We’re joined by Lawyerist Lab member, Russell Farbiarz, as he discusses what it looked like to transition from working in a law firm to running it. We discuss how he got there and what to think about if you’re interested in doing the same.
- . Russell's background
- . Transitioning to owning his firm
- . What's next?
- . Differences in owning a firm
Welcome to the Lawyerist Podcast, a series of discussions with entrepreneurs and innovators about building a successful law practice in today’s challenging and constantly changing legal market. Lawyerist supports attorneys, building client-centered and future-oriented small law firms through community, content, and coaching both online and through the Lawyerist Lab. And now from the team that brought you the Small Firm Roadmap and your podcast host…
Stephanie Everett (00:35):
Hi, I’m Stephanie Everett
Zack Glaser (00:36):
And I’m Zack Glaser. And this is episode 372 of the Lawyerist Podcast. Part of the legal talk network today. Our lab coach Sara is talking with Lab member Russell Farbiarz about the process of taking over his current law firm.
Stephanie Everett (00:51):
Today’s podcast is brought to you by Posh Virtual Receptionist, LawPay, and Postali. We wouldn’t be able to do the show without their support. So stay tuned, cuz we’re gonna tell you more about them in a few minutes.
Zack Glaser (01:02):
So Stephanie part of what I do at Lawyerist obviously I do legal tech advice and whatnot, but I also write a lot for our website and do a lot of maintenance on our website. And you know, sometimes I don’t get as much love as the podcast gets. So I, I wanted to shamelessly, I guess, tell people that, that I’m writing stuff over there and you’re actually you’re writing a good deal of stuff over there. So we’re just recently we started cranking out our news articles related to industry news and community news. And, and I know you’ve been writing a, a good deal there.
Stephanie Everett (01:38):
Yeah, it’s been super fun. Those who are familiar with the site, remember back in the day, it was more of like a blog where there was just kind of new articles being published all the time. And then we sorta moved away from that. And I guess the messages were back to it a little bit, not in this new format where we’re writing news articles about things that are going on and you know, in the industry, in our community with the partners that we work with. And so it’s been a lot of fun to write those. And, and so the good news is you can go to the site and on the bottom of the homepage, you’ll see the latest news articles you can scroll through there. And there’s gonna, every time you go to the site, now there’s gonna be something new.
Zack Glaser (02:16):
So one of the things I, I like about this, that’s not specifically on the news articles is for the last month or, or two months, we’ve been creating a process out of this. We’ve been having to work this into our system. And it has been interesting doing that, you know, from, from whole cloth, from nothing. We have a lot of processes at lawyers that we, that we tweak, but this was a new process and it was, it was, and quite frankly, to kind of come in and say, okay, everybody meet and figure out how to, how to make this system work because we don’t just have one person writing these things. We have, you know, most of the people at our company are, are contributing to, to this and at least some way shape or form.
Stephanie Everett (03:00):
Yeah. And I think it’s a good reminder for anyone listening that you can restart or start things again, like it, you know, a quarter ago this felt like a big lift that we wanted to be pumping out constant, you know, content on the site. We were a little slow and methodical with it. We really thought through, how do we need just to look, what will the process look like? And how can we create it in a way where our team can batch their work? Anyone who’s listened to us talk about project management stuff before knows we’re big components of time blocking and doing your work in a way that makes sense. So you’re not just skipping around from project to project. So I think we were really thoughtful in how we set up this system to really allow people work in this way in a way that we know works best. And then we’ve been tweaking it quite. I mean, we’ve already started tweaking it. We’ve already learned so much just in the first couple of weeks of doing it
Zack Glaser (03:51):
Right, but you got, you know, we got a good deal of buy-in from everybody and, and methodically went through this and started this so well now here is Sara’s conversation with Russell.
Russell Farbiarz (04:04):
Hey everyone. My name is Russell Farbiarz. I am a estate planning and elder law attorney based primarily in Brooks County Pennsylvania. And so for those of us, those of you not familiar, that’s sort of, if you’ve heard of the Redding railroad that’s the, that, that we’re in probably an hour from Hershey park, maybe an hour and a half from Philadelphia. I’ve been in the Lab community. Let’s see, I think I joined Lab in August of 2020. But I’ve sort of been in the Lawyerist orbit for probably a little bit long, longer than that. So that that’s me.
Sara Muender (04:41):
Well, it’s so good to have you on the podcast, Russell, we’re really excited for our community to get to know you. I know that you’re one of our longtime lobsters. And so we wanna hear, you know, about all the great things that you have going on now and what you’re excited about for the future before we do that, we love a good inspirational story. So take us back to the beginning of when you started your firm before you found Lawyerist and sort of, you know, how you started out in business and where you were at the time and sort of how things progressed.
Russell Farbiarz (05:13):
You know, Sara, I’m sort of surprised to hear you call refer to me as a long time Labster. Cause I don’t feel like I’ve been in Lab that long, but I, and that there out there are lots of people in lab who’ve been around for a while and I’m, and I have been learning from them, but I guess, I guess that, that I have been there for a bit of time where I got started. I was sort of fortunate because I didn’t actually start a law firm from scratch. I graduated from law school and I did what we’re all told in law school made law review, got a job as, as a law clerk. And I clerked in Bennington Vermont. So Southwest Vermont, about an hour from Albany, New York. And I really clerked because I thought I was supposed to clerk and I, and I wish I had known then what I know now, which is that clerking just for the sake of clerking is not necessarily that beneficial.
Russell Farbiarz (06:10):
And so I, in after that position, I, I moved to Pennsylvania with my, at the time fiance now wife and her father actually owned, owned a practice, but I didn’t, I didn’t go into, into business business with him immediately. What, what happened is I got a job working for the, the district attorney. And so I was working as a prosecutor which was really great experience learning how to walk and chew gum at the same time in the courtroom, which is helpful. And I I’ll, I’ll never forget. I I’m. I was in court one day and my, my father-in-law’s partner came, came in for a case and I’m talking to him. I don’t, I didn’t know him particularly well, but I was talking to him and he said, how would you like to come up, come up to Hamburg, which is where, where their office was and, and take before me.
Russell Farbiarz (06:58):
And I thought he was joking, cuz he’s a big jokester, but he wasn’t joking. He had the thought he wanted to retire. And you know, one of the easiest ways for him to retire would be to find someone to, to take his place. And so, you know, fast forward, maybe six, eight months after that I left the DA’s office and I started working initially with my father-in-law and his partner for a couple of months. Then, then the partner did retire, moved to Florida and it was my father-in-law and I for a couple of years, my wife did end up joining the practice in 2012. So I joined the practice in the fall of 2009. My wife joined in 2012 and then my father-in-law left in mid 2014. He was appointed and confirmed to be a, a judge on the, on the state trial court to fill out an, an unexpired term and then he retired from the practice.
Sara Muender (07:57):
Okay. So you’re thrown into this, you know, existing law practice. Take us back to where you were mentally at the time. Like at that point, what did you envision the firm becoming
Russell Farbiarz (08:11):
At that point? I was just trying to figure out what I was doing. I can’t even say, I can’t say that I had a vision at that point because it didn’t, and my father-in-law was many things, but a visionary, you know, with regard to the practice really wasn’t it, it was, or maybe he, maybe he did have a vision, but it wasn’t something we, we talked about all the time and I really was trying to understand what it meant. Not only did be a lawyer, a fairly new lawyer. I was had to learn how to practice areas that I didn’t have any experience in cuz really the two experiences I’d had before that were clerking, which is research and writing and criminal law, which by the way, when I went to law school, I said, I was never gonna do criminal law, but there we were there, we were you know, and it was a practice that was primarily real estate estate planning estate administration. And I didn’t know anything about any of those things. So I really in the beginning was really just trying to learn how to be an effect, an effective attorney. Yeah. And then also thinking about this is a business that needs to be run and I don’t know anything about that either.
Sara Muender (09:26):
Yeah. Well, and it’s not uncommon. That people that we, we talk to and the people that come and find us here at Lawyerist and live into the podcast, I’m sure that they can relate to that feeling of like, well, I was, you know, I’m just trying to be a good lawyer. And the, the idea of having a thriving business is sort of an afterthought, but if you wanna be a good lawyer that actually helps people, you know, you have to focus on the business aspect too. So at what point did you realize that?
Russell Farbiarz (09:55):
I think that I, I always sort of thought in my mind, okay, this is a business. It needs to be run like a business. As we evolved from like 2009 into, you know, 2014, it was starting to become clearer that I was running the business more so than my father-in-law cuz he was, he was you phasing out. So I was sort of taking care of a lot more of the, the day to day and like, you know, the, the firm management, you know, things that needed to be done, you know, from on the business side. But really when he, when he left all of a sudden it was okay, this now isn’t his thing anymore. It’s it was my wife’s the thing and my thing. And you know, trying to think about what that meant. And, but, but it still took, I think a couple more years before I really started to think very critically about running things, more like a business rather than, you know, just a practice. I think lawyers really fall into this trap of, well, I’m a lawyer, I’m a professional. So I don’t, I don’t need to run a business. It’s a practice I’m immune from all of those stresses and it’s just not true. And I think, you know, I started to really to realize that there needed to be more intentionality, but I didn’t don’t really know what to do or how to get started.
Sara Muender (11:20):
Yeah. So now that it was just you and your wife at that point, how did you divvy up running the business between you?
Russell Farbiarz (11:28):
So it was my wife and I, however, she was only working three days a week because we had small children. So she was, it was a blessing because she was able to be home two days, have our kids in daycare preschool two days so or three days rather. So, so there was, there was a balance. And when she joined the firm in 2012, we had one child, well, now we have three. So we went through two maternity leaves in the process, you know? So I think that a lot of it came down to me. We did talk about a lot of stuff. A lot of it, while we were brushing our teeth in the morning, as we were getting ready to get the kids to school that was when we had firm meetings as, as we called it, you know, you know? But I, I think a majority of it felt to me just by the fact that she didn’t have the hours in the day.
Sara Muender (12:16):
Yeah. That makes sense. And I think that that’s really relatable. So you have all this pressure on you. It’s like no pressure, right.
Russell Farbiarz (12:24):
None at all.
Sara Muender (12:24):
Yeah. Right. So at that point, what were you struggling with the most?
Russell Farbiarz (12:30):
At that point, it was just trying to get all the work done. And I don’t even know that there was any, any one thing, you know, we were blessed in the sense that longstanding practice. We had a following that existed for a long time. So I wouldn’t say it was, you know, getting clients in the door, but maybe it was getting the right kind of clients in the door you know, and really earning the respect of not only the legal, legal community, but the community at large to get those other, those other clients in the door and really making sure we have the right financial controls in place. And really the reason that I joined lawyerist, you know, sort of fast forwarding is being, cuz we had no process or procedure for anything. And it was so everything was, it was like the first year, every year because there was no, this is how we do things document, there was no firm, you know, info base. The institutional memory was sort of in certain long term employees, you know, it was not recorded anywhere. It was, there was, there was no training. There was, there was very catches catch cat.
Sara Muender (13:40):
Yeah. And it sort of forced you to reinvent a new system every time. And it certainly wasn’t set up for you to, to grow and to scale. Had you started to bring more people on your team because you know, you knew how things would get done and you kind of got into a rhythm with it. But it, it sounds like, you know, at that point it wasn’t ever documented and it wasn’t transferable had you had started growing. We’re gonna take a quick break to hear from our sponsors. And then when we come back, we wanna hear all about how you started to change things.
Zack Glaser (14:18):
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Sara Muender (16:23):
And we’re back. So now, at what point did you find us here at Lawyerist and how did that all come to be?
Russell Farbiarz (16:30):
Just to go back to your last question though, for, for a moment when I was looking for something like Lawyerist, I didn’t necessarily know that it existed. I really felt like I, I was sort of at the center of, of everything in our business. You know, everything had to be had to come back to me before anyone could move to the next step. And that then that became very frustrating and it wasn’t a good, a good use of my time. I mean we were the sort of firm and there’s nothing wrong with this that I would meet with the client. I would dictate what I needed and on a Dictaphone and it would go to the secretary, they type it, they prepared that’s how they would get their instructions. And while that can work, it’s, it’s not particularly scalable. You know, it, it relies on my time too much. So that’s sort of floating around in my mind, we were opening up a satellite office and I started thinking is at that point, you know, everything was, was based on our, on, on premises server. And I was thinking we really need to upgrade our, our practice management system, and literally every time I searched for a practice management system, lawyerist would come up and, and
Sara Muender (17:42):
You’re like, who are these people
Russell Farbiarz (17:43):
Who are these people? So, you know, three or four times. So then I finally, I was like, well, I was reading the, the reviews of all of the practice management systems, but then it was like, who are, who are these people? And I started listening to the podcast and, and you know, really paying attention. And I remember at one point I was feeling really frustrated and, you know, at the end of the podcast, you know, they say, if you go, if you go to this site, you can schedule like a 15 minute call with Stephanie. And I remember I got on the phone with Stephanie the first time and, and I felt like I was talking to a celebrity because I had heard her voice so many times on the podcast.
Sara Muender (18:19):
She gets that a lot.
Russell Farbiarz (18:21):
And I was, I was like, oh my God, you’re a real person. Yeah. And I brought this up to her a couple of times because I remember talking into her about Lab at the time. And this was probably, I wanna say 2018 or so. And I remember she told me, you know, what lab cost? And I said, well, Stephanie, I would never pay that much. It’s how could you, how could anyone pay that? And she was like, okay. And then, and then, you know,
Sara Muender (18:46):
We’re done here
Russell Farbiarz (18:47):
Knowing, knowing that I, that I was, you know, just in the wrong place or, or that I just wasn’t there yet, but she did at that point, she did tell me that about the Accelerator program that was gonna be coming out. I think that was in, that came out in 2019 and I did participate in that program. Or maybe I talked to her in 2019, cuz that program I think was in early 2020. And I remember it was a good program and I remember not honestly, I didn’t take the work as serious as, as it needed to be taken. And then, and then we had, we had a pandemic, you know, right. As we, I was in the first session that was sort of ending around March of 2020. And you know, that was, that was when LabCon was very quickly switched to, you know, from being in person, to being virtual for the first time.
Russell Farbiarz (19:32):
And I attended, you know, part of that. And that’s sort of what got me thinking about Lab and about, you know, there, there is this whole community here of people who think like me and are trying to do what I’m trying to do and improve their, their businesses. Just look at these, their practice as a practice and looking at it as a business. And then I did end up joining lab in, I believe August or September of 2020. And I did say to say to Stephanie, well, I guess I was wrong because it is worth it.
Sara Muender (20:05):
Yeah. Oh, that’s awesome. I mean, what a testimonial. So how else has your thinking changed as far as how you do business now versus how you did business pre Lawyerist?
Russell Farbiarz (20:19):
The, of it is, you know, how I did business pre pandemic and, you know, mid or post pandemic, depending on your opinion of where we are.
Sara Muender (20:26):
It’s all a blur. Yeah. But
Russell Farbiarz (20:28):
I never would’ve imagined before I was in Lawyerist that I could actually work from home, you know, three or four days a week that I could meet with clients on, on zoom or on the phone that I could develop practices and procedures that I could have employees who didn’t necessarily live within 30 miles of my office. You know, I have, I have remote staff. I have someone who is in Nebraska, someone who’s in the Philippines. And then I’m, you know, looking to fill another position right now and got a resume from someone who’s living in South Korea. And, you know, just realizing the world isn’t really as big as it seems that we have the ability to, to really find talent, find the best talent. And it doesn’t have to be someone who lives, you know, within 15 minutes from the office. And I’ve also thought more in the last year and a about client experience that I have in my entire career, trying to, to really create an experience that makes my clients want to come back and want to tell people about, about our firm.
Sara Muender (21:39):
Yes. That’s huge. When you started hiring, how did you know what the right first hires were? In other words, like what, what were some of the first things that you took off your plate? Cause I know that’s a huge question for a lot of people who come to us, it’s like, I know I need help and I’m so overwhelmed, but it’s just, it’s so hard to, you know, give up certain tasks to that first hire. What was that process like for you?
Russell Farbiarz (22:08):
So I’ve always had staff. When I joined the firm, we, we had two, two assistants. We then expanded out to three to three people. But what I found have found from my perspective is really thinking about not just trying to create the same position 3, 4, 5, 6 times, but trying to find someone, who could fill a certain role. And I’ve spent a lot of time talking with Maryellen about, you know, what the right skillsets are and, and, and trying to, to really fill holes, not holes, but you know, seats and spent a lot of time thinking through my accountability chart and, you know, trying to identify, you know, we could use help for this, right. This particular thing. And, and that’s been help, been helpful, you know, because, you know, as you grow, you think, well, I have a legal assistant and they do, you know, these 15 things, well, I just need another person who can do the same 15 things.
Russell Farbiarz (23:06):
You almost want to create specialists within your firm. So that’s what I’ve I transitioned to. Like, I have one person who he’s pretty much our intake specialist. He’s the person who, he’s our receptionist. He answers the phone. He does a little intake with a client with a potential client. I have another who really, she focuses on, on real estate and I have, and the state administration paralegal, all she does are estate. And, and I found that it’s, it’s far more efficient to do it that way. But if I was looking at what’s the first thing to get off my plate bookkeeping. Hmm. If you’re not outsourcing bookkeeping, you need to outsource bookkeeping.
Sara Muender (23:47):
That’s really good advice. Yeah. That’s huge. So what are you excited about what’s next for you?
Russell Farbiarz (23:55):
Oh, well, one of the things I’m excited about is trying to find someone to, to help with our estate practice. We really need like an, an accounting type person. And so that, that’s what I’m I’m interviewing for right now, but long term plan, like I’m really looking forward to trying to create some different offerings for, for our estate planning practice. I want to create essentially like two tracks, almost like one, one, which is, you know, the more, you know, hand hands on, you know, more attorney intensive plan or track, and then a track that’s, that’s a little bit more DIY where you can, you know, get thing. A lot of the stuff, a lot of, a lot started on the website, do a lot of it yourself. It’s, you know, a lower cost option and there would still be, you know, consultation with, with the attorney.
Russell Farbiarz (24:45):
But, and not as in depth, as, you know, if you’re, if you’re in that higher tier. And I think it’d be really, really neat to be able to differentiate clients, because I think that we have lots of people who, you know, they don’t want to pay, you know, the high, the higher dollar amounts, and maybe they’re willing to do some of the work, the initial work for themselves, but we can still help those people. One of our, our values is, is access to justice, making sure that people have the ability to have an estate plan, cuz we, we feel it’s so important.
Sara Muender (25:16):
Yeah. And that’s you demonstrating being client centered and we love that. So that’s so exciting if you had to sort of encapsulate in one sentence how your law firm is different now versus where it was when you first took over what are like two or three of the biggest differences
Russell Farbiarz (25:38):
You’re asking a lawyer to, to only answer you in one sentence, you haven’t been around lawyers long enough to know that that’s just, we, we like to hear ourselves talk.
Sara Muender (25:46):
We can keep going.
Russell Farbiarz (25:48):
But what’s different is that we are innovative. I don’t feel constrained by, by anything really anymore at this point, it’s I have this problem. There are so many different ways to solve it. And you know, you know, staffing, I don’t have to, I, I’m not constrained by my local market. I’m not constrained by, by geographical local. There’s no reason I can’t work with a client with a client on a state planning who lives on the other side of the state because we have the means to do that. Now in a lot of ways, it’s more exciting because when I get up in the morning to go to work, it’s not just about, okay, who who’s will, am I writing today? It’s how am I gonna make this better? How am I gonna make this me mine? You know? And it it’s exciting. It’s also terrifying at times, but it’s, it’s mostly exciting.
Sara Muender (26:34):
Yeah. Well that’s so inspiring. I mean, like you said, there are some blessings that have come out of the pandemic, just the, the ease of connecting with people from far away and, and hiring people from all over and just, it really opens up so much opportunity and possibility and you know, possibility really is limitless. And you’re someone who is demonstrated that. So for that person listening, who they know, they need to make changes and business. They know that they need to create better systems and processes. Maybe they need to hire, they just need to rethink how they’re doing things. But maybe they’re just unsure where to start. Maybe they don’t know whether now is the right time to focus on their business rather than just focusing on the lawyering aspect. What’s something encouraging that you could say to, to that person,
Russell Farbiarz (27:24):
Pick up the phone call, set up a call, send an email, get started. Now you’re, you’re never more ready than you are right now. This is something I, I say when I, when I do estate planning webinars with potential clients is, is you is now is the right time because you’re, you’re, you’re never gonna be more healthy or more prepared to create your plan than you are right now. Well, the same applies here. You, you’re not gonna regret getting started and you don’t, you don’t have to jump, jump all in. I mean, there’s lots of stuff on the Insider’s group that is really helpful. It doesn’t cost anything. There’s tons of stuff on, you know, cuz on the website cuz that’s what, that’s how I got started. I was, I was in insiders when it was a paid community. It was, I think it was like a hundred dollars for the year, but it was a lot of value. I mean the, the, the budget I do for my firm every year is the lawyer is formed that I got four or five years ago from the insiders group. Just get started because Rome wasn’t built in a day, your firm’s not gonna be than a day. It takes, it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, but it doesn’t start until you until you start
Sara Muender (28:31):
Amen to that. Yeah. That’s great advice. Just start. You’re never gonna be as young and healthy and ready as you are today. It’s so true. Well, thank you so much for being with us. Thank you for taking the time to come on the Lawyerist podcast and share your story. Thank you for what you do to make the world a better place. We’re so excited to see what you do next. Anything else you’d like to share with us? That’s next for you? That we can kind of be on the lookout for
Russell Farbiarz (28:58):
Other than, you know, I, I, I wanna start working on that two track system I just talked about, but yeah,
Sara Muender (29:03):
That’s so exciting,
Russell Farbiarz (29:04):
Right? Right now, nothing, nothing else at, at the moment, but I really appreciate the, the opportunity to be here today with you.
Speaker 1 (29:13):
The Lawyerist Podcast is edited by Britany Felix. Are you ready to implement the ideas we discuss here into your practice? Wondering what to do next? Here are your first two steps. First, if you haven’t read the Small Firm Roadmap yet, grab the first chapter for free at lawyeristbackup.kinsta.cloud/book. Looking for help beyond the book? Let’s chat about whether our coaching communities are right for you. Head to lawyeristbackup.kinsta.cloud/community/lab to schedule a 10 minute call with our team to learn more. The views expressed by the participants are their own and are not endorsed by Legal Talk Network. Nothing said in this podcast is legal advice for you.
Sara is a Community Coach at Lawyerist. She is a certified life coach and has had years of coaching others through their professional and personal lives. She works one-on-one with our Lab community members to take their business and perspective to the next level.
From Joining to Running a Law Firm, with Russell Farbiarz
Last updated June 28th, 2022