Why Don’t I Have a Podcast?

Why Don’t I Have a Podcast?

It seems like everybody has a podcast, including lawyers. So why don’t I have one?

Believe me, I thought about it. I like interviewing people, and a podcast is a natural vehicle for the kind of “content marketing” I already do.

But when I started to think seriously about doing a podcast, I realized there were two good reasons not to start one.

First, doing a podcast takes time, and time is a precious resource. This is true for just about any practicing lawyer, but especially a lawyer with a solo practice.

When I first went out on my own, I thought I would have all the time in the world for business development. But even then, when I was hustling to get enough client work to keep myself busy, I quickly discovered how little time there is when you’re the one doing everything for the firm.

And that’s even more true now, on my second shot at solo practice. This time I have more client work than I can comfortably handle, so time management is critical.

You might even say that learning to “say no” to additional work may be the most important skill for a lawyer to develop. There’s even a podcast you can listen to that covers this point.

Check out this podcast interview with Austin lawyer (and now lawyer recruiter) Karen Vladeck, who also finds time to be married to a famous law meme. Karen talks about “the power of saying no and how you say no in an effective way.” You just don’t have time to say yes to everything.

But that’s not the only reason I said no to doing my own podcast. The second reason is less obvious, but maybe more important: I don’t want to lose focus.

See, I already have this blog you might have heard of. It’s called Five Minute Law. Plus I have a YouTube channel, That Non-Compete Lawyer. Plus I give CLE presentations for other lawyers. Plus I do a lot of other non-billable stuff.

But the blog is at the center of my content marketing, and I figured out that even if I could make the time to do a podcast, it might dilute the strength of my blog.

So the decision was made. No podcast for me, although I did write a little jingle as my podcast theme. So now I have the jingle, but no podcast. Maybe I’ll put it on the YouTube channel sometime.

Then a funny thing happened. My friends Todd Smith and Jody Sanders at the Texas Appellate Law Podcast invited me to be a guest on their podcast.

This was the best of both worlds! I got to be on a podcast, but without investing all the time it takes to host one.

And I think my episode turned out pretty good. We covered some great topics that will interest appellate and non-appellate lawyers alike, including:

  • the importance of finding your niche for business development
  • the impact of recent changes to the Texas ethics rules on lawyer advertising
  • things to watch out for in the jury charge in non-compete and trade secret litigation
  • traps for the unwary in temporary injunctions

Interested? Go check out the February 24, 2022 episode of the Texas Appellate Law podcast.

If you have the time.

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Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

He doesn’t have a TikTok either, but his daughter has two.

The Three Levels of Business Development for Lawyers

The Three Levels of Business Development for Lawyers

Three levels? What is this, Wolfe, you trying to sell some kind of self-help seminar?

No, you’ll see what I mean.

But first, some background, and a disclaimer.

The background is that this is my 200th blog post, so I wanted to write something that would help people. Also, this comes on the six-month anniversary of starting my solo law practice, Zach Wolfe Law Firm, where I focus on non-compete and trade secret law.

So far it’s going well. I say there are two key components to a successful solo law practice: (1) bringing in business, and (2) everything else.

Bringing in business is, of course, the hard part. If you bring in enough business, the “everything else” can be a pain the butt, but you’ll figure it out. If you don’t bring in enough business, well . . .

I know what that’s like, because it happened the first time I tried solo practice.

Trial and Error

I first tried hanging out a shingle eight years ago, and don’t get me a wrong, it wasn’t a total failure. I had enough paying client work to keep the lights on. But about a year into it I could see that I wasn’t consistently bringing in enough business to make it sustainable for the long term.

So what made the difference? Why did I struggle to bring in enough client work the first time, but this time I have more than enough business to keep it going (so far).

Well, I could tell you, or you could listen to my upcoming interview on the Texas Appellate Law Podcast, but I’m not going to, at least not in this post. That’s because I don’t want to play into selection bias, or its cousin, survivorship bias.

Wikipedia says selection bias is “the bias introduced by the selection of individuals, groups, or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby failing to ensure that the sample obtained is representative of the population intended to be analyzed.”

Survivorship bias? That’s an irrational preference for reality shows that aired on CBS in the late 90s.

Sorry.

No, survivorship bias is actually the “logical error of concentrating on the people or things that made it past some selection process and overlooking those that did not, typically because of their lack of visibility.”

Ask any successful lawyer how she built her “book of business,” and you’re likely to hear some selection bias. Let me give you an example.

Well, I started off as an associate working in the business litigation section of Big, Biggs, and Biggie, LLP. I guess I impressed one of the senior partners with a motion I drafted, because he started asking me to work on all his cases. He played golf with the general counsel of Andersen Coopers, a big accounting firm. They sent him all their accounting malpractice cases in the state. I worked on those cases and got to know the legal department there. When that partner started to slow down, I gradually took over the lead role, and today I’m the rainmaker who has the relationship with the accounting firm. Now I’ve got two junior partners and four associates working under me just to handle their litigation.

So there you have it. The way to develop a book of business is to work hard, impress a partner, and then take over that partner’s key client when the partner retires.

That sounds great, but obviously there’s a problem. By selecting that particular lawyer as an example, we haven’t picked a representative sample. What about all the lawyers who tried that approach and failed? Maybe they didn’t get along with the senior partner. Maybe the accounting firm had a merger and the general counsel changed. You see the problem.

You have to take any successful lawyer’s business development advice with a big grain of salt. What worked for them may not work for you.

Still, while my specific experiences may not apply to you, I do have some general lessons that may be helpful.

The Path to Business Development Enlightenment

As I thought about these lessons, I realized that my business development mindset has gone through three stages. Three phases of business development consciousness, if you will. Ommmmmmmmm.

Phase one is the cliché stage. That’s when you’re a novice and you believe the old saws about getting business. “Always be closing” etc.

Phase two is the conventional wisdom stage. That’s where you realize that the clichés are wrong, or at least misguided, and you learn the conventional wisdom that people who are good at business development know.

Phase three is the enlightened stage. You ascend to that plane when you realize that the conventional wisdom, while helpful when you were getting started, can be wrong in some important ways.

Let’s make this more concrete. Come along with me as I journey through the three phases applied to four classic business development dilemmas.

1. Can introverts be good at developing business?

When I started out as a lawyer, I just didn’t see business development in my future. As an introvert, I had a hard time imagining myself as the life of the party, handing out business cards in the skybox at the Cowboys game.

That, of course, is a cliché. Anyone who has studied the topic even a little knows you don’t have to be the life of the party, or even an extrovert at all, to get good at business development. Referrals are most likely to come to you because you develop both expertise in a particular subject matter and genuine relationships with people (more about that later). It’s not so much about schmoozing. 

And that’s a good thing for introverts, because by the time you graduate from law school and pass the bar, you’re pretty much hard wired one way or the other.

Plotting their business development strategy?

Once I realized I did not have to transform myself into an extrovert (as if that were possible), I progressed to phase two. Honestly, it was kind of a relief. Then I could relax and focus on my business development strategy.

The strategy, in short, was to grow both my network and my expertise, and you don’t have to be a self-promoting “Sales Gary” to do that.

But after a while, I realized there was a problem with my introvert-friendly business development strategy. The problem is that growing your network and your expertise isn’t going to result in getting business if your network doesn’t know about your expertise. And usually, they’re not going to know about it unless you tell them.

That’s when I learned the wisdom of phase three: you don’t need to be an extrovert to be good at business development, but you do have to get comfortable with self-promotion. That can be hard. But while I don’t think it’s possible to make yourself an extrovert, it is possible to get more comfortable with promoting yourself.

Ok, but what if you’re an extrovert? How do the phases apply to you?

Let’s look at another business development cliché.

2. Are close personal relationships the key to business development?

I’ve already touched on the cliché people start off believing here. When you’re starting out, you tend to think that “business development” is about superficial relationships with a bunch of people you don’t really care about. You just want their business. It’s like selling on a used car lot.

But then if you spend any time reading about business development, or talking to lawyers who have successfully done it, you realize that superficial relationships don’t cut it.

Take my earlier example. I guarantee you the in-house lawyers at that big accounting firm are constantly bombarded by schmoozers trying to get their business. They see through that. When it comes time to select counsel for an assignment, they are more likely to think of the people they consider their friends.

Once you realize that, you have progressed to phase two.

Now you know your job is to develop close personal friendships with as many decision makers as possible, and then they will send you their legal work.

For a while this was my mentality. I thought I had to spend as much time as possible with as many people as possible. “Always be developing relationships!”

The problem is obvious. You only have so much time and energy. You’re only going to develop genuine friendships with a small number of people. So if your goal is to develop close personal relationships with one or two key clients, that may work for you. But if you have a practice like mine, where you have dozens of clients at a time and you usually don’t get much repeat business, that’s not going to work.

Once I accepted this reality, I reached phase three. So did I go back to the superficial approach?

No. I think the lesson of phase three is the importance of being genuine in your interactions with all kinds of people in your network. You don’t need to have a close personal friendship with someone to make them want to refer clients to you. But you can’t be fake.

I get referrals from all kinds of people. Sometimes personal friends, sometimes professional acquaintances, sometimes total strangers who saw my blog post, or my video, or talked to someone who knows me. I don’t try to pretend that all of those people are my best friends.

I guess the lesson of phase three is that you don’t have to be everybody’s best friend, but you do need to keep it real.

And being genuine means genuinely caring about helping other people, not just helping yourself. Which leads me to question three.

3. Is it more important to give referrals or get referrals?

The cliché here is the “always be closing” mentality mentioned earlier. This mindset focuses on getting leads out of every networking opportunity and then converting the leads into clients. So, for example, if you go to a CLE seminar, the goal is to meet other lawyers there who will send you referrals.

And sure, that probably works for some people. But for most people, that kind of selfish mentality doesn’t pay off.

Spend some time talking to people who are really good at business development, and you will quickly see they have the opposite mentality. They go into any networking opportunity with the mindset of “how can I help the people I meet here.”

This is a sort of “enlightened self-interest.” When you help people, they are more likely to want to help you. So if you want to get referrals, you need to give referrals. It’s not a one-way street.

I remember learning that lesson years ago. I had reached phase two.

And to this day, I look for opportunities to refer clients to other lawyers, especially now that my practice has become more specialized. When I first went solo, I would take just about any kind of client matter, as long as I had the competence to handle it. Now, when I’m already super busy with matters in my specialty, if it’s not right up my alley, I’m more likely to send it to another lawyer.

But I’ve also learned there’s a problem with the “give referrals to get referrals” approach.

Just like you can only be close personal friends with so many people, you’ve only got so many referrals to give. I mean, I look for opportunities to send business to people I know, but they just don’t happen all the time.

It’s all butterflies and rainbows until you have to leave the firm

I’ve also noticed that I often get referrals from people I’ve never sent business to, even repeatedly. Why do these people refer potential clients to me when I’ve never sent them any? They must think I’m some kind of ingrate.

No, I think it comes down to trust. The one thing my diverse referral sources have in common is that they trust I know how to handle the type of matter they are sending me. If you have their trust, they will send you business, even if you never send them any.

When that sinks in, you’ve hit phase three. And now you’re ready for the most treacherous business development question.

4. Is doing good work for existing clients the best kind of business development?

The cliché is that you’ve got to bring in business. That’s what business development is all about. If you want to be a rainmaker, you need to get new clients in the door. That’s phase one.

But it’s not really true. I learned that early in my career, when a senior partner explained to me “we don’t have to get new clients for the firm to be successful, we just need to keep the clients we already have.” Understanding that point is phase two.

That was a big relief, especially for an introvert (see above). I could relax and not worry about traditional “business development” activities. The important thing was good lawyering. Learn your craft. Do good work. Take care of the clients, and they will keep coming back.

That’s the best kind of business development, many successful law firm partners will tell you. And that kind of business development is especially effective when applied to more sophisticated clients that have recurring business. Those clients usually aren’t looking for new lawyers, because they already have them. So the key is for the firm to keep their business, the partners will tell the associates. Just like the partners kept the accounting firm client in my earlier example.

But here’s what they don’t tell you. Those clients are their clients, not your clients.

It’s all butterflies and rainbows if you stay at that firm forever and inherit the client relationships. But how often does that happen, especially these days? When you find yourself looking for a new job because you never see your kids, is it going to do you any good that you put in those all those extra hours doing excellent work so the firm could keep its clients?

And that’s only one problem with the “just keep the clients we have” approach. There are others. Suppose the client gets a new general counsel who moves all their business to the law firm where his best friend works. Suppose you have a practice area like mine where there isn’t a lot of repeat business, so you need to constantly replenish.

So yeah, keeping the clients you have is a great business development approach—when it works. But there are so many things that can go wrong with that approach.

We’re back to selection bias. What worked for that senior partner years ago may not work for you. So sure, do good work for your firm’s clients, but also go out and get your own clients.

That’s phase three.

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Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

Covid Etiquette for Lawyers: The Definitive Guide

Covid Etiquette for Lawyers: The Definitive Guide

Should we do the deposition in person? Or by Zoom?

What about the mediation?

And if we do it in person, do we need to wear masks?

Should the firm go back to making people come to the office?

Should we have our usual monthly CLE dinner, or go virtual?

As I write, these are questions lawyers have been dealing with for almost two years. I expect we will continue dealing with them for a while.

Like everybody, lawyers have had to make decisions about in person versus remote, masked or unmasked, socially distanced or back to normal.

This would be hard enough if the issue had no political ramifications. But of course, it does, and people have opinions. Plus, a person’s opinion on the subject tends to be pretty wound up with that person’s general world view, so the opinion tends to be strong. Tell me who you voted for in the last US presidential election, and I can probably tell you whether you think wearing masks is a reasonable precaution or politically correct “virtue signaling.”

So, deciding what to do about things like meetings, depositions, mediations, hearings, etc. can be tough. You’re not going to make everybody happy. But I have some suggestions, drawn from my practical experience practicing law in Texas during Covid times.

Recently, I had to debate the in person versus remote issue in two common situations for litigators: a deposition and a mediation.

First a little background, especially for non-litigators. Since the pandemic started, remote depositions, mediations, and hearings have become common, even routine. (Zoom appears to be the dominant, though not exclusive, platform.) I’ve done multiple depositions, hearings, and mediations remotely over the last couple years, and they work reasonably well.

On the other hand, I had a Zoom mediation where the mediator got frustrated because he was accustomed to cajoling the parties in person. He basically threw up his hands and said this isn’t going to work.

I remember thinking, it would have been nice to know that before my client wrote you a check for the hefty fee.

But I get it. Of course in person is generally better. There’s no question you miss out on some things when you meet remotely. Everybody who has been on a Zoom conference knows that (“Bob, you’re still on mute!”).

Still, I’ve learned that doing lawyer stuff remotely is usually at least adequate. And it has some advantages. There’s the obvious but significant saving of time and money that results from cutting out the traveling and commuting. After this experience, I don’t know why judges would continue to make out-of-town lawyers show up in person for routine matters like scheduling conferences.

There are also some less obvious benefits to remote proceedings. For example, I’ve grown to prefer Zoom hearings with the judge, at least in some ways. I love the “share screen” function for hearings. It’s a great way to focus the judge’s attention on your supporting documents.

And you don’t necessarily need some fancy PowerPoint presentation: sometimes I’ll just have four or five key exhibits and cases open in Adobe, where I can easily click back and forth between the documents and highlight the parts I want to point out to the judge. (Just make the sure the judge is ok with you sharing your screen; I know at least one judge who said she doesn’t like it.)  

Bottom line: yes, in person is generally better, but remote is usually fine, and has some benefits.

So what should lawyers do while the Covid numbers continue to spike and fall? Let’s get back to my recent experiences.

In one case, I suggested my client, one of several defendants, participate in a mediation remotely, partly for cost and convenience (my client was in another state), and partly because of Covid concerns (Omicron had just hit, and my client had some health risks). Opposing counsel resisted, pointing out there was no evidence of anyone in the US dying from the new variant.

“Your client probably won’t die” was not very reassuring to me. It reminded me of Lord Farquaad in Shrek: “Some of you may die, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”

Anyway, I decided to relent. I did not want to blow up the mediation over the issue. And none of us died, so that’s a plus.

But in another situation, I decided to put my foot down. I agreed on a date for my client’s deposition, and opposing counsel served a deposition notice scheduling the deposition in person. Between that time and the scheduled date for the deposition, I got concerned about doing the deposition in person (for reasons), so I asked if we could do it via Zoom. Opposing counsel said no, citing various generic reasons why an in-person deposition is preferable, like avoiding improper coaching of the witness.

That is fair, I guess. I mean, if you do the deposition via Zoom, the witness might write the answers on her hand, and it would be harder to tell.

In that case, I had to take a harder line. We refused to show up in person, and the usual squabbling ensued (motion to compel, response, motion for protective order, hearing with the judge). You can read my response to the motion to compel here if you like:

In both cases, I suspect that part of the resistance to doing things remotely was that making the experience more burdensome for my client was part of the point. I don’t see that as a legitimate reason for doing something in person. But in fairness, there can be other reasons for favoring in person proceedings that are legitimate.

So what did I learn from these experiences? I come away with three general principles.

First is the Judgment Principle. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer for the in person versus remote question. It’s going to depend on so many factors, including timing and how bad the Covid numbers are at any given time and place. So it’s usually going to be a judgment call.

The second principle kind of follows from the first. Considering it’s usually a judgment call, I say it’s generally better to err on the side of caution. Let’s call it the Caution Principle. Sure, maybe it will turn out that you really didn’t need to be that cautious, but what’s the harm in it, most of the time? Worst case, maybe you miss out on the snacks at the mediator’s office.

Third is the Courtesy Principle, and this is probably the most important one. If someone isn’t comfortable doing something in person, I think generally you should try to accommodate that person, just as a matter of courtesy. This is true regardless of whether you think their concern is valid.

For example, let’s say you’re a member of the U.S. Supreme Court. You don’t think wearing masks is necessary anymore; you might even think it’s kind of silly. But another member who sits next to you has a health condition and would prefer you wear a mask.

Is it even a question what to do in this situation? Duh, you mask up. It’s not a question of who is right or wrong. It’s just common courtesy.

I say lawyers should apply the same principle to remote versus in person. So, if opposing counsel asks to do the deposition remotely and gives you a good reason, just say ok, unless there’s some special reason it will negatively impact your client.

And hang in there. Eventually it won’t be an issue anymore.

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Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. You can send hate mail to his office at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Why I Hope to Lose More This Year

Why I Hope to Lose More This Year

One of my goals for 2022 as a lawyer is to lose more in the courtroom.

Ok, not exactly. I don’t really want to lose. In fact, I hate to lose. And if you’re one of my clients, don’t worry. I certainly don’t want to lose your case. I always go to the courtroom prepared to win.

But there are some benefits to losing. More about that later.

When I think about losing, I instantly hear an old Beatles song. “I’m a loser,” John Lennon sang in 1964. “I’m a loser, and I’m not what I appear to be.”

You’re not likely to find that in a lawyer’s website profile, especially a litigator.

No, most litigator profiles are going to tout the wins. You’ll see a lot of “obtained $5 million jury verdict in trademark infringement lawsuit.” You probably won’t see “$10 million trade secrets judgment entered against my client.”

Why is that?

Well, duh. Because clients want litigators who are winners, not losers.

Ethical Issues

But is it really that simple? For one thing, there’s a potential ethical issue. When a lawyer publicizes a past result obtained, that’s advertising, and there are ethical limits on lawyer advertising.

For example, in Texas, where I practice, Rule 7.01 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct says that a communication concerning a lawyer’s services must not be false or misleading.

The “false” part is pretty simple. If you claim you’ve obtained ten judgments of over a million dollars and you’ve really only obtained five, that’s a problem.

The “misleading” part is harder. A statement can be true, but misleading, if it omits important information causing a reasonable person to get the wrong impression. As Texas Rule 7.01(a) says, a statement is misleading if it “omits a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading.”

Rule 7.01(a) goes on to say that a statement is misleading “if there is a substantial likelihood it will lead a reasonable person to formulate a specific conclusion about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services for which there is no reasonable factual foundation, or if the statement is substantially likely to create unjustified expectations about the results the lawyer can achieve.”

To take an extreme example, suppose a lawyer sues Big Refinery Co. for wrongful death, Big fails to answer because of a paperwork snafu, and the lawyer gets a $1 billion default judgment. If the judge later sets aside the judgment, it would be misleading for the lawyer to put up a billboard that says “Hire the Lawyer who got a billion-dollar judgment against Big Refinery!”

But that’s the kind of thing that happens in personal injury practice, some of you are thinking. The world of business litigation is more genteel.

And yet, just about all business litigators omits their losses from their list of “past results” or “representative matters.” Isn’t that a little misleading? And potentially unethical?

This is fun to think about, but it’s probably not an ethical violation. I think the main reason we allow this is what I’ll call the Leonard Cohen Defense. Everybody knows lawyers do this, so it’s not like potential clients are going to get the misleading impression that “this lawyer never loses!”

Still, while it’s understandable that a lawyer would publicize wins and not mention losses, and probably not an ethical violation, is the information about wins actually useful to potential clients?

I see some reasons why the information is not that helpful.

When is a Win Not a Win?

First, there’s the problem of defining wins and losses in litigation. Suppose a lawyer gets a verdict and judgment for $500,000 in a trademark infringement case and the judgment is paid. Is that a win?

It sure sounds like it, but I’m sure my lawyer readers are saying “it depends.” Let’s say the plaintiff was asking for $3 million in damages, and the $500,000 judgment was entirely paid by insurance. And suppose the defense had offered $1 million to settle. The defense lawyers would consider the result a win for their client, and justifiably so.

Even then, it might be hard to say who won and who lost. Maybe the plaintiff’s lawyer knew the jury wouldn’t award $3 million and was happy with $500,000. Or suppose the lawsuit resulted in the defendant backing off and changing its marketing strategy, which was what the plaintiff really wanted.

The point is that it’s difficult to know if a litigation result was really a win or a loss, without knowing all the surrounding circumstances.

Still, knowing that a lawyer got a half million-dollar judgment is better than not knowing anything, if you’re a prospective client looking for a lawyer to handle the same type of case. At least it tells you that lawyer has some experience in that area and has had some success.

But I wouldn’t put too much stock in it. A second problem is sample size.

Sample Size

First let me acknowledge there are some lawyers who have tried a lot of civil cases to a jury verdict.

But their numbers are dwindling. If we set aside insurance defense and plaintiff’s personal injury, these days most of the remaining litigators just haven’t tried a large enough number of cases to have a useful sample size. (I say “most,” because again, there are some business litigators who have tried a large number of cases, but they are the exception, especially for lawyers under 50.)

I put myself in this category. I’ve handled jury trials and stand ready to do so again, but I’d say over 95% of my cases settle before trial. So if you asked me my trial win-loss rate, that information would not be very useful, because my sample size is small. I’d bet most business litigators are in the same boat.

And there’s another reason, perhaps less obvious, that would make my sample even less useful.

Would you believe that lawyers don’t really get to pick which cases go to trial? And the cases that do go to trial tend to be the weird ones.

Why is that? Well, think about it. The cases that go to trial are, by definition, the ones that don’t settle. Now ask yourself, what does it mean if a case doesn’t settle before trial? As one senior lawyer said to me early in my career, it usually means someone has miscalculated. If the parties are represented by competent counsel, behaving rationally, and evaluating the risks properly, the case should settle.

But those are big “ifs.” In my experience, when a case does go to trial, there’s usually some distorting factor. Often it’s because the case is personal. The last two jury trials I had both fall into this category. Sometimes it’s because at least one side thinks their case is stronger than it really is. Or sometimes both of those things.

And don’t think that “personal” cases are limited to ones where there are individual parties. Even big corporations are run by people, and those people have emotions, especially pride.

The point is that when cases go to trial, often it’s not because of the merits of the case, but because of people miscalculating or acting emotionally. It’s not like the lawyers get to pick their favorite cases to go to trial.

So when you look at the cases any given lawyer has taken to trial, in most cases that sample is probably not very useful.

Ok, a potential client might say, but I’d still like to know a lawyer’s success rate before I fork over a big deposit for my litigation matter. All else being equal, I’d rather my lawyer have a high win-loss percentage than a low one.

I get that. Sort of.

But I see some problems with a high success rate that may not be obvious.

Afraid to Lose?

One is that as a lawyer you often learn more from the losses than the wins. I found this out the hard way early in my career when I was assigned a fairly routine collections case in small claims court. The opposing counsel showed up with a document my client hadn’t provided me, and we lost the case. I was pretty down about it, but the more senior lawyer who assigned me the case said “well, if you had won you wouldn’t have learned anything.”

Yes, as a lawyer sometimes you learn more from the losses than from the wins.

Ok, but what good does that do the client? That’s a good question, but I think the client can also benefit from a lawyer who has some losses.

Here’s the thing. A lawyer who has very few losses in the courtroom may be too risk averse, i.e. too afraid to lose.

And a lawyer who is too afraid to lose may give up too much in settlement negotiations. That is one kind of “loss” that you will never see on a lawyer profile: settling on terms that were too unfavorable for the client.

Yet that is, in fact, a loss. Sure, the client may have agreed to it, but it’s no less a loss than a client who wins a $500,000 judgment but could have gotten $1 million in settlement. It’s why that same mentor liked to say “I’d rather lose at trial than lose in settlement.”

This gets at what I meant when I said I hope to lose more this year. It’s not so much that I want to lose more, it’s that I want to be less afraid to lose. That, I hope, will benefit my clients.

And who knows, maybe I will start posting my losses on my firm’s website.

____________

Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Fuzzy Language: The Specificity Requirement in Departing Employee Injunctions

Fuzzy Language: The Specificity Requirement in Departing Employee Injunctions

Injunctions are common in trademark litigation. Suppose a global social media behemoth decides to use the name META. Suppose it doesn’t first do a trademark search to see who is already using META and for what kinds of products and services. Suppose it turns out there’s a small company already using META for arguably related products and services.

I know, it’s a crazy hypothetical, but stay with me.

The small company, the “senior” user, might get an injunction prohibiting the big company, the “junior” user, from using META as a trademark. That’s pretty obvious.

But what if the judge also orders the big company not to use “any trademark confusingly similar to META” or “any trademark that infringes on plaintiff’s META mark”?

There’s an obvious problem. Let’s say the big company decides to use BETA instead. Is that confusingly similar? Does it infringe? There’s no way to know for sure until a court rules on the issue.

Not only that, but “confusingly similar” is precisely the issue in dispute in a trademark lawsuit (typically).

So not only does the “confusingly similar” injunction require the defendant to guess whether a judge will find its new trademark is confusingly similar or not, that question will usually be a matter in dispute between the two parties.

For these very reasons, it is a general rule of trademark law that an injunction must specifically identify the trademark the defendant is not allowed to use, rather than relying on general language like “any mark confusingly similar to plaintiff’s mark.”

As trademark guru McCarthy explains in his treatise:

An injunction which merely forbids a defendant from performing “acts of unfair competition,” or from “infringing upon plaintiff’s trademarks and trade secrets” adds nothing to what the law already requires. If an injunction is so worded, then the factual elements of what exactly is “unfair competition” or “trademark infringement” must be re-hashed all over again in a contempt hearing.

5 McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition § 30:13 (4th ed.).

In short, an injunction that effectively just tells the defendant not to violate the law is not sufficiently specific.

The Specificity Requirement

The same kind of specificity problem often comes up in lawsuits involving non-competes, trade secrets, and other “departing employee” issues.

There are two big recurring issues:

1. Does an injunction that restricts the use or disclosure of confidential information need to specifically identify the restricted confidential information?

2. Does an injunction that restricts contact with customers need to specifically name the restricted customers?

The issue is essentially the same in any state, but I’ll look at Texas law as an example, because that’s where I practice.

First some general principles:

  • An injunction must be “specific in terms” and “describe in reasonable detail and not by reference to the complaint or any other document, the act or acts sought to be restrained.” Tex. R. Civ. P. 683.
  • An injunction “must be as definite, clear and precise as possible and when practicable it should inform the defendant of the acts he is restrained from doing, without calling on him for inferences or conclusions about which persons might well differ and without leaving anything for further hearing.” Villalobos v. Holguin, 208 S.W.2d 871, 875 (Tex. 1948); accord Hellenic Inv., Inc. v. Kroger Co., 766 S.W.2d 861, 866 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1989, no writ).
  • Lack of specificity in the injunction cannot be cured by pointing to the defendant’s alleged knowledge outside the four corners of the injunction. Computek Computer & Office Supplies, Inc. v. Walton, 156 S.W.3d 217, 222-23 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2005, no pet.).
  • An injunction does not have to “specifically enumerate every possible act that might constitute and unauthorized practice.” Lasser v. Amistco Separation Products, Inc., No. 01-13-00690-CV, at *3 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Feb. 6, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.). It should be broad enough to “prevent repetition of the evil sought to be stopped,” even if the conduct takes a “somewhat different form calculated to circumvent the injunction as written.” Id. (citing San Antonio Bar Ass’n v. Guardian Abstract & Title Co., 291 S.W.2d 697, 702 (Tex. 1956)).
  • But the injunction does need to “spell out the details of compliance in clear, specific and unambiguous terms so that [the defendant] will readily know exactly what duties or obligation are imposed upon him.” Drew v. Unauthorized Practice of Law Comm., 970 S.W.2d 152, 156 (Tex. App.—Austin 1998, pet. denied).

With these general principles in mind, let’s consider an injunction that orders an employee not to use or disclose the “confidential” or “proprietary” or “trade secrets” information of her former employer.

The Specificity Requirement Applied to Restricted Customers and Restricted Information

You can immediately see the problem. If the injunction does not specifically identify what the confidential information is, it may be difficult for the employee and her lawyer to figure out what information is covered.

A potential solution is to insert a definition of confidential information that tracks the definition in the employee’s employment agreement. But usually that won’t help much. Those definitions tend to be both overbroad and vague, i.e. they use broad terms and define virtually everything as confidential.

The problem is compounded by the fact that there is usually a dispute about what information is or is not confidential, or a trade secret.

For example, let’s say the former employer claims that its customer lists are trade secrets. The former employee has a list of her own customers (either an actual written list, or a list in her mind—in theory it doesn’t really matter which). The employee contends the list is not a trade secret because the names of the customers are readily available to competitors. The former employer disagrees.

This is not theoretical. I make these kind of arguments—on both sides—all the time in my practice.

In this situation, an injunction that does not define the confidential information or trade secrets specifically puts the employee in an untenable position: can she use her knowledge of her customer list or not?

Of course, she could just use it, and if the opposing party complains that she violated the injunction, she just says “no, there’s no violation because the injunction says trade secrets and that list is not a trade secret.” But what if the judge disagrees?

Would you believe the judge has the power to hold the employee in contempt of court?

You see the problem.

But let’s consider the issue from the former employer’s perspective as well. There are several good reasons for not trying to specifically define the confidential information or trade secrets.

First, the employer would argue, as a practical matter the parties to the lawsuit usually know what the disputed confidential information is. When the employee complains that she can’t tell from the injunction what the confidential information is, the former employer sometimes has a decent argument that the employee is just playing coy or feigning ignorance.

You don’t know what the confidential information is, the employer might say, how about we start with the hundred-page customer list you downloaded and emailed yourself on your last day of work?

Second, it’s difficult to draft a specific definition that will capture all of the employer’s confidential information, especially early in a lawsuit when the employer is still in the dark about what the employee has.

Third, there’s a practical problem with listing specific trade secrets in a court order. You’re spilling the secrets to the world! (But this is easily solved by referring to a list in a sealed exhibit.)

These are potentially valid points, depending on the facts, but overall I think the employee usually has the better argument. When an injunction prohibits the use of unspecified confidential information, it leaves the defendant to guess about one of the very issues on which the parties usually disagree.

Another common feature of a temporary injunction in a departing employee lawsuit is prohibiting the employee from soliciting or doing business with a certain category of customers. The category might be “customers of Employer,” or “customers of Employer the Employee serviced,” or “customers of Employer the Employee sold to in her last year of employment.”

This kind of injunction raises the same kind of specificity issues and arguments we’ve already covered as to confidential information.

Texas Case Law

So what does the Texas case law say about these issues? Does a temporary injunction need to define the restricted confidential information specifically? Does it have to identify the restricted customers specifically?

I’d say the “weight of authority” is on the specificity side, but admittedly, it’s a mixed bag.

There are Texas cases holding that an injunction that did not specifically identify the confidential information or trade secrets was not sufficiently specific.[1]

On the other hand, there are some Texas cases holding that an injunction that did not specifically identify the confidential information or trade secrets was still sufficiently specific.[2]  

We find the same kind of split over naming the customers.

There are Texas cases holding held that an injunction that did not specifically identify the customers was not sufficiently specific.[3]  

But some Texas cases have held that an injunction that did not specifically identify the customers was still sufficiently specific.[4]

As Yogi Berra said, it’s like déjà vu all over again.

So what gives? Is the difference in these cases due to differences in the facts, or differences in philosophy?

Probably some of both. Either way, if you represent the party asking for an injunction in a departing employee lawsuit, it’s probably better to draft a proposed injunction that specifically describes the restricted confidential information and names the restricted customers. Otherwise, you’re just giving the other party an issue to appeal.


Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] See, e.g., Retail Services WIS Corp. v. Crossmark, Inc., No. 05-20-00937-CV, 2021 WL 1747033, at *12 (Tex. App.—Dallas May 4, 2021, pet. denied) (mem. op.); Cooper Valves, LLC v. ValvTechnologies, Inc., No. 14-16-00879-CV, 2017 WL 3090159, at *9 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] July 20, 2017, no pet.); Lasser v. Amistco Separation Products, Inc., No. 01-13-00690-CV, at *4-5 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Feb. 6, 2014, no pet.) (mem. op.); Ramirez v. Ignite Holdings, Ltd., No. 05-12-01024-CV, 2013 WL 4568365, at *2 (Tex. App.—Dallas Aug. 26, 2013) (mem. op.).

[2] See, e.g.,  IAC, Ltd. v. Bell Helicopter Textron, Inc., 160 S.W.3d 191, 201-2 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2005, no pet.); HMS Holdings Corp. v. Public Consulting Group, Inc., No. 05-15-00925-CV, 2016 WL 1179436, at *3-4 (Tex. App.—Dallas March 28, 2016, no pet.) (mem. op.).

[3] See, e.g., Arterberry v. Willowtax, LLC, No. 05-21-00238-CV, 2022 WL 472796, at *5 (Tex. App.—Dallas Feb. 16, 2022) (mem. op.); Retail Services WIS Corp. v. Crossmark, Inc., No. 05-20-00937-CV, 2021 WL 1747033, at *13 (Tex. App.—Dallas May 4, 2021, pet. denied) (mem. op.); Super Starr Int’l, LLC v. Fresh Tex Produce, LLC, 531 S.W.3d 829, 849-50 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2017, no pet.); Computek Computer & Office Supplies, Inc. v. Walton, 156 S.W.3d 217, 222-23 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2005, no pet.).

[4] See, e.g., Thomas v. A*Med Management, Inc., No. 01-19-00564-CV, 2020 WL 5269412, at *6-7 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Sept. 3, 2020, no pet.) (mem. op.); Lockhart v. McCurley, No. 10-09-00240-CV, 2010 WL 966029, at *4-5 (Tex. App.—Waco March 10, 2010, no pet.) (mem. op.); Cottingham v. Engler, 178 S.W.2d 148, 151 (Tex. Civ. App.—Dallas 1944, no writ). See also Rugen v. Interactive Business Systems, Inc., 864 S.W.2d 548, 552-53 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1993, no writ) (injunction that referred to customers identified on two sealed exhibits was sufficiently specific).

Trial Lawyer Lessons From Parachuting In

Trial Lawyer Lessons From Parachuting In

Lessons learned from getting hired in the middle of a lawsuit

It’s becoming a thing for clients to hire me after a lawsuit has already started. This can happen in different ways.

Sometimes a potential conflict of interest will develop that requires separate representation (this is common in departing employee lawsuits where the employee and her second employer are both defendants).

Another recurring scenario is when the previous lawyer withdraws for financial reasons and the client later has the funds to resume the lawsuit.

And more recently, people will bring me in as a second lawyer because of my subject-matter expertise (mostly non-compete and trade secret law).

I like to think this happens because when s**t gets real people realize it’s time to bring in the big guns, but maybe it just means people don’t take me seriously when the lawsuit started.

Either way, I’m happy to dive into the dumpster, even after it’s on fire. Like Beau Bridges said in The Fabulous Baker Boys, if the money’s green . . .

Not that I’m in it for the money. No, for me it’s the food. There’s nothing like that fourth Panera Bread sandwich in a row for lunch at the courthouse during trial.

But there’s a hidden benefit to jumping on the lawsuit horse midstream. You learn lessons about litigation that you can use in any case, even the ones you work on from the beginning. And if you’re a generous blogger, you might even share those lessons for free.

Lesson 1: Playas gonna play, haters gonna hate

There’s nothing easier for a litigator than to criticize the lawyers who handled a lawsuit before you got involved. You can always find something they didn’t do right or, more often, just didn’t do at all.

But I’ve learned not to waste time and energy questioning why the toast got burned.

See, when you start out as a lawyer, you have this vision of methodically checking off each box on the lawsuit checklist. But as you gain more experience, you realize that in many cases that vision just doesn’t fit reality.

Sometimes a client just wants to file a lawsuit and then sit on it. Sometimes a client doesn’t have the money to pay for a robust defense.

In short, sometimes procrastinating is what the client wants or needs. So it’s ok if you don’t follow the owner’s manual and check the tire pressure every time you start the car, as long as (a) the client understands the risks and (b) you put off tasks as part of a deliberate strategy, not because of laziness or neglect.

Lesson 2: Damages, Damages, Damages

In real estate they say the three most important things are location, location, and location. In litigation you might say the same thing, except it’s damages, damages, and damages.

This is a little bit of an overstatement. There’s no damages without liability. And of course, you can’t recover damages without a deep pocket.

But when you come into a lawsuit fresh, you notice that lawyers who handle a case from the beginning tend to devote disproportionate attention to liability over damages.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, you need factual allegations that establish liability just to get in the courthouse door.

That’s not as true of damages. In the initial pleading the plaintiff usually just claims an unspecified amount of damages, in part because the amount is often unknown at that point. Typically you calculate the damages later.

But second-in-time shouldn’t mean second-in-importance. Whether you represent the plaintiff or the defendant, don’t sleep on the damages.

And on that note . . .

Lesson 3: Don’t skimp on witness preparation

If a lawsuit is an iceberg, then the pretrial discovery is the part under the water, and the trial is the tip that peeks over the surface.

Discovery takes up most of the time, money, and attention in a lawsuit. And there’s a good reason for this. If you don’t get the documents and testimony you need during discovery, you may never get to trial, or when you get there you may be missing the evidence you need.

Still, when you get some experience coming into a lawsuit shortly before trial, you realize how easy it is to get lost in the discovery and to neglect preparing your witnesses to testify at trial.

Here’s the thing. The jury is not going to care how great a job you did on that third motion to compel, or that zinger you sprung on the expert witness in the fourth hour of his deposition. They are going to decide the case primarily based on the testimony of the key witnesses in the courtroom.

Yet it’s not unusual for lawyers—even highly experienced litigators—to treat witness preparation as almost an afterthought.

That’s a shame. Ideally, you should start practicing the direct examinations of your most important witnesses at least 30 days before the trial.

I get it, that’s not always practical. See Lesson 1 above. But when you get some experience coming into lawsuits shortly before trial, you learn how important it is to start working with your witnesses at the earliest feasible opportunity.

Lesson 4: Don’t eat your own dog food

I had an engineer client from the tech world who told me in his business they would sometimes ask themselves “are we eating our own dog food,” which was their way of saying “are we drinking the Kool-Aid?”

In other words, be careful about missing obvious flaws in your case because of groupthink.

There’s nothing more natural for a litigator than to see things your client’s way (with the possible exception of criticizing other lawyers, supra). You get the facts of the case first from your own client. Your job is to advocate for your client. You get paid by your client (hopefully).

So when you come into a lawsuit fresh, it’s not surprising if the previous lawyers for your client have an overly optimistic view of the client’s case.

And the bias is almost always in that direction. It is the rare case where you say to the client, “your previous counsel really didn’t appreciate how strong your case is.”

No, in most cases where you come into a lawsuit as an outsider, your reaction is going to be “you’ve got some decent points, but you should really try to settle this case.” And that can be good for your client.

Lesson 5: Focus on the big picture

A diligent lawyer who handles a lawsuit from the beginning will really get down in the weeds. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Generally, you want a lawyer who is going to “sweat the details.” Those details can make all the difference.

But there’s a downside to the detail-oriented lawyer who works up the lawsuit from the start: missing the forest for the trees.

You gain an appreciation for this after you’ve taken a few cases to trial. In most cases, the jury is going to focus on the big picture. All those little details that are so important to the lawyers who have lived the case for two years or more? Not so much.

Same for all the little peeves about what opposing counsel did before the trial. Save the airing of grievances for Festivus. The judge and the jury don’t care.

This is where a new lawyer coming into a case cold has a certain advantage. If I get hired a month before trial, I just don’t have time to study the appendix on the ecology of Arrakis.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m going to look at the pleadings, discovery responses, and depositions as much as feasible, but mainly I’m focusing on the big issues. So I’m looking at the case more like the jury is going to look at it.

And that can be an advantage. By focusing on the big picture, I can help the client and the existing counsel boil down the case to the key points that will impact the jury. That can be a real benefit to bringing in new or additional counsel.

Can I predict the little details the jury will latch onto that no one saw coming?

Nope. I’m a trial lawyer, not a magician.

____________

Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Employee Hardship in Texas Non-Compete Litigation

Employee Hardship in Texas Non-Compete Litigation

You get the same sob story in most non-compete lawsuits. “Your Honor, if you enter an injunction enforcing this non-compete, my client won’t be able to make a living and support his family.”

You might think this sort of argument is inappropriate. The judge should decide whether to enter an injunction based on the law, not sympathy. If an employee agrees to a non-compete and gets compensated for it, she doesn’t get to avoid it just because she later decides it’s inconvenient. The “hardship” argument should be out of bounds, you might think.

But you would be wrong. An injunction is an “equitable” remedy, so it’s not just a question of “the law,” but a question of equity, or fairness.

The Balance of Equities Rule

This is the rule in Texas state court: “Because an injunction is an equitable remedy, a trial court weighs the respective conveniences and hardships of the parties and balances the equities.” Computek Computer & Office Supplies, Inc. v. Walton, 156 S.W.3d 217, 220 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2005, no pet.). See also NMTC Corp. v. Conarroe, 99 S.W.3d 865, 868 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2003, no pet.) (“An application for injunction is a request that a court exercise its equitable jurisdiction, and in exercising that power the court balances competing equities”); Surko Enterprises, Inc. v. Borg-Warner Acceptance Corp., 782 S.W.2d 223, 225 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1989, no writ) (“In determining whether to order a temporary injunction, the trial court balances the equities of the parties and the resulting conveniences and hardships”).

It’s a common-law rule, meaning a rule made by courts. Texas state courts balance the equities even though Rule 683 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure doesn’t say anything about that. See Reliant Hosp. Partners, LLC v. Cornerstone Healthcare Group Holdings, Inc., 374 S.W.3d 488, 503 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2012, pet. denied).

And for my Advanced readers, the Texas non-compete statute, which does not speak to the requirements for a temporary injunction, does not preempt this common-law rule. NMTC Corp. v. Conarroe, 99 S.W.3d 865, 868 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2003, no pet.).

The rule is effectively the same in federal courts: to obtain a preliminary injunction, the plaintiff must show that “the threatened injury outweighs any damage that the injunction might cause the Defendant.” Yellowstone Landscape v. Fuentes, No. 4:20-1778, 2020 WL 4547150, at *3 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 8, 2020) (citing Nichols v. Alcatel USA, Inc., 532 F.3d 364, 372 (5th Cir. 2008)). That’s just another way of saying weigh the balance of equities or hardships.

Implicit in this rule is the idea that the court might deny an injunction based on the hardship on the employee, even if the employer would otherwise be entitled to an injunction.

Think about it. If the employer isn’t entitled to an injunction anyway, there’s no point in arguing about the balance of equities. Hardship on the employee only becomes a real issue if the employer satisfies the other elements required to get an injunction. Thus, the command to “balance the equities” raises the prospect that the hardship on the employee could be the decisive factor weighing against an injunction.

Does that actually happen in practice?

The short answer is no. In most cases the hardship factor is just an afterthought used to justify whatever decision the court has already made about the injunction. If the court wants to grant an injunction, it will say that the balance of equities weighs in favor of enforcing the non-compete. If the court doesn’t want to grant an injunction, it will cite the hardship on the employee as an additional factor against enforcement.

But we mustn’t be too cynical about the hardship issue. In close cases the hardship on the employee may be enough to tip the scales of justice towards denying the injunction. That means the lawyer for the employee who is seeking to avoid the injunction needs to offer evidence of the hardship, and the lawyer representing the employer trying to obtain an injunction needs to be prepared to counter such evidence. More about that later.

First let’s look at some examples of non-compete cases that “balance the equities” to see if they bear out my short answer.

Why It’s Hard to Appeal an Injunction Ruling

In NMTC Corp. v. Conarroe, 99 S.W.3d 865, 869 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2003, no pet.), the trial court denied a non-compete injunction, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, citing the hardship on the employee as “the determining factor” supporting the trial court’s ruling.

In O’Brien v. Rattikin Title Co., No. 2-05-238-CV, 2006 WL 417237, at *5-6 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth Feb. 23, 2006, no pet.), the trial court granted a non-compete injunction, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, rejecting the argument that the hardship on the employee outweighed the employer’s business interests.

Notice a pattern?

Yes, of course. The appellate courts almost always uphold the trial court’s decision on an injunction, whether the decision is to grant or to deny.

I say “almost” because, of course, there are exceptions. There are some cases where the appellate court reverses the trial court’s decision on an injunction. But those cases are few and far between.

Why is that? Why doesn’t the hardship factor result in more reversals on appeal?

I think it’s a combination of three things.

First, it’s the standard of review. The court of appeals will only reverse if the trial court’s decision on the injunction was an “abuse of discretion.” That means even if the appellate court might have decided the injunction a different way, that’s not enough to reverse. The party challenging the ruling on appeal has to show the trial court didn’t just get it wrong, but really wrong. See, e.g., Univ. Health Servs., Inc. v. Thompson, 24 S.W.3d 570, 578-79 (Tex. App.—Austin 2000, no pet.) (emphasizing standard of review in affirming trial court’s balancing of equities).

Second, the balance of equities is just one factor. If the other requirements for an injunction—like whether the violation of the non-compete will cause irreparable injury to the employer—weigh heavily to one side, it is unlikely the hardship factor will be so strong that it shifts the scales in the other direction.

Third, the balance of equities is a one of those notorious “balancing” tests. The problem with a balancing test is that you can almost always come up with a reasonable argument going one way or the other. There are even memes about this.

So the bottom line is that you shouldn’t put too much stock in the balance of equities issue. Hardship on the employee is not likely to save the employee if the case for an injunction is otherwise strong, and vice versa.

And yet.

There’s always the chance that the hardship factor makes the difference. So you’ve got to be prepared for it.

And while most judicial opinions give short shrift to the balance of equities, there are some that dig a little deeper. Let’s look at some examples.

Cases Applying the Balance of Equities Rule

A good case to cite if you represent the employee, at least in Texas where I practice, is Yellowstone Landscape v. Fuentes, No. 4:20-1778, 2020 WL 4547150 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 8, 2020).

The employee in Yellowstone Landscape, Mr. Fuentes, was an account manager for commercial landscaping accounts, like Yellowstone’s contract with the Harris County Flood Control District for mowing and maintenance of flood control channels in Houston. Mr. Fuentes interacted with the customer to make sure the work was being done properly, but he was not involved in preparing or submitting bids. Id. at *1.

There were some “bad facts” for the employee. Mr. Fuentes resigned, falsely told his employer he was starting his own tree trimming business, and then violated his non-compete by going to work for a competitor, who had recently underbid Yellowstone on a project. Id. at *1-2.

But the balance of equities favored Mr. Fuentes. Yellowstone was the fifth-largest landscaping firm in the nation, with over $200 million in annual revenue. Mr. Fuentes made $75,000 and supported a family of five. An injunction would have caused him to lose his job in the middle of a pandemic. He paid for one child’s college tuition, and his wife needed surgery for a herniated disc. His lawyer was working pro bono. Id. at *8.

With those facts, I don’t even have to tell you what the court’s ruling was.

But of course, most cases don’t have hardship facts as sympathetic or well developed as in Yellow Landscape.  

For example, in Accruent, LLC v. Short, No. 1:17-CV-858-RP, 2018 WL 297614 (W.D. Tex. Jan. 4, 2018), the federal district court held that the balance of equities favored an injunction where the employee did not offer “evidence of how much less he might earn in a different industry” or explain “what diminished earning would mean for his family.” Id. at *9. The court noted that under the agreement as reformed, the employee could still work in the same industry, just not in a role substantially similar to his role with the former employer. Id.

And courts tend to be less sympathetic about hardship to the employee where the employee took the employer’s confidential information. See, e.g., ProofPoint, Inc. v. Boone, No. A-21-CV-667-LY, 2021 WL 5194724, at *6 (W.D. Tex. Sept. 21, 2021) (balance of equities favored employer where employee intentionally downloaded, retained, and disseminated files containing the employer’s confidential proprietary company information while he began working for a competitor).

A state court case that applies reasoning similar to Accruent is York v. Hair Club for Men, LLC, No. 01-09-00024-CV, 2009 WL 1840813 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] June 24, 2009, no pet.) (mem. op.). In that case, the plaintiff’s key witness was not only the Hair Club’s president, he was also a client.

Sorry, I just had to get that in.

But seriously, in the Hair Club case there was evidence that the employees, who were licensed cosmetologists, had longstanding relationships with clients, and that 41 former Hair Club customers had followed the employees to a competitor. Id. at *6. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the balance of equities did not weight against the trial court’s injunction, where the injunction did not prevent the employees from working in the hair replacement industry generally and seeking new customers, but only enjoined them from soliciting Hair Club customers. Id.

There’s a key point we can derive from both Accruent and Hair Club: the hardship on the employee will be less of a factor when the injunction is narrowly tailored to protecting the employer’s goodwill with customers.

So, for example, an injunction that entirely bars an employee from working for a competitor is likely to impose too great a hardship. On the other hand, an injunction that only bars the employee from doing business with specific customers of the employer creates less of a hardship.

That means if the trial court does its job right, the burden on the employee should rarely be a decisive factor. A properly tailored injunction should already balance the employer’s interest in protecting its confidential information or goodwill against the employee’s right to use his general knowledge, skill, and experience in the industry.

So there’s our answer. If the court properly limits the scope of the injunction to preventing the employee from taking her customers with her, then the hardship on the employee becomes a non-issue. Right?

I wouldn’t go that far. To understand why, let’s take a little trip to Beaumont.

Why the Balance of Equities Inherently Favors the Employee

If you practice litigation in Texas, you know Beaumont is a fun venue. Maybe not quite as exciting as Hidalgo County, but it’s close.

And if you know anything about East Texas, you know the competition for sales of MATCO® hand tools is fierce in Hardin County. So when tool salesman Jule Conarroe left Matco Tools and went to work for competitor Cornwell Tools, you just knew, “this means war.”

And sure enough, Matco Tools filed suit to get an injunction. Conarroe admitted some of the customers he was selling Cornwell products to had also been customers in his territory at Matco, id. at 866, but the trial court judge found the equities weighed heavily in favor of denying the injunction. NMTC Corp. v. Conarroe, 99 S.W.3d 865, 869 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2003, no pet.)

Specifically, the judge found that “if a temporary injunction issues, Mr. Conarroe will be put out of business.” The alternative was more equitable. “If a temporary injunction does not issue, Matco may lose some sales within the territory, but the ability to mitigate those losses is within Matco’s control and is subject to recoupment.” Id.

That’s some small-town Texas wisdom right there. And the Court of Appeals agreed. “In balancing the equites,” the court explained, “a trial court may consider whether the degree of injury to the applicant would be slight or significant if the temporary injunction were erroneously denied.” Id.

This really gets to the heart of the balance of hardship analysis for a temporary injunction in a non-compete case. The problem is that a ruling on a temporary injunction is not a final ruling on the merits, and the risk of getting it wrong is not evenly balanced.

Here’s what I mean, and what I think the Beaumont Court of Appeals was getting at. Suppose the trial court gets it wrong and denies an injunction enforcing the non-compete. That does impose a certain hardship on the employer, because it is probably going to lose some business that it should not have lost. But that’s a hardship that can be compensated, because the employer can seek damages for business it loses as a result of the employee breaching the non-compete (assuming the non-compete is enforceable).

The risk of getting it wrong and granting a temporary injunction is much greater. In that case, the employee has no remedy for the loss of income resulting from an erroneous temporary injunction enforcing the non-compete. I explained this problem in The Problem With Non-Competes.

No, the hardship argument should not be an automatic Get Out of Jail Free card that exempts an employee from a reasonably limited non-compete. But courts should take the employee hardship issue seriously. It shouldn’t be just an afterthought.

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Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Mistakes to Avoid in Jury Selection

Mistakes to Avoid in Jury Selection

Last week I had my first post-Covid jury trial. This included getting to do one of the funnest things a litigator does: jury selection, also known as voir dire.

It’s funny. In real life I really don’t care much about other people’s opinions on controversial issues. This may sound harsh, but the cold reality is that most people’s opinions are ill-informed and based on bias and prejudice.

On the other hand, I love standing in front of a panel of potential jurors and talking with them about their attitudes about controversial issues. And sometimes they surprise me with how savvy and educated they are.

The case I tried last week is still pending, so I’m not going to comment on any case-specific issues, but it did get me thinking about some common mistakes that lawyers make in jury selection, which I will now share, because that’s what we do at Five Minute Law.

1. Focusing too much on the people you want

When lawyers start planning for jury selection, it’s natural to start by thinking about the kind of people they want on the jury. That’s fine, but it’s more useful to think about the people you don’t want. There are a couple reasons for this.

First, the way jury selection works. The lawyers don’t get to pick the panel members they want on the jury. We only get to decide on the people we don’t want.

We can try to get rid of these people either through a challenge for cause (e.g. a person who knows one of the parties or says he could never award punitive damages), or a peremptory strike (which can be used for almost any reason). There is no procedure for keeping the people you want.

That brings up the second, related point: the opposing lawyers are likely to strike anybody who is really good for you. This is obvious, but still a point some lawyers with less trial experience may not fully appreciate.

Here’s the thing. If you spend your time bringing out the views of a potential juror who has views favorable to your case, you may just be helping your adversary identify someone they need to strike.

I’ll give you an example. Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I once represented a homeowners association in a jury trial in Texas. There was a guy on the panel we called “the Colonel.” He was great for us: older white man, retired military, had even served on his own HOA board.

Guess what? The lawyer for the guy we were suing struck him. Like I said, don’t focus too much on who you want. Your main job is to figure out who is going to be bad for your case and to get rid of those people.

2. Focusing too much on argument

Voir dire is hard because you’re not allowed to argue the facts of the case, which goes against all your instincts as a trial lawyer. Judges vary on how much they will let you talk about the facts, but very few, if any, are going to let you treat jury selection like a preview of your closing argument. If you take that approach, you will probably get shut down.

But that’s ok. Your main assignment in jury selection is to get the best jury you can for your case. You’ll get to argue later.

On the other hand . . . it’s never too early to start laying the groundwork for the themes you plan to develop in the trial. If you focus exclusively on identifying the jurors you don’t want, you will miss an opportunity to frame the issues in the case. And in many cases, the way you frame the issue is everything.

That means the best trial lawyers will use voir dire to accomplish both tasks. This is hard to do, but it can be done.

Here’s an example from a case I tried to a jury involving non-compete and trade secrets claims, the focus of my practice. I asked the jury if they agreed with the following statement: “if you sign a non-compete agreement, you should follow it even if the law says you don’t have to.”

My goal with this question was twofold. First, I was representing the defendants, so I wanted to identify the people who felt strongly that you should comply with anything you sign, even if it’s legally unenforceable. Second, I wanted to introduce the idea that my clients may have had a good reason for breaching their non-competes.

As you might expect, there were a lot of people who strongly agreed that you should follow an agreement you signed, regardless. “Your word is your bond” and all that.  

Once I identified those people, I turned to the people who disagreed. One was a lawyer. (You can usually expect to get at least one or two lawyers on a panel, depending on the venue). The other was a history professor.

I asked them why they disagreed. This turned them into advocates for one of my key themes: there are some kinds of agreements that people shouldn’t have to follow because they are legally unenforceable. As they explained why, you could just feel the energy in the room change as people started to change their minds just a little.

In the process, I introduced what I’ll call a meta-theme: the more general idea that there are always two sides to a story or argument. Coming from the defense side, I wanted to get the people on the panel thinking about how you shouldn’t jump to a conclusion without hearing the whole story.

3. Wasting time on “can you be fair?”

Still, you are always going to get some people who just won’t budge on their preconceived notions. What do you say to those people?

Here’s a typical exchange:

“Mr. Green, you said you would hold it against someone who broke an agreement they signed, is that right?”

“Yes, sir, I feel strongly about that.”

“If the evidence shows that my clients broke an agreement, do you think you can still be fair?”

“Well, I won’t like it, but I can still be fair.”

“Can you listen to the evidence and not make up your mind until you’ve heard all the evidence.”

“Yes.”

What did the lawyer accomplish here? Not much. The problem is that when you ask someone “can you be fair?” the answer will almost always be yes (unless they are just blatantly trying to get struck from the jury). It’s almost like asking someone “do you have racist attitudes that will prejudice you against my client?” What do you think they’re going to say?

So don’t waste too much time on “can you be fair.” Instead, ask the people why they feel that way, and get them talking (more about that later).

Still, the “can you be fair” kind of questioning is appropriate for another purpose: rehabilitation. For example, let’s say the plaintiff’s lawyer asks “does anybody have a problem with punitive damages” and Juror 23 says “I don’t like the idea of punitive damages, it really bothers me.”

In that case, if you’re on the defense side and you don’t want that juror struck for cause, you may need to do some rehabilitation. Something like, “Ms. Brown, even though you don’t like punitive damages, could you listen to the evidence and at least consider them, if they’re supported by the evidence?” If she says yes, you may avoid a strike for cause.

4. Neglecting the third and fourth rows

Here’s a scenario I’m sure you’ve experienced if you’re a trial lawyer. You huddle with your team after voir dire, furiously going over the things you remember people saying. “We’ve got to get rid of number 13, she said she hates insurance companies!” “Ok, but what about number 17, did you see the way she was smiling at opposing counsel?” Etc.

Then a funny thing will happen. After both sides make their strikes, the judge will announce who is on the jury. And in most cases there will be 3-5 people on the jury who barely said a word.

The silent killers. The bane of trial lawyers everywhere.

These are the people who never spoke up. And in many cases, they will be people who were not sitting in the first couple rows.

Depending on the size of your jury panel, you probably don’t need to spend a lot of time talking to the back row. Let’s say you’ve got 48 people on your panel, six peremptory strikes per side, and you expect 2-4 strikes for cause. That means it’s very unlikely anybody on the very back row will make it on to the jury.

But people on that third row definitely have a shot, so don’t forget to make sure you try to ask each one of them something, so at least you get them talking.

And that brings us to the top thing lawyers do wrong in jury selection.

5. Doing most of the talking

The cardinal sin of voir dire is doing too much of the talking. Yet this is something a lot of lawyers do, even when they’re highly experienced. In fact, lawyers who know a lot about their practice area may be even more guilty of this.

It’s not effective. For one thing, if you do too much talking, you’re not going to get the people on the panel talking. Short, clipped answers—“yes, I can be fair”—are not going to tell you much about how a potential juror feels about the key issues in your case.

A less obvious reason to get the people talking is to start building goodwill with the jury. So, ask them open-ended questions, and then follow up and ask them to explain their answers.

You want to show them that you care about what they have to say. And the best way to do that is to actually care about what they have to say.

Bonus

That brings up my bonus mistake: not being real.

I once attended a church service where a guest pastor began his sermon by saying something like, “can I just be real with y’all, or do I have to stick with church talk?” I think about that a lot when I think about jury selection.

I think the best way to come across as genuine and honest about what you’re doing as a lawyer is to be genuine and honest.

This can be difficult. We come into the process with so much baggage, so much “conventional wisdom” about how a lawyer is supposed to talk and act.

I say throw all that out and focus on being real. I think this is even more important today, when people on the jury are savvier about how litigation works than past generations. Depending on age, they’ve watched the OJ trial. They’ve seen Court TV. They’ve watched a lot of Law and Order. They’ve seen tons of cheesy commercials and billboards for personal injury lawyers.

The result is that they come into the courtroom fairly skeptical about what the lawyers are up to. They’re just not going to go for some of the old clichés that worked for trial lawyers of yesteryear.

I will concede this can vary considerably depending on the venue and the education level of the jury, but overall, I think juries today are more conditioned to expect that the lawyers are “putting on a show.”

That makes it more important than ever to be yourself. Even if that means using a word that doesn’t exist, like “funnest.”

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Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

“Easy Like Monday Morning”: Five Minute Law Interviews Rachel Vindman

“Easy Like Monday Morning”: Five Minute Law Interviews Rachel Vindman

This is an edited transcript of my interview with Rachel Vindman, co-host of the podcast The Suburban Women Problem, wife of the author of the New York Times bestseller Here Right Matters, and Lionel Richie enthusiast.

Zach Wolfe: I am super excited to be joined today by Rachel Vindman. Welcome, Rachel.

Rachel Vindman: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure, Zach.

ZW: I just listened to your fourth podcast. Tell people what the podcast is called.

RV: The podcast is called The Suburban Women Problem. And it’s a bit of a play on Lindsey Graham saying that the GOP has a real suburban women problem, which I agree with him. I don’t agree with him on a lot, but I agree with him on that. We try to talk to regular people, and maybe a little people who are better known, but we try to talk about issues affecting women, and not just women in the suburbs, urban women as well, but just women everywhere.

I like to say women know what problems we have. We actually have some pretty good ideas about solving them. We don’t need people to talk at us, but we just need policymakers to recognize those problems and to work with us, to figure out how to solve them. But women are natural problem solvers. So I think this is not much of a stretch.

And I have to say the fourth episode when I got to talk to Connie Schultz was a true delight and honor, and one of my favorite ones so far.

ZW: Yeah, I enjoyed it. It was probably also my favorite so far. I definitely recommend the podcast to people, and really, whatever your political views are, I think you would get something out of it. Now my blog and my YouTube channel, where I like to share these interviews, I don’t get very political. It’s a little more law related, but when I had the chance to possibly get Rachel Vindman on my show, I could not pass it up. So thank you for agreeing to talk with me. Let me ask you this: Why does the world need another podcast?

RV: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure that I have an answer. I am a big consumer of podcasts, so I’m a big fan.

I started listening to podcasts, I guess, more like NPR programs, some podcasts where I live overseas, and the convenience of it is huge because you can just listen to any show that you miss at any other time. So I am always listening to a podcast, if I’m cooking and if I got my earbuds in and I’m just doing work around the house, I listen to a tremendous number of podcasts.

I think that ours, The Suburban Woman Problem, really is special because it’s for women and by women. We try to talk about issues that you might discuss with your friends. We try to talk about things that are going on, but the listener might not have a direct connection to.

RV: So we’ve talked to the mom of a trans child. We talked to a woman who lost her sister to Q Anon. And those are things that we hear about, but we might not necessarily know someone in our neighborhood or our social groups.

I think it’s important to hear these stories firsthand, to have some empathy, to realize we’re getting a lot of information from different sources on the subjects, but to talk to someone firsthand is a lot different. Particularly on the trans issue, because it’s something with which I have no experience. And I don’t know anything about this subject. It’s confusing to me, as a lot of unknown things are, but a lot of things exist in spaces that I know nothing about, but I can relate because I’m a mom and I have a child.

RV: So I might not know the answers, but I do know that we need to treat people with dignity and respect. We don’t need to discriminate. We need to just hear a regular mom, in her words, describe her child. And that really humanizes something.

You can agree or disagree with a lot of things, but if we’re going to move forward and we’re going to heal as a nation, we really need to come together and listen to others. And I hope that’s something that our podcast does, to teach people to listen and be respectful, even if your view is different.

ZW: I like how, when you listened to the podcast, you kind of feel like it’s just three moms who know each other talking, it just happens to be three moms who are super smart and in kind of high-profile positions. It’s great. Now, let me ask you this. We hear the word “suburban” in politics all the time, and I’ve started to wonder what does suburban even mean today? What does suburban mean to you?

RV: For me, for where I live in Northern Virginia, suburban is the area where I can drive around. It’s less on foot, and it’s more people driving around. Where we live, the Metro doesn’t come out this far. So this is not any kind of definition that you will find in any sort of book or anything. I learned this reading Michelle Obama’s book, that I was woefully uneducated on how the suburbs got started. And I grew up in a suburb of Oklahoma City. I didn’t realize it was basically people leaving urban areas.

Where we are, I think the suburban DC area is a huge sprawl and it encompasses more area than even the urban areas of DC. Some of those places like Alexandria and closer are places where it’s impossible, if your child had an after-school activity, you would be better taking the Metro than trying to drive and finding a place to park, even in what is classified as the suburban area. Where we live, we chose our house sight unseen when we lived in Moscow. The schools were good, it was drivable, and the price was good.

But in terms of demographics, I think we have sort of a generational difference in defining the suburbs. I think President Trump viewed the suburbs in a very 1950s view that just really doesn’t exist anymore. Certainly not where I am. My county is majority minority. It’s not where I grew up, in Edmond, Oklahoma. There’s a lot of factors that come into play, but it’s definitely not a homogenous, whites only, the moms stay home and wear dresses and pearls, and the dad’s going to work with a briefcase and a white shirt and tie. So that’s not what it is, but what it is now is ever evolving and changing.

ZW: My daughter just finished her first year of college at the University of Central Oklahoma, so I was just in Edmond recently. Tell us a little bit about growing up in Edmond, Oklahoma. What was that like?

RV: It was pretty idyllic, I think in a lot of ways. My father’s family came in the land run of 1889 from Iowa, and their family settled just north of Oklahoma City, what’s currently Edmond. My mother’s family, part of them came actually in the Trail of Tears, from the east, the Georgia area, Chickasaw nation. So those are the two sides, my mom and my dad, and of course there’s nuances within both of them. Although I grew up in the suburbs, I had rural roots on each side, just one generation away. All four of my grandparents grew up in the Depression. One grew up in a town, but the other three, grew up on farms, quite poor. But they managed to go to college, at least two of them, and my grandfathers were involved in World War II and the army. And through that, were able to get government jobs or good jobs and really be part of that greatest generation and what was spurred on by that war.

So when I grew up in Edmond, I was the third generation to attend high school at that time. I graduated from high school in Edmond, and I have a brother who still lives there, and his children live there. It was a small town where my family name meant something. It still does. That gave me a huge sense of responsibility and everything that carries. I think a lot of people who grew up in smaller towns can relate to that. It’s a big thing for me now in our new newfound life and fame.

But even before, just when I was Alex’s wife. And I know some people don’t like that I’m introduced or known as Alex’s wife, but frankly, I’m very proud of that, and I always have been, even before any of this, when I was married to Captain Vindman and Major Vindman, before he was a Lieutenant Colonel, that was my identity. And I’m proud of that.

But I think growing up, with my family name, it gave me that sense of importance. I went to college in Oklahoma and I studied education. I ended up leaving when I was 24, but it’s also given me a great perspective from where I am now in this national moment that’s happening, because I understand Oklahoma, I understand the small town, I understand the struggles.

I also understand that the way of life that they might yearn for was not good and equal for everyone. That’s something I’m still learning at 47, but we still need to listen to each other. We still need to listen to each other’s stories and understand that not everyone felt equal, not everyone was equal. And that’s just fact. It’s hard to face that and learn it and understand it, but I appreciate my background and the understanding that it’s been able to give me to where we are today and how I can best use the voice that I have now to reach people.

ZW: Well, you already answered one of my questions that I had planned, but maybe you can elaborate on it. Let me preface this by saying, just to give an example, when I told my wife who I was interviewing today, I said, it’s Rachel Vindman, you remember Alex Vindman who testified to Congress? Like I had to explain that, and then she’s like, okay, I know who that is. And I was wondering, does that ever bother you, that you’re known as so-and-so’s spouse, even though you’ve got your own accomplishments and views and experiences, and as you said, you’re proud, but did it ever bother you to kind of be sort of compartmentalized that way?

RV: It really doesn’t. It bothers other people for me, and I completely appreciate that. I think you can follow wherever you are on the spectrum and still be right, because it’s a personal decision and a personal choice. But again, it does really bother other people. In the podcast with Connie Schultz, she talked about this, and I can totally identify with what she said, and I absolutely got it. It’s just that I was kind of going down one path and I met Alex and right after we got married, we moved to Germany and I really couldn’t work. And we literally moved every year. So even if I got a job on a base, it was, it wouldn’t have been something that I could have gone to another place.

RV: And for military spouses, it takes a time to get a job at a new place. If we were in Germany, we were in very small bases, so just not a lot of employment opportunity. In addition to that, I’ve shared a little bit, we were really facing infertility and struggles with starting a family. So there’s a lot of time and energy devoted to that as well. So it just didn’t happen. I think if I had more professional identity, this would be more of an issue to me. I just haven’t. Maybe I’m creating one now. Life comes at you fast sometimes, and you just gotta take it wherever it leads you. But I think being Alex’s wife, it’s obviously the most important relationship in my life, and it is a huge part of my identity. So I don’t mind being known as that. I hope my accomplishments and what I do speak for themselves, but no, it doesn’t really bother me.

ZW: I see. Well, in a few years, maybe when Alex meets somebody, they’ll be like, oh, are you that podcaster’s husband?

RV: It’s funny. He just was joking about that this morning, and I think his description on Twitter actually says like, Rachel or @natsechobbyist, that’s my name on Twitter. He was like, that he’s my husband.

ZW: That’s great. Well, also I noticed on your bio, it says something about foreign policy chops.

RV: I have none.

ZW: What does that mean?

RV: I don’t think I have any foreign policy chops, so I have to go back and look at my bio, but I need to be clear that I have no foreign policy chops. In Russia I worked at a Russian kindergarten, and I learned a lot about, I wouldn’t say everyday Russians, because most of the parents were very wealthy Russians or aspiring middle class who wanted their children to learn English. But I learned a lot about the Russian psyche and culture, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It was just a fascinating insight. 

I’ve lived in countries as a diplomat, and I’ve lived as just a regular ex-pat not connected to an embassy or consulate. It’s much more sanitized when you are a diplomat, because your activities, you have less to deal with the local nationals. But I love to travel and meet other people and learn about other cultures. So it was definitely a way for me to do that and was really fascinating.

Everything I know is just sort of self-taught. But to that end, I must say Zach, that I think everyone, even if they don’t study foreign policy or national security at a really high academic level, that you can teach yourself, you can engage and learn and you don’t have to attend an elite academic institution to be able to weigh in and discuss these issues intelligently.

ZW: Right. I mean if you had to choose between living in Russia for a year versus reading about Russia for a year in an American university, I mean, that’s a pretty easy choice. So from your time living in Russia, what would you say the average American doesn’t really get about what Russian life is like?

RV: The holdover from communism. They’re not a communist country. Vladimir Putin is not a communist, despite what people may have heard. Senator Ted Cruz recently said that Vladimir Putin was a communist. He is not.

They’re not sure what they are, but we take for granted democracy, we take for granted the freedoms we have, particularly free speech. Even today. Russians will self-censor themselves. There’s still the mentality that people are listening and watching. And I say that even for generations that are much younger than me.

RV: We had a young Russian nanny, and I think she was born in the early 90s during a very turbulent time, actually in Russian history. And she never expressed this to me, but it’s something they were taught. They were taught from a young age. When I see people idolize Russia, when I see them talk about Russian society and oddly enough, sort of celebrate Vladimir Putin, which is very bizarre to me, I think that’s the part that they missed. They just simply do not understand what it’s like to live in an authoritarian country. And, and I don’t understand it either because I’ve never lived without that passport that says diplomat, which gets you out of any number of issues. So I don’t know what that’s like either, but the number one thing is our First Amendment rights, and I think a lot of Americans just have no idea the freedom that that gives us.

ZW: You also spent some time living in Israel, I understand. What was that like?

RV: I lived there for three years. I was with the Southern Baptist Convention. I grew up evangelical and I worked with them. I did work with helping teach English classes to women. There were a number of summer camps, and I worked at a camp conference center and helped facilitate those events.

Living in Israel was a wonderful, positive experience. What it taught me more than anything else was that people are more alike than different. I had Israeli friends, I had Palestinian friends, and they all wanted the same thing. I was there before and during the second Intifada.

I also realized because it’s such a small country, and the Palestinian national authority is also very small in numbers, so a lot of recurring characters, and you could really see on such a small level, how often politics is perverted from maybe people truly wanting to make a difference to then understanding and appreciating their power and it becomes something, and maybe they’re lying to themselves, but it becomes very self-serving. What might start out as very pure for a lot of people can quickly turn into something else, and I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say, they don’t even realize it’s happening. They delude themselves into thinking that them being there is a bulwark, that it’s a stop-gap and no one else could do what they do, but it happens everywhere. Seeing it there on that level, I think was an eye-opening experience.

But on the regular everyday people, I saw them as victims of the extremists on each side that would keep them from really having meaningful conversations and making meaningful, lasting peace. Because again, I think in so many ways, the politicians and the extremists had all the motivation in the world to prevent that from happening. And I see that in our country as well. People on both sides have created a market for what they’re selling, and they have convinced people that they have to fight this fight that they have to continue the struggle that they alone have created, and it’s really disappointing, but it’s easy to do.

ZW: Considering what you experienced when you lived in Israel, and this is a tough question, obviously, but do you think there’s a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

RV: I don’t know what it would be. I think there is, but there is so much hurt and distrust. I’m going to sound like Jared Kushner. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject. I like to read people’s memoirs, and even though I know that memoirs are biased by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s interesting just to get people’s perspective, even if it is their bias. I particularly recommend Ehud Barak’s biography because he’s more of a centrist and had a fascinating life, by any account, but really tried.

I just don’t know. A two-state solution, I get it, but what’s confusing to me is Palestinians don’t even have their own currency, so there’s just a lot of steps that need to be made to make it happen.

I don’t want to misstep and misspeak on the subject because I’m just not an expert, but I will say that in order for there to be lasting peace in Israel and Palestine, what really needs to happen is to recognize that both sides are made up of human beings. And again, it goes back to the dignity and respect. And I saw that in individuals. It’s a misconception to think all Israelis are far right people who live on settlements, and all Palestinians are members of Hamas, because reality is so, so different.

RV: Even our own politicians are trying to feed both narratives. Common sense tells us that’s not true. Many U.S. presidents have tried to work on this, but I don’t know what the answer is. I do think there probably is an answer, but it’s going to take great concessions on each part. And there’s so much hurt and anger and years of turmoil, it’s really hard to get around it. But I remain hopeful because I think youth oftentimes are that catalyst, that they can just see things in a different way. And maybe you look beyond the hurt and the years, and just say, we need to look forward and not to the past. So the biggest hope I would say is in the future, and then the youth to try to make something lasting.

ZW: Well, I threw an almost impossible question at you, and you actually gave a really good answer, I think, but let me give you an easier one. You mentioned books, and I know you love to read. Do you have any book recommendations for us, something you’ve been reading lately?

RV: I said recently on Twitter, the book that if anyone asks me for a recommendation lately, I suggest Jesus and John Wayne, a book that I read early this year. I think it came out in 2020. It is just absolutely fascinating. If you grew up in an evangelical culture, or even if you weren’t part of that, if you were just surrounded by evangelical culture, I think for those people, they’ll definitely relate to the book. I think people who did not grow up in that environment can understand something, a segment of our population, our culture that has a huge impact on today’s Republican Party. So I think it’s a way to understand it better, but it’s just a fascinating well-researched book that explains a lot, it articulates a lot of thoughts and feelings, it’s a very well done and well researched book.

And I recently read How the South Really Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson, who was another person that I spoke to on the podcast. That is a fascinating book as well. I do read fiction, but what sticks with me most is non-fiction. I’m trying to learn about things.

Another great book is Robert Lee and Me by Ty Seidule, who was head of History at West Point. He describes his very complicated relationship with Robert E. Lee and what he was taught. It caused me to have a conversation with my husband, and when he was like, how could anyone believe that? I said, well, you grew up in New York City. You were probably never taught as I was. I distinctly remember a teacher saying this to me. “Well, slave owners didn’t treat their slaves poorly. They treated them very well.” That was literally something that was said to me, and my husband, I don’t even know if he believes me. He still thinks it’s just ridiculous, but I promise it happened, and these are the themes, I think in so many parts of our country, people just don’t realize, and it happened. I never would’ve thought about that had I not read this book. It was something that happened to me so many years ago. I wouldn’t even remember it, but you hear it and it’s in your brain forever. Whether you dismiss it or accept it, it’s there, and you have to at some point reconcile with it and face it.

The Daughters of Erietown by Connie Schultz was also a fabulous book. I try to read one to two books a, a week, and it’s kind of my saving grace, that and podcasts. You’re probably thinking that I ignore my family, but we spent a lot of time together in the past year.

ZW: No, I wasn’t thinking that at all. Those were some good recommendations. You mentioned Twitter, and I think that’s actually how I connected with you.

RV: Yeah.

ZW: So what made you decide to get on Twitter and to be active, especially considering that you must have known you were going to get attacked, right? So what was your thought process there?

RV: I was always on Twitter, and then the first day Alex testified, I shut down my Twitter. It was not with my real name, but I got pretty freaked out and I think I closed that account. And then I got back on Twitter anonymously.

Last summer Benjamin Wittes said something. I didn’t necessarily try to. At some point I stopped hiding who I was, but I didn’t announce it. Some people figured it out, but not many people. It was mostly to read what other people were saying. I think the benefit of having a curated feed on Twitter is the algorithm figures out what you want to see and what you don’t want to see, so it made for a more enjoyable experience by having an account and following people. But then Benjamin Wittes outed me, which was fine. And I gained quite a few followers then, and I still stayed relatively anonymous. I spoke out as I could.

RV: I did not have a verified account with my name until I did the CNN interview with Brianna Keeler, which was after we did the Lincoln Project ad in October. And the reason for doing that ad was that after the “suckers and losers” comment article came out by Jeffrey Goldberg and The Atlantic, Alex had a conversation with him, and I remember he came in and told me, his family has gotten death threats, he’s had to relocate them temporarily. It really hit me, because we had been there not too long before. And I was like, I’m done. You’re out of the military now, we can speak out about this.

I understand why journalists like Jeffrey Goldberg don’t want to become part of the story. But as I’ve said many times, when you have a group of people who are playing by one set of rules, an established set of rules, and then you have a group that’s like, “nothing is off limits, everything is on the table, the gloves are off,” it’s really hard. So, it’s not a fair fight, and people should hear what this has done to families, and that it’s going to continue. We were normal people. I know my husband worked at the White House and people might not see that as normal, but it felt normal to us. It’s what he had worked for his whole career, was to do that and to be in service.

And then things just got really crazy, and Jeffrey Goldberg is reporting a story. Did he go and seek the story out? I suspect it was a comment that was made to him, and he wrote the story. I don’t think he went and asked people, “did the president ever call people suckers and losers”? That’s not how he does journalism. So all that’s to say, once I did that, we came out, we had a tremendous amount of support. Of course, we have a lot of people who hate us, and it’s a free country, you can, but I enjoy engaging with supporters because they’re just really kind, and I want people to know how much it has meant to us. It truly has sustained us. It truly has buoyed us. And so it’s important to me for that.

And then it’s a fun community. It can go to a really dark place. I think you have to know your limits on social media. I think it’s taught me a lot about social media and children. You said you have a daughter who just finished her first year at UCO. So you’re probably intimately aware of social media, teens and adolescents, and the effects of that. My daughter’s only ten, so it is not an issue that we have faced yet, but it’s taught me a lot about setting limits and how I view social media and just internet usage for her or in general. But with the proper limits, it can be fine. I think it can be encouraging to people, especially people who may live in a place where they are different politically and have different views than a lot of the people around them. They can connect with others and not feel so alone. So I think social media is good for that purpose. We can also be bad, and everyone needs to be careful with them.

ZW: I enjoy reading your tweets and also reading what people tweet to you. Here’s one, “are you the Ukraine whistleblower traitor’s wife?” You should tell her, “hey, I’m not just his wife. I have a podcast.”

RV: Yeah, I know, people gave me some really good things that I could have said, after the fact. And I was like, oh, I really missed an opportunity there.

ZW: My question is, and you and Connie Schultz talked about this a little bit, but what is your strategy for dealing with the trolls on Twitter?

RV: Well, Connie is much better, and as you can see, I did not take the high road on that, on my response to that tweet, which I probably should have. Sometimes the urge to be snarky is very strong, but as Connie said, they want access, they want a reaction. So it is better if you can block them and not give them that. And I have been exercising that a lot more. I just spoke with Connie last week, but even prior to that, I learned that they can get a rise out of me. I like to think that my comment to that was not getting defensive or upset. I hope it was a witty retort, but even that is not the best sometimes, and you can elevate people.

I learned that quickly with Twitter. Right after Alex’s closed-door testimony, there was a retired Lieutenant Colonel who had supposedly served with Alex. This is kind of in debunked, not served with him, but was at a place where he was when Alex was traveling with the Russian military who was doing a joint exercise in Germany. And he gained prominence by this sort of tall tale about serving with Alex and whatever, and it got a lot of traction, and Don Jr was re-tweeting it. A lot of people, even the President alluded to it at one point, which was—I’m pretty open about that—it was one of the scariest days. And this is where I think we have to really careful with our kids, but what was scary is someone was saying something and we couldn’t speak back because Alex was active-duty military, and you gotta be careful.

You don’t want to get like a counter-narrative because then you’re chasing, so you don’t want to do that anyway. It’s not a very good calm strategy, but it was really hard. I think that is one thing for children, for teens and adults, the lessons that they really get lost in was social media. Something can just catch fire, and it’s not true, but they have no way or no voice to counter it. And if you’re reacting, then you’re playing catch up and you’re probably losing anyway, because someone else has gotten ahead of you. So it’s better most of the time just to let it be. Sometimes I just like to come back with a snarky comment, but I also think a well-timed highlighting of some of those comments does a couple of things strategically of like showing people, this is still happening, not just for us, it’s happening for almost everyone.

I mean, look at Olivia Troye’s Twitter feed and the way they attack her, and Lisa Page. They are still attacked with stuff that’s been debunked a long time ago, but this is what they go with. I think also just a gentle pushback of “we’re not going to let you control this narrative” and you might say it, but you have to be pretty careful there. Disengage and don’t react either way. But I do think it’s important for people to realize Trump and Trumpism is still attacking people. And if he were to come back to power—I don’t think he’s going to be reinstated in August, despite what people might be saying or what he perhaps believes—but this is what you would be signing up for: full-on authoritarianism. And this is what they think is okay.

ZW: Speaking of this August, there is a big event coming.

RV: There is.

ZW: Tell us what that is.

RV: My husband’s memoir: Here Right Matters. It’s going to publish on August 3rd. We’re very excited. We rearranged our entire summer to accommodate the new publication date. I’m very excited for him. It was tough. Everyone talks about, what were we doing a year ago at this time? And we were spending a lot of days sitting in our office trying to have discussions and not worry our daughter. But it was like you think your career’s over, it’s not going anywhere, but what are we going to do? How are we going to live? Once people talk about separating from the military, they plan on this for several years in advance, and that was definitely not, we were going to do.

There were people who wanted him to write a book about Trump, and that’s not the book he wanted to write. Also, he never met him in person. And there was a push to get it out before the election, which logistically never would have happened because as someone who held security clearance, his book had to go through a pre-publication review, and they would have never allowed it to see the light of day. So, it was challenging.

But as challenging as it was for us, I know it was even more challenging for a lot of other people. I know there’s been a lot of criticism for people who stayed working in government, who maybe didn’t leave or didn’t leave sooner, but you have to understand, everyone has to live, has a place to live and eat and support their families, and this is a very expensive area of the country to live.

I think we need to really look at our public servants and our people who served in government, even in the Trump administration, non-partisan people and good people who stayed, and be forgiving to them, not forgiving, but understanding. People could not just walk out because they didn’t like what was happening with the Trump administration. That’s not how it is. These are public servants who work their whole lives and they have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that is very important.

When they talk about the Deep State and they talk about unelected, radical bureaucrats, those people are actually the glue that keeps the government together as the administrations change, as the political appointees change. They are the ones that have the knowledge of how the organizations work. Whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it requires so much institutional knowledge. I’m not here to make that debate. I just know that the way the system is currently, you cannot burn it down and build it up every four or eight years, it’s not possible. And we need to appreciate what they do and how they work for us for, Republicans and Democrats alike, they work and they give us their all, and they serve a very important purpose.

ZW: You mentioned pre-publication review. Did the book have to pass Rachel Vindman’s pre-publication review?

RV: It did. I didn’t read the parts that might have sensitive issues. But we went back and forth, and I guess everyone’s gonna read the book and think that I begged my husband to ask me to marry him. I really don’t remember it that way, so I will let the readers decide. But I guess when you write a book, it’s your memoir, it’s your version of the truth, no matter who you are, so this is Alex’s moment to remember it the way he wants.

He talked about our personal struggles with infertility. We had a daughter who was born at 24 weeks. She passed away. How we handled that, how the grief brought us together and how, going through things as a couple, going through things in life, it prepares you to deal with other things. It’s all part of a stepping stone.

And that’s really what the memoir is about. It’s about his immigrant story and his family, what he learned from that, how it prepares you for all the moments big and small that, that you have a foundation there. I’m biased, of course, but I read a lot of memoirs, because people fascinate me, and I’m very proud of it. I think he is as well. And I hope that people will find encouraging inspiration in it and the message that it has, even during this time, as we continue to kind of figure out what the path is forward for our country and where we want to land.

ZW: I did not know about the experience with losing a daughter, so I’m very sorry for that.

RV: Thank you.

ZW: But on a happier note, do you want to share with us—to set the record straight—how did you meet Alex and what did you think of him when you met him?

RV: I was a flight attendant. When I moved back from Israel, I had this idea that I wanted to work for the FAA because they have a very large facility in Oklahoma City. So I wanted to work there, and I was told the path to this would be being a flight attendant, then working in flight attendant management, just a couple of years here and there, and then you could get a job with the FAA. So I was working on the flight attendant part, and I had a friend that was like, you need to meet this guy. And I thought, okay, I know I can fly free, but I’m not just gonna fly somewhere for a date, that’s just a little a bridge too far.

But Alex had just completed ranger school, and he was in New York City. I was based in New York City at the time, but I didn’t live there. I was just staying there the night before I started a trip. He had finished ranger school and was picking up his parents in New York City, and then they were going to drive cross country. So we realized that our schedules were matched and we were going to be in the same city at the same time. So I was staying at the Holiday Inn at JFK airport, and he came to my hotel room to pick me up, and I opened the door, and I think this is actually in the book, but I was like, “oh my God, he’s so skinny,” because he just finished ranger school and probably lost weight, and didn’t have a lot to lose. So by the way, when people comment about Alex’s weight and he has all his weight in his face, but you can thank me for that because that’s just my excellent culinary skills.

But anyway, I saw him, we drove into the city into the West Village. We walked around and talked, and it was a great day. We got lost on the way home. I think it took us two and a half hours to get from Manhattan back to JFK. And if anyone is ever in a taxi and that happens, it’s not supposed to work that way, it definitely should not take that long, so you should call someone if you were in that situation. I did not, and it turned out okay, but I would not recommend that for everyone.

And then he then did not call me for several days. He was driving cross country and I guess he forgot about me. I don’t really know, but he got to Tacoma, to Fort Lewis, Washington, and a few weeks later, I flew there for our second date, and the rest is history.

ZW: You and my wife should talk. I’ll just say that.

RV: Okay. All right. Well, now I want to hear your story.

ZW: I think she could relate, but that’s great. Well, it’s been awesome talking with you. I know you probably have a lot of people who want to talk to you. And so for you to join my little show here has been just great. So I really appreciate that. Now, I want to go back to Edmond, Oklahoma just for a minute. You and I both grew up in the 80s. I grew up in south Austin, Texas. You were a little farther north up in Oklahoma, but I’m curious. Number one, what was the first big concert that you attended as a teenager in Oklahoma?

RV: Don’t laugh. It was Lionel Richie.

ZW: Oh that’s awesome.

RV: I’m a Lionel Richie fan. It’s funny because one of my oldest best friends, she went to the same concert. I didn’t even know. I think like her parents surprised her, but yeah, I went with my parents to see Lionel Richie, as one does. I think that was the first concert.


ZW: Did he do “Dancing on the Ceiling”?

RV : Of course. I mean, it wouldn’t be a concert without that.

ZW: Did he do “Easy Like Sunday Morning”?

RV: Yes. And I have my own version. I tell Alex that he’s easy like Monday morning. I love him, but Alex is not easy like Sunday morning, which is to say generally not easy at all.

ZW: Got it. Now related to that question, I’m curious, what was the first record that you bought for yourself, if you remember?

RV: I think Footloose, the soundtrack to Footloose.

ZW: On cassette, I’m guessing.

RV: Yeah, on cassette. Album? I remember playing the Fame album, but I don’t think I bought it for myself. The record cover I remember most of all from my childhood, and this was my childhood song when I was much younger, was Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell. And the album cover was raised, it wasn’t just flat. It was this horse and there was a very cowboy scene, with cacti and mountains. But I remember that album cover, and of course, I just loved that song, I still love that song. I still listen to it all the time, but when I was little, I would apparently just listen to it on repeat.

ZW: Oh yeah, he was great. All right. One more question relating to Edmond. Next time I’m up there, where do I need to go to eat? You know, like where the where’s the local place that I might not know about.

RV: For sandwiches, I really like City Bites. That’s an old family friend, they’re the owners of it, just great hoagies or whatever you call them. And Johnny’s Charcoal Broiler was another local favorite. It’s one of my favorite places, really good hamburgers and onion rings. They have the best onion rings ever, I think. When I go, I go for cheap Tex-Mex, which is the best Tex-Mex. So that is something that I always have. And Hideaway Pizza, which started in Stillwater.

ZW: I’ve been there!

RV: Those are my top picks for every time I go home to Oklahoma.

ZW: Awesome. Okay. Now I have some new places to try. Anytime I go to a new place, I want to know, like, where are the hidden gems?

RV: I know, absolutely. When we’re traveling or figuring out the book tour schedule, it’s kind of coming together, and I’m like, okay, well, when we go to these places, where are we going to eat? So, yes, totally same.

ZW: Great. Well before we wrap this up, I’ll leave the floor open to you. Anything you would like to add that you would like the readers or viewers to know about Rachel Vindman?

RV: I don’t think so.

ZW: This is where you plug the next podcast.

RV: I do think The Suburban Women Problem, it’s something that I’m very proud of. I was asked to be a part of it. It’s come together very quickly, but I think it is an important place to have discussions. I always liken back to one of the favorite parts of my day during the school year is the bus stop with my fellow bus stop moms, as we call ourselves. We come from different backgrounds. We live in the same neighborhood, in the same community, but very different backgrounds and different political beliefs, but we can come together and be with our children, get them on the bus, experience a moment of relief in that, and also respect each other’s opinions, but talk about the things that are important to all of us and maybe learn something too.

RV: So I hope that the podcast has that feel of a space where we can talk about it, and you can agree or not agree, but I hope you know that I still care about you and appreciate you. There’s still room for disagreement, but also for great respect and love. And that’s what I hope we continue to create with our podcast.

Other than that, thank you for having me. It was a super fun conversation. And I always like to talk about Edmond, Oklahoma. It definitely made me who I am, and I think I’m better for it. It was not a lot of diversity, but that’s okay. I think that I’ve learned a lot from that as well. Someone actually sent me a quote today of “our background is just our launching point.”It can’t be our excuse to always stay in that place, but you’d never have to look at it as bad either.

So your life is just, it’s where you go and where you take it, but never be ashamed of where you came from and your history. I think you can just always use it to go forward. And if you think there’s places for change, make that change and be that change, and whatever voice you have, use it. That’s what I’m trying to do. Not to make a name for myself. I’m not even getting anything out of this personally, but I think that it is kind of a responsibility, Alex and I both look at it like this because he’s out of government and the military. We have a voice now to speak, and we very much want our country to move forward, and if we have the opportunity to educate people and be part of the discussion in a meaningful way, we will definitely lend our voices to that.

ZW: Great. All right, one more question. Who is your dream guest? Like the person you think, oh, I would never get this person on the podcast, but who you would just love to interview?

RV: Michelle Obama. And I say that because I, well I always liked Michelle Obama, but was I a fan of president Obama’s policies? No, not all of them. And I’m very centrist in my politics, so that’s probably why. But when I read her book, it was just such a phenomenal growth experience for me. And in many ways, I had always had a great appreciation of her, but I could relate on so many different levels. As a woman, as a mom, just her growing up experience with her family and how close she was to her family. Even though we had very different experiences, I could certainly relate to that, and I have a tremendous amount of admiration for her drive for pursuing her education and career. And it was difficult for her.

She also faced infertility struggles and really strove to raise her daughters in a way that I think is comparable to how I wanted to raise my daughter. And part of that is especially now like your dad’s, yes, he’s known for doing a good thing, but that’s your dad. That’s not you, if you want to do a good thing. So you have to go out there and do it too. And this kind of goes back to you have the name, but you have to make the name mean something. Growing up in Edmond, my name was associated with the people who did good things before me of our good family name, but that’s very easy to ruin and not easy to establish.

So I know that she tries to give her daughters that space and I just, I appreciated so much of her experience and just her honesty. And it’s really hard when you’re in the public eye, to be honest about things, but I appreciated how she really threaded that needle and educated people on and a lot of history that even occurred in her lifetime. But for me as a white woman who grew up in the suburbs, I was really unaware of.

ZW: Let’s work on that. I’m going to use my political influence, which is zero, but we’ll make that happen. All right, Rachel Vindman, thank you so much for joining me for this interview. It’s been a pleasure.

RV: Thank you. Next time you’re in Oklahoma, let me know.

ZW: I will.

____________________________________

Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

Why Clients Come Second at My New Law Firm

Why Clients Come Second at My New Law Firm

Law Firm “Culture”

Law firms talk a lot about “firm culture.” It’s like every year the Dallas Cowboys talk a lot about getting to the “Super Bowl.” (Oh, the truth hurts for this long-suffering Cowboys fan.)

I’ve been thinking about law firm culture and values because I just started my own law firm. It’s called Zach Wolfe Law Firm. That choice of firm name was serendipitous, because my name also happens to be Zach Wolfe.

Sadly, if I ever want to start an alt-Americana-rock band (hey, it could happen), I probably can’t name it after myself because Zach Wolfe & the Coyotes would claim a likelihood of confusion.

That means if I ever get around to recording one of my country-rock compositions, like “Otherwise Blameless Life,” I’ll have to do it with Hot Dog Randall. That’s the name of the band I plan to have with my 12YO son when he gets a little better at the drums. His name is not Randall, though. It’s just an inside joke.

Sorry, I got off track. What was I talking about?

Oh, right. Law firm culture.

I’ve been thinking about the kind of culture I want at my firm. I could have circulated a memo about it right before walking out of my old firm, Jerry Maguire-style. But I kept procrastinating, resulting in a totally amicable but boring exit. Which is probably fine, because I don’t think Mrs zachwolfelaw would appreciate me bringing Renée Zellweger to the new firm.

Anyway, now that I’ve had some time to mull it over, here are the five pillars of the Zach Wolfe Law Firm culture.

1. Clients Come Second

Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to put clients before almost everything else, including profits. But clients will not come first at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. That’s because my family comes first.

Of course, this will probably come as a surprise to my wife and two kids. They can all remember me pacing back and forth on my cell phone, trying to finalize a settlement, while they were literally trying to get in line for the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World.

So let’s just say the family first thing is kind of like the Texas Lawyer’s Creed. It’s “aspirational.”

Still, in my defense, on Day 1 of Zach Wolfe Law Firm I am not working, but moving my daughter into her college dorm.

And you’re humming the song now, aren’t you? I’m sorry.

2. The Bully Pulpit

My firm will be equipped to handle a wide variety of business litigation matters, plus drafting contracts and other relatively simple transactions, but my practice will continue to focus on disputes involving non-competes, trade secrets, and other “departing employee” issues.

After handling over 80 departing employee matters in the past five or six years, I’ve noticed something. There is a lot of attempted bullying in these matters, and I don’t like it.

I’m not saying litigation should be tiddly-winks. It’s more like tackle football, or girls’ middle school basketball. You’re going to get beat up a little.

What irks me is when people try to use the cost of litigation as a club to hold over my client’s head. For example, if a company doesn’t want its former employee to work for a competitor, they may file a lawsuit with little chance of success just to apply pressure to the employee in the form of attorney’s fees.

Of course, it can also work the other way: a defendant can obstruct and delay a meritorious claim just to drive up the cost for the plaintiff.

Whether I’m representing the plaintiff or the defendant, employer or employees, my goal is to do whatever it takes to avoid letting the opposing party use the cost of litigation to bully my client.

That may require some flexibility in fee arrangements, but here’s the good news. I happen to be sleeping with the head of the firm’s Billing Committee.

3. Diversity

When I eventually get around to hiring for my firm, I will do my best to have a law firm that looks like the city around it. And I’m not just giving lip service to diversity because it’s what all the cool firms are doing.

Do you remember when law firms started caring about diversity?

I can tell you precisely when that happened. It was about five minutes after law firm partners figured out there was money in it.

But hey, if greed means the partner lounge won’t look like one of those black and white photos of the local bar association from 1953, I’m all for it. It’s an example of the American doctrine of “self-interest properly understood,” first described in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

You down with ADT? (Yeah, you know me.)

4. WFH

Zach Wolfe Law Firm does have a physical office, thanks to some friends who are graciously sharing their fancy office space with me. But I will probably continue to do most of my work from home. If there’s one silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that we all figured out it’s not that hard to work remotely. Maybe you don’t need to make 50 patent lawyers come to your docket call to stand up and say “ready” (*cough* E.D. Tex. *cough*).

There are, of course, benefits to collaborating with your team in the same physical space. There’s a reason WKRP had all the DJ’s “offices” in the same room. All else being equal, working in the same office with other members of a law firm is better than spending your day saying “who just joined?” or “Bob, you’re on mute!”

But, of course, as with so many things in life, all else is not equal.

You know the thing I discovered that is most definitely not equal? Driving.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like driving. I even like long road trips. I actually look forward to driving up to my daughter’s school in Oklahoma.

But you know the thing I don’t like? Traffic.

I know a lot about traffic because they did this famous traffic experiment in the Houston area. They built the Katy Freeway, one of the widest freeways in the world, 26 lanes in some spots!

The result? Thousands of people moved to Katy, enough to clog every one of those 26 lanes at rush hour.

Spending hours sitting in Houston traffic may be great for catching up with Bob and Clint on the I’m Ok You’re Ok I’m Not Ok You’re Not Ok podcast, or nerding out on jazz and music theory with Adam and Peter on the You’ll Hear It podcast. But that’s not an efficient use of time for Zach Wolfe Law Firm. So we won’t be doing a lot of that.

5. Dress for Success

Right before I left the BigLaw firm I worked for out of law school, they circulated a memo produced by the Dress Code Committee. I remember thinking, Dress Code Committee, seriously? The thought of the buttoned-down senior partners talking about “spaghetti straps” and “crop tops” around a big conference room table cracked me up.

Now, this was a blue-chip firm with top-notch lawyers, but my reaction to the idea of a dress code committee was a sign that maybe I was more of a “hang out a shingle” kind of guy. But I wasn’t brave like Aiden Durham, so it took me 21 more years to do it.

Now that I run the zoo, I guess I’m in charge of the dress code. I’ve never really had a strong opinion on burning issues like casual Fridays. If anything, I tend to like the lawyers who go to sartorial extremes. Pick a side: either dress like the cast of Suits or the cast of Dazed and Confused. Or adopt your own unique style, like the personal injury lawyer who came to my first deposition in Fort Worth in a black cowboy hat and Holstein-patterned shirt. I respected that.

But the Zach Wolfe Law Firm dress code will be more practical. I’ve always thought dressing for the season makes more sense than dressing for the day of the week. So, for the summer—meaning about nine months out of the year in Houston—the dress code will be Baywatch tank top and Lululemon shorts. I’ll save the Banana Republic look for the winter. 

Of course, I will still wear a suit and tie when I go to court. You know, to stop the bullies. 

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Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.