The Business Side Of Law: John Lively Of Practus On 5 Things You Need To Create Or Lead A Successful Law Firm

An Interview With Eric Pines

Eric L. Pines
Authority Magazine
19 min readSep 1, 2022

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Know your clients’ business inside and out. Understand their objectives from a big picture perspective. Understand the details of the task at hand. And understand how it all fits together.

Law school primarily prepares lawyers for the practice of law. But leading or starting a law firm requires so much more than that. It requires the entrepreneurial skills that any CEO would need to run a business; How to manage personnel, how to hire and fire, how to generate leads, how to advertise, how to manage finances, etc. On the business side of law, what does an attorney need to know to create a successful and thriving law practice? To address these questions, we are talking to successful law firm principals who can share stories and insights from their experience about the “5 Things You Need To Create Or Lead A Successful Law Firm”.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing John Lively.

John Lively started from humble beginnings as a pig farmer’s son, and if he weren’t a lawyer, he’d go right back to helping out on the farm. He started his legal career working at several AmLaw 500 firms, but their model didn’t fit how he envisioned he would be practicing law, which is why John launched a virtual law firm, Practus LLP in 2018. Since then, he’s been providing top tier legal services to his clients and providing Practus attorneys with the technology they need to work smarter, be more responsive, collaborate together, and achieve the freedom and flexibility they strive for.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you ended up where you are? Specifically we’d love to hear the story of how you began to lead your practice.

I didn’t come from a family of lawyers or money — my parents were pig farmers. If I wasn’t a lawyer, I could see myself as a pig farmer again, working on the land and taking care of animals. But, I chose to go a different route and attended The Citadel for my undergrad. I built upon my values of discipline, honor, and hard work before moving to Washington DC to pursue my law degree at The Catholic University of America where I focused on the financial services side of law.

From there, I started my legal career at Dechert and worked at several AmLaw 500 firms. I worked the grind every day at these firms, and never liked the idea of being measured by the number of billable hours I worked. To me that was a flawed system and didn’t match up with how I wanted to practice law. Family has always been important to me, and due to my schedule, working weekends, my commute, etc., I was missing events and time with the ones I love. Traditional law firms weren’t really set up to embrace or support work life balance of their attorneys. I knew there was a more efficient and enjoyable way to practice law. A way that embraces the life of attorneys outside of being a lawyer.

In 2010, I started practicing law virtually from Argentina. I wanted to test my theory that you could work from anywhere, experiencing life with your family while giving clients the legal services they deserve. And it worked… most of my clients didn’t even realize I was outside of the US. The only time a client did realize I wasn’t in the US was when they asked how the weather was in Kansas while I was sitting in my home office in Argentina. It was pretty funny since I had no idea what the weather back “home” actually was!

Fast forward to 2018 when my partner, Bob Elwood, and I first launched Practus LLP as a modern law firm that gives control back to attorneys. We quickly discovered we weren’t alone in wanting something new and found many attorneys were seeking the autonomy to work from anywhere, whenever, and in whatever way they felt was best for themselves and their clients. We cut overhead costs by getting rid of the fancy offices, eliminating unnecessary overhead and implementing best-of-breed technology to work for us, which led to more financial freedom and time with loved ones for our attorneys. Today, Practus has more than quadrupled in size with attorneys and non-legal staff across the Americas

I am very lucky to be where I have been — even when it comes to challenging circumstances; I learned valuable lessons from every situation I’ve been in. I had horrible bosses and amazing bosses. I’ve had ups and downs, but it all led to where I am today. I am a firm believer that everything that happens in your life contributes to who you are at this very minute, and I’m excited that this is where each moment led me.

I’m a huge fan of mentorship throughout one’s career. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Who has been your biggest mentor? What was the most valuable lesson you learned from them?

My wife has taught me so much. I’ve learned a lot from her skill sets, which are pretty different than my own. She’s taught me to lead with empathy and understanding. Without this, Practus would not be the law firm it is today.

I’ve had several other mentors throughout my professional and personal life, and I honestly can’t narrow it down to just one.

Jack Murphy is one of the top Asset Management attorneys in the nation. I always admired his ability to look at things from a different angle. When you come to him with a problem, you will likely hear him say, “Let’s take a step back for a minute and look at this from another perspective.” He thought me to think out of the box always.

Kevin Carome is a model general counsel and has the ability to be a great leader no matter what company he’s working for or what problem he’s facing. He’s a remarkable leader with a high degree of professionalism and grace.

Bob Graham was one of the founders at AIM. He was great at empowering those that worked for him to do their work without micromanaging. You never had a doubt of who was in charge, but he relied on and trusted those that worked on his team to do their job.

From completing your degree to opening a practice and becoming a business owner, your path was most likely challenging. Can you share a story about one of your greatest struggles? Can you share what you did to overcome it?

Ask anyone in my family, I tend to have a mindset that I’m right about everything… it could be the lawyer in me or maybe it’s just my default. Because of that, I’ve made it a point to surround myself with very smart people. One of the challenges I faced early on is learning to guide the ship and listen to your people instead of trying to debate and win every point along the way. You need to accept that everyone has different ideas, and some of them are better than yours. Knowing this, realizing this, and living it are all different things. I was able to overcome this challenge only through experience — I’ve made mistakes along the way, but I continue to learn from them and strive to make Practus a place where people are inspired to do their best work.

I’ve also used this struggle as an opportunity to learn from others. My wife has such a unique skillset, and one of her biggest strengths is being a good listener. And not a listener as in, “I can hear you.” A truly empathetic listener. Observing her and watching how she listens has helped me tremendously when it comes to understanding our team at a deeper level, putting myself in their shoes, and using empathy to guide me towards making the right decisions.

Practus is a reflection of the aggregate of every single person at the firm, and that’s what makes it a great law firm and a great place to be at the end of the day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?

“There’s always a way.” That’s my motto. It’s engraved in my Citadel class ring and it serves as a reminder to me at all times…

Due to some unfortunate circumstances, my parents went bankrupt when I was growing up. I am incredibly grateful for what they provided for me. This experience forced me to figure out a lot of stuff on my own at a fairly young age, but in doing so, I learned a lot about what I’m capable of. At the end of the day, if you have a will, a desire, and an objective, you can figure out how to do it (and do it legally). You can’t forget the legal step, especially when running a law firm.

This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?

Big picture: my motivation is to be charged forever and promote the interest of others.

Whatever your objective is, we’re a great platform to accomplish that — whether pecuniary, personal, work-life balance, or anything else.

There are several factors that go into my motivation and drive behind Practus (both from a practitioner and business side of things).

One reason I started Practus was for work-life balance… I’m not sure if my wife would say it’s balanced at all times, but I do strive for that. And more importantly, there’s the control element to my life. I control how I work — something I didn’t really get to do at traditional law firms. I want to be able to balance what I love doing in my professional life with taking care of and spending quality time with my family. Supporting my family is a huge part of my motivation and why I initially launched Practus.

I know it might sound salesy, but it’s real for me: my motivation for how the law firm is managed is simply to make the people in our firm happy. I want to create a platform that allows them to achieve their objectives, personally and professionally. And I want that for the lawyers, management, admin, every single person. Of course, we need to be profitable while doing it, but I truly believe that when you set them up for happiness, their work product is better, the team functions together better, and people will be inspired to give their best in whatever way they’re contributing to Practus and/or their clients.

On a deeper level, my core motivation is based on faith and service. Scripture discusses four types of love: Eros (romantic), Storge (familial), Philia (brotherly/friendship), and Agape. Agape is described as a true love that isn’t emotional but encompasses a desire to do that which is for someone else.

If you think about the concept of love like that, it defies the laws of physics. By giving, you’re receiving more. But how can you give more and receive more at the same time? This is my core motivation behind everything I do. I want to be able to give more and part of how I do that is by helping my clients to the best of my ability, creating a place where people can be their best, supporting my family, and giving what I can to help others.

The truth is if you only work to promote your own interest, you’ll burn out. But if you work to promote the interest of others, you will inevitably be charged forever.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m excited for the projects in our pipeline, most of which focus on improving upon what we’ve already built. We’re expanding our team (both on the attorney and non-legal side) so we can better support our clients and our attorneys. We’re implementing new technologies to give attorneys the resources they need to be successful.

While many law firms started dabbling in legal tech as a Band-Aid solution during the pandemic, we’ve been a virtual law firm since our launch in 2018. That means rather than starting from scratch, we’re able to implement upgraded technologies and improve digital infrastructures quickly, providing immediate benefits to our team.

What I’m most excited about is seeing our Practus culture continue to develop. We’re virtual in nature. We don’t have the water cooler. We find ways to make people feel part of something even when they don’t see each other for years. Our back-office team is constantly looking at new ways to stay connected and engaged to keep up the comradely that makes Practus such a unique firm. Continuing to develop this culture can be challenging as the firm grows, but it’s also what makes our firm an enjoyable place to work. Through these cultural improvements, attorneys meet each other, learn about each other’s practices, and often end up in joint engagements and meeting up with each other outside of work.

On a personal level, I continue to practice law in the asset management industry, whether that’s reorgs, mergers & acquisition activity, etc. that implicate regulatory aspects of the exchange traded fund and mutual fund worlds. That’s pretty exciting to me.

Fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing the business of law. Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?

The briefest description of what I do: work with people to comply or avoid the law.

I’m a 40 Act Lawyer with 20+ years of experience in the industry. So, when I say ‘comply with the law’, I’m working with exchange traded funds, mutual funds, investment advisors, etc. that are registered with the SEC.

When I say ‘avoid the law’, I’m working with clients that don’t want to be registered with the SEC. In my case, that primarily means hedge funds.

You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Unique qualities I have that others may not? This sounds like a job interview question. 😅 My unique quality is I’ve learned how to avoid answering this question.

Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?

Absolutely and unequivocally unimportant whatsoever and there’s nothing anyone can say that’ll change my mind. This isn’t meant to take away from top-tier schools at all. But…you give me an attorney who’s hungry, who wants to work hard, who wants to achieve their objectives, and I don’t care where they went to law school.

There is a competency issue — make no mistake about that. And that’s because the delivery of legal services at a very high level is really, really important to us.

To the extent that there’s a correlation between top-tier schools according to US News and high quality work, then ok… it could be a factor. But I didn’t go to a top-tier school. I didn’t fit into that category of US News. I did go to a damn good school with one of the top securities departments in the country.

On a more personal level, I believe everything you do in life happens for a reason. Whether you had PB&J or tuna fish, it happens for a reason. So if you choose a particular school to go to for whatever reason — appropriate to your life and your objectives, then it is a good choice for you.

I have to throw in a footnote to this because you know… I am a lawyer, after all, and we love footnotes: anybody who is related to me and goes to Notre Dame is a heck of a smart person (shoutout to my daughter who’s just starting at Notre Dame this semester).

Managing being a law practitioner and a business owner is a constant balancing act. How do you manage both roles?

The ONLY way to do everything is to have good people. Managing the firm, good people. IT team, good people. Marketing team, good people. And not just good people in nature — good people who are good at their trade and have top-tier skills.

I took an entrepreneurial class in college and my professor, JJ Mahoney, said something that stuck with me to this day: surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. You hear that a ton, but you there is so much truth to that. There are always people around me that are smarter than I am, and I’m honestly blessed to have that.

Having faith in your people, relying on them, and being involved with that they’re doing allows you to strike the right balance.

Can you help articulate the entrepreneurial skills a lawyer needs to run and lead a successful law firm?

It’s interesting to think about the dichotomy between a lawyer and an entrepreneur. Lawyers are traditionally risk adverse. Entrepreneurs are traditionally risk tolerant. It’s about striking the right balance. You have to rely on your people. You have to recognize risk management and being a risk taker yet holding things to a high level on delivery of legal services.

When it comes to being a practitioner, what makes a lawyer a good lawyer is their technical skills. If you don’t have those, you won’t be good. You have to know your clients. You have to know them, their business inside and out, what it is they’re trying to do as a whole, and what they’re trying to accomplish with the specific task at hand.

As a business owner you spend most of your time working IN your practice, seeing clients. When and how do you shift to working ON your practice? (Marketing, upgrading systems, growing your practice, etc.) How much time do you spend on the business elements?

I spend as much time on each of these things as necessary. Like every good legal answer, “It depends.” Today is 50/50. Tomorrow could be 70/30. The next could be 30/70. I always strive to balance delivery of legal services to clients and the entrepreneurial side of running the firm.

As your book grows, you expand your services and need additional skills to help you. Your book of business is always changing. Dynamics of the legal marketplace changes the dynamics of what you need to do to deliver your services, so being cognizant of those changes and when you need to add people to help with those changes is critical.

When it comes to running your law firm, you have be looking forward towards trends or you’ll be left behind. Having your finger on the pulse of what technology is around the corner that will help us work smarter and more streamlined is our goal, and I’m fortunate to have the right people in place that help me guide the ship in that regard. Keeping up with your skills, hiring the people you need to delivery top tier legal services, and being willing to change and grow constantly helps navigate being a practitioner and an entrepreneur.

Can you share some specific, non intuitive insights from our personal experience about how a leader of a law firm should:

Well, if it’s not intuitive, I’m probably not going to pick it up… but I can share what I’ve learned through my experiences.

  • Manage personnel: There is a higher level of control achieved by empowering management staff to do what they are good at and what they want to do. It frees you up to think about the business in different ways, and it empowers them to come up with more creative ideas within their skill set. People think there is more power with more control. But really, you get more power when you give up control. You grow more that way as well. Let them know the sky is the limit so let’s see how far we can push it. We’re not a huge corporation — we have to be creative in our approach to many problems and issues we have. We’re virtual, so we have to think about things out of the box. We don’t always have a money solution. We have to think about it creatively, and this strategy empowers our team to do that.
  • Hire and fire: When it comes to hiring, it helps to be aware about who you are — what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Find the people that are good at what you’re not. An example is HR. I aim to please, but in the practice of business, you can’t always please. I need people who are better than I am at making some of these decisions and coming up with ideas that I normally wouldn’t. Recognize where there are skill sets that complement your own.
  • Generate leads: I was brought up in a time where you take people to dinner or schmooze to get business. I’m not even that old, but that’s how slow the legal industry was to change how they reach clients. That’s awesome for 1992, but now is the time to think forward, listen to your people, embrace new ways of connecting. I didn’t do a great job of this right out of the gate. I didn’t think it was wrong; I just didn’t realize how much it was true. Use inbound marketing, develop social media plans, implement soft tactics to reach broader audiences, and rely on the benefits of 21st century technology. Again, I am blessed to have people around me who are smarter than I am about this and I lean into my team to help guide those decisions.
  • Advertise: Generating leads and advertising go hand in hand. Take advantage of technology; embrace that online marketing can reach further than ever before. But, be very aware of your state’s rules of ethics when it comes to advertising. As a law firm with attorneys across the country (and even outside the country), we research each state’s rules of ethics. Some states have restrictions on newsletters; most have restrictions on specific language; others are pretty relaxed with attorney advertising. If you’re starting your own firm, be aware when adding attorneys from other states.
  • Manage finances: Be in tune and be aware of every aspect of the finances. You should know your finances inside and out. You should know where money is coming in and where it’s going out the entire time. I look at them very very closely, but I also heavily rely on someone who can do it better. So know the details and rely on people who can do it better.

Ok, thank you. Here is the main question of our interview about the business side of law. What are your “5 Things An Attorney Needs To Know In Order To Create A Successful And Thriving Law Practice”?

  1. Know your clients’ business inside and out. Understand their objectives from a big picture perspective. Understand the details of the task at hand. And understand how it all fits together.
  2. If you’re doing this for yourself, you will burn out. You have to live being the biggest advocate for your client. You have to want for your client their objective more than you want anything. Be reasonable, but live it and want it.
  3. Understand the marketplace for the delivery of legal services. Taking control of your practice is a very important thing. The premise of our firm is that the traditional legal model is broken or, at the very least, has significant room for improvement. A platform like ours allows our people to bring out the best of each of their skill sets by giving control back to the attorneys and letting them do what they do best. In more traditional settings, you’re only as good as your last billable hour. You do not need to think like this. Understanding the legal marketplace and what clients really want sets the stage for getting back control over your practice.
  4. Run your legal business efficiently. You went to law school, you learned a lot, you got a degree. That’s a capital investment in you, as an individual. When you get out of law school, you’re trying to take that investment to generate revenue and support your personal needs and/or your family. If you run an inefficient business, then you’re doing yourself a disservice. Your capital investment in yourself is not working as hard as it could be. Having a lean platform like Practus that allows you to do what you need to do to run an efficient business maximizes that capital investment in yourself.
  5. Have balance: This is a job at the end of the day. Your family and loved ones are more important. Have balance — that’s all there is to it. Set your priorities and really understand that there is a way to have a successful and happy personal life and law practice.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I tell people in interviews that even if Practus isn’t where you land yet we help you think about how you can take more control of your life, that’s a win. Giving control back to attorneys is our altruistic movement.

Yes, we have a commercial objective — we’re also trying to make money. But, at the core, we’re always trying to make attorneys happier. And that’s something that’s needed right now. Traditionally, being a lawyer has one of the lowest job satisfaction ratings.

Why is that?

Most attorneys are working the grind, working long nights and weekends, knowing their professional self-worth is being measured by a number; that number being billable hours. It’s crazy. It’s not sustainable and burnout is inevitable.

You don’t want to be miserable in your profession. If there’s a movement here, it’s that you can practice your trade at a very high level and deliver those services in a more streamlined and efficient way. Helping lawyers realize that there is a way to get control of their lives and still deliver those services is what we’re all about.

Many law firms will tell you they love you. But when it comes down to it, you’re only as good as your last billable hour to them. Don’t believe that. It’s just not true.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Learn more about our law firm and our attorneys here: Practus.com

You can get daily updates on our social media feeds below:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/practus-llp/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/practuslaw/

Instagram: https://instagram.com/practusllp

Read legal news and learn more about the lifestyle of lawyers at Practus here: http://practus.com/news

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.

Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at eric@pinesfederal.com.

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Eric L. Pines
Authority Magazine

Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach