On October 1, 1996, our firm opened for business. The start was hardly auspicious. A few weeks earlier, I had been fired from the law firm where I was a named partner. My unceremonious departure was proof of a great truism about law firms: Sometimes the only thing worse than doing poorly is doing well. It was ugly. Three other lawyers and our entire support staff joined me in creating a new firm. We had great clients and there was plenty of business – and every bit of it followed us. Still, creating a law firm in six weeks was a huge challenge. I liquidated personal assets and guaranteed a line of credit (for an amount that was huge for me). It helped that I knew the president of that community bank. We found an office, but the renovations were just starting when we moved. Luckily, the contractor had worked with me before and he bent over backwards so we could operate. Still, we shared our space with various construction workers for several weeks. Dust and paint fumes were ever present. Our desks were folding tables and the file cabinets were Bankers boxes. (This was in the world before electronic records, obviously.) We got no break from the old firm. They wouldn’t even sell us equipment or furniture they no longer needed because of our departure.
We made it. A month after we started, I had a multi-day jury trial in southwest Virginia. New case assignments were flowing. By the end of the year, we were making money. In February I started paying myself. I don’t think about those days a lot, except around this time of year. The firm story has some twists and turns. When we started, our business was over 90% medical malpractice defense work. Twenty years later, we had a huge defense practice, with eighteen lawyers and four offices. By the end of 2017, that defense work was gone, as were most of those lawyers and staff. With the defense practice gone, we took on state law malpractice cases – now representing patients and families. We put that huge defense experience to good use, and we’ve done well. In 2020 and 2021 we had the largest verdicts in Virginia. Other firms seek us out as co-counsel. In 1999, we started handling Federal Tort Claims Act malpractice cases, primarily relating to healthcare at VA and military hospitals. That national practice is now very large and we are well known for our expertise in such cases. We get clients and referrals from almost every state. Starting in 2005, we took on vaccine injury matters. That nationwide practice has also grown tremendously. We’ve had our ups and downs – some big ones too. Going from a relatively large firm doing mostly hourly rate work to a four lawyer plaintiffs’ firm was very hard, but (again) we made it. I can’t help but think that our firm’s messy and stressful start gave us an extra dose of resilience. It’s part of our culture – the lore of the corps, so to speak. We’ve weathered some tough times and come out stronger on the other side. There is more. In the chaos of crashing around in the late summer and fall of 1996, I also had a vision of the kind of firm I wanted to create:
We would be absolutely client-focused, always. Everything else would always be a secondary consideration.
We would provide excellent and cost-effective legal services.
We would only do those things we could do well.
We would respect each other – and have no tolerance for disrespect.
We would respect each other’s personal lives. We work to live, not the other way around.
We would value honesty – and have no tolerance for dishonesty.
For 26 years we have held onto that vision. It has not been perfectly implemented, let alone achieved – far from it. It keeps us going, however. Happy Founders Day, Rawls Law Group.