The Business Side Of Law: Mitchel Ashley Of The Ashley Law Firm On 5 Things You Need To Create Or Lead A Successful Law Firm
An Interview With Eric Pines
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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 Mitchel Ashley.
Mitchel Ashley established The Ashley Law Firm in 2009, seeking justice for personal injury clients with over a decade of in-depth experience behind him. Named on the Thompson West list of “Super Lawyers” every year since, he has brought hundreds of cases to a quick, satisfactory resolution, obtaining verdicts in the millions of dollars. In every aspect of his profession, Ashley exemplifies dedication, honor, and dignity — in fact, he was chosen to carry the 2002 Olympic torch through the streets of New York City as a representative of such values.
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 went back to graduate school to get a JD/MBA. My hope was to work in the financial sector. In Law School, after your second year, you usually work for a law firm in a position called a summer associate. During that summer, I worked for a small personal injury firm. I was hired specifically to work on one case. It involved 14 families who lived around the Pelham Bay Landfill, and in each family, a child had been stricken with a blood disease — either Leukemia or Hodgkin’s disease. It was believed that chemicals dumped into the landfill had caused these illnesses.The case was brought against the City of New York for allowing these chemicals into the dump. I was involved in the early investigation of the case. I met with the clients, poured through hundreds of pages of documents, and met with an epidemiologist and toxicologist. In my mind, this was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do: really help people, fight for the little guy against a powerful defendant with endless resources. This case is what convinced me to pursue a career in personal injury.
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?
While I agree that mentorship is important, I was not lucky enough to have one in my field. The lawyers I worked for were excellent attorneys but not very good at the business side of law. Most of what I learned came from watching my father, who was a lawyer in a different area of practice.
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?
My biggest challenge, at the beginning, was building a solid, trustworthy team. Early on, two of my associates proved untrustworthy. Still, I continued to work hard and make every effort to model exemplary leadership; eventually, we found the right people who support our thriving firm and its clients.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story about how that was relevant in your own life?
This is a difficult one for me. So many things come to mind about things people have told me over the years.But one has always stuck out to me. It was said by Potter Stewart, a former justice on the Supreme Court. He said “ Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do” . I guide myself by this. Always striving to do what is right as opposed to what I can get away with.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
This is an easy answer: my clients and their causes keep me motivated. I have handled hundreds of cases but, for each client, it is likely their first (and possibly only) time facing the legal system. They have one chance to be compensated for their injury. Getting them that compensation is what keeps me going.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I really enjoy taking on cases that other attorneys turn down. If I believe in the case, I get special satisfaction from gaining a “win” for that client. I am working on three such cases right now. Whether I’m correct about how they will turn out remains to be seen. One is a case involving a motorcyclist, one is a medical malpractice case, and one is a trip and fall case.
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?
I am a personal injury lawyer, so I represent people who get hurt in all sorts of accidents through the negligence of someone else or the negligence of a business or municipal entity. Cases often involve auto accidents, trip and fall accidents, medical malpractice, legal malpractice, police brutality, false arrest, and more. Anytime someone is hurt, it is likely something I can help them with.
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?
Integrity — keeping my word. If I say I will do something, I do it. Unfortunately, I think this quality is somewhat lacking in my field. I wish it were different. I strive to be honest; there are no gray areas in what I do or say. I am also very loyal. Once I take on a cause or a friendship, I will do whatever I can for that person or the case.
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?
Choosing the right attorney is less a matter of their educational background than their legal and business approach. An ivy league pedigree and roster of million-dollar verdicts matter less than qualities like accessibility, responsiveness, and a commitment to keeping clients informed throughout their cases.
Managing being a law practitioner and a business owner is a constant balancing act. How do you manage both roles?
The balancing act requires a lot of time. Unlike other careers, law is not a 9–5 job, nor is it one where you will ever have a clean desk and nothing to do. You just keep doing the work. Sometimes, urgent things must take priority. Otherwise, generally, you have to tackle a bit of law and a bit of business management each day.
Can you help articulate the entrepreneurial skills a lawyer needs to run and lead a successful law firm?
I think the best thing I can tell you here is that you have to talk to people. Make connections everywhere you can. Make sure people know what you do. Get involved in your neighborhood, do some volunteer work. You never know where your next case will come from. I have been referred cases from the guys who work in my garage, from people I’ve met at my gym, from neighbors, etc. Also, join professional organizations like bar associations — get active. I have plenty of cases that were sent to me from other lawyers who don’t practice in my field. It is a numbers game — you have to talk to people and spread a wide net. You never know when someone will know somebody who needs your skills.
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?
To me, this is a 24/7 job. By that, I mean I am always marketing myself. I also have hired good people who understand marketing and social media better than I do. But before I could afford that, I did it myself. The impression people have of you — your personal reputation — extends to your business. I try to remain aware of this all the time and handle myself accordingly. I don’t do anything to cast a bad light on myself or my office.
Can you share some specific, non intuitive insights from our personal experience about how a leader of a law firm should:
- Manage personnel: Remember that everyone who works for you is a person. Treat them how you want to be treated. Also remember that you are the boss — you cannot let people who work for you walk all over you. It is best to have written rules for things like time off, sick days, personal calls, etc. so that nobody can claim you are playing favorites.
- Hire and fire: Again, remember that your employees are people. For whatever reason, some employees aren’t a great fit. When that happens, treat them fairly and with respect, but you have to let them go. Give them an appropriate severance package and advise them if they can put you on their resume (meaning you won’t say why you fired them, just that they left on their own).
- Generate leads: This goes back to the answer I gave you about marketing myself — tt is a constant thing. You are always looking to make a connection that might lead to some business.
- Advertise: Because I’m a small firm, I cannot compete financially with large law firms for TV time, so I do what I can. I use social media, extensive emails to clients and friends, Instagram, Facebook — anything where a little money gets you some decent exposure. Don’t fall for the people who tell you they can get you 20 cases a month or something like that. In the end, the “get clients quick” methods do not work.
- Manage finances: This is a tough one. My business is all contingency — there are years when I have paid more in taxes than I made the year before… This is complicated. All I can say here is don’t live above your means. Don’t spend lavishly on things nobody sees. If you can make due with fewer employees, do it. You want to keep your nut as small as possible but still get the work done in a timely fashion. It really depends on your caseload. I like being a small firm with my hands in everything, so I don’t manage a lot of employees. I have also referred cases to other people when I cannot properly represent someone.
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”?
- You have to be a person of your word. If you say you are going to do something, do it. Stand by the things you say. In this business, your reputation is everything. If you are known for being an honorable person, that goes a long way. If you are known for being a cutthroat person who cannot be trusted, that goes a long way, too.
- Make sure you always talk to your clients. Return their calls and emails. The question may be simple to you. But to them, this case is their whole life. You have to be accessible to your clients.
- Keep up to date on the state of the law. Keep learning. You have to know what you are talking about.
- Make sure you maintain a proper work/life balance. Too many lawyers are all work, all the time. That isn’t healthy. Lawyers also disproportionately abuse drugs and alcohol. Be mindful of that, and be careful. If you find yourself going down that path, get the help you need. Our jobs are difficult and filled with pressure. You don’t win every case. When you lose, it is tough. You need to have some healthy outlets for that pressure. For some, it is travel; for others, it is exercise — but you need something.
- Take the time to talk to all callers. You may know in five seconds that the person calling you does not have a case. But talk to them anyway. More than once, the person who called me didn’t have a viable case, but then they called me months later with a workable case because they remembered the time I spent with them.
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 would just say, be kind to each other. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Be generous with your time, and if you can, help someone. Our society works best when we can all help each other reach new heights. You don’t have to put someone down to elevate yourself.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Facebook: The Ashley Law Firm, PLLC
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.