You’ve got to be prepared to put the work in. You’ve got to be prepared to do the research. You’ve got to be prepared to spend the time getting your experts to track down the right witnesses. You’ve got to be able to take the time and do the things that the other side just won’t put the time or the work into to do. This way, when it’s trial time, you know you’ve done everything you need to do and you’re in the best position to win for your client.
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 Russell Nicolet.
Russell Nicolet is the president and managing attorney at Nicolet Law Accident & Injury Lawyers, a personal injury law firm with offices in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He practices primarily in the field of personal injury law, focusing on car accident, motorcycle accident, workers’ compensation, social security disability, and defective product liability claims. Russell is a respected personal injury lawyer, having authored two books “Get Free of Debt Now — What Your Creditors Don’t Want You to Know” and “The Ultimate Guide to Injury Cases in Wisconsin”. He has also taught continuing legal education classes for other lawyers, and is passionate about helping those in his community, and the surrounding communities.
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 didn’t always want to be a personal injury attorney, but I did have some kind of seeds that were planted in me as a young kid.
My mom had taken us to a lawyer meet and greet when we were really young and I remember just being there and sitting in a fancy office. And there were all these other kids and their parents, and we ate cookies. So maybe that was the start of it. But after that, I always thought being a lawyer or being in the law profession sounded so cool and interesting, being able to help people. However, I really wanted to be a history professor, so I went to college for that.
When I was in college, I ended up getting involved in the legal society and really seeing how the legal system can help and hurt people. We had an attorney that we worked with that worked with college students, and she did a really good job and helped out a lot of students. I was just really impressed with the way she did things and how much she helped people.
So, she was the one that ultimately got me back into thinking more and more about a career path in law.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
Our personal injury law firm in Wisconsin focuses primarily on motor vehicle accidents, workers compensation, and other accidents caused by the carelessness of others. We also have a Minnesota personal injury law firm with the same focuses.
Back when I started as a law clerk at a small firm I had, we did a lot of general practice, civil litigation, and tons of family law. There were many personal injury cases that came across my desk as a law clerk, and I did a lot of work on those. I found I really enjoyed helping people that had been injured because it usually puts them in a pretty tough time and they need a lot of help.
As a personal injury lawyer, you really need to dig and work up the cases for your clients. I really like doing that. So, once I went out on my own, once I became a lawyer, I decided, personal injury law is really the path for me. It definitely takes a bit of time to build a personal injury practice, as it is a very competitive area of law.
However, in the end, it was all worth it because I’m passionate about this field and helping others recover losses due to injuries caused by the negligence of others.
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 would say the biggest thing is just wanting, and being ready for, lots of hard work and research. You’ve got to have that drive and hard work ethic. Be prepared to put the time in, especially when you first start. A lot of things are novel issues to you when you’re learning the system. Even as an experienced attorney, I still work as hard as I did the day I first started.
You also need to truly care about your clients, as you would your own family members. Caring about how they’re injured, what they’re dealing with, and how you can help them get in a better position. That kind of caring really goes a long way.
You also have to be prepared to stand up for your client in a court of law, should their case go to trial. Often, it’s just against the insurance company and their attorneys, who consistently tell you that maybe your client isn’t as badly injured as they’re claiming. You need to be able to stand up to individuals who are telling you your client doesn’t really deserve to be compensated or made whole.
So maybe confidence would be the trait, the confidence to stand up for your client and know that you’re right and know that your client’s in the right and that you just need to fight hard and that no matter what these people tell you, be confident.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
I think that opportunity is definitely something that makes a difference. I don’t know if it’s necessarily luck for me, but I did get some good breaks and bad breaks here and there. What I found out is when there’s an opportunity or you get some good breaks, you can use that to your advantage, whether it’s to grow your career, help your client, or help yourself.
Sometimes, people get more opportunities than others. I think you can create opportunities by putting in a lot of hard work and getting yourself in a good position for opportunities to happen. Hanging around the right people, in the right place, at the right time. And then when the opportunities arise, recognizing that opportunity and taking advantage of it.
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 didn’t really go to a top tier law school, but the law school that I went to, William Mitchell, was well known in this area as a trial lawyer school. A lot of the trial lawyers and even judges in this area have graduated from there. The school helped prepare me to go out on my own, and I made a lot of connections there, however I don’t know if it mattered to my clients what school I went to, so much as my past results.
I think for some folks, depending on where they’re practicing law, it may make a difference where they went to school and what opportunities might be there for them. So if you have an opportunity to get into a top tier law school, I would definitely take that opportunity if it’s available because I do think it can open some doors.
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 think there are a few things I’d say:
- First is, “take better care of yourself, eat healthier.” I was always into exercising and being active, but I would have put more effort into eating healthier at a younger age.
- The second thing I’d tell myself is “be more confident in your decisions and the future.” The fact that I didn’t know things about where my career path was headed used to stress me out, I’d tell myself, “you don’t need to know exactly what your career is, things will work out. Take the time to just really invest more in yourself and not worry about if the book you’re reading or the class you’re in is going to really help you in your career.” It’s better to learn as much as you can and try out as many things as you can, because one way or another, you’ll get to where you need to be in life and have tons of knowledge learned along the way.
- One final thing is, if there are any kind of hobbies or things that you want to get involved in, you’re better to start doing it at an earlier age because it gets harder as you get older. Even though you think you’re busy in college or law school, you’re actually not as busy as it gets when you become an adult and you have a career and maybe have a family.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
My primary motivation and drive is just to really help clients and do right by them, do right by my employees, and the people around me. I honor my craft and my profession and I do a good job.
So, the primary motivation is to know that at the end of the day, I and my fellow attorneys have really helped out our clients. Often the clients will recognize that too, because the results will speak for themselves.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The big thing right now is rebuilding the office. We had a bankruptcy division here which we got rid of so that we can completely focus on injury and disability law. So that’s been interesting and fun, building that practice and getting new employees and staff.
We’ve also gotten some really exciting new cases now that are complicated and require a lot of research in finding the right experts, filing motions, drafting briefs, and preparing for depositions. Just a lot of really hard, but interesting work that will go into those cases as they move on.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I think where I go from here is just honing my craft and getting better. So, going to seminars and classes to better my skills as a trial lawyer will always be part of my future as a personal injury lawyer.
As far as my career is concerned, besides just the trial portion, I’m just trying to be a better president of my law office. Managing the other attorneys to make the right decisions and have more of an opportunity to advance. This is a place where my employees enjoy coming to work every day. So, I hope I can make it even better for all those folks.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
I don’t know if it’s really funny, but when I was doing trial work for trial litigation, there was an argument over a dog and both my client and the ex-spouse, or soon to be ex spouse, wanted the dog. I was trying to figure out a way with the opposing counsel to be reasonable about it. And instead, he said “We’re going to have to have this figured out through the court.” And I said, “We’re going to have a trial over a dog?” And he said, “Yep.” And so that’s what we did, we had a trial over a dog. I told my client that you better explain through testimony how much you love this dog.
Being a dog person myself, I figured the judge would look at the dog more as a part of the family rather than personal property. So the strategy we took was to explain through testimony how important his dog was to him. The opposing counsel actually took the opposite position that the dog was just property. And so as property, she gets the dog based on property division law. We ended up winning the dog for my client, because the judge did indeed decide the dog was a family member and not a piece of property. But it’s just funny that we had a mini trial over a dog.
As far as war stories go, there was a time where I had a case where the trial hadn’t officially started, but we started doing trial testimony. This is all done on video. I was cross-examining a defense expert who had made a comment about some kind of concern she had for my client. The argument here was that my client needed all this future health care, life care.
The defense attorney was trying to make a claim that my client didn’t need this kind of care. The expert specifically said that my client didn’t, but there were things in the report and defendant’s expert’s direct testimony that I had noticed that were strange.
So I proceeded to take a risk and ask her about it rather than taking just the leading question approach. It turned out that, although she didn’t agree that my client should have all this future care that we had specified, she did believe that there was another kind of care that my client actually needed.
Shortly after that trial deposition, the defense settled the case right before the trial due to the fact they had contradicted themselves in expert witness testimony.
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’m working mainly on-site, but I’ve always kind of worked remotely. We’ve got our office set up so we can work on laptops at home or at satellite offices or on the road. I just prefer being in the office. I like the environment. The building my office is located in is really cool and I’ve got a lot of good open space. It’s a great place for me to think and work and just really get in the zone. Plus, I have five kids, so it’s pretty difficult to get a lot of peace and quiet to work on things at home.
A lot of our staff here have taken that role of hybrid working a couple of days in the office, a couple of days at home, and I think it’s been actually really great. I think for most people, it really gives them flexibility, makes them feel a little bit more free and just lets them shake things up a bit. Maybe you had enough of the office for the week and you want to work from home or vice versa.
So I think that’s the way the law offices and other businesses will probably go in the future. And I don’t see any downside to it, I think it’s very positive. However, I would say I don’t ever see the full office experience going away. I would hate to see that because I think there’s some kind of camaraderie and team building in a lot of things that come along with seeing each other in person at the office everyday.
So, hopefully that’s where the future will go for law offices. But I definitely think the flexibility has been really good, especially with people trying to balance home work life. And I think if we can find anything positive about the pandemic, that’s been one that I’ve noticed.
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?
Going back to the last question, I think that one of the big things is that people are working remotely or hybrid now. A lot of our clients are also doing the same. I’m seeing clients now who are more likely and willing to just do things via Zoom and sign things electronically versus face to face time. We used to go to their house or the hospital and meet with them and their family.
If it happens on the phone or zoom, it’s pretty great to meet people where they are and send things for them to review at their leisure. They’re a bit more calm than if they were to have to go to my legal office. They don’t have to feel pressured to sign before they leave. They can actually talk to you and ask questions, then sign it later that night electronically.
So that’s been something that I’ve seen change both for clients and lawyers. And I think it’s really working well for everyone. Things are a lot easier with less travel time and expense. You can also get a lot more done in a day when you don’t have to drive one to three hours round trip.
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?
Yes, it is very true. I think the best referrals we get are from networking, whether it’s past clients or other professionals. Those are the best kind of referrals and clients you can get. It’s been a bit more difficult getting those types of referrals during the pandemic because we’re not out and about and we don’t run into a lot of these folks anymore. Whether that’s at lawyer bar meetings or other meeting places, it’s been a little bit more difficult.
The good news is a lot of us have referral setups from the past where we’ve built a lot of great friends and clients, so they still refer us to clients and work.
But I will say, that’s been one of the tougher parts about COVID. That it’s a lot harder to build up a network and referral base. I think that that may change as the world gets back to “normal”.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
I think everyone’s trying to figure this out. Some lawyers claim they know how to do it, while some claim you just can’t do it at all.
I think there’s a mid-ground. I think just getting good information out to potential clients and the community through social media, while making sure you’re not posting anything that could possibly be polarizing.
We’ve been working on getting the word out about us through social media for a while now. We’ve tried a few different things because we believe it’s important to have that presence. I think it’s just figuring out the perfect way to do it. I don’t know that yet.
I do think we’ve been able to benefit from social media and I think we’ve used it well here and there, but we’re always trying to hone our message and figure it out even more. We want to be part of potential clients in the communities social networks, but not necessarily in their face and interfering with their family time or friend time or enjoyment on social media.
So it’s still a work in progress, but I do think it has a place, and I think if done effectively and appropriately, it’s a good way to build a practice.
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.
- I think the first thing that you need is to have a caring attitude, you’ve really got to care about your clients and your community. You’ve got to care about your coworkers. You’ve got to really care because ultimately, if you’re not caring about what you’re doing and your clients, then you’re not going to do a good job and you’re not going to be the lawyer that they need.
- Number two, I would say, is you’ve got to be authentic. You’ve got to be who you are because that’s the person that’s going to have to start from the beginning of the case to the end. Build the relationship with the client, fight for the client, your client and you are going to be in the trenches of one of the most difficult circumstances they may have been in. So you just need to be authentic so they know who you are and trust you. If they don’t like you then they might need a different lawyer or different lawyer at your firm.
- Number three, and this is really important, is being hardworking. You’ve got to be prepared to put the work in. You’ve got to be prepared to do the research. You’ve got to be prepared to spend the time getting your experts to track down the right witnesses. You’ve got to be able to take the time and do the things that the other side just won’t put the time or the work into to do. This way, when it’s trial time, you know you’ve done everything you need to do and you’re in the best position to win for your client.
- The fourth thing I’d say is that you’ve got to have good communication skills. Your client needs to understand the process the entire way, what you’re doing, how it’s being done, and what will happen. And you know, it makes them feel better and puts them at ease. Also, just being able to communicate effectively to the opposing counsel, the mediator, or eventually the judge and jury.
- Last, but certainly not least, I think the fifth thing would just be the best attorney you can be. You’ve got to be ready to just focus on self-improvement. You just can’t be complacent with who you are. You need to always be working to get better, figuring out better strategies for how to serve your clients and your community better, and just strive to be a better lawyer and a better person.
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’ve already met a lot of great people in my life, but I think it would be amazing to meet the president. The current president is Joe Biden, so it would be kind of fun to meet him.
I’ve also always thought Kevin Costner is an awesome actor. I’m a big fan of the Yellowstone series. I wouldn’t mind meeting Kevin Costner, maybe I could have breakfast with both Kevin Costner and Joe Biden, now there’s a fun story I could tell my clients!
How can our readers further follow your work?
By visiting my law firm website at https://nicoletlaw.com/ or checking out our social media pages.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!