Curiosity Personality Empathy Ability to pick and choose your battles Execution
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 Greg Colburn.
Greg Colburn is a top-rated personal injury attorney in Seattle and founder of Colburn Law. Over the course of his career, Greg has handled and settled hundreds of personal injury cases. He is fully committed to helping clients get the compensation they deserve for their injuries. Gregs road to personal injury wasn’t like most, he was involved in a construction accident that caused him to be in a wheelchair for two years. He understands how injuries take a toll on someone physically and emotionally. Greg Colburn will fight for you the way he fought for himself.
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 wanted to play professional baseball or become a surgeon. I played baseball at the University of Washington and focused my studies on pre-med. I became a personal injury lawyer because I was injured on-the-job and became frustrated with lawyers. When I was 22-years old, I worked for a general contractor. Due to a roofing subcontractor’s negligence, I fell a couple stories. Although I landed on my feet, the main weightbearing joints in both my feet were destroyed. I needed reconstructive surgeries and spent two years in a wheelchair.
My employer accused me of faking my injuries. In fact, while I was in the hospital recovering from surgery, my employer contacted the Department of Labor and Industries claiming I was golfing. Before that moment, I had never thought of hiring a lawyer.
Being accused of lying, especially about my injuries, pissed me off. So, I started calling law firms seeking help. Unfortunately, I had to call over eighty (80) law firms before I could get someone to actually listen. I wound up hiring an attorney and working in his law firm during law school. I also did most of the work on my own case.
I have a copy of the settlement check surrounded by my surgical pins hanging in my office as a reminder of the ordeal experienced by injured people.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
My practice is focused on representing individuals and families in personal injury and wrongful death cases. We also represent first responders in workers compensation claims for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
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?
I like to think that I possess three important traits that are not only important to professional success, but in life: grit; empathy; and, the ability to effectively strategize.
Without grit, I’m not a lawyer, I don’t have my law firm, I’m not married to my wife, I don’t have our two beautiful children, and I’m not able to do the physical activities I enjoy. Grit saved my life after my injuries.
I will never forget the moment four days after I fell when my orthopedic surgeon told me I would never play baseball again and I may never walk normally again all the while explaining I would require multiple surgeries and be wheelchair bound for the foreseeable future. At that moment life presented me with a choice — I could quit or I could fight. Grit enabled me to fight.
Because of grit I battled for a positive outcome. During the battle, I discovered my passion to fight for injured people, I met with my wife, and worked my ass off to achieve the best physical and emotional recovery possible.
A personal injury lawyer without empathy is an insurance adjuster with a law degree. Empathy allows me to listen to my clients, discover their real stories and persuasively fight for them.
Strategizing allows us to create roadmaps and game plans for cases so that we are proactive rather than reactive.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
Luck implies that our success as a law firm has occurred out of chance rather than through our actions. Our success isn’t due to luck; rather, it’s the expected outcome of planning, development, and execution.
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?
Yes, but not for the reasons implied by the question. I started law school at Baylor University and finished at Seattle University. While I appreciate my time at Seattle U, the way in which I think as a lawyer was molded by my time at Baylor Law School. Baylor forced me to change how I think. I became a lawyer at Baylor rather than just a law student.
For a practicing personal injury lawyer, it’s not necessary to attend a top-tier school. Clients, insurance adjusters, and juries don’t care what law school you attended.
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?
I would look 20-year old me in the eyes and say, “Trust your gut and take risks.” If there is one thing I would do differently, I should have started my own law firm much sooner than I did. My gut knew that I needed to have my own firm, but I hesitated to take the leap. If I could go back, I would have gone solo the moment I felt the entrepreneurial call.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
Helping people achieve closure. Every client has suffered trauma. From the person with an injured neck from a rearend collision to the child with facial scarring from a dog attack, from a family that lost their mother and wife due to medical error to the pedestrian hit by drunk driver, all of our clients are seeking help for a problem caused by trauma.
Every day we have the opportunity to help our clients deal with all of the problems that flow from this trauma. For example: totaled cars; medical bills; missed time from work and lost wages; difficulty finding medical treatment; physical injuries and pain; and, emotional scars.
The process of empathizing with our clients, learning their stories, and fighting on their behalves culminates in a successful outcome — all of which provides closure for our clients that enables them to move forward with their lives.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
We represent a young man and his wife in a medical negligence case. Three weeks after our clients were married, he presented to a walk-in clinic with complaints of fatigue and labored breath (this is before COVID-19). His heart rate was 122 and sp02 was <95. He had a normal temperature.
The walk-in clinic doctor ordered chest x-rays which the radiologist and he determined were normal, including normal heart. Forty-eight hours later, the young man was admitted to the local Emergency Department because he was dying from rapidly progressing congestive heart failure.
The young man had to be placed on an ECMO machine for a prolonged period of time to save his life. He survived, but will require medication every day for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, his wife and him suffered severe PTSD. In fact, his wife was so traumatized by the event that this formerly happy, young, healthy couple is in the process of divorcing.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
As we continue to grow, I want to add associate attorneys in the near future to continue creating an effective legal team, which will also free my time to work on more complex cases and projects. We are looking to add locations throughout Washington. Ultimately, we want to continue working on interesting cases and continue helping our clients.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
I had another local personal injury attorney call me about his client who had been on a motorcycle collision and suffered a severe tibial plateau fracture. The other attorney had recovered the motorcyclist’s 25,000 dollars underinsured motorist limit, but didn’t think there was much of case otherwise because the at-fault driver didn’t have insurance and didn’t appear to be on-the-job despite working for a day labor company. He asked me to take a look at the case file. I reviewed the case file and about a year later, we settled the case against the day labor company for 1,800,000 dollars.
My wife was recently a surrogate for her best friend who could no longer have children due to cancer. I try to find humor in most things in life. So, I decided to have fun with my wife’s surrogacy which culminated in the most awkward Zoom call I have ever had.
During a break in a deposition, one of the defense attorneys, whom I have known for a long time, asked how I had been doing. I responded fine and added that my wife is pregnant. The defense attorneys and court reporter all congratulated me. I then simply stated, “It’s not mine,” and let that sit in the air for as long as possible. Around 45 second elapsed with me staring at a screen of shocked and horrified faces. After I couldn’t take the silence any longer, I confessed that my wife was a surrogate pregnant with her friend and her friend’s husband’s baby. One deposition moment not likely to be forgotten soon.
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?
I work in the office and remotely. Since I started the law firm, we have had the capability to work fully remote. Everyone has a laptop and either a physical phone at their home or a soft extension on their cell phones.
The future of law firms, as well as courtrooms, should be the hybrid model. My team loves the flexibility. One of my paralegals is permanently remote. This saves her ten hours of commuting time each week. She gets more and better sleep which leaves her feeling better during the day. She sees her family more which increases her happiness. Her productivity has increased since she went permanently remote.
Another paralegal loves coming to the office, except on Fridays during the summer because her family goes boating on the weekends. By working remotely on Fridays, she’s able to better enjoy her time which results in an increased eagerness to perform at work.
Also, courts need to remain flexible to virtual appearances. There’s no need for lawyers to drive three hours for a hearing on a matter that’s not disputed and will last five minutes when everything can be done virtually.
I am a strong advocate for remote work. With the right tools, training and management, we have the ability to decrease our team’s stress and increase their performance.
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?
Yes, lawyers and courts are being forced to come into the 21st century of technology. I am concerned about the changes going too far with technology, particularly in those areas of law that require human-to-human interaction. To deal with family law issues, personal injury and criminal cases, we cannot become dependent upon technology, specifically AI, to solve those problems. We need to continue progressing to allow legal professionals more flexibility and opportunities, while not forgetting the human element of law.
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?
Absolutely! We have a successful online marketing strategy that generates consistent, quality personal injury cases. We also have a solid referral network through other lawyers, former clients, business owners and other contacts. There is no underestimating the power of the personal recommendation. No marketing can beat, “You were hurt? You should call Greg Colburn because I worked with his team. I couldn’t be happier and I trust them.” The face-to-face recommendation borne of a personal relationship is truly powerful.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
In particular, new attorneys just starting can use social media to establish their brand. Advertising on social media is relatively inexpensive and provides an opportunity to reach a large number of people in specific demographics.
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.
To become a top personal injury, you need:
- Ability to pick and choose your battles
Curiosity. Personal injury lawyers are detectives. You cannot be a successful personal injury lawyer without curiosity. You must be willing to entertain all possibilities when examining a potential case. You need an eagerness, not just willingness, to go down the rabbit hole.
As an example, early in my career, I represented a woman hit in a crosswalk by a left turning driver. She catastrophic injuries. The driver had minimal insurance. Buried in one of the documents obtained through public records requests was a witness statement in which the witness commented that the intersection was dangerous.
So, I got in my car and drove to the intersection around the same time of day my client had been hit. I stood at the intersection for an hour and simply watched traffic. As I stood there, I saw a few close calls between left turning drivers and pedestrians. I made more public records requests and, ultimately, found a letter from a large company located at the corner of the intersection. The company wrote a letter to the City of Seattle notifying the City of that the intersection was dangerous and detailing the reasons why. That letter opened the floodgates and led to a successful outcome for our client.
Personable. To learn about my client’s personal injury case, it seems obvious, but I have to be personable for my client to trust me and open up to me. Nobody wants to share their inner thoughts and feelings with a jerk.
Also, on some level, we are all sales people. When I meet with a potential client, like it or not, I am selling myself and my law firm on that potential client. I don’t need to be a car salesman about it, but I need to be prepared to tell the potential client why we are the right legal team to hire.
I was once told by an older attorney that, in order to sign new clients, I needed to wear a suit and tie. I have to admit — I hate wearing a suit and tie. Soon after I started my law firm, I was contacted by a potential client who had suffered catastrophic injuries due to the fault of a delivery driver. Upon arriving at the potential client’s home, I saw a lawyer leaving dressed in a suit and tie. I was wearing jeans and a collared shirt.
The potential client invited me into his home where we sat on his couch and talked for a couple hours. At first, we didn’t even talk about his case. We just talked, like we were sitting in a bar having a beer. He hired me that day. I later asked him if he was bothered by my attire when we first met. He told me that he had met with twelve lawyers, but I was the only one that didn’t have a suit and I didn’t talk like a lawyer. That did it for him.
Empathy. I can’t tell my clients’ stories if I don’t feel their stories. Empathy enables us to listen to our clients — to truly listen and hear them. Empathy let’s you hear what your clients aren’t specifically telling you. When your client that’s a single-mother of two small children tells you that her neck pain is frustrating and difficult to manage, empathy allows you to ask her how her neck pain affects her ability to interact with and care for her children.
Empathy allows me to hear the story of the delivery driver that hit my client. When I am taking the delivery driver’s deposition and he describes the collision scene, empathy allows me to feel his fear and guilt, and to ask him what his employer could have done to better train him to avoid this type of incident. When you show that person empathy, they’re more likely to be frank and truthful.
Battle Picking. This is a big one for personal injury lawyers. Our clients are experiencing some of the worst, if not the worst moments in their lives when we meet. They can be frustrated and angry. Sometimes, that frustration and anger gets misdirected at you. Rather than battling with the client about who is right or wrong, listen to the client to communicate they know you understand their situation and don’t argue — pick another battle worth winning.
Years ago, I worked on a case for two very difficult clients. Everyone else on the legal team became so frustrated that they wanted to withdraw. They had decided there was no case and we needed to withdraw because the clients were too difficult. I was the lone holdout.
The cases settled for substantial amounts, well into the six figures. When the clients came to the office to discuss the final settlement offers, for some reason the clients believed that everyone else on the team had championed their case and that I needed to learn from them. Rather than arguing with the clients and trying to correct them, I recognized that even if I won that battle I would lose the war. So, I let it go and tried to learn from that experience. The clients were happy with the law firm and obtained the closure they needed.
Execution. Say what mean and do what you say. If you tell a client that you’re doing to do something, do it. If you tell an insurance adjuster to accept your client’s final offer or you’ll file suit, when that insurance adjuster doesn’t accept you had better file suit.
Last year, I represented a teenage boy with significant bite injuries to his arm suffered in a dog attack. I made a policy limits demand to State Farm, the homeowners insurer for the dog owners. State Farm offered a pittance. The same day we received the offer, we filed a lawsuit and had the dog owners served. We attacked the defense on every front. We moved through litigation with a full frontal assault. State Farm paid. We told State Farm what would happen if it didn’t pay. We then executed on that promise.
Another example is our online marketing strategy. When I went solo, I made the decision to heavily invest in sustained, consistent, long term online marketing focused on SEO. The first year didn’t show much in terms of return. Then, the switch flipped. We consistently rank not only on the first page, but in the first three organic search results for our major keyword targets. At the start, we considered our options, developed a strategy, and executed on that strategy.
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. 🙂
Michael Lewis. First, as a former collegiate baseball player, I’d love to have a chance to discuss baseball, his thoughts on the current state of the game, questions about Moneyball, and where he sees the sport going.
Second, I loved his podcast, Against the Rules discussing referees in society as well as the impact of coaches, good and bad, in various areas of life.
Third, I’m listening to his audiobook, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story. I would love to hear his unfettered opinions about any and all things relating to the history that we’re living right now.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!