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From Biglaw to Bold Venture: Building a Successful Law Firm After an Ugly Exit

Jan 16, 2024
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Big firm. Big salary. Newly-minted partner. Karl Seelbach had made it before his attempt to leave with two of the firm's clients didn't go as planned. Karl recounts how that happened and how it turned out for the best. He discusses what he loves about litigation, building businesses, and gruesome injury cases. Karl is a graduate of South Texas College of Law Houston.

Transcript

Katya Valasek:

We are joined today by Karl Seelbach, a 2005 graduate of South Texas College of Law Houston. Today he's managing partner of Doyle & Seelbach, a small firm with some household names for clients. But before he co-founded the firm with a single client and a single case, he had an ugly exit within one year of making partner at a major national law firm.

Karl, let's start with your time at Winstead. In some sense, you'd made it. What were the years like leading up to making partner?

Karl Seelbach:

I started in 2006. And so before I ever walked in the door at Winstead, I actually ended up getting a raise above and beyond what the offer letter said, before I ever did one hour of billable work, which was kind of crazy. There were salary wars going on at the time. I was learning how to take depositions, learning how to work up cases, being mentored by a lot of really great attorneys, both in the Houston office and when I moved to Austin, but, yeah, it was a really fun chapter in my career.

Katya Valasek:

Was the mentorship a formal part of the firm's onboarding of new attorneys? Or was that something you sought out yourself?

Karl Seelbach:

It was both. So Winstead was really, really good, and probably still is, about educating young lawyers. They had something they called Win U, which was Winstead University. It was an internal program. I think a lot of big firms do similar training. It's one of the advantages of seeking out a medium to large firm for your first job, is there does tend to be a little more formality put into the processes for educating young attorneys. We did things like, although at the time they felt like a hassle they actually were useful, mock trials, working up arguments and giving those arguments to either senior partners or even some senior associates to get critiques and feedback. But a big part of any job in my experience personally, but also just the way I view the practice of law is, you need to seek out the training too.

And so for me, I was really quick to ask partners, “Hey, I see you have a trial coming up. Could I join you? Could I observe a day of the trial or if you have any depositions coming up, could I second chair the deposition or if you have any small depositions coming up, would you be willing to let me take a deposition and teach me the processes to do that?” So it was a combination of both formal by the firm and then also some less formal efforts that I sought out.

Katya Valasek:

It's not easy to make partner at a firm like Winstead, especially as quickly as you did. And it sounds like you made really wonderful connections. And you left quickly after becoming a partner. So what happened?

Karl Seelbach:

It's an interesting story with some twists and turns. If I kind of rewind to making it fresh out of law school, I kind of felt like I'd made it then, right? Because all I had ever had prior to joining the world of big law was low-paying jobs. They may not have been minimum wage, but they were low-paying, hourly part-time jobs. For me, I felt like I'd landed a six-figure salary and they gave me a raise before I ever walked in the door. There was certainly some satisfaction that I had already made it just becoming an associate at a big law firm when people are starting out in their career, especially at a big law firm, that feels like the goal is then to make partner. You see it in the TV shows, you hear it in the movies that that's the major event. And it certainly is important.

At Winstead, that's the path that I was on. And ultimately along that journey, after doing real estate litigation and appellate work and finance and banking litigation, I stumbled into personal injury defense. There was only a few attorneys at the firm at that time that did personal injury defense, but I found that I really, really liked it. It gave me a lot of deposition experience. It gave me the chance to do site inspections and get out of the office and go meet people face to face. As my friend, Trek and I, he was a partner at the time at Winstead, began to look at our current clients – we had two – and how we might grow a personal injury defense practice, we started doing pitches and shaking hands and asking, “could we be added to your panel counsel list?” And the same theme kept coming back, which was your rates are too high. And so we looked at it and looked at it and ultimately decided, if we were ever gonna be able to grow a personal injury defense practice, we needed more rate flexibility. And that was really the only reason that we were planning to leave Winstead.

Katya Valasek:

How does the conversation go when you approach the firm?

Karl Seelbach:

Yeah, it goes poorly. As many attorneys do, you have a conversation with your client and explain, “hey, I'm leaving. And I'd certainly love if you get the chance to come with me and join me at my new firm.” And I wasn't necessarily the one running point on that. I was involved in it. Trek is about 15 years older than me. He was the one who had the preexisting relationships with these clients. But I was right by his side and involved in the discussions and some of the decisions. And long story short: We had two clients at the time. One was our biggest client. We probably had, I don't know, 15 to 20 cases for the client. The second was our smaller client at that time. We only had one or two cases at the time we decided to leave. And it completely blew up. It was exactly how I wouldn't want to leave a company. And I say that because I genuinely enjoyed my time at the firm. I wanted to become an equity partner at that firm. So I went out of my way to travel to the Dallas office, the mothership, so to speak, the headquarters. Meet people, develop relationships, keep in touch with my former colleagues in Houston.

And so as we are trying to make the exit in a way that the best way we knew how at the time, it completely backfires. And the largest client contacts the firm. The firm then goes, “what the hell are you guys doing?” And it becomes a very ugly exit very quickly. And what I learned from that was a couple of things. One, if you're ever gonna leave a firm, maybe find a senior attorney somewhere in your network that has done it before and get some guidance. It's not uncommon for an attorney to leave a law firm and take a client or two 10, right? It's very, very common, but there's a way to do it correctly. And unfortunately, ours was closer to the category of the way not to do it. And it also, unfortunately, made the departure from that firm more painful than it needed to be.

But at the time, not only was it painful professionally, my wife was pregnant with our second kid. So when we lose this large client and we leave with one, and it turns out by the time we open our firm, the smaller client only has one case. So now we have one client, one case, that by the way, is about to settle, which means we're gonna have one client with no work. So the stress level, the sleepless nights was at a max, but it definitely lit a fire for both Trek and me to decide, okay, are we gonna do this or not? And there was definitely days and weeks in the aftermath where I considered maybe I should just apply to work at a different firm. I don't have to take all this risk.

We ultimately decided, look, we did lose a client, but we know we want to take a swing at building something different, building something special, the type of firm that we would want to work for if we were an associate or a paralegal or a fellow partner. It was definitely not the way I wanted it to go. But because it happened the way it did, I think we ultimately ended up much better and more successful for it. Because if we had left with both clients, there wouldn't have been that same hunger. There wouldn't have been that same fire.

Katya Valasek:

So you liked personal injury defense so much, you blew up a career where you were at a firm you loved, you had amazing mentorship, you got a great salary, more than you had hoped for when you started out. What is it about that work that made you willing to walk away from the great situation you were in?

Karl Seelbach:

If I'm just being completely transparent, there was no intent to blow anything up. The intent was we do a ton of work for these two clients. We do good work for these two clients. And now we can actually charge them less. We were gonna drop the rate for them. At the time it felt low risk to leave, take the two clients we do work with or have them follow us, whatever you want to call it, and keep doing the same work we've been doing for them before, for years and years and years. But ultimately, it wasn't risk-free. And so I don't know that I would do it differently necessarily. I did know after years of doing other types of litigation that, I didn't want to be in a practice where I was just sitting in a room with boxes around the whole room, just looking at page after page after page. Some of those other types of litigation were very document intensive. And I could do that. I was certainly capable of doing it. I just found it very boring. And so I prefer to take depositions, to go to a site inspection and try to figure out, how did this happen? How could it have been prevented? And I think it's a lot of fun.

Katya Valasek:

I want to circle back to your departure from Winstead. And I'm curious if that experience impacts what you're looking for in the attorneys you bring into your firm now.

Karl Seelbach:

Oh, that's interesting. I haven't thought about it from that perspective. I will sometimes in interviewing candidates try to figure out through some of my questions, also through listening, is this someone who wants to develop business? We need people on the team who may have no interest in being a rainmaker, but who do really good work and enjoy what they do and are a good colleague. But I would say that I am always listening and asking questions that will give me some indication, could this person develop business? And do I see this person potentially helping us retain clients and attract new clients?

I have had a team member who came across as so ambitious that I thought to myself, “gosh, I need to be careful. This person may come in and try to take some clients and leave.” And half joking, half serious because the person was very ambitious and ultimately did go to pursue other things, had nothing to do with taking clients, but did pursue other things.

And I care a lot less about that now. At this point, one of the things that, that allows me to have a lot of comfort and confidence in our team and our firm is we're just very diversified now. We've got so many clients across mostly personal injury, but even different types of personal injury cases. And I focus a lot on making sure that they have a good relationship with Trek and with me. You need to go out of your way to develop relationships with the people that you work with, both at your company internally, but also the clients that you're working with. Get on the plane, go see them, go take them to lunch, go drive and take them to coffee. Because ultimately that is going to be what sets you up for success. It's going to be your individual relationships. And you were asking lessons learned if there's one lesson that I learned in addition to how not to exit a firm and try to take, you know, a client with you. The other lesson would be make sure that you, personally, have a very strong relationship with the client contacts instead of potentially making pretty major career decisions based off of assumptions about someone else's relationships and how strong those relationships are.

Katya Valasek:

I'm curious, when you're interviewing younger attorneys, they probably aren't bringing a book of business with them. How can a young attorney show in an authentic way that they are interested in building a book of business and not just make promises that they may or may not be able to keep once you bring them onto your team?

Karl Seelbach:

I'm going to give you an answer that feels super obvious. Say it. Don't wait for the question. Say it, say it at some point when they're asking, tell me a little bit about why you want to work at the firm, tell me a little bit about the type of law that you enjoy and what type of practice do you want to have in five years or whatever? Find a way to more naturally say to the attorneys interviewing you, one thing I'd really like to do is I'd like to help the firm attract new business. Or I'd like to help the firm retain and deepen its relationship with its existing clients. Do you provide that type of opportunity to associates? Like if I came to work here, would I get to talk to the clients? Could I go take them to coffee? Could I meet them at a conference?

Katya Valasek:

What about someone who doesn't necessarily feel like that's something that they have a skillset for? What if they are that worker bee that's just going to do good, solid lawyering as part of a team?

Karl Seelbach:

I've never had that come up in that way. So I'm digesting the question. I think that it could come across the wrong way if you weren't very articulate in how you worded it. Like if an associate said, “I love my work, I really wanna do this type of work at your firm, but I don't have any interest in developing business.” That would probably come across as a negative. If it were to come up in an interview, I would be very careful with how I worded it.

Katya Valasek:

I feel like that's probably something that those types of people are anxious about when they're going into an interview and don't want to do anything misleading in terms of what types or how much business development they're hoping to do.

Karl Seelbach:

So first of all, you may have those anxieties or reservations about business development, but they may be unfounded. It may just be that you haven't been taught a fun way to do it or a more comfortable way to do it. And so don't kind of count yourself out of being someone who can develop business just because you're a little nervous. Everyone's nervous at first. That's very normal. If you're nervous about it and you're wondering how to answer the question in an interview, I think you can kind of phrase it as a question. Like, “Hey, I haven't had a chance to do a ton of business development. Do you have any training at your firm for that? Or is it possible to like learn how to do that from a partner that's done it or shadow or go with a partner and see how it's done in person?” I think that would be a good way to approach that question or that topic.

Katya Valasek:

So when you left to go out on your own, obviously one big change was that you had to really up the business development aspect. What other changes did you experience in terms of lifestyle change after you left biglaw?

Karl Seelbach:

Yeah, so a couple of aspects of this and I'll mention them both and then I'll take them in turn. One is a lot more flexibility and also work-from-home potential or necessity. And then the other is I had the chance to leverage technology in a way that I always wanted to do. So when we first started, we were working from home by necessity, right? We had almost no money coming in the door. We needed to work from home. Then we got enough business that I got an executive suite at a Regis or something like that and started going in. This was before work from home was quite as popular. What I quickly realized over the first few years was, now that I'm a business owner, I have a ton more flexibility in how I spend my time and what I spend it on. I no longer had some of the pressures of face time. So that was nice to just have full flexibility to be able to do whatever I want with my time.

But on the other side of the coin, the technology piece, I saw this as a fresh start. And so in starting the company and figuring out what practice management system are we going to use? What type of billing software are we going to use? How are we going to handle payroll? All these different things. I just researched as quickly as I could and really just pick the most modern tech-savvy solution for every single category that needed to be filled. And most of those are things we still use today. And I've had many attorneys join our firm over the years that are just refreshed at how tech savvy we are in the way that we handle everything from onboarding to payroll, to deposition software, to practice management software. And I think like when COVID hit in 2020, it was seamless for us. Every single team member, even staff members had laptops. And not only did they have laptops, we had monitors at their home office that they could use to dock into. So there was no friction. We were all ready for it. As far as work, we could work from anywhere, any day of the week.

Katya Valasek:

So the technology obviously had a great impact when the world sort of turned upside down. But even before that, did you see a benefit on the business side to being forward thinking with technology? Did it impact your numbers, your billing rates?

Karl Seelbach:

Being tech savvy and knowing how to use the latest technology is only going to help you as an attorney. And frankly, if I was a client, I would not only expect it, I would demand it, right? My attorney should be very tech savvy. They should be using the latest technology to make sure, not only that they're efficient, but also that their arguments, particularly if it's litigation, right? You can use technology in a way that actually not only makes you more efficient, and saves your clients some money, but also makes you more persuasive. It makes your arguments better. I've always been super, super interested in technology.

One of the first companies I started was an iPad app company called eDepo, which was going to modernize the way that attorneys received deposition records after the deposition. My idea at the time was, why am I getting paper? Why am I getting PDFs and DVDs and thumb drives? And I thought, man, after this deposition, it would be so cool if the court reporting company just delivered the deposition to me in an iPad app to where everything was there, the video, the texts, the exhibits. And so I've always been looking for ways to up my game so that I can do a better job for my clients.

Katya Valasek:

So is this where you saw your career going when you went to law school?

Karl Seelbach:

My dad's been a safety expert for 40 years, and that's been a side gig of his. He's worked for a variety of oil and gas companies and other companies across the world. But one of the things he did was safety expert witness work for attorneys. And a lot of those attorneys were plaintiff personal injury attorneys in Northeast Texas near Henderson, where I grew up. And I was fascinated at it because I would be like a nine-year old boy and I would walk into my dad's home office bugging him. “Dad, let's go outside and play baseball or let's go outside and shoot basketball.” And I remember my dad would be nose deep in paper and he would eventually turn to me and say, “here, why don't you read this deposition?” And he handed me a deposition transcript of a gruesome personal injury case. And he would typically flip to the page where they got to the good stuff. The gruesome injury description of what happened. And I remember thinking, this is super interesting. Like I felt like I was reading a book sometimes and...that's what I wanted to do.

And I met some of those attorneys. I was convinced that I wanted to become a plaintiff, personal injury lawyer, and so that's why I went to law school. And honestly, that's what I intended to do. What happened along that journey that kind of changed it is I made good grades at South Texas, at least the first two years. I kind of buckled down, ended up towards the top of my class and ended up in that on-campus recruiting process with the big firms and ultimately, to me at the time, a six-figure salary was a very big deal. So I kind of got attracted to that, attracted to also the size of the firm, the pedigree of the firm, the training that would come along with working at that type of firm and decided, I could always do the plaintiff personal injury stuff later. And so that led me to Winstead where I did a lot of different types of litigation. But through that process, it validated my interest in personal injury. I just ended up on the defense side.

Katya Valasek:

Yeah, so how did that happen? Was that circumstance or was it a deliberate choice that you made?

Karl Seelbach:

I think it was more circumstance than a deliberate choice. The large law firms like that, like Winstead, typically don't handle plaintiff personal injury cases. That's not to say they may not occasionally handle a contingent fee matter. But normally if they're handling a contingent fee matter, it's more about the company case or something like that, not a personal injury matter. So my exposure as a practicing attorney was to defense work, injury defense work. And when we left, we had the intention of doing exclusively personal injury defense work until we lost that one client. So then, the early days of the firm, 2015, 2016, even 2017. We were doing anything we could get. We actually were doing some plaintiff's cases. In fact, I got to try a very interesting civil rights case in a federal court in Austin, Western District Austin division and that was a lot of fun. I just remember really enjoying getting to draft that closing argument and give that closing argument.

Katya Valasek:

So what gives you that rush now? What do you look for in cases?

Karl Seelbach:

I mean, right now my time is split somewhat between the managing the law firm and also contributing to the legal tech software company that I started, Scribe AI. And so I get a rush currently more out of managing and growing businesses. It's not to say that I don't enjoy working cases. I do. And I was just telling my co-founder at Scribe a couple of months ago that I had a case set for trial, so it was time to put on the blinders, so to speak, roll up the sleeves and dive into the file and get this thing ready for trial. And I told them, I said, “gosh, you know, I really, I really do like that. That's a lot of fun.” You get to see all the pieces come together. You get to start drafting your cross-examination outlines and drafting your opening statement and getting your evidence ready. You're occasionally working a weekend or two with the team in the trenches, so to speak, getting ready to go to battle.

And so I still like that a lot. I don't do it quite as much as I used to, but now I really enjoy managing the business piece of it. I enjoy bringing in new clients. I enjoy training younger lawyers. I enjoy living through some of their successes. You kind of get a rush when someone else gets a win. And we actually have a bell hanging in the office that we had engraved back in, I think maybe the year we started the firm or within a year or two, that has the firm logo on it. And it says, “return with your shield or on it.” The tradition at the firm is you get to ring the bell on one of two occasions. You win. So motion for summary judgment or a trial victory, or you get a new client for the firm. I always get a little bit of a rush when someone gets to ring the bell for a victory or for bringing in a new client.

But, you know, one of the things that no one teaches you in law school is, it's one thing to work for your business after you've started a law firm. It's an entirely different thing to work on your business. When you're working for your business, you're working up your case (if you're an attorney), you're working up your cases or your matters. You're talking to your clients, but if you're working on your business, that's completely different. That's taking a step back and thinking about, how am I developing business? What does my brand look like on social media? What are speaking engagements or articles that we should be doing?

Katya Valasek:

So you love your work, you are passionate about the business and technology, you have mentioned so many different businesses you've been involved with on the side. I know you have a family, so what do you do when you get home to really end your day and transition to being a family man?

Karl Seelbach:

So I will say it's very difficult. And I will also say I am still searching for my own solution and a better process. And so I guess what I'm saying is: it's probably a flaw. And what I mean by that is I have a hard time turning off. You could ask my co-founder at the law firm, you could ask my co-founder at Scribe. My mind is...not racing always, but it's always thinking. I'm always thinking of new ideas for the law firm, a business we should try to get. And I'm always thinking of new ideas for the software company of features we should add or product positioning that we should consider. I mean, sometimes to the point where I'll be laying in bed at night and I'll just think, “Oh my gosh, I got this really good idea. And I'm not going to remember it in the morning. I better grab my phone and type it in my notes.” And so I think the answer to your question is, it's a very hard thing to do as a business owner. Okay, because when you're a business owner and the buck stops with you and your name's on the door and your clients, being able to turn on your out of office, whether it's for vacation or you left early and truly turn off business side of your brain, it's difficult.

Where I try to create a balance in my life is, I'm very involved in my kids' extracurriculars and I don't miss school events. So the sports, the basketball, the volleyball, the musical at school, whatever it is, going to watch my kids play piano. I will almost never miss one of those events because that is the highest priority in my life. But I am definitely guilty, as charged, of having an iPad in front of me, sometimes on the couch at night with my kids sitting next to me, still filtering emails or going through a task list. And I'm trying to get more disciplined about not doing that.

I think part of it is ultimately comes back to I genuinely enjoy what I do. And for me, the common thread between the two companies for me is I'm a big believer in the justice system and finding out the truth of what happened. And that is particularly relevant to personal injury cases. So, on the tech side of things, my mission with Scribe is to make it faster, easier and more efficient to get to justice, right? And starting with depositions. And my mission with my law firm is to get my team searching for what happened, how bad was this person hurt, whose fault was it, and what exposure does our client have and what do we recommend they should do about it?

Katya Valasek:

So I have one last question for you. Do you ever give your kids gruesome depositions to read for entertainment?

Karl Seelbach:

I should, I haven't yet. Depositions have changed a lot. So now when they get to see a little bit about what daddy does for a living, I actually open up Scribe on my web application and I will show them video clips of depositions. But I need to just sit them down and let them watch one, especially my 12-year old. My eight-year old may be a little young, but my 12-year old certainly could do it. And I do get the question, daddy, what do you do for a living? What does it mean to be a lawyer? And I've gone and spoken to their class before and read them a book about what it means to be a lawyer. So we have those conversations and they think it's pretty cool when I tell them, well, you know, I get to work with companies like McDonalds and Lowe's and Dollar Tree and Albertsons. When they recognize the brand. They think that's really cool. Oh, my daddy works for McDonald's. That's so cool.

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