Matt, where do you practice and what is your main area of focus?
I am a partner at a six-attorney firm in Nashville, Tennessee: Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC. I was previously a solo for about four years before we opened this office almost three years ago. I do exclusively probate litigations.
I started practicing, as I like to say, “door law”; I took basically anything that came in the door. Indigent criminal appointments, small divorces, landlord-tennant dispute I was a general practitioner for the first couple of years as a solo. I started doing probate administration and somehow found my niche as a probate litigator.
Can you describe your practice area and what type of person might need your services?
Sure. I help resolve family disputes related to disability, aging, and death. Sounds pretty grim, but most of my clients are involved in some sort of dispute regarding a loved one.
Is there a general type of dispute or scenario that at would require your help?
I’d say that 75 percent or more of my clients are siblings who are either suing or threatening to sue regarding their inheritance. Will contests, breach of fiduciary duty, contested conservatorships or guardianships. Those are a few types of cases I handle.
How long have you been a member of the Law Practice Division?
As a fellow within the Law Practice Division, what is that exactly?
It’s basically an opportunity for a diverse group of attorneys to integrate into the division leadership.
Once you’re done with being a fellow, will you get involved in the Law Practice leadership?
Hopefully, or just becoming an advocate of the Division and making the Division my home – which I intend to do.
What was the impetus to originally join the Law Practice Division?
Of all the ABA divisions, I feel the Law Practice Division embodies what I’m trying to do with my career, which is to improve my law practice.
What have you found to be some of the biggest benefits of your participation and involvement with the Division?
In addition to the literature and the knowledge base that is there, I find the most helpful resource of the Division is simply networking at conferences. I come away from each conference with a stack of business cards and a new group of friends that I am not afraid to call on if I need a referral or guidance on some aspect of substantive law or practice management.
Can you point anything specific that you may have learned or benefited from at one of the Law Practice meetings that has had some impact on the way that you practice?
I find that many of the attendees at conferences are passionate, fulfilled attorneys who love what they do and want to improve. I take every opportunity to figure out what makes these attorneys different than the unhappy ones.
And what have you discovered?
Avoid burnout at all costs. If you’re unhappy with your practice area or setting, work toward a change. My biggest goal day-to-day is to use technology to my benefit without letting it take over my life. There comes a time everyday where I put my phone away and focus on my wife and my family.
Did you find the Law Practice Division was helpful more as a solo, or do you find that it’s equally valuable now that you’re part of a larger firm?
The resources I used to help start and build my law practice are just as applicable in my firm. In fact, Jay Foonberg’s book How to Start & Build a Law Practice is one of the first books I read before opening shop and I recommend it to everyone who is interested in starting a practice or improving the firm they’re in.
What are some of the big takeaways that you got from How to Start & Build a Law Practice?
Well, Jay’s book I believe is now in its sixth addition and he’s been doing it a long time so I think his book takes the best of proven law practice tips combining the best of the old and the new. For example, just how to write a bill. Clients today want to see the same amount of description as they did 50 years ago. Really, every component of law practice management is addressed in the book. I’ve actually also read another one of Jay Foonberg’s books, How to Write Bills Clients Rush to Pay, so the law practice management literature has been instrumental in my private practice.
I think I actually saw it at one of the first ABA meetings I attended. I think they had the book sitting on a table.
What are some of the technology tools that you use, especially the ones that you find are the most important within your day-to-day practice?
I have the whole family of Macs and I use them all on a daily basis. My iPhone, my iPad, my iMac, all work in sync to make my life easier; your Mac mail, calendar, notes, really your basic apps, I like to keep it simple.
Do you use any type of practice management or document management software?
I’ve used a lot of different case management software. I’ve used several and I’m a fan of Clio.
What’s your favorite thing about Clio?
It’s very intuitive, user-friendly interface. My whole office utilizes all its features.
What’s your biggest challenge right now in terms of managing your practice?
Staff – trying to keep staff happy and productive.
How do you address that?
Making sure goals and expectations are clear and that the line of communication is open.
Have you implemented any specific policies or procedures within your practice to implement that?
I do a weekly case review meeting with my two associates and my two paralegals. Just to make sure nothing is being overlooked.
In terms of practice management, what do you see as being the biggest shift in practice management over the next five years or so? Will that be technology or something else?
I think the “Millennials” will develop more power in law practices. There’s going to be more of an emphasis on work-life balance; on technology being embraced by law firms in courts. And I think the sort of power structure within law firms will become more horizontal. There will be less of a top-to-bottom sense of power.
In terms of practice management goals, do you have anything that you’re currently working on?
My firm is in the process of growing. We are close to outgrowing our existing building and we’re trying to open up satellite offices, so opening those offices without disrupting workflow is my biggest goal for the next few years. My law partners and I are really trying to create the law firm of the future. We utilize cloud-based technology and working remotely – all things that allow our attorneys and our staff to be productive no matter where they are. The ability for me to access tens of thousands of documents at any given point allows me to travel more, to be more efficient, I can find documents much easier. I can do a lot more with limited resources.
What is the biggest difference between what you thought practicing law was going to be versus what you’ve found it actually is?
It’s more inter-personal skills and less academic than I thought it would be. In law school I thought I would be researching and briefing case law daily. There are days I feel more like a therapist than an attorney.
So given that and what you’ve learned from leaving law school, is there any advice you would offer the next generation of lawyers?
Focus on your people skills. I think the most important book I’ve read is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Many lawyers are bad at developing relationships and being likeable, for lack of a better term.
From the marketing standpoint, what are some ways you utilize to increase your profile and bring in new clients?
I focus on face time. In any given week I have at least three meals or a drink with other attorneys and professionals that can help my practice. It’s good for business. I enjoy meeting people. I really like mentoring young lawyers who are interested in opening their practice or older lawyers who are interested in doing the same and I find that they often come across cases that are within my practice area and it builds my book of business.
What other types of professional can be good sources of client referrals for you?
Well, for my firm, financial planners and accountants are very helpful. We tell everyone to come in, and a part of the reason why I started this firm is we tell people to come in and hire my law partner who is an estate planning attorney so that they can avoid hiring me as a litigator. But, really all sort of professionals. My firm is unique and every single family will need one of our services at some point in their life, whether it’s planning, dealing with a death, or the probate process.
How would you describe your ideal client?
A reasonable client. One who is focused on achieving their goal without allowing emotion to take over – as difficult as that is.
What’s the funniest moment you’ve ever had as an attorney?
I guess I was depositing a witness – a very attractive female who had her baby with her and she began breastfeeding in the middle of the deposition. I have nothing against breastfeeding in public or wherever, it just caught me off guard. After stammering for a moment, I asked her if she wanted to take a break, she said she wanted to continue, so I didn’t know whether I should read it into the record or just continue as if nothing happened.
What’s the strangest or most unique type of case that you’ve worked on?
In dealing with very quirky, very eccentric, wealthy people and their inheritance disputes, paintings and statues have become the subject of very heated litigation. And I wasn’t as selective in my first year or two as solo as I am now and a former client was an elderly cowboy who had put on hundreds of circuses all over the country and we actually sued the Metro government because he believed the arena was sort of a good old boy system that had conspired against him.
Is there some type of lesson there?
Sure. Be selective with your clients. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford an attorney and you don’t have to represent clients who are difficult or unreasonable. Trust your intuition when potential clients throw “red flags” during consultations. Be selective about who you represent because it’s a big responsibility and one that you can’t always get out of easily.
It’s the 80/20 rule. I find a very small portion of my client base cause the most stress. I would prefer to represent clients who respect my opinion, who are courteous to my staff – in addition to those who pay their bills.
What’s your proudest moment or greatest achievement as a lawyer?
I was a young lawyer in a rural county and several older attorneys that have been practicing on the town square for combined hundred years basically told me they were going to win [the case]. I felt I had the law and the facts and there was no way they could win. But the trial judge signed every order they submitted. It was like a punch to the gut when I lost at the trial court level and I ultimately took it up to our State Supreme Court and had the trial decision overturned. It was a really great feeling to not be bullied and to be able to persevere for my client’s cause.
And it did actually create some good law in my state.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
This may be a little broad, but I really enjoy life to its fullest. Law practice can get stuffy and very serious. When I don’t have my counselor hat on, I’m up for nearly any adventure. I seize every day. While I am serious at the office, I’m always quick to enjoy a laugh or good company. I’m kind of a country boy at heart. As much as I enjoy the sophistication that law practice affords, I love being outdoors, hunting and fishing, and riding four-wheelers.
Would you say is there a personal trait that contributes to you being a better attorney?
In my practice my clients are generally dealing with one of the worst things that’s ever happened to them. The loss or disability of a loved one combined with litigation can create a nightmare situation, so helping people make the best of the situation and putting it behind them and moving on with their life. And I’m very reasonable. I stay away from “knee-jerk” judgments. I always have a focus on achieving the result rather than drawing a matter out.
Last question. What’s your favorite quote?
I’m going to go with John Lennon’s quote, “Life is what happens while you were busy making other plans.”
Jason Marsh is the founder of Orlando-based internet marketing agency MARSH8. He frequently writes and speaks on how law firms can implement better online marketing strategies to acquire new clients. Jason is the Chair of the ABA, Law Practice Division, Client Development and Marketing Committee, and Editor of Member Spotlight in Law Practice Today.