represent, or companies we represent directly that have insurance arrangements where their self-insured retention’s allowed them to control litigation for almost all the litigation that they’re involved in. And we have very close relationships with them. And we account by trying to learn their businesses from top to bottom, trying to get inside them as much as we can.

Michael: Okay. So, can you give me an example of what that looks like? What are the things that you’re engaging in and ways that you’re getting to know your clients that you don’t think a typical maybe insurance defense firm could possibly be as integrated?

John: Well, I think the typical insurance defense firm model of how to defend the lawsuit is…cookie cutter may be insulting, but it’s a good description. Whether you’re attacking it through expert witnesses and investigation, etc., there are certain components to a defense and you do it the same way virtually every time.

We try not to do anything the same way every time, unless it’s going to be equally successful both times. The best example of how we get to know our clients’ businesses is in the product liability world. Product liability cases obviously are formed upon the product itself, and we do all of our work from the defense side. And we try to understand our clients’ products and their capabilities, and their safety attributes the way their engineers understand them, and get into that granularly.

Michael: Right. I saw it too that you have a risk management advisory role as well, which I presume comes out of that understanding.

John: It does come out of that understanding. It also comes out of the length of time that we’ve represented some of our clients, which in some cases is as long as three decades. Our risk management practice actually comes outside of…it includes our product liability work, but it includes some other things that we do as well.

I personally have an extensive practice and what I like to call event liability. It’s sports and concert and entertainment-related, and it deals with anything that can go wrong and involve risk at a large spectator event. And we also represent multiple worldwide retail companies in their similar risks.

So, when I say that we get involved in risk management, what I mean is we use our expertise outside of the confines of litigation. We actually try to prevent accidents with our clients. And we have a number of clients who use us in those types of roles. And that can involve anything from training their employees to developing incident reports that they can use, consulting with them on their security camera systems, negotiating with their vendors, writing the contracts with their vendors. So those are the type of things that we do on a risk management standpoint.

Michael: Sure. Well, okay. So, I was thinking about the early years of your career. How long was it before you became the managing shareholder at…

John: Of the 18 years at Hollstein Keating, my partner Mike Keating managed the firm for the first 8 years, and I managed it for the next 10.

Michael: Okay. Great. Can you tell me about that transition, too, where you had to sort of step into a new role, interacting with the same people you’ve been working with? Were there any challenges in that?

John: Well, sure. I mean, two different types of challenges. You acquire not only a new role within the same people you’re working with, but you inherit the relationships that your predecessor had with the outside world – the vendors that you use, and the contracts that you have, etc.

And I was fortunate in that my predecessor did a really good job and had a great network of vendors that we utilized, the people we did business with. But I also realized pretty early that my personality was different, and in some ways I was more demanding of certain people, in other ways, I was more forgiving.

But I had to find my own role. And really what it turned out to be was that my network, with a couple of notable exceptions, my network of who I did business with outside the firm really changed completely from when I started to the point where I formed Ricci Tyrrell.

And my relationships with people were different. I don’t know that they were necessarily better, but they were different. I think that the main lesson there was after about a year of trying to do things in the same sort of paradigm that Mike had done them, I realized that I had to do it my own way.

Michael: Okay. So, can you give me an example of the way that Mike handled something and how you tried to handle it, but then the way that you handled it in your own style?

John: Sure. Well, Mike had a great ability to get things accomplished by – what’s the right word? – by being extremely nice. He was extraordinarily nice to people, and they reacted very well to that. I’m not saying I’m not a nice person, but I’m more businesslike. So, I needed to find other ways.

So what I would do was I became a communicator. If I needed to have things done to my expectation, I needed to let people know exactly what they were. So, in where Mike might come in and tell you that, I became someone who would communicate in a number of different ways. I would tell you orally. I would remind you by email. I would set up more meetings to remind people of expectations. I tried to touch people in a communicative way, a number of different ways in order to accomplish things.

So, I think what we ended up doing was having more structure under my leadership. Mike sort of had a green thumb where he was able to get things done sort of in a low-tech communication style whereas mine was a lot more formalized.

Michael: Right. And also, that formal structure such being more important as the number of people in the firm grows. Was that also a factor or was it really just purely about the style?

John. No, no, no. I think it was a factor. And it’s probably expressed itself more in the Ricci Tyrrell world. Because Ricci Tyrrell essentially doubled my responsibility as a managing partner. I went from a 9-attorney firm to a 16-attorney firm overnight, and now we’re a 23-attorney firm.

We do need more structure. We do need more formal meetings. We do need more things in writing. We need to touch people consistently, and it’s not possible to do that necessarily by just walking into a door next to you all the time.

Michael: Okay. So, the other thing too is the firm has grown. What would you say the mix is between your management and sort of just running the firm duties versus handling individual matters?

John: Well, 100% of my time is spent handling individual matters, and 100% of my time is spent managing the firm. Honestly, the degree to which the degree of time that I devote to managing the firm has increased exponentially. It’s been a great challenge over the last 20 months to find the time to do it. And obviously I need to find the time. And so, I put in more hours, I’ve found ways to do it, but it’s been a great difference in commitment level.

Michael: Yeah, I think one of the interesting things about the new firm to me is the idea that you learn the lessons as you go over a period of time, and then you get a chance to start fresh. And obviously there’s a lot of factors at play, but was that something that was a part of the equation from your perspective?

John: It was very important to me, and it was probably…nothing has energized me more in my career. I think it’s about being able to form something, mold it from clay, starting anew. And that’s why we’ve been very conscious of trying to create an atmosphere that we were creating a new entity. It is a merger, but we weren’t necessarily bringing two heads together, we were trying to create a third, brand-new entity. As I mentioned we’ve got there people-wise. I mean, a high percentage of our people now were never part of either entity.

But really what we wanted to do was come up with our own culture. We didn’t want to adapt the Hollstein Keating culture. We didn’t want to adapt the Lavin culture. We wanted to draw from each of them, the better aspects of them, but we really wanted to create a Ricci Tyrrell culture.

One of the ways that we’ve gone about doing that is we’ve consciously made a decision that as we’ve hired for Ricci Tyrrell, we hired young lawyers. We’ve also hired paralegals who weren’t necessarily trained at in the paralegal world, but instead we’re very smart people who we can train as paralegals.

So, we’ve tried to get people early to try to have them buy into our culture. And one of the things we’re happiest about is an educational program we’ve been able to put in place here.

Michael: Okay. And I want to ask you about that, but I kind of was curious, how would you characterize the two cultures that came together as you were at the beginning of this process of creating a new culture?

John: They each had their strengths. Now, one thing to understand is both cultures were very institutionalized because the two halves had spent essentially their entire careers together. The Hollstein Keating partners have been together for over 20 years, and many of the Lavin people had only worked for Lavin, and when they had worked for a predecessor firm, they were together. So, these were very strong cultures that were very well and great.

Each side did things better… From a pure business standpoint, the Lavin side was very adept and experienced in chasing work outside of our immediate region. We generally do the best majority of our work in the New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania area. The Lavin group had been extremely successful in getting their clients to utilize them nationwide.

On the other hand, the Lavin group lagged behind the Hollstein Keating group technologically. I’ve made a decision to go with paperless as we could in front of the curve, mostly motivated by a push from several of my clients who went paperless more than a decade ago.

And so, one of the inherent challenges has been trying to get a very paper-intensive practice and a paper-free practice to merge together. And we’re trying to move it toward the paper-free side, but it’s still challenging at times.

Michael: I think of that as trying to change the tires on a moving bus.

John: Yeah, to some extent. To some extent.

Michael: Well, one other thing that’s very intriguing to me is the idea of how does a merger like that…I’m using the term merger, I understand that it’s a new firm. But how does that even come about? And what was that process like? And I realized maybe that’s getting into stuff that…

John: I can talk freely about certain aspects of it. Part of it had a great kick-start because Fran, Grey and I was socially friends back through law school. So, Fran and I were very close for 27 years, so that obviously had an automatic kick-start to it.

When we started talking about doing this, then Jim Johnson from my side came in and Bill Ricci from Fran’s side. And I knew Bill pretty well too because Bill and Fran have sort of a unique practice where they service a number of important clients together. And so, I met Bill a number of times over the years through Fran, and then we started to see each other in practice settings.

There was a synergy between the type of work we did, but the one aspect of bringing two groups together that can be troublesome and can be anxiety-ridden, that I was able to just jump over and not have anxiety over, was the personal side.

I looked at countless opportunities, mergers and acquisition opportunities usually as being acquired during my years of running Hollstein Keating. We got close a couple of times. We got really close a couple of times.

And the one thing that you were never sure of was the personal side because there was no history there, no way to objectively measure how these people that you were about to jump into the rest of your life, what they were really like as people. That aspect of this was a given because we knew that, going in, so that made it a lot easier to get to that.

Michael: Right. Yeah, I think when you are at the point where you’re evaluating a business relationship, people’s guard goes up because they want that business outcome to be successful. So, you can’t really evaluate the personal factors, but knowing them before that occurrence is a different thing.

John: Yeah, you really put those things, you reverse the order of procession of those two things. If you start out as being strangers and only business comrades who know your reputation to each other, you can get to a point, I think, where you can trust that the other people will be what they appear to be. But you can’t guarantee it until you actually jump off the cliff and are together with them. Here, I could guarantee the personal side before I had to figure out the business side.

Michael: So, that’s two of the seven. Did you have that opportunity to know those other team members as well?

John: I had to get to know them. I did not know the other members. And they varied in terms of experience and they varied in terms of role. And some of them needed some coaxing to come, and some not so much. So, that was part of the enterprise, too. It was a long process. I mean, we talked about it and it took some while to put it together, but eventually it made sense for everybody who came.

Michael: Right. And the other thing that I wonder about in a scenario like that is folks in your own firm who are maybe advancing to the ranks and they feel like, “Hey, I’m next in line for these great opportunities as we continue to grow organically.” And then boom, here are all these new stakeholders who come in maybe at a higher level. Is that something that was a factor? And how do you address that, how do you deal with it?

John: Yeah. Again, I think it was a factor. And I think the way you deal with it is again you have to accelerate in all ways you can to try to get your enterprise to be the new enterprise. You have to leave the one-half in the shadows and leave the other half in the shadows. And try to get people to stop comparing where they were six months ago to where they are now.

What we were able to do was really line up, we were fortunate in that we were able to line up people in hierarchy pretty easily between the two groups, and we were able to bring in, we have a secondary membership here where the people are – junior is the wrong word, but they’re more like a contracted members – in addition to the four owners of the firm. And we were able to mesh that status from both sides to where we had that second level that we’re able to accomplish.

Michael: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, what sort of advance work do you think is appropriate before opening the doors, and what sort of work necessarily has to come afterwards?

John: Well, our ethics sort of answered part of that question. Of course, there’s nothing on our side. The Hollstein Keating side was not engaging new clients, we were staying contiguous to what we had. But on the other side, of course the Lavin people were leaving law the firm and they had fiduciary duties there.

So, you couldn’t make any sort of contact outside, to the outside work. All you could do was really plan. We were benefited to a certain extent because our infrastructure at Hollstein Keating was in place. We had office space. We moved into, we had the new group move into the Hollstein Keating space for the last few months of its lease term before we moved into our new space as Ricci Tyrrell.

So, we had the infrastructure, we had the people who did billing, we had the people who did HR, we had the infrastructure because we were an the entirety of a law firm. We had a great advantage over two practice groups that might come together and merge as opposed to what we did, which was merge one practice group into an existing firm because we had all of that infrastructure. What we really had to do was plan and think in terms of what we were going to do out of the gate once we were able to tell the world that we had done this.

And similar to what we had done in Hollstein Keating, a lot of that was getting out to clients and convincing them that they would get the same great service that they had gotten from their individual lawyers at this new enterprise.

Michael: Yeah. So, I’m also interested in hearing about that. Well, what would you say the time frame is from maybe an initial contact or meeting with a prospective client, just sort of like first contact, to the time at which you’re actually handling business for that?

John: I mean, it runs the gamut. I’ve had situations where I’ve tried to convince someone to give me work for years before it happened. And that’s usually in a circumstance where you regularly see the person either in industry functions, or conferences, or something like that. Other times, you’re sought out to handle a particular matter, so it’s self-contained, you know, your time period between initial meeting and starting is self-contained to that one map.

Michael: Right. I kind of was curious, your comment about, we’ll find any reason we can to go see people. What are some of the creative ways that you’ve done that over the years?

John: Well, the greatest trick is to tell someone you’re there anyway. If I’m trying to impress a new client or trying to get a new client, and I want to get the opportunity to get in the door, even if that person is very receptive to me coming in and making a pitch to them, they’re not necessarily receptive to me making a trip across country to do that.

Because with that, they can see expectations and they may not be ready to commit, they may not have a case for me right now, and they think that that is sort of a level of commitment on their end that they’re not ready to give me.

So, if I were to pull them up and say, “Hey, I’d like to come fly out to Los Angeles tomorrow or next to week and talk to you about doing some work,” they would likely say, “Why don’t you wait until you’re in the area anyway?” So, what I might do is tell them I’m in the area anyway and start the conversation that way. That’s probably the best technique.

Michael: Right. That kind of gives you the opportunity, too, to kind of bunch things together. I mean, just kind of make a West Coast trip and…

John: That’s correct.

Michael: Well, tell me about the education program. It sounds interesting.

John: Well, we’ve hired a lot of young lawyers, and I believe the old adage continues to be true, although my experience with these young lawyers has taught me that law schools are doing better at teaching things like interviewing and communicating with clients and things like that, but the old adage still holds true for the most part, which is law school doesn’t teach you how to be a lawyer, it teaches you how to think like a lawyer.

And so, what we tried to do is open up an educational program to get our young people to think like lawyers, and to try to make it easier for them to transition into their life as professionals.

Now, an education program needs to, in some respects, deal with sub-setting of law and those types of issues. And we do that, too. But we also do things as practical as having sessions on how to keep timesheet, and sessions on how to respond to client contacts, and how to approach clients at a business function, and how to market themselves.

And we do these things as breakfast meetings, regularly scheduled. We’ve done countless ones since the firm opened 20 months ago. I think that it’s one of the things were proudest of here because we can really see it making an impact on our people.

Michael: What would you say some of the primary skills are that young attorneys need to develop over those first couple of years in practice?

John: I think the primary skill is to get away from inertia. The primary thing that a lawyer in a busy practice, as a young lawyer needs to do, is to move things from point A to point B. They need to be able to move things forward on cases. They need to be able to progress a case and know what to do next. But knowing what to do next and actually doing it are two different things.

In my experience, the young lawyers who fail are those who can’t really get to the point where they can productively move cases. They may be very intelligent and they may be talented, but they can’t produce enough work moving cases that they actually become a productive member of the firm.

Woody Allen said, “90% of success is showing up.” You can interpret that a couple of different ways. One interpretation might be that there’s sort of a happenstance aspect to success. But I choose to interpret it, what it means is, you need bring it everyday. You need to bring your best effort every day, and you need to be able to show up and progress your cases and move them from point A to point B.

Michael: So what would be an example, like what are some of the ways that a young associate might keep things treading water?

John: Generally, it’s a factor of being afraid to make a hard decision. And what you’ll do is, you may be thinking about which of two experts to retain. Or you may be thinking about whether to join another party as an additional defendant, or something like that. And because you get so involved in the decision, you’re afraid to make the wrong decision, you end up making the worst of the three decisions, which is not acting timely at all.

Having that sort of intestinal fortitude to make that decision becomes easier as you get more experience in making those decisions. But the lawyers who become more successful at a younger stage are those who have something about them that allows them to start making those decisions earlier.

Michael: Now, are you able to evaluate in your hiring process whether you believe people have those characteristics? What are some of the ways you try to discern that?

John: There’s no substitute for the personal interview, of course. And a lot of the things that people say that they don’t realize are making impression on the interviewer actually do. Maybe the way they talk about their parents, or the way that they discuss their financial burden, that their loans have put on them. Or you can read between those lines and see either an ingenuity or a determination that maybe doesn’t come across in other people.

One of the things, and I don’t know if everybody would agree with me, but I know that my partner Fran Grey recently one of the things that we tend to look for are people who have been in competitive team sports before because we believe that that translates. A person who is used to that sort of competition and thrives on that sort of competition will be someone who will bring it everyday here.

And so, we tend to place a higher emphasis or at least somebody who shows us a resume where they were involved in competitive team sports in college, etc. they’re going to get a second one.

Michael: Okay. That’s interesting. Well, I guess, I’m also interested in some of the things that you do in terms of helping your folks develop who are beyond that initial level. I’m not sure how to characterize that, maybe certain folks in the middle stages of their career, that sort of thing.

John: Well, we encourage them to become as noticeable as they can in the community. So we want them to join industry organizations. We want them to write articles for periodicals. We want them to engage in speaking engagements. We want them to do the type of things that can broaden their exposure. Because that generation, the one behind mine has faced a very upward climb in their development. An upward barrier in their development as trial lawyers in this country, which is as verdicts in our world started to become unreasonable.

And as the population of lawyers started to grow, the combination of the competition for clients, and the fact that clients being affected by these runaway verdicts were trying less and less cases has developed a generation where the lawyers who are not experienced as first chair lawyers, and not experienced as trial lawyers. And it’s a pandemic problem in our world.

So, the way to solve the problem is to become the first chair person to a client. It used to be the least, the longer path. The shorter path used to be, I’m going to be the second chair for an institutionalized plan of a law firm. And eventually that client who’s been using the partner ahead of me is going to say, “Yeah, let’s let John try this case. Let’s let John do this one and he’ll do a good job, and then we’ll give him another one.” That path doesn’t really exist anymore.

When a client can fire your law firm and hire another one because they’re not comfortable with the individual lawyer. And when a client is only trying a handful of cases nationwide in the year, there’s no reason for them to be willing to have the second lawyer on the team try a case. Their first lawyer may only try one case every two years for them.

So, what used to be the shorter path toward getting a trial experience is actually the longer or the non-existent one, path now. And really the only way to do it is become the number one person for your own client, which makes exposure in the community and the ability to track your own clients more and more important.

Michael: Right. Yeah. That’s a really interesting dynamic. And the other thing I’m interested in is your take on generational differences in terms of your approaches as a leader and a manager. Have you had to modify your style to interact with these different generations, and what are some of the lessons you’ve learned in that way?

John: I think you need to have credibility in the technological world. The younger lawyers are coming in with second nature technological skills that they don’t even realize they have because they grew up with them. And you have to have credibility in that world so that you can’t shy away from it. You have to try to keep up with that so you can communicate with them in the manner that they’re used to being communicated with.

But I also think you have to engender their loyalty in the traditional ways as well. You have to offer them terrific benefits and you have to give them the education that they want. We all saw the mentoring program here where every young lawyer is teamed up with one particular older lawyer.

So, I think it’s a combination of the traditional ways which are tried and true and still work, and trying to be hip enough to make sure you have their attention.

Michael: Right. Yeah, that’s interesting because I know a lot of senior partners who basically have told me they made a strategic decision years ago to not learn technology. Not because they didn’t think they were capable of it or might enjoy it, but because they felt that they really had to devote their time and energy to learning the law and becoming great attorneys.

That’s not necessarily a perspective I agree with, but I understand it. And so, I’m curious your thoughts about that. Why should someone who’s entering that stage of leadership go into that round versus just let other people handle it?

John: I’m not sure you have a choice anymore. If all you’re doing is managing a firm and you can control the entirety of the structure of the people you deal with because it’s all internally, you can do what you want. But if you’re also still practicing, I don’t know if anybody has that choice anymore. Clients and corporations are becoming more technologically advanced in their communication systems on a daily basis. And you can’t keep up if you have any sort of reluctance to even try.

As I said, I was pushed into it a little bit by my client base because I had a couple of clients who were way, way, way, way ahead of the curve in being paperless. So I didn’t really have a choice, but I think that that’s the path that we’re all on now. Our client push us in to that, I think it’s the right place to be pushed into. I don’t know how you avoid it anymore, I really don’t.

Michael: Right. Another interesting thing about technology, I mean, we see all these headlines about knowledge workers need to fear for large portions of their jobs because of artificial intelligence and how that’s going to make things more efficient. And I’m just curious if you have a take on that especially with some of these…

John: I don’t know that the fear for jobs has hit the legal world in terms of automation or anything like that, a technological advance doing away with the need for a person. I can tell you though there is a downside to the increases in technology in our world, and that is that, again client loyalty drives this business. And client loyalty comes from personal relationships where they trust the person that they’ve been through worse with.

Young lawyers have to learn how to get that sort of loyalty from their clients, and you don’t get it only by communicating with somebody by email and text. It’s not possible to get it that way. So you have to be able to find the initiative to old school make personal relationships with people. You have to get off your computer, pick up the phone every once in a while and communicate old school style. Or better yet go take somebody out to lunch to communicate with them instead of just sending them an email.

Michael: Yes. That’s an important aspect. The other thing I wonder about, just as the corporate world shifts around more and more, are you finding that your ability to maintain long-term relationships is hampered because there’s a changing in the guard so frequently?

John: It can. I mean, obviously as you get older you see more guards change, and there are changes that happened with your clients. Sometimes it’s the person who comes in there that you’re now going to be dealing with this coming completely from outside that corporation has no familiarity with you. Sometimes they were the second lieutenant of the person who left and did have familiarity with you.

You have to rely on the quality of what you’ve done, which can be evaluated not just in first-hand experience but by reviewing a historical work performance. You have to rely upon that to keep you in the door long enough that you can then impress the new person with your ability to excel.

Michael: Okay. So let’s say that your biggest client, you get an email tomorrow that everyone you know is gone and there’s this new team. What’s the first thing that you do?

John: Well, that happened to me once, and the first thing I did was get the word through the new team that I needed to be somewhere at 8 o’clock the next morning to meet the new team. I didn’t have to do anything to prepare that time that one was thrust upon me and that worked out pretty well. But clearly what you want to do is get in front of that new team as quickly as you can. The sooner that they…the John Tyrrell, the person as opposed to John Tyrrell, the lawyers who’s name is on the list the lawyers, the better off…

Michael: And would you bring any sort of presentation of cases, results. Just something to make the case that…I don’t know.

John: Clearly, if you have that history of success for that client, you want to be able to publicize that as well as you can. There were different ways to publicize or different ways to evaluate that that sometimes even the new person coming in won’t necessarily think of. You may have handled litigation for that client for a decade and tried six cases from that time and you won four and you lost two.

And that’s one way to evaluate it, but you might also have completely gotten their defense assumed in a certain number of cases by another party. Or you work on a risk management angle, so that they don’t even get sued anymore at first of certain type of cases.

So there are a lot of ways to evaluate success. I think, one of the keys is being able to, yourself, categorize what you’ve meant to that client. And help them understand that it’s been a successful relationship for a long time. There’s no reason why they should be looking for anyone else.

Those risks are so real, and among the biggest risk is that the person who comes outside and is now running the litigation for your client was doing that at a different company beforehand with an entire network of lawyers there.

Michael: Yes.

John: So you really have to get out in front of that. You can’t be replaced by the other Philadelphia lawyer doing work for the other company immediately. And generally, you’re not going to be immediately because if you have any sort of active work, your risk is at the progression of the next group of cases. It’s not in their interest to pull cases from you. So, you do always have that opportunity through the cases you’re currently handling to prove to them that you’re the best person for the job.

Michael: Right. I also wondered too… do you have mechanisms in place to track outcomes or results or that sort of thing that enables you to have marketing materials as well as…

John: We do, but we really do it on a client-by-client basis because different clients have different goals. And some clients try a lot more cases than others. Some clients litigate cases longer than others. Some clients take a much more financial approach to their cases and a much more pragmatic approach.

So, it isn’t possible necessarily to present results across the spectrum of work we do because they wouldn’t mean the same thing to clients. We try to, again, find the best way to express what our relationship has meant to the client for that particular client in the world that that client views those things.

Michael: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, okay, so I appreciate the time we spent. I only have a few final questions.

John: Sure.

Michael: If you could go back to that time when you first took over in a management role at Hollstein Keating, and give yourself some advice based on your perspective of all the years that have come since. So using that as a proxy for anyone who’s maybe at a similar stage, what sort of advice would you have about how to be successful moving forward?

John: I was a successor to an enterprise or a successor to a position. So, the first piece of advice is the one that everybody’s going to expect that you’d hear, but it’s so true that you just have to say which is, you have to be yourself. You have to find your own management style. Some people are better nuzzling up to someone and can get loyalty and get performance by talking to them, and others need to set goals and be more ritualistic about it. Whatever it is that your management style is, you have to be yourself.

And the other thing is similar to what we’ve talked about here during this conversation with relationship with clients. Your relationship with your workers is much the same. You need to engender loyalty. You need to have their respect. You need to be able to prod them to give you their best performance. And I think early in my years as manager, I was very heavy on the ritual. Nothing got by me in terms of dotting my I’s and crossing my T’s, but I maybe wasn’t as good on the personal side.

And I think you have to be good on the personal side because you can dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s yourself, but the enterprise is only going to be successful if everybody else is doing it too. And you have the relationship with them where they want to do it for you and they want to go the extra yard for the company.

Michael: Yes, that makes sense. So, what are some of the things that you had to change in your style or maybe lessons that you learned that enabled you to become better at that?

John: I had to become more people-friendly. Before I became the manager, I was a workaholic to the point where I had this focus that somebody could be throwing ball… having a baseball catch across the room in front of me, I wouldn’t necessarily notice. So I had to be more aware of my environment because I interact with people more, and I had to become more people-friendly. That comes naturally to some people. I had to work on it. I know I’m a lot better at it now. So, those are things that I had to work on.

Michael: Right. Well, that’s awesome. I appreciate it. Is there anything else that comes to mind in this topic of creating a foundation of excellence in a firm, any other thoughts or suggestions?

John: Just to remember that at least in this business we’re professionals. We don’t punch time cards and the thing that I try to impress upon our lawyers here at all times is, this is a profession, we need to be proud of it, we need to help mentor people who come behind us, we have a responsibility in that regard and professionalism is one of the hallmarks here.

Michael: That’s great. Well, thank you so much, John. I really enjoyed the conversation.

John: Me too, Michael. Thanks.

Key Links

Show Notes

  • The start of John’s career at Clark Ladner [2:40]
  • Clark Ladner dissolved in 1996; Hollstein Keating opened it’s doors the following day [3:50]
  • A big challenge in the early years of Hollstein Keating, how they handled it, and retained 100% of their former clients [4:10]
  • Everybody promises their clients “service”; what it takes to actually deliver on the promise [5:20]
  • How deep understanding of clients leads to advisory services and effective risk management [7:20]
  • The challenges of transitioning into the role of managing attorney, leading former peers [9:30]
  • The importance of finding your own style as a leader and understanding the requirements of that style [11:00]
  • The value of structure in communicating expectations as the firm has grown [12:25]
  • Feeling incredibly energized by the rare opportunity to start fresh in creating a new firm [14:10]
  • Creating a new unique culture by drawing from the strengths of each of the original firms [15:15]
  • How the two practice groups came together to form a new firm [18:00]
  • Understanding and overcoming the impact of a merger on attorneys who felt they were next in line for leadership opportunities [21:45]
  • Advance planning and the mechanics of getting a new firm up and running [23:10]
  • The importance of regularly seeing out-of-town clients in person and how to get meetings even when they are busy or reluctant [26:00]
  • The importance and value of having an education program for young lawyers [27:20]
  • The primary skills young attorneys need to develop in practice [28:50]
  • The top reason young attorneys fail [29:30]
  • Interviewing attorneys and discerning which ones have the intestinal fortitude to make tough decisions [30:50]
  • Top things they do to help intermediate attorneys advance in their development [32:50]
  • Managing generational differences among attorneys [35:45]
  • Engendering client loyalty requires personal communication, not just text and email [39:20]
  • Overcoming “changes of the guard” in client relationships [40:10]
  • The first thing to do when a new person takes over on the client side [41:15]
  • Different ways of making a compelling argument that you’ve enriched the client’s position through legal representation [41:50]
  • John’s advice for attorneys newly stepping into a management role [45:05]