At the outset of COVID lockdowns, solo attorney, Thomas Chu, made swift changes to his trusts and estates practice that resulted in a 25% boost in income. Learn how he did it in this video interview.
Trusts and Estates Attorney, Thomas Chu, went into survival mode and adapted to the changing times that COVID-19 brought, causing him to operate as a “hybrid” attorney, utilizing mobile apps to help secure his client’s future.
What is a “hybrid” attorney?
A hybrid attorney can function as a virtual and traditional lawyer with ease, with applications and systems in place to process legal documents and meetings from anywhere at any time.
As news of the pandemic spread and worry set in, Thom’s clients realized that getting their affairs in order was a top priority.
With in-person meetings a non-negotiable option, Thom jumped into the realm of virtual practice and began learning the new rules in place for operating his practice online.
Thom’s compassionate side truly shined throughout this trying time, by even offering alternative and sometimes unconventional options to ensure his clients’ needs were met.
Thom recently sat down with Law Firm Suites’ content manager Megan Hunt to discuss how he became a successful hybrid attorney during 2020.
You can watch the interview here (or read the full transcript below), where you will learn how Thom:
- Utilized multiple apps so his firm never missed a beat
- Managed to close out 20 cases by February 2021
- Reduced his overhead in order to stay on track for a 25% income increase
- Values his shared workspace within a community full of solo attorneys
Follow Thom on Twitter, LinkedIn and check out his website to stay connected with his firm.
Transcript Of Interview
Megan: Good morning. As you know, my name is Megan and I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to join this call so we can discuss how COVID has impacted your business in 2020. Let’s get started. The easiest question of the day is can you share your name and your practice area?
Thom Chu: Right. My name is Tom Chu. I’m a trust and estates attorney and I came to Law Firm Suites straight out of law school and passing the bar. I went straight to solo and straight to Eleven Broadway.
Megan: Oh my gosh. How long have you been with us at Law Firm Suites?
Thom Chu: Since 2013. It will be eight years, shortly. Straight on, in fact, a colleague of mine from Hofstra, Joleena Pickett Louis, started the same exact day. We didn’t know the other one was coming, but we actually signed on the same day.
Megan: That’s amazing. Law Firm Suites is just bringing people together,
Thom Chu: It is; it’s a great story.
Megan: How would you characterize your practice before the pandemic? How were you doing?
Thom Chu: I was on plan in terms of – I had business advisors helping me figure out how to structure my work. I’ve gotten referrals all along, throughout from my neighbors. In fact, my office mate Peter Arcese is a very experienced trusts and estates attorney. We actually share an office, but don’t share a practice. We’re both solos. He’s actually an alumnus of the same law school I went to, but many years prior. I sought him out as part of choosing the Suites in that I wanted to find people in my practice area, as well, as people who could be referral partners. In Peter, I have both, so I actually get – I have earned fees from referrals that come from my neighbors.
I wanted to be in that environment where I would be able to earn part of my rent, which I continue to do. Especially as a new attorney in the Suite, I wanted to establish myself as a good neighbor and so on. In terms of where my business was before COVID, it was on track in terms of my expectations of wanting to have a certain performance. Interestingly enough, in terms of revising my work, I was really too busy to figure out how to change it. I just basically just kept on going. I mean, things were changing really fast, so now we’re a year out, almost exactly a year when we had the shutdown.
So yes, so basically, it was definitely a shock when it happened and so my business had to change in terms of just the way I was I already had a workflow of cases that were on their way through, but we had to then retool everything. Yes, definitely people were scared. There’s so much uncertainty at that time and there many people, obviously just weren’t going anywhere, in terms of going to the office. As it turned out, actually solo business owners were okay to actually work alone, which is what I did. I continued actually to go to my office on days that I could, but I’m speaking to you now from my home office, which is on Idea street and Park Avenue in Manhattan.
unlike other people, I don’t love working from home. Some people are like, “Oh, don’t you love working from home?” I’m like, “It’s okay.” I have a very nice environment here, don’t get me wrong, but I like going someplace, that happens to be a bedroom that has a computer set up. It’s not so cool to be – to have your stuff where you are supposed to have rest and that’s supposed to be my TV, but it’s also a computer monitor. It’s nice to have the option, but I really treat this space as the other office when I don’t feel like going downtown, or if I don’t have to see people in person, I can do the Zoom meeting as well from here as I would in the office.
As it turns out, because you’re in the office, it’s just as well that we’re actually in different spaces. That’s an example of how, rejiggering wasn’t horrible for me. Basically, I had cases that were already in workflow and I just told clients, “Look, we can finish the matter, we’ll just do it online.” The governor came up with the remote notarizations and remote witnessing and so with the help of neighbors in the office, I was able to do – it was a pretty complicated process, where you have to have original documents with the signer, and then you have to pass them back and forth, has to be done on a video conference and there has to be a clear line of how the procedure is tracked in terms of, keeping it legitimate and checking IDs and so on.
Thom Chu: I was able to just basically roll with the punches and keep right on with those cases that had been open. The challenge then came, “How do you generate more business while you’re in this lockdown situation.” I had already had channels open in terms of my social media. I’m on LinkedIn, on Facebook and I pretty much just documented what I was doing just as a way of sharing, “Well, here’s how I’m working through the pandemic.” Trying to inspire others, trying to encourage others, but of course maintain confidence of my clients. To say that, “Okay, yes, things are different. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but if you’re going to work with me, I’ve got it figured out. We will work, we’ll get things done.” Frankly, my business actually grew in 2020, I actually had probably my best year at the Suites in 2020, partly because I was able to work truly remotely with clients. I actually closed about twenty cases between March and including – so let’s say in the last year, so not all in 2020, partly in 2021. Twenty cases, completely remote, meaning these clients I never met in person.
Megan: Right. I remember when the pandemic started, you were really quick with your turnaround in terms of switching to be really remote. When did you realize that the pandemic was going to impact your business the way it did? So pretty much what I’m asking is at what point did you realize that COVID was going to be bigger than what we all actually anticipated?
Thom Chu: Yes, I mean, basically it was like, I remember March 17th was the last day they had indoor dining. The transport was saying essential workers only. I was as a solo business owner, I could get out of the house and go to the office, which I continued to do and a few people did. The offices were open straight on. Mail was being delivered. We had to figure out different ways of getting things done because the mail is slowing down. I started using courier services. I actually, because of the slowness with this whole remote notarization business, was starting to deliver documents. I would have my father as my chauffeur. I’m really fortunate to have that. He actually would literally drive me around Manhattan and dropping things off at the doorman just to save the extra time it would take to courier, because if you’re using UPS and pay for overnight service, you’re paying for overnight, you wouldn’t arrive until the second day.
I could reliably pay for second day and get there second day for a lot less money and we’re talking about a document would cost like $15 each direction. The person would have to go outside to drop off the return packet, so that wasn’t necessarily a great idea for people who are worried about being exposed. I had to get ahead of that stuff, so I literally would drop stuff off with the doorman. Some cases, the staff would bring it up, the client would sign it by hand and they would actually then bring it back down. Sometimes we did it that way. Anyways, not an easy task to pivot, but when it happened, I was figuring it out right on the spot. I was like, “it’s clearly not turning around”, because the news kept on getting worse and worse.
The issue at the beginning was that until basically June, we basically had this ‘essential workers only’ on public transportation. You had frontline, you had medical people, we had this overnight shutdown on the subway, which has been shortened. First days were a little scary for some people. For me, it’s like, “Look, I masking up, the office is really well run. It’s clean, there’s hardly anybody there.” I just continued and, and already had like all of this setup that you see now, I already had it before March. In some ways I was more adept at the Zoom business and I even did things – I had to adapt, even the software that I was using for instance, to record FaceTime because with the notarization and the witnessing, you have to have witnesses and the subject and me.
Four little quadrants on an iPhone, which you can’t do in normal FaceTime. I had to download Houseparty, this app, which is free, but guess what? I learned it from my clients and they said, “Oh, this is a secure app”, and I got my witnesses to help me with that way and they pretty much did what they would do in the office which is great. I rely on the office neighbors to help figure out those details. If I worked in an office, there are certainly other attorneys that work – sublet space – in a larger firm, that thing, they wouldn’t have had the infrastructure that I had of friendly people who got what was needed, but also frankly, just all the other facilities. The high speed scanner, the printer, all, everything was kept, up to the standard from the days before.
We just plowed right through, but there were definitely many days where I felt like I was the only person around. It’s a lot better now, there a lot more people coming back, not that it’s crowded by any measure. This week, just as an example, I had three sets of clients that came for document signings in person, because they didn’t really want to do this remote business. It’s very cumbersome, it’s time consuming and they have to have a lot of equipment, because they have to print out documents. They have to be able to scan or fax it back to me and not all my clients are wise to that, or have the equipment at home.
It’s not always possible for them to do it and now there’s a little more confidence in coming down. I totally had to figure that out right on the spot and improvise somewhat. The truth is that everything that I needed, I was still able to perform some version of what I was doing before. Frankly, in trust and estates, certainly people who would think like, “Oh, I don’t want to go see a lawyer or go downtown.” Now, I’m saying like, “Oh, but we could do it on Zoom or a phone call.” That excuse got washed away and then the next thing was like, people would say, “Oh, all my papers are at home and I’m at work.” I’m like, “Well, now you’re working from home, so now there’s really no reason.” There’s no excuse for not getting this up.
Frankly, I have clients who are motivated because people were dying. They were afraid for their lives and you know in my business, it’s not if you die, it’s when you die, what do you want to have happen? The fact is that even if you’re not generally feeling at risk, suddenly you’re feeling somewhat vulnerable. I’m thinking like, “Oh, I could be that person that I’m reading about in the paper who suddenly dies and they get sick from something and they die.” We could get hit by a truck, we could have a slip and fall. We can have a cancer diagnosis that can shorten our lives ll kinds of things happen to people every day and they’re not stories that I make up, they’re all real life stories. The idea that we’re immune from these things, people have definitely felt more vulnerable and yes, definitely, more mortal. Death is probably, or at least disability, is a more likely possibility than it seemed in the past. I didn’t have to do that much of a new narrative, because the news was doing that for me, that people were saying to themselves like, “Oh, I need to get this stuff.” I had clients from before who had been kicking the can down the road for years. In fact, some of my signs this week are from two years ago and had paid me half of my fee upfront and just hadn’t paid the other half.
I said, “Well, I have your money. Why don’t you go ahead and just finish it?” This has happened and some clients even allow me to have a photo with them, which is rare, but I have clients who become friends and friends who become clients. I’m friendly with all of my clients at the end, there’s an intimacy in what I do, because I have to know everything about their financial position. As I described my practice area, I’m at the corner of legal and financial, I’m a lawyer. Yes, but the thing is that if you don’t understand personal finance, it’s impossible to really be a good trust and estate attorney. I’m able to help people deal with the stuff that’s very important to them, whether it’s saving for college, or leaving money to their kids or funding charitable causes. I’m able to do the things that matter to them the most.
Being at the Suites has been a great nurturing environment to be around other entrepreneurial, nice people, really a nice set of neighbors that even if they’re there mainly to work on their own cases and work, there’s still a colleagueship that is very different from a typical law firm, because we’re not in competition, we’re people doing our own thing. We do look to each other for help. I certainly love the idea that my neighbor is a notary and will take care of my documents. I don’t sit and wait in line in the bank. That’s a great benefit right there, but I also will pick the brains of my colleagues on things and issues that may not be in my specialty, just to bounce an idea off of somebody or construct a referral, but just in the last couple of days and even though we’re not anywhere near any percent capacity, it would be, I’m not good at estimating. We’re probably reflective of wall street area in general, that there’s a very small percentage of people are in the office. Not that people don’t, in fact, my office neighbor, Peter, is not in every day, but he obviously he has his papers there and comes in and do what he needs to do – picks up mail -so it works for – so everybody’s doing it at the level that works for them. For me, I’m there more often because I have more documents signings, but I also I’m that person who doesn’t love working from home.
I like suiting up. I get dressed. I have my routine. I like to sit at my desk. I happen to have a great view of the Harbor and so I like that. I put my hours in, and then when I’m done, I close the door and I go back and do other things. I think it’s just a great environment and I did shop around when I first sought a space and I was really taken with the way that the suites were marketing themselves and not just the space, but it’s the environment and the colleagues. My closest attorney colleagues are right here, so I don’t really look beyond, not that I don’t network, but the people are very available to me. Like I have a great real estate attorney in Jonthan Geballe as well…
Megan: That was one of the big things that the founder of Law Firm Suites had in mind when he thought of this was creating a space where lawyers can glean off of each other. If you needed legal advice or you just needed to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through, they’re right next door, or they’re right down the hall, and you don’t have to go to the bank for a notary, because someone is right here already that can give you that service and won’t charge you. This was about creating a community where everyone is helping each other, and even down to the staff where we take so much pride in being able to help you guys further your business in any matter. Even this week, you mentioned that you had three people come in and myself, and Rafael were able to be your witnesses. We really enjoy doing stuff like that for you guys, because it also lets us see like, “Oh, wow, this is what they’re doing.” I’ve learned so much about trust and estates from you just sitting in our will signings, which is amazing. My next question would be, how do you vet which of your clients are going to come into the office and which one you’re going to do virtually? Is there a way that you prep them into when they come into the office?
Thom Chu: Sure. I give my clients lots of options. I basically tell them, the environment that I’m working in and it’s basically coming in for the document signings. As far as consultations go, I do home delivery, so I will come to their home. I also belong to the Yale Club in the town by Grand Central, so I host meetings there. They’ve been open for a while now. I’m able to have a Midtown place where I can host a meeting and have some confidential space where people feel the sense of privacy, but I always offer the office because we have it. It’s a great location. Basically almost every subway line converges with somewhere within one stop of us, even. So, basically, West side, East side, you can get to get to our offices at eleven Broadway, which was great.
In terms of vetting people, I basically just tell people it’s just casual that I give them an option. I always say, “Look, if you want to do the document signing in person, you go home with the documents the same day and we can get you out of there.” In fact, we did something yesterday and they were really prepared. I think we were pretty much done in half an hour. It was a couple with a trust, and it’s great for me to have you guys, you and Rafael, it’s invaluable. I wouldn’t have the means to even ask anybody if I were in a different setting. I wouldn’t necessarily feel like the comfort to be able to ask for that favor. The thing is that you’re part of what they’re getting when they come, they have the experience of professional people. Everybody loves it for a person. They see the sign with all the names of the attorneys on the outside and they see my plaque and they see I’m the company of all these names and they’re just rushing by. They just see a known in the office. The staff, it is that sense of propriety that people expect in a law office. It’s not like a ‘We Work’. We’re compared to that. It was like, “Oh, this is like a lawyers’ We Work.”
Well, it’s actually just really like a law office that happens to be a co-working environment, but it really is set up in a way with just the sense of propriety and just decorum of just being quiet and studious and confidential. I think that’s the biggest thing that people worry about, “Are people snooping on our conversations or do we have privacy when we speak?” Even, “will the staff hold confidence”, kind of thing. We’re dealing very sensitive information. That’s just a big part of when I chose the space, I’m tuning into a culture that’s already been established. All the best parts of being a part of a big law firm, with none of the stress, because there’s no partner meetings, there’s no budgets, there’s no billable hours, that I have to achieve, so I have my own goals and I’m a solo.
Part of having the environment there is that actually my overhead is less than it would be in another place, so I can keep more of the money I make, but also I’m able to also charge less than some other attorneys which I’m comfortable doing. I do basically effectively with my sliding scale. My wealthier clients definitely pay more, but I serve many clients that are – and in my business, I know what my clients have because they have to disclose it to me. I do bring in clients that are not of great means. They can afford to pay something, but they don’t pay the full freight. I have the flexibility of doing that basically if I had to spend a lot more money on rent in another space, it was basically – when you have to work out as a solo, like what does it really cost to be someplace? It’s expensive.
If you’re doing a sublet from another over-tenant, it may not include the stuff like conference space. It’s part of the agreement that I have in the Suite. I know I’m paying one fee and it includes certain services and then you just pay as you go for a scan or whatever. It’s actually way cheaper than running my own machine, because I know I just pay as I go and it’s always highly, well-maintained, well-stocked, I never have to worry about paper or toner or whatever, being in the printer. Those things, just knowing it’s right there is a huge benefit for me. That’s not lawyering, that’s the administrative aspect of being an attorney, which we all have. We all have offices, so we have to have a place to store our stuff and even that is a big deal. When you’re subletting just a plain old office, they may not give you a closet space to stash your supplies or documents that don’t fit in your office.
Megan: Now, many lawyers had to make changes to their marketing strategy. For example, like traditional networking basically went out of the window with social distancing and things being so restricted. How have you changed your marketing strategy?
Thom Chu: Well, right from the beginning, when I moved into the Suites, I joined Business Network International, BNI. Many of the attorneys belong to chapters. When I first joined, my neighbors were all pulling on me saying like, “Come to my chapter. We don’t have a trust and estates person.” That was a very easy thing to get involved in. It’s been a big cornerstone of my practice. I have to credit actually being part of the suites team and getting involved in that way, because, coming in as a visitor when you’re sponsored by another attorney means a lot. Somebody who’s a neighbor, they know your background, you’re somewhat a known quantity, we’re really friendly, we have coffee, that kind of thing. That’s a weekly network meeting. It’s part of a global network. There’s fifty plus chapters in Manhattan. So that goes back to 2014 when I first joined BNI. I’ve been involved in that now, so going on seven years.
Megan: So your marketing stems from like referrals.
Thom Chu: Word of mouth referrals, so that’s a big cornerstone. That’s what you’re really investing every week with a group of people and the way those networks are set up is different from the suite, which is all lawyers. Those are all different professionals and each legal areas only allowed one slot. You might have a someone like me, but there’s a business attorney, a matrimonial attorney, intellectual property attorney and the nice thing is that, the suite is so diverse that we could draw on – so I have invited people from the suite to come see me at my chapter, but I’m actually wanting to build it out with more members. There have been weeks, this is prior to COVID, that I continued into that season. To test your question, I’ve always done word of mouth marketing, but very strategically. Not just tapping into my personal networks or just social media. I’m on LinkedIn, I’m on Facebook. I’ve gotten little leads here and there through Law Firms Suites community online on the Facebook page, that’s been helpful. Most importantly, I’ve really been putting in a deposit every week by investing in relationships with people from other industries. I do get referrals from other attorneys and those other attorneys are not in the suite and it’s actually a nice thing for me. I got so involved with BNI. I became actually president of a chapter. I served for two years as president of BNI chapter 31, which folded actually a year ago today, just as the pandemic was beginning
Megan: A lot of the attorneys that I’ve spoken with used their downtime during COVID to optimize their practices in different ways, whether it was learning a new skillset or getting stronger in some of the things that they were already doing, or even automating their files and getting things digitized in the cloud. What are some ways that you used your downtime to optimize your business?
Thom Chu: Sure. I mean, I was already using Cleo, which is one of these cloud-based software packages to keep track of time. I was able to definitely use time in between to digitize documents and optimize them so that they could be filled out on PDF using Adobe Acrobat. I do electronic signing now for agreements, not for the actual legal documents. For client agreements, I do online bill pay, Zelle bank to bank transfers, things that I hadn’t really – I was using law pay, which is a credit card service, but I was paying like 3% commissions. Now, pretty much every bank is part of the Zelle system. They have different brand names for each bank, but I can now send a bill by email and there’s no fee involved in it.
It clears pretty much instantaneously if they already registered on the service. I definitely have taken the opportunity to optimize details about my running my office. Just using the time, efficiently and part of finding the time is that some days I don’t commute to the office, so I’m taking out the commute time, so I can just be getting to work at nine, but I still need the office. There are definitely people who have given thought to like, “Well, do I really need to have a physical presence?” My answer for myself is that I’m evaluated in part by the address that’s on my business card. I wouldn’t even fathom the idea of moving because I’ve been at the same address since I started my practice.
Thom Chu: Now I guess some people would go virtual, virtual-virtual, meaning have a mailbox. That’s a possibility too, but in my business, I have to do documents I have in person. I do a lot of consultations in person, because people they don’t really want to have that conversation that about their personal finances, about the people they love the most, protecting themselves, their assets, all of that stuff. They really need a place that holds the conversation in confidence. For me, it’s like it’s always going to be – whatever going back to the new normal is – I don’t think it’s going to be remote only. People are going to tire of that. Likewise, I think it’s always going to be somewhat hybrid. I don’t think it’s going to go back to the old way because once people figured out, “Oh, I don’t have to commute to go see my attorney.” Frankly, I tell people you don’t have to dress up for me either. If you’re in street clothes or frankly house clothes, I don’t care. We can have the conversation. If you’re comfortable that way, it’s fine. Some clients even want to do it on the phone instead of on video, because they don’t want to necessarily have to tart up their visual presence. For some older school people – old fashioned people – they were fine with the phone, but we’re dealing with very sensitive stuff.
Megan: Now, we’ve heard how the pandemic has positively impacted your practice. Has the pandemic impacted your personal life, or any other areas of who you are and what you do in a positive way?
Thom Chu: It’s changed my view of how I spend my time. I spent a lot of time on my networking life over coffee, dinners out, lunches out, breakfast meetings. That’s all out the window, but I saved a ton of money. I’ve lost a lot of weight, frankly and I’m not really dieting. I’m just not eating out; hardly at all.
Megan: Right, because you’re our resident foodie in the office.
Thom Chu: I love to cook and I love to share my big goods. It’s fun and in fact, I have a client who came this week, he came on, I thought to bring him some – bake some bread. I’ll have to share some with you and Rafael, but in fact, I’m going to share with – Jonathan Jabaal, our neighbor, is a big baker.
Megan: That’s something we definitely miss in the office is all of the goodies that people would bring in.
Thom Chu: Yes. There’s a lot less of that now, but so one of the impacts is that I’ve really reevaluated the way I spend my time. So if I were having a luncheon in Midtown, I’d leave the office. I’m suited up, but I’m leaving at 11:15 to get there on time for a noon luncheon and lunch is running 12 to let’s say 1:15, 1:30. When I get back it’s like, two o’clock or after two o’clock. That would be a normal thing, but a lot of the way I’ve built my businesses is the relationships. You have to invest time. Now I’m going to do a one-hour zoom on a schedule. People are on time and it’s not necessarily at lunchtime. It could be before work starts, could be from eight to nine. I do a lot of my zoom contacts are just when people have time in between the clients and that we set up a time and it may not seem so obvious, but there’s less friction because they can say yes to the meeting and they can just sit and it’s a set time. When the hour is over, they just are ready for their next meeting. Again, I don’t love working from home. I also don’t love Zoom. I find, neurologically speaking, the whole thing – one-to-one is one thing, but when it’s group meetings, it is exhausting to me.
My business network is 90 minutes with breakouts and it runs from 7:00 to 8:30, I’m just a wreck after that, because of just the way the brain has to process all those faces and the tiles and all this stuff. Plus, you’re performing for the camera even when you’re not on the spot, and you’re having to do that too to stay attentive and interested in the speaker. When you’re doing that with, and then we’re just one-on-one. When you’re doing that with twenty-five people on the screen and they’re floating around, it’s not fun. It’s work and it’s exhausting. If I did that all day, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d be dying. I think some of the benefits are that I would say COVID has been an accelerant, not necessarily all in good ways. You reassess all the positive stuff.
It’s certainly accelerated people dying. It also accelerated, some of the inequalities that we’re seeing in the world, but, to focus on our practices, what it did accelerate is it cleaned off the slate of what’s really important. When things go back, I’m going to be thinking about, “Is that a really great use of my time”, to yes to a coffee when it’s not right in the financial district. Even when it’s the financial district, if it’s not right here, it could take a lot of time. If I could be effective in a different way, I might want to save the time and spend it on other stuff. I’ve also just gotten used to being alone. You can tell, I love being with people, but it has opened up a whole new perspective of being my own best company. I don’t necessarily love it, but I’ve been forced to reflect on that and be more attentive and I’ll motivate myself working alone. Part of the reasons I went into the Suite was the colleagueship. Even though you’re working separately, next to each other, there’s a motivational aspect of like, “Oh, wow. My neighbor is really intent on doing this stuff. I need to get like that too.
Megan: Speaking to motivation what are one or two things that motivated you to push forward during the pandemic?
Thom Chu: Oh, wow. I think it’s just plain old, “You got to pay your bills”, definitely that. In my social media, I really try to address these issues. Number one is to really be vulnerable to say like, “Look, we’re all suffering; we’re all affected by the stuff that’s going on, so I’m not alone and I’m not a super person either.” I have my own worries, but in that I was able to tell a story, to reach out to people and say, “Look, it’s not too late, but it’s not too soon either to get your stuff done. I can help you and there’s no shame in starting it now.”
Death and disability are pretty much certainties in life. That is going to happen. You just don’t know when it’s going to happen. And then finally I think that just in terms of motivation, just realizing, “Look, nobody’s going to do your work for you.” You’ve got to get up and figure out what you want to do and move forward. I’ve found many, many opportunities, even in dark days, so I’m networking with people. I have new colleagues that I’ve discovered in the last few days just by being attentive to social media. That’s my channel now, because I can’t get out. There’s no other way to get out there. The mixers are not there, but frankly, a lot of them weren’t that great anyway, I didn’t love being caught with food in my hand or, so I would eat before, even though it was great food at this thing, I would have a glass of water that wouldn’t stain any clothes if I spilled it, I wouldn’t want to have greasy food in my hand and you’re passing on business cards. At the end of these mixers, the floor is filled with business cards. People dropping stuff or tossing stuff or whatever, and it’s throwing stuff into the air or at the wall or whatever. Being more purposeful and strategic in social media to say, “I’m looking to help people.” It’s not necessarily just to plug my practice, by the way. I want to help a client by finding the best personal organizer to help them do what they need to get done.
By the way, that person could actually refer my business. That’s in fact, something I’m working on right now, is to get an organizer into my business network chapter, because I think she’s going to be a great referral partner for me. Staying motivated is – don’t stay in your shell, get out there any way you can, which includes meeting online. My business network is really a very traditional thing happening to be online. I don’t see it – I don’t think the back to normal is going to be anything less than a hybrid. It may even just stay virtual, because we’re going to save so much money. It costs a thousand dollars a year to have breakfast; twenty-five dollars a week.
Megan: I know you’ve mentioned that you use social media in order to connected and to reach out to more people. What are other ways that you’ve stayed in touch with, or leaned on your attorney colleagues during the pandemic?
Thom Chu: Sure. We can cover for each other take care of business. I’m probably closer to the few attorneys that are in-person in the office, just because there are fewer of us than when we had more people every day. Even my closest office colleague, we have regular check-ins with each other and probably spend as much quality time because it’s one-to-one, and we’re not there each doing our own matters. Right. We make an appointment to check in and we have each other’s undivided attention. I think we’re probably more effective now than what was more chitchat while each of us were working on our own matters. Even though we were in the same office, but we’ve become quite close over years. I’ve been really blessed by that.
That’s really a special thing, but there were a number of of dyads. There are other attorneys who teamed up to share a space, not necessarily partners, because my office mate is not a partner. We’re both solos, but share space to save money, but also have that colleague trip. We happen to be right next door to two attorneys, a criminal attorney and a matrimonial attorney, very different practice areas. There is a kinship. It’s not necessarily – I’m not going to say we’re all chummy-chummy – it’s a respect for each other, a certain level of friendship. You definitely have access to people. We’ll drop in on each other, or just in the hall, heading to and from the elevator, we’ll quiz each other on little, ideas and not least of all referrals.
Do you know somebody who does this and to be able to just help each other that, super helpful? I think the culture that the Suite definitely encourages that interaction, even though it’s not very organized. Obviously, back in the day, we used to have more organized things for all the tenants at the Suites to mix. I miss that. We aren’t able to do that for now, but even so, those – you’re putting little deposits into the goodwill jar, so you can cash those out over time. I think there’s less of that now and I think it’s circumstantial. I think that things will improve. I think that there’s another generation of attorneys that are being displaced, meaning they’re leaving big firms or they’re deciding they don’t want to be in those kinds of environments, or aren’t loving working from home, that will find us a nice environment.
Megan: Now, of course it’s everyone’s personal choice. What advice would you give to an attorney who is nervous about coming back into the office on a regular basis? What would you tell them based on your experience, how they should handle returning?
Thom Chu: I’ve been there right through, so I’ve never had any issues. It’s very well run. It’s clean with great ventilation. I have a window that opens, not every office has that, but I don’t even open my window by the way. It happens to be a building – it’s a rare thing, by the way, in lower Manhattan – many buildings have windows that are sealed. The fact that you can open, if you wanted air circulation more than what you’re getting in the ventilator, you can have it, but I don’t see any part of what we have that’s not up to the normal standard. If people are worried about the appearance, we present with the loose side barriers and all the suggested precautions are all there.
Now that we realize that fomite transmission is not really the issue, it’s really air circulation, the air quality of the building is fine, but I think in general, because everybody’s really so conscientious, it’s probably cleaner and better run than people working from home who don’t have commercial ventilation. The difference is that when you’re working from home, you don’t have anybody you’re sharing the space with, but I don’t raise any concerns, whether it’s about the lobby check-in, the elevator situation, the hallways coming into the suite, it’s completely up to snuff of anywhere you want to go. There’s no reason for you to be concerned and I think that we don’t even have the number of people who’re there to really merit being there. You have to see for yourself and decide that. It’s a very subjective thing, but I’ve had not a single client say, “I’m not coming.” I give them the choice. “If you come, you go home with your documents”, and they all say yes, and I had three sets of clients in this week and that’s as many as I had to offer them, but every single one came. I consider myself pretty busy, so I’m very pleased with the choices that I’ve made and certainly for a solo, you and Rafael and just to the neighbors, it’s part of presenting what my clients are paying for. I don’t give them a big tour, they just pass through, but they see what’s there and it’s very nicely run.
Megan: Now being that we’re just about three months into the new year, it’s 2021. What are some of your goals and aspirations for this year? You had a great year last year, you closed 20 cases. What is 2021 looking for Tom Chu?
Thom Chu: By the way, so the twenty cases, some of them were finished out. They started in the last year, they finished this year, but those 20 were all virtual. I had some that are traditional in-person. In fact, a couple of those that came this week were very traditional because they’re in some ways back to normal. In terms of my actual business goals, year on year, I’m looking at I’m on track to improve my income by about twenty-five percent. Part of it is also by reducing my overhead, which I’ve done, and that’s been a big help, but overall I’m going to have 25% more in terms of my profit and loss, my actual balance sheet. I’m expecting to have more net income and it’s partly by reducing overhead and also increasing the throughput. Some is optimizing some of those processes I was talking about where it’s spending less time to do stuff for me, because I’m a solo. I don’t have a paralegal.
The other big goal I have is really to build a business – a practice so I can bring somebody in. That’s a big step. I do actually employ a business coach and that’s something that I’m considering. You have to spend more to get more. I’m in the pilot mode of trying to figure out, how much I want to lay out for that. It’s a speculative thing. You are then fending for two people, but I’m looking for a situation where, because of the employment environment right now, there are people who are probably willing to work on a pay as you go basis. It’s a new position for me, and if I can make more money, I will definitely compensate the person helping me. I may make that a challenge, because I can’t really control – I don’t really know what my flow is. I never do. I just kept track of what’s come in, but I can trace back to a person where my business come from. I have very few cases that come to me completely cold. Pretty much everybody comes to me through somebody they know, they like, they trust; sometimes all three would be great, but not sometimes not even that. Sometimes they just trust them and they may not like them that well, but as long as they trust that person and they grow to trust me, what I like to do is by the end, I want them to be able to say, “I know him and like him too.” I’ve earned this idea that they can say, “I know him.”
Mainly, when I look at the category, it’s really my former clients and I have colleagues who are my clients. It’s even nicer when I have attorneys, in fact, one of my clients this week is a non-practicing attorney. When he says he was my lawyer, first of all, people listen to him because they know his background and for a lawyer to have a lawyer is a big deal. That’s what I aspire to in part, and then I have other channels like financial advisors and others. In terms of the actual goals, my 20-25%, year on year, I had a pretty decent year; 2020 was actually pretty good, but part of that was also reducing my expenses.
Megan: What’s interesting is that you’ve reduced your expenses, but you also were able to upgrade. Even with your office, you’re able to upgrade your workstation and now you have a nice view. You have more space and it’s better functionality for you.
Thom Chu: Quite honestly, my officemate and I were sharing a space much larger and we had the opportunity to change over, so we took advantage of that. The crazy thing is that his own daughter who had seen all his offices before said, “Daddy, you have actually a better office now. It’s cozier and smaller.” It was one of those things – and where I was before I was sharing a larger space, but I was facing a wall. Now I have a space that’s right by a window facing Upper Bay and Hudson River of New York. It’s a beautiful and I can see the Statue of Liberty on my window. Now that the sun is setting later in the day, I have beautiful view and natural light, which is immeasurably valuable to me, just for my own wellbeing. I’m actually spending less money to have it. I got an upgrade. I’m spending less money, but these are all things that other people can have. It’s definitely possible.
People can come from another environment which may not be as comfortable and find someplace in the Suites that meets their needs. Quite honestly, my biggest lifestyle change, when you asked me, I thank you for asking me because I’ll tell you this. I have spent so much less money on going out to lunch and dinner, even coffee is not free. It’s the time, but that combined. When I looked at what my marketing expense went to, it’s a fraction of what I used to spend. Now, I have actually more bandwidth to serve my clients, because obviously I couldn’t do a client consult when I was marketing my business. It’s really important for all of us to really be out there, spending some part of our day telling people who can help us, how to tell the story of what we do, because people are not walking in the door. They’re not going to walk in the door, just say like, “Oh, show me a trust, trust and estates attorney.” They’re asking somebody they trust, “Do you know somebody who’s really good?”
Megan: Exactly, because you can’t even get in the building without an appointment.
Thom Chu: That’s right. Exactly.
Megan: So, lastly can you share something that’s interesting or a funny little anecdote that might’ve happened to you in 2020?
Thom Chu: Related to being on the Suites?
Megan: Related to being in the Suites or anything in general.
Thom Chu: Great coincidence. This literally happened to me in the last few weeks and this is through networking to build my practice. I have a client who has become a friend. My clients become friends and my friends become clients, not universally, but it just can happen. So here’s somebody who’s been in business network, person in my kind of referral partner world, he’s become a really nice friend and partly because of the pandemic, you don’t have that many opportunities to have that much contact, but this is somebody I’ve spent a lot of time with and we’re just having casual conversation. He was describing a former therapist of his. This is somebody you actually did a signing for, so he’s describing somebody like, “Oh, I’m going to have lunch with my ex-therapist of 20 years ago. He’s from far Rockaway and his partner is a retired firefighter.” I’m putting it together and you wouldn’t believe it that it was actually somebody who was a former client of mine who came and did their plan with me. I think you were one of the witnesses. I said, “His last name is Imacery” and he’s like, “How did you know that?” I’m like, “Strange coincidence, just a funny story.”
The thing is I got that client through my business network and it was actually multiply distant, meaning I got my best friend from high school in my network now, a web developer, who did my website. He needed a Connecticut attorney to do trust and estate work, because I’m not licensed there; do wills and trusts for her sister and her husband. I went and looked at my network to find this attorney. She got offered to do it, did a great job. Well in return, she sent me her New York clients who she couldn’t draft for and this male couple were some of those people and they were thrilled because I’m openly gay and understand their life situation. They didn’t have to explain anything to me, I was like, “I totally get you.” It’s great and that’s part of my marketing. People know my background, they know where I went to school, or they know that I have a religious affiliation. These little chit-chat connections are meaningful to certain people, especially in terms of same gender loving couples. They’re comfortable from the get go because they know where I come from.
That’s a funny story because how unlikely is it in New York that somebody would just blurt out a little fact, and say, “Oh, I’m going to have a conversation with this person”, and they don’t tell you their actual name. They start describing him and I’m like, “How many gay therapists are there in Far Rockaway?” That’s a funny story, but it’s also just a little story about how small the world is and really, it warms the heart in a way because it just shows that there are these connections and that we can tap into them to grow our business.
Megan: I could relate to that story because so many people come through our doors, especially in the past and they might see an attorney walk by and they’re like, “Hey, is that so-and-so?”, and I’m like, “Oh yes, that’s whoever it is. That’s Thom Chu.” They’re like, “I think I went to high school, or we were in the same class in law school” and I’m like, “Oh, really? Do you want me to go get them?” and then it’s seeing history repeat, or people have these moments. At the reception desk, it’s so nice. It was one of my favorite things to see people connecting and they didn’t even think they were going to come in and see a blast from the past or something that.
Thom Chu: That’s great.
Megan: That’s really heartwarming, but those are all the questions I have for you today, Thom. I just wanted to say it was such a pleasure talking to you. This was so much fun and I really thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to sit down and talk to me.
Thom Chu: Happy to share and I just would love to see more neighbors at the Suites and you guys are doing a great job. I really admire what you’re doing. I think it’s so important to tell these stories, because in the end, real estate is fungible. There’s lots of rooms in our neighborhood that are available, but that’s not mainly what it is that I came for. I could’ve probably paid a different price if I were looking strictly at square footage or the view or whatever. What I really invested in was really an environment and it’s been very profitable for me and frankly nurturing. My closest attorney colleague happens to be my office mate, and we’re not only colleagues, we’re also friends.
For that to have happened, honestly, the chances of it happening would be pretty much one in a million for me, if it hadn’t been for – and it was partly because I was able to do the research of who the tenants were in the Suite. He didn’t know me from anybody, but I approached him and we happened to have the same law school Alma Mater, and there’s a kinship there. We don’t really tap into it that much, other than the fact that we have long connections, but that was just the groundwork for everything else. Thanks for having me.
Megan: Yes. Thanks again. I’ll definitely be in touch and I’ll see you sometime this week.
Thom Chu: Oh, absolutely. Probably one of the day we’ll have some bread. Okay. Take care. Thanks again.