Jeff Feldman was a recent guest on Hudson Valley News Network’s ‘Business Newsmakers’ program. Host Filomena Fanelli talks with Jeff about what it takes to run a successful law practice and the best way to manage employees.
To read full transcript of interview, see below.
Filomena: Hello and welcome to Hudson Valley News Networks’ Business Newsmakers show, brought to you by Thompkins Mahopac Bank. I’m Filomena Fanelli of Impact PR and Communications. Today I’m fortunate to be joined by Jeffrey Feldman of Feldman, Kleidman, Coffey & Sappe LLP. Hi Jeff, thanks for joining us here today.
Jeff: Thanks for inviting me.
Filomena: I got that all out in one breath. Are you impressed?
Jeff: And you pronounced “Sappe” correctly.
Filomena: Nice. It’s all about getting the pronunciation correct. So, for those of you out there watching today, you’ve probably heard of Jeff Feldman’s name because he’s been busy doing a whole lot here in the Hudson Valley. You’ve been in business for thirty-one years.
Jeff: Thirty-two, almost.
Filomena: Thirty-two, almost, and opened another location recently, expanded your practice. We’re going to talk about all of that today. But what impresses me so much is something that you once said to me about running a business. And you told me when I first opened mine that in order to have a business you need to work really hard, but you should probably play really hard too. Can you explain to me what you meant by that?
Jeff: Sure. My grandfather owned his own restaurant in the Catskills in the Borscht Belt and they were open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and the rest of the year he worked seven days a week, every shift as a waiter at the Concord Hotel. And ever since I was a little kid he was always telling me that you have to play as hard as you work, and I watched him and he worked his tail off. But when there was a party or a family gathering or some other event in the little town that we grew up in, he was the life of the party and he really knew how to have a good time and how to enjoy the family and himself, so I’ve always done it.
Filomena: Yeah, law is a very high-stress field.
Jeff: Yeah, especially mine.
Filomena: Yeah, you are on the go all of the time. Do you feel that when you take the time for family, for fitness, for hobbies, do you feel like when you bring that back in your business there’s some sort of measurable effect and what does that look like?
Jeff: Oh, without question my staff can tell when I haven’t gone to the gym in the morning, if I haven’t gone out for a run, if I forego my exercise in the morning, that they can tell just by my demeanor or my attitude. I tried it, you know. I work really hard, work very long hours, many weeks at a time, without, you know, working seven days a week, especially when you’re on trial. But then when you have a chance to blow off some steam and to, for me, ski or play golf or spend time with my kids and do other things, or now my grandchildren, I take full advantage.
Filomena: It sounds fantastic. It sounds like you found a nice balance there.
Jeff: You have to find it for yourself, depending upon what your business is. So, the vagaries of my business have more to do with scheduling than with anything else because we’re subject to the beck and call of the judges. What I do mostly is spend my time in court litigating cases. So, for example, yesterday my partner, Andrew, went to court prepared to try a med mal case he’d worked three weeks on preparing, three weeks on preparing for it, and got to the court and there wasn’t an available judge and the case was bumped until May. So all this time that he spent and everything he had booked out, and this happens to us regularly.
Filomena: Wow, so it sounds like you need to be extremely flexible with your schedule and with that of your staff.
Jeff: My wife would tell you that I have more airline tickets that I have spent money on and have not used than anybody else she knows.
Filomena: That is rough, and speaking of all that time in court, you recently opened a new division. Can you tell me a bit about your new division?
Jeff: Yes, we try cases for other firms. Our practice is unique in the sense that we represent hospitals and doctors when they get sued for malpractice, so we’re on the defense side. But we represent people who are injured, provided they’re not going to sue a doctor or hospital. So not only do we try cases based upon people coming to us directly, but lots of times someone will go to their real estate lawyer and say that they were involved in an accident. The real estate lawyer doesn’t try cases, so they’ll ask us to handle the matter for them. So, sometimes we get involved in those cases right at the beginning and we can do our own investigation. And other times the referring lawyer will work the file up to some extent, and then when they realize that they need someone with greater expertise, as far as accident investigation, reconstruction, products liability, things like that, then they’ll ask us to take over the case, and we handle it for them.
Filomena: So, this requires you to work directly with competitors and I don’t know about you out there watching today, but it’s a tough thing to work with one’s competitors. And many people have a fear around referring business or taking referrals from others and working with someone who might be perceived as a competitor.
Jeff: Actually, this—our relationship—is more symbiotic in the sense that, well number one, we don’t do those areas of law that the referring attorneys do. So, we don’t do real estate, we don’t do wills and trusts, we don’t do those kinds of things. So, we’re not taking their clients away, but on the other hand, partially because we’ve been in the community for so long and because we advertise, we get a lot of phone calls for types of legal matters that we don’t handle, so we would generally refer those matters back to the lawyers that we have a working relationship with.
Filomena: Jeff, you mentioned advertising and needing to promote yourself and your business. How important is marketing to business growth? Like, why is it important to you? Not everybody invests in marketing.
Jeff: It’s interesting because when we first started to advertise, especially, you know, thirty-two years ago, advertising for the medical community was not something that was the norm, okay. So, our physician clients looked at us with a little askew, like, you know, you don’t think that cheapens your profession? But we were a small fish in a big pond and the only way to get our word out and about the quality of the work we did was through advertising. Over the thirty-two years, that has changed. Now we’re more of a known quantity, but there’s been so many new people that have moved into the area and lots of times people who are new to the area have something bad happen. They don’t know who to turn to, they don’t have a friend to ask. And sometimes that advertising makes a difference, so keeping your name out there, whether it’s through formal advertising or sponsoring little league teams or soccer teams or being involved in the chamber or, you know, having a presence on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, you know, I think it’s important.
Filomena: Why are you so committed to getting involved in the community? You’ve received some awards and it’s obviously key to your practice.
Jeff: You know, look, the people, with the exception of the death of my partner Paul, for thirty-two years we’ve been incredibly blessed. All of us have families, we have kids. The kids are participating in all kinds of programs, and there are some people in our office who have had some health issues. But, by and large, we’ve been incredibly blessed. So ever since we first started, you know, Paul and I, we’ve always been giving back to the community, and as we’ve grown, our ability to give back has increased. And all my partners have always bought into that, and we have definitely tried to have a presence to help people who are less fortunate than us.
Filomena: It seems like it’s built right into your culture.
Jeff: It is, it definitely is.
Filomena: And speaking of building culture, I know you’ve told me that you have a very open environment in your office. You really talk about things with your employees. Can you explain why it is you do that?
Jeff: I think the bottom line is that we’re a team and that everybody on the team needs to have a skill set and a knowledge set about what’s going on in the business. So, it doesn’t really matter to me whether you’re my partner who’s been there the longest, second longest, cause I’m the longest, or whether you’re the new secretary who started last week or the person who helps do our filing. Everybody is as important as the next person, and everybody is treated as though they’re on an equal plane. So, when we go through periods of time of business challenges, cashflow challenges, I mean the same challenges happen to us that happen in any other business. You know, everybody knows about it and everybody knows what I think, they know what my plan is. They know what my expectations are business-wise for the next three months or six months and how I plan to deal with whatever potential adversity, you know, there is on the horizon, okay. I think it’s important for everybody to be on the same page.
Filomena: You’ve mentioned that you face adversities just like every other business owner out here watching or any business person that works in someone else’s businesses. What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve overcome to date?
Jeff: Well, the biggest challenge clearly was when Paul got sick and and passed away because we started the business together. We weren’t just partners, we were very close friends, and our lives were inextricably intertwined from a purely, you know, dollars-and-cents kind of business point of view. The business is constantly changing, so if you look at it on the plaintiff’s personal injury side, there had been several large firms that used to do this kind of work, and they’ve gotten smaller, okay, as vehicles have become safer, products have become safer things like that. There are, fortunately, less and less cases, and so there’s more competition for those cases on the medical defense side. That industry, from an insurance point of view, is constantly changing, so whereas there used to be, like when I first, you know, years ago, there were three main insurance carriers that insure doctors. One of them is no longer in business and another one of them has been having financial issues, and there’s a new, there are newer entities that are insuring physicians at cheaper prices, and as always, you know, you get what you pay for, so there are these new risk retention groups that are insuring doctors and we’re doing work for lots of them, but their dynamic—the manner in which they do business—their business model is different than what the traditional insurers did, so we have to get acclimated to that. We have to get acclimated to their new role in our industry, we have to comply with their protocols and standards, and so there’s a lot of getting used to on both sides, both for the lawyers and the staff and for the people at the ROG.
Filomena: You’ve clearly had to be very nimble, then.
Filomena: What do you do in order to make sure, because it’s one thing to stay up on your industry changes. It’s another thing to stay up on leadership and what it’s like to be the boss. How do you educate yourself around that? Like, I’m a big believer in reading business books. How do you stay abreast of new ideas?
Jeff: I mean, years ago when I first started, I read some business books. I don’t do that much anymore. I have three kids who are all in business, different businesses. One’s a speech therapist, one’s an entrepreneur, and the other’s a physical therapist locally. You know, I learned a ton just by talking to them as well as from their spouses or significant others. Based upon the political climate, right now I spend a lot of time in the car and the political climate without talking about Republican or Democrat.
Filomena: Yeah, we’re not going there today.
Jeff: Just always, always taboo. The climate is so polarized that I can’t listen to the radio anymore, so I’ve been listening to podcasts.
Filomena: What’s your favorite right now? What podcasts do you like?
Jeff: Well the two that are my favorite are Freakonomics, which just every week they have different people. Like several weeks ago they had a series, three-part episode, about what it’s like to be a CEO, and they had lots of CEOs that were on there. The CEO from Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg, I wish I could remember her name because she was a really dynamic speaker, but the CEO of Pepsi. So those are really good ones and several years ago I was honored by the bar association and Preet Bharara was the guest speaker that night. So, I really enjoy listening to his podcasts because as a trial lawyer he has an interview ability that most interviewers don’t have and he gets right to the point. And you could tell how much time he’s spent preparing for each of his guests, and I think he has a lot of, you know, a lot of very interesting guests, especially for what’s going on. And then there was a recent one that I would commend to anybody who’s a business leader, okay.
Filomena: Listen up, business leaders.
Jeff: Okay and that is on a podcast called Lawfare, a fella by the name of Chuck Rosenberg had a podcast where he was talking to the University of Virginia Law School students. A school that he would not be able to get into by his own admission now, but he’s a former US attorney and he was just explaining his five rules for success in business and for success in life, and they were very simple, to-the-point, straight-shooter types of things.
Filomena: Tell me your one favorite one. Share one with our viewers.
Jeff: My favorite one was always know the name of the person who’s taking out your garbage, okay. Meaning that don’t ever think that you’re so important that the person who’s emptying your garbage isn’t as important as you, and I know all the people who clean my office.
Filomena: Well, that’s great advice, not only in business, but in life. Just always know the name of the person taking out your garbage and sometimes that person might even be you on any given day.
Jeff: Right, it does. It definitely is.
Filomena: Yeah, we’re not above that. So, thank you so much for coming in today, Jeff. I appreciate having you here on Business Newsmakers. I’m definitely going to be more mindful of the garbage, that’s something I’m gonna take away with me and lots of the other lessons here today. So be sure to tune in for more business and newsmakers in the weeks to come and thank you for tuning in and being with us here on Business Newsmakers.