The Need for Innovation and Change has Accelerated
Law company Level Legal is focused on giving legal and corporate customers the best possible solutions, simply, efficiently, and for the best value. As the Level Legal leader and CEO, Joey Seeber is focused on results and leading with optimism.
In this Next Normal podcast episode, Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talks with Joey about running a law company in 2020, the changes in the legal industry driving an accelerated pace, and Level Legal’s investment in infrastructure.
Episode highlights include:
- [01:28] – An entrepreneur at heart, Joey’s career included detours including being Mayor of Tyler, TX.
- [03:49] – Joey notes that change is accelerating as many in the legal community are recognizing opportunities for improvement.
- [05:25] – Level Legal is seeing an opportunity for investment, including access to talent, now that the boundaries of physical capacity have been removed.
- [06:17] – Leadership, outcomes, and being mindful of the desired result.
- [09:47] – Yes, for Level Legal they see this as a time for optimism.
- [11:21] – Liam talks about building trust by solving difficult problems together.
- [15:18] – We close with Joey answering the question: Leadership in tough times requires…
Note: This transcript has been adjusted to improve readability. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. The context and more than 95% of the actual transcript have been preserved. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio file.
Nicole: Hello, this is Nicole Giantonio, the head of global marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you’re about to hear is part of our Next-Normal Leadership Series featuring Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with general counsel from leading organizations, law firm managing partners, and law company CEOs about leading during this time of change. Today’s guest is Joey Seeber, CEO at Level Legal, a law company focused on giving legal and corporate customers the best possible solutions simply, efficiently, and for the best value.
Liam and Joey discuss an unexpected outcome from the transition to remote work, the opportunity that exists when offering a viable – dare I say the alternate option to the market. They comment specifically on leadership within the business of law.
Podcasts are evergreen, but it’s helpful to note we recorded this episode in the third calendar quarter of 2020.
Liam: This conversation is really about the next normal. I want to talk just for a moment about before the next normal. Could you introduce what you do, what your business does, how you got to be where you are?
Joey: I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I quickly learned that practicing law was not particularly entrepreneurial, at least in how I was doing it. I practiced law for about four years. Then I took a couple of detours with other businesses – a distribution business, an automotive-related business. Then I served for six years as Mayor of Tyler, Texas, which is my home. Six years on the Council and then six years as Mayor.
It’s a winding path to a place that used my legal education and experience and my business interest in start-ups and growth. I found a place where these intersect and there’s an opportunity to make a difference. It was a delight.
Level Two started as a document review company in the depths of the Great Recession. We were born in 2009. Our first day in business, coincidentally, not my plan, was Obama’s inauguration date, January 20th, 2009. If you remember that time, the fall was the big financial crisis, and then March of 2009 was the bottom of the stock market, things were pretty bleak. Coming out of a law firm, we were a small team of attorneys doing work and we quickly branded ourselves – the term you coined ‘a law company’ – a company doing legal work for corporations and law firms.
Since then, we’ve grown. We have 150 or so employees, lawyers working in litigation, compliance, privacy, investigation work – still reviewing documents for production, assisting lawyers, and in-house counsel.
Liam: In many ways, this next normal is a next, next normal, or a next normal revisit for you.
Joey: Always in chaos, there’s an opportunity. Whether it’s investing or whether it’s in business or whether it’s in the law. There are opportunities when there’s dislocation, crisis, or chaos. The key is finding what is the best path forward.
Liam: Over the last couple of months, as the CEO of the business with your legal education, what are the things that have changed about the way you think about the legal industry? What’s changed about the way you think about your business as a leader?
Joey: I don’t think much has changed in legal. Legal is not that much different than it was four months ago. What has changed is it’s accelerated. The same inefficiencies are there; they’ve just been highlighted and brought to the forefront. I think what’s happened in the last three or four months is that the need for change, the need for innovation accelerated. I don’t think it’s necessarily changed.
“I think what’s happened in the last three or four months is that the need for change, the need for innovation accelerated.”
– Joey Seeber
Liam: To your point about acceleration – do you think that view is commonly held? More people are feeling the need to operate differently, manage differently, perform services differently. And those things are happening faster. People with our background – you know, we’ve created businesses around the opportunity for working differently. To some degree, people might even consider us barbarians at the gate. I’m speaking of you; that is clearly not me. Change has accelerated. Do you think that’s more commonly held today than it was six months ago?
Joey: Not yet. It depends on the sector. It depends on the particular firm or particular corporation. I do see a universe of people expressing an opinion. You see more voices. But my sense, and it’s just my sense, that it’s not fully understood yet. It’s still a drip, drip, drip. But my sense also is that the need has been accelerated.
Liam: That also implies that perhaps further down the path in the next normal, you’re expecting to see that the gathering of pace or sentiment is actually going to manifest in working differently. Are you changing the way you think about investing in the business or thinking about how you’re managing the business’s cost base? How is that changing as you see sentiment change?
Joey: We’re doubling down, so to speak, on building infrastructure and making sure that we’re collaborating well, that we’re communicating well. It’s required more investment, but again it’s accelerated our innovation. We’re investing even more in our infrastructure. We’ve had some significant hires at the executive level; there’s a high level of talent available now.
Liam: That’s a great point that you bring up – a talent that wasn’t perhaps available six months ago. Do you think that is another signal that more and more people are thinking about alternatives, alternative careers, and alternative ways of working? Or do you see the unfortunate economic environment means that talented people are practical enough to be thoughtful of the economics on the home front?
Joey: I think it’s largely economic. Even our entry-level attorneys, we are finding they are a much more highly qualified pool of attorneys. We are not bound geographically. Our old normal was a single-center of attorneys in several places. Now I’m not bound by geography or the physical confines. We have more attorneys working today than we had the capacity for four months ago. Our old ideas of physical capacity would’ve bound us.
Liam: Before we move on to working practices, at Elevate, we’ve seen Q2 was pretty much flat on Q1, and Q3 is a slight uptick. I’ve been very, very conservative, very cautious. Let’s look at the economics before we talk about working practices.
Joey: This is the time for courage, for the courage to be put to practice. When I was making the decision on April 1st. I was just as fearful as anybody, but I also knew that our human capital was most important. The last thing I wanted was for our people to worry about their jobs. We work on a project basis, much like some of your operations, I’m sure. When there’s no work, that means sometimes people don’t get paid. We told all of our people, “It doesn’t matter what happens in April and May, you’re going to get paid. I don’t want you to worry about your job. Even if we don’t have a project for you, you’re going to get paid and keep your benefits. I don’t know what’s going to happen after that. I don’t want you to have that worry in addition to every other concern and then have that affect your work and your spirit.”
We’d been working on the ability to be a remote company but had not planned to be there within the year. When we were able to do it and exhibit the security was in place, we picked up a lot more work. Our second quarter was better than our first, and our third is starting much better than the second.
This additional work came from a first-time client, an international law firm who appreciated that our security was what it was. When they saw we could demonstrate the level of security remotely they had the confidence we would be able to do the additional work.
Liam: That was a leadership decision as much as a management decision – the commitment you made to your people.
Let’s talk about the removal of geographic constraints. The first thing you touched on was security. Without needing out on the infosec in-depth, how did you go about thinking about security? And how did you go about thinking about people working out of sight?
Joey: I’ll exhaust my knowledge very quickly. I can’t tell you how we did it [security]. What I know is that we had been preparing for months to solve this problem.
When you have very particular specialized talent that you need working and have difficulty recruiting that talent in the geographic talent where you are, you need to work remotely, securely, safely. That’s the problem we were solving for. Then we would be able to scale. We didn’t know it was going to happen in a matter of months.
To simplify, we connect remotely in the same way that we connect in our office. The same security measures and infrastructure is in place no matter where you are.
Liam: At the risk of some of my colleagues rolling their eyes if they listen to this, I’m personally a very structured person. I’m very structured in what I call a rhythm. A rhythm of things like one-on-one meetings, weekly tactical, daily water coolers. I wonder if that rhythm helps because it’s a structure for people. People know that they can rely on that time with me. Or does it create some inauthenticity; is it invasive in the sense of like, “I’ve got to do that meeting with Liam? I just had my last one with him two weeks ago.”
Joey: The only way to answer that question is by the outcome. What is the outcome that you want from the regular rhythm? Do you want people to know that you have a steady rhythm and so they count on that, and you’re holding them accountable? Do you want something else to come out of that? You analyze the practice and the effectiveness by the outcome. I think that there is – regardless of the cadence – there is value in checking in regularly. There is some security in knowing I’m going to get to speak with my direct supervisor.
Liam: I like your point about being mindful of what result you want to achieve. That should drive your practice. As opposed to your rhythm should drive your rhythm.
Joey: If you don’t have an outcome, then you’re both going to realize but perhaps not express, this is just checking a box and a waste of time. You don’t want it. The employee certainly doesn’t. Is that a best practice after all?
Liam: I’m wondering about the advice that we might give people who are leading teams that are perhaps earlier in their careers? Because I imagine as you get more experienced in your career, you go through this emotional maturity. What advice do you have for managers that are more junior or less experienced? What might they do to make sure that their people – going to your point about outcomes – are getting messages and being listened to?
Joey: I think you have to think about how we accomplish this goal together? Working together and becoming effective.
Liam: Are there any lessons that have come through this process? Where you go, do you know what? If I had my time again…
Joey: I hate to say this because it sounds as if I’ve got it all together. I don’t have horror stories from the last few months. There are a ton of heroes from the last few months.
Liam: You sound like quite an optimistic leader. There’s been a lot of woes is us. What’s gone on there?
Joey: We made it through a very tough time. When I said there are a lot of heroes, there truly are. I mean, at every level. The company made a commitment to them, and they made a commitment to the company, and we are all in this together. Great opportunities came our way. We delivered on those opportunities in such a fantastic way that clients wanted us to continue working for them. And so, there’s more work, and we’re scaling. That’s the business part of it. The human element is we just went through a really tough time together, and we made it. You could analogize it to boot camp.
The opportunity is what’s next, not what are we going to go back to. There’s no going back – it’s not going to be like it was before. I hope that our folks have that sense.
Liam: You feel like you’ve got a team that’s been forged through this experience. People ask, how do you build trust? And people will often say, “Well, you build trust through conversation and dialogue and understanding.” I acknowledge that is true. I have a sense in the workplace that you build trust by solving difficult problems together. That often involves difficult decisions and conversations, difficult actions in some cases. But I believe that if you want to get a team to be effective, they’ve got to face a really difficult challenge. With this experience you’ve had, are there any opportunities you wouldn’t have dared to think about?
Joey: We have more attorneys working today than we had physical space for. The thing about it, much of our team didn’t even think about it. We have one particularly huge project happening now and about a dozen others. At our last weekly leadership meeting, I said, “Has anybody taken the time to think about the fact that what was once a limitation – our physical space – no longer exists?”
The other one is talent, particularly in the legal space, regardless of whether you’re bound by geography. When you can recruit the talent you need nationwide or worldwide; your bar can be higher. You can vet for technical ability. You can vet for subject matter expertise, whatever you need. And so we have been able to recruit better talent, more diverse geographically. That is not something that we did before.
Liam: In a sense to you, some constraints have been removed. Physical space constraints, access to talent constraints. That makes you a more formidable competitor. The good news for talent in the legal space is that there is more opportunity than perhaps there was in the past when careers were restricted to working in certain organizations, we’ve removed constraints. But there’s also a great opportunity for all the people that work in our industry. Now you can work in law companies as well. You don’t have to be close to an urban center.
There are significant benefits for companies by this opening up of the mind. You’ve obviously a digital business and are operating more digitally, perhaps more than ever before. I mean, I realize that’s all relative. What do you think operating in a more digital way will mean for law departments and the businesses they serve? The kinds of things that you’ve observed, what do you think it’s going to mean for law departments inside those customers?
Joey: I think we should have higher expectations. Without regard to geography, we can get superior talent at a great value. And if you apply that same rubric or construct to the law departments or lawyers we work with, they should expect the same. We should be able to deliver that.
We have more options – great talent is available, we have different ways of doing things, and different ways of operating. We should all be considering these options, whether in our businesses or the vendors we hire. The expectation should be that we’re not bound by the traditional ways we’ve been thinking.
Liam: I know we’re coming towards the end of our conversation. Let me ask you a couple of closing questions. Leadership in tough times requires dot, dot, dot.
Joey: Authenticity. People have to know that you’re right there with them. They’ll know if you’re not. The authentic leader is the leader that can communicate and that people will follow.
Liam: How do you teach people to be authentic?
Joey: That’s probably just who I am. I try to be upfront and straightforward. We can learn skills that will help us be better leaders, more empathetic, and better listeners. Absolutely we can do that.
Liam: It feels to me – if you fall into the pool of authenticity and you don’t die, that’s helpful.
Joey: It’s not as if being our authentic self is always the best thing to put forward. Authenticity is also vulnerability, and sometimes that doesn’t work out well.
Liam: On that note, I think we’ve covered a lot here today. It’s great to meet a leader in legal, an authentic leader.
Joey: Likewise. And let me leave you with this. I don’t know if you listen or read any of Simon Sinek. He talks about rivals and competitors. Competitors play a zero-sum game. You get some, or I get some. Rivals learn from each other, and they help each other be better. That’s the way I view Elevate, and you’re a much larger company. We can help each other be better. It’s the difference between the infinite game and the finite game.
Liam: I couldn’t agree with you more. I hope that more of us share and get to know each other. I do like that distinction. I’ll need to noodle on that. That may be the next thing that we talk about.
Joey: Okay. Thank you, Liam.
Liam: Thank you.