Most people who have big ideas either do not have the practice experience or the business acumen to actually implement them. Mike Whelan is not among them. In Lawyer Forward, Whelan explains his ideas about changing up the law practice paradigm by lawyers implementing systems to more effectively manage their law practices. We discuss those and other ideas in this interview.
In Episode 4 of Lawyerpreneur, Mike Whelan and I talk about the personal experiences that resulted in his systems thinking and the culprit that affects so many lawyers, which he names The Churn. We also discuss Whelan’s transition from small-town law practice to consultant, author, and entrepreneur in the legal support sector.
Forward Thinking and Using Systems to Avoid the Churn with Mike Whelan
Jeremy Richter: Welcome to Lawyerpreneur where we explore how having an entrepreneurial spirit helps us fill our creative wells and excel in our work, because being a lawyer doesn’t have to mean doing business as usual. I’m your host, Jeremy Richter. My guest today is Mike Whalen, author of Lawyer Forward and founder of the Lawyer Forward Conference. Mike, welcome to Lawyerpreneur.
Mike Whelan: Hey, thank you for having me.
Jeremy Richter: All right. I’m excited about this show. You and I have not ever actually talked before today. We’ve traded emails and messages back and forth for a while but I’m excited to actually speak to you in live person here.
Mike Whelan: The modern communication network people talking to each other on LinkedIn which is the weirdest thing but yeah, social. That’s what happens.
Jeremy Richter: I agree, and most of the lawyers that I don’t know in person and haven’t met through LawyerSmack has been conversations that have started in LinkedIn.
Mike Whelan: So weird. LinkedIn is boring Facebook, we could go off about this all day. But, you know, it’s just like, it’s all the things that I hate about Facebook, but just more boring. But you know, a lot of lawyers are there. I had a lady, I’m most active on Twitter. I had a lady wanted to help me with this virtual conference we’re putting on and she was like, let’s talk on LinkedIn because that’s easier and starts messaging me on LinkedIn. I was like, is this a thing? Do people do this? But yes, you and I actually connected I think initially on LinkedIn, which is … yeah.
Jeremy Richter: I think so.
Mike Whelan: And that’s a platform I ignore largely but probably shouldn’t.
Jeremy Richter: Well, alright, so it’s funny that you say that because the interview that is going to air the episode that’s gonna air after this one is about a lawyer, Frank Ramos, who is an insurance defense lawyer like me, and extensively uses LinkedIn and has posted their daily for the last four years and has become an incredible resource for other lawyers in our industry. And use it in a way that I hadn’t ever seen anybody use before, and has actually maxed out his number of connections in LinkedIn.
Mike Whelan: So here it is, don’t follow my advice on LinkedIn at all. Anybody. I’m terrible at it.
Jeremy Richter: Well, you’ve got to do what works for you. And so I don’t think I’m as committed to LinkedIn as he has been, and it’s worked great for him. But, you know, everybody’s got to find their own thing.
Mike Whelan: Indeed, which is part of what we’re going to talk about. Do you see how that transition just happened?
Jeremy Richter: That was really just smooth. And I’m taking notes because I’m still in the process here. So this will be Episode Four. And so I’m in the process of trying to be smooth and not choppy, and to be able to think and talk at the same time.
Mike Whelan: That’s right. Coming up. Mike tells you how to let your freak flag fly. Back to you, Jeremy.
Jeremy Richter: All right. So you previously — See, here’s a non segue transition here. You previously practiced in Rockport, Texas. And for those who don’t know their geography, Rockport is on the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s near Corpus Christi and is among the most humid places on earth for most of the year. Is that about right?
Mike Whelan: That’s a fact. And interestingly in — so I wrote a book called Lawyer Forward, which I know we’re going to talk about and, and part of it is a big idea of a way to practice and organize lawyers. That’s different, but the narrative framework in the background is sort of me leaving practice, right. Me getting out of my practice in Rockport. And there were really two driving reasons. One was my wife was miserable. She’s got a chronic illness that’s triggered by heat and humidity and that was a tough place for us. She really had a hard time functioning, and so we had to do some lifestyle design stuff basically around her illness, and also just the way I was practicing. It was a small town practice and you know, when I was in Austin, which is where I started when I graduated from Texas for law school, I did mostly family law, largely because you could jump into it and half the work was being a bad therapist, and I could be a bad therapist all day, right? If you’re going to pay me as much as do, I’ll do that all day.
But when I moved down to Rockport, the frustrating thing about being in a small town is, theoretically, you can charge whatever you want. Because if they don’t hire you, who the heck are they going to hire? But on the flip side of that, there’s way more need than there is money. And then there are lawyers. And so just to survive, you end up taking on a lot of practice areas that you’re not terribly competent in, just trying to get by, because you’re better than nothing, right? And also, you got to go to a bunch of different counties. And so I was just driving a ton. I was on court-appointed list. When you’re in a small town, you’re not — it’s almost like you’re not a business — it’s like you’re a cultural resource, you know. You’re a social good. And so the the practice is great in some ways but also really grueling. And I love it as an example of the way lawyers get caught in that, what I call the churn, that doing that next hour over and over again. So yeah, I was in Rockport right up until right before the hurricane hit. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas in Rockport and just destroyed it. But I had left shortly before that, was practicing virtually, and then when the hurricane hit, it just wasn’t that there wasn’t enough activity to keep it going. So I finally pulled completely out of practice.
Jeremy Richter: Have you ever read the Eric Larson book Isaac’s Storm about the hurricane that wiped out Galveston in 1900?
Mike Whelan: I have not.
Jeremy Richter: Okay, super interesting book. Like kind of nerdy weather type stuff, but also its narrative history. And just really interesting.
Mike Whelan: Always looking for a good book. Thank you.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah. I’m originally from Texas grew up there, and we would sometimes go to Galveston for vacation. I have two memories that really stand out to me from Galveston. One is that that’s the first time I was ever stung by jellyfish, which was not awesome. But on another trip, we saw a tornado in the water about a mile from us, which was very cool.
Mike Whelan: That is really cool until they turn into a hurricane and destroy your town. But yeah, sure, yeah, they are. There’s some science of interest down there, but it quickly becomes really crappy.
Jeremy Richter: Alright, so the work you do now … is what?
Mike Whelan: That’s a really good question.
Jeremy Richter: I know it’s super broad.
Mike Whelan: Well, the way Seth Godin put it that I really liked, he said, “I get paid to notice things,” which I love that is a job description. But you know, I sort of have two groups that I serve now. One is lawyers, solo and small practice lawyers. I talk a lot about the challenges of being a lawyer: the economics of it, the emotional and cognitive constraints that we’re under, and how the business model of the big firms is just really misapplied to us. And then my other audience is companies that seek to serve those lawyers. And so a lot of technology companies and service companies don’t really know how to speak solo and small they know how to speak B-to-B, but they don’t really know how to speak B-to-C. And solo attorneys are more like consumers. And so I do a lot of consulting and writing work for these different companies looking to communicate with attorneys. I’m basically just trying to improve the practice for solo and small firm attorneys.
Jeremy Richter: And I assume that your years of having a small firm and doing small town practice have put you uniquely into a position to help facilitate that communication.
Mike Whelan: Yeah, somebody said to me recently On Twitter, I love your perspective as a failed solo attorney.
Jeremy Richter: That was really sweet of them to say.
Mike Whelan: Yeah, right. And I you know, it’s funny because — and I may or may not have communicated this well in the book — but I was making a lot of money. Like when you’re the only lawyer in town, seriously, I was charging a lot of money and we were doing fine. Money wasn’t the issue. And that was part of what was so frustrating, because I thought that was the indicator. I thought that was the thing that would tell me “Oh, it’s working now.” And when I had money, and I had success, and it still wasn’t working, I assumed it was me. And so then I go on this journey where I go work for another successful attorney like a scaled larger attorney, who went and taught other attorneys how to scale and how to grow. And I saw some of those same trends, some of those same issues, and I realized, you know, these issues that we have with the model of lawyers is sort of independent of money. Money is just a construct, really; it’s just a thing that we use to measure. But it’s not the issue. So I was not a failed solo attorney, but I did quit doing it. I did not enjoy it.
Jeremy Richter: So you’ve mentioned in a LinkedIn post a while back that there is I’m going to quote you to yourself here, “An often conflicting pressure solo lawyers feel to be both entrepreneurial solutions engines and deep experts.” Tell me both, you know, an explanation of what that means and what you’re doing to help alleviate that pressure.
Mike Whelan: So what might help a little bit is to separate out the business from the person. I think a business can be a lot more diversified than a person can. But a person can only do one thing at a time, right? There’s no such thing as multitasking. You’re only doing one thing at once. And so the book Deep Work talks about this when you’re doing the work of the deep expert, somebody who is really deep and nerdy into a problem – they’re reading, they’re writing, they’re speaking, they’re teaching, they’re just deep into an issue finding the nuances of a problem. That is an exercise that cannot be interrupted by text messages and phone calls and all the kinds of responsiveness that consumers also expect, right.
Mike Whelan: They also want law firms as service businesses to be available to give answers, and so clients are informed in their expectations. Most of them are not experienced legal buyers. So they’re pulling their expectations from wherever, right. And it’s usually some combination of Law and Order and Amazon. and if you ever watch Law and Order, they have one case going at a time at these D.A.’s offices that all wear $700 shoes, which is crazy. They’re all sitting five people in a room just brainstorming around this one case. That is not at all how it happens, but they think that we’re doing this deep expert work. And then on the flip side that they can call us whenever they want to. The issue that I’ve kind of tried to point out in the law firm is that the consumers are right to expect both. They get to expect whatever the freak they want. If they want a combination of expertise and accessibility, our answer can’t be, “Oh, we can’t do that, because we can’t do both at the same time.” But it’s also true that we can’t do both at the same time as individuals. And so my argument is that you’ve got a network resources and ways that you can do both as a business not as an individual, but as a business.
Jeremy Richter: So is this circuit that you’re talking about? Maybe circuit is not the right word, but is that what you call the churn in Lawyer Forward?
Mike Whelan: So sort of the bad guy of the book is the Churn, right? The capital-C Churn. I had read somewhere that if you want to defeat a concept, you’ve got a name at first, right? So you can target it and talk about it. You would mention in your notes to me the book of the War of Art, which I love that Steven Pressfield talks about the capital-R Resistance, which is a great example of that. Once you name it, you can talk about all the aspects of it and get around it, the churn is this, this thing that I was caught in, which is endemic of the model, it’s and I talked about in the beginning of the book, the history that led to this model, but it’s basically the idea that you’re only as good as your next hour, right? Law firm businesses, typically, the way we build them, they’re their cash-flow businesses, they are not asset-driven businesses, meaning as soon as the cases stop coming — as soon as you stop having hours, you have no business anymore, because it’s about the next hour. And you’re seeing this a lot right now with the Coronavirus thing. All these businesses had no assets saved up. They had nothing that would help them weather the storm. When something crappy comes along, and that spigot of hours closes down, now you’re in trouble.
So I was caught in that churn in Rockport. It’s doing the next thing and the next thing and the next thing, trying to be everything to everyone. The alternative that I talked about in the book is the legal supply chain. And it’s sort of reorganizing people, so that the people who want to be deep experts and really nerd out on a problem — hey, you focus on that, you get great at that. And then the people who want to be connectors who want to build an audience who want to be solutions engines, and then pull in the experts for where they’re needed. Great, go be that person. Those are two different methods. And the argument that I make in the book is that stop trying to claim to be both. Don’t listen to all those conferences that tell you you’re supposed to be both because you can’t be at the same time. Figure out which one of those kinds of people you want to be. Follow the method.
Jeremy Richter: To do that, do lawyers need to think about it and pair themselves with — so if I want to be a connector and I want to be the guy who has the relationships, am I going to be best served by connecting myself to someone who wants to do the work of the expert, and then together, we create a unit that is more effective overall?
Mike Whelan: Yeah, that is a way to do it. And you see this done a lot. For the Virtual Lawyer Forward Conference, we’re gonna have a guy there named Christopher, who his firm was built that way. He graduated in 2010 or 2011, when there were no jobs. His dad was a small town lawyer. His dad just wanted to lawyer. He didn’t want to build a business, and Christopher did. He wanted to go in and be the solopreneur. And so they built by each of them focusing on the thing that they do. They built a business that the two of them run together and their very elaborate team could go deliver on that thing. That is a way to do it. You see this also in like venture capital firms, especially in legal tech; you see, one of the founders will have a technical background and the other founder will have a context background. So like a lawyer in the case of a legal tech company. And those two together work really well together; that is a way to do it.
Mike Whelan: Another way to do it, to pull it out from your law firm, so that you can think more objectively about it — think about how that VC firm if they’re a technical person, and they want to build a company, how can they bring in lawyer knowledge, context knowledge, so that they can build the company without themselves having to go get a JD or on the flip side? If a lawyer wants to build a legal technology company, how can they get the tech competence in, you know, for the benefit of their business without going and partnering with somebody who’s in tech or themselves learning how to code. It’s sort of once you realize that entrepreneurial skills and expert work are as different as being a lawyer and being a coder, it’s easier to see that you don’t necessarily have to do both of those skills. And it’s really hard to do both at the same time in order for your business to function.
Jeremy Richter: And in the book, you talk about the idea of whether all lawyers, whether it’s solos or small, firm practitioners, whether those guys are entrepreneurs. Do you see that as a — Well, I assume based on the way we’re talking that you don’t see those things as necessarily bound up together.
Mike Whelan: No, and in fact, again, if I’m thinking more in terms of tasks than in how they’re presented, so somebody shared with me the other day, this lawyer who hardly ever practices, but he puts himself out as the person who knows, right; he records a bunch of videos, he writes things, he puts them out himself out to the world as “I know stuff, you should hire me.” That’s an expert veneer. That’s a that’s more of a communication strategy, than it is what I’m doing every day. What that lawyer’s really doing every day is paying other people to tell him what to say on camera, right? And he’s spending most of his time figuring out how to scale, how to grow, about advertising and copywriting, right?
This set of skills that are fundamental to an entrepreneurial business, that it seems sort of esoteric, but I’ll tell you why I think the distinction matters. And this comes from a conversation on the podcast Unemployable, which had Brian Clark and Seth Godin going back and forth on this, and Seth Godin makes the distinction between the solopreneur and the freelancer. The freelancer is making stuff, right. It’s the artisan and that person grows by becoming more and more elite, more and more known as that’s the artist. And they can scale in different ways, right? They grow by capturing their work and repurposing it not by hiring big teams and offering a ton of products, because that’s just a different path. If you’re a solopreneur, Godin points out, it’s not about you making stuff, it’s about you making decisions. He said, it’s about managing people. It’s about, you know, choosing products and solutions design. It’s a different discipline.
The reason I always point to the Daubert case, which is pronounced 500 different ways in the United States, but it’s apparently actually Daubert. So the Daubert case was, if you remember this from law school was about expert witnesses. And the idea was that, you know, once upon a time, experts could sit up on the stand and say, “I’m Dr. so and so, and now let me tell you my opinion on this thing.” And the issue was that juries were like, “He’s called doctor, he’s on the stand, he’s powerful, he knows things, I should believe him.” That was misleading juries. And so that case, the Supreme Court looked at it and said, “I don’t care about your credential. What I care about is your method. How are you getting to your answers? Track for me, the scientific method appropriate for this case, this instance that you used.”
I love that example to tell lawyers, you have a JD, that is a credential. Nobody cares. The only people who care are the licensing agencies, but that is a minimum standard. For a client for a customer, what they want to know is what you do for them. And that has to do with your methods. So if you want to get the good of an expert, that ability to tell people, “Oh, you don’t get to call me whenever you want to, right. You don’t get to tell me what your advice needs to be. You don’t choose a solution. I tell you what the solution is.” If you want that power, that control, great, go earn it, go do the method. If on the flip side, you want the ability to grow and to scale and to become a name on the side of a building. That’s a different method. And you’ve got to follow the method that applies. It’s not realistic to go out into the world and say, because I have a JD and I happen to own my firm, I’m an entrepreneur and an expert, if you haven’t followed either of those methods.
Jeremy Richter: So when I’m listening to a conversation, like the one we’re having on a podcast, because I listen to lots of podcasts, I think, “Okay, well, that’s super interesting. And I really like those ideas. But how do I do that? How do I implement that on a day to day basis in a way that improves what I’m doing?”
Mike Whelan: Right and I in the book, I refer to the different levers, I would point out. If you’re one of these two things, which are not the only two roles on a legal supply chain, if you’ve got a team that you’ve put together to fulfill the different tasks in a connected chain of tasks for a project — being the expert or the entrepreneur are not the only two links on that chain; they are just the most powerful, right? They’re the point of sale. The person who has the relationship has a lot of control. And one artifact of control is money. But it’s also the ability to dictate terms, right? And for you to be able to say, this is my communication policy, if you want me, this is what you have to do, right? People wait in line for an Apple phone, but they’re not going to for whatever the latest crappy phone is, right? You’ve got to earn that. And then you know, the other kind is the deep expert. Those people get to say, No, you don’t get to call me you get to call me on Tuesdays. There’s just a lot of control and a lot of power.
So I present those two ends of the spectrum. In terms of practicality, I identify in the book, some levers that you can pull if you are the expert. How do you get better — and I point out, I think that now you’re — This is a pop quiz, hotshot, see if I can remember what–
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that’s the problem with writing books you have to remember–
Mike Whelan: Seriously. I remember one of them was becoming more expert, right. So doing more of the work to focus on that problem. David Baker — this distinction always confuses people, so I’m gonna blame Baker and not me. David Baker’s book, The Business of Expertise, talks about this. An expert has horizontal positioning, meaning they work on one problem, they don’t care about the context, they super care about the problem. And wherever it pops up, they’ll go be helpful. A vertical positioning is the audience focus, you care about a kind of person, and whatever problem they run into, as long as it’s within the bounds of your business strategy, you try to create a solution for them. So if you’re the expert and you super care about a problem, you get better by learning about the problem writing about the problem, right? Trying to get all the nuances around this super nerdy thing that you are the expert in. You can also leverage your time. So if you can spend more time being an expert, so if you’re trying to be this expert person, stop answering your phone, stop being available by text, stop planning your flights, those are not the highest use of your time. That’s not what experts would do.
Mike Whelan: And then also, I talk about capturing your expertise, which is figuring out ways to scale by doing things like books and courses. An entrepreneur has sort of different levers. So their levers are mostly driven by growth by scale. So how do you get more exposure? How do you get more audience? Those people are paying for exposure, right? They get really good at advertising and paying for attention. They get really good at content and creating trust. They are authors; in the sense that we use it there, they go and they build trust. They’re not experts. They’re authors, right? It’s slightly different. They’re creators of trust. And so as a practical thing, you can look through those little But I do think those two people’s days are very different.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Alright, can we get a little more personal here?
Mike Whelan: Please.
Jeremy Richter: Okay, so this is a show about lawyer entrepreneurs, you left your not failed law practice to do more entrepreneurial work, in part, because you weren’t finding that fulfillment in what you were doing. So do you find what you’ve transitioned to be more fulfilling?
Mike Whelan: Yes, I mean, in short, yes. And I think what might be helpful for this — the book is, is in the end, I say it’s about systematizing self-acceptance. It’s about realizing what your freak flag is, and figuring out how to survive letting that fly, right. And so I’m trying to argue for a system that says, “Lawyers you shouldn’t all be the same. Like the legal industry needs you to be different.” And it’s really bad that we’ve all picked up this idea that we’re supposed to be samesies because we’re missing diverse perspectives and heuristics. And for me, a piece of advice that I might give you is to follow the thank you’s.
Mike Whelan: If my family law clients almost never thanked me, they weren’t excited. I wasn’t somebody that they like to talk to. It was a difficult time that kept screaming to me, “Okay, Mike, you’re doing your job, but you’re not making much of a difference.” There’s not a lot of traction there. But when I hosted the Lawyer Forward Conference in Austin, people would come up to me in tears and say thank you. They would say, “You changed my life. I love you.” People literally told me that they love me. And part of that is the different context obviously, that I’m trying to be helpful. But look, legal conferences are not sexy events either. They’re not fun things to go to, unless you’re making it fun. And so I realized through following those thank you’s that I was getting more fulfillment from teaching and sharing and thinking about these things. And so I just followed that. Joseph Campbell talks about it as following your bliss. Bliss is not some distant passion that you thought of when you were a teenager. You’ve got to go become that thing. For him, bliss is measured by the moment. It’s right now, where do I feel like I can do the best work? And I try to listen to that, and it’s worked out really well.
Jeremy Richter: Alright, so you mentioned Joseph Campbell, who introduced the masses to the idea of the hero’s journey, and a part of that is the idea that at first, and you can see this in — well, let me say, the first part of the hero’s journey or one part of it is that the hero rejects the calling, and you see it in Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings and like all of the epic stories — the hero rejects his journey initially and then accepts it and all the things follow. So before you made this transition, when you have the idea of follow the thank you’s, you’ve realized the difference, but was there a part of you that was unwilling or unable to take this, what to me seems like a scary next step?
Mike Whelan: Yeah, that part is called my wife. Okay, that’s not fair to Nicole. And a bunch of listeners will know my wife because I take her to conferences and stuff with me, and she’s fantastic. And if I ever say anything about Nicole, there will be like hundreds of lawyers who tell me, “No, Mike, you’re the idiot.” So Nicole has been pretty supportive. But early on, I mean, her body just made it difficult for us to take big risks, right? We had to adjust to her health, and we were spending just a fortune on MRIs and stuff. And it was really hard to understand where money comes from, if not from the job, right? Like we all went to law school thinking we were getting the job. And so it was hard to figure out.
Interestingly, and you may or may not have noticed this, when you read the book, when I first wrote the book, it was a boring how-to: this is what the legal supply chain is, logistics applied to law, because that was my pre law background, and trying, you know, to mix these ideas together. And then I read a book called the Story Grid. And they talked about trying to incorporate these hero’s journey aspects. The story now when you read the book, which is a fast read, there’s so much of me going through that period. So I went back and added to the book, this story of me trying to get through there and in the very beginning of the book, you actually see an old guide, there’s a character, his name is Mr. Anderson. He’s sort of a combination of different people that I was seeing, but there was a there was a guy. His name is not Mr. Anderson. That was a matrix throwback. But he was going through this day and it was the grind. And I realized looking at him that this wasn’t the grind that this turn thing was not something I wanted to be in. And so it woke me up.
And you see, in the beginning of the book, I get smacked with this day, and I turned to my wife in Rockport, and I’m like, I can’t do this anymore. And so even though I know at that moment, my weird thing is talking about this overlap of logistics and law, I had always sort of felt ashamed of that combination, because they seem to sort of make me seem fickle, right? That I look like I just couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. And eventually I got into law. And over the course of the book, I realized, no, that’s my strength, right? That weird combo is the gift. At the end, I have an acceptance of the gift, but definitely at first, instead of going out on that on my own, I decided I’m the problem. I’m going to go join a “successful firm” and then ended up seeing the same problems there. And so you see, throughout the book, really the seven stages of grief, right? You see me resisting and getting angry and being depressed and, you know, deliberating and then coming out and accepting my own gift and integrating and so that’s very purposefully and really, that whole emotional journey plays out through the book.
Jeremy Richter: It sounds like you’ve done a lot of self-assessment to come to these realizations. And I know for me, 2018 was the year that I did a ton of reading and listening to podcasts and audiobooks and things just to sort some things out in my head and where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. It took a lot of effort, it was also really rewarding and helped me to be able to internally explain the necessity that I felt or the compulsion I felt to do certain things and be creative. It sounds like you’ve had to do a lot of that same work to get where you are, and come to terms with where you want to go.
Mike Whelan: And if I can be sort of a jerk this is the problem with lawyers is that we don’t do that. And the problem with not doing that is we, because of the case method, because the way we learn the case method, we look at people transactionally. We see them as a linear cause and effect, a very small chunk of their world. And in order to get ourselves to be able to be of service to them, we really narrow their world to this one little thing. That’s a really difficult way to be useful to very complex people living in very complex worlds. And there’s a really great study called “What Makes Lawyers Happy, that came out of a law professor at Florida State. And the same things make us happy to make everybody else happy. It’s relationships. It’s feeling calm, competent, it’s autonomy.
The difference with lawyers is normally way ranked way down at the bottom of things that make people happy are things like money and billable hours, partner status, what school you went to, all these status indicators. What’s weird that this study found is that something happens in law school, that even though it’s the same order of things that actually make us happy, we flip it, we prioritize the dumb things. So we take those very bottom category of things in terms of happiness, and we make them our focus. And so, for me, what I had to figure out how to do was to address those top tier things, the relationship and the feelings of competence and the autonomy and the connection. And that really changed everything for me. The good news is if you do that, they will also make you a better lawyer. Clients don’t need lawyers who only think transactionally. You’ll hear business clients say things like my lawyer doesn’t understand my business, or you know, consumer clients will say, my lawyer didn’t fight for me. In both cases, what they’re signaling is, you need to think in systems not just reductivist thinking, you know, thinking just analytically in a single case. You’ve got to see the big picture. A great place to start with that is yourself. Start to see yourself as a complex person with a lot of needs, and address those.
Jeremy Richter: That’s really good. Was there a singular moment or event in your journey as you started to become discontent with your practice, where you said, “Okay, I’ve got to change this.”
Mike Whelan: There was the early moment when I said, I can’t do this anymore, but exactly what I was going to do with it afterwards, I didn’t know. I will say, after that time — so that senior lawyer, Mr. Anderson, after that time when I was in Rockport, and I decided I wasn’t going to practice that way anymore, we moved to Kansas City, and I was practicing virtually. I was practicing remotely. I was still taking cases because they were the quickest way to get some cash, right. But I’m pulling my brain out of the cases and becoming less and less engaged, but I just couldn’t cut it off. I couldn’t really accept myself. In the middle of that the hurricane happens, and Harvey wipes out Rockport and I get a call one day some two, three weeks after the hurricane and the district clerk in Aransas county and Rockport called me to tell me that that lawyer had killed himself. The lawyer that I wrote about at the beginning of the book, who was my icon, what he was my Obi Wan, right — he was my guide for “I don’t want to live like this.” Here’s my reason why.
He killed himself, and for me, you know, I don’t include that in the book because it would sound gratuitous to say if only he knew about the legal supply chain, he’d be alive today. That’s crazy, obviously. But he didn’t have an emotional reserve. He didn’t have a cash reserve a financial reserve. He was very focused on the churn and just his next hour, not thinking about assets, not thinking about his legacy and his permanent place. And when he killed himself, that struck me so hard, and I shut down my practice, like within a couple months. I got rid of all my cases. I stopped doing it. And I just focused like crazy on writing, on finishing the book on getting my name out there. And frankly, since then, I’ve been really busy. All the stuff that I thought I could never do, right. I write for a living for Pete’s sake. And I tell people, they’re stupid for a living. It’s amazing, right? I get to go around and tell people like, I love you, and I see you, and I want you to feel seen, but this thing you’re doing is dumb and you need to stop doing it. I get to do that all the time. It’s awesome.
Jeremy Richter: Had you already laid the foundations and started to build the business that you’re in before you cut off the law practice?
Mike Whelan: Absolutely. And to get back to the point about Twitter. Virtually every job I’ve gotten in this world has been from Twitter, which is hilarious. There, take that Mom for judging me, right. But really I had spent quite a long time being very transparent. I will say I recognize that this is a gendered thing, that for a man to be really open about his life experience comes off as authentic, it’s interpreted as authentic and transparent. For a woman to do that, I understand that there’s complications to that. But frankly, even for you, I’ve seen a lot of lawyers, I always give the example of Tracy from our group — she was disbarred, for Pete’s sake in Texas, her life fell apart, and yet she was transparent about her life with her son about it. She created a “Hell on Heels” group, she calls it, which is women talking about overcoming the craziness we have to deal with. She would always say the phrase, “Be yourself loudly.” And she did it. And I did it. I did it for years through Twitter.
I was very open about the struggles I was having. I’m starting a podcast soon with a big media company who I’m not going to mention because they haven’t given me permission yet, but on my first call with them, they said, “Oh, you’re the radical transparency guy.” And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know what that means. But sure.” They called me that because on the Lawyer Forward blog, when I started my practice back up, virtually, I was publishing my numbers. I was putting out very broadly, here’s how much revenue I’ve got, here’s where my expenses are. Here’s what I’m doing with that. It was being very public. All of those efforts have paid off, six, seven years later, right. And that’s the weirdest thing. And really the hardest thing about being yourself loudly is it really does take some time to pay. It does not take very long to pay in terms of social capital; you can create friends and connections really quickly. It does take a while in terms of financial capital. And I think that’s probably why most of us avoid that work.
Jeremy Richter: Alright, if people want to follow you, where’s the best place for them to do that?
Mike Whelan: Twitter is my therapy. I’m at Mike Whalen Jr. I do have the same handle on LinkedIn, but you’ll never find me there. And also the Lawyer Forward Facebook group. We have this lawyer for virtual conference coming up next week, and I’m publishing all about it on the Lawyer Forward Facebook group. I’m doing daily Facebook Lives to give people information and resources they can deal with now, so definitely go find me on the Lawyer Forward Facebook group as well.
Jeremy Richter: Mike, I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you for coming on Lawyerpreneur. If you’ve enjoyed the show, you can support it by rating it on Apple podcasts or wherever it is you’re listening. And make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss anything. You can also support the show on Patreon at patreon.com/lawyerpreneur. Thanks for listening.