Community//

Robert Elwood of Practus: “Everyone knows that lawyers are miserable”

Everyone knows that lawyers are miserable. Crazy long hours, constant demands to bill more… work-life balance doesn’t exist. I was that lawyer, as was my friend and colleague John Lively. John and I would often imagine that there has to be a better way to practice law — a way that would make both lawyers and clients […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

Everyone knows that lawyers are miserable. Crazy long hours, constant demands to bill more… work-life balance doesn’t exist. I was that lawyer, as was my friend and colleague John Lively. John and I would often imagine that there has to be a better way to practice law — a way that would make both lawyers and clients happier. That’s how we co-founded Practus LLP. Practus gives lawyers more autonomy, freedom from billable hours, and the flexibility to work when and where they want. We were always going to be remote (this was well before COVID). By not spending money on bricks and mortar offices, we save a huge amount of money and can pass those savings onto clients.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Elwood.

A trusted advisor, Elwood has a knack for explaining complex subjects in a way that allows clients to make wise decisions. He specializes in investment management, business transactions, real estate, and corporate taxation. He is currently working on the first-ever conversion of a mutual fund into an ETF.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I began my legal career in the Philadelphia office of Dechert, LLP, which is one of the biggest firms in the country. I loved the intellectual challenges there, and I loved the camaraderie. The work was intense, but that didn’t faze me and eventually I became an equity partner. I was traveling to cool places like San Francisco and London and Malta, and I was making a good living. After about 15 years, my son, who has special needs, was experiencing considerable distress at school and in life generally. For a time, I tried to do it all — being a good lawyer and a good father. But in the end, it was tough to do both jobs, particularly given the heavy workload and demands of big firm life. So, I quit, leaving behind a lucrative and prestigious job. For about three years I was a stay at home dad, and my son’s life improved substantially. (He’s now 23 years old and in nursing school.) After a while, I found myself yearning for the intellectual challenges of the work I had done before, and a steady source of income, but on my own terms. That model really didn’t exist though, so I had to create it.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Everyone knows that lawyers are miserable. Crazy long hours, constant demands to bill more… work-life balance doesn’t exist. I was that lawyer, as was my friend and colleague John Lively. John and I would often imagine that there has to be a better way to practice law — a way that would make both lawyers and clients happier. That’s how we co-founded Practus LLP. Practus gives lawyers more autonomy, freedom from billable hours, and the flexibility to work when and where they want. We were always going to be remote (this was well before COVID). By not spending money on bricks and mortar offices, we save a huge amount of money and can pass those savings onto clients.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

In our first budget, we projected our startup costs to be around 50,000 dollars. Let’s just say that we were off by many orders of magnitude! We learned that starting a business is like renovating your house: just about everything takes longer and costs more than you expected. But we also learned that doing things the right way is by far the best way.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I am incredibly indebted to my former partner Mac Dorris who taught me that you will develop many meaningful client relationships if you focus on solving the problem confronting the client. In particular, his plain-spoken approach to solving problems for clients took a look a lot of the mystery and anxiety out of the process for me.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The traditional law firm model has a large number of really smart people working together in the same location. That approach has some meaningful benefits, particularly the opportunity to easily share ideas with one another and to brainstorm to find creative solutions together. Our model does not feature physical proximity, but we have figured out a variety of ways to create the same sort of “glue” so that people can share ideas and solutions with one another, as well as feeling deeply connected to a team and its shared goals. So whether a business is a disruptor or has withstood the test of time, there are tradeoffs.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

My father was a lawyer and he always told me to make sure that I was delivering value. “Bob,” he would say, “always imagine how a client reading your bill will feel.” As a result, I try to make sure all of my efforts exceed client expectations and deliver exceptional value.

A senior partner at Dechert named Richard Wild emphasized to me that the way you express yourself is at least as important as the content of what you are trying to convey. He noticed, for example, that in oral communications I used to have a tendency to engage in run-on sentences. Once he pointed that out, I took the time to improve.

My mom was a teacher for much of her professional life. She would tell me that whenever you’re trying to explain something complicated, you should put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think of analogies and metaphors that will help them understand what you’re communicating. Early in my career, I was asked to give a talk on American tax policy to a group of Soviet Bloc entrepreneurs who were obviously unfamiliar with capitalism, let alone American taxation. I took my mother’s advice to heart and used simple mathematical examples. They got it!

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

I consider myself to be a relationship builder more than a lead generator. Once you build strong relationships, word of mouth will bring you countless qualified leads. Thought leadership is also really helpful, including speaking at events, writing articles, and getting quoted in the media. (It also helps that my wife is a communications strategist. She got me quoted in U.S. News & World Report recently!)

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

A client once described me as “a lawyer who thinks like a venture capitalist.” He wasn’t wrong! I am an early stage investor in and general counsel to five technology companies involved in cybersecurity. With a little luck, several of those companies will be disrupting that industry within the next few years.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I very much admire the book The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to Raise a Moral Child by Harvard psychology Robert Coles. Reduced to its essence, the book urges everyone to act each day in accordance with the Golden Rule and not simply pay lip service to it. The book did help me as a parent, but it also helped me as a professional to make sure I was treating clients, colleagues, vendors, and others in a way that was kind and respectful.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is from Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter: “…for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined.”

Put another way, “when you get knocked down, you get up again.” Being an overworked lawyer and parent of a special needs kid led to Practus.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

With the onset of the COVID pandemic, people seem to be driving a lot less and walking a lot more, which is great for the planet as well as for one’s physical and mental health. I hope that people continue to enjoy the benefits of walking even after the pandemic is behind us.

How can our readers follow you online?

My main professional online presence is at the Practus website (practus.com) and at LinkedIn, but you might also want to check out my personal Facebook page where I often write quirky essays about pop music.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Thank you! It was a pleasure.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Well-Being//

Why It’s OK to Meet With a Divorce Lawyer

by Storey Jones
Community//

Owen Sloane: “Being a good lawyer requires a lot of hard work”

by Ben Ari
Community//

Justin Hill: “Why you should hire a CPA”

by Ben Ari
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.