New Jersey tax lawyer Barry Gardiner has built his business from the ground up and provides other lawyers with tips and tools to build relationships and engage in effective business development for attorneys in this podcast with legal marketing guru John McDougall.
John McDougall: Hi, I’m John McDougall and welcome to the Legal Marketing Review Show on National Law Review. Today my guest is Barry Gardiner, founding partner of the Barry Gardiner Law Firm in New Jersey and New York. Welcome, Barry.
Barry Gardiner: Hi, how are you?
Getting Started as an Attorney
John: Yes, very good. How did you get started as an attorney?
Barry: How did I get started as an attorney? That’s a long story John. My senior year in college, my college roommate said to me, on a Monday or Tuesday, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” I said, “I have no idea.” He said, “Well, I’m taking the” — they called them the law boards in those days — “on Saturday morning. Why don’t you go?” So I went, and I took the boards, and I did well and eventually decided to go to law school and went to Rutgers Law School. After I graduated, I took a job with, believe it or not, a negligence firm in New Jersey where I tried a lot of negligence cases for about a year-and-a-half, which I really didn’t like because it was only a question of who went through the stop sign or who didn’t go through the red light and who did and everybody lied, and that was no fun.
I decided since I was a business major in college with the Bucknell University in Pennsylvania to go into tax law, which I decided I had an aptitude for and then something which I enjoyed. I decided to take a New York bar because that’s where all of the good tax work seemed to be with sophisticated companies, Fortune 500 companies, et cetera. What I did was I took a job with an accounting firm in their tax department for a year and enrolled in NYU Law School for a Masters in Taxation, which is one of the better law schools from that program in the country. I did that at night for three years, and then I took a job with a law firm in Manhattan and became a partner there after two or three years. We had about a 20 man tax firm; it was a tax boutique and we represented a lot of wealthy, high-net-worth individuals. A senior partner in our firm had a client who was a chairman of the board of that 10 or 12 interlocking public companies.
I began to do that kind of work and did a lot of public company work for these companies and their subsidiaries, which included everything — international transactions, mergers and acquisitions from a tax standpoint, planning everything, and I was a partner there for about 13 years. Then in the mid ‘90s, we had some downturns because of the economy and a couple of partners left and the firm started to fall apart a little bit. I decided to take my clients, and I had some at that point, not a lot but some, and start an individual practice of my own in Northern New Jersey which is where I lived.
John: About what year was that roughly?
Barry: ’92, around ’92 I’d say.
Branching Out into a Solo Practice
John: How did you learn to get your clients through that though? That sounds it’s a very daunting task, and you’re going out on your own.
Barry: It was a daunting task, and I had a daughter at that time who was starting college, and it was a little bit scary. But because of the nature of the tax work that I did, I had a number of relationships that I had established with CPA firms, life insurance agents who were selling insurance in connection with estate planning, which is something I was also doing and I basically took those connections that I had and built on those. I had several very strong relationships where I began to get most of their work. That’s basically the way I started my firm. It’s very unusual if you look around — whether it’s in New Jersey, in New York or wherever — for somebody who does the kind of work that I do, which is pretty highly sophisticated tax planning [work for corporations] as well as individuals who are out on their own. Most of the work, at the level that I do, is pretty much done by larger firms; anywhere from 50 to 100, or 300 lawyers where they have tax departments. But what happened was I began to work with these networking connections that I had and was able to build on those. Then what happens after several years, maybe three or four years, a lot of that work becomes sub-generating — in other words, through referrals and other clients who are coming in through your existing clients. At the same time, what I was doing was building additional relationships with other CPA firms, financial planners, and life insurance agencies. I had a number and still have a number of very good connections with MassMutual agencies, Security Mutual agencies, et cetera. That’s basically the way it got built.
Important Aspects of Legal Business Development
John: What would you say is the most important aspect of business development?
Barry: I think for somebody who’s in a smaller firm, I found that a lot of larger firms don’t do personal service and attention to their clients, which clients seem to resent substantially. I’ve always sort of made it a number one point to [offer personal service]. For example, if I get a telephone call from a client, and I can’t take it, I’ll always return that call at the end of the day. Or if the call comes in at the end of the day, by noon the next day, unless am tied up in meetings or something, and if I am, I’ll then have my secretary get back to the client and let them know, or let them tell us what’s a good time to get back to them, which clients appreciate.
It’s like if you go to a doctor, and you leave a message for the doctor, you don’t want to wait 24 hours or have to call the doctor back, you want him to call you back, because that basically shows that he cares. I want my clients to know that I care about them, rather than their just being a number, which many of them feel left out with these larger firms. Because all these larger firms have big clients, and in many cases, [they’re] smaller guy. When I say, ‘small,’ I’m not talking about a guy who is worth a small amount of money, but somebody in the relative scale who’s not worth what these big Fortune 500 companies are worth, or even wealthy clients who are worth $25 million and up. Everybody wants to feel important, and I’ve always tried to do that, whether the client is worth $100,000 or $50 million, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know if that answers your question.
How to Begin Building Client Relationships
John: Well, yes. It answers part of it. That’s a great way to build relationships and build on relationships with clients. What about first getting the client? How do you get relationships to begin with? Or how do you build relationships through networking or other ways that then turn into clients that you can then service with more attention to detail than a larger firm? How do you plan to see to get those new relationships?
Barry: Well, again, through other professionals, CPAs, financial planners, [and] other attorneys who don’t do this kind of work. I may call one, for example, in a matrimonial matter, or a commercial real estate matter, or litigation [matter] to basically get out there and meet people. I’m not one to join organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, or other organizations.
You are all here for the same reason, you are all here to get business, and that never really appealed to me. But I think the best client is a client who appreciates your work [and] who is going to give your name and number to a friend or a family member when they have a need, and they’re looking for somebody doing basically what you’re doing. Most of the clients I have are clients that I’ve kept for 15, 20, 25 years. I’ve lost very few clients. I actually, at this point have about 400 original wills, which I have at a safe deposit box at a Local Banking Institution, where I’m holding those wills for clients who may have copies which I’ve given them for their own reference.
John: Yes, that’s a great testament to many years of building those relationships. It sounds like in your line of work, you have to start, if you want to build a firm through business development, as opposed to internet leads and other types of sales marketing tactics. In your case, it’s a lot of building network partners or referral partners, as you mentioned. Then, when you get clients, turning those clients into very happy customers where you’re servicing them with a great level of attention and hand holding. That level of service turns them into referral partners of their own but those are the retail, those are the actual clients as opposed to an insurance company or a financial planner.
Barry: Correct. I think if you look at a lot of lawyers, I’m taking the liberty to say this, are unhappy in what they’re doing. They find it very stressful, very time-consuming, and this is the reason that a lot of lawyers have matrimonial problems, drinking problems, et cetera. Because, when they go to work every day, they are arguing an adversarial all day long. They’re arguing with other lawyers.
John: For a living. Right.
Barry: It takes its toll on you. Doing what I’m doing, I have been blessed because I don’t have that. The work that I do is basically with clients who come in with huge problems, who need to sort through those and come out at the end of the day with a plan, or a solution to what they’re doing. It’s a service to the clients, rather than an adversarial thing with other lawyers where unbearably, everybody is fighting with one another trying to get the better hand. I think it probably shows on the kind of work that you’re doing that you go to work every day, and you’re pretty enthusiastic about it. For example, the 400 wills that I have in the vault, eventually those are going to turn into an estate. Unfortunately, people die and families need help. It’s very rare unless somebody has moved away for example, to Florida; that while you’re holding an original will, they’re not going to ask you to handle the estate.
There are clients who move, and I don’t even know they may have moved out of state. I’ve had some clients that moved to places like Costa Rica, and those clients you lose basically because you’re geographically separated. But for the most part, once you have a will, you’re representing the family, and the family stays with you if they have confidence in you. You’ll wind up helping them through all of the intricacies that go into administering an estate, and getting everybody what they deserve, and paying in the littlest in estate taxes as possible. It’s one good aspect of doing the kind of work that I do I think.
Lead Regeneration for Estate Planning
John: Interesting. If you want to do lead regeneration for estate planning, one of the ways to do it is to get the wills first?
Barry: Right, but I’ll always ask a client, “Do you want me to hold the will, so you don’t have to worry about it?” A lot of clients want to hold it because they just feel like they need to control it somehow and not lose sight of it. In which case, I’ll either put in a safe deposit box, or in a fireproof safe in their home. But I would say, most clients — maybe 70-30, want you to hold it for them. Once they do it, it’s done, and they forget about it until something terrible may happen in the family. What I try and do also is every couple of years when the tax law changes [contact the families]; [for example] Federal Estate Tax exemption has gone up from $600,000 to $5.4 million per person since I think was the end of Bill Clinton’s term or the beginning of George W. Bush’s term.
John: That’s quite a change.
Barry: That’s quite a change, and it does require a lot of different planning because there are ways to take advantage of those exemptions. That’s a whole story for another day. What I’ll do is send out letters to clients periodically every couple of years telling them the importance of coming in at least for a review update to make sure that they’ve taken full advantage of the tax laws.
John: That goes right back into keeping that relationship strong as opposed to just throw that will in a safe deposit box and forget it. You’re going to dust it off and make sure that your clients are aware of the potential changes and keep in touch.
Barry: I’m going to try and dust it off. A lot of clients get the letter, and they read it and then they put it in a desk drawer somewhere they don’t follow up through. There’s nothing I can do about that. I can only make the initial reproach to them.
Business Development System
John: Well, you’ve focused on relationships and then what about a system? Do you have a business development system or process, certain times a day or a week that you set aside to do new business to keep growing your firm?
Barry: No, I don’t do that. At this point it grows itself. What I will do is I will basically make one stage several times a month with professionals who I want to stay in touch with and just to keep the contact. I want to be friends with all of my professional contacts; I just don’t want to be unprofessional. One of the things I always do, I always tell my clients not to call me Mr. Gardiner, to call me Barry. I have very few clients that call me Mr. Gardiner. I want it to be personal, and I usually call clients by first name, and I think it makes a big difference. There’s nothing that somebody likes more than to be called by their first name.
About 30 years ago, I took that Dale Carnegie course and one of the big things they said is that, “Everybody wants to feel important, and the way they feel most important is if you remember their name.”
John: Right, yes.
Barry: This is seen if you haven’t seen in two years where you met once or twice, and you remember their name, you are telling them that, “You are important to me.” I always try and do that.
John: Yes, now that’s great.
Barry: By the way . . ..
John: Yes, go ahead.
Barry: I forgot your first name, what’s your first name?
John: [laughs] Reginald.
Barry: John McDougall.
John: John McDougall. My father owned an advertising agency, and he always taught me, “It’s all about building relationships to grow your agency,” and it’s amazing. What you’re describing is very similar to his process. He would take people out sailing. My uncle who owned the agency with him would take people out golfing, and he wanted to get to know people. But you’re an attorney that’s just getting into the internet more; you’ve had a website for a long time, but you’re just starting to get a little deeper into it. Well, what a testament to building your business with very little help from the internet. You’ve had a website to give you some leads but hasn’t been the focus. But it’s hats off to you for using essentially regular lunch dates, talking on a first name basis with all of your customers and even just doing a few of those a month, you’re able to have enough business. Well, you’re in great shape. That’s pretty amazing. Those old school new business development tactics are just tried and true. Now you’re adding the internet to that [and that] is certainly a good thing. But what about other tips for maybe especially younger attorneys trying to do new business development?
Business Development for Younger Attorneys
Barry: Well, it’s very tough. When I was with my firm in New York, starting as an associate and then becoming a partner, I didn’t really have to develop new business because we had so much work, especially from the public companies that I mentioned before, that there was really no need. There was one rainmaker in the firm, and he developed most of the business with these public companies. The other guys in the firm, really we didn’t have to do it. When I went out on my own, after the firm, and by the way, that firm eventually did dissolve, it splintered, and the guys went in different directions. But when I went out on my own, I had to start from scratch. I did have some clients that I took with me, but fortunately I did have some of these professional relationships also.
I would say that it depends where the young attorney goes. If he does go to a bigger firm, it’s always good to develop personal relationships that can lead to business, because if and when he ever leaves, you don’t want to leave yourself out in the cold completely, you want to have some business to fall back on. If you do go out on your own to start with, you should have some business, maybe family business to get you going and then just start to develop as many professional relationships as you can with people who may be helpful to you in whatever field you’re in.
John: That’s amazing. It’s relationships [that are] number one. Again, I go back to my father teaching me to grow my own agency after working for him in the ‘90s and leaving McDougall Associate Advertising in 1995 and starting my own firm. I had to just hustle and go build it up. It’s all about relationships, as what he would always say, and basically, your foundational strategy is, “Build those relationships.” I love the first name tip, and I’ve read some Dale Carnegie work, [it’s] amazing stuff and that stuck with me as well. Remember people’s first name and there’s something in it about calling a person by their name that’s just a bonding experience.
Barry: You could go to the best law schools in the country, you could go to Harvard, you could go to Yale, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a successful lawyer. If you’re going to work with people, people have to feel comfortable with you. They don’t want some genius who doesn’t know how to relate to them, who they can’t talk to on a one-on-one basis in a very comfortable way. It’s making people feel comfortable in your own presence, and maybe you’ve got to feel comfortable in your own skin and take what you learn in your personal life and bring it into your practice and treat clients like people, not like numbers or dollar signs.
John: Those are great tips, Barry; great new business and business development ideas and tips. How can people get in touch with you?
Barry: I have a website, bgardinerlaw.com. My telephone number is 201-678-1323.
John: That sounds great and great speaking to you today, Barry.
Barry: You too, John, and be well.
John: Yes, likewise. Check out legalmarketingreview.com, as well as National Law Review at natlawreview.comfor more information and interviews on legal marketing. I’m John McDougall and thanks for listening.