Join us at the next Guild Mastermind in Minneapolis on April 18th and 19th! Click here for event details.
In today’s episode, Jim and Tyson chat with Alabama bankruptcy lawyer, Ty Shepard! They dive into the journey of entrepreneurship and finding that community of support. If you’ve been thinking about how to navigate the growth and changes of a law firm, check out this week’s episode.
Ty's practice focuses on helping businesses reorganize their financial and organizational structures inside and outside of bankruptcy. He represents business debtors, creditors, trustees, and other parties in bankruptcy courts. Ty also represents taxpayers before the U.S. Tax Court and federal agencies.
Ty is a former president of the Young Lawyers Section of the Huntsville/Madison County Bar Association, Treasurer of the Huntsville/Madison County Bar Association, a member of the Committee of 100, a graduate of Leadership Huntsville/Madison County - CONNECT Class 16, and a volunteer with the Huntsville Volunteer Lawyers Program and Wills for Heroes.
Ty has taught continuing legal education classes on creditor's rights, general bankruptcy matters, taxation of decedent estates, and Alabama sales and use taxes. He is a member of the American Bar Association Section on Taxation, the Alabama State Bar Sections on Taxation and Commercial Litigation/Bankruptcy, and the American Bankruptcy Institute.
4:02 the team
8:04 like-minded community
13:23 draw down to get a niche
16:04 refining your marketing
Jim’s Hack: One of the first times talking about how my wife and I’s personalities were different was when I read a book called, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. It gave us a language to talk about without blaming each other. Today, all people who work for us complete a Kolbe A Index test.
Ty’s Tip: We all get caught up in the comparison game. By making yourself a price leader in your market, you can stand out from the crowd. If there’s one thing you can do it’s raise prices. If there’s any way you can do it, pass those costs along.
Tyson’s Tip: Go through your phone and declutter. Delete all those apps you don’t use. If you haven’t used it in the last 3 months, you’re probably not going to use it in the next 3 months, so get rid of them.
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Jim: Welcome back to The Maximum Lawyer Podcast. I'm Jim Hacking.
Tyson: And I'm Tyson Mutrux. What's up, Jimmy?
Jim: Oh, Tyson. Welcome to the show. We're glad you remembered to join us. We have a great guest today. And he's excited to share his wisdom and knowledge. And we're glad you're able to join us.
Tyson: Yeah. I'm glad you mentioned that twice because I was late for the show because I completely blanked on the time, so. Yeah, I'm here. Thanks for having me on the show. Appreciate it, Jim.
Jim: Yeah. Yeah.
Tyson: Hey, first time, long time.
Jim: Yeah. For sure. For sure. First time, long time.
Well, our guest today is Ty Shepard. He's a bankruptcy lawyer down in Huntsville, Alabama, where our good friend Mo Lilienthal is.
Ty, welcome to the show.
Ty Shepard: Thanks for having me. I'm glad to be here.
Tyson: Ty, I think that this episode is long overdue. So, let people know a little bit about you, your background, and your journey to today.
Ty: Yeah, sure.
So, I've been a lawyer now for about 10 years. And going through law school-- I know a lot of people feel like they really wanted to be a lawyer. I didn't know what I wanted to do. But I remember, back during school, really liking law school, really enjoying the classes themselves. But what I did really enjoy was the sense of competitiveness that I think school put into you and, specifically, help people. There was such a drive towards going towards wanting to work at the most prestigious firm, the big firms. And I just-- I wasn't really interested in any of that at all. So, in my undergraduate years, my background was more in-- you know, I wasn't very career prepared. I was like an American Studies major and I majored in religious studies.
And so, coming-- in law school, I spent like one of my summers working in DC, for the State Department. And then, my last semester of law school, specifically, I was working in the American Embassy in Jamaica and I thought I was going to Foreign Service career. I had spent-- that's all I kind of took the courses related to. That's all I really did. And took my test. I was on this career path, so excited, and my security clearance got held up because it just took a year and a half to go through processing.
And I remember back to that time to like, we were going to like move to DC, just find a job, and hold it out. And I needed $500 for a deposit on an apartment. And my dad's like, “You can figure this out on your own.” I remember going to my grandparents and asking them to borrow the money. And they’re like-- they thought about it. They said yes and they're like, “Mm, no. No, this will build character for you.” So, I couldn't get the money to move to DC, well, to hold it out.
And, in the meantime, I came back here to Huntsville and started working for my dad. My dad's a lawyer here doing odd stuff here and there. Waiting on this clearance, waiting on this clearance. And, in the meantime, it took maybe-- if I started in September, through October. February of that year, I started working. My wife and I got married. She's a lawyer. She got a clerkship here. And we got to this position where we realized our life is pretty good here in Huntsville, Alabama.
And knowing what the cost of living would be and career would look like, I-- we decided just to turn that down and to stay here. So, we've been in Huntsville since. And it was kind of weird coming back. And I live down the street, now, from my parents. Never thought I was going to be around here. Didn't think I was going to work with my dad. I never took a bankruptcy course. Didn't really take any litigation courses.
But we've just kind of been here since, and built, and built. And I've been kind of on this path of, I guess, entrepreneurship and being somewhat self‑employed, never intending to but enjoying it. Now, I couldn't imagine going back and being in a large government bureaucracy and trying to grind it out there.
Jim: That's great. So, tell us about your firm setup. What's your firm do? What’s your role in the firm? And what kind of a team do you have?
Ty: Yeah, so our team now-- and something that’s been interesting, to me, is how a law firm changes over time and how your practice can change over time. So, for the longest time, I was very much bankruptcy focused, in bankruptcy litigation. And we got hit hard in the bankruptcy practice by COVID, specifically, in that I was doing business bankruptcy cases and a lot of our debtors, who were reorganizing their business, when COVID hit, a lot of them failed. A lot of them just started converting to seven [inaudible 00:04:36]. Let’s shut down their cases. And we got hit with big write‑off’s.
And during that time, my dad's been transitioning out of the practice. He's had some health issues that have-- it's been to a position of whether or not I was ready to step up. I had to step up.
And since then, my wife used to be in‑house counsel with an electronics company, left that during the pandemic and has come on with us and working with me here. And it's been the biggest-- I think I've shared to other people, it's been like the biggest blessing for us to have to work with my wife, work with my spouse, and to come in here, and kind of try to build a practice together around us.
So, right now, our setup is, I think we have six full‑time people and about another five to six part‑time and remote VAs. And we're bringing on more VAs, either remote attorneys who are helping us with like legal writing stuff or now VAs helping us with our processes and procedures.
Tyson: So, when it comes to your tech stack and things like that, tell us about your tech stacks. I'm really curious to see how that works with everything you're doing, with everything that's going on.
Ty: Yeah. So like, for us right now, one of the interesting things that I've seen for a moment of transition is trying to move when working with-- especially with VAs. And we've had a lot of success with overseas VAs, of people who are very smart, hardworking, and like want the work and want to work with like an American company because it's like, to them, it's a big deal. But the biggest challenge we've had is like when people aren't really used to the US legal system or have any idea of like postage codes are and things and trying to get them integrated into the system.
And we've bounced around between legal softwares. And one thing that we've realized, for us at least, things like the-- you know, the Clio’s, or Lawcus, or anything that's built specifically for legal isn't fully going to do it for us. So, our stack has been moving away from those types of projects and, specifically, to adopting Monday for a lot of our in‑the‑case work in trying to build off those automations and quite realize what I actually like doing is working on the automations, working on that. We're trying to work on the flow of the cases and using a task management software for managing the in‑the‑case work.
We still use, right now, Lawmatics for our CRM before the case work. But, even then, stacking on little software here and there that have gotten us away from that. But I think for someone who had no background in computer science or anything like that, love Zapier, love like tinkering. So, it's been fun to kind of bolt on little programs here and there and try to figure out how we can work together. I'm excited with non-- that’s for like native English speakers, getting them on these systems, having to use VPNs and actually get everything to work.
Jim: Ty, you’ve been a member of The Guild for a while now, can you tell everyone a little bit about your experience in The Guild? And then, I know that you had a really good time at the mastermind that we had before the conference in June last year.
Ty: Yeah. So, I joined The Guild in December 2020. And it was-- for me, I came to the podcast, maybe a year or so before that, started listening to it, and in this like truncated space of like really connecting and just with the message you guys put out there, digesting it. And eventually, for me, I decided the next step was probably-- was to try The Guild, was to join it, see what it's like.
Joined it. And I would say this is the most like‑minded community for me of like growth focused and really supportive lawyers that I've ever encountered. I've been very involved with the State Bar, and local bar, and everything. And those were not really communities that worked well for me. But I've just really enjoyed. At least, within The Guild, everyone is nice. Everyone is helpful. It's been a great group that I think I've learned the most over the last year and a half of just reading everyone's comments in front of each other.
The next step for that was to go the conference in St. Louis. And that really took things to another level of meeting people in‑person, having those like late night conversations, and just like learning about people's experiences at a much deeper level when people are willing to share their vulnerabilities and share what works and specifically what doesn't work. It has been eye opening and helpful. And I've--
I mean there's people in The Guild who I text almost every day with like questions back and forth. And these relationships are not the kind of things I think you experienced, even with collegiality in the bar. And like people will just share and they'll just talk. And it's so nice to have a group of people to bounce ideas off of and to feel like you have a sense of community that's much bigger than just the local friends, and colleagues, and competition that you have in your area.
Tyson: You just mentioned community. It just made me think of something. What are some of the things you do in your community to help promote your firm because-- especially, whenever you're in smaller town-- I can tell you St. Louis versus Columbia is significantly different. You know, Columbia, the marketing is much more community oriented than St. Louis is. It’s it just the way we've got to do things. So, I wonder, when it comes to your firm marketing your firm, when it comes to community, how do you market the firm?
Ty: Yeah. So, for my-- main practice area’s in the [inaudible 00:09:56] like the business bankruptcy stuff, it was all referral based, really from lawyers at regional firms who had conflicts and couldn't really-- because they represent, say, banks, they can't necessarily be adverse with those banks. Well, we're happy to be adverse to banks. So, it was like working with-- being very involved in Bar Association, being involved in the State Bar, and building up friendships and relationships with these regional lawyers to where they would think of us as like the go to people, at least, first locally.
And then, I started, you know, trying to build it up. Build up the practice. Try to work on some more regional cases. And it was the same thing. It was very much lawyer relationships.
At least, recently, since my wife has come, we've bounced around-- her background was business transaction. She tried to really find a way to do that on a smaller scale. And it works to an extent, but it was a talk I had with a Guild member, with Russ Nesevich, who graciously talked to me for an hour and a half, one day, as he was driving home, about estate planning. And I had no background in estate planning. My wife didn't either. But just talking it through with him, realized something clicked that there's an opportunity here, that there's-- we're in an area that's a lot of growth. A lot of people are moving in. And people coming here from California, coming here from the DC area, they don't know any lawyers. And like to go wherever other lawyer is to like the Chamber of Commerce stuff, you know, to the Bar Association. You're not going to-- that's not where the clients are. And that really opened our eyes that there was a D2C opportunity for us.
Marketing, specifically in these neighborhoods they’re being built up, of people moving in. And a lot of that through digital, a lot of that through targeted PPC to those zip codes. And that's where we've had so much growth and opportunity is that there is this-- like I said, this community. I think this is in every town, of people who come in, they don't know any lawyers, but they still need our services, and they don't know where to go. So, trying to meet them where they are and make a direct offer to them has been such a change from like going to every like breakfast with people, shaking hands, and just hoping for the referral to like find the consumers and making the offer directly to them.
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Jim: We're talking today with Ty Shepard. He's a bankruptcy lawyer in Huntsville, Alabama. We're happy to have him with us.
Ty, have you drilled down to identify even further where those people are? What the avatar is? How do you find-- like, for me, to find immigrants, I can find the people that, you know, know immigrants. How do you find the people that know that they're in debt and might need bankruptcy help?
Ty: Yes. So, the first time I've really tried to draw down and get a niche on the business bankruptcy side was for us was that I've been in a practice area where I'd say, statewide, the number of competitors we have can be counted on two hands. It’s a narrow, narrow group of people. Businesses that would be in that, say, $2 to $15 million in revenue range like, say, a hotel or a manufacturer who would need that reorganization.
Again, finding that, being willing to commit down to just do that and being willing to message to people that we're not going to compete with the regional law firms on their other commercial‑lead cases or their corporate transactional, opened up the ability to get those referrals.
And I think, trying to take that same attitude to now trying to build an estate planning practice that's-- I don't want to do elder law care. I don't want to learn Medicare planning. And that's not the clients we're going for.
What we’ve found is people-- again, relocating here with, say, two to three kids. We have a client avatar we developed up of. They work for the federal government. They have, again, two to three kids. They've moved here from out of state. They are between the ages of 35 and 50 years old, so they've had some experience with estate planning. They know the need here. And trying to-- and they’re within these certain income brackets where they can afford the services that we're trying to offer.
At least, setting up that person, trying to drill down who they are, what they look like, and what they like. We get people outside that range. But really focusing on that person has helped tremendously with getting a message that, I think, resonates with people.
Tyson: Ty, talk about the clarity, like the mindset that you have once you had that clarity around your avatar and the type of client you're going to go after because I imagine your mindset was way different and things were a lot more chaotic prior to having that clarity, but maybe not. I could be wrong about this. So, talk about your mindset change.
Ty: Oh, I think that it's-- that’s the funny thing about mindset, right, is it's iterative, in nature. It's consistently developing. And I know at least that like, initially for us, it's like you think, “Okay, if I'm going to do something--" and even within a practice area, I'm going to focus on one specific person or type, “Is this going to work? Am I going to fall on my face? Are we going to be able to pay the mortgage? Is this too narrow?”
But after working with a variety of cases, you know, “Who do we like best?” Not just who like will pay it? Who’s the easiest clients who require the least amount of hand holding who we want, like, and want to serve. And drawing a diagram around those people. It is eye opening because I think no matter where you are or what you're doing, there's a huge group of people who can fit within that. And when you know who that is, and like going back to, say, whatever your marketing copy is, and like really refining it down just to speak to them, you feel like you're having-- oh, people call you. They feel like they're having a one‑on‑one conversation with you. They feel like you know them. They say that you message them in a way that like actually resonates. And it's not just our AV rated lawyers have 150 years combined experiences winning cases. And we do dog bites. And we do landlord‑tenant. And just stuff that doesn't resonate with people.
You're actually writing about who they are and relating your own story like trying to talk about how we, as parents, know what it's like to be a parent, you know? And know that know about the need for a guardianship if something happens. It just-- it resonates with people, I think, in a way that generic marketing doesn't. And it lets you know who you are and what you need to communicate to your audience to push them towards doing something, to working together.
Jim: Ty, you mentioned practicing law with your spouse. I practice law with my spouse. It's an adventure, for sure. It's hard not to let the work come into the house and the house come into the work, but we seem to make it work. And I'm wondering if you have any tips for anyone or any thoughts on that adventure?
Ty: Yeah. It is deeply rewarding. At first, it was a bit terrifying to think, you know, to spend all day together. And the thing that has worked for us is to put ourselves in positions where we don't step on each other's toes.
And, in our practice-- related to this thing that we're building together, getting more and more into estate planning, I don't do any legal work. I don't meet with clients. I don't prepare their documents. That's not my purview.
I think of myself as support and back office. She's the client facing one. And that’s been great for us to really separate those roles out, where I think we each have our clear lanes. And I get to work on what I like which is, you know, writing copy and tinkering with automations and software and such. And she gets to actually be more the client‑facing lawyer. And so, by separating those things out, we still get to talk about our issues together. We still get to work through things. But I feel like we each have our roles and responsibilities.
And like that doing-- building out an accountability chart and saying, “What's in my bucket of tasks? What's in her bucket of tasks? What’s in other people's buckets?” makes it so that we don't step on each other's shoes and like get in each other's way.
But to anyone who's in a position that could work together and would like to, I push them to try it because I think it's been extremely rewarding for us. And same thing like working with my dad here before, I think, we stepped on each other's shoes a little bit until we kind of figured out-- till I started doing something different than what he did and was able to build a practice separate from him.
Tyson: I wonder what the vision is for the firm going forward and who's guiding that vision.
Ty: Yeah. That is something that is difficult to quantify, in some ways, because I have-- you know, I work through things like traction a couple times. And it's hard in the sense that like, from where we are, it really is two different-- it's been like two different law firms kind of bolted together.
And, as I see it, I more and more want to get out of the bankruptcy stuff. I'm trying to wind these cases down because I've realized it is trading-- it is fee for hours. There is a definite cap of what we can do and how much we can build before we cap out.
And the thing that I like about getting more of the estate stuff is that like it's so much more systematize‑able. And we've just-- it's grown a lot faster.
And so, when it comes to vision, I see our roles as complementary to each other but I'm-- like I said, I'm focused more on the backing and the marketing stuff. And she's focused much more on the legal services.
But, at the end of the day, it really is she owns 100% of her firm. I don't own anything. I am an employee. And that is I like that role. I like that feeling of knowing that I can make suggestions and she can trump things. So, she's the boss. I'm not the boss. And that's a great way for us, at least, to work together.
Jim: All right. All right. Well, that's really good stuff.
I think that having sort of the clear lanes is really important. I think that's true in general that there's so much bleeding over from one person to another. I remember, early on, when Adela was onboarding like employee number four or five, she made this offhand comment, “Oh, we all sort of do the same thing around here.” And I knew that (a) that was true and (b) that was bad. So, I think that whole staying in the same lane routine is exactly right.
Ty: Yeah. And I was just thinking, the less we do competing with each other, the less like--- the more we feel like we have a role, the more that we can focus, you know, kind on building and doing things. Like, for instance, I'm going to be interviewing an employee for her this afternoon. She doesn't have to worry about it. It's like she's going to have final say approval but like because we're not-- the less you're tied up on doing something, like the little things, and work, it frees you up to work on the bigger things.
So, that's what I'm-- that's what I'm hopeful is that, as we continue to grow, that I'm trying to do as little as I can so that I can be freed up to try new things and push work down. And that we'll have more opportunities to like see where this goes and really build this to as big as we want it to a business that fits our lifestyle versus, you know, the other way around, of having to like constantly fit in your life around the demands of work.
Tyson: I love that you have crafted a firm around your life and what you all want for the future. I think that's really awesome. I think that that's a lesson for everybody to learn.
We do need to wrap things up. I want to remind everyone to go to the big Facebook group. There's a lot of great information being shared on a daily basis. If you have a question, just post it in the group and you’ll have a lot of friendly answers and helpful answers.
And please, while you're listening the rest of this episode, give us a five‑star review.
Jimmy, what's your hack of the week?
Jim: Right before Amany and I got married, I read this book called Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or something, women are from Venus. I don't remember what it was. But it was the first time that Amany and I had ever talked about how our personalities were different. And that book gave us a language to talk about how our personalities were different without blaming each other for how our personalities were different.
Shortly after we got married, we did a thing called The People Map which was just like a one‑day thing where we sort of learned even more about ourselves.
And then, you know, of course, now, in our firm, we have every single employee and contractor complete a Kolbe Index Aand that gives us a real quick shorthand in talking about, “Oh, well, of course, Amani would want 12 details about this. She's a 9 factfinder.” Or, “of course, Jim would drop the ball on something because he's a 3 follow through.” So, it gets to where you can talk about how people are and where their energy and strength is without there being like blame or shame or anything.
And then, this week, I was talking to two different members of The Guild about their firms. And one of them works with their dad. So, you know, Ty works with his dad. And Ty and I both work with our spouses. So, you know, you have a family situation there that brings its own levels of complexity. But her father is a high fact finder. So, when she gives him something to do, she sort of wants him to do it, but he wants to find out all the facts, right?
So, I can't tell you how often, internally at our firm and when I'm talking to law firm owners, in The Guild and outside of The Guild, how important having that ability to talk about how people are without judgment and just say, “You know, of course, that makes sense” because then you don't have all that negative energy and you're not like walking away mad because someone's not the way you want them to be or the way you are.
Tyson: All right. Jimmy, that is a really good advice. I like that hack.
Ty, what is your tip or hack of the week?
Ty: Okay. So, as a lawyer, I love to give unsolicited advice. So, I was thinking back to something that has stood out to me was listening to the like Tim Ferriss Show, on and off, over the years. He used to ask his guests, “If you could write something on a billboard, what would it be?” And Marc Andreessen speaking specifically about the context of like startups, like tech startups, gave some advice and I think also [inaudible 00:24:26] applies so much to lawyers. And that would be, “If there's one thing you can do, it's raise prices.” I think we all get stuck in this view of like thinking of ourselves like-- you know, comparing ourselves with what the people down the street charge. And you just think of yourself as a commodity. And you think of yourself as if, you know, you can't stand out from the pack.
But our positioning is a function of pricing. And pricing is a function of positioning. And by making ourselves the price leader in our market, we stand out from the crowd. And so, I think, you know, like, we're recording this in February 2022. There was 7.5% CPI inflation last quarter. You have an excuse, raise prices. So, if there's any ways you can do it, pass those costs along.
Tyson: That is one of the best tips I've heard a long time because it is-- and it's hard for people to do it but just do the freakin’ math, people. Do the math and you're like, “Okay. I can add a ton of money to my bottom line just by--" even if you do a small increase, just a small increase, right? We went from a 30% to 35% on our fees like that, over time, a pretty significant number. So, just small little incremental increases can make a huge difference. I think that's a fantastic bit of advice.
My tip of the week is to-- you know, yesterday I was on my phone and I was like, “I've got so many damn apps on my phone. I just need to declutter.” So, my tip is to declutter your phone. Go through-- and delete all those damn apps that you don't use anymore. Just go get rid of ‘em. What's that minimalist thing where if you have not used it in the last three months, and you're not going to use it next three months, get rid of it. Get rid of all those damn apps. Declutter your life. So, that is my tip of the week.
Ty, thank you so much for coming on, been a lot of fun. I wish we had another hour and a half with you to talk about you and your journey and the future of your firm. But thank you so much for coming on.
Ty: All right. Thanks a lot, guys. I really appreciate it.
Tyson: Thanks, Ty. See you, buddy.
Jim: Bye, guys.
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