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From 4 Attorneys to Offices in 9 States with Robb Cruser

When it comes to building a successful law firm, the journey is often as fascinating as the destination. On the latest episode of the Founding Partner podcast, host Jonathan Hawkins sits down with Robb Cruser, the co-founder of the multi-state law firm, Cruiser & Mitchell. With a footprint across nine states and a team nearing 200, Robb shares the remarkable story of his firm’s growth from a modest team of six to a legal powerhouse.

**Humble Beginnings and the Leap of Faith**

The episode kicks off with Robb recounting the firm’s early days, which began on April Fool’s Day of 2000. With just four attorneys and two staff members, the fledgling firm subleased space and made do with secondhand office furniture. Robb humorously recalls his hundred-dollar desk, which served him well for over two decades.

**The CPA Turned Legal Pioneer**

Before diving into the law, Robb was a certified public accountant, an experience that provided him with a unique perspective but wasn’t his ultimate calling. His time at Ernst & Winnie led him to law school, and not long after, to the decision to start his own firm alongside Bill Mitchell, his colleague and friend.

**An Unconventional Start and the Power of Trust**

Robb shares the unlikely story of how his father’s skepticism and eventual financial backing, combined with a bank loan, got the firm off the ground. He also discusses the importance of credibility and turning down a case when necessary, a move that secured him a loyal client for two decades.

**Expanding Horizons: The First Branch Office**

The pivotal moment for the firm’s expansion came unexpectedly when a client insisted they handle cases in New York. Initially resistant, Robb agreed under certain conditions, never expecting the client to take him up on the offer. This leap into the unknown proved to be a game-changer, setting the stage for the firm’s future growth.

**The Founding Partner Podcast: A Must-Listen Episode**

This episode of the Founding Partner podcast is a masterclass in entrepreneurship, resilience, and the power of building strong client relationships. Robb Cruser’s journey is a testament to the fact that sometimes, the best-laid plans are the ones you never intended to make.

Jonathan Hawkins: [00:00:00] Welcome to Founding Partner podcast. I’m Jonathan Hawkins, the host, and we’re lucky today. We’ve got Rob Cruiser with us. He’s the owner, co-owner of a pretty big firm. So Rob, why don’t you introduce yourself. Tell us what you do, what your firm does and where you’re located. I know you have more than one office, so.

Robb Cruser: Yeah. Thanks Jonathan. Good to be with you. Appreciate it. My name is Rob Cruiser and along with my co founder Bill Mitchell. We have the law firm of Cruiser and Mitchell. We are in nine states. Our mothership is Georgia, but we’re in California, New York, New Jersey, Indiana Florida, Washington, Pennsylvania and some others.

But we’re an insurance and defense-oriented firms. We represent insurance companies, insureds companies, self-insured. Our headcount is about 105 attorneys, and our total staff is a little under 200.

Jonathan Hawkins: Wow that’s a big firm. We’re gonna get into some of this. So I imagine [00:01:00] when you started, you didn’t start with nine offices, did you?

Robb Cruser: No, it was it’s still humble, but it was real humble back then. It was four of us and we opened on April’s Fool’s day of 2000. We thought that was appropriate. I sat in the front that we, I had no office. I sat in the reception area with a desk. I signed for the FedExes, I signed for everything that came in.

And it was Bill, two other people and two staff. So there were six of us on April the first of 2000. And it was a very humble, we were subleasing from another company, ComSys, who has since gone out of business. And we actually they were so desperate to get rid of their equipment. They said you can buy all the desks for a hundred dollars.

I had my hundred-dollar desk up until about two years ago. So for the first twenty-two years of the firm, I had a hundred-dollar desk and it was great.

Jonathan Hawkins: That’s a great desk. The annual cost of that, what is that?

Robb Cruser: Hard to appreciate something with no basis.

Jonathan Hawkins: That’s right. So, so your firm’s been around for what, twenty-three [00:02:00] years or so before that, what were you doing? Were you at another firm or?

Robb Cruser: yeah, we were both at Drew Echol, a good firm, another defense firm. We had started there together basically three days apart in 1990. Bill was ahead of me on the letterhead. He likes to remind me on that one, but I clerked there. So I said I had more seniority than him. But we were there 10 years and then we left to start our own firm.

Jonathan Hawkins: Nice. So, we’re gonna get into that, but I noticed that from your bio, that I guess you are a CPA. Did you ever practice.

Robb Cruser: Yeah, I, well, I’m a former CPA just to, I don’t want the licensure people to come after me,

Jonathan Hawkins: We gotta be technical here.

Robb Cruser: Exactly I was a CPA, I was a, I worked for Ernst & Winnie, which back in 1988 was one of the big eight accounting firms. Now there’s only the Big four, but I was in the audit department. I was in Washington, dc.

It was a great experience, great time, and back then you had to practice for one year before you, they’d give you the license. So I practiced one, one year. In one day. I got my CPA license and then I went on to law school and [00:03:00] promptly did not renew the CPA. So it turned out to be good knowledge, but I didn’t keep a license up.

Jonathan Hawkins: So did you know you wanted to go to law school when you became a CPA, or is that something that working as a CPA said, all right, I’m getting out.

Robb Cruser: Yeah, they were mutual reinforcing. I did know I wanted to go but my undergraduate program, once you were in accounting, it was so geared to take in the exam. Like you kind of felt bad if you didn’t. So you take the exam, you help the statistics, and and I enjoyed my time at Ernst. & Winnie. It was great experience.

I did some really interesting audits. I did the circus, the Ringling, Barnum, Bailey, Circus, and when a new elephant was born, is that an asset? Is that a liability? So we had some interesting stuff in that one year that I was there, but then quickly got over to Emory and finished out there in 1990. I.

Jonathan Hawkins: So 10 years into your law career, you decide to go start your own law firm. Is that something you always knew you were gonna do? Or how did that come about?

Robb Cruser: I probably, I wouldn’t say always, there was the lean for sure. You know, in the right environment, I think I could have [00:04:00] just stayed with a firm and just kind of grew within the firm. But my old boss, art Glazer, who is a very well known mediator and heading, he left he was gonna be out of the practice.

And so, you know, I just made partner a year and a half before that and he was my mentor, but my mentor’s gone. And then Bill’s mentor was Ted Freeman and Ted Freeman left to start, you know, Freeman, Mathis. And Bill, I think was the only person that didn’t go with Ted. He should have, ’cause he got stuck with me.

That was a strategic mistake on his part. But, so we were both left a little bit un anchored. Which I’m not saying was determinative, but it certainly played into the decision of, well there’s, you know, our boss is no longer here. We’re boss free. Maybe we can be boss free on our own. So it didn’t take, you know, we talked about it and of course we didn’t have any money.

So that was a complicating factor. So we had this idea that, well, what we’ll do is we’ll go talk to my dad and. We’ll pitch him the plan [00:05:00] and he’ll give us the money to get started. And so we did. We drove down to Savannah, we took our wives and I told my dad, look, we have a business situation. We’d like to talk to him.

My dad’s a kind of a grizzled, you know, cold War dad and business guy. And we go down there and we, I’ve got the, I got the kids and the wife and dad looks at the plan. He talks to Bill and I, he goes, well, fellas, I gotta tell you, I don’t, you guys don’t bring a whole lot to the table here, but what am I gonna do?

I’ll definitely back you. I got no choice. I mean, you’re my son and you’re my son’s best friend, so, you know, I’ll back you until he agreed to loan us some money. And then we told him we needed, I think, $50,000. He goes, no, fellas, you’re gonna need more than that. So he said, go try to get it from a bank, but if you can’t come back to me.

And so with that inauspicious start of him saying, I don’t see you guys bringing much to the table. That’s how we got financially set. And in fact, bill always says Cruiser, Mitchell is because of my dad. He was the cruiser, not me. That’s why we got, I got first billing is ’cause, you know, he agreed to finance it.

But it turns out we didn’t really need [00:06:00] it. The bank helped out and. It went pretty smoothly, frankly. But that was the initial mechanics of how it got going.

Jonathan Hawkins: So were you able to bring clients with you when you started?

Robb Cruser: Yeah, we did. We had I had basically one pretty sound client that I thought was gonna work. Bill had a couple more than I did, but I mean, it wasn’t, it was not a ton of work. It was just enough for him and one associate, and me and one associate. But it was enough. It was just enough. And in fact.

There was a couple clients. I remember one case very distinctly we had a case and it was Georgia Power was involved. And I said to the client, I said, I can’t handle this case. It’s just too big for what I’m doing. And the client it was a TPA and he was so appreciative. He goes, you know, I can just tell you, no one ever turns ’em back.

Oh, they always say they can handle ’em and this, that, and the other. And that guy gave me work steadily for the next 20 years because he always said, well, I know if you couldn’t handle it, you’d tell me. You’ve turned one back when you were just starting your firm. So, so when you must have needed it then.[00:07:00]

So I know you won’t take a case you can’t handle, so I always tell that story of sometimes you turn down a case that’s the best marketing you could do.

Jonathan Hawkins: That’s a great story. Credibility is huge and it worked there. So that is a great story.

Robb Cruser: Yeah, that was good.

Jonathan Hawkins: So, I want to talk through, I mean, you started with four attorneys, one office, you’ve got nine offices, or at least nine states. I wanna. Talk about the growth and you know, you can take us through it how you think best, but you know, how did you, over the years, you know, when did you add your second office or when did you know it was time?

Take us through that.

Robb Cruser: Well, there was no grand plan. I can tell you that we wanted to show you how foolish we were at the beginning. We were just gonna have a boutique firm, so didn’t want to get it too big, too outta control, too tough to manage. And so we had a good client we developed in Atlanta, and we’re doing a lot of volume for this.

We’re like, I don’t know, three, four years into it now. And the client comes and says, we want [00:08:00] you guys to do our New York work. And I’m like, well, can’t do, we’re not in New York. He goes, well, I want you to figure it out. I want you to go. And I’m like. Just to get him off the phone. And this is a kind of a client but you know, kind of a friend at this point too.

And just to get him off the phone, I said, tell you what I’m gonna do. If you promise me 40 cases and a half a million dollars in work up in New York, we’ll be your New York attorney. And so he thinks for a minute and he says, done. I go, what do you mean done? He goes, you just said if I did this and this other thing.

You would do it. And I said, well, I did say that. He goes, all right, well you got two weeks to get somebody up there. And I said, I need a month. And so we didn’t plan New York. A client broke through our Stubbornness and our lack of foresight. And that’s was the aha moment of what these other offices can work.

And that was actually a very big strategic and directional change. ’cause it opened up a lot of different things. [00:09:00] In the life of the firm. So that New York was the first one and that client was great. And you know, now we have, I don’t know, 10, 12 attorneys in New York. Entirely different client base.

That client is gone long gone. They got out of the business and, but it just shows you there’s strategic timing to it. Some luck and if you’re good to people, they’ll try to be good to you.

Jonathan Hawkins: If we could all have a client like that

Robb Cruser: Oh, I’ll tell you it, well, it, it’s it’s a once in a career story. It’s a once-in-A-curtain never happened before. Since,

Jonathan Hawkins: so that, so New York was your first or your second office. I’ll say your first out-of-State office.

And how long ago was that?

Robb Cruser: That’s gotta be 15, 18, almost 20 years. I mean, they were probably four or five years behind the Georgia opening. So it was pretty, pretty close.

And that kind of opened our eyes to this new, you know. Opportunity to practice anywhere. New York New Jersey came quickly after that. It was geographically easy. I mean, just across the river. And they’ve been with us probably 15 years, the same [00:10:00] partner in his group. And that’s about 10 attorneys also.

And then Indiana came and then,

Jonathan Hawkins: so, so before we move on, so I want to go back to the New York office. I’m really fascinated by the firms that add offices in other states. You know, I think it sounds great, but then the practical. Day to day the integration of the new office, the management of the new office, you know, how did you figure that out?

Robb Cruser: Well, I can tell you. 18 years ago was a lot easier than it is now. Having just brought Illinois and Miami on in the last six months compared to what we did in New York 15 years ago, I can tell you now, we have an IT team that goes in. We have a banking team that goes in. We have a back office team that goes in and we have a training team that goes in to the site, sets everything up, does the training, some training’s online, but some training’s in person.

And it’s just a much different, I mean, it’s a it’s a [00:11:00] very hands-on. Systematic checklist-based approach. When we did New York back in the day, it was more just more mom and pop. But I can tell you central to it all is having the right partner without the right partner. It’s doomed.

And we’ve had a few office, not one office not work out because we had the wrong partner. And he might say the same of us. But our New York partner, same Randi Novitz, fantastic. She’s, she started it. She’s still with us. We’re still going strong. Doug Sanchez, managing partner in New Jersey, same deal.

Been with us going strong. You know, he’s just a few years behind Rondine. So, just getting that key partner makes all that transition so much easier. And,

Jonathan Hawkins: Okay, so, so let’s. Unpack that a little bit. So you have the client come to you, we’ll give you 40 cases, go figure it out. How did you go about finding the right partner?

Robb Cruser: well we,

Jonathan Hawkins: some frogs? How did you find the person?

Robb Cruser: The first one, bill had a friend Justin Lohenberger and Justin he developed that and Justin said, [00:12:00] I’ve got this co-worker named Rondine Novitz. And we said, okay, great. You two can do it together. Your friends. They were on the plaintiff’s side at the time and we said, well, let’s, you know, it’s just a reverse and we’ll just do it that way.

Well, it wasn’t long before Justin didn’t wanna do defense work, so Rondine was quickly. Then she, it just, when you have the right person, you have a mindset of, okay, we’re gonna overcome the obstacles, whatever it is. The trust account’s not right. The, it is not right. Getting the right people is challenging, but when you have someone with that overcoming mindset, which Rondine has and very hard to fluster her it just makes the process go easier because she accepts the potholes along the way.

So it wasn’t, it, it wasn’t as, it was difficult and challenging, but manageable.

Jonathan Hawkins: You know, I think you’re right. You know, finding the right partner. You and Bill, perfect example. I. I do a lot of law firm partnerships and you know, people ask, you know, what’s the [00:13:00] key? I’m not sure there’s one key, but certainly there’s gotta be trust, respect give and take is much like a marriage.

You know, and so you found the right person in New York and New Jersey. What was, what did you say was after those two offices?

Robb Cruser: We had Indiana that came along just actually through a friend of a friend. A trucking client had a firm they used and he wanted to break out and wanted to do something different, and they just introduced him to us. Sometimes we don’t have this great, here’s our ten-year plan. What we have is a very short-term plan, and then we kind of open up, we just opened opportunities.

I, I dunno if you’ve ever read Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, of course, his book Eat More Chicken, inspire More People. He goes on about, you know, there’s nothing wrong with having these ten-year plans. He goes, we don’t have, we never had a ten-year plan. We just had a, you know, like these short little three-year plans.

And then we were open to what came our way. We weren’t tied to the plan that we had concocted. We, you know, it’s really hard to read the future, so we’re not gonna play that game. We’ll do the three-year and then we’ll open ourselves to [00:14:00] opportunities. And I always kind of agreed with that line of thinking. So that’s what.

Jonathan Hawkins: big believer in that too. So the opportunity, the universe, God, whatever you wanna call it, will present opportunities. You gotta be, you know, you reach the fork in the road, you gotta pick it up. And so it sounds like I. Maybe all tell me, are all the offices you added, were they sort of opportunistic or did you ever go out and say, Hey, we want to go to this market, or maybe client-driven, even like the first one.

Robb Cruser: Yeah, the, we actually did Headhunters on two of them. So those were, I would say, opportunistic. We always wanted California because we’re marketing, you know, we’re going to a client. We’re saying the marketing, you know, just opens up so much. When you have other offices, you go market a carrier or TPA and they say, oh, we don’t have anything in Georgia.

Okay, well that’s the end of the trip. I’ll see you later. What about New York? Or what about New Jersey? Or what about Indiana? Oh, you got somebody in Indiana? Yeah. We don’t, you know, we need someone in Indiana and we kept getting inquiries like, do you have anything in California? No, we don’t have anything in [00:15:00] California.

That was, that in Texas and Florida were always the ones that would say we they have opportunities. So we had a HUD Hunter get involved and found Mark for us. Mark Simmons and Mark’s just been fantastic. He came on board in 2016. And grew that office from four or five attorneys to, he’s now got twenty-one twenty-two attorneys, and that’s only since twenty-sixteen.

So, that’s when you have these, it’s a virtuous marketing cycle, which is really strategic as these other offices you can market for one another when you’re marketing for yourself. And that has been a big catalyst to our growth.

Jonathan Hawkins: So you mentioned earlier the way you did it in the beginning, sort of mom and pop-ish versus now. It sounds pretty sophisticated now. How did you figure that out? I mean, obviously I think, I’m sure you made some mistakes along the way. I’m always fascinated by these [00:16:00] firms that have growth like yours, and I think you probably get better every time you off open a new office.

How did you figure that out? And you know, do you have the right, did you have to go hire people internally, externally to help make the process work?

Robb Cruser: You know, it’s like anything you do it, you trial and error. You make the mistake, you figure out the trust account wasn’t right in New Jersey, so we’re not gonna have that problem in Chicago. We’re gonna get ahead of it, which is a very true story. We now have the team the same, the it, we have a we have a third party IT team that works in our space.

They’re third parties, but they’re in our space and, you know. It’s kind of funny. Michael will come to me and he’s come to me every for the last 20 years. Now, are you guys gonna grow at all? I said, no, we’re not growing Michael. We’re not adding another office. Absolutely not. He goes, ’cause it’s important ’cause we have to add the server and it has to have capacity.

And so about 15 years ago, he stopped listening to me when I said, no, we’re not gonna grow. He goes you’re gonna tell me you’re not gonna grow and then you’re gonna come up with me and say you’re gonna do Illinois and Miami [00:17:00] in six months from now. And actually he turned out to be right, but he knows he’s done every conversion, his team on the IT side.

So that’s kind of locked in. Our back office, Elizabeth she’s done the trust account and the banking on each of these, so she knows what has to happen, the business license, all that. So, you know, we do have a process. We have a, like I said, it’s checklist driven. And it works when you have the right people.

And right now our, we were able to transition to, like I mentioned, both Illinois and Miami in Q-three. Q-four of twenty-twenty-three. Now, we’ve never done that before. Bring on two within a small timeframe. But you know, the team is good.

Jonathan Hawkins: The other piece of that, I’m curious how long it takes the other, you know. It sounds awesome to, to expand and add offices, but when you really think about it, it’s not like you just add these people to the website and you’re going, I mean, you’ve got files, you’ve got a transfer, you’ve got [00:18:00] data dumps, you have to move.

Perhaps they’re moving from one system, you know, document management system or practice management system to yours. That takes time, and I’m sure there’s all sorts of pitfalls along the way. It’s, and it’s not cheap either. I’m sure that. You know it takes time and costs money.

Robb Cruser: It’s it can’t take too long because all the expenses are front and the revenue trails of course. And there are, that’s why I don’t think we would take a big, like our sweet spot is at two to five firm. If you told me, well, let’s gobble up a ten-person law firm. I’d be really reluctant on that because I wouldn’t wanna sow the seeds of our own destruction.

You gotta have, you know, I look at it as, you know, if you’ve got a quarterly billing client or maybe even a bi-monthly one, so we’re out 60, 90 days before we can even bill, it’s gonna take another 60 days collect. So we’re five to six months of expenses for five attorneys and three staff with zero revenue coming in.

I mean, that’s gonna absorb your line of credit. You know, you’re gonna, what are you gonna put on that? A million, [00:19:00] 1,000,002. We, so we project it up very, there’s no there’s no back of the envelope here. We have a very detailed spreadsheet saying, this is the, all the projections for the new office.

This is how long it’ll take to break even. Because in my mind, a thriving culture has three things. Has, you know, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, positive cash flow. And if that last piece isn’t there, I’m not interested. We can’t have negative cash flow for too long. It’s gotta even out, and it should after 10 months to two years, depending on the firm and the billing structure.

So I absolutely have to keep eye on that. Absolutely has to be sooner rather than later because of the cash flow.

Jonathan Hawkins: So that’s an interesting point I imagine you have. Been presented with opportunities that you run through your metrics, whatever they are you know, one of them, obviously if it’s a 10 person or bigger practice, you’re probably gonna say no. And so you probably, the good thing is you’ve got your metrics, you can run ’em through there before you go to the next stage.

I’m sure that’s happened a few times.[00:20:00]

Robb Cruser: I mean, yeah, I mean, we will look at a, we’ll look at a firm and either the the practice is something so foreign that we don’t, do, you know, it’s a bankruptcy or it’s this, that, or, well, we’re not, I can’t market bankruptcy that doesn’t fit within our platform of marketing. I can’t get there.

So that wouldn’t work. And if the numbers, you know, the numbers have to be right and we always are conservative and we think they’re gonna bring less revenue than they say we think the expenses are. We, you know, we bump those up 10% ’cause they’ll be more expensive than you think. But we get a pretty, pretty good estimate.

You can tell if you wanna do business with another entity, if they’re willing to give you the data, then that’s a very good indicator that it’s, it could be a good partner.

Jonathan Hawkins: So in case anyone out there is listening that might be interested, you know, are you interested, would you be open to more acquisitions or new offices? And if so, what’s some of the, what are some of the things you’re looking for?

Robb Cruser: Where are you, Texas? We’ve been trying to get Texas for, oh my gosh, I dunno, 15 years. Houston or Dallas. We’re [00:21:00] not picky. We’d probably even go with San Antonio if you’ve made us, but. We’ve had so many close, it just didn’t work. And it was fine. It didn’t work. ’cause we really are not very happy.

Jonathan as you know, you just, sometimes you just, what you have is what you have and you’re blessed to have it. But we have been trying to get DC like I said, two decades. And so if you if there’s a Texas firm out there that’s five attorneys that’s looking to looking for opportunities, love to talk to you.

Jonathan Hawkins: All right. Yeah. Alright, so, you know, you’ve grown this firm from four to over a hundred attorneys. What does your typical work week look like in terms of client work, firm management, marketing, business development, that sort of thing? You know, how do you divide up your time?

Robb Cruser: And I’m in all of it, all of the above. I mean, we, as I’m still involved in litigation heavily. I have an active caseload still. Don’t plan that to change. That’s why I got into this originally. I can pick and choose my cases and, you know, part of having a growth mentality [00:22:00] is to, you know, keep growing and making opportunities available for others.

But I like to have my caseload too. As far as management, very hands-on my CPA background, just as this I get, we call the big four reports on every office every month, so I, there’s no wondering where people stand, if. Who’s up, who’s down? Are they in the red? Are they we are, you know, some law firms, and I preach this all the time. You, you have to have, you have to design a thriving culture. And that takes two things. That is on the business side. You’ve gotta have growth-oriented number one, and you gotta have the right incentives. And on the right incentive side, you don’t know what you have unless you’re tracking the numbers.

And you’ve gotta give your partners their numbers every month. So that they know and they can course correct if necessary. And so you don’t get six months into something and you’ve got a big problem somewhere. It is just you. How do I spend my time? So I’ve got the litigation piece, I’ve got the management oversight.

You know, I’m in, I’m the, I’m in charge of the [00:23:00] it, I’m the chairman of the IT department. ’cause I think the computers go down or trouble. I’m in charge of the the banking committee. Bill handles the marketing, then we jointly handle operations in consultation. We have a. Obviously we have a CFO and we have a I guess we have a 10 person back office, but you know, we do that internally.

All our accounting is internal. All our, it is external. We use a third party for that.

Jonathan Hawkins: So another question. You’ve got nine states you’ve cover, is it in office, hybrid, virtual? How does that shake out?

Robb Cruser: All right. Typically we let the managing partner of the individual office, let say Rondine in New York. We try to let her run her shop. I mean, that’s part of the what we say is our appeal is we’re not gonna, you know. Micromanage you at all. So if she, if the market in New York requires there to be remote, then she can meet the market by doing it.

There’s nothing ordained from Atlanta and same with California. And so [00:24:00] we if we do it on a office by office basis. Now in Atlanta, up until recently I was, you know, I still think people should come in, especially if you’re a young attorney. This idea of remote as a young attorney, I learned to be an attorney by. By following Art Glaser around for five years. I listened to how he handled phone calls looked at his markups of my briefs. I don’t understand why young attorneys wanna work remote. I tell ’em, look, the market demands, I let you do it and I will let you do it. But I just tell you, I think it’s. Negating your professional development and they poo-poo me and say, I’m, you know, old and archaic and we just leave it at that. We’d agree to disagree. I’m

Jonathan Hawkins: I’m with you. I can see both sides of the argument, but I’m with you. And thinking back on the origin of your firm, if you and Bill did not work together in the office and you were both remote working in different places, probably this firm wouldn’t be here, right?

Robb Cruser: No doubt about it. I mean, [00:25:00] so much of what happens is unscheduled. Is on planned. I mean, I got the job at Trel ’cause I was walking by the hall when Art glares was leaning down to pick up a file at a filing cabinet and he needed some legal research done and he said, who are you? I said, well, I’m an inter.

He goes, come here into my office. That is how I met art and that’s how I got my offer in 1988. If I would didn’t come around that corner, it never would’ve happened if I hadn’t been in the office. It doesn’t happen. I mean when you’re in the office and there’s some emergency, guess who, you go to the people in the office and all of a sudden you know who the people you can go to take care of emergencies.

Well, guess what happens? You go to them again and again and the people that aren’t there outta sight outta mind. I don’t think it’s good for their professional development, but like you and I am not if that’s their thing. ’cause we also say work-life balance. So I can’t be a hypocrite. I got work-life balance.

Okay. Actually the market also demands RiverMilk, so [00:26:00] I’m, this is my little opinion, but I’ll work with you.

Jonathan Hawkins: Yeah, I think probably a blend is the place to be. It reminds me, I hear a lot these, you know, conferences and conventions, they say the magic. Is not in the room listening to a speaker. The magic is in the hallways when you’re interacting with the other folks there, or maybe at dinner, coffee, whatever it is.

That’s where the magic is. I think that’s the same thing in an office. It’s headed to the kitchen, getting a soda or whatever. That’s where the

Robb Cruser: It’s a true, it’s a true Cathy thing. It. All of a sudden opportunities to present themselves, you didn’t plan on whether it be in the hallway, the kitchen, all those places you’ve just described, everybody has a story of you’re not gonna believe what happened to me. Everybody has that story. If they’re out and about.

No one has that story in their kitchen, in their own house, in their bedroom, in front of their laptop, unless you’re a good digital marketer and you could be on LinkedIn. But those stories are few and far between.

Jonathan Hawkins: So a minute ago you, you mentioned culture. How do you [00:27:00] and your firm, how do you guys work on culture with. The multi offices, the multi states, the different subcultures or the different decisions about in-office, out of office. How do you work to blend the firm culture firm wide?

Robb Cruser: I think I have you to thank for a little bit of it. Jonathan. ’cause when we were small and everybody was in Atlanta and coming to the office every day, I mean the culture was expressed, shoulder to shoulder, partner to associate mentoring, the old classic style that you work hard, serve the client. It was very easy to see the culture, but when you grow, I don’t see California, I don’t see the other offices.

And even if I was there. How do you instill culture experientially to someone who comes in two days a week or how even, and let’s say they come in three days a week now, but their boss isn’t there. Their boss is now working remote. So between the two of them, there’s no longer the shoulder-to-shoulder stuff.

So we had a history of [00:28:00] showing our culture through experience that no longer is enough. So frankly, when I got your invitation, I said we were working on it. I said, we have to accelerate this. We gotta. We gotta do the manifesto, we gotta do the firm manifesto with what is our culture, what’s our vision, what’s our mission, what’s our brand?

So, you know, we’ve written all that up and we’re about to kind of do a big rollout, firm wide explaining, this is the design. We gotta have growth mindset and the right incentives, and then how we’re gonna build it. We need our can-do mindset, we need competence and we need compatibility.

Those are the things we’re going to strive as our structure. And if we can do those things, then we can deliver on the whole purpose of the thing, which is employee engagement with customer satisfaction and positive cash flow. So I think one lesson as we got bigger, as we’ve ignored the culture too long, we’re too busy to talk about culture.

Our cultures we’re busy and we’ve taken a step [00:29:00] back and we’ve, you know. We’ve realized that culture, basically, as Jack Wilkes says is everything.

Jonathan Hawkins: I will be interested to hear how that goes over the next year or two. I’ve talked to others that have sort of gone through the process and it changes everything obviously once they’re there. But even on the hiring side and the, you know, the onboarding, it really changes everything. So

Robb Cruser: you’ll see it because you’re, you’ll see it ’cause you’re in the introduction.

Jonathan Hawkins: So, so let’s talk about well, yeah, I do wanna see that. Let’s talk about hiring and training. How do you approach that? Again, you’ve got a hundred lawyers, you know, people don’t stay at the same firm forever, so I’m sure you have people come and go. Like any firm, how do you manage that part of the you know, firm?

Robb Cruser: Well, we, people come, go and come back. So we’ve had that dynamic at least three [00:30:00] times. That’s right off my head in Atlanta. I tell when we hire, especially on day, I will tell you when you talk about people leave, I. I recently had someone come to me, a very good attorney at our firm, and she said, you know what I got a better offer.

I’m gonna leave. And it was to a good firm. And I said, well, first of all, you should always come. You’ve come to me. Thank you. You should always come to me. If it’s dollars, that’s fine, but let me ask you this. Are you chasing dollars or opportunities? ’cause I always tell people, don’t chase dollars.

Chase opportunities. For instance this partner you’re gonna work for, what clients are you gonna work for under him? Well, I’m not sure. Alright. How many partners has that partner made? Has he made none over the last 10 years or has he made four? Because you want someone who makes partners ’cause you wanna be partner and all that made sense to her.

I said, well, go investigate it. And she did. She said, I’m stat, I found out he hasn’t made anybody a partner and the money was, we could do something on the money. So [00:31:00] I, that’s kind of my, those are my. On hiring chase opportunities, not money. And the work life. We work with people. We talk about the remote.

That’s a big factor. But it is the most challenging hiring environment I’ve been involved in in thirty-three years. In fact, we’re, hey, out there, we’re looking for any three to five year associate good work life balance, plenty opportunities. So, we are looking fiercely. In fact, we brought on a full time, hiring coordinator just to beat the bushes for us. So that’s, we didn’t have that a year ago.

Jonathan Hawkins: Well, I commend you on the way you handled that person saying they wanna leave. I’ve heard stories, I guess secondhand from folks that went to tell their superior that their, you know, their boss or whatever, that they’re leaving and it was, get the hell outta here, except it wasn’t hell that they said and they were locked out.

I, I have a friend of mine that. You know, basically get out, locked him out. He had court the [00:32:00] next morning, he had to show up without a file and tell the judge I don’t have my files, but I’m here. So, so, yeah. And the fact that folks have left and come back, I think that says a lot. So, real quick on hiring, I know it’s the most challenging.

I hear that from a lot of people. Have, has it changed at all? Has it gotten better? Is it still as tough as it was? You know, three years ago,

Robb Cruser: It’s not as tough as it was three years ago, but there, but it’s not good. It’s, there’s been a, some improvement. We’re getting more resumes, more people that are willing to venture out of the house. More people that are like, all right, well COVID’s over. It’s really over. I’ve kind of, I don’t wanna say milked it for as long as it’ll go, but I gotta start my professional career.

Let’s get going. So we’ve actually had I think two or three hires since. December. So it’s better, but by no means it’s a, it is a, it’s a candidate’s market, not an employer’s market for sure. At least on, on kind of defense firms.

Jonathan Hawkins: Well, I’ve heard that across the board, no matter what the type of firm, so.

Robb Cruser: In fact, I [00:33:00] just saw, and I won’t mention his name, A good plan’s attorney, and he sent out, you may have seen it, it was on his LinkedIn. He said, I will pay $5,000 to anyone who refers me an associate three to five years. And I emailed him back and said, that’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. So it, it does tell me it’s on both sides.

Jonathan Hawkins: Wow. I had not seen that. I’ll have to go

Robb Cruser: tell you off, I’ll tell you off air. Who did that?

Jonathan Hawkins: So I want, I wanna shift a little bit and talk about, I know you, you’ve authored at least one book, maybe more. So let’s talk about the book. I think it’s called disrupt the Disruptive Lawyer. Tell me about that.

Robb Cruser: I’m sorry, Jonathan, do you mean this book?

Jonathan Hawkins: Oh, you got that one. Litigation Management. Do you got more than one or is it.

Robb Cruser: Yeah. And then we’ve got, of course, our negotiation book. No our Disruptive Lawyer. One is the litigation manage book. Book that’s. That I give Bill a hundred percent of the credit on that. Without his leadership on that, it wouldn’t have been, wouldn’t have been done. He did about 90, 80% of it, whatever it is.

And then I came in and I did some [00:34:00] organizational stuff, but he wanted, you know, he’s passionate about litigation management and the right skills, coupled with the right management litigation plan, litigation management plan to quickly and effectively move cases. I think everybody believes that in a general sense, but he wanted it reduced to writing so that it would become the brand of the firm and it would set not just a promise that we’re making to our clients that this is what we do, but also a standard for our own people.

This is what we do. So whenever anyone says what is different about or what’s procuring, say, we are disruptive lawyers and it means this. That’s what this book. Came from, and I’ll tell you, it’s been it’s been a great North star for the firm, the part, the members of the firm and all the way from partner to associate, but it’s a brand.

It doesn’t talk about vision, mission, and culture. It’s the brand. Now, all [00:35:00] those are important, but we kind of went things backward. We had our brand set before we had our vision, mission, and culture. So now we’re catching up on those elements of our firm life.

Jonathan Hawkins: So the content and the principles or whatever that are in the book, is that part of the training and the onboarding when you bring on a new office, bring on a new.

Robb Cruser: Yeah. Every new attorney gets both books. They’re they go, they’re told to read ’em. And then their partner, if it’s California, mark Rondine in New York will sit down with ’em and go over firm culture, firm history, but also emphasize, I mean, it’s hard to miss it. It’s in the book, the Disruptive lawyer.

It’s on the website. Disruptive Lawyer. That’s our brand. So someone says to you tell me about Disruptive lawyer and you don’t know about it. Well, then we have a training problem.

Jonathan Hawkins: So it sounds like you use it internally for your team and your attorneys. I imagine you also use it as a client development or business development tool.

Robb Cruser: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been [00:36:00] bill does a lot of webinars on negotiation the master negotiations webinar and that it started with the litigation management book about the techniques and tools we use, and then that morphed into the negotiation book, which I also showed you. So it’s a big piece of our marketing development.

It’s digitally and of course hard copies, and it’s been very fruitful. We’ve gotten new leads and new clients as a result of both books, which I again, give Bill a hundred percent of the credit on.

Jonathan Hawkins: So, where do you get the book? How would I go about ordering it?

Robb Cruser: Yeah, just go on our website, you’ll see an order form that you just fill out digitally and our marketing director will send you either one of the books the litigation management or the. Negotiator,

Jonathan Hawkins: I’ll tell ya. You know, they talk about leading with the book. I think it’s great. You’ve got two. It, I. It is not easy to get a book together and publish, so

Robb Cruser: it only took us 20 years. What’s, how hard could it be? It just takes 20 years. But the next one took, first, one took [00:37:00] 20 years. The next one took 18 months. And actually we’re working on the culture book partially as a result of the prompting of this podcast. And we should have that done in the, within the year.

Jonathan Hawkins: That’s cool. And will that be an internal or external?

Robb Cruser: We’re not sure. ’cause externally it would be kind of turning us into business consultants, which I’m not adverse to, but that’s, you know, I’m a lawyer, not a business advisor, but we’ll see, you know, you know, drew Kathy. Let’s see what opportunities

Jonathan Hawkins: Well, you know, that’s the second part of your career. I think a lot of people, this part of this, the reason for this podcast is, you know, selfishly I wanna learn, but I think others wanna learn too, from four lawyers to over 109 states. That’s, you’ve got a lot to, to tell people about. So. Don’t say no.

Robb Cruser: Exactly. Never know.

Jonathan Hawkins: So another thing, you know, I tell people, starting a firm is easy nowadays, fairly easy. You need a law degree, internet, and maybe a trust account. And you can quote, turn on, you know, open up, [00:38:00] you’re there. But building a firm’s not easy. You’ve talked about a few of the things. You know, hiring’s tough right now.

Getting people on board, all these things. How do you manage it? What are some of your daily habits to help you manage the firm and manage all these offices?

Robb Cruser: Well, a couple things is you partner up with you pay up is what I, you know. There’s some key positions that you just don’t quibble about. I would say, you know, my executive assistant don’t quibble with that. I don’t quibble with my back office financial people. I don’t really quibble much with RIT.

You know, they present the contract and we don’t fight ’em on it. So I would say pay up for talent and don’t be miserly. Just get that done. I would say, you know, bill, it’s when you practice with someone who’s a, you know, if not the best friend, you know, a very good friend that eliminates so many you know, I call it the sixty-forty principle is running a [00:39:00] law firm is very difficult if you have people that are only willing to go 40% of the way.

When you have people I remember a quote, Barbara Bush. They asked her, what’s the secret to your nearly seventy-year marriage with. President Bush and she said, oh, it’s easy. Well, what is it? What is you? Well, each of us was willing to go 75% of the way, and now I’m not asking a partner to go 75% of the way, but you know, if you have, if you’re willing to go 60% of the way and you get these people, you know, you talked about trust in a partnership.

Trust is right. Toughness is right, but a generous spirit if I’m willing to go 60% with my partner and that partner’s like-minded and they’re going to willing to go 60%, guess what? You don’t have many issues that are too far. If you’re both willing to do that and we’ve just, you know, when you’re generous financially to your partners, you don’t, I would say that is you only build a firm with the right incentives.

And the right incentives mean you’ve gotta pay high-performing partners with control and money. You got to because. You [00:40:00] can’t High-performing partners will not subsidize mediocrity for long, and they certainly won’t be told what to do by mediocrity or a group of mediocre. Performing attorneys. So if you’re a high performer, you’re gonna have control and you’re gonna have the money.

It’s all formulaic. Some firms is this black box concept, which they swear by and that’s fine, but I’m on the other side of that. I want everything transparent. Here’s our, here’s the formula I go back to Truett Catholic. You wanna be a franchisee. They get 15% off the top and 50% of the profit.

That’s the Truett Catholic, that’s the model. That’s a very simple incentive, and they have. Was it 20,000 applicants for seventy-five spots every year? So is it generous enough? Absolutely. You got that kind of demand. It’s pretty generous. So, and they have a 5% attrition rate because people die. Their operators are dying here and there or their divorce or whatever happens.

But that’s how you know when many want to come. And if you want to leave, that’s how you know you have the incentives. Right. I would say the same as building a partnership. [00:41:00] You’ve gotta have the incentive so that. The high-performing ones wanna stay and no one really wants to leave, and the mediocre ones are paid mediocre.

I don’t mind if you have mediocre performance, that’s fine. You just get mediocre dollars and you get mediocre control. And that’s the deal here. And it’s not like, well, what’s Rob? Whatever, Rob and Bill decide. Not at all. Here’s the formula. Whatever your number is, that’s your number. Everybody knows exactly what they get paid.

There’s no ambiguity. So, and if the number’s good enough. If that eliminates a lot of problems, you give ’em enough control, that eliminates a lot of problems, and then they have a generous spirit that eliminates all the problems.

Jonathan Hawkins: So you’ve talked a lot about, I think what makes a good partnership work, which I think is important. I get a lot of attorneys coming to me start asking about starting a new partnership. And one of the things I tell ’em is, you know, you gotta trust each other, that sort of thing, but also vision. You need to be on the same page.

And that can change over [00:42:00] time. And you guys have been going at it, you and Bill for, you know, over 20 years. How do you, how have you managed that part of it in terms of growing together as opposed to growing apart?

Robb Cruser: You know, sometimes you just, you stay like minded. I mean, I feel a little bit fortunate in that now Bill’s had a little bit more interest in the marketing side and less on the on, I mean, he’s got an active caseload too, don’t get me wrong, but mine’s a little bit heavier, and so I’m like, great, pursue that.

I mean, if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have the books. And the books have led to a lot of work, not just for him, but for other people within the system. So that worked out beautifully. I think you just have to we’re in a little bit different position because. We started the firm, but if you let people say they want to do sideline this or sideline that, well under our system, you can do, I wanna work less ’cause I want to take a sabbatical with my kid or whatever.

That’s fine. You know what you’re getting paid. It’s all formulaic. So we kind of have a built-in system where if people have a new interest, [00:43:00] less of an interest to do the billable hour and more of an interest to do something else, you know, we can accommodate that. Now at some point it’s not worth having ’em around.

I mean, it’s, you know, it’s like you build 200 hours. It’s, there’s a lot of time and trouble to process someone who does 200 hours. But generally speaking you know, we can accommodate it. And we also don’t want people, Hey, if you can’t thrive doing what we do. That’s what we’re, but we wanna create opportunities so people can grow and thrive.

If you can’t grow and thrive with us, no, no problem leave. In fact, we want you to leave. We don’t want you to be somewhere you don’t want to be. We don’t want, ’cause then you lose that can-do spirit. You lose that generous spirit and it’s just a negative. You gotta want to come in, want to be with the people.

Otherwise it’s, to me, it’s neutral or negative.

Jonathan Hawkins: So your firm is twenty-three twenty-four years old now. You’ve learned a lot. You’ve been through a lot. If you could go back to your self back in March or April [00:44:00] of 20 or 2000 and give yourself any advice as you embark on starting this firm. Is there anything you would tell yourself to do differently or not to do?

Robb Cruser: I would say, you know, I would say this any, I guess, not just to myself, but any young person it took a lot of it, it’s a tr tough balance. ’cause people say they want to grow associates, I want to grow, okay, I want you to grow and here’s, you know, here’s some opportunities for you to grow with.

Why don’t you just prepare a paper on this subject matter expertise and we’ll get it out on a blast or on a LinkedIn. We’ll get it to a thousand people and we’ll see what happens. But. They don’t want to do the blog post now. You’re very active. I can guarantee you, you have to spend a lot of time juggling family work and getting, knocking out those LinkedIn.

And I had this kind of saying, I said, what do you do during the midnight hours? I had a high school friend and he we had a fascist and. [00:45:00] Mike, the assignment was they paired us all up with someone, do a short story and present it to the class. So all of us did. Most of us did this generic, two characters.

We say the speak the words, three minutes, it’s over. Well, Mike and his partner made a movie now in 1981, you couldn’t make a movie. Okay? You had a projector on your shoulder and there was no, so there was no sound. He dubbed it and I’m like, Mike. How did you do that? You have school, you have sports after school, and you have a job after.

After sports. He goes, oh, I stayed up till three in the morning, two nights. Well, when I was 16 and 17, I didn’t know you were allowed to stay up till three in the morning. I thought he was cheating. I thought, Mike, I gonna have to turn you in. But Mike was different. He used those midnight hours, and so I just would tell people. If you’re not willing to put in those midnight hours, then don’t. Don’t stress about your professional growth. [00:46:00] You want a different trajectory. But if you want, you have to decide what trajectory you want and then align it to the work you’re willing to do. Actually the reverse. What work are you willing to do?

And that’s gonna align your trajectory. So I would tell people, you can eliminate a lot of stress in your life by determining the angle of your trajectory. And then I would tell ’em. No one, you know, you worry about worst case on this and stress about this deadline. Stress. It all tends to work itself out.

It all tends to work itself out. No one’s died or gone to jail in the history of the firm. And yeah, you win some, you lose some, but you have to, you know, sometimes the patient does. You have to be a little philosophical and tough. Like I said, my, you know, my partner. I want tough trust and generous spirit and social skills and. Sometimes you just gotta be tough. But I would tell my younger self, generally it’s gonna work out. You know, try not to stress too much and determine what kind of work you want to have. You want to. I’ve been, you know, I’m [00:47:00] sure I’ve gone the wrong way sometimes on too much work and not enough family balance, you know, with five kids, I’m sure.

I mean, that’s of course happened, but I would tell people, figure that out.

Jonathan Hawkins: I’m with you. I built my practice on the side, or in addition to a full-time associate load that I had back in the day. No, no one at my firm did what I do now. No one really even knew or told me to do it. I just did it and I remember. I would buy, I bought my own treatises and read them cover-to-cover.

I remember thinking I was gonna write a book, you know, many years ago, and I was sitting at the kitchen table as my kids were taking a nap or whatever, and I’m doing all this stuff. My wife thought I was crazy and maybe I was and it was a lot of work and you know, no one saw it. I don’t know why I did it.

I’m glad I did. I don’t even know why, but I did it. And you know, people see. Success or whatever they think success is, and they don’t see all the hard work and all the [00:48:00] years and all that behind it. And you know, there are different approaches, different ways to do it, but it’s very rare that somebody just got completely lucky and stepped into it.

Now luck happens, but you gotta be ready for it. I think that’s huge.

Robb Cruser: One of our elements of. A thriving culture is competency. And your comment just made me think one part of the book is Bear Bryant had his famous saying is, it’s not the will to win. We all have the will to win. It’s the will to prepare to win. It’s the will to for you to go on your kitchen table and read through these corporate books and carve something out that no one expected you to do.

It’s what true Cathy calls the want to. His first element of success is the want to. You had the want to. How do you measure the want to in people? It’s very difficult, but that’s what I would, you know, tell a young person on that is figure out your level of want to, and your level of not want to. And I would also [00:49:00] tell ’em, you know, if you know, you gotta learn to say no to stuff and the no may be to, to the business, the profession, the movie.

I’m going to modulate my profession. But when you have, you try to start a firm or be a, have a. A partner with four or five associates or a big practice and you wanna have family, you gotta say no to stuff. I would’ve loved to have done stuff with the state bar. I hard, no, I would’ve loved to have done other things.

No. You got to start. Unless you wanna be divorced, you gotta say no to a lot of things. Other things. And so I would tell my younger self to be better on. No. And I tell anybody coming up, if you’re young and you’re married and have a young family, you’ve gotta say no. To a lot of outside things or you’ll be consumed.

Jonathan Hawkins: So that, that leads me to my next question. It, it may be a tough question, but I like to ask folks this. If you weren’t practicing law, I. What would you be doing? Or as you start to look to the future and maybe you think about what your next stage is you know, some folks say, I’m gonna practice law forever until I [00:50:00] die at my desk.

And maybe that’s you, but if you weren’t practicing law, what do you think you’d be doing?

Robb Cruser: I think it’s an interesting thought exercise. ’cause I do blipraxin well, so I haven’t even grits at all. I’ve enjoyed it, but I’ve also enjoyed the business side of it. You know, creating this business and seeing, you know, hiring people and seeing people flourish and working side by side, that’s been really enjoyable.

So I think if I didn’t do this I would do some, I’d be a small business person somewhere doing whether it be professional services or, you know, I say to my son, you know, we got a lot of people, you know, a pool company. This, there’s a lot of service companies. That I just see these great little niches.

I’d be doing something like that. I would still be working for myself just in, not in a legal sense, doing some other professional services or even better a good, so I wouldn’t be tied to people in time. I could be more tied to goods in production,

Jonathan Hawkins: Yeah, there’s so, so many opportunities out there. Well, well, I thank you, Rob, for joining me today. I [00:51:00] encourage anyone that’s interested to go to your website and get those books but why don’t you tell us what’s the best way for folks to find you if they wanna reach out to either join, if they’re in Texas to come join your firm, or maybe they’re a three to five year associate.

Robb Cruser: Exactly. Yeah, you just even Google Cruiser Mitchell. Our website’s gonna come up., my number is on there. My direct dial, so 4 0 4 6 2 6 5 3 6 7. That’s my, that’s the hotline. Call me. I’d love to talk to you. Anything you heard today that you disagree with I’m welcome to that ’cause humility this business will humble you.

And so if you’ve got some insights that contradict what I think, let me know. I’d love to hear.

Jonathan Hawkins: Great. Well, I appreciate it again, Rob. Thank you for joining us.

Robb Cruser: Thank you, Jonathan. Appreciate you.