Episode 8 – Chad Dudley & James Peltier: Operating with Deliberate Intent

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Chad Dudley and James Peltier

Chad Dudley and James Peltier

Partners, Dudley DeBosier

In 2009 Chad Dudley and James Peltier worked together at a firm. They (along with a third partner, Steven DeBosier) bought the firm from its former owners and set out to deliberately transform it to achieve two key goals: truly satisfying clients and doubling the average value of each case. Achieving those goals allowed them to increase new-case intakes by 300% and dramatically decrease thier reliance on advertising as a primary means of attracting new cases.

Full Interview Transcript

Michael: My guest today are Chad Dudley and James Peltier, partners at Dudley DeBosier, a plaintiff personal injury firm with five offices throughout Louisiana. Chad’s also a co-founder of Vista Consulting, advisers to plaintiff PI firms on marketing, leadership and operations. And that endeavor currently employs four full-time consultants. So thank you, gentlemen, for joining me.

Chad: Thanks for having us.

James: Appreciate it.

Michael: Yeah, that’s great. So let’s start with Dudley DeBosier. When did it start? Where were you at in the beginning and where is the firm at presently?

Chad: Dudley DeBosier was founded in 2009 by myself, my two parents, James Peltier and Steven DeBosier, and we purchased the firm from some prior owners. And at the time, we wanted to grow the practice and we started off where we had 2 offices and approximately I think 11 or 12 attorneys, including James, Steve, and myself. And we’ve grown it to approximately 25 attorneys, and we’re in five locations. And growing, we added maybe 4 attorneys, 5 attorneys in the past 12 months. And we’ve seen really strong growth over the years. And happy to talk about it with you today.

Michael: Yeah, that sounds great. So that’s interesting, starting with a practice that was already up and running.

Chad: Yes, yes. And that was interesting transition. I mean, one thing on the consulting side with Vista Consulting, and then we experienced firsthand is whether you have a firm today or you are purchasing a firm or you are moving to a leadership position at your firm, I think the important question to ask is “Would you enthusiastically rehire every single person that works in your firm?” And that was one of the first things we did early on when we purchased the firm. It was that would we enthusiastically rehire every single person? The answer was no. We took a good hard look. Can we train them to be somebody that we would…that would be a superstar or do they need to go and do something else? And that sounds harsh but we wanted a team. Having the right team of employees is critical in growing your firm.

James: What I found interesting about that is we went to a conference and talked about it. The three of us sat one day and said, “Why don’t we write down a list?” And by the way, all three of us had been in a firm prior to this one. So we pulled off the employees even though we weren’t the ones making the hiring decisions. But we knew their work ethic behind the scenes. Whether you are looking at it or not, we knew all. And when we went to a conference, one day we went to lunch and we all said, “Look, let’s get out a piece of paper and lets each one do a scale or grade of each client and come back and see how we came back.” And to a person, I don’t think there was a single one that we all did not agree were superstars. And then which ones we thought weren’t good fit at the firm. Which I suspected it wouldn’t quite be that consistent, but it really was.

Chad: And some people have gone on to be successful at other places, but it was just…when you are trying to get a firm, business, a company from point A to point B, you need everybody rowing in the same direction full blast.

James: You also have a culture that you’d like to have, and you know where you want your culture to be, and who is going to be good fit for your culture.

Michael: So you know, that is interesting that you were attorneys in the practice and then purchased it. Did you find that you had to renegotiate some relationships because people struggled to accept you as the new bosses, you three?

Chad: Not necessarily. I think that we had leadership roles at the firm prior to purchasing it, and we continued in those roles, and we continued doing what we were doing at the firm, but not as employees but as owners. And really just lead by example and try to live the culture that we’re preaching, lead the charge on the initiatives that we’re trying to implement. By doing so, it felt we had a lot of buy-in from the other people because they saw a vision for the firm that we wanted to be and they bought into it. I said, “Okay, let’s make it happen.”

James: Also too, I think we were probably a little more approachable. They didn’t always know us as bosses or owners. We were co-workers with a lot of people and worked side by side. I think if they had issues and they wanted things to go in particular direction, I don’t think they were very nervous to come talk to us. We’ve always been friendly, we’ve always set down. And that fear of possibly talking with your boss, your employer, I don’t think we had that there.

Michael: Right. So in a way it was kind of a good thing in terms of that rapport that was already in place. This is just being the scary boss that…especially if you had come in from the outside.

Chad: Yeah, that’s right. And it’s interesting because working with firms in a consulting capacity, there’s advantages to hiring and promoting from within, there’s challenges there, and there’s also challenges with bringing someone who is completely an outsider and having them adapt to the culture and environment. But…so we had that. We knew the people, we had good relationships with a lot of people here and that made a difference when we were deciding which structure we wanted the firm to go in.

Michael: That’s awesome. So we were chatting just a bit before we started, and you mentioned there was a bit of a transformation that occurred in terms of the marketing aspects. I wonder if you could paint the picture of what marketing was like in early days when you three had to figure it out now that you were running the show, and then what were some of the changes you made after doing some experimentation along the way.

Chad: Well, I think one thing that we repeat over and over at our offices, ‘Are we doing this by design or are we getting it by default?’. Are we doing something intentionally or are we just doing it because it’s the path with the least resistance? And I think when we came into leadership at that firm, one of the things is okay, what do we want this firm to be about, and what is the best way we can take care of our clients? And it was really two things. One was that we were going to have excellent customer service; we’re going to treat our clients with professionalism, respect. We’re going to make sure we return phone calls, we’re going to make sure that everyone at our firm treats our clients right. And then the second push obviously is we are going to make, we are going to get the best results possible for our clients. And if you name those two things, there is not a firm in the country that would say I don’t try to do those two things. However, there’s a difference between saying we try to do those things versus getting fanatical about those things, and measuring, and breaking apart what goes into each of those initiatives. And that’s really where we decided to make our push early on. I led on the client management and client services side; my partners led on the ligitation side.: just breaking down each aspect of those two components so that clients are happy, clients get good results, and they could tell family about us.

James: We took over a firm that did heavy advertising and got about 95% of their cases in the advertising, and about 5% of the cases from referral.

Michael: Okay.

James: Main change and we knew going into it, that the cases that came in straight from the advertising would drop and drop significantly. We had a bunch of employees over there. We had to make a decision what are we going to do to keep down the road and keep everybody employed. And so when Chad says everybody says let’s worry about client service, let’s do the best we can for our clients, it really became a way for the whole firm to pull together because if we were going to keep all the good employees there and we were going to keep things going, we weren’t going to be able to spend necessarily as much money on advertising. We needed to make a push for the clients that we had to give unbelievable client service so that we can raise the percentage from 5% of referrals to a lot higher than that. And we could do that through the clients we had. And the second thing we had to do was, our goal was let’s do more on the cases. Let’s push the litigation side, litigation boundaries, and make sure we are getting the best medical care for our clients and doing the best we can. And our goal is to double the average fees on the case. Same case we were getting before, we wanted to do a better job. And those were lofty goals to set them, but Chad on the side of taking care of the clients really made a big difference in bringing more clients. Chad, what were the numbers? What were the changes that have been since we took over?

Chad: In terms of intakes, we’re basically more than triple the intakes from when we took over to now. And then in addition to that, a majority of those intakes, more than half of those intakes come from word to mouth or former clients referring people to us. And we’re very, very proud of that. For a firm that does heavy mass advertising, tellers, and billboards, etc., to get more than half of our business from word to mouth is something we’re very proud of.

James: If you think about that, we went from 5% to over 50% over the course of 5 years.

Chad: Five years, yeah.

James: Three, four, five years in the amount of referrals that we were getting, in the percentage of referrals. So that’s ten-fold.

Michael: You know, the other nice thing about that too is it multiplies the effects of the dollars spent on advertising.

Chad: Exactly. Absolutely does. You’re competing on service versus competing on your spend. If you’re able to get more out of your dollar that you spend advertising, it’s a tough barrier to overcome for people that want to compete on this market.

Michael: Right. So three times the intakes, and of course you’ve increased your geographical footprint by having more offices. Is that a factor, because it seems to me there is only so many cases in a given geographic region. And once you have 100% of them, you’ve got to find some other way to increase the intake.

Chad: Yeah. I think into the most competitive markets, you will never get to 100%. And there are some statistics out there that say, I think a very small percentage of people who are injured in accidents even hire an attorney, which is staggering. So I think there is always room to grow in new markets. But we made a decision that we wanted to be in different locations throughout the state of Louisiana. And we went into other markets and had success on those markets as well.

James: But they present their own challenges. It is not always easy to geographically go to a different area and bring your culture immediately. It takes a lot of work.

Michael: Right. Have you had an issue too? I mean as you have these different offices, finding that different places, it just naturally start to run differently than each other. How do you address that as leaders?

Chad: Culture is interesting thing I think, and I also see this in firms where I consult with where the home office has its own certain vibe, certain feel, and then you get to one of their other offices and that’s missing. And so you really have to be intentional about replicating the vibe. We try to do that through a number of things. Getting people from those offices to our main office for training on a regular basis. We try to get some of our leaders from our main office here out to the satellite offices on a regular basis to spend time with them, to work with them, to go through systems, processes, procedures. And in addition to that, we do a weekly huddle once a week, every Monday, where everyone from every office participates either by conference call or by video conferencing. And we let people know what’s going on at the firm, we recognize people that are doing great things for the firm. We share victories, we share feedback from clients whether it’s good, bad, or in between. And it’s a place for those offices to kind of get a taste of our culture. And I think all those things play a really big role in making sure that each office has the same look, feel, style.

James: I was going to say it’s more than just culture. Those are the things we do to track culture. But I want to make sure that every case in the door has certain things the way Dudley DeBosier wants them done. And nobody tracks metrics more than Chad Dudley, my partner here. But doing that, everything we think is important in a case, we track, and we measure, and we see who’s good at it and we have a scale from top to bottom of who’s good at certain things. And what you want to do in those matrices is order them. The people that are great on the matrices, what are they doing great, and let’s bring everybody to up to that level. And the ones that are lower, what do we need to coach them up? And so the point is whether you’re in the office in Baton Rouge, or New Orleans, or Shreveport, there are certain matrices that you need to keep up with to make sure we are delivering consistent performance on each and every case no matter where you are. And I don’t know of anybody who does a better job than Chad and the team he has put together in tracking the matrices in every office and using it in a positive way rather than negative.

Michael: That sounds really interesting. And I’m curious; I have five questions about that, right? So metaphorically speaking, one is what are the systems required to be able to think up a metric and just instantly start tracking it? How do you that?

Chad: Well just over the years, way back when we started tracking different things that were important to the case, and really what we did was I went to the attorneys in our office that were having the most success. And just followed them around, and watched how they organize their day, how they interacted with clients, how they worked a file, and how they were getting the results that they were getting. And then we tried to create different checkpoints in our case management software that says, “Okay, let’s try and replicate those things that they did.” And obviously with an attorney, part of practising law is there’s art to it, and part of it is discipline. And there is things that we can track and measure. That’s the discipline part: making sure that clients get called and know every…within certain intervals and files get typed during certain intervals, certain things happen in sequence within certain timeframes. Those are disciplines.

And then, there is always the art of practising the law that is hard to systematize, but we try to pass that on through training. But all these things, we started just playing around with tracking different things. How often we talk to clients, how long does it takes us to get a medical record in from a provider, how long does it take to draft a demand letter, how long are we going to negotiate before we file suit, how soon after suit is filed do we want to complete discovery, how soon after that do we want to have a trial date? All these things are things that happen on a case and they can often happen by default. But we want to be very intentional about each stage and manage those intervals and those interactions with the client as much as possible because there is a science behind having a happy client. It’s directly related to how quickly you move their file and efficiently, how often you talk to them, how often do you return phone calls, how you explain things to them, do they have a clear understanding of their case, etc., etc. And all these things are going on and we just started getting really good at tracking them. And that’s kind of how Vista was born. We were tracking a lot of these things and we had people in other offices going, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. Can you come show me how to do it?”

James: Hopefully…

Michael: Did you…Sorry, go ahead.

James: I was going to say he doesn’t just happened to do it. He has built what we call dashboards that help him track it…not only helps Chad track it because Chad can look up what everybody’s doing and see who is successful, and see how many days it takes them to get medical records or how many days it takes them to get out a demand. But what percentage of the cases do they have MRIs on, and who’s talked to them every 15 or 30 days? But it’s also the flip side of that. That same information is provided to the staff and to the attorneys. So Chad is checking to make sure that everybody is being consistent. I can walk in the office and hit that same button and say, “Here are the clients I haven’t talked to in 15 days. Let me give them a call. Here are the clients that for the past 30 or 60 days and we don’t have an MRI. Is an MRI not being done because nobody is thinking about it or is it because this isn’t a case that we don’t need an MRI?” Or here’s a case…here’s all the cases that demands we’ve got back, and we don’t have a demand out on it. Here’s a list that we can punch a button, come in and say, “Let’s get the demand out on these.” It stops me as an attorney from having to pick up every file, re-think about it, go through it and figure out where it got. It allows us to get the things done that need to be done so that we can go out and work on the side that is an art a whole lot more on the case.

Michael: Yeah, no, that sounds awesome. So do you have commercially available software platform or a custom-developed one?

Chad: Yes and no. I mean, that’s what Vista does. Vista goes in and installs these types of data tracking systems for law firms because law firms use all different types of case management platforms. And they use those platforms differently and uniquely almost in every case. There is sort of a template that we have that we will put on top of whatever platform we are using, but it has to be adapted to your specific processes. So there is a template that they all have some certain qualities that look very, very similar, but they have to be adapted to each firm’s workflow. And that’s kind of what Vista does.

Michael: Got it. That makes sense. That’s really cool. So the other thing I wanted to ask about was how you handle that? Because when you start publishing reports about performance, some people are gonna…they’re already going to be doing well; they’re going to feel great about it. Other people maybe are going to be discouraged or feel like they don’t have a chance. So how can you kind of turn it into a positive for everyone versus just the early runner?

Chad: I think the most frustrating thing for anyone if you’re working, whatever you are working, is if there is no clarity. If there is no clarity as to what you are being, what the scoreboard is, how are you being judged in terms of performance, when there’s ambiguity about that, that in it of itself can be incredibly frustrating because you don’t know am I working on the right thing, am I doing a good job, is my supervisor happy, not happy, etc? So a lot of these metrics or things that we measure provide clarity in terms of hey, this is what we expect. This is how we are going to serve our clients. And here are the parameters within which you’re hitting a home run, and here is the parameters within which you’re striking out. And that clarity, given to the right team which is what we have, they thrive on it. They go, okay, look. This is…I like this. This shows me what’s possible, this shows me what can be done versus…if we have someone that has a clear scoreboard like that and is not motivated to kind of do the best that they can, this is probably not the firm for them.

James: I agree with that.

Chad: And we’re very upfront with that. We have a good team that works together and people help each other out, but that’s the scoreboard. Because we know that those things translate into great results for our clients and happy clients.

James: Yeah, if you can’t make the score card, you know what it is and you can’t make it. There is one or two reasons. Either you don’t know how to make it or you’re not working hard enough to get there. Those are the two most likely things. I think we do a great job of showing the scorecard, showing what needs to be improved. And not saying it in a negative way, you’ve got to get it done. We have a set of coaching skills to coach them up and to get them to that level. And our goal is to make everybody the best they can. And so the scorecard helps everybody to see where am I, where do I need to be better. And we don’t have to get down on anybody. We just have to say, “Look, here is where we’re a little low. Let’s get better at it. And if the problem is attitude and you don’t want to work hard enough, then this, as Chad says, this probably isn’t the place for you.” And I think that also helps the culture that it’s hard to go to work and work hard and somebody around you, you feel like didn’t work as hard as you are. But if everybody thought the same way, I think you will find that people are pretty happy, that they know what they have to do and are working just as hard to get it done.

Michael: Yeah. That makes sense. I’m also curious about do you find with folks who are inclined towards being top performers, but may be wildly creative that they feel constrained by the tracking environment? Or does it enable them to be fully expressed?

Chad: Well, I think there is a balance there in terms of yes, we want to encourage people to be creative, to think outside the box. However there are certain core things that needs to be done. And so yeah, I would like to think or believe that having a plan allows you to deviate from the plan or think on your feet a little bit quicker, better versus going in with no plan at all. If you have an idea of what the ultimate objective is, then you can improvise a little bit easier. If you have no concept of what you’re ultimately trying to accomplish in terms of outcomes, then improvising can sometimes be difficult. And if you look it wait, wait, look, there is absolutely an art to practicing law, to handling client services. But let’s be clear on what we’re trying to accomplish and let’s give you tools to accomplish it. And if we can improve upon it, we’re always open to how can we improve. That is one thing. We are constantly thinking of ways to improve the job we do for our clients and how do we handle client service.

James: As a matter of fact, if somebody, excuse me, is doing something different and we’re tracking it, we see that it works. I don’t want to take that away from him. I want to go learn what is that and let’s teach it to everybody else. It’s kind of just the opposite. We love people to come up with new ideas. But let’s track them and make sure that it is working, and not just guess that it’s working. Let’s figure out a way to get everybody to do it.

Michael: Have you found by tracking metrics that you discovered things that you wouldn’t have thought are that significant, turns out that they’re big drivers? Do you have any surprises?

Chad: Yes, in summer. So, so much about secret sauce. I’m not going to talk about them in specifics, but I will say client communication, client communication, client communication. It drives so much with no diving in the details and mechanics of how often and when, there is just so many great things that come out of just talking to your clients, returning phone calls that that should be at the core of any firm’s case management strategy, plan, whatever you want to call it. Talk to your clients more frequently than you think they want to hear from you.

James: Yeah, we talked at the beginning how it was important to get more referrals and to have higher case fees. But what we found when tracking is those that talk to their clients the most had both the most referrals and the highest average case fees. I guess it’s not too surprising but how distinctive was made us realize, all right. how often do we want to talk to them and let’s make sure that’s happening. I’ll also tell you, some of the things that…I know that a lot of people think on intake. And I don’t want to get into great detail, but everybody thinks that they get 100% of the cases that call in almost every month. People that tell you that are not tracking. It’s amazing the minute you sit down and you track the intake of the number of calls you get that you truly want that you sign, that you don’t realize how many you’re probably missing out on if you don’t have a system in place to make sure that happens.

Chad: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. There is so many…talking to your clients more often, more frequently than you think is one thing. James is absolutely right. Intake is such a science, and a lot of people just answer the phone, sign up the cases that they want. There is so much that goes into it and tracking it, we see firms do it so wrong all the time. And you’d just be amazed at the ways that they can get it wrong. And by losing a case a week, two cases a week, three cases a week, whatever it is, multiply that times your average fee, times 12 months. You are talking hundreds of thousands, in some cases millions of dollars a year just from intake. And that is staggering.

James: And you don’t see it. You don’t notice it unless you track it.

Chad: The other thing, I mean, there are just so many different things we’ve seen that we could go on and on. We talk about the Pareto point. Pareto was an Italian mathematician that said 20% of your effort generates 80% of your results. Well, for the plaintiff law firm, 20% of your cases typically generate 80% of your revenue. And so developing a profile, which is what does your top 20% of your cases look like, and how do you recognize them from as early on as possible so they’re in the right hands, at the right attorneys. And there is an art and a science to all of that. And there is just whole lot of different things that we’ve come across and have shared with a lot of firms. And we share a lot of things that worked. But you can go for a whole day on just stuff that you find in looking at the numbers at your firm.

Michael: You know, it strikes me too…I bet that the person who’s got the most valuable case is the one who’s probably kind of doesn’t want to share that information with you upfront, maybe kind of wants to check you out before they really reveal what they’ve got. And so they may well present as someone who is really maybe not even that attractive. Is that a fair assessment?

Chad: Are you talking about clients that are considering hiring our firm and not giving us…

Michael: Yes.

Chad: I don’t know if we’ve run into that that much. But I know that what we run into a lot is we’ll have a client that…they’re injured and they’re a hard working person. And they don’t…they’re just trying to minimize…they’re just fighting through pain. And so they’ll minimize how serious their pain is or how serious their injury is. And you’ve really just got to talk to them. And then also, you find out that they’re not okay and they stopped fishing, hunting, they don’t do the same job that they used to do prior. Or they are just trying to compensate any way they can to deal with it very privately. And then also, you need to realize they’re really compensating for a pretty severe injury. That’s common.

James: That’s common. But I think most common is people get in a wreck and they hurt. Most of the people that come in don’t come in with a broken back, or they’re not in a hospital. They didn’t already have surgery. They call because they got in an accident, they’re sore, and they don’t know what’s wrong with them.

There’s a series of things that we want to make sure are looked at and taken care of in the first 90 days so that we can help determine which one of those cases are the biggest cases. Because the vast majority of the biggest cases, we don’t know they’re the biggest cases when they walk in the door.

Michael: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Well is there any thing, maybe any key insights that you’ve had through your experience growing a firm that you think might be valuable or worth sharing to other law firm leaders? Sort of changes in your philosophy or key insights that you’ve had that’s helped you move forward?

Chad: Yeah, I think things or insights that we would share is that your team matters, and having total confidence that you have the best possible team that you can put together makes a difference. Culture matters. The culture that you cultivate at your office makes a difference. It’s going to determine how well you treat your clients and how your clients perceive your firm. And then I would say that whatever you do, do it intentionally, not by default. Do it by design, not by default. Have a plan and keep working that plan. And if things aren’t going the direction that you want them to go, you ask is it because the plan is faulty or is it because the execution plan is faulty? And we just keep asking those questions, and methodically, slowly build our practice over time.

James: I would say the other thing that I found is important, and I deal with the litigation side of it more, but I think it applies to all of it. But I think you’ve got to continue to educate everybody that works for you. You want everybody to feel like they have the ability to grow. And the better you can make them…the better job they can do, even if they end up going somewhere else if you’re bringing everybody along and you think they can learn, and not only learn but teach. We teach and send our attorneys to CLE’s all over the country. But one of the things I want to happen is when they come back, I want them to bring something and to teach the rest of us something that we learned, they learned. We are starting what we call Dudley Debosier University. and it is entire platform of whatever you are in this firm, things you should know. And everybody within the firm will be teaching somebody at a different level of what they should know and how they can get better. And hopefully, that will expand. It will keep growing as to what we’re teaching so that the firm can grow.

Michael: Yeah, that sounds really great. One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. And so, giving those…even like a second-year associate, the opportunity to teach something to other folks in the firm is really cool.

Chad: Yeah, absolutely.

Michael: Well guys, I know we have a hard stop. So I want to thank you so much both for joining me. I really enjoyed the conversation. I’d love to keep going. But thank you so much for being a part of this.

James: Thanks for having us Michael. We appreciate it and we’d love to do it again sometime.

Michael: Quick question, too. What’s the best way for folks to get in touch with you if anyone would like to?

Chad: If someone wants to reach us, again, our email address is cdudley@dudleydeboiser.com. Or our phone number. Really easy, 225-444-4444.

Michael: Great. And also at Vista Consulting?

Chad: Vista Consulting, you can call us at 225-383-2973.

Michael: Great. I’ll put all that in the show notes, too.

Chad: Perfect. Great. Thanks, Mike.

James: Appreciate it.

Michael: Thank you.

Key Links

Show Notes

  • Would you enthusiastically rehire every single person that works in your firm? [1:50]
  • Deciding who was in and who was out when they became owners [2:44]
  • The importance of operating with deliberate intent [6:33:]
  • Setting out to treat clients with respect and to get the best resuts and then figuring out how to deliver on those promises [7:00]
  • How they changed the client intake mix from 5% referral and 95% advertising to 50/50: rallying together to give unbelievable customer service [8:02]
  • The firm has tripled client intakes since the current partners took over the firm in 2009 [9:35]
  • Maintining the same firm culture in different offices throughout the state [11:50]
  • Being deliberate about tracking everything that’s important to the outcome of a case and using the data in a way that’s positive across the firm [13:32]
  • Watching how the top performers get results and teaching those methods to the rest of the team [14:55]
  • Measuring the time intervals at each stage of handling a case [15:15]
  • There’s a scinece behind having a happy client [16:35]
  • Using custom-developed software tools from Vista Consulting to view data in dashboard format [18:33]
  • How to manage team members when performace data is being rigoursly tracked [19:35]
  • Does tracking performance inhibit creativity? [22:30]
  • Surprises that emerged from tracking performance data: client communication is the core of success [24:25]
  • Track your intake results; you’re probably not doing as well as you think you are [25:45]
  • Discerning what a big case looks like when it first presents [28:00]
  • Final insights for building an excellent firm: the team matters, culture matters, and ongoing education for everybody in the firm [30:00]