In today’s episode, Jim and Tyson chat with a Guild member and construction attorney Jeremy Baker! They dive into the journey of leaving the big law firm and going solo. If you’ve been thinking about making a similar move, this episode talks about his experience, journey, and advice.
Jeremy S. Baker, a Chicago-based construction attorney, founded Baker Law Group LLC in 2019 after nearly 18 years at AmLaw 100 and 200 law firms. Podcasts like Maximum Lawyer convinced Jeremy to "go solo" after spending nearly fourteen years at Schiff Hardin LLP, where he was a partner and a member of its national Construction Law practice. In addition to practicing law, Jeremy runs a consultancy, Operation PalmTree, which aims to help "big law" attorneys break free and launch their own law firms.
4:40 things to do
7:30 tools and resources
10:01 substantive work
20:05 five years from now
Jim’s Hack: Every dollar is not created equally - sit down and review your various case types to understand which ones offer the most value for the amount of time spent and obtain more of those cases.
Jeremy’s Tip: Believe in yourself, run fast, take some risks and if you make a mistake, course correct but keep moving forward. In the words of Mark Zuckerberg, “Move fast and break things.”
Tyson’s Tip: Check out Alignable, where connections form relationships that become referrals.
Join the Guild: www.maxlawguild.com
MaxLawCon 2022 Early Bird Tickets are Live: www.maxlawcon2022.com
Jim: Welcome back to The Maximum Lawyer Podcast. I'm Jim Hacking.
Tyson: And I'm Tyson Mutrux. What's up, Jimmy?
Jim: Good morning, Tyson. How are you doing, sir?
Tyson: I am doing fantastic. We've now hit that cold weather. It was warm yesterday. Now, we've got that cold weather coming through so.
But, no, things are going well. I'm getting ready for my written exam. I'm sure to have that done fairly soon, so. Been spending a lot of time on my written exam, getting ready for that, because I want to get a really high score, because then, when you do your checkride, they don't dig as deep. So, we're going to try to hit that as close to a hundred as I can.
Jim: So, for those who don't know, you're studying for your pilot's exam, right?
Tyson: That’s right. So, it’s exciting. Exciting stuff.
Jim: Well, I'm excited about introducing our guest today. Usually, I have to scramble to look up their intro and their bio and everything. But, today, we have an old friend of the podcast, a guild-er-- a guild‑ian, I should say, and a great member of the group. His name is Jeremy Baker. He's a construction lawyer out of Chicago.
And we're really happy to have you with us today, Jeremy.
Jeremy: Thrilled to be here, guys.
Tyson: So, Jeremy, you're not the typical guest that we have on the podcast just because you did come from those, you know, big law, right? You came from big law. And you're still sort of practicing big law, right? It's an interesting thing. So, tell people about your journey.
Jeremy: Well, I've been a lawyer for almost 20 years. But I think that the story gets interesting about four Thanksgiving’s ago when I was killing time at the carwash and I stumbled upon The Purple Podcast app on my iPhone. Kind of fell down the rabbit hole listening to a podcast like this and began a journey.
It took me several years to get the idea that I needed to leave my big law job and to launch my own firm. But, before that, I worked for a large insurance from Cozen O'Connor for the first four years of my practice. Lots of litigation experience. I decided that I wanted to focus on design and construction law. Made a lateral move in 2006 and stayed at a great firm that I love for almost 14 years, Schiff Hardin, where I was a partner in the construction group for seven years and an associate for seven years before that.
And thanks to Max Law and other groups and podcasts like this, I decided that I needed to make a radical shift. And I'm in the third year of running my own firm right now.
Jim: What was it that resonated with you when you heard those podcasts? Was there something missing in your practice of law, something that you were hoping to change?
Jeremy: It really is. I mean, I really had a great job and I had no intentions of leaving. And so, I was kind of surprised to feel, four maybe five or 10 years, before I found the podcast that I was, you know, staring at LinkedIn not understanding how to use it but feeling that there was power there and sort of bumping up against the constraints of the practice I was in. You know, needing to seek business in groups, having a pretty high billable rate. And, you know, what I didn't realize, at the time, there was this longing for me to sort of take advantage of what Seth Godin calls the connection economy, and reach out there, and to try to, you know, advance my career in ways that I wasn't able to at the big firm, and being my own boss, and getting to reach out to potential clients through a lot of different channels has kind of satisfied that craving for me.
Tyson: What did your big law buddies think about the move?
Jeremy: Well, it's funny because I-- this might be shocking to people who are among entrepreneurs, among law firm owners so much, but in all the years that I practiced, in my other life, I never came across a single lawyer that left that world to come into this one.
When I talked to my buddy, the general counsel at my old firm and I said, “I'm leaving.” I'm like, “What's the playbook for, you know, somebody going solo?” And they said, “There is no playbook for that.” There's a playbook for going to a lateral firm. And there's a playbook for going in‑house but I really can't think of one example of somebody who has left that world and come into this one. So, I think a lot of people looked at it with some amusement and curiosity. And, now, I think that there's a lot more people that are wondering whether they should consider a similar move now that I've made it out of the gate.
Jim: All right. So, you go in and you tell your buddies and there's, I guess, a date certain that you're leaving. Talk to us about the day before you left your big law job.
Jeremy: Well, I'm a planner and I spent two or three years thinking about every possible thing that you could think about, listening to every podcast that I could find, hoping to hear stories of people who did this, who were willing to encourage me along. But it's kind of like legal research, after you start seeing the same authorities again and again, you feel like you've got the issue triangulated.
So, for several years, I listened to all these podcasts and I tried to figure out, “What are all the things I need to do?” And then, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on it. Got the website spun up, you know. And it was an out‑of‑body experience for me to go to my practice group leader, you know, who was a great mentor of mine for 14 years and say, you know, “I'm out of here.” And I was really concerned that it wouldn't be well received. But I couldn't have been more mistaken. They threw a little party for me. And I continued to, you know, text with those former partners of mine and my former mentors on a very frequent basis. So, everybody was really tremendous in sending me off on my journey.
Tyson: So how were those first few months? And how's it going now?
Jeremy: Well, it's funny because, by all accounts, it's going great now. And when I was staring over the precipice, in my former life, thinking about, “What would I need to accomplish in order to feel safe and like I made a good decision?” I've gotten past those things now - the client acquisition, the dealing with the operations. And so, there's so much that I have to work on, and I'm happy to have the Guild and people like you to help me with it, that I tend to want to focus on what's ahead, and what's broken, and what needs to be developed.
But, you know, I think that I do need to take a moment, pat myself on the back, and look back two and a half years and feel like in terms of client acquisition, positioning in the marketplace, staying in touch with people I knew, you know, for the last 20 years, in my former career. Doing all those little things, it's really been tremendous. But I do spend most of my time focusing on what's not going great and I've got a lot of work to do in the future.
Jim: Now, Jeremy, we've talked a lot, offline and online, about how it's different - the clientele that you have. You're not out, like me, with a big‑volume practice trying to sign up lots of clients. You have very particular clients that you do a lot of work for. What did they expect or what have they indicated has been different about going with you as opposed to like all the trappings of the big law firm?
Jeremy: You know, I think there's a high bar of entry, if you're going to sign up with a giant law firm, because you're going to get a team and you're probably going to get an inexperienced associate, and you're going to be paying for their training. And so, when I was trying to sell work in the big firm, I was having to deal with my practice group’s marketing plan and then the firm's broader marketing plan, so there were those constraints. But I feel like a lot of people may have been reluctant to pick the phone and call Jeremy Baker, you know, partner at Schiff Hardin, because of-- you know, you get all the benefits but then you get a lot of other stuff that comes with it.
When you are out on your own and somebody wants to call, get on my calendar, they could chat with me directly. And, you know, I don't need to worry about a lot of the, you know, constraints. I can do fixed fees. Not to exceed, I can play with my hourly rate. I can do whatever I want. So, I feel like there's maybe an obstacle to entry that has been removed. And it's actually been tremendous in terms of the market responding as I’d hope that they would.
Tyson: When it comes to things like the tools and the resources that you had at your old jobs, how does it compare now? Do you feel like you have access to everything that you need? Is it more difficult now? What are your thoughts on that?
Jeremy: Well, most of the administrative tasks that need to get done, you know, conflict checking, invoicing, you know, outsourcing work that I shouldn't be doing. We're at a remarkable time right now. I really don't think that I could’ve started my practice 10 years ago. Certainly not the way that I was able to now. So, I was able to replace an awful lot of that sort of stuff with technology. And, frankly, I think it's much more efficient, a lot of the systems I'm running now. Tasks that were done by people, billing tasks, you know, are much more efficient and my firm right now.
But, you know, I will admit that there’s always-- you know, when you've got 300 - 400 lawyers, you've got at least that many support staff and there's always somebody to come and take care of something for you. So, you know, right now trying to figure out how to only focus on the things that are my, you know, highest and best use and not getting pulled into some of the other admin‑type stuff.
I do miss having people in all directions that I can grab and pull in to assist me. But I'm very lucky to be at a time where we've got the technology that we have which has largely replaced a lot of the people I relied on at the firm.
Jim: And how has that been? Do you like that? Is it doable? Is it something that keeps you up at night or is it something that you think you've really sort of been able to master?
Jeremy: You know, I think it's interesting, because, when I was looking at getting out of the firm, I wasn't thinking at all about the stuff that is keeping me up at night. Now, you know, I was thinking about getting out on great terms, and spinning up the practice, and getting work in the door. And once you get past those obstacles which at the time seemed to be the biggest thing in the world.
Now it's, you know, “How do I systemize? How do I scale? How do I grow?” And it is a problem that I am really enjoying thinking about but I'm nowhere close to solving now because one of my insights over the last couple of weeks and certainly being at MaxLawCon, in St. Louis, with you recently, helped me realize that one of my competitive advantages over the people that I compete with for work is that, generally, the more complex the problem is, the better I am with it. And that doesn't lend itself very easily to systems and scaling, especially when everybody wants to work with me.
And so, you know, my long‑term goals are not necessarily aligned with my strengths, and the strengths of my firm, and what I think draws people to my firm and me. And so, I'm trying to figure out, “How do I achieve my long‑term goals of scaling and growth when I have a practice that might be a little more difficult to systematize?” This production of a substantive work.
Tyson: Well, as you thought about that, I mean, where's your mind taking you? What do you think is the key to that?
Jeremy: Well, I'm a big believer in systems and, certainly, all of the administrative and operations type systems that my firm needs to run can be systemized just like everyone else. So, you know, as far as hiring and all of the things that I need to do, it's just table stakes for me to, you know, climb that ladder and think that that's true for everybody.
When it comes to producing the substantive work, you know, there is some tension now where I am trying to create a processes checklist using software programs with conditional logic to build out If‑This‑Then‑That‑type paths so I can hopefully bring in other people to execute. It's really on the transactional work, the negotiating the contracts. Litigation, I think, can be more simply to systematized.
So, I'm working at this goal of systemising the substance which is going to take me, you know, years. And, frankly, I've talked to some of my colleagues at the construction bar at an event, a couple of weeks ago, and they looked at me like I was absolutely crazy. They said, “It's too complicated. You can't do it.” But I'm having-- I'm giving a go at it because I don't know any other way. I don't want to teach everybody that comes through here, individually. I want to create a system that can teach them.
Jim: I think it's a great laboratory to see if you can pull this off. If I were you, Jeremy, I would record everything that you're doing, not just for the training that you're doing, but also like if you can crack that nut and figure out how to help transactional lawyers systematize all the things that they think that they can't, I think that would be a really valuable asset for people.
Jeremy: Yeah, you know, I'm trying to start slow. And I don't want to let the perfect get in the way of the good. So, building this out all the way could take me a very long time. I'm focusing on particular contracts and transactions just as a laboratory.
But I do think that I am having to really shift in my mindset because it's been my experience. And I don't know that this is, you know, objectively true, but it's been my perspective that, you know, there's really two different kinds of firms and two different kinds of, you know, lawyers out there. I think, in a lot of the firms that we run, our friends run, it tends to be very vertical with, you know, one or two owners, heavy emphasis on systems. When you're in the other sort of practice that I was in where, you know, you’ve got 150 partners and 150 associates, people tend to clump together and share knowledge in groups.
And so, I've sort of been of the mentality that you surround yourself with people that know something, you teach them, you bring them along. You know, not necessarily, “Hey, here's the system. Go operate it” but this sort of collective sharing of knowledge. And I attempted to, you know, recreate that a little bit with some of my first hires. Took some flack, I think, justifiably so, from some Guild-ian's about not having sufficient parameters for the people to work within.
And so, it's just sort of balancing that all my life it was like the 20 of me and the partners that I worked with in my group and there were no processes. It was just shared knowledge, shared thinking over decades. And now that I'm in a more vertical‑type firm, where there are not a lot of partners and I need to create those systems, it's just a big mindset shift. And I'm nowhere near to having all the answers. I'm struggling with these issues every day.
Tyson: Let's talk a little bit about the hiring because one of the things you put on your questionnaire, of the things that needs work, is hiring qualified attorneys. And we've talked about that and you just kind of mentioned it. But what are the struggles you're having when it comes to hiring?
Jeremy: Well, you know, right now, I've decided that my number one thing is getting more administrative help around here. And so, I've sort of set aside the attorney hiring although I am about to bring on a 1099 contractor attorney just to help me out in certain respects. I am laser focused on getting sort of like a project manager. I don't want to say it's like an office administrator or a legal secretary but sort of a project manager to help me get things done around here.
Aside from that which, you know, I've not found great candidates yet, hiring attorneys is a challenge because what I do is very niche. I mean, I don't have any data on this but I’d like to say that there's a hundred or a thousand real estate lawyers for everyone who does what I do which is just help people go vertical with buildings. And, in Chicago, there's maybe 200 or so people that do work, that could be remotely considered what I do. But a very small subset of them, maybe like 20% of them, do the transactional work and understand, you know, hundreds of standard forms in the industry that have to be deployed correctly. And there just aren't a lot of people out there that do that sort of work. I mean, whether I'm in a big firm, or whether I'm in my own firm, everybody's looking to hire those kind of people. So, I don't know that I'm going to find a lot of people that can plug right in other than some of my former partners who I'd love to join me. I just don't know that I'm going to find people out there.
And one of the big takeaways from when I was at MaxLawCon and I really enjoyed my time with Seth Price who, I think, is one of the smartest guys out there, he helped me understand that I might not be able to find those people but I might be able to grow them in a way that doesn't require me to teach them all individually. He, with BluShark, created an academy to kind of bring people along and to kind of train them up.
And so, that's kind of what I'm going for here. I'm really endeavoring to create this system to produce the substantive work where hopefully I can bring through lots of candidates. Some will succeed and thrive, others might not, but I don't want to spend the rest of my career teaching the same thing again, and again, and again.
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Jim: You're listening to the Maximum Lawyer Podcast. Our guest today is Jeremy Baker. He's a construction lawyer who left big law and he's killing it on his own, up in Chicago.
Jeremy, do you think that one of the issues with hiring an associate might be that-- and I don't know, this is just me thinking out loud, that the kind of associates who would want to do the work that you do and have the kind of clients that you have, would they be more inclined to want to go to a big firm as opposed to thinking that, “Jeremy is just by himself and he might not be able to pay me six months from now”?
Jeremy: You know, there's a little bit of that, for sure, Jim, because I-- I can tell you there's a half dozen or dozen people that I want to hire. I've known these people for 10 years and I could plug ‘em right in. These people are really risk averse. One of ‘em is somebody who I taught construction law at John Marshall Law School with for a number of years. She is a former partner of mine who is tremendous. And she could come right in here and, you know, like a number of other people I used to work with and help out. But even being in my third year, there's an adversity risk that I'm finding. It's funny because I'm so risk adverse with my clients. But, for myself, I'm willing to take a lot more risks.
So, I do think that there is I'm giving up a lot on, you know, speculative venture. But I don't know that everybody necessarily wants to work in big law. There are certainly boutique firms that do the kind of work that I do. You know, five to 10, 15 lawyers huddled together. But they are exactly like the big law firms in their thinking.
It's a great thing for me. It's a competitive advantage and a happy accident that the people I compete with, they don't know what Google My Business is. They don't worry about reviews. The only competitor I have has got one review. I've got 20. I'm killing it in my market. None of ‘em are using the internet to try to get. I'm the only one that has a newsletter, you know. And so, I'm at this-- so it isn't necessarily that they need to be in big law, but they think that they need to be in firms that do work the way that the bigger law firms do it. You know, they're living in a three‑ring binder world, not a digital world.
Tyson: I wonder if part of that forces you to try to mold your firm after the big law firms. How much of your time is fighting that urge to do that?
Jeremy: Well, I wish that I was self‑aware enough to give you an honest answer to that question, Tyson, because I think that I'm my own worst enemy, in a lot of respects. You know, I thought I was a pretty good writer when I joined, you know, Schiff Hardin in 2006. And they immediately said, “Go sit down and study these grammar books,” you know. And so, you know, they don't like commas where there should be semi‑colons. And at some level, you have to sort of ditch that mentality.
So, I am still a little bit of a perfectionist. I've got a high standard and so they do like do get in my way a lot. I'm trying to spot that a little bit more in myself, you know, and to try to make decisions about what I'm not going to do, you know, as opposed to what I am going to do. So, I'm fighting the instinct to do things the way that I've wanted to do them for a long time.
But, again, I keep coming back to-- I think that the one thing all my clients have in common is they're drawn to the fact that if they've got an extremely complicated issue, that's sort of where I live. And that is just at odds with scaling and systematizing and trying--
You know, it's a bit of a cult of personality, everybody wants to work with me. You know, I see, in your firms, you guys have done a great job, you know, of setting up people around you and the people that-- your clients understand that they're going to be working with a team. That's really a goal of mine, you know, to not be front and center.
But my advantages, competitively and in the market, are sort of at odds with my long‑term goals. So, it's exhilarating to think about these things. And, to be honest with you, even though I don't have answers, the fact that I've even put my finger on some of these things allows me to work at the problem.
Jim: Yeah. And I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. You know, it's not like you can get people accustomed to the idea of working with someone other than Jeremy when there isn't someone other than Jeremy even there. So, that's almost like a problem for future Jeremy Baker as opposed to current Jeremy. So, I wouldn't be too hard on yourself for that.
Jeremy: Yeah, I-- you know, I've got four young kids and the oldest is 11. And I left out, you know, two and a half years ago, right before, you know, COVID. And my book of business is roughly, you know, the size of what I was taking out of the firm. And it was a big gamble about whether I was going to be able to get new clients and to sort of sustain things.
So, yeah, I try to not be too hard on myself because, if I could go back in time, a few years ago, when I was eyeing this too and could see where I am right now, I'd have a huge smile on my face. So, I try to keep it in perspective.
Tyson: All right. So, picture yourself in five years, now. What does it look like in five years? And I'm not talking about like, you know, where is this firm going? But I'm just wondering like how are you picturing this thing looking in five years. Hopefully that makes sense.
Jeremy: Yeah, it does. And I've given it a lot of thought. My highest and best use is not, you know, redlining contracts, and talking to judges, and sitting at depositions. And I think that I'm more in the mold of a Jim than a Tyson when it comes to a desire to sort of step out of the front line of the production of the substantive work, to be the COO, you know, CMO, sort of just run the firm, do thought leadership, speak and write, you know, attract new business for other people to execute. That's really what I want.
So, I think we're looking at having another four or five lawyers here, you know, and a bunch of support staff. And I'm trying to reverse engineer that now and just try to figure out what does it look like over the next 90 days for me to get where I want to be five years from now.
Jim: All right.
So, somewhere in a carwash across America, there's a big law lawyer who is very frustrated and thinking about going out on their own, and they happen upon this episode of our podcast, and they're hearing Jeremy Baker who's done it. What advice do you have for that lawyer sitting in the carwash?
Jeremy: Well, I'll say two things. The first is what I wanted to hear more than anything, as I was desperately searching for podcasts where people had gone out on their own and were sharing their war stories, and it's that you can do it. It's really not as hard as you think it is. All the administrative and operational challenges are not that hard to sort out. And, you know, if you cut your rate in half, and you cut your hours in half, you can double your earnings. So, you can do it and you should do it.
If you're looking for a little bit more encouragement, the second thing I would say is, I was really heavily influenced by Seth Godin, almost everything he's written. But, in particular, there's a book called The Icarus Deception where he makes a bunch of points. And what really spoke to me, among the brilliant things that Seth says in that book is that, you know, it used to be that the comfort zone and the safety zone were the same thing, right? So, you get-- you go to a good school. You get a fancy job. You get a fancy office. You know, you camp out there your whole career. It's comfortable and it's safe. I think that used to be true.
You know, when I lateraled, in 2006, to the firm that I was at for 14 years, the salary wars in 2006, 2007, 2008, I was getting three - four raises a year just because the firm is trying to stay a pace with market. Then, you know, the economic downslide happened, you know, 10 ‑ 12 years ago and there was a new time of austerity. And I think that the safety zone or the comfort zone ceased to be the same thing. I think that a lot of people that I used to work with, at the big firm, they think they're comfortable, they think they're safe, but I would argue that they're really just comfortable because the safety zone has moved into this connection economy. It's the things that The Guild is doing. It's the thing that people like you are doing. It's reaching out in new ways, thought leadership, doing generous work.
And so, for all the people that are sitting in their corner offices, thinking that they're comfortable and safe, I would say, check out The Icarus Deception from Seth Godin and try to ask yourself, “Are you still safe and comfortable or are you just comfortable?” Because I think Seth is absolutely right that the safety zone has moved away from the comfort zone in the last 10 years or so.
Tyson: Need to clip that section. That's a great way of ending it.
I do want to wrap things up. Before I do, I want to remind everyone to join us in the big Facebook group. We've got over 5000 members there that are sharing on a daily basis. So, check us out there.
If you want a more high level conversation with people like Jeremy, go to maxlawguild.com. And if you don't mind taking just a couple of minutes. while you're listening to the rest of this episode, to give us a five‑star review, we will greatly appreciate it.
Jimmy, what's your hack of the week?
Jim: My hack of the week. I'm going to riff on something that I talked about at the end of MaxLawCon and that is that every dollar is not created equal-- equally. Amany would correct me. Amany loves to correct me with adverbs when she always adds the -ly to whatever word I say.
But, anyway, the tip is this that you need to sit down and look at your various case types and you need to figure out how much does it cost me to produce this widget? How much does it cost me to obtain this result for my client? And how many hours am I spending versus what am I charging?
And I think you might be surprised to find that not every dollar is created equally, that you have some case types that take a ton of attorney time or maybe a ton of paralegal and attorney time, and you get X amount. And you have other cases that are very easy and take less attorney time, less paralegal time. And that you need to think through which ones are the most value for the amount of time spent and then try to get more of those cases.
Tyson: Yeah, it's really interesting, Jim. We're going through something now where-- because we've got a lot of data on how much a case makes us, right? I don't have a lot of data on how much a case costs us, and both-- in resources, general, right, and in people time and in just cost. So, that's something that we are working on now. So, it's interesting that we're both working on that - similar things at the same time. So, very cool.
All right, Jeremy, you know the routine. You've listened to, if not all, almost all of our podcasts. So, what is your tip or hack of the week?
Jeremy: You know, I just think that one of the biggest things that I've learned over the last couple of years is, you know, believe in yourself, you know, run fast, take some risks. And you know, if you make a mistake, you can always take a step backwards and kind of course correct.
But, you know, I have been inclined to be a perfectionist. I’ve been inclined to walk slow. And I think that that is something I'm really fighting. So, you know, I forget who the quote’s from but, you know, run fast, break things, throw yourself out there. And, you know, if you make a mistake, you course correct but you keep moving forward.
Tyson: I like that. Run fast, break things. It's good. That’s how Jimmy is. That's how he lives his life. Very good.
So, my tip is something that I've been playing around with for two or three weeks now. And it's BNI meets LinkedIn. It's something called Alignable. And I think Alignable has actually been around for a few years. However, I can tell they've made a massive push. I've seen a lot of invites from people for Alignable. And it's alignable.com. There's an app. But it's more based on referrals than just promoting your business. LinkedIn is just-- to me, like LinkedIn’s like a fluid resume almost. But Alignable is more based on referrals.
So, I'm having some fun playing around with it. So, check it out. See what you think about it. It’s a pretty cool platform. It's fairly easy to use. So, it's alignable.com. Check it out.
Jeremy, thank you so much. It's been great. It's funny because we had you on a hot seat and we've talked to you a lot. I've talked to you at the conference. But I feel like I learned more about you today, too. So, it's just cool to have you on. So, thank you so much for sharing.
Jeremy: Thank you.
Jim: Bye, guys.
Tyson: See you. Later.