Take nothing for granted. I started my career a week before 9/11. In the wake of that tragedy, my mentor at the time gave me some advice that I always remember. He said that you must control what you can control and take nothing for granted. He said the firm I was with (and any employer, really) could take almost everything away from me: my office, my assistant, the work on my desk, my salary, my benefits, everything. But what they can’t ever take away from me is my knowledge base and my connections. It was important, therefore, to focus on those things — knowledge and connections — because no one could ever take those away from me. I’ve built my entire career on the back of that advice. I always try to learn more and always try to meet people. And through good times and bad, that advice has served me extremely well and helped me stay focused.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Eido M. Walny.
Mr. Walny is the founder and managing partner of Walny Legal Group LLC, a boutique estate planning law firm based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but servicing a national and international clientele. His clients range from every day people to doctors, dentists, business owners, athletes, celebrities, and multi-generational wealthy families. Mr. Walny has been recognized as a Leader in the Law by the Wisconsin Law Journal, as a 40 Under 40 by the Milwaukee Business Journal, and as one of the Best Lawyers in America, among many notable awards.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
I have several lawyers in my family. When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to work as a law clerk for one of my father’s cousins. The firm was really great to me and let me sit in on trials, meet with judges, and talk to other lawyers. I really got to see a lot of things that most people who aren’t lawyers don’t get to see. That summer helped me determine more things that I knew I did not like, however. It was clear to me that I was not ever going to be a litigator. I did not like family law. I had no interest in insurance work. But in determining things I did not want to do, it helped me focus on the things I had more interest in.
Not long after that, my father bought a company in Chicago. I saw how he was treated by his attorney and did not like what I saw. The stress of the situation was very unhealthy for my dad and for our family. Witnessing that helped me focus my career goals again by determining that I wanted to be an attorney that could help people and make difficult situations a lot easier. Lawyers have a well earned reputation, but an unnecessary one. So I set out to be a lawyer that people could like, which ultimately led me down a path to estate planning.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
I founded Walny Legal Group LLC in 2011 after spending 10 years with big, national firms around Milwaukee. We focus on estate planning, estate administration, and elder law. My personal focus is on high net worth planning and asset protection. I draft complex trusts and put together business structures to help mitigate liability and tax risk. I focus on trying to give multi-generational solutions to families, at the same time.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Creativity, tenacity, and a hustler’s mentality are the keys to my success without a doubt.
Creativity: There are a lot of lawyers out there. Too many. It’s easy to get lost in the mix and allow others to cut you up with a cookie cutter. I definitely experienced that early in my career. And when I asked why things worked they way they do, I was told that that was just how it’s always been. That is a terrible reason to do something. So I learned, and took notes, and absorbed both positive and negative lessons. I started to analyze the business of law in ways that no one else was doing. I saw opportunities where no one else was looking. And I was able to leverage those opportunities into the career I have now.
Tenacity. Lawyers, as a whole, are not the nicest people in the world. They’re not all bad, by any means. But the industry as a whole is one that chews people up and spits them out — and then rolls them over with the car before pouring them down the sink. It’s easy to lose hope, lose direction, lose self-esteem, and lose your identity. You can’t let any of that happen to you. You have to maintain prospective and understand that this is a job, not an identity. You can’t let the actions of others adversely define you. But that can be really hard sometimes. I do a lot of non-lawyer things to help remind me that there is life outside of work. I restore cars. I make cufflinks. I fully participate with my kids’ school and activities. Those things are really important so that you can be focused at work and work hard.
The Hustler. I am not the smartest lawyer that was ever born, and I’m ok with that. What I do have is a Hustler’s mentality. When other people stop working, I want to learn a little more, do a little more, push myself a little harder. When other people go on vacation and put up an away message on email and do not disturb on their phone, I’ve never once done that in my entire career. If someone asks me to do something, I say yes and figure it out later. I’ve always got time for a business opportunity, I never want to lose a client, and I’m always available. To me, that is customer service — something lawyers woefully lack. It’s hard sometimes, sure, but that attitude has set me apart from my pears more times than I can count.
My first day of work as a lawyers was September 4, 2001. I had a good first week of work before the following Tuesday sent my career down a completely unexpected path. But the characteristics I listed above served me well. I looked for opportunities where others saw none. I did not allow the vicious attacks of lawyers (some within my own firm) affect me. And I looked for ways to advance my career in the face of significant adversity. I would not be where I am today if it was not for 9/11 emboldening me.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
I’m not sure what luck is, but everyone is a little lucky in their career. Things happen for a reason even if you don’t fully comprehend those reasons at the time. I wouldn’t be where I am if it were not for 9/11. That’s not luck, per se, but that was a really important event in my career. I wouldn’t be where I am if a neighbor didn’t lure me to her law firm in 2008 at a time I was planning to open my own firm. If not for the extra three years I got at that firm, I would not have learned some really important skills and met some really important people that made my actual launch in 2011 the blistering success it was. I would not have been able to grow the firm if not for my first hire, Kelly, being an absolute home run of a lawyer and person. She is now my partner and one of the most important people in my professional life. I also benefitted from the circus in congress in 2012 when the Fiscal Cliff drove clients to us in droves. That’s all lucky, I guess, in one way or another. Things happen and you have to roll with it. Sometimes the affects of an event are obvious and sometimes less so.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
I went to a top tier school and I doubt it had any effect on my career. Law school does almost nothing to prepare you for a law career. It’s simply a rite of passage. One of the most successful people in my graduating law school class was asked to leave school at one point because his grades were so bad. Some of the top graduates in my class are no longer in the legal field. I don’t have a good opinion of law school — though I met some pretty awesome people who I still keep in touch with.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
In Back to the Future, Doc Brown warned Marty not to disrupt the space/time continuum. You can’t understand how changing one thing will result in other changes — and before you know it, the universe is in chaos. Good things happen for a reason. Bad things happen for a reason. If you change those things, the results change. I’m happy where I’m at — and it’s the result of the good and bad I’ve done since I was 5 years old.
I would, however, consider giving myself a copy of Gray’s Sports Almanac.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
When my father bought his business in the 1990’s, his health and our family structure were very adversely affected by the poor lawyering he got at the time. People don’t want to work with lawyers because they view lawyers as bad people and money suckers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I have always been motivated to be a really good lawyer that breaks the mold. I want my clients to like me and like the experience they have with me. I call it my ‘smiles in, smiles out’ policy. If we had more of that in the industry, the world would be a better place.
You should also note that nowhere in this interview have I referenced money, though many lawyers are obsessed with it. A client told me early in my career that money should never be the reason you do anything. Instead, it should be the reward for the good things you do regardless of the payout (thanks Ehsan). I have lived my entire career based on that advice and it has always served me well. It makes decisions that might otherwise be unclear, a lot more clear and easy to make.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
With Congress muddling through new spending and trying to figure out how to make it cost dollars, the tax laws are in flux. The current estate tax regime is already set to expire on 1/1/26 as it is. So we find ourselves in a period now where we are trying to help a number of people sort their way through potential tax situations when we don’t even know how the laws are going to change. I think that’s inherently unfair to people, but it does give us good reason to continue to meet really great people and reconnect with old clients. One of the best parts of my job is the people. We meet some incredible people doing incredible things. All of our clients have been successful somewhere in their life and it’s amazing to meet them, hear their stories, and try to learn a few things from them — all the while helping them professionally.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
The interesting thing about estate planning is that it is an area that is always going to be in high demand and there will not be enough practitioners — good practitioners — in the foreseeable future. The industry is made up of too many older people and not enough younger lawyers have an interest in the field. That’s great for me because I will pick up market share through basic attrition. I see the firm growing steadily to 12–15 lawyers. At that level, we can have a significant national reach. What we need to do is maintain our focus, not lose sight of what made us successful, and keep on keeping on. The sky is the limit at that point.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
We do some really complicated trust planning. Even so, I pride myself on being able to explain what we do to clients in a way they understand. I never want clients to sign something they don’t fully grasp because it’s just a recipe for future problems. Several years ago, a client (husband and wife) had a fairly complex estate plan done for them by me. I spent a lot of time with them making sure they understood what they were getting into. After the plan was implemented, we had a call with one of their financial institutions and I was asked to explain the plan to them. For whatever reason, I was having a bad day and struggling to convey the plan to the banker, who was quick to say he didn’t understand. The client immediately said he could explain it. In my head, I panicked. But to his credit (and mine), the client did an incredible job explaining the plan to this banker. I was so proud of him and of myself for having taken the time to teach this client enough that he could turn around and explain the planning to a third party. An absolute professional win for the client and for me.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
When COVID first hit, we worked remotely like everyone else. But after just 10 weeks, we all returned to the office and have been working from the office since then. For us in my office, we actually like each other and work very well collaboratively. Working remotely was not for us, not because we couldn’t do it but because we didn’t like it.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
Enough about COVID.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
The world is made up of billions of people, yet as the world grows, the distance between them continues to shrink. Networking and knowing people is absolutely critical to a successful law career. I often tell new lawyers that you could be the smartest lawyer on the planet, but if people don’t know you exist, you’ll be the smartest lawyer on the planet behind a pretty empty desk. We all know there are literally millions of lawyers in the US. With a few exceptions on either end of the spectrum, the difference between the middle 85% is not that huge — and why would it be? After all, we all are dealing with the same sets of laws and systems. What is different is the individual lawyer, how they work with clients, and teams and referral sources. When a client presents to a banker, that banker has a lot of options on where to send the referral. My goal is to always be on the list — or better yet at the top of the list. But if that banker doesn’t know me or even know I exist, that referral is going elsewhere.
It’s also incredibly helpful to know people and be able to connect them. I’ve made a huge effort in my career to meet people. I know a lot of people all over the country. Now, 20 years into my career, when someone in the community needs an obscure referral or needs to connect with someone in another city or state, I’m often getting the call for that help. It’s become a niche for me. And those people I help (on both sides) appreciate what I do and that often leads to work, too.
To boot, there are so many cool and interesting people out there. It’s fantastic to just meet them and grow my base of friends, even if no work is ever generated by it.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
Social media is a tool like many other tools available to attorneys. And like other tools, you need to use the tool properly or it can harm you. Social media is an ever-evolving platform, so I think the challenge for attorneys is to make sure that they understand how to use the various platforms properly, who the potential audience is, and how the information they want to convey is best conveyed.
I believe the best platform for lawyers is still LinkedIn. I was an early incorporator to LinkedIn and have seen it evolve quite a bit over the years. Some of those changes I love. Some I hate. But I think LinkedIn has some great benefits. First, it’s the best platform to keep track of where people are. You can see when people change jobs or get promotions or do good things. I also like that I can post some relevant professional content a few times per week and stay at the top of peoples’ timelines. For me, that is really important because in estate planning, being top of mind is often the difference in getting a client referral or not. LinkedIn helps me stay top of mind. Lastly, LinkedIn helps me showcase the success of our firm, including awards we win and growth. People like to associate with winners and I like to show us winning.
I have a very limited presence on Facebook. When I first opened my firm in 2011, one of the first things I did was get a phone; and one of the first calls I got was from Facebook. To be honest, it freaked me out a bit. I know Facebook has incredible data mining capabilities, but I’ve never fully embraced it because I worry about how Facebook operates. It’s irrational. I know that. I know it’s impossible to hide from the data mining on the internet. But I’ve just never fully embraced Facebook. That said, I think Facebook can be a good tool to attorneys if utilized properly.
But then there are all the rest of the platforms, from Twitter to Instagram, Tik Tok to Snapchat, and all the rest of the new platforms I’m too uncool to know exist (but my kids are all over). I’ve seen professionals try to incorporate these media into their marketing, but I think the results are cringe (as my kids would say). It doesn’t work. Maybe there’s a way to do it, but I’m not seeing it.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
- Common courtesy is the least common thing in the law. Without a doubt, the #1 reason I have had a successful law career is because of the basic, common courtesies that my mother taught me when I was a child. It is incredible how uncommon those common courtesies are in the law industry. And because of that, by following some basic courtesies that I literally never even think about consciously, I have been able to stand out in a crowd. A few examples:
-When someone calls me, I pick up the phone as often as I can and don’t let calls go to voicemail. If it’s a new client, I don’t want to give that person an opportunity or reason to call the next guy. If it’s an existing client or referral source, I want to make sure they get top-tier service from me. If it’s someone who is unhappy about something, I don’t want to give them time to stew; I’ve found it best to diffuse the situation as quickly as possible. It’s shocking to me how many lawyers never pick up the phone when it rings.
-If a call happens to go to voicemail, I call the person back as soon as I can and never more than 24h later. I do this even on weekends, holidays, and when I’m traveling. In my opinion, if someone thought enough of you to call you (as opposed to send an email), you owe them the courtesy of a returned call back. I don’t want situations to evolve or get stale. It’s not shocking that people just appreciate this.
-I acknowledge and respond to emails quickly. Even if I’m in the middle of something, if I can respond to an email quickly, I will do so. If someone has a questions, or a client is checking status, I want them to get their answer quickly and let them know I’m on top of things. Even if I don’t have the answer, I’ll acknowledge the email and let them know I’m getting an answer for them. Most lawyers, in fact a vast majority, will simply not respond to the email until they are ready. The result is often that the client or contact feels ignored and is left wondering if their email was ever even received. To me, that is unacceptable.
-I believe in the Vince Lombardi Rule: If you’re 10 minutes early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, don’t bother at all. People value their time. I don’t ever want anyone waiting for me. I live and die by my calendar, but so do the people I interact with. Occasionally, I do have issues with traffic or meetings running long, but in those cases I call in advance and let people know I’m running a little late so that they know.
- Out hustle your peers. As I said earlier, I’m not the smartest lawyer out there. But I’m smart enough to acknowledge that and I know that I need to work hard to be competitive in a competitive industry. I often find myself being the first one in the office and the last one out. When I leave the office, it’s rarely to go home directly because I often have an event or meeting to attend. At night, I read professional materials to try to see what other attorneys are doing in the estate planning universe or to come up with marketing ideas. Even weekends often have some professional twist to them. In my estimations, if I can out hustle my peers by even 30 minutes each day, it’s as if I have found a magic way to add more than an extra work month to the calendar. And over the course of weeks, months, years, that gap gets to the point where the competition cannot catch up.
- Meet as many people as you can and try to help them. One of the cool things about estate planning is that everyone is a potential client. There are not many areas of the law where that is the case, but everyone could benefit from at least some estate planning. It also means that everyone knows someone who needs estate planning. So for me, the more people I meet, the more likely I am to find someone who wants me to do work for them or someone they know. But I never sell what I do. Never. I’m far more interested in meeting people, learning about what they do, and trying to help them, whether it’s with a referral or a connection or a client. Anything. It’s interesting to me how few people understand that referrals are not about getting something but about giving something. When you help someone, they appreciate it and often times want to pay you back by helping you later. Some people want to keep score, IE I sent you 3 referrals so you owe me three back. I prefer not to keep score because we’re not all playing by the same rules. For example, a financial advisor may make a referral to me and I do a project for a client. It’s one and done. But if I send that advisor a client, that engagement is an evergreen referral because the advisor will be earning revenue from that client over the duration of their relationship. A 1:1 ratio is not necessarily an even trade. Be that as it may, I prefer to just not keep score. The better job I can do to help others, the more work will eventually filter back to me. And as long as I and those around me are busy and happy, what difference does it make if certain people ‘owe’ us something? It will come. I prefer not to be bothered with keeping track. And as a residual benefit of this strategy, we have had the opportunity to meet and help so many people in different ways. It’s been an incredible journey.
- Exceed expectations. Everyone has expectations, whether they are reasonable or not. Statistically, someone whose expectations are not met are 5-times more likely to complain as compared to the chances of getting a compliment if expectations are exceeded. Those whose expectations are simply met will just remain silent, typically. The key to this puzzle is often to manage expectations. I prefer to under-promise and overdeliver, whereas too many attorneys much prefer to over-promise so that they can get opportunities and then worry about it later. That’s a recipe for disaster. I think it’s critically important to manage expectations, or at the very least understand what the expectation of the attorney is going to be. Everyone wants a positive result, in a short period of time, and at no cost — but that’s not ever realistic, and often times impossible. And sometimes, the expectations we set can’t be met, but in times like that, it’s back to common courtesy. If I tell a client I’ll get them draft documents by Friday, I much prefer to email them on Wednesday to say I need the weekend to finish rather than apologize on Monday for being late.
- Take nothing for granted. I started my career a week before 9/11. In the wake of that tragedy, my mentor at the time gave me some advice that I always remember. He said that you must control what you can control and take nothing for granted. He said the firm I was with (and any employer, really) could take almost everything away from me: my office, my assistant, the work on my desk, my salary, my benefits, everything. But what they can’t ever take away from me is my knowledge base and my connections. It was important, therefore, to focus on those things — knowledge and connections — because no one could ever take those away from me. I’ve built my entire career on the back of that advice. I always try to learn more and always try to meet people. And through good times and bad, that advice has served me extremely well and helped me stay focused.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Gary Bettman, the Commissioner of the NHL. I help professional athletes with estate planning and asset protection because pro sports are full of stories of athletes who made a lot of money and lost it all. I have had a lot of success with hockey players for several reasons. Hockey, more than almost any other pro sport, can be doing more to protect its athletes. I’d love to chat with Mr. Bettman about what can be done and how a firm like mine could help.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!