Several things stood out when I initially met Galvin Kennedy, this week’s Attorney in the Spotlight, numerous years ago on the video call we had together. At that time, I was employed with a staffing company as a Relationship Manager and Galvin was a new client. Right from the start, Galvin demonstrated a quick wit with ready ability to banter back and forth which kept me in stitches! Next, he shifted gears and communicated with refreshing candor and directness, explaining precisely what attributes he believed the right candidate should possess in order to fill the open position and serve him and his firm successfully. Lastly, he was confident and decisive regarding business preferences and seemed equally adept at delegating. He had built a strong team to support his practice and explained how communicating expectations to his team – and delegating with clarity – played a large part in how effective he was for his clients. Throughout the time we worked together, I took much comfort in the fact that if Galvin saw problems brewing in the services we provided, he would let me know in real-time. If he had a concern – or a stumbling block arose – he called to discuss it and trusted we’d work to fix it. The assistant we brought into serve Galvin consistently told me how much she enjoyed working for him – particularly because of his approach to business as described above. Galvin’s talents, choices and business success is why I was so excited he agreed to share his experience with us at Woven Legal and our readers.
Galvin Kennedy began his own law firm in 2000, navigated partnerships as that firm grew and once again has returned to life as a solo practitioner. Kennedy Law Firm, in Houston, Texas focuses on helping people who are owed unpaid wages, victims of personal injury, pharmacy errors and victims of injury caused by dangerous medical devices. Not only is he a seasoned litigator but also frequently appears as a featured guest and legal expert or cited across the spectrum of well-known media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters and the Associated Press.
MEG GARAVAGLIA: Galvin, thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us to share your business experience. If you could advise your younger self on whether to join a partnership or go solo, which would you choose?
GALVIN KENNEDY: I think we are the product of our experiences, and every individual should make the decision that’s right for them. So what I’m about to say is based on my unique experiences. That being said, I think I have some kernels of wisdom for a new lawyer starting out. In a management workshop I did recently, I had to figure out what makes a good partnership. We had to list our partnerships, and a partnership was defined more broadly than just a partnership within a law firm. It could be a marketing company you work with; it could be my relationship with you and Woven Legal — that sort of thing. Part of the (process) was to look at things that make a good partnership as well as things that make a poor partnership. After I listed all my good and bad partnerships, I identified the common characteristics of each. For the good ones, I listed integrity first: working with people who are super honest. When you’re aligning yourself with someone who is smart, but crooked, you’re just aligning yourself with a smart thief. So integrity is important. Second, they’re subject matter experts. Third, they’re fun. They have to be fun; if they’re not fun, then it’s just not worth it. That might be totally irrelevant to someone whose sole goal is to make money or be effective, but for me, it’s broader than that. I need to have fun when I’m working. The fourth one is wanting to provide value over gaining money. I know that’s sort of cliche, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. As an example, earlier in my career, (my team and I) made a big impact on nurses (we were representing) whose employer required them to work through their meal breaks. They each pocketed $5,000, $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000 (due to a favorable settlement). We made a real impact on their lives. I wanted the team to celebrate that moment, but (others in the firm) didn’t pause to do that. Instead, it appeared they were asking themselves, “How did I benefit from this?” Or perhaps they felt like (the awarded amount) wasn’t enough…that we should have gotten more. Often, they quickly turned the page to go onto the next fight. That (approach) can be beneficial for certain reasons, but I find value in pausing and reflecting on the success for the client and for ourselves.
Lastly, good partners have to be passionate about the business or project. Aligning yourself with a competent, but low energy person can suck the life out of the mission. The opposite is also true. When you’re around people who are passionate and motivated, they become a force multiplier.
So if you’re going to go with a partner, make sure you have those five things lined up.
MG: I can see where that’s the right thing (to do) on several levels. Celebrating with your team for a job well done and for achieving great results is valuable, certainly. But, when you include the client – then that makes you all part of one team, as opposed to strictly being across the desk from the client or team. I have seen this result in longer, stronger relationships. Were those markers for a good partnership specific to you, or do they apply to all partnerships?
GK: While I listed those for myself, I think they apply to all partnerships, whether you’re in real estate, dentistry, web design, etc. Those are universal traits of a good partnership.
MG: What do you think worked well when you were communicating with your partners? What are some communication best practices you would advise other attorneys managing their own partnerships to adopt?
GK: Having scheduled partner meetings that are non-negotiable is critical (to a partnership’s success). When you’re running a business, there are certain things that can’t be ignored. You can’t ignore the important client call from the court or opposing counsel, a deadline to file a motion or a response brief — those will not get ignored because they just can’t be ignored, unless you’re incompetent. However, that’s not true about having a business meeting with your partners. (A common) mindset that often hurts the partnership is believing that partner meetings can always be moved because they’re optional and within your control. Because that’s generally true, the partners need to make these meetings non-optional and get them on the calendar. Together agree — when it’s scheduled, you treat it as if it’s a hearing with the judge. If you don’t, in my experience, it’s inevitable something else will come up because you are working with busy people who have busy schedules. But, when these meetings aren’t held, the relationship and climate of the firm get to the point where everyone is discouraged. No one wants to have the meeting without all of the partners present because the opportunity for a quorum is missing. Over time, the meetings just end up not occurring and you wait for emergencies to arise to trigger the need for a meeting. That in turn creates reactivity instead of proactive foresight and planning. Instead, put the Partner meetings on the calendar, establish an agenda, and a very specific, limited time for the meeting’s duration. Don’t have a meeting without an agenda, and keep it short — it doesn’t even have to exceed 30 minutes or an hour.
MG: Do you have any recommendations as to how to make consistent meetings stick? Through the years, I have seen backsliding on this topic.
GK: Well, yes, It’s easier said than done. But, I’d recommend building in carrots and sticks — telling people if they are not present at the meeting, it will still take place and they will not get a vote on the subjects covered. It has to be universal and apply to everyone. Even you – as the Managing Partner – have to show up.
MG: Would you talk about the importance of direct, candid communication? I know this is a strength of yours and in my experience with you, Galvin, I really respected your ability to say what needed to be said in business conversations. Can you discuss the benefits of this approach and what your experience has been when addressing problems or concerns?
GK: I’m not always really good at that. Perhaps in the business world, I am more direct. In my personal world, I do tap dance somewhat around what I’m trying to say, to avoid hurting people’s feelings. But, I think if you want to be told the truth, giving the people you’re talking to the courtesy and respect of telling them the truth, and trusting that they can handle it, is good. Just deliver it diplomatically.
MG: I do think a lot of times (we business people) can err on the side of caution – leaving important things unsaid. While working with you, I’m grateful to say I’ve never felt like you were holding back from broaching areas of concern or discussing mistakes openly. I believe it made it easier for your VA to produce the results you wanted; it even shortened her learning curve I recall, because of the clarity your candor provided. I will admit, early on, your precise, specific instructions on managing some of your rote tasks made me nervous because, depending on the person, this can be a harbinger of someone who is rigid – a micromanager – and potentially too direct.
GK: Yeah, that’s it. But just because you give feedback doesn’t mean you’re being critical. It’s just to improve the objective.
MG: Agreed. It’s just saying how you’d like your “steak cooked.” I don’t think my waiter or waitress has any issue with how I describe my preference, for example. How about differing opinions amongst Partners? Do you have any tips on avoiding resentments or arguments?
GK: In prior business relationships I’ve had, when we were deciding on a path forward on a particular issue — whether it’s marketing, hiring an employee, renting office space, whatever it is — there very often would be a heated discussion. I arrived at the idea of “no one owns the idea; no one owns the proposal.” The plan was these discussions would simply be an opportunity for everyone to consider whatever the proposal was. Everyone was asked to get on board with the idea (being presented) and come up with all the reasons why this idea is better than the others. Then, everyone — including the person who proposed it — had an opportunity (and obligation) to attack it. For most people, even if you’re convinced halfway through the discussion that yours is no longer a good idea, you want to defend it because it’s your idea. But if you go into the meeting with the mindset that you don’t own an idea, that it is just an idea that lives or dies on its own, it helps keep everyone (focused on the best solution).
MG: I love that. It’s a position where ideas are not sacred cows. You put (all ideas) through a filter to remove some of the personal attachment. I think that’s really helpful. What advice would you give other attorneys in partnerships on avoiding the build-up of resentments?
GK: The only advice I would give is that it’s not going to blow away with the wind. Some lawyers may have a tendency to simply go back to their office and just wait for the next (big) issue or the next opportunity before deciding to address problems. But then there’s another one and another one until you’re having more negative than positive days. I don’t think silence is the way to deal with it. Someone once said, “Hard conversations, easy life. Easy conversations, hard life.”
MG: That’s an amazing quote! I’ve never heard that before. As I said, we counted on you for direct feedback and it was pretty quick, too, which, allowed mistakes to be corrected promptly – minimizing greater problems. Has that helped you establish good, productive staff relationships throughout your career as a result?
GK: For sure. With my staff, I think that (approach) worked very well. I like to think they would say the same about me.
MG: I remember the detailed instructions you provided to your assistant at the start of your engagement. Upon reading them it was apparent you had given a great deal of thought to the process of how your inbox would best be managed, for example. It told me you must be very process-driven. Would you say that’s a correct assessment?
GK: Yeah, I just realized I had developed certain processes I found effective that could be written down and given to someone else to apply. For my inbox, I thought through ‘Is this junk’? Is this something I need to read, or something I need to forward? Do I need to respond? (I gave that information to my assistant and she did a great job.) Since opening this firm, I am not using processes as much right now but want to get back there. I need to step back and figure out what I’m doing every day – what tasks I’m doing repeatedly. But yes, generally, I strive to utilize processes.
MG: In your words, what is the end product that you get from strong processes?
GK: We make a million decisions every day. We don’t even think about them. There are certain ways to automate that thinking process so you don’t have to use bandwidth to do the deep analysis every time. If you spend two days stepping back and reviewing your (routine), you can see which habits lead to lower productivity. For example, if I spend 30 minutes reading the New York Times in the morning, and then click on some clickbait that takes me to a YouTube video, it may not seem very long at the time, but I realize afterward that it’s 10:30 am and I’m just starting work. So I think about whether there’s a habit I can develop, like putting my phone in airplane mode to reduce distractions, to improve productivity. I also recommend choosing no more than three tasks or projects to complete per day. I always have this idea that I’m going to get 20 things done, and I don’t. If I’m focusing on 20 of them, I get none of them done. But if I limit my tasks, then I can feel good about what I’ve accomplished that day.
MG: What do you do with the added bandwidth resulting from effective processes?
GK: A lot of projects require long stretches of time — two or three hours of continuous work — and there’s a cost of interruption that is under-appreciated. If you’re working on a project for 35 minutes, and take a phone call that may only last five minutes, you have to really work to get back to where you were — whatever data you were holding in your head when you were analyzing the problem — and then continue with the creative analysis, for example. So, finding processes that create larger blocks of uninterrupted time to do more robust, deeper creative and analytical thinking is valuable.
MG: That absolutely makes sense. By stepping away from your previous partnership and going in a different direction – out on your own again as you have more recently – what did you hope to achieve?
GK: I’ve spent years practicing in a modern business environment. Almost all of my support staff and virtual staff contractors live around the world. So, I don’t have to buy a computer for them, pay for health insurance, or all of the other overhead that goes along with having full-time staff. As you know, I’ve used virtual contractors long before COVID and wanted to continue to expand my practice in this way. There are other people who’ve been doing it for a long time. So, despite the naysayers, I knew relying on a virtual team wouldn’t mean I couldn’t trust my people — that they’d lie about the hours they work, or spend time playing around because they weren’t in an office. Viewing support professionals as costs instead of assets is outdated thinking. Maybe there are times when these criticisms are true, but there are ways to eliminate or at least reduce those risks from occurring. So I decided to (change things) to set up my own modern business. I have a team of 15 to 25 people that support my business and joint ventures with 12 different law firms around the country. I can do my work wherever I want. I can throttle up and throttle down whenever I need more or less help. There are vendors for virtually every conceivable service that a law firm might need — a CPA, content creation, marketing, paralegal staff, data analysis, (paralegal staffing and firm management like Woven Legal) – you name it. There’s someone out there who can do it remotely. There are lots of (flexible) services out there for lawyers.
MG: What drawbacks have you found in working with a virtual team versus having employees in house?
GK: It does get lonely and can be less convenient if you aren’t interacting with people in person. Personal contact is nice. So you do give that up. To balance that, if I’m doing what I know I need to do, I set up at least three lunches a week with friends and colleagues where we meet face to face. You have to eat, but you don’t have to eat alone. Obviously, COVID has made it difficult, but that will go away eventually.
MG: What would you say are the resources you find most helpful in running your law firm? You mentioned virtual contractors. Is there anything else in particular, like software?
GK: There’s (a technology) that I love called Loom and there’s a free version of it that you can download. You just click on it on your computer, and it records visually what’s on your screen with an audio overlay. So if you want to give a two-minute task to an assistant that is more easily done through visual explanation, you can do it right there. And it’s available immediately. You can finish it, hit stop, and then you’ve got a link within three seconds that you can forward to whomever. I’ve used it 60 to 100 times in the last six months, and it’s never failed. Every time I’ve given those clear instructions to whomever’s following up with the task, they’ve gotten it done exactly the way I wanted. It avoids confusion.
MG: A lot of attorneys we work with admit to their struggle with giving clear instructions. Attorneys, like all of us, bring assumptions into communication. For example, seasoned attorneys know so much and have practiced for so long they might forget all of the information that’s needed to delegate a task. Then, if they can not be reached to answer questions on completing the task, more confusion and frustration ensues. Is there any kind of mnemonic or strategy you rely on to arrive at the necessary details for effective delegation?
GK: I always try to speak clearly and consider my audience. I was in Debate for four years, and you always have to think about how to deliver your message. What does this particular judge like and dislike? So maybe that was ingrained in me. I also have kids, who sometimes need you to express complex ideas in very simple, metaphorical, or analogous terms. So here’s an example: I work with a lawyer in India. He works for me full time, and he speaks and writes English well. But, sometimes there’s just a little communication barrier. So, I don’t always know what he knows and what he doesn’t know. As I’m explaining an assignment in, say, Loom, I might use a term or talk about something, and I’ll say, “I’m assuming you know this, but if you don’t, that’s fine. Let me know and I’ll explain it.” I don’t want to spend five minutes discussing it if he knows what a Notice of Consent is. But, by all means, I don’t want him to waste time looking it up on Google when I can tell him in 15 seconds.
MG: In the past year, what investments have you made into your Practice which have made a big impact?
GK: Clio is really good for what I do, which is largely marketing and client intake. I don’t need a $1,000/month, super robust software. I use Clio Grow, but there’s also a Clio Manage. The other purchase is a stand-up desk. Lawyers tend to sit down all day. I’m a triathlete, and when I train, my hip flexors get super tight just sitting down. Forty-five minutes is about my limit. Even if you have a desk already, you can get a platform that rises up. It’s really helpful. I just returned one that I didn’t like, and then I got another one. The one thing that went wrong with the one I got at first is that it didn’t have enough real estate on the bottom part for my laptop. It was designed for someone who has a desktop with a keyboard and separate screen. So don’t make that mistake.
MG: Great, thanks! Who do you think influenced you in becoming an attorney? Did you always want to be an attorney?
GK: No. I never even thought about being an attorney until I was in college. I wanted to be a fiction writer or a business tycoon. (Laughing) Then in my freshman or sophomore year in college, I had a history teacher who said, “Hey, you should consider going to law school.” And then I was on the debate team, where everybody else on the team was pre-law. So I started hanging out with people who were on that track, and eventually, I decided to follow that path. But I wanted to run a business more than I wanted to be a lawyer; it just so happens that I run a law firm. It’s almost like I’m a business person disguised as a lawyer.
MG: What are some bad recommendations you hear attorneys make to more junior attorneys?
GK: I think the more senior attorneys still give old-school advice of having to grind it out. There are times when you do have to work your butt off, but you can only white-knuckle it so long before you fold or you’re just miserable. It’s important to have a life outside of work, to develop some other routine or habit. Learn to play an instrument, join a club, and associate with people who don’t practice law.
MG: When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do to take your mind off of it and refocus?
GK: It depends on the degree of “overwhelm.” If I have way too much on my plate, I break it down into achievable chunks and prioritize them because there are things that are more important than others. If you’ve prioritized all of it, then you just have one giant emergency. So I figure out what absolutely has to be done today, tomorrow, or by the next deadline. Then, I ignore everything else and focus on that one task. Before I do that, I’ll exercise or take a nap.
MG: I marvel at the benefits of a quick nap – just 15 minutes of letting your mind rest…I always come back rejuvenated, more alert, and able to focus again.
GK: Also, doing something nice for someone else really helps get you out of your own mind and it makes you feel good about yourself. Yeah. Yeah, like, I was feeling really crappy last week probably for no explicable reason. I thought to myself, (just about anyone) in the United States has got a roof over their head, there’s really no right to complain at all. But whatever it was, I felt bad for myself. So, I was on my way to see my wife but stopped off at a flower shop and got her a really pretty, orange orchid. It felt really good. You know, it’s like, “Hey, it’s about her.”
MG: I totally agree. I heard recently when we are focused on ourselves, we aren’t open to the opportunities that come from being of service. And when we are of service, those are the moments and connections which are the most meaningful…where we make the biggest impact, as I see it. So yeah. I do agree with that.
What new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your professional life?
GK: There are three or four that come to mind. A big one is my morning exercise. Even if it’s just 10 to 15 minutes on a stationary bike, not even at a high speed, I feel great. And then I take a cold shower because it stimulates your body and makes you more alert. Cold water has anti-inflammatory effects., and it certainly does wake you up. You can’t be groggy and in a freezing cold shower at the same time.
I’ve also been keeping a gratitude journal pretty regularly, doing a positive review of three amazing things that happened each day. It sounds cheesy, but when I go back over it after when I feel like I haven’t done much in the past week or month, I see what a week or month good year I’ve had. It’s been a really positive thing.