When Sean Martin and the team at MHP&S decided to start a firm, they had the opportunity to reshape what a law firm should be, from top to bottom.
Instead of the many costly expenses they racked up at previous firms, they chose to be nimble, light, and fast—with superior customer service as the guiding light.
This is a story for any entrepreneur or business owner who’s curious about what it’s like to experience that moment of clarity… and forego the tried-and-true path in order to find their own way.
How to start a law firm (or any business) that does its clients justice
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What you need to know
- MHP&S is a successful law firm operating in Nashville, TN.
- As the team that was building MHP&S from the ground up designed their infrastructure, they wanted systems that were future-ready.
- The challenge they faced was that the legal profession had barely changed, “since the days of Abraham Lincoln”—which presented a tremendous opportunity to reshape the way they practiced law in a new way.
- The technologies MHP&S embraced allow them to operate from a client-first, customer service-oriented business model—which is central to their success.
- Recently, their reliance on cloud technology allowed them to quickly transition to working from home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Sean believes his firm is unique in that they see work not as a place to go, but as a job to do. This has made it easier for them to focus on technology that allows them to adapt quickly.
Changing times call for a different approach to legal counsel
“When I worked for a firm, all I had to do was show up, cultivate client relationships, develop new clients, and then do the work for those clients. As we came together to form this business, there was so much more to it.”
“We believe that good things happen when good teams get together and interact personally, but we know that it’s not 100% required and we’re proving that this week by all of us working remotely.”
“The office is, it’s a necessity because of the synergy we get when we’re together, but it’s almost superfluous because like in times like this, we don’t absolutely need it.”
“We have the ability to consider work as a thing to get done rather than as a place to go.”
“…we were developing workarounds to obstacles to productivity that were foreseeable. And so we embraced all of the cloud based technologies that we could to overcome them.”
“…the practice of law has barely changed since the days of Abraham Lincoln. We’ve got lawyers who are still writing letters to each other and putting stamps on envelopes and having these letters carried back and forth.”
“As I considered the old way, the more traditional way of doing things, I knew there had to be a better and more efficient way. And that’s when I began researching technology solutions.”
“…we have a client first, customer service, customer experience oriented business model. And so all of the technologies that we embrace make it easier for our clients to get ahold of us, make it easier for us to provide real time updates, make it easier for us to even be hired.”
“Being your own boss is very exciting, it’s very rewarding. But it’s also a lot of work because… it’s not just doing the practice of law.
Robert Murphy: Hi everyone. Thanks for joining us today. I am extremely happy to have Sean Martin with me on the phone today. Sean Martin is a partner at MHP&S Law Firm in Nashville, Tennessee and that’s where he focuses on personal injury and family law. Sean, thanks so much for joining me today.
Sean Martin: Thanks for having me today.
The practice of law during a pandemic
Robert: So Sean, just a little tee up here, you are working from home right now, is that right.
Sean: I am. After we convened as a firm on Friday, we decided it was prudent to send everybody home until further notice. So we had a meeting that afternoon and made sure everyone was prepared to work from home and they were thanks in part to RingCentral and the rest of our technology. So we’ve been working from home ever since.
Robert: That’s great. It’s great to hear that you and the rest of your firm are staying safe. For the listeners who’ll be listening in the future. Right now we’re going through the COVID-19 situation, so we have a lot of businesses that are working from home. In fact, I am right now as I was just explaining to Sean in the laundry room, in my apartment with a blanket set up to diffuse the sound a little bit to make the best of the circumstances. So it’s just really great to live in an era that we’re able to adapt so quickly and efficiently to needing to work from home quickly.
How to know if law is for you
Robert: Sean, I want to start with a couple of questions here. I want to learn a little bit more about you as a person. So my first question really is, how did you decide to become a lawyer? What was the thought process in leading to that decision?
Sean: Oh gosh. I think as a kid I was kind of argumentative and contrarian from time to time. And I think getting my parents coping mechanism was to say, “Well, maybe he’ll be a great lawyer.” So I had the seed planted very early about going to law school. And as I grew up I found it more and more fascinating. I liked the idea of helping people. I loved the idea of arguing cases in court and to juries and so I went to law school after I graduated from college. I’ve been doing it now for 20 years.
Robert: That’s fantastic. You know, it’s interesting, the legal profession itself is often characterized by a lot of stereotypes and generalizations. I’m actually interested from your perspective, what should people know about your line of work?
Sean: That’s a great question because I think that’s what I thought going in that the legal business was all about being argumentative and contrarian. Really it’s more of a problem-solving business, at least in my practice areas. People come to us with specific problems and usually it’s something that it’s very difficult for them to be going through financially or emotionally or otherwise or both and it’s our job to find the most efficient solution to their problem. Not every legal dispute or case that comes through your door results in a lawsuit or a trial or a hearing or some fantastic argument to a jury.
Sean: Lots of legal issues are solved by a few phone calls, some ingenuity and some compassion. And communication. You’ve got to be able to communicate with a lot of different people about some difficult topics, but if you can keep a level head and keep moving towards a solution, then you’ve done your job. So I think it’s not what people see on TV or in the movies. It’s more of a problem-solving business.
Robert: That’s really interesting. With MHP&S, is that fundamental to your business?
Sean: It is. We do probate work, estate planning, wealth preservation, family law, conservatorships. We deal with people, individuals, families, and their problems. They come to us with needs in all of those areas and we do our best to service them. We do have a significant part of our firm dedicated to litigation, but it’s always the last resort. We try to shepherd folks through the legal process efficiently and litigation is the opposite of efficiency.
Starting a successful law firm
Robert: That’s interesting. So how did you end up at MHP&S?
Sean: I worked for a law firm very early in my career and I decided I wanted to be my own boss. So I hooked up with a couple of other lawyers and we built a firm. One of those lawyers became a federal judge. And so I reformed another firm and that’s Martin, Heller, Potempa and Sheppard. One of the individuals I have been with since the beginning of my career and the other two, Potempa and Sheppard, I met, gosh, in the course of my career, and we found that we all had overlapping practice areas and we meshed well personality wise. So we came together and we built this firm.
Robert: There’s something so wonderful about that entrepreneurial spirit. So you had a group of people that you got along with really well and you woke up one morning essentially, or I’m actually interested in the approach you took, one day you decided we’re going to start a law firm. What was that experience like for you as an individual?
Sean: Dave Heller, my partner, had been talking with Matt Potempa and Jenn Sheppard off and on for a couple of years about doing something together. And once it took shape, Dave said, “What would you think about forming this four-person partnership in Hillsboro Village in Nashville and only focusing on these four or five overlapping areas?” And I thought it was a great idea. So we met over, gosh, the next couple of probably months to map out a plan to figure out what we were going to name our business, to figure out logos and all that good stuff. And it was really exciting because all of us had successful practices before, but when we got together there was this synergy. I know it’s cliche, but we got together and we all had these ideas that sort of set off one another and that resulted in the firm we have and we’ve been going strong ever since.
It was really an exciting thing to do and year over year we keep that excitement going by adding people. We just bought a building. We just work really well together and we complement each other in lots of ways. I couldn’t do this without the three of them and I like to think that they could not do this without me, or not as well.
How to overcome the challenge of a new business
Robert: I mean, it sounds like an incredibly thrilling time. You’re working on all these separate pieces and you’re pulling together like you were mentioning, logos and maybe a business model. What was, as somebody who has up to this point been a career lawyer, now you’re switching gears a little bit. You’re moving into the business side. What were some of the big, Oh my God, moments that you had in that process of shifting gears?
Sean: When I worked for a firm, all I had to do was show up, cultivate client relationships, develop new clients, and then do the work for those clients. So that was my main responsibility. As we came together to form this business, there was so much more to it. We had to worry about a handbook, right? We had to determine were we going to have a dress code. And once we decided, yes, we would have a dress code, we had to decide what that dress code would entail. And I remember lots of spirited discussions about casual Friday and what that meant.
We had to basically build all of these things that we had taken for granted as lawyers in private practice, not from scratch because we had an idea of what we wanted to do. But thinking about things other than the development of practice areas, development of referral sources, getting business, doing business, and then doing your work really well. It was a challenge. And there again, that’s where Matt, Dave, Jenn and I supported each other and came together. The four of us each had different areas of expertise that we all undertook to help build this thing.
Robert: I’m reminded of the eighties cartoon Voltron where you have these, I think it was four different pieces or something and they end up coming together to make this amazing thing that was stronger than the separate individual pieces of its parts. Would you say that that is an encapsulation of your core group at this law firm?
Sean: I love the Voltron reference and I know exactly what you’re talking about. Yes, we say that we’re stronger than the sum of our parts. We’re smarter than the sum of our parts and each of us together does better with the other three. We’ve been able to measure that and we all definitely feel it. Again, synergy is the word. I hate it because it’s cliche but it absolutely describes the experience of the four of us together. It’s synergistic and I couldn’t imagine succeeding without all four of us.
Robert: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier that I thought it was really interesting. We were talking about the process of starting a business and there were some challenges with that and you’re building a handbook and you’re doing this and that and you’re probably looking for a space to build your law firm out of or to have a core address that customers can refer to. Was that period may be the hardest period for your law firm so far or have you had other challenges that have come up over time that you’ve had to conquer and to work past?
Sean: That was definitely the earliest challenge because none of us had done it at scale before. Matt and Jenn were both solo practitioners, so they had some concept of an infrastructure that needed to be built. Dave and I were both big firm lawyers who took the infrastructure for granted. So when we came together it was us deciding who was best suited to take care of which piece of the infrastructure. And that’s one of the early things that we met about, was one of our first challenges, and once we decided who was good at what then it was fine, but it was definitely an early challenge.
Challenges over the years have included finding and keeping good people. We have found some great people along the way. Most of them are still with us. But we’ve lost a couple to opportunities that couldn’t be passed up. That has presented challenges. When you lose someone who’s great, it’s tough to backfill that spot. But we’ve been lucky in that regard too. We haven’t had to face that challenge but maybe once or twice. Most of our team is still with us and we have learned that keeping the team happy, keeping the team engaged and providing meaningful benefits and feedback, are all ways to help keep and retain great people.
A week in the life of a law partner
Robert: That’s great. When we were talking earlier on about the really unusual circumstances in which we’re having this conversation that we are. If I were to back up, let’s say three months ago, can you tell me a little bit about what your day to day operation is like for you as a practicing lawyer, as a business owner or a partner in a successful law practice?
Sean: The day would have started like any other. I get to work very early because I think I do my best thinking early. I tend to fade after lunch. What I try to do from Monday morning until about Monday at 1:00, that’s what I call my low time. It’s when I look at the two weeks ahead and I add things to my calendar that need to get done within that next two weeks. I delegate things to team members who are better suited to do those things. And I otherwise fill up my calendar with follow-ups, with court appearances, with business generation activities. Basically Monday, early in the morning until 1:00 is my planning period. And then the next four days or five days, those are my execution days. That’s when I execute all of the things that come up on my calendar.
But since I live in the real world, things pop up, right? And if things that pop up are emergent, I deal with them as best I can. Sometimes I can hit the pause button on other projects and jump right in. Other times I need to rely on a team member to help deal with the emergency or solve the immediate crisis. And that’s another good thing about being in a firm with good people. You don’t have to turn away business, you don’t have to turn down a current client who has an immediate problem. You can rely on your team. And that’s what I typically do.
Working remotely, getting things done: The software that make MHP&S future proof
Robert: So it sounds like you clearly have flexibility in where you work, even outside of the current circumstances. It sounds like not being in the office is not unusual for you. Is that accurate?
Sean: As we were considering what to do in light of the current crisis, it just occurred to me that our building, where we actually do our business, it’s not superfluous, but it almost is. We believe that good things happen when good teams get together and interact personally, but we know that it’s not 100% required and we’re proving that this week by all of us working remotely. We have our chat software, we have a different cloud-based software that help keep us connected, keep us productive, which has been great. But yeah, the office is, it’s a necessity because of the synergy we get when we’re together, but it’s almost superfluous because like in times like this, we don’t absolutely need it.
Robert: I feel like the world is changing a lot in that, I think back earlier on in my career, work was a place you went to versus today it’s much more about work is a thing that you need to accomplish. And to your point, and I think it’s a great way of putting it, that the location is superfluous. I mean it’s just about being able to accomplish the tasks you need to have accomplished at the end of the day. Is this normal practice would you say for law firms or is this unusual, you guys are really unique in how you approach work in this way?
Sean: I think we’re unique. I think most lawyers and law firms still approach work as a place that you go. Now, once they get there, they definitely accomplish the things that need to get done. And of course, there’s a whole swath of lawyers, a lot of criminal defense lawyers, who spend most of their time in the car and in different courtrooms and they get stuff done too. But I think we’re unique because we’re so technologically beyond many of our colleagues and firms that are similarly sized. We have the ability to consider work as a thing to get done rather than as a place to go.
Robert: Was that an intentional decision that you made at an organizational level when you started your firm?
Sean: It was. I think the buzz word now is future-proofing. You want to future proof your business. When we started MHPS, I don’t think that was a concept. But we definitely knew we wanted to have the flexibility for ourselves and for our team to be able to work without downtime. That was what we thought about. We had some single parents working for us and we knew that sometimes presented challenges. We had employees who lived very far away and sometimes in Tennessee the weather doesn’t permit people to get to work.
So we were developing workarounds to obstacles to productivity that were foreseeable. And so we embraced all of the cloud-based technologies that we could to overcome them. And it’s worked great. And especially now in light of the crisis here we are putting all of that technology to work and it’s been a seamless transition. We haven’t missed a beat.
Robert: Was there ever a moment of fear or concern in wondering if what you were doing was the right thing? Approaching things from this really flexible perspective of what now is seen as future-proofing, but you’re right. In the past, it wasn’t always seen as future-proofing. It was maybe seen as away from the status quo, which is kind of the idea. So if you’re breaking with tradition, since you were breaking with tradition, was there ever a moment where you just stood back and said, “Maybe we need to rethink this”? Or were you just full speed ahead?
Sean: I think we were full speed ahead. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some inkling of doubt in my head when we embraced all of these technologies, but I thought, “Man, the practice of law has barely changed since the days of Abraham Lincoln.” Right? We’ve got lawyers who are still writing letters to each other and putting stamps on envelopes and having these letters carried back and forth. Communication was still by telephone. There were lawyers still using fax machines. All of these obstacles layered on and ate away at productivity.” On the one hand, I thought, “Gosh, all of these law firms are so successful and they’ve been doing it this way for a long time. Who am I to break with these traditions that have proved so successful?”
On the other hand, I thought, these older or these more traditional methods of doing the job are awfully expensive to implement. A phone system, for example, very expensive for a small law firm or an on-premises server or all of the software applications you have to have in place for a team of any size. They’re all very, very expensive.
Robert: Was it just a moment of, like a light bulb moment or like you just got hit by a lightning bolt where you’re like, “No, there has to be a better way to do this.”?
Sean: Yeah. As I considered the old way, the more traditional way of doing things, I knew there had to be a better and more efficient way. And that’s when I began researching technology solutions. Email has obviously taken hold in the legal industry, but 20 years ago it hadn’t. And lawyers were still very distrustful of it. About the privacy concerns and security concerns. And those were all valid concerns. But I think there was a fear that the technologies that our firm embraced as soon as we could were just a little bit too much for our colleagues. We saw that there was a better way to serve clients and to do this job than with the old traditional tools. And that’s why we embraced the technology that we did.
The future of law firms: putting customer service front and center
Robert: So, Sean, I want to know, it seems like you’re a pioneer as you are approaching the legal profession in a new way, using technology to really get ahead and to provide better employee experience and customer experience and everything top to bottom. So at this point, what’s next for your law firm?
Sean: Oh, I do want to say something. Part of what you just said, this business to me… You made the Voltron example a minute ago, so you’re probably, and hopefully, some people in our audience are of the same age where they watched LA Law and some of those other TV shows where it was a big building and you walk in and there’s this huge desk and it’s made of green marble and there’s a giant sign behind the receptionist and I think that’s what we thought law practice was, right? It was a big imposing profession that was not accessible to normal people. And I think that the model will be unsuccessful.
And so we have a client-first, customer service, customer experience-oriented business model. And so all of the technologies that we embrace make it easier for our clients to get ahold of us, make it easier for us to provide real-time updates, make it easier for us to even be hired. Right? Just finding a lawyer is very difficult for some people because it’s intimidating. But if you have an easy to use accessible website, you have the ability to text with your lawyer or your legal team, it just breaks down a lot of those artificial barriers between a person who needs help and the person who can provide the help.
It’s very much about the customer experience, the client service, which is why we’ve embraced a lot of these technologies. The old school stuff didn’t lend itself well to providing that kind of client engagement and client service and the technological solutions really do. I think that this is moving to a customer service business and I work in a legal specialty underneath that umbrella. I’m definitely a lawyer, but I’m also in the customer service business. And I think successful law firms, big and small, in the future will understand that.
Robert: That’s something I never would have considered when talking about a law firm is that it’s customer service oriented. That you’re in the customer service business at the end of the day. It feels loftier. Almost, I would say the medical practice is in a similar light as well. But yeah, at the end of the day your job is to take care of people and it sounds like you are surrounding yourself with the right people and the right tools in order to get the job done.
Sean: That’s right. That’s exactly right.
Final words: Attorney Sean Martin’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs
Robert: So one last question for you Sean, and that’s that if you were to talk to someone who wanted to do the same thing, who either wanted to spin up their own law practice or they wanted to start a separate business altogether, what advice would you impart on them having been through starting up your own law firm and have seen the other side as well?
Sean: Be prepared to work a lot right out of the gate. Being your own boss is very exciting, it’s very rewarding but it’s also a lot of work because like I said earlier, it’s not just doing the practice of law. You may have a payroll, you have to deal with bankers, you have to deal with your trust accounting. There’s a whole lot of business needs that have to be attended to in addition to doing the work that generates money to keep the business going.
So be prepared to get really good at a whole bunch of stuff you probably weren’t good at before or didn’t even know about before and be prepared to spend a lot of time right out of the gate. But it’s very rewarding. I think if you do good work if you set up a firm with a client service, customer service motivation, and you do good work for those people that hire you, you’ll be successful. You just have to give yourself the tools to be able to do all of it on your own or with a very small and efficient team. Yeah, but right out of the gate, be prepared to spend a lot of time on non-billable tasks.
Robert: That’s totally fair. Well. Sean, I want to thank you so much for your time today. Really fantastic insights and I look forward to speaking again sometime soon. So, thanks so much.
Sean: Yeah, thanks for having me, Robert. See you later.