It’s easy to look at successful companies and think, “Oh, they had it easy. I can’t do that.”
Success is not about having it hard or easy — it’s about tenacity, determination, and passion. Not every company starts out with a 20-person team, corner office, or immaculate board room. Sometimes, it all starts with a really good idea and a dream to create something meaningful. Michael Sullivan of Michael Sullivan & Associates, a workers’ compensation focused law firm, shares the transition of his humble beginnings in a simple bedroom office to a well recognized and trusted brand across seven locations in California. He’s also the creator of Sullivan on Comp, a comprehensive treatise on California workers’ compensation law.
Whatever your dream may be, know that it is possible to get there, even if it’s one baby step at a time.
What was the tipping point that told you it was time to open your own firm? And what was that experience like?
I was part of a large firm that had started a workers’ compensation department, but it focused only on workers’ compensation fraud. The partners voted not to expand the practice into all aspects of workers’ comp because the firm specialized in civil matters. In other words, I recognized that the firm didn’t have a commitment to my area of law. I wanted to explore workers’ comp as fully as possible, I found the issues it grappled with compelling and important. And I felt a strong sense of adventure. So I went out on my own.
My first office was very fancy — it was my bedroom, with a fax/copier and four files. Like most people who hang out a shingle, I scrambled and took a lot of counsel work. For a few years, my modest skill set came with a low income. It was painful, but I learned the lessons that needed learning, and began to strengthen the business.
You started with one location. Now you have seven all across California. How do you inspire and motivate the people in your firm who don’t see you every day?
Step by step. I opened one office at a time, gradually expanding the firm’s geographical coverage. I’ve grown the firm only as the foundation became strong enough to support it. So as the client base grew, so did our workforce, making the firm more stable.
Along with increasing my knowledge of worker’s comp law and systems, and with incrementally growing the firm physically, I worked on the entrepreneurial things all businesses need — increasing visibility of the firm’s high-quality brand and culture. With the help of the people who brought more and more expertise to the firm, we created systems of training to ensure a base level of legal knowledge and client outreach and services, then made sure people in and affiliated with the industry knew about it. We branded our expertise, and continue to reinforce it, through regular conference presentations, webinars and the consistent updating of “Sullivan on Comp,” our objective, dynamic treatise on worker’s compensation. So the firm is internally cohesive, and has a distinct cultural identity that is apparent to the people we want and need to reach.
Do you have a motto or a guideline you follow to stay motivated and inspired by the work you do?
I don’t have a motto per se, but I believe that if the people you work with are invited and able to realize their potential, they are happy. Me, too. I’m an attorney who loves the practice of workers’ compensation, and I’m a businessman who loves to build things. The thing I build is a law practice.
Workers’ comp law, especially in California, is notoriously complicated and constantly changing. It’s fast-paced and intense, so how do you find a work/life balance?
By relying on other people. Find the best people, coach them for continual growth, and provide opportunity. In short, I hire good people and delegate.
What do you hope will be your legacy?
I hope to leave my area of law better by having practiced it. I hope to leave behind an organization that’s visionary, and not afraid to take chances. And one day, I hope to get the copier out of the bedroom.
ABOUT MICHAEL SULLIVAN & ASSOCIATES LLP & SULLIVAN ON COMP
Michael Sullivan & Associates LLP is a cutting-edge law firm that specializes in high-quality defense of litigated California Workers’ Compensation claims.
Since its inception in 1996, the law firm has grown rapidly due to its superior, distinctive and innovative practice.
The firm publishes the highly respected Sullivan on Comp legal treatise, which is quickly becoming the leading research tool for the entire industry.