One of NYC’s top lawyers explains how he transcended barriers to build an exceptional firm.
John Peter Zenger shaped my decision on that common childhood question: “What do you want to be when you grow up? ”
Being a lawyer was the profession for my childhood self — until it was not. In my seventh grade English class, I was immediately captured by the idea that one person could use words to help others when I read a book on how Andrew Hamilton convinced a jury in 1735 to acquit Zenger, a publisher of seditious libel. My dreams shattered when I was told that law school was costly and reserved only for rich people who could afford tuition. By the time I entered high school, I had unwillingly given up my interest in law for my second passion, journalism.
Only years later, during college, did I learn that you could use loans to pay for law school. I was working at a Catskills country club at the time, and it was there that I met a lawyer for the first time. None of the parents in the towns I had grown up in had been lawyers. I immediately investigated and, despite the obstacles I had perceived during my childhood, decided to become a lawyer.
Fast-forward twelve years, and I started my own law firm. Starting your own business requires both self-confidence and the willingness to take a leap of faith, and a believe that your skills will lead you to success. Below, I’ve listed a few of the most important lessons from my earliest years in business.
Secure an Uncommon Name
Never before in the history of business has naming your company become so important. Because you will be selling a product, you want to use a memorable, easily-found name that has not already been taken. Customers must be able to find you on the Internet, as well; test your chosen name by Googling it.
If you find a unique name and choose to move forward, you will need to legally incorporate your company in the state in which you do business. Have your website domain name tested and secured, as well. All social media platforms should be connected to ensure your name will be distinguishable and unique from your competitors.
Impress, but Save on Rent
There are two primary reasons that companies go out of business: rent and salaries.
When opening a new company, you want to try to avoid renting the most magnificent office available. My company, Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C., started with one small office and a secretarial station. At the time, I bartered doing work for the landlord in exchange for the rent-free use of a shared receptionist and a conference room.
Looks do matter, and they make an impression that affects customer decisions. I have one client who used to run workshops out of her apartment. Although she had a beautiful apartment, reviewers would frequently mention that the business was run out of the apartment in their complaints, and more than one customer cited the location during a refund demand. The apartment is no longer used for classes.
Nowadays, businesses that are wooing customers at their offices can now use advertised shared spaces or find an existing business with extra space to launch their business at a minimal cost.
Hire the Best Employees and Know When to Hire More
Every customer service company lives or dies based on the employees it hires. Most of these companies also increase revenue and become more profitable as the company continues to recruit high performers. Early on, I would spend many hours interviewing and searching for ways to better recruit candidates. I also developed a five-page questionnaire, still used today, to increase my hiring aptitude.
Besides rent, salary constitutes most companies’ highest costs. It was an investment I was unwilling to make at first — almost to the cost of my firm’s wellbeing. It took a near devastating loss and a judge’s kindness for me to make the right decision. One morning, I had 18 court cases to handle, most of them short appearances. I ran to three courthouses and at least ten courtrooms before 1 pm, trying to give every case the best possible effort. But still, I was running out of time; I looked at the clock and realized I had 10 minutes to make it to Judge Maria Milin’s courtroom. I beat the clock, but I had already defaulted. I must have looked depressed because Judge Milin called me to the bench where she kindly offered me advice.
“Adam, I have been watching you,” she said. “I am not going to default you. I am adjourning the case to another day. You have more cases than one attorney can handle. I think it is time for you to hire an associate.” It took a near loss of a case and Judge Milin’s remarkable kindness to convince me to spend the money and hire another litigator.
Hiring is one of the most challenging decisions for any new company. I have represented thousands of companies and found that everyone, no matter how big or small, has always reflected the essence and morale of the founders. I still believe my very best employees are the ones that have been with me the longest because I have spent the most time with them, and they are molded in the company’s image. Thankfully, many of them have passed on their training to the next generation.
Having a manual with a thesis statement and long-term employees to pass on learning has kept morale high and allowed my business to provide a high caliber of customer service.
If You Aren’t Making Mistakes, You Aren’t Trying Hard Enough
Americans root for underdogs; if you are starting your own business, welcome to the club. However, no matter how much love you receive from friends and family, everyone will eventually choose the best, most cost-effective option.
I lost friends early in my career when they did not choose me as their real estate attorney. I could not forgive them. Looking back, I accept that I was wrong and regret my actions. In one particular case that I can remember, I was 29 years old and on a shortlist with a friend’s parent’s attorney, who had been recommended by several people and had a proven record. My competitor was the clear pick, but there is no telling a dreamer that he or she is not the best option.
The truth is, I made many mistakes, and as I tell my employees all the time — if you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough.
I hustled. I never left the house without business cards. I created a newsletter that I sent to everyone I knew by snail mail. I recruited top attorneys to lecture with me. I started writing for whoever would print my material — all in my free time. I would work from when I woke up to when I went to sleep. I have worked on major holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day; working six days a week became a standard work schedule.
If my lifelong pursuit of a legal career has taught me anything, it would be that the only actual barriers to success that we face are the ones that we allow others to impose upon us. If you want to build a business or achieve a long-shot dream, you need to work hard and accept your mistakes. If you fail to do so, you will never achieve the success you envision.