A desire to learn-The world is constantly changing and so is the law. You need to keep up with what is going on in pop culture. What is public sentiment? Late great trial attorney Bobby Lee Cook once said “Picking a jury is about common sense and about something deep down in your gut.” If you stop educating yourself about what is going on in the world around you, the barometer of your gut feeling is probably going to uncalibrated.
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 Justin Wolfe of Wolfe Law Group, LLC in Atlanta, Georgia.
Justin Wolfe is a top rated Georgia and California personal injury attorney based in Atlanta. He truly loves helping clients from all backgrounds and is the only “gringo” Spanish speaking personal injury attorney in metro Atlanta.
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”?
During my first couple of years of university I realized that I wanted to become an attorney. Growing up I remember taking obligatory career placement tests and the results always suggested career paths of lawyer, judge, or race car driver. In the end I ended up behind the wheel of my own law firm instead of a race car. My decision was largely based on figuring out what I enjoy doing on a daily basis, and that just happens to be reading, learning, helping people, solving problems, and communicating. Those activities are the backbone of an attorney’s career, so I realized the profession would suit me well, and I was 100% correct.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
My focus is on representing accident victims, particularly those with catastrophic injuries. It means I am exposed to many clients who are in the most vulnerable of positions, usually because of a single gut-wrenching moment that has lifelong consequences. I fight on my clients’ behalf against insurance companies that have financial interests opposite to those of my clients. My clients are normally focused on their pain and the emotion of what they are going through, while the insurance companies are staffed with adjusters and actuaries focused on risk measured by dollars and cents.
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?
My sincere honesty is the character trait that has most benefited me in my life and career. Too often in this world people feign appearances for advancement or directly lie to clients in hopes of obtaining quick and easy short term gain. These tactics don’t work in the long run. All of the retiring successful attorneys who I’ve met along the way tell me the same story-your reputation is everything, guard it with your life. A few years ago a client came to me after having been fired by two other attorneys and only having received an offer of 5,000 dollars to resolve his injury claim. He informed me what the former attorneys had told him and I knew that the information was not true. At the time, I knew both of these attorneys to be of ill repute and only interested in quick profits. I recognized that the gentleman actually had a great case, it just needed to be tidied up and have some actual work put into it. In less than a year, I settled this man’s case for 90,000.00 dollars. This man has sent me numerous other clients and calls me from time to time just to chat about life. His opinion about his former short-sighted attorneys is not so rosy, and he does not hesitate from telling those around him.
The vision that I was blessed with his been invaluable. Both in my career and within my cases I always try to work backwards, first determining the end objective and then coming up with the route to arrive there while considering all possible detours. I define the entirety of my career this way. About 15 years ago I came to realize that the demographics in America were changing rapidly, in particular, the Spanish speaking segment of our population seemed to be mushrooming. With that in mind I used what little foundation of Spanish I learned in high school and university to continue my studies of the language. I consistently devoted time studying the language, watching Spanish speaking television, volunteering at the Atlanta Latin American Association, and making friends in the Latino community. After all that time, I now can speak Spanish at a high level, bridge gaps between communities, and bring high quality legal representation to a portion of our population that otherwise may not have access to an attorney who understands them.
My fearlessness has and continues to help me confront giants, but it wasn’t always this way. As lawyers most of us have type A personalities and a knack for meticulous attention to detail. We always want something to be exactly right before we go through with it. I realized quickly as a young associate that if one lets the desire for perfection get in the way of progress that growth as an attorney will be hamstrung. There will always be a “first,” your first deposition, first mediation, first hearing, first trial, etc. I quickly overcame this fear as a young associate and it has paid dividends in the long run. My first associate positions allowed me much leeway as to what discovery to conduct. I remember early on realizing that if I turned on the aggressive litigator switch in my brain that I would be forced to be involved in more proceedings and trial by fire type situations and that the more I engaged in the practice of law, the easier it would become. I was exactly right.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
If we define luck as that which results when preparation meets opportunity, then yes, it is fair to say that I’ve been lucky. During law school I saw most of my peers devoting their time only to studying and inner-school clubs and organizations. I viewed the later activity as adding little value to my primary objective of ultimately passing the bar and getting a job in a good law firm and developing legal skills as a practicing attorney. So rather than spend my free time engaged in school organizations, I devoted my time to attending state and local bar organization events to get to know practicing attorneys and judges and find out what advice they had for me.
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, I do believe that in some respects my school had some bearing on my success. For one, I like being the underdog. Having a chip on your shoulder can be great motivation. As a lawyer who did not attend an upper echelon law school, I understood that the name of my law school would not be a credential that I could rely on to define my abilities as a lawyer in a way that would open doors for me or intimidate an opposing attorney. I learned quickly to use these opinions to my advantage in and out of the courtroom. When opposing lawyers underestimate me because of the name of my school, it is usually to their chagrin. The top law schools will always have their place in producing the nations future supreme court justices and future big law partners. If a law student has such lofty ambitions as filling Justice Roberts’ seat one day or becoming the nation’s top anti-trust litigator, attending a top tier school is almost certainly a must.
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 tell myself to spend more time outside of the U.S. developing foreign language skills. Study abroad at least a year in university in another country and focus on learning the language and culture there. I would tell myself to double down again on that strategy by negotiating an acceptance deferral with a law school and go spend more time in a foreign country working on the same language as that which I’d already developed a base. Then I would say study abroad again during half of the summers in law school and do clerkships or summer internships the second half of those summers. Globalization is not slowing down. Immigration patterns in the U.S. mean that there will be a greater need for lawyers with foreign language skills. Whether you practice personal injury or are a corporate transactional lawyer speaking a foreign language is and will continue to be a huge benefit. I speak English and Spanish but wish I spoke two or three additional languages.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
It most certainly is not easy work, thank you for acknowledging that reality. Since I was young I always garnered satisfaction from making others happy whether it be through jokes and entertainment or helping solve a problem. It is truly meaningful to me when I hear my clients’ gratitude. Many of them have their backs against the wall and I can hear the sincerity in the tone of their voices when they tell me how appreciative they feel for the work that I have done for them. This makes me extremely proud of the work that I do and drives me to grow my practice even more so that I can positively affect as many people in need as possible.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Right now I am working on a practice guide book for new lawyers. I love impacting the world in a positive way, but I am only one person. By sharing my experiences and knowledge in a book, I will be able to infinitely amplify the contribution I make to the world.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I am most focused right now on growing Wolfe Law Group and expanding our practice areas and geographic impact. The objective is to turn Wolfe Law Group into a bi-coastal law firm operating from both Atlanta and most likely Los Angeles or San Diego.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
My favorite case involved a salt of the earth type client that fully committed to confiding in me to direct his case. And I am certainly glad he did, because the case ended up lasting for five years and entailed numerous hearings and appeals before we reached a large settlement. There aren’t a ton of funny stories in the world of personal injury, after all, we are dealing with pain and suffering. But in general my favorite times are when highly educated and experienced lawyers try to get one over on my clients during cross examinations only to have the tables turned on them. It is pretty hilarious seeing a highly paid defense attorney get frazzled by a seemingly simple country person’s patronizing (but truthful) responses. I believe they call it “country smart” in the south. Mark Twain would be proud of some of my clients.
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 love giving aspiring lawyers advice. Since COVID around 85–90% of my work is conducted remotely. Based on my conversations with other lawyers, it seems that of those firms with lawyers in office, most of the decision makers are senior level (age description, not in title only) attorneys who just refuse to modernize out of principal. Our country places a premium on convenience, and it seems that many of these lawyers forget that this is the case. Many of the lawyers on the plaintiff’s side still insist on meeting potential clients in-person even when the potential client wishes to handle the intake process over the phone and in email. Lawyers who bill by the hour are now missing out on earnings generated by their travel time. I think companies will eventually begin to learn that their attorney doesn’t need to take that deposition in person…the attorney just wants to bill for 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?
Many millennial and gen-x lawyers already incorporated technology into aspects of their practice prior to COVID. But for every one millennial or gen-x’r that incorporated technology into their practice prior to the global pandemic, there were dozens who were inhibited from utilizing technology because senior level baby boomer managing partners arbitrarily insisted on doing things “the old way.” The global pandemic ushered in change through forced adaptation. Baby boomer managing partners have been forced to loosen the reins on their associates and junior level partners. Most depositions are now being taken by video chat, firms that traditionally relied on face-to-face marketing now have turned to digital marketing, and work from home arrangements have become the norm rather than the exception.
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 networking and referral method of case generation in personal injury is tried and true. It’s not going anywhere. The firms that focus their efforts on marketing through billboard advertisements and dumping massive amounts of cash into pay per click will always exist, but their place in the hierarchy of google results and prime billboard spaces will glow and fade. When I am speaking with a colleague I normally am able to gauge their competency as a practicing attorney. The next test is what type of results the attorney achieves with the first few cases I actually refer to them. Results speak volume, and when an attorney consistently produces solid outcomes with the cases that he or she is referred, more referrals will keep coming.
Finding and building referral sources continues to be on a trajectory of digitalization. State and local bar organizations still exist, but only a fraction of the licensed attorneys in each state attend networking events held by these organizations. Savvy attorneys are utilizing sites like LinkedIn to connect with peers.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
Strike a balance between professionalism and personalization. In other words, demonstrate to the public your competency and knowledge within your practice area while simultaneously revealing how you are just as human as everyone else. Do you have a spouse and kids? Show the public your happy smiling family. Do you have a dog? Show the world your dog and tell them its name. What are your hobbies? Let everyone know what they are, you may even find out that there are other professionals who you can network with through your shared interests.
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.
- The “human” element. If you take the name “personal injury” to heart, it can serve as a guide to how you should commit yourself to each of your clients’ well being. Each client in these cases has contracted you because they suffer in pain and this affects their most intimate areas of their daily lives. If you can see their perspective and feel their pain, you are going to do a much better job of telling their story and fighting on their behalf. You are not a defense attorney, your clients are not just numbers on paper. Once I had a catastrophically injured client and the value of his life care plan was placed into issue in the case. He and his wife complained to me that they did not believe that the estimates made by the defense expert were anywhere near sufficient to cover the costs they would need so that my client could live comfortably. I made a two hour drive into a rural area to visit them in person to find out for myself. I toured each room of their home and asked them about how my client spent his time in each room. I used this information to both cross examine the defense expert and bolster the testimony of our expert. In the end, our life care planner found hundreds of thousands of dollars more of expenses and the case settled for a large undisclosed amount of money.
- Hard work. Hard work is a must, because without this you cannot be prepared at every step of the way in each of your cases. And if you cannot be prepared, you lose out on the most effective tool to battle insurance defense firms who have much more resources at their disposal. I recall being drastically overmatched at one of my first hearings. Throughout early stages in the case I’d dealt with different attorneys from the defense firm, but my primary point of contact was a very young associate. In the days leading up to a pivotal hearing in the case I stayed in the office from sun up to sun down preparing, highlighting, tagging, summarizing. I was ready. When I arrived at the hearing the opposing counsel table was filled with two partners, and the young associate, and multiple bankers boxes full of documents. I was alone with a single sheet of paper summarizing the case and one folder containing my exhibits. The scene was biblical, a David versus Goliath example at its finest. The partners were not familiar with the case and embarrassingly had to confer with their young associate on nearly every fact of the case. I cleaned their clock, it is a very memorable ‘W.’
- Sociability. The best Plaintiff’s lawyers do not shy away from getting to know others, especially not our peers. Even if you are a great lawyer, networking can amplify your skills. Every case we take in is different. If you see an issue for the first time, it most certainly helps to discuss it with someone else who has already run into the problem. You will save a ton of time and headache by speaking to other lawyers who practice personal injury. Plus, you may even develop case referral relationships with some of them. I did not know a soul in the city when I moved to Atlanta for law school after graduating from University of South Carolina. Even as a hard worker, if nobody knew about my abilities, it would not have mattered. I put myself out there and have developed tremendous relationships with some of the most talented and wise lawyers and judges in the country. Some are great sources of advise and others I have developed referral relationships with. I am always reminded of one piece of advice a Judge gave me as a law student beginning to look for a job- “remember, in business employers vote with their wallets and employees vote with their feet.” That stuck with me then as a soon to be lawyer, and now as an attorney managing a law firm.
- A desire to learn. The world is constantly changing and so is the law. You need to keep up with what is going on in pop culture. What is public sentiment? Late great trial attorney Bobby Lee Cook once said “Picking a jury is about common sense and about something deep down in your gut.” If you stop educating yourself about what is going on in the world around you, the barometer of your gut feeling is probably going to uncalibrated. I recall early on in my career feeling like an absolute scholar and gentleman. The reverence that many people give attorneys can really go to our heads sometimes. One day during a lengthy conversation with a client while preparing him for a deposition and telling him how there was nothing wrong with expressing his melancholy from the accident, he responded to me “Well I don’t know what melon or cauliflower has to do with all of this, but I sure do feel pretty sad about how my life has wound up.” Take a dose of humble pie…it will help.
- Organization. A messy file can literally sink a case. I recommend first focusing on organization of your own life and then on your professional life. If your home life is a disaster zone, chances are it will spill over into your law practice. I’ve always been blessed to have great support staff. But I learned early on that as the attorney handling the case, you have the ultimate responsibility for ensuring everything is 100% prepared for court. In one of my first appearances I reached in my binder to pull out an exhibit to tender only to find that the exhibit was nowhere to be found. My paralegal and I had stayed at the office late the evening before putting the trial binders together, but I did not stay later to review that the binders were 100% correct. I should have checked her work. I had to ask the court for a recess and by some miracle found a fax machine in the courthouse and my paralegal was able to fax over the exhibit within 10 minutes. If it had not been for a very patient judge and a stroke of luck, the case could have been put in jeopardy. This has never happened again. Mistakes are the best teachers but its better when we learn from those committed by others.
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 sit down and have an open and honest conversation with Gary Vaynerchuk. He has such incredible passion for entrepreneurialism, helping others, endless energy, and a knack for recognizing upcoming trends and pivoting to take advantage of them before they occur.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!