When Mike Morse first opened up his law firm, it was frenetic. In addition to practicing law, Mike was also doing so many other things on a daily basis to keep the firm up and running–all without a background in business. Then, John Nachazel stepped in. Coming from the business sector of the automotive industry, John knew nothing about the law but a whole lot about business. Together, they fused their knowledge to grow a successful law firm that is now run like a business. The chaos subsided and lawyers were left to do what they do best. Practice law.
In their new book, Fireproof, John and Mike come together to share with other law firms the practices they instated to grow their own into a practice that today includes 150 employees, has served more than 25,000 clients, and has collected more than one billion dollars since its founding in 1995. And all of this, minus the chaos and frenzy.
Nikki Van Noy: I am joined today by two authors, Mike Morse and John Nachazel, who together wrote the new book, Fireproof: A Five-Step Model to Take Your Law Firm from Unpredictable to Wildly Profitable. Mike and John, thank you so much for joining me today.
Mike Morse: Our pleasure, thanks for having us.
John Nachazel: Great to be here.
Nikki Van Noy: The first thing I would love to do is for each of you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what led you here to this moment of writing a book. Mike, let’s go ahead and start with you.
Mike Morse: I’m an attorney. I’ve been an attorney since 1992. I’m also a father of three beautiful daughters, living in metro Detroit. I’ve had a really great long career, having a lot of fun being a lawyer and helping tens of thousands of clients along the way. Throughout this journey, I’ve had a lot of interesting things happen to me–some great, some not so great. Over the last 12, 13 years, my law firm has turned into a business. We are running a law firm like a business which is typically not done, and I’ve been doing it with John for this period of time.
We decided that after all these years that we had a lot to share. We’ve gained a lot of wisdom, and we wanted to teach and share our processes with all the lawyers in the world. That’s what led us to write a book. It’s been a fun and cathartic act over the last year that we’ve been doing this and we’re thrilled that it’s finally coming out.
Nikki Van Noy: Catharsis is such the right word for book writing, it’s so true. John, let’s hear a little bit about you.
John Nachazel: My name is John Nachazel, I’ve been married for 27 years to my lovely wife Melissa. We have four fantastic children, and family is the best part of my life. Meeting Michael 12 years ago was the best part of my career. I had spent 20 years in the automotive industry doing various sales and marketing roles. But to have the opportunity to help him lead a business, a medium-sized business, was the challenge I was looking for at the time. It’s been an absolute joy.
Michael’s gifted, a great attorney but his business instincts are the best of anybody I’ve ever worked with. He’s been very open to trying new approaches and adopting new processes and we are each other’s polar opposite. When he was looking for me, he wanted someone not like himself, he wanted someone who thought completely opposite. That’s what he got in me, and together, we’ve been able to build a fantastic law firm. We went from a startup where Michael was a solo to being the biggest law firm in the state of Michigan in personal injury in a very short period of time so it’s been a crazy, fun, wild ride and I’m so excited to share with everybody what we learned along the journey.
A Business Perspective
Nikki Van Noy: John, I’m struck by the fact that you made the jump from the automotive industry to the legal industry, which to an outsider seems like a big jump. I’m curious about what that experience was like for you. What perhaps overlapped that may not be apparent from the outside?
John Nachazel: Sure, that’s one of the things I should probably point out that’s important–I’m not an attorney, I’m number two at the law firm and I’ve never been a lawyer. I never aspired to be a lawyer, I’m a businessperson through and through. I have an MBA background and my experience was in sales and marketing but I always loved numbers and often was selling and producing numbers.
The auto industry at the time, 12 years ago, when I was looking to make a change, had been doing nothing but going down every year. I wanted to be a part of something that was more fulfilling and growing and Michael was lightning in a bottle. He was a rocket ship going up and you could see it. Anybody that met him knew that–the raw talent and ambition, he was going to do great things, so I thought, I’m going to take the road less traveled and do something completely and utterly different. Take a chance instead of wondering, “What if?” It was probably the best career decision I ever made to be able to help run a much smaller business than I came out of.
I spent time at Ford, a behemoth, where I was just a number. I was just a cog in a great wheel. To have a more intimate experience like I have at the law firm where I know everyone and have a say in everything is a much more fulfilling experience and I’m able to be involved in a much greater breadth of duties along the way.
Nikki Van Noy: That makes so much sense. Mike, I wanted to follow up with you. When you were talking, you made this distinction between law firms and businesses. And again, from an outside perspective, most of us would consider law firms a business–just a specific type. I would love it if you could explain what exactly you mean by that?
Mike Morse: My dad was an attorney and I was around the law with a lot of his legal friends growing up. I had seen dozens of law firms when I was in law school and after law school, I worked for a small firm and they were all the same. They had great lawyers who did a good job for their clients, ran around the court, didn’t know where their next case was coming from, and going from case to case, busy, had a secretary, maybe a paralegal, maybe an associate if you’re lucky.
They were all kind of around the same way, as law firms, as lawyers with no business instincts, with not understanding numbers and with relying on other people to do everything else but be a lawyer. And that was me. I did that for my first few years out of law school and then I opened my firm. I did that for about 10 years, just kind of going from case to case and hoping that there was enough money in the bank account to make rent and to make payroll.
I had some really good mentors–my late father-in-law, Steve Radom. I hired Gino Wickman as a business consultant who started showing me that you could run a law firm like a business. You can look at the numbers, you could understand the numbers, and you could have somebody managing a law firm. The first time I heard this, Nikki, I was like what? What do you mean you have somebody else manage the law firm, I’m the lawyer, I manage the law firm, that’s what the lawyers do–we manage law firms, we try cases, we work our cases. That, to this day, is how 98% of the law firms are running. I still have friends out there and this is how they’re running.
When I suggest to them they should maybe get a business consultant, maybe get a COO, maybe get an office manager, maybe work on their numbers and know where everything’s coming from, they look at me like I have three heads. It’s so prevalent that lawyers don’t understand business. They don’t understand how to work on a business instead of working in the business, which is a major distinction that a lot of businesses talk about for any business, no matter what business you’re in. I think instinctively, I have a bit of an entrepreneur in me and I’ve always have been an entrepreneur from a very young age. It just makes sense to me when I started hearing these concepts, I start applying them right away, and then when I was looking for my first COO, within days, the story isn’t all that important, but I found John.
It was an interesting set of circumstances but as John said, we were opposites. He wasn’t a lawyer, he didn’t know the first thing about practicing law, he didn’t know the first thing about an auto case or a dog bite case. That was okay. He knew numbers and he knew how to manage people and he knew how to come up with creative compensation plans and on and on.
All of the things that I was not good at and did not want to do, didn’t like to do, John did. All the things that he doesn’t love to do and like to do, I’m great at. It was a pretty darn good match. That’s kind of it in a nutshell–we believe that law firms should treat themselves like businesses because they are businesses. The lawyers should be freed up to do what they’re best at and great at and love to do which could be anything. I’m assuming it’s trying cases and talking with their clients and doing all those kinds of things, but it could be other things. And then you have to delegate to your COO, your office manager, your CFO, whoever else. Usually, a non-lawyer to run the business, to free you up to do all the things that you want to do.
Nikki Van Noy: Mike, one follow up question from that. Just from a really human perspective, on a day-to-day basis, what are the biggest differences to you between the experience of running a law firm as a law firm versus having a law practice that is run like a business? How did your life in practice change because of that?
Mike Morse: Well, I would have to say dramatically. When I started this journey, I was everything. I paid the bills, I hired, I fired, I went to Costco to buy the paper and the coffee and the coffee cups. I was trying all the cases, I was talking to all the clients, I was figuring out how to get clients in the door and I was holding those big relationships. I met with new clients, I signed them up, I talked to the insurance companies, I did all the depositions and when somebody needed a day off or somebody was sick or I needed to hire somebody, I was also doing that. Finding space for us, making sure the stamp meter had stamps in it, I could go on and on, but I was working way too hard.
I wasn’t doing a great job at anything because I was spread too thin. I had a new family started so I wasn’t able to spend as much time as I wanted with my kids. I was–as our consultant calls it–I was hitting the ceiling. I was bouncing off the ceiling because I couldn’t go any further. Once I learned how to delegate, once I realized, “Hey, I know that I think I’m the best at trying cases and I’m the best with the clients and I’m the best with negotiating for new office equipment and leases and all that kind of stuff. I have to let go of some of this.”
So, through various exercises, I decided what I wanted to let go of and what I wanted to keep on my plate, and I delegated everything that I didn’t want to do. And when I say, ‘I didn’t want to do’, I mean everything that I wasn’t great at and I didn’t love to do, I delegate it to people like John and others in our firm and that leaves me with extra time, believe it or not. So, I am able to do everything I love and everything I am great at. I am also able to have a life and travel and spend time with my kids and golf once in a while and do all of the things and have a normal life rather than running around like a chicken with my head cut off, which most lawyers, if you go meet them, and you see them in conferences, they are all so busy because they are trying to do everything. John and I are trying to tell people in this book, you can’t do everything if you want to be really, really successful.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, this is going to sound perhaps like a smart alec question, but the first thing that came to mind as you were explaining that–Costco was what really got me–is how did you have time to actually practice law?
Mike Morse: You find the time. You just do and you don’t spend as much time as you want on certain things and you end up being reactive instead of being proactive in your cases. You know that might apply to a lot of different businesses. Sometimes you just are kind of back on your heels taking punches from whatever is coming around you. You are just putting out fires and you are going from one case to the next, one quote to the next.
“Oh shoot, I am out of paper, I got to run to Costco. Oh God, I need a new employee. Oh, we are busting out of space, I need to find a new space.” That is all at the same time and we have a trial the next day.
Nikki Van Noy: John, my question for you is, as an outsider walking in when you first saw the firm what was your impression?
John Nachazel: My first impression is that it was super high energy, really talented people but quite a bit of chaos, and people were running around at a great pace, so the energy was there. I just felt like it needed to add systems and direction to it so that it could be more thoughtful and deliberate. It was frenetic, if that makes sense, a lot of frenetic energy by some super talented people but I just felt like it needed to be harnessed and channeled.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely, frenetic sounds the perfect word for it. So, John, what were some things that you came in and instituted to take away some of that chaos and frenzy?
John Nachazel: A couple of things. One was just getting some of the processes documented so that they are repeatable and consistent. That was part of it but really, my main contribution over the years, including right away, has been the metrics and learning to diagnose what is working well and what isn’t working well. I am able to go an inch deep and a mile wide with quite a bit of dexterity and that is easy for me and interesting and so I could channel our attention to the spots that had trouble and needed that attention.
I think that was probably the best thing I did. I challenge the myth of everybody doing the best that they can with the case and that we shouldn’t hold people accountable because they are producing less revenue than the other person because it is just a result of the docket that they were handed. I challenge that notion and suggested that, in fact, it was so much more was in your control than you were aware and that it wasn’t the docket. But in fact, it was the person that was handling the docket who was really primarily responsible for the results that were being achieved.
Nikki Van Noy: Now this question is for both of you. Going through this book, what can readers expect to find that will help them translate some of these practices into their own law firm?
Mike Morse: Well we tried to write this book in a way that any size law firm could get some really good benefit from it. Any size law firm, if it is a lawyer or just a solo wanting to grow, they are going to get some real practical advice on hiring and firing, how to pay, what numbers and day-to-day should we be looking at and collecting, how to best advertise and market their firm, and how to find their message. And we did it in a way again that was simple.
I wanted lots of takeaways for lawyers so they could use this book, keep it on their desk as their bible that when they ran into an issue or a problem that they can turn to it for inspiration and start taking action right away.
The Right People
Nikki Van Noy: John, anything you want to add to that, that particularly stands out to you?
John Nachazel: Well I would just say that it is so much about how you use people’s time and their talents and that if you are able to describe to a person what you expect of them and put them in a position to be wildly successful, making sure that not only is Michael doing what he loves to do all the time and is great at but to do that for everybody. We don’t spend a lot of time and energy working on people’s weaknesses and developing their weaknesses.
What we do is we put them in a position where they are feeling super confident and they can really excel, and they thrive. I think getting people, the right people in the right seats, is really the key to things.
Nikki Van Noy: So Mike, when you were talking at the beginning of this podcast, you mentioned the word ‘catharsis’ with writing this book. John before we started to record, you were talking about how it had been, if nothing else, a great experience for the two of you to look back on. And I am curious, with that sort of common perspective, what realization did you guys come to about your own path with this firm or your own experience as a result of writing this book?
Mike Morse: Well I think even though we are running it like a business, and I am running it like an entrepreneurial lawyer, the running around, the being busy, the frenetic energy is still there. We are still quite busy and most entrepreneurs I know traditionally are not good at stopping, looking back at your accomplishments, smelling the roses, figuring out all the good things, and the things you can improve on and learn from and that’s just something that we didn’t typically do.
John and I would set goals for the firm every year. We would hit our goals. We would barely high-five at the end of the year and then January would come, and we’d do it all over again and that is how we are wired. That is how we are, but stopping to write this book and look back at the historical data, there were so many times we were like, “Holy cow! Do you remember when this happened? Do you remember this?” and coming across the title of ‘Fireproof’. John and I experienced the fire. John actually wasn’t with the firm yet. He came in and helped me clean up from the fire in 2008.
Nikki Van Noy: It really was frenetic there, wow.
Mike Morse: Other than the fire there were other major issues that happened that I don’t even remember all of them. We came to realize that because we have all of these great systems and processes in place, we can deal with anything. With this crazy pandemic we’re dealing with, I know so many law firms who are not up and running for weeks and weeks and have lost god knows how much money and how much productivity.
We were up and running within a minute. I mean because we are planning for this. We were ready. We have been through many fires, as we’d like to call them, even though not all of them were fires. We consider the pandemic a fire. If you have the right smoke detectors in place when it starts smoking you could put out that fire with just a cup of water. Most law firms do not have smoke detectors in place. When that pandemic hits, it is like a brick over the head and they’re not ready. Their staff is not ready, they don’t know how to work from home. I know many lawyers who worked for several weeks after their offices were supposed to be closed because they didn’t know how to work remotely. That is just one little example because there are going to be more pandemics.
There are going to be more fires. There are going to be more things that people have to deal with and if they read this book and they follow the things that we talk about, next time we’re faced with a fire they will be much better equipped to deal with it and even thrive from it.
Being able to be proactive and take advantage of whatever the circumstances are rather than playing catch up and trying to figure out, “Does my staff have the right equipment? Do we have the right software? Do they have microphones and cameras?” Etcetera. It’s just remarkable, looking back at all of the ways that our systems have saved us. It’s been really great. It’s been really healing and it just kind of reinforced the need for a book like this because I have never read a book like this.
John Nachazel: And I just want to add in that it’s made us feel–part of it is how you feel as a human–it makes us feel invincible to know that whatever comes our way, pandemic, whatever, we will not just survive but we will thrive. Our performance is actually experiencing an uptick during the pandemic and that’s been unexpected but great. I feel like because we have the systems and metrics in place, we can survive anything.
Having that peace of mind and not operating in a state of mind that is fear-based but confident you to make clear decisions, make the decision faster, and take bolder action. One of the things that we get into in the data section is about forecasting and we set a forecast every year and, we know it is going to work. We know it will hit.
One of the things that is nice about that is Michael has the peace of mind and the clarity to have a calm existence and a peaceful happy life instead of perpetually worrying about what is going to happen. He knows in early January what is going to happen this year financially. That big worry is just settled, and it is handled, and it’s made his personal life better. It’s made him a happier person and it’s made him a better attorney, a better manager because he is not distracted and consumed by these fears.
Nikki Van Noy: Wonderful and you are absolutely right. This pandemic seems like it would be a true test of the strength and stability of what you guys have built. If it can withstand this, I would imagine you are pretty good to go.
Mike Morse: I think you’re right. I think you’re right.
Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. All right, thank you both so much for joining me today. The book again is Fireproof: A Five-Step Model to Take Your Law Firm from Unpredictable to Wildly Profitable. Is there anywhere else listeners can find you guys outside of the book?
Mike Morse: Well, we are also doing a podcast, Open Mike, that is on all of the podcast channels that people can find us, and John and I will be doing some podcasts about legal stuff there soon. Our website is 855mikewins.com, our Instagram is @855mikewins. We’ll be promoting the book, which will be dropping on June 23rd. If anybody wants to find a copy of that eBook or mail you a nice copy of it, I am sure that they could find it if they want to. And we appreciate you very much having us on.
Nikki Van Noy: Thank you both for joining me and best of luck with the book.
Mike Morse: Thank you.