This week on the podcast Jim and Tyson chat with Curtis Kleem. After 17 years (13 years as a partner) at a respected small town firm, Curtis went out on his own in June, 2018. He continues to work in the same town, doing similar work (Adoptions, Family Law, and Personal Injury). He has built a busy solo practice which uses technology to assist with keeping all the plates spinning at once. He is married and has two adult daughters, two (almost adult) sons and the best looking grandson a man could hope for.
2:00 the longer you work for someone else the harder to leave
2:46 doing what you do with less overhead
7:47 capturing more of the market
8:18 new firm owner feelings
9:45 using technology to stand out
13:19 too busy to build out
16:15 envision growth in a smaller community
17:23 juggling working in and on the business
19:40 stay where you are or go out on your own
Jim’s Hack: Recommends the book “How to Be a Great Boss” by Gino Wickman and Rene Boer
Curtis’s Tip: Office 365 has a free alternative to Loom for 15 minutes videos or less. Excel spreadsheet with a mail merge to draft a petition in 5 minutes.
Tyson’s Tip: Carve out time in your schedule to read.
Watch the interview here.
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Run your law firm the right way.
This is The Maximum Lawyer Podcast.
Your hosts, Jim Hacking and Tyson Mutrux.
Let’s partner up and maximize your firm.
Welcome to the show.
Jim: Welcome back to The Maximum Lawyer Podcast. I’m Jim Hacking.
Tyson: And I’m Tyson Mutrux. What’s up, Jimmy?
Jim: Today’s a good day, Tyson. I went into the gas station to get some bottled water and I didn’t have to wear a mask.
Tyson: It’s kind of a weird feeling, isn’t it?
Jim: It seems sort of naked.
Tyson: Yeah. So, Columbia’s maskless, right? So, you go around and there’s people that still wear ‘em. You know, I’m fully vaccinated. You’re fully vaccinated. They’re like looking at you. You’re looking at them. It’s kind of like feeling each other out. It’s going to be an awkward next six months, I think.
Jim: Well, I do that whole thing where I check my right pocket for my keys, my back pocket for my wallet, my left pocket for my phone, and then I reach for my mask. So, now, I don’t have to reach for my mask.
Tyson: That’s right. You do you feel like you’ve got to have your card on you just in case someone asks about it.
Jim: I have a digital in my phone so that’s going to be my go-to.
Tyson: Well, I didn’t think about doing that, got to take a picture of mine. Good idea. Smart idea.
Jim: All right. Well, do you want to go ahead and introduce our guest?
Our guest today is fellow Guild member, Curtis Kleem. And, after 17 years, 13 years as a partner, at a respected small-town firm, Curtis went out on his own in June 2018. He continues to work in the same town, doing similar work which is adoptions, family law, and personal injury. He has built a busy solo practice which uses technology to assist with keeping all the plates spinning at once. He is married and has two adult daughters, two almost adult sons, and the best-looking grandson a man could hope for. That is awesome.
Curtis, welcome to the show.
Curtis: Thanks for having me, guys.
Jim: So, Curtis, I’m sort of the mindset that the longer you work for another firm, the harder it is to break free of that gravity. So, talk to us about, you know, your time at that firm and then sort of what led you– like what was your thought process as you began to think about going out on your own and then sort of how that grew into you actually leaving.
It was a long process. The truth was is that it was a great firm when I was there. It’s still a great firm. A lot of great friends over there. My thought process about leaving was that it wanted to be a full-service law firm in a small town. That meant a lot of overhead. It meant a lot of expenses that I, quite frankly, you know, with my practice areas, I wasn’t really bringing enough in to justify all that overhead. And so, I began to think about, you know, “Could I do what I’m doing with much less overhead?” And that’s exactly what I’ve done the last, almost, three years now. Been able to do what I was doing with much less overhead.
So, it was a tough decision. It was a great breakup, if you will. I told all my partners on a Wednesday morning. And then, I went over Wednesday afternoon and did work for the county. We represented the county. And so, I did some work on the county. And then, the next morning, I opened up my firm and I left with all my cases. I did all of the domestic relations cases at the firm, none of whom wanted ‘em, so I got to leave with all my cases. And so, I had plenty of work to do the next day and started, you know, bringing in new work.
My deal with them was I would keep all of my accounts receivable. They’d keep all of their accounts receivable. So, when I left for the few, two or three, four months afterwards, they’d send me a check every month with all the money that they’ve pulled in for me, you know, for my bills and my cases. So, it was a great split up. But it was tough. I told my father-in-law, maybe two years beforehand, that I was thinking about it. And I told him about a year, maybe a few months later, and he kind of looked at me and he goes, “You know, you’ve been saying that for a while now.” But it was a process. And it took me a while to get the courage to do it.
Tyson: So, I actually want to back up a little bit and kind of flip this the way Jim and I normally do it. So, I want to talk about, really, your journey up to that point.
Tyson: So, talk about– you’ve been practicing for a little while. So, talk about your journey leading up to that.
So, I graduated from University of Georgia Law School in 2000. I had already had a Master’s in Social Work degree and a history degree. Didn’t do much, other than continuing schooling with that. But I wanted to work in child welfare policy. I’ve worked with adoptions, and foster care, and things like that beforehand. And so, I wanted to go into that and I realized there was really no jobs for that. And when I was trying to find a job, after law school– or during my third year of law school. So, I ended up taking a clerkship up in Dalton, Georgia. Small town, up in northwest Georgia, just below Chattanooga. And I’ve really enjoyed the town. I enjoyed the pace. I enjoyed the judges. We’ve got four judges and two County Circuit. And we’ve just got a good bar, a good set of judges. And so, it was just kind of a comfortable place.
So, when I was done with the clerkship, I went with the firm that I was with for 17 years. And I was originally hired to do mainly civil litigation but, in the process of being hired, the associate that was there doing domestics quit. And so, they said, “Well, we really need you to do that.” So, that’s how I ended up doing domestics. And so, as I had mentioned, I kind of just got to the point where I felt like I could do it better by myself and so ended up leaving.
Jim: Curtis, most of what I know about being a small town lawyer, I learned from Jake Brigance in the John Grisham books A Time To Kill, and A Time For Mercy, and Sycamore Row, which is my favorite. And what do people, who don’t work in a small town as a lawyer, need to know? Or what can you tell us about that lifestyle practice and sort of how it might be different than, you know, a lot of the people in the group who focus on one thing in one city?
Curtis: Sure. Sure.
There’s a lot of advantages to a small town. And, you know, domestics, I’m in court, probably three or four times a month. I’m seeing the same attorneys over and over again. We’re representing the same kind of folks. And we’re seeing each other over and over again. And that builds collegiality.
So, if I call up one of my fellow attorneys and I say, “Look, something’s going on, I need a continuance.” That’s it. It’s done. And that’s, you know– of course, there’s a few that that are more difficult. But, for the most part, that’s how this works. And it’s very easy to deal with other attorneys. They’re not going to stab you in the back on this case because, you know, next week, they’re going to have one with you where you could stab them in the back, if you would.
So, there’s a there’s a collegiality. There’s a sense of– I practice, in a two-county circuit. Our judges are the exact same. I know what the judges are going to do. So, 80% of my cases, I can tell my clients, pretty specifically, “You know, that particular judge has this hang up and we need to deal with that. We can’t ignore it. We’ve got to know that it’s there and deal with it.” So, there’s a lot of advantages to those kinds of things right there.
Tyson: I just wonder if practicing in a small town like if you feel more pressured to take on cases that you wouldn’t normally take just because the volume’s less?
Curtis: Well, you know, I think I mentioned to y’all at one point, I’m afraid to niche down further than I have because I don’t know that there’s the work out there. You know, I love to do adoptions. My two daughters were adopted. And so, that’s a passionary of mine.
I think I probably file more than half of the adoptions in this circuit which I don’t think you could even approach in a larger city like Atlanta or Chattanooga, but I don’t know that I can garner or capture much more of that market. I don’t think I can, you know, do more advertising and, you know, make it worth my while. So, the idea is, yeah, I don’t know how much you can niche down in an area where, you know, there’s just– the population’s limited.
Jim: So, let’s think back to when you went out on your own. And we are sort of jumping around. But I’d be interested in talking about, in those days after you left your old firm, what surprised you? What excited you? And what scared you?
Curtis: Wow. So, what excited me is just, you know, having my name on the door. Just the idea that every decision I had was mine. My wife was excited about that. She was gung-ho from the from the very beginning. She was very excited about it. She was very encouraging.
I told my partners on June 6. We’re both big history nuts. And so, she sent out a family text saying, “All right, everyone. It’s D-day. Dad’s telling his partners.” So, it was just this exciting time of knowing, “Hey, we’re building something new. And we’re going to do things differently. We’re going to use technology to try to make everything run smoother.” So, that was exciting to me, building out those processes.
What scared me was, I guess, what scares everybody is “Where’s the next paycheck going to come from?” And so, it was nice to know that, when I left, I was able to bring all my work with me. Of course, that meant I had a lot of fees that I earned over the old firm that I was having to earn, but it also meant that I immediately had work to do. And then, you know, I’m not sure what else but that’s what scared me. I guess, that’s what scares everybody.
Tyson: So, let’s talk about the technology component that you mentioned a few times. So, how is it that you use technology to stand out especially in a smaller area?
Curtis: Sure. Sure.
One of the things that, when I was at my previous firm, I started doing mediations and domestic relations cases about, I don’t know, two years before I left my previous firm. And I asked my secretary, at one point, I said, “Hey, how much of your time is spent, you know, on the mediation practice?” Now, mediations, I charge less than my hourly rate – my normal hourly rate because I basically show up at the mediation. Open the file. Do it. Collect my money and go home. I never think about it. I never start like worrying about it. I just do it. And so, it’s a nice way to supplement the income. She told me that 50% of her time was spent scheduling the mediations. And I said, “No. We’ve got to fix that.”
So, when I went out on my own, I had plenty of time to research this stuff beforehand. I found Acuity, an online scheduler, my online scheduling for mediation. I joke around with people because I’m well used as a mediator. And I joke around with people. I say, “The only reason is because it’s so easy to schedule my mediations.” They can find my availability. Enter the information. It goes into a spreadsheet – an Excel spreadsheet. And then, we have a mail merge that creates every document that we need. So, our admin time on a mediation is probably 10 minutes. It’s that. And so, building that out–
And I’m kind of geeked out on that stuff. I enjoyed it. I liked it. But my wife’s my mediation specialist. And I taught her how to do it. And, like I said, it probably takes her 10 minutes. The most difficult part is conflict check because that’s manual. And I haven’t figured out a way to really get that down. So, things like that.
Things like I use Office 365. So, I try, as much as possible, to, you know, take advantage of all the different programs that are there and things like that.
Tyson: So, I want to brainstorm for you.
Sorry, Jim. I’m going to cut in really quick.
What case management system do you use?
Curtis: So, I’m in my case. I’m working through Lawcus to try to build it out so that I can switch to Lawcus. That’s kind of a– it’s supposed to be a second-quarter goal, to get it ready. And I’m waiting for them to fix one or two things that they say are coming. And then, I’ll be able to make some real headway. So, that’s kind of [inaudible 00:12:05].
Tyson: All right. I’m going to brainstorm and, hopefully, give you a solution to the conflict check by the end of the show. I’m on the clock.
Tyson: Jimmy, you’re up.
Jim: Running your own practice can be scary. Whether you’re worried about where the next case will come from, feeling like you’re losing control over your growing firm, or frustrated from being out of touch with everyone working under your license, the stress can be overwhelming. We will show you how to turn that fear into a driving force of clarity, focus, stability, and confidence that eliminates the rollercoaster of guilt-ridden second guessing and mistake making to get you off that hamster wheel for good.
Tyson: Maximum Lawyer in Minimum Time is a step-by-step playbook that shows you how to identify what your firm needs and how to proactively get it at every stage of the game so you’re prepped and excited for the inevitable growth that will follow. Name the lifestyle that you want and we’ll show you how to become a maximum lawyer in minimum time. Find out more by going to maximumlawyer.com/course.
Jim: Curtis, what do you say to the lawyers– and I know this is sort of a softball and we will like your answer. I know that. But what do you say to the lawyers who say, “I’m too busy to spend out the time building out that system to allow you to spend 10 minutes in administrative time on your mediations?” I mean, so many people– we always get this resistance from folks saying, “Oh, I’m too busy doing, doing, doing.” And they don’t want to set aside that time. What was your mindset for that?
Curtis: Well, I think the mindset– it’s kind of funny to think about it this way that, you know, if you have an administrative staff that’s spending 50% of their time on your least– you know, your practice area that has the least hourly wage, that’s just not a good look. It’s just you’re never going to get anywhere that way.
And so, to me, the idea was if I’m going to go out on my own. I’m going to do it lean. I’m going to be– you know, I didn’t hire an assistant immediately. And so, I had to have things that did all that work for me. Also, people can schedule their initial consultation on my website, just like that. They don’t have to call. So those kinds of things happen automatically.
I can’t imagine the return on investment that I’ve had just from doing that with just those two things. The amount of time that I haven’t spent on the phone with some attorney’s assistant trying to find a date and time that works for mediation. There’s just no accounting for that. The return on investment is insane, so. And that’s the same with all of this stuff that the more that you automate, the more you’re able to see those kinds of dividends.
Tyson: Hey, Curtis, I’ve got a solution for you.
Tyson: Enter the lead. You can actually run it because Lawcus is in Zapier. You can run it to find the contact inside of Zapier. Do you do use like Slack or anything like that in the firm?
Curtis: No. We use Teams for that kind of thing.
Curtis: I do dabble in Zapier, so.
Tyson: Well, let’s say you’ve got Teams. You can actually run it. Lead goes into Lawcus. You’re going to run it. You can actually– however you enter, it doesn’t matter how it enters– it comes in. Yeah, but you’ll find the contact inside of Lawcus. And then, you could have it send you a message in Teams, if they found a similar contact.
Tyson: So, boom, you’ve run your conflict check and you’ve been alerted of it. So, that’s just one simple way. I’m sure other people have a variety of other ways but– anyways, so I got your solution.
But let’s talk about the future though. Where are you headed with this? What are your big, hairy, audacious goals for the future?
So, my practice areas right now are personal injury, general domestic kind of cases, adoptions, of course. And then, of course, I do mediations. So, I track those really carefully.
My goal– and this is why I think posted something in the Facebook group. I’m trying to figure out how to envision growth in this smaller community. And so, my idea is to– like the five-year plan. The five-year plan would be to have me maybe just running the firm, doing adoptions, maybe mediations. I don’t know. I’m not sure about that. But if I could just be doing adoptions and running the farm and then have two or three attorneys, maybe, that could handle the domestic cases, that could handle the personal injury cases.
And it might mean, also expanding the practice area. So, for instance, if I had found a great fit for someone who wanted to just come in and do criminal law and I could say, ”Great. Come in. Let’s do criminal law. I’ll build out my website. I’ll build out my presence for that. And we’ll make that happen. You know, on the backend, I’ll do all the marketing and everything and we’ll get you geared up and have you out there doing it.”
So, three to four years, two or three attorneys, working out these practice areas, and maybe me just doing adoptions and running the firm. That would be my perfect setup.
Jim: That brings up my favorite question. What’s your least favorite part of running a firm?
Curtis: You know, I think that trying to juggle working in and working on the business and familial duties at the house. You know, we’re taking care of my grandson right now because my daughter’s in Korea. And, you know, he’s a lot of extra time and energy on my wife. And so, I like to go home early and, you know, take the boy for a walk or take him to the park so she can have a few minutes of downtime and things like that. So, just having to juggle all that. And, I guess, maybe that’s not specific to a law firm. That’s the toughest thing I’m going through right now.
Tyson: Okay. So, I’ll ask you a question I’ve never asked anyone, I don’t think. I was just thinking about my dad the other day because my dad’s a mechanic and he turns wrenches. He’s been doing it for decades. And, you know, his body’s beaten up. So, he needs an exit plan. He just doesn’t have an exit plan. I keep trying to get him to, “Hey, you’ve got to figure out how to kind of wind things down and slow things down.”
So, whenever you’re ready to retire well into the future, right, what do you need to do to set your firm up so that it’s running itself at that time so you can just walk away and make money for you?
Curtis: Well, definitely, get to the point where we get these extra or other attorneys in. We get to the point where the marketing’s taking care of itself, where we’ve got good attorneys who are getting referrals. You know, obviously, in a small town, you’re going to get a lot of referrals, so we appreciate all of that. But, eventually, I guess, then having a good business manager or office manager who is in running the day-to-day of the business side of everything.
Like I said, I mean, I could see myself semi retiring and doing adoptions, you know, and just enjoying that. A lot of people– a lot of mediators like to semi-retire doing mediations. And I can see that, too. But yeah, I think those would be the two things – having the attorneys in place that can do that work and do it well. And then, having the office side of it, the business side of it, taken care of with an office manager or whatnot.
Jim: One of the questions that we like to ask people is, “What advice do you have for someone who’s sitting where you were the weeks leading up to going out on your own?” You said that you had talked to your father-in-law about it off and on for about a year and a half– two years? What advice do you have for our listeners who are on the fence about whether or not to stay where they are or go out on their own?
Curtis: Yeah. I wouldn’t have a real good reason for leaving, I guess. You know, you have to have a good reason for getting out of a situation that’s probably pretty good. And if it’s not good, then that’s your good reason, right?
And then, just be real honest with yourself about the fact that it’s going to take a lot of work. You’re not going to coast into a practice. You’re going to have to put in the time, put in the energy, and try as much as possible to think smart and not hard, you know, to work smart and not hard, and figure out those ways that you can multiply your time and your energy through automation.
I mean, there’s all kinds of resources out there that make what we do now, which is interface with the public. I interface with the public. And there are so many ways to make that go smooth. And so, look into those and make sure you’re finding those and put them to use. Just kind of think outside of the box.
One of the issues with my other firm is that, you know, it was hard to implement new things. But there’s so many things out there that can make this stuff move a lot smoother than kind of the traditional way of doing it. So, look for ‘em and find ‘em. You know, reach out to people like– you know, like Maximum Law, I’ve learned a lot of this stuff just kind of listening to y’all and figuring out, you know, on the website, or the Facebook page, and seeing all the different things that are out there. Explore that stuff because it’s going to save you time and energy down the road.
Tyson: So, Curtis, is having your own firm what you expected? And, if not, how’s it different? How’s it the same? Is it what you expected?
Curtis: I guess, it is. I mean, I’m still doing a lot of work. You know, I probably work about the same that I did at the other firm which is probably too much, you know. You know, it was easier to get burned out at the previous firm. I’m just invigorated. After 17 years of practice, I’m invigorated doing it, you know, under clean law. I enjoy that.
So, it’s still a little anxious. It produces lots of anxiety, wondering where the next month is– you know, “How are we going to pay the bills next month?” and all that. I’ve been doing that for 20 years. Well, I guess, that’s small town practice but it’s about what I expected it to be. I didn’t expect to not have that – the feeling of getting burned out. That doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue as it was.
Jim: So, Curtis, for my last question, I’m wondering, what could we do to make the Guild better? You’ve been in the Guild for a while now. What could Tyson and I do to make it even more helpful for people?
Curtis: So, I may not be the person to ask because I joined the Guild right when you took in my grandson and I suddenly realized, “I’m not going to leave.” But I suddenly realized I don’t have– like the Monday’s and Friday meetings are very, very tough for me. I went on ‘em for a few weeks. And then, I was like, “I can’t do it. That’s my lunchtime. And I’m with mediation.” It’s just– so. And I need to work through the Maximum Lawyer in Minimum Time, is that it?
Curtis: But I just haven’t had the time. So, I don’t know that I’m the good one to ask. I certainly appreciate the camaraderie, and the Facebook group, and just the information, and the encouragement. So, I don’t know that I’m going to be able to be very helpful on that question.
Jim: It’s all good.
Tyson: Hey, at least, he didn’t say something like really bad. “You all need to fix everything [inaudible 00:23:21].”
Curtis: Y’all need to get new people running it or something.
Jim: That thing sucks [laughter].
Tyson: All right, Curtis, we do need to wrap things up. Before I do. I want to remind everyone to go to the big group. Get involved there. There’s a lot of great information being shared every single day. If you’re interested in the Guild, go to maxlawguild.com.
And then, I want to remind everyone, go to MaxLawCon.com to get your tickets because we will sell out. So, make sure that you get your tickets because they are going fast. So, make sure you get them. People are apparently excited to get out in October and see each other which is awesome. We look forward to seeing everybody. Go to maxlawcon.com to get your tickets.
All right. Jimmy, what’s your hack of the week?
Jim: I’m at that stage, in our firm’s growth, where there are now about two or three levels of people between me and sort of the new hires, the frontline people. And as much as I hate it, people in the office can be scared of me, right? And I absolutely hate that. Like, it drives me crazy. I do everything I can to break down those walls and to not make it like that. It’s one of the reasons I wear my cargo shorts, and flip flops, and my T-shirts to work. I just like to keep it chill–
Tyson: And your socks with your flip flops?
Jim: I’ve got them on right now. Here we are.
But I did just read a great book. And the name of the book is How to Be a Great Boss. It’s by Gino Wickman and Rene Boer. And it’s very practical.
And, in the book, they sort of encouraged us to take on that word boss. Like, when my dad owned his firm, he wanted everyone to be scared of him. He sent his emails in all caps, right? And so, he’s sort of old school. And, you know, whenever I have to let someone go, he always volunteers to come in and fire the person because that was part of his job that he liked.
This book sort of strikes that balance between me wanting to be as less formal as possible and my father being way out on the extreme. It sort of walks you through. It encourages you to embrace the idea of being a boss. And then, it gives you some real practical tips on how to be a great boss.
Tyson: I feel like I’ve got to kind of salvage your father’s reputation. Your dad’s a really nice guy. So–
Jim: Well, he’s chill now. He’s going to be 80 next week. He’s chilled out, that’s why.
Tyson: Because the encounters I’ve had with him, he’s a nice dude, so. Maybe he just had it– like, he was nice the rest of the time. He just had to take out his anger on firing people. Maybe that’s what it was but who knows?
All right, Curtis, you know the deal. What is your tip or hack of the week?
Curtis: So, I use Office 365. Number one, they’ve got a free alternative to Loom– is it Loom that does the videos– video? They’ve got a free alternative to that. I’m forgetting the name of it right now. But, it allows 15-minute videos. That’s great. But the one I have is–
So, I do a lot of adoptions. We have adoption petitions. And they can be really particular, really, really involved. I use the Excel spreadsheet with a mail merge into those petitions. And what used to take me an hour to draft a petition, maybe an hour and a half, I can get a first draft in about five minutes.
And so, it took some time building it out, of course, but it was much easier than in a practice management software, getting all your custom forms right and all the uploading all the documents just right in doing that. So, there’s so much in those kind of large programs that you can do. And you don’t have to–
You know, sometimes I thought, “Oh, I’ve got to spend all this time to make my case work for that particular purpose.” When a simple little Excel spreadsheet merging into a Word document can produce a beautiful document. So, sometimes just figure out mail merge and do your documents that way.
Tyson: I love it. Good. Easy peasy.
All right. For my tip of the week is it’s to carve aside time each week to read. And I’ve got it on my calendar. I’ve got three days a week where I’ve got business reading time. It can be on any topic when it comes to business. And then, I’ve got three days a week trial skills reading time. I mean, in reading time, I also include like maybe I need to watch some videos on trial skills or something like that.
So, reading time is sort of loose term but most of it’s done reading. And so, got a nice little, tiny couch in my office. And I’ve got a bookshelf next to it. And I’ll grab a book and read it. It’s a nice little time to sort of unwind a little bit but also to gain some skills. So, I have it on my calendar and I do it every day– er, almost every day, every other day and it’s actually really beneficial. So, I highly recommend it.
All right. Curtis, thank you so much for coming on. Really, really–
Curtis: Thank you, guys.
Tyson: Yeah. We really appreciate your sharing. It’s been great.
Curtis: Very good. Thank y’all.
Jim: Thanks, Curtis.
Curtis: All right. Y’all take care.
Tyson: You, too. See you, bud.
Thanks for listening to The Maximum Lawyer Podcast.
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