What do you call a lawyer, a geologist, and a pilot who walk into a room? You can call him John Hodge…one man with three careers and Woven Legal’s next Attorney in the Spotlight. John is also a NASA volunteer in the Solar System Ambassador Program, so was thrilled to send us a series of photos celebrating the landing of the rover on Mars.
John excels at doing what others think is impossible, and he successfully merged his varied interests into a fascinating career as a lawyer, professional geologist (PG), and commercial airline pilot. He has practiced law in South Carolina for over 30 years, with the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), as a partner in a large law firm, and finally on his own at Hodge & Associates, LLC. John is named to the Best Lawyers in America in Environmental Law. He had a parallel career piloting commercial flights across the U.S. and to Europe, South America, and Hawaii. John also pursues hobbies, from flying his 1946 Champ to spending nights under the stars at his observatory, with equal passion and dedication to excellence.
MG: Thanks so much for agreeing to speak today. Can you please begin by discussing what drives and motivates you? Would you say it’s the ongoing need to be challenged?
JH: I think it’s basically having intellectual curiosity about the world around you. I have always had the feeling that if you are curious, if you are motivated, and if you are creative…the financial thing will work out. And, it did, in a nontraditional manner.
MG: I heard a quote from an interview with a prolific, successful artist who was asked if she finds herself waiting for inspiration (before putting brush to canvas) and she replied, “Inspiration waits for me,” as if she just needed to suit up and show up, making herself available to the process which then drives her fast, determined pace. Can you relate to that statement, or does your impetus stem from something different?
JH: Meg, I think people can go through life with goals, although perhaps not particularly inspired about their work, and things typically turn out fine for them, but if we challenge ourselves to explore new areas and different experiences…new skills develop and opportunities arise. The challenge of tackling the new opportunities, developing new skills, and applying creativity to solve problems is what is really important in a career. The difficulty can occur when you work for someone who may not welcome creative ideas and instead expect you to be confined by a particular job description…and will discourage this type of growth. When employers won’t allow creative ideas to hatch, for example, you may have to go find another employer who appreciates this approach – or go out on your own.
MG: Is that example what prompted you to go out on your own, John, and open your own law firm?
JH: Somewhat, yes, the freedom you have with your own entity is appealing. But years ago, when I left my job working for DHEC, my practice went through a type of evolution which allowed me to apply myself to different sized law firms: small, medium, and then a large firm before starting this practice – and I enjoyed them all. That breadth of experience provided me with great perspective – and this is really important, Meg. I have encountered many lawyers…good, smart lawyers, who developed their skills and abilities to practice only at very large firms, for example. All of a sudden an individual comes in with a legitimate issue…a litigation issue, and the attorney just doesn’t know how to best represent the client. The lawyer cannot scale the representation within the budget of the client, because he or she is used to a platoon approach with lots of lawyers and lots of fees representing big companies.
At the other end of the spectrum are small mom-and-pop law firms who struggle to relate or effectively represent a client from a large organization. The structural, almost bureaucratic things that you have to know how to deal with when representing a large entity can be totally foreign to an attorney accustomed to working on cases for small companies and entrepreneurs. So I guess I’m fortunate to have worked in a government practice, a small firm, a medium sized firm and a large firm before opening my current law practice.
MG: That history and breadth of experience in your law practice, no doubt, gives clients confidence they will be well represented when calling upon you for help. Speaking of history, are you a big fan? A history buff?
JH: Well, I’m a reasonable fan of history. I’ll put it that way. I have to say, I’m a huge fan of Earth’s history, because I’m a geologist. I do enjoy natural history, and generally, I have read a lot of historical books – there have been different periods where I’ve read more about history and how it affects our perspective. But, when people talk about history, I have to laugh…in college it hit me. I took a course in Historical Geology, which was the history of the earth from its origin, evolution, the fossil record, and continental drift. Continental drift – plate tectonics, at that time, was just a really, totally new concept. It suddenly hit me, “This is why we study geology.” The concept of humans and our time on earth is so minimal as a species. And we don’t always acknowledge that. Consequently, I remember people saying when I got to college, I needed to take a class in History of Western Civilization. And I came away from that experience saying, when you go to college, you need to take a class in the history of the earth. It allows you a much broader understanding of where we came from and where we’re probably going.
MG: Thanks for assuaging my curiosity! Now, getting back to the point where you decided to break off and open your own firm, can you help me understand the trajectory of your thoughts or experiences leading up to this?
JH: Well, I’ve been on my own before, so I knew something about it. At that earlier stage of my career, I was trying to build up an environmental practice and was concerned with paying the bills and keeping the doors open. So, this venture was more of an opportunity to try to specialize. And I’ll say this…if I had known how well this (approach) would’ve worked, I would’ve done it sooner.
MG: Can you elaborate? How is this (firm) different from being on your own in the past?
JH: When I was in a larger practice before, we had more people so there was a good bit of bureaucracy…meetings and committees, and greater overhead, generally. Basically, I looked at the cost model (of a firm of that size) and saw there were particular issues with the business model, bottlenecks to productivity and profitability in a firm that size. You give away a fair amount of effectiveness and profitability in support of maintaining the structure.
If someone had told me that things would have worked out this well 10 years ago, I would have left sooner. In retrospect, I cut overhead by over 80% and retained almost every client. This approach, this business model – and I think Geoff Chambers would agree (our shared colleague and recent WL blog guest), we’ve turned the model of practicing law on its head. Running a good, productive law firm doesn’t depend on the trappings often associated with traditional law firms, so to speak.
Once, a well-to-do client with a sizable business reached out to discuss an environmental matter he was embroiled in, but before he agreed to let me represent him, he called and asked, “John, how tall are the doors in your office?” I was taken aback but took a guess and replied, “I don’t know…maybe 10 or 11 feet…Why?” My client started laughing and explained, “I figure that’s okay,” and laughing, continued, “It seems with lawyers, the taller the doors, the higher the fees!” (Laughing) Clients brace themselves for exorbitant fees.
Now, all practices have changed a good bit (in the last 2 decades) with regards to expenses for setting up and running a traditional firm. Attorneys no longer need to maintain the law libraries of years past, for example. But that model with a large infrastructure is still very common – and largely reliant upon profitability driven by the partners’ billable hours. I imagined a law practice established with the necessities – and determined we would add resources or personnel as needed. The flexibility that resulted was liberating.
Here’s a great example. I was invited by a major university in Brazil to participate in an environmental law symposium. (I used to teach environmental regulations and planning at USC in Columbia). I actually spoke at a professional conference in Rio, and then traveled to Belo Horizante for the university event. While there, I met a young lawyer who ended up working for a very large company. It was the second largest mining company in the world. Wow! Shortly after beginning this firm, he asked me to help with a regulatory project – looking at environmental laws related to mining in certain states and generating a report to include economic incentives for potential business development. All of a sudden, my little firm had a very big fish…on a 3 pound test line.
My basic business model was to add staff on an as needed basis. So I called Caroline (Woven Legal’s Partner, Attorney, and Director of Operations), because I knew her background and asked her to collaborate. We added two other lawyers to the project. The deadline that the client gave us was fairly unrealistic, but we were hungry. We hustled and delivered. Afterwards, the client sent us “the same” report that a large firm in the Rocky Mountain region had prepared several years before, prior to the client awarding us the project. Our competition’s report was beautifully bound in a smart, high-end notebook, but after cracking it open, we were shocked. The work product was just horrendous. It was full of errors and not informative at all. The client was really pleased with our work, and this was a great, early win. It kind of proved (to me) this business model was practical, effective, and successful for the client. It worked.
The idea of plugging people in as needed is now the conscious model we’ve chosen. That’s why what you all are doing, what Woven Legal is doing, is really interesting to me. Having experienced, sharp, people I can trust – and pulling them in on a contractual basis to help with projects.
MG: Yes! Skilled, experienced professionals you can expect to be humble, hungry and smart…
JH: That’s right. Very much tailored to a situation – matching skills, background, and a good workflow with the needs of the case which then allows us to keep overhead manageable. It benefits everyone, and it’s worked out very well.
MG: And then you create a dynamic team and let those people help you accomplish your project.
JH: And when you get those smart people working alongside you, it is important to establish what I call a crew concept – which should be part of any kind of business. I like to teach this to people, because what you want is for them to speak up if they see something that they think is an issue or a problem. I routinely asked my support staff to review my letters and make comments. I would explain, “Look, just because I have a law degree or license hanging on the wall doesn’t mean that I’m smarter than you. You’re going to see things that I’m not going to see. So I want you to give me input. And if you see something you don’t like in a letter or a document that we’re producing – perhaps something conveying too much emotion (written in a tense moment) – or something just doesn’t sound right…whatever it is that seems incorrect, say something. I tell people, I’ll be mad if they don’t speak up – just the same way you tell another pilot… if you see something that you don’t think is safe or will create an issue, speak up.”
MG: Do your clients appreciate this lean approach to the practice of law?
JH: Sometimes I’m asked by people familiar with our office building – why they don’t see ads from us promoting our nice law firm space – but I feel like clients really prefer to be paying for the brains within, not my building! (laughing)
MG: John, you mentioned casting off “the trappings” of traditional firms in favor of a more nimble business model – while not sacrificing deliverables, client-experience, or outcomes. And, I think readers would really appreciate a better understanding – a breakdown – of what you see as the basic necessities of opening one’s own firm.
JH: Well, obviously most will want to have a physical presence. Sure, there are attorneys who are all virtual and don’t have the need for an office space. But for firms with business clients that need to have meetings – they probably aren’t going to want to work from home. It just, in my experience, doesn’t work well. So obviously, you start there. Okay. So you choose a certain location based on your clients – or for an attorney with a heavy-duty litigation practice, he or she might need to be near the courthouse, for example. Being in an area to attract clients is still important. I’m lucky, however, that I don’t have walk-in clients. At this stage of my career, new clients largely come from reputaton, networking, and referrals.
The next thing to consider when planning to set up your own firm is technology: hardware and software needed. Considering the question, “What can software and technology do for me that maybe people used to do?” This helps bring to light potential efficiencies. Then, determine what communications to use such as a phone system, scanner…(cringing) or a fax machine! (Laughing) I still have a fax machine, but I usually ask people to scan the document to send to us.
Insurance is still, of course, an essential expense. Then, you need to decide on personnel – and, can you possibly share personnel with someone else? For example, office suites often have a common receptionist to be shared. Or perhaps you rent space from an existing company and utilize their resources for a fee. There are options out there, if you look for them, which help offset the cost of going out on your own.
MG: When I sold eDiscovery and Litigation Support Services, I often called on the larger firms, and some of those attorneys would admit the stress (in their jobs) was overwhelming, and it was obvious they weren’t happy. I imagine you felt that way at some point. What advice would you offer to those lawyers?
JH: Sure. Well, I have always had what I called planning notebooks, and I make notes about work and business structures. When I have been in situations, and for example, when I was in a particular firm where I knew I wasn’t happy, I had a series of what I called Notes and Contingency Plans. In other words, if this doesn’t work, what’s next? I think anybody in any business should do this…while you’re a happy employee, you still need to have a contingency plan because you might wake up one day and your company goes through a merger. All of a sudden, you’re on the way out. So I think whatever the profession, whether you’re a lawyer, not a lawyer, whatever…you really need to be thinking about what’s next. You say to yourself, “I’m happy in my job right now, but what if I get a new boss…?” What if the economy tanks – something totally external and unrelated to my day-to-day performance? What am I going to do?” I imagine this is pretty common – to lay out what’s next…or maybe thinking in terms of a contingency plan is the pilot side of my brain…
MG: First, NO! I don’t think this is necessarily common. Sure, we all make plans and goals – and write them down. But, this seems like a separate exercise. And, yes, I definitely think this sounds like a pilot’s checklist but what I love is that your plans and procedures are created – not necessarily for a catastrophe (which is what I think of when I hear, “contingency plan”) but for possible alternative scenarios that develop which have the power to disrupt the otherwise smooth flight. Or, in this case, it would be smooth career advancement. Is this right?
JH: Well, that’s right. You have a procedure that says if this doesn’t work, then this is what you need to be thinking about. I wrote the plans out well in advance. So, when things aren’t very good in a job – and I’ve lived with these conflicts and situations, as we all have, and I remember thinking, “Why am I doing this?” At some point, you are faced with a decision of what to do next. So, I had a contingency plan; and the good news is you don’t just wake up one morning and all of a sudden, you know, it’s dire, and it’s apparent something’s got to change. You already have a plan.
MG: This reminds me of the quote, “Don’t make a permanent decision in a temporary storm?” By having a strategic plan detailing what steps can be taken to avoid turbulence or right the plane – you are taking the emotion out of determining how to best proceed.
JH: You’ve already thought it through. The exercise of writing things down, a contingency plan, if anything, forces you to think through the issues. It actually allows brainstorming, too, which is rewarding as well.
MG: John, this has been so helpful, and you’ve imparted so much valuable knowledge today. I can’t wait to share it with our readers and network. Do you have any advice for Caroline and me as we continue working hard to help attorneys by placing stellar virtual legal professionals?
JH: Yes, I think there’s a need for what you guys are offering. I think you can find a pretty good market – not only with smaller offices but even medium and large law firms. Many organizations have gone to contracting out many service personnel, but they haven’t gone as far as outsourcing legal professionals in most instances. So, if you can show success in placing really polished, professional paralegals – and increasing the firm’s productivity and hopefully lowering overhead – that is impressive.