As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Stewart J. Guss.
Since starting his personal injury law firm in 1999, Stewart J. Guss has had the honor of representing clients from all over the world, helping them recover from even the most catastrophic injuries. Stewart grew up in Clear Lake City in Greater Houston, where his father worked for NASA. Stewart earned his Juris Doctor Degree from the University of Houston Law Center and is now an active member of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. With over 20 years practicing personal injury law, Stewart’s professional accomplishments have been nationally recognized: The National Association of Distinguished Counsel ranked him as one of the top one percent of personal injury attorneys in the country in 2015. The National Trial Lawyers listed him as one of the top 100 trial lawyers in the nation in 2016. He’s been featured as one of the “Best Attorneys in America” by the prestigious Rue Ratings since 2015. Stewart has also been designated one of the Top Personal Injury Attorneys by Houstonia Magazine for 2013–2019, every year since it began publishing its rankings. As an avid believer in the motto “pay it forward,” Stewart is an active philanthropist. He established Houston’s Unsung Greats “HUG” Award, sponsors an annual college scholarship, and supports numerous charities, including Reach Unlimited and the MS150. Stewart is also a patron of the arts, underwriting both Stageworks Theater and the Houston Gilbert and Sullivan Society. Stewart lives in Houston with his wife Kelli, their son Iain, their daughter Adrienne, and their three labradoodles. In his spare time, he enjoys cooking as well as biking through Northwest Harris County with his family.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in Clear Lake City, a suburb south of Houston, and the home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. I was lucky enough to grow up with (literally) the children of rocket scientists, and had a very robust academic upbringing. After attending the University of Texas at Austin for my undergrad degree, I attended the University of Texas’ Red McCombs School of Business to study in their MBA program. I landed at the University of Houston Law Center where I earned my law degree, and I’ve called Houston home ever since.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
As a young child, I can remember wandering in a market in Monterrey, Mexico where my family was vacationing. I remember seeing hundreds of birds in cages, being sold by a vendor, and being SO sad for them that I tried to get my parents to buy them, so we could set them free. In other words, I’m lucky enough to have a deep sense of empathy and compassion, which has helped me achieve a good measure of success as an attorney.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early in my career, I was hired to represent someone in a highly contested, and very contentious case. The parties HATED each other. The opposing counsel I was working with, carried her client’s hostility forward in her dealings with me. I tried to match her hostility, but it was getting the case nowhere, and costing our respective clients a lot of money. One day I realized that we would get NOWHERE just continuing to butt heads like that. I was in a meeting at her office, and I saw a picture of a dog on her desk. I asked her about her dog, and like THAT — her attitude changed 180 degrees. After spending a little time talking about our pets, our working relationship was transformed. We actually had the entire matter settled amicably within just a few weeks!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My maternal grandfather. After immigrating from Russia as a young boy, he settled with his family in the Lower East Side of New York in the early part of the 20th century. He got a job as a house painter, and spent decades carrying 5 gallon paint cans, four at a time (2 in each hand) up 6 and 7 floor tenements to paint and earn a living to make a better life for his daughters, my mother and my aunt. Thanks to his hard work, my mother was able to go to college, and she and my father spent their lives encouraging me to focus on education, so that I was able to thrive educationally, and attend law school. I have since built a national law firm with 130 attorneys and staff in 8 offices over 4 states, and we currently service about 8000 cases at a time. Every time I get tired, upset, or frustrated, or want to give up on something — I imagine my Grandpa Morris walking up those stairs, carrying that paint, and remember that he did that for me as much as my mother, even though I wouldn’t be born for many years to come. How can I give up on ANYTHING in life, when I remember him?
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Coming out of law school, I thought I was “hot stuff.” Smart, good at what I did, etc. I can remember the first time I showed up at court for a highly contested matter. I was prepared, and I was ready to go, but I’ll never forget when the “reality” of what I was about to do hit me. I excused myself from my clients who were waiting with me in the hall, went to the bathroom, and proceeded to unceremoniously empty my breakfast into the toilet. After sitting in the stall, literally quaking with fear and insecurity, I stepped out, looked at the mirror, and realized that my clients — waiting outside — were depending on me to be my best. I washed my face, put my confidence back on, and walked out into the hallway ready to put my fears and insecurities aside, and fight for victory. (We won!)
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Fundamentally, I’ve always enjoyed being a lawyer, and considered myself pretty good at my job. Of course, the stress and fatigue was TREMENDOUS, and there were so many times I was ready to give up. Coincidentally, I had my firstborn child the second year that I was trying to build my firm. Every time I felt tired, and ready to quit, I remembered that I had a duty, a lovely and welcomed duty, to work hard to build a better life for my children, as my parents did for me, and my grandparents for my parents, etc.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today, I’m happy to consider myself a success in every axis. I’ve got a large and prosperous law firm doing noble and good work for thousands of deserving clients all over the country. I’ve got a joyously happy marriage, one kid in a great college, and a second one on her way. Granted, the two decades I’ve spent building my firm involved a great number of 12–14 hour days. Heck, some days I just slept at the office because it just wasn’t worth it to drive home. Looking around today at what I am able to do for my family, my employees, and my clients — it was all worth it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are plenty of great personal injury attorneys in Texas and around the country. (I know, I’m friends with many of them!) They are all great lawyers that get great results for their clients, but my focus has always been to maintain a “dual” focus at our firm. We strive not only to get excellent legal results for our cases, but to also provide the absolute best customer service to our clients as well. Our dual focus has enabled us to successfully resolve thousands of cases in our clients’ favor, as well as to make PLENTY of happy clients (and now friends) as well!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
No matter how busy you are, and no matter how stressed and tired you may feel, you should ALWAYS make time for “self care.” Even when you think you don’t have the time, or feel too buried to even THINK about making time for yourself, always find time to take care of yourself. Whether it’s a quick trip to the gym, some time on the floor playing with kids or pets, or simply taking a 20 minute snooze on your couch (I’ve ALWAYS had a couch in my office just for this!), make sure that you make time for you. That is the ONLY way I was able to get through those 12–14 hour days as I was building my business to what it is today!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m lucky enough to have a voice in this world that lands on a good number of years. Rather than simply use my platform for self promotion, I’ve tried to make it a point to speak up on points of justice and equality. I feel it is my responsibility as an American, and a direct beneficiary of the American Dream.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- “Take time to drain the swamp, or you will spend all your time fighting the alligators.” By this, I mean, no matter how many fires you have in your business, don’t spend all of your time trying to put them out. Even if it takes an extra 5, 10, or 20 hours a week, you MUST make time to focus on the FUTURE of your enterprise. Take the time to build out the improvements, consider and improve the process, and spend the time to look for ways to “build a better mousetrap.” If you don’t you will always be trapped where you are, without the necessary infrastructure for you to continue to grow your business.
- “Don’t spend all your time making decisions. Rather, spend the time to find and hire decisionmakers.” This bit of advice is for those folks who have already started to build a business, and may have five, ten, or even a couple of dozen employees. Remember that ALL of your employees need excellent leaders and managers. If you are in growth mode, you will quickly find out that it is impossible to effectively directly supervise more than 5 to 8 people at a time. For this reason, it is CRITICAL that you hire highly effective managers and leaders for your team. Make sure that you train them and empower them, and always, ALWAYS support them. The more effective decision makers you have on your team, the less decisions you will have to spend your time making.
- “Learn how to delegate, but make sure you’re doing it the RIGHT way.” As we grow as businesspeople, and our staff count continues to increase, one of our first challenges is to learn how to start giving up control. This means that you find tasks that you have been doing yourself that can just as effectively be done by members of your team. This is only the first step! It is CRITICALLY important when you learn this skill to learn how to delegate effectively. This takes TIME! It is NOT enough to simply tell someone that they are now in charge of X, Y, or Z. You must make the time to show them, in detail, how to do it. Just as importantly, show them WHY we do it that way. Once they have a firm grasp on the how and the why, let them go, but… Check back in! Make sure you come back to review their work, praise their success, and gently “put a little English on the ball” if you need them to change course on a few things. By taking the time to learn how to delegate well, you will both build confidence in and empower your team, as well as gaining more time for yourself to focus on other priorities.
- “You will make more profit on the clients that you turn away than some of the clients that you take.” When I was in law school, a very wise mentor shared this with me, and at first, I was VERY confused. When I opened and started to build my own practice, I finally understood. In those first couple of years when I spent PLENTY of time starting at my phone, waiting for it to ring, I made the HORRIBLE mistake of taking on any client that had a good case and the money to retain me. Unfortunately, this put me in the unenviable position of having to represent a number of EXTREMELY difficult clients with, unfortunately, very tenuous claims. The pain, burden, stress, and heartache of having to deal with these clients and cases was extremely exhausting and draining. I highly encourage anyone in business to be VERY careful who they work for and work with. Sometimes you will be FAR better off giving a polite “no thank you” to a client when your “Spidey Sense” is tingling, even if you are staring at a stack of bills to be paid sitting on your desk.
- “Do well by doing good.” I’ve made it a point in my life, even well before I was an attorney, to try and put as much good, and love, and positivity in the world as is possible. When struck, try to turn the other cheek. When wronged, try and do right. As soon as you can, find a charity to support, or community organizations with which to get involved. Try hard to think first of those around you before you think of yourself. When you are driven to vengeance, try forgiveness instead. It is not the easiest thing to do sometimes, but if you ALWAYS try to leave people and situations happier and better than when you found them, you are BOUND to have that positivity reflect back to you. I try hard not to bear grudges against those whom have wronged me, and I try hard to wish for their success in their own endeavors. As to those with whom I have parted ways on less than good terms, I say, “I don’t want you to starve. I want you to prosper and eat, just not at my table.”
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
One of my biggest handicaps has for a long time been one of the biggest drivers of my success — my dogged perfectionism and inability to give up control. For many years, it was this drive, focus, and vision that helped me to “leapfrog” to each new level of success. Now, many years in, I’ve learned to trust and delegate. Having hired and trained many successful leaders in my firm, I have learned to trust their discretion, and only step in when necessary — which is few and far between.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
That is really an excellent and astute observation. As a young brash attorney and businessman, I suffered from the crippling affliction of thinking I always knew best. Honestly, it was only after rattling my bones going over a few “speed bumps” along the way that I realized that listening was the ONLY way to learn, and that I gained NOTHING when I was the only one talking.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
We already have! My wife and I are lucky and blessed enough to have realistically saved enough money to get us through retirement in reasonable comfort (with enough to visit our kids and someday hopefully, grandkids.) We are in the process of setting up a charitable foundation that we will fund to support people and organizations that are doing good in the world for causes in which we believe. We’ve actually already started, and it is one of the most gratifying parts of my current life and lifestyle.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our website is www.attorneyguss.com, and our Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/Stewart.Guss.Houston.Accident.Attorney/. I am in the process of writing a book outlining my experiences and sharing life and business lessons with anyone who cares to listen. I anticipate publication in the late summer or fall.