Matt Lathrop founded the Law Office of Matthew A. Lathrop in 2007. Lathrop received a BA in English and JD from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He is a member of the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys and the NATA-PAC chair for that organization.
Very early, Lathrop knew he wanted to be a trial lawyer. He wanted his education, training, and eventually, his experience to go toward helping the people who were overmatched, outgunned, and cornered. Now in his 29th year of practice, Matt has decades of experience helping injured clients. He has handled every kind of liability claim for injuries. He has sued the State, dozens of smaller political agencies, national retailers, North American trucking companies, international hotel chains, and nearly every insurance company that does business in Nebraska or Iowa. Lathrop has a driven and fearless work ethic, and he dedicates that work ethic to ensuring his clients receive complete justice.
MEG GARAVAGLIA: Matt, thanks for meeting with me today (May 19th)! When preparing for our conversation, I noticed that today in history is the date which, in 1536, Anne Boleyn was beheaded at the behest of her husband, Henry VIII. Interesting. Any tips for remaining cool and not losing your head when leading a law firm?
MATT LATHROP: Gratitude is probably the best one. I have a hit list of things I think are important for keeping cool, but if I’m under stress or in a situation where I’m about to lose my cool, just making a gratitude list for the things that are working (well) changes my thinking and perspective. So that’s a big one. I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, and everything in my life that I thought was the worst thing that could possibly happen has turned out at least fine in the end. If not the “best thing,” it’s at least been the best thing that could have happened.
MG: When you make that list, do you make it specific to what’s going on with the firm?
ML: Yes. Say it’s the inventory, and it feels like everything is coming apart. Feelings are real, but they aren’t always true. The best way to find out if my feelings are true is through gratitude. What things do I have to be grateful for? We have a great Director of Operations, a paralegal, who will go above and beyond, and an associate attorney who is smarter than me in a hundred different ways. My staff is great and our bills are paid. The lights are on. No matter what seems bad in that moment, everything seems generally to be okay. Then I start going through my personal gratitude list. There’s food in the fridge; there’s gas in the car; the roof isn’t leaking; and I slept on clean sheets. Those are some things that not everybody can say are going right.
MG: Can you please talk to me about the book you introduced me to, Traction. I’ve had a lot of business people share their resources with me, but I had no idea that Traction would become such a front-runner for law firms and attorneys. What are your thoughts? What grabbed you about it, and what fruits of that labor do you continue to see?
ML: Mostly it grabbed me because it’s a cult, and I love cults! (Laughing) Abbie, the Director of Operations in our office, is as heavily into it as I am. She will tell you that the people in Traction say it won’t work for a law firm. I think the reason they say that is because lawyers do not like working in the business (of running a firm). Sometimes, I have to step out of my role as lawyer and do things that I’m not comfortable with and have never been trained to do. What I love about Traction is that it makes it easy for me to be a businessman.
When I was in law school, I was singled out early by my constitutional law professor. Everybody referred to me as a pottery major (laughing) because I was in a class full of poly-sci and business majors. I was this guy with an English degree who didn’t know anything about business, and our common law teacher would say, “Well, let’s check in with the pottery major and see what he thinks.” I’m not business-minded; I’m very creative. So Traction makes it easy for me to stop being a lawyer and think like a business person. Everybody in our office has bought into (the Traction operating system) and now depends on it. It has taken a lot of people with a lot of different personal and professional goals and turned us into a team that has focused goals. Every week, we talk about the goals and what we’re going to do in the next seven days to move toward them.
MG: We have a couple of firms who have utilized Traction to implement their processes and plans. It’s an awesome tool that really streamlines firms. It allows you guys to just plug things into the equation, right?
ML: Yes. We’ve been doing it for two years, and we still aren’t perfect at it. But what we learn and relearn is that, if whatever we’re discussing isn’t a goal — what Traction calls “the rocks” — and we haven’t all agreed, it does not take priority over something that is a rock. So, say that we have two things we want to get done. One of them is going to move us to the rock, and the other will just make sure we have nice chairs in the reception area. We’re going to focus on the thing that gets us closer to our goal. So that’s what we think about first: “What’s our rock, and how do we get there?”
MG: Your assistant, Jheri, has told me, “Matt wrote this awesome manifesto that just breaks expectations down into plain language.” Was that document created with Traction in mind? What caused you to want to introduce that document to the team? Has it been beneficial?
ML: I read a book called The Power of a System by John H. Fisher. He is a lawyer and recommends writing out everything you do as a system. So I took my Christmas break, which is usually two weeks for Christmas and New Year, and I wrote out everything…all of my (firm’s) procedures. It was not motivated by – or a result of Traction, but it’s very consistent with Traction, which is geared toward making sure that everyone in the office knows how to do anything that needs to be done. I don’t get so granular with my manifesto. We call it “the Manifesto”, and it’s kind of a joke, but that’s how everyone in my firm thinks of it. But, it’s good for my team to know how to do things the way I like them done. There might be seven ways to do one particular task, but I have a preferred way. It’s not the right way or the wrong way; it just means that their path will be easier if they do it the way I prefer. Then they don’t have to worry about me sending it back to them.
MG: We have seen some clients really struggle with (committing to and communicating preferences, processes, or procedures) with staff. For instance, attorneys who are new to establishing their own practice may have left long-serving support staff at the previous firm. They are suddenly faced with having to identify preferences and reverse-engineer things. It takes time and focus and can be a common cause for procrastination, we’ve noticed.
ML: The other thing is that I really only want to teach something once. I’m happy to answer questions, but if someone comes to me with a question that’s in the manifesto, my first response is, “Did you read chapter eight?” It takes the pressure off of having to re-teach. We have people in the office who keep that document open and love flipping through it.
MG: It’s almost like a style guide for Matt Lathrop and your practice.
ML: Exactly. I’ve practiced for almost 30 years, and I think I’m different from a lot of other lawyers in the way I handle my cases and work things up. Describing the “why” in the manifesto really helps my staff appreciate my processes. So I clearly state, “Here’s what we’re going to do. And this is the reason.” So they know that we have to be careful about how we answer an interrogatory because if we do it one way and things don’t work out for us, we’ve oversold our case.
MG: There are two things that struck me when I met you, and what I have seen proven since I’ve known you. The first is that the people who work with you are incredibly loyal to you. The second is that you joke around all day long, and you have one of the very best senses of humor of any of my clients, yet you don’t hesitate to say what needs to be said. I remember asking you, “Are you able to say what needs to be said with candor and directness? Or, do you need my help with that?” You went from being very funny to very serious. You said, “No, I have no problem addressing problems or mistakes head on.” This impressed me and I believed you. Then, I learned you are direct but in a way that is focused on moving through any issues and not with a blaming or passive-aggressive approach. How did you arrive at this approach?
ML: During our weekly meetings, sometimes we have to have tough conversations. The ability to talk about my feelings or my thoughts about what’s happening takes the pressure off of me when I have to have those conversations. I can approach them and say, “Here’s where I am right now. Here’s what I feel about what’s happening.” Having a really good understanding of my own fears makes a big difference. If I know that something is causing me fear, anxiety, or stress, and I ask myself, “What is it that’s (causing) that?” And then I can talk to the person who can help me solve that. For instance, having a conversation with Abbie (the DOO) about money in the office or hiring a staff person — that’s very scary to me. I get fearful about the investment and worried about what will happen if we get it wrong. If I can approach Abbie and be willing to admit that I have fears about it, that goes a long way. Even when I’m ready for the top of my head to come off, it’s about me. Let’s say something happens in the office where I’m afraid the judge is going to think I’m an idiot because of it. I’ll ask why our interrogatories went out without my signature at the bottom. It’s just because I’m worried about how I look, so I can talk about it from that angle. That’s mostly what the manifesto is: how to avoid Matt feeling like an idiot.
MG: I get that – an attorney’s brand is a real thing. Attorneys talk with us about their personal brand, and their concerns surrounding mistakes or misconceptions which, when big enough, can negatively impact their brand and have big consequences.
ML: Right. There’s the fear that everything that happens affects my brand. On the other hand, I can look at the big picture: that document wasn’t signed by me or was missing my signature block…or if it goes out with a typo…it won’t (always) affect my brand. I have to be able to put things in the right size. That’s the conversation I have to have with people.
MG: Does your team have your permission to say, “Matt, this is not as serious as you think it is,” after you’ve developed a trusted rapport with them?
ML: Yes. That’s why we’re such a good team. I’ll go up to her and say, “This is a big deal.” And Abbie will say, “Let’s back up because I don’t think it is. Here’s why.” She provides another perspective, and I have to be willing to hear it. And that goes from Abbie, who is helping me run the place, to Jheri, (my assistant) who has the hard job of working with a guy who can have his feelings hurt pretty easily. But she has the perfect personality for it and has figured out a way to navigate those fears. She knows I’m practical, so she’ll say something like, “Let’s work out the solution.” Jheri is probably on the firing line more than anybody in the office, and I think she’d say that it’s never personal.
MG: She would and she HAS. Because I placed Jheri as your Virtual Assistant (at my previous company), I feel like she and I have a great rapport and talk pretty regularly. She loves her job and has said many times she is grateful to be supporting you. What part of being an attorney has been the most challenging, whether it was when you were with a firm back in the day or now?
ML: The most challenging thing for me is always ego and perfectionism. Trial lawyers are Type A’s to begin with. Perfectionism really can control me, and I have to be willing to be objective about what I can expect from myself and what I can expect from my staff. I always have to keep that in check because I think perfectionism is just ego in a prettier form. The most challenging thing has been turning off the attorney role and being in the business role. I don’t want to do it. So I have to have the time scheduled to focus on that. We know when those meetings will happen and understand that the only thing we’ll talk about is how to run the business. Abbie is grateful I do that because, if she tries to catch me in the hall or schedule a quick meeting, she’s not going to get my full attention.
MG: Do you honor the meetings you have with your staff if it’s on the calendar?
ML: 100 percent. We have three business team meetings a week. Those do not get moved unless a court moves them, and then they’re rescheduled. Also, my paralegal likes a Friday lunch meeting with me every week. That’s really important to her: giving her my time. I think that’s the reason why the team is so tight. If somebody says, “I need your time,” whether it’s a one-off or a regular appointment, they get it.
MG: That’s huge. Experience has proven again and again that leader’s who exhibit actions which value their teams have much less turnover. It’s a lot easier to want to put your oars in the water and row together when you appreciate and respect your leader.
ML: We also bring the leadership staff in on goal-setting on priorities for the quarter. It also cuts down on all five days of, “Can I have a minute? Can I have a minute? Do you have a minute?” Instead, I can walk into the meeting and they’ll have a checklist.
MG: That’s great. Did you set that expectation (holding meetings with agendas/checklists), or did that evolve?
ML: I think it evolved because they know my calendar is so tightly managed by Jheri that they aren’t going to get good opportunities to talk to me except in those meetings. So they’re ready to go when we meet.
MG: How do you manage to balance work and life?
ML: My answer is, “What does balance look like?” Some people say it’s when the scales are evenly balanced — spending exactly as much time on family as I do in work. That isn’t the case for me. I probably unfairly spend more time at work, but everybody in my family knows that family is more important, and I will drop what I’m doing to help them. And I’ve been asked to do that. So they see that time isn’t a measure of importance; it’s the quality of attention that I give them. I have really had some amazing conversations with each of my kids and my wife during all of this very difficult intense practice, but I’ve had some real things happen to every one of my kids, where they came to have a conversation with me and felt no embarrassment and weren’t apologetic about taking my time. I was listening to them, nurturing those relationships, and respecting (my kids, for example,) when they were young and now they’re teens and in their twenties and it’s good. So balance for me is always making family as important or more important than what I’m doing at work. I’m going to the office so I can support my family. It’s not the other way around.
MG: Why did you decide to become an attorney?
ML: This is a super boring answer because I say it all the time. My dad was a lawyer. If he’d been a plumber, I’d be a plumber today. He was a great trial lawyer. Two of my older brothers became lawyers, too. But I went to college to become a writer. My brother, Steve, said, “Don’t die penniless and drunk in a gutter. Maybe be something else.” He dared me to take the LSAT, and then he dared me to take a year of law school. If I didn’t like it, I could always quit and be a writer. I don’t know that the first year hooked me, except for the challenge of it. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. That’s a Lathrop thing: we don’t like to give up on a hard challenge. And the longer I’ve been a lawyer, the more I love it.
MG: Why is that?
ML: I’m finding my own voice now. When I started, I was doing what other people told me, and now I’ve been doing it long enough that I know what I like. I know what I’m good at. I don’t do the things that I’m not good at anymore. And I’m able to pay the bills while doing it. Every day I wake up, I think about how much fun it’s going to be to go to the office. Sometimes fun is just moving papers, but other times it’s how I’ll solve a hard problem that nobody else can figure out.
MG: You talked about perfectionism. How does that show up? What specific perfection are you looking for? Is it in your writing? Or the details that other people are producing for you or in their work product? Where can it be your enemy?
ML: I could get 90 percent on a test, or I could get a 100 percent, and I’ll always push to get the 100 percent. That’s my perfectionism. I’m not as hard on my staff and their work product as I am on myself. If I have an appeal and have to write a brief, my inner perfectionist says: no one can do it as well as me because I’m a great writer. I know the issues, and I know the law, but I also know that there are a lot of really qualified people out there, including people on my staff who can do just as good of a job as me. Even if I don’t think they’ll do as good of a job, they’re still going to do the work. That’s (often) good enough to win the case. So I’ll delegate it and elevate other people to be better lawyers or better staff.
MG: Did you get past it because you were able to embrace the perspective of “delegate to elevate?”
ML: Yes, absolutely. I never cease to be surprised at how well people do when they’re trusted with a task they’ve never done before and know that it matters to me. I’ve turned things over to Kelsey Weiler, the associate lawyer at my firm, and when it comes back to me, it may not be what I would have done. But I look at it and say, “Wow, I never would’ve come up with that.” The more I do it, the more I see that I’m just another person in the office. I’m not the wizard behind the curtain.
MG: What was your most worthwhile investment?
ML: I think the most important investment I have made in all my years is trusting my kids to make their own mistakes, instead of telling them how to avoid pain or anything like that. There’s education in mistakes and failures, and letting my kids (figuratively speaking) walk straight into traffic means that they can come back and talk about the lesson they learned. They don’t fight me the whole time about whether or not I’m right. And that’s where all the best conversations I’ve had with my kids have come from.
MG: That’s really interesting. Out of pain comes change — that’s certainly where I feel like I’ve learned the most. Who would you say most influenced your career? Your brother or your dad?
ML: To be honest, it’s my mom. My dad died when I was very young. I was only 13. My mom always had a positive attitude about everything. She was always looking at what’s going right, and she taught me how to take failures or bad breaks, learn from them, and never let them define who I was. People will make mistakes. My son made a big mistake when he was in high school, and I said, “That isn’t who you are. That’s just something you did. Who you are is what you’re going to do now that this happened.” So my mom was just a very supportive, nurturing person. That’s what people need to succeed: to believe in themselves.