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Exceptional Success From A Unique Talent
Russell Adler, Owner, Law Offices of Russell E. Adler PLLC
by, Chris Dessi
I’m not an attorney, but I’m surrounded by attorneys in my family life. I have three family members who practice law. When you’re surrounded by attorneys, you tend to see patterns. Patterns of behavior. Patterns of thought. Patterns in their approach to life. I can spot an attorney from miles away. They’re paid to look at the negative. Point out the downside. Advise against risk. This is a great thing, but not my thing. I get it, I respect it, but it’s just not the way my brain works.
My friend Russ is an attorney. Russ doesn’t look like an attorney. Russ doesn’t behave like an attorney. Russ exhibits none of the patterns of “attorney like” behavior that I’ve seen in my life. I believe that’s why I’m drawn to him. Russ and I met while he was in law school with my brother. He’s now my attorney. Whatever that means. He’s also a dear friend, and he’s running his own practice on his own terms. I admire that. I also admire that he’s different than most.
- Attorneys wear black wing tips. I’ve seen Russ wear red shoes.
- Attorneys are members of golf clubs. Russ competes in CrossFit “battles.”
- Attorneys go to the ballet. Russ jams on his red electric guitar.
- Attorneys drive big black Mercedes. Russ drives an orange Mini Cooper.
- Attorneys take meetings in huge offices with oak furniture. My last meeting with Russ took place outside on his deck while we both admired the woods in his backyard while sipping coffee. His lovely wife and two daughters made a guest appearance.
Russ has his own unique patterns of behavior. Russ is more entrepreneur than attorney. When Russ gives me advice (legal or otherwise), I take it.
There are many attorneys out there. Russ isn’t like any of them. That’s mostly why he’s my attorney. He’s the high hat of the beat. The risk taker in a sea of conservatives. I think these differences are why I’m drawn to Russ. They’re the reason why he has become more of a “consigliere” to me than hired gun. He’s the real deal. Genuine, grounded and a new kind of attorney with a new kind of approach to success that I thought worth sharing. I think you’ll agree.
Chris Dessi: You worked at four large law firms over the course of a decade before starting your own labor and employment law firm. Tell us about what the catalyst for that decision and the pros / cons of your choice.
Russ Adler: The firms I worked at over the 13 years before I started my own practice were very diverse in terms of, size or culture for example, but they were also uniform to a great degree. By that I mean the emphasis on quantity over quality which is inherent in a business model built purely on the billable hour. For years, the appeal of law firms was that if you worked hard and put in 7-10 years, you’d make partner and you were “set.” That is far from the case, nor has it been for many years. As one friend of mine put it: law firm partnership is like a pie eating contest where the reward is more pie.
I always felt that I had the right skill set to go out on my own, but the biggest obstacle was fear of failure. When I made the leap, it was one week before my 40th birthday, I have two kids, a mortgage and my wife had not been working for about 5 years at the time. I would have been crazy not to be afraid. Once I made the decision, I knew that I had to be 100% committed and fearless.
When I compare my professional life now to what it was when I was an employee, I can honestly say there are only pros, no cons. I have control over my practice and, therefore, control over my personal life. I have the freedom to say “no” to clients I don’t want to represent and to do the work I enjoy. Yes, there is stress in having my own practice, but I’d take that type of stress over the stress that comes with employment where you are in many ways at the mercy of others.
Chris Dessi: We have a friend who graduated from your alma mater of St. Johns Law in 2011. He eventually was hired by a firm that you used to work for, but it wasn’t easy. More and more, we hear about attorneys having a hard time finding employment out of school. If you were graduating college today, knowing what you know now, would you still pursue a law degree? What advice do you have for those entering the legal world now?
Russ Adler: I wouldn’t dissuade the 1996 Russell Adler from law school because I’m in a very good place now and that is unquestionably a direct result of my degree. Had you asked me that question 5 years ago, perhaps the answer would be different. I know a lot of unhappy lawyers, but the majority of happy lawyers I know are solo or small firm practitioners. I think the bloom is off the rose on so-called “biglaw” practice with regard to job satisfaction and work-life balance.
My advice for a newly minted lawyer is simple: listen, learn, ask lots of questions and value your reputation above all else; your reputation is the most important currency you have as a professional. Young lawyers need to understand that even in the beginning of their careers, they are planting seeds for their future success. All the people they interact with, friends, clients, adversaries, are future clients or referral sources. The best compliment I get is when someone I was previously adverse to in a case later hires or recommends me.
Chris Dessi: You recently completed your L1 Certification as a Cross Fit Trainer. Those who read this blog regularly know that I’m addicted to CrossFit – which is indirectly because of you. (Author’s note: Russ invited my brother Mark to drop into one of Russ’s classes, and my brother sold me on the benefits of CrossFit). Talk to us about the role fitness plays in your career and why CrossFit works for you?
Russ Adler: I started working out when I was 17, but men our age all did the same thing back then: back and biceps on Monday, chest and triceps on Wednesday, etc. Frankly, it was boring. I discovered CrossFit two years ago and for me it just clicked. The constant variety, mental and physical challenge, and sense of community you get from CrossFit is something I never experienced, particularly since I did not play team sports in school.
I am a morning person, so I’m generally at the 5:30 am class. I love the feeling of having a great workout and being home before my kids even wake up. The people that gravitate to CrossFit tend to be dedicated, and perhaps a little crazy, but I think that level of dedication is necessary in fitness and your career. I took the CrossFit Level One certification course because I wanted to improve my CrossFit knowledge and coach classes at my box (CrossFit speak for “gym”) on occasion. I really enjoy the coaching / mentor dynamic and I get the same satisfaction giving career advice to a young lawyer or colleague as I do when I coach CrossFit.
Chris Dessi: How important are habits and routine to your success? What is your Rhythm? What time do you go to bed? Do you meditate?
Russ Adler: Running my own firm, or any business for that matter, requires discipline. When you’re the one setting the agenda, it’s easy to get distracted so I do rely on routines and habits to keep me focused. With regard to my day, I get up at 4:50 am during the week if I’m working out, maybe 5:45 if I’m not. I like to be in bed by 10:30-11:00 at the latest. When I’m working, I don’t allow myself to get distracted by personal matters. I rarely make personal calls during traditional work hours and my wife will tell you that I’m not very good at handling those types of things while I’m in “work mode.” Throughout the day, I am constantly updating my “to do” list and calendar. I spend a lot of time staying organized, perhaps too much time, but I feel better knowing that I’ve mapped out what I have to do and when I have to do it, and that information is always at my fingertips. I am not a procrastinator; I have too much going on in a typical day to put something aside, I’d rather get it done so I can tackle the next project. I don’t meditate; my version of meditation is CrossFit.
Chris Dessi: We are both blessed with two beautiful little girls. As a parent, what can you do on a day to day basis for your girls to help prepare them for future success?
Russ Adler: Thank you. The majority of the credit for my girls goes to my wife Andrea, she’s just phenomenal with them. Now that my girls are getting older (8 and 6), I often tell them that it’s not my job to do everything for them, it’s my job to teach them how to do everything for themselves. The main thing I try to instill into my kids is self-confidence. To me, it’s the most important thing you can pass on as a parent. Confident kids make better decisions in all aspects of their lives.
Chris Dessi: For people like yourself who have seen great monetary success – what do you think is dangerous about that type of success?
Russ Adler: Great is a relative term, but it’s been a good year and I hope that I can sustain it for another 20 years, give or take. There is a certain level of income you need depending on your community. In Westchester County, where we live, the bar is set high. But once you surpass that “number,” it’s just a question of degree. I don’t think the person who makes $1 million is twice as happy as the person who makes $500,000.
I remember reading in Bonfire of the Vanities, that the main character made $1 million – and this was the 80’s so let’s assume that’s $5 million now – and he explains all these expenses and obligations that came with it and how it was, in effect, a gilded cage. Money gives some people a false sense of intelligence and importance. I know people who are infatuated with others because of what they have, not who they are. I have friends who are all over the economic spectrum and I don’t let that factor into my opinion of them as people.
Chris Dessi: I speak with many successful executives that question the value of college. You were law school classmates with my brother Mark, what do you say to those detractors of education?
Russ Adler: I question the excessive emphasis we have in our culture with lists and ranking of colleges and universities, the kind that, for example, U.S. News and World Report issues every year. I also put a lot of stock in life experience. My greatest learning experiences came from waiting tables for 7 years during college and law school and backpacking through the Middle East for four months when I was 22. I think our educational system should place greater emphasis on developing real world skills. For example, every high school and college should teach classes on things like understanding mortgages, credit cards, leasing an apartment or car, saving for retirement, etc. Theory has its place, but there is an absence of focus on real world application throughout the system.
Chris Dessi: How do you define success?
Russ Adler: For me, it’s self-determination — the ability to dictate my own path professionally. I’m about to mark my third anniversary and the freedom I have now, compared to my former professional life, is what sticks out as the most notable difference, and what I value most.
Chris Dessi: Can you explain the impact social networking/digital media has made on your business/career and/or you personally?
Russ Adler: It’s certainly a larger presence than I would have guessed a few years ago. It is a fantastic tool for connecting with people – just last week I referred a potential case to someone I worked with 12 years ago because I found her on LinkedIn. I am fairly active on social media, mainly Facebook, and it has helped me grow my business both directly and indirectly. By directly, I mean I’ve been referred clients through social media contacts, and indirectly through the branding that you can establish through social media posts. Two months ago, I achieved an excellent result for a client and posted a picture of a picture of a bottle of champagne I was opening to celebrate and that post had the most “likes” of anything I’d posted in years.
Chris Dessi: How much of your success was due to luck? Or are you of the mindset that you create your own luck?
Russ Adler: I’m definitely in the latter camp, however, I think the notion of karma is spot on. If you conduct yourself the right way, be nice to people, helpful, respectful, etc., then others will respond in a similar fashion. That’s not the same as luck. I’ve never believed there is a great cosmic plan or that things happen for a reason, you just have to make the most of the situations you’re in.
Chris Dessi: When did you first think of yourself as a success?
Russ Adler: It was a few months after I started the practice and I realized that I was actually doing it – establishing a sustainable practice on my terms and already on track financially to exceed what I’d made the prior year as an employee. It wasn’t one specific moment, case or outcome, but an overall realization that I was charting my own course. My father says that the 40’s are your best decade because you are (hopefully) in a good place vis-à-vis your career, relationship, family and health. I completely agree.
Chris Dessi: Many young executives who read this blog struggle with work life/balance – myself included. What advice do you give them? How do you strike a balance?
Russ Adler: As a solo practitioner, you are always “on” to some degree. That is, you are either thinking about a work issue in the back of your mind, or representing your brand (yourself) in your daily interactions. For me, the key is having a supportive partner, and I have that with Andrea, and having some kind of personal outlet, a hobby or passion, where you can turn off your “work brain.”
I think companies now pretend to care about work-life balance, but it’s often just a marketing tool. For younger people, I recommend they focus on managing their superiors’ expectations, then deliver great results so their superiors can be at ease and know that the end result will be excellent. After a period of time, they will be given greater leeway and start to achieve a better balance. Last, sometimes you just need to ignore the flood of emails, texts and calls and disconnect; most things can wait a little longer.
Chris Dessi: On paper, your resume reads like success. Can you tell us about your biggest failure(s)? How did it change you or shift your approach moving forward?
Russ Adler: I changed jobs once solely for money. It made me realize that the cost of greater financial success is outweighed by the stress and unhappiness it can bring. That experience instilled in me the philosophy that personal satisfaction and happiness are more valuable than economic success.
Chris Dessi: Who has been the greatest positive influence on your life? Tell us about that person.
Russ Adler: My kids. Children force us to be less selfish, and we live in a very selfish society.
Chris Dessi: What do you think is the one characteristic that all the successful people you know share?
Russ Adler: Passion. To be truly successful at something, you have to love it. Again, I see wealthy people who are miserable, so that’s not success in my view.
Chris Dessi: How has your childhood (the way you were raised, your birth order) affected your career success? Did it at all?
Russ Adler: I am the youngest of four, all of us within 6 years, but I never put much thought into how that affected my professional life. My siblings and I all have very different personalities and chose very different careers. I think growing up in a strong, loving, grounded family certainly helped. My father is a dentist, and he still practices, and we benefitted from the fact that since he has his own practice, he was around for us. Eating dinner together was the norm, not the exception. Perhaps that had an influence on my decision to strike out on my own. Wait, am I in therapy right now?
Chris Dessi: I know you to be a very humble person. Here is your chance to brag a bit – what has been your greatest career success to date?
Russ Adler: Because of the nature of my work, I really can’t discuss any particular case or outcome. I think my greatest success to date is the fact that I’ve been able to build a practice from nothing to something I’m very proud of and hope to continue to build for years to come.
Chris Dessi: My daughters know that I hate witches – what’s one thing that scares the hell out of you?
Russ Adler: The Exorcist. That movie scares the crap out out me.
Chris Dessi: Best day of your life?
Russ Adler: My first kid’s birth. That changed everything in my life forever.
Chris Dessi: Worst day of your life?
Russ Adler: I consider myself very fortunate to be able to say I can’t think of anything that terrible in my nearly 43 years.
Chris Dessi: How many kipping pull-ups can you do (unbroken)?
Russ Adler: 39 last time I tried about a year ago. I think I can beat that now.
Chris Dessi: You’re a guitar player, and seem to love your guitar. You also have a cool Mini Cooper. You have to give up one of the two things forever, which do you choose, and why?
Russ Adler: Easy, the car. You can always get more things; skills or talents are better than possessions. By the way, your question assumes I’m a good guitar player…
Chris Dessi: Name someone who knows more about you than anyone else in the world.
Russ Adler: My wife, but I don’t tell her everything.
Chris Dessi: Most powerful book you’ve ever read that you recommend to everyone?
Russ Adler: I’ve never read a “self-help” or business book. I’m a fan of books where the author builds a fleshed out, vibrant and believable world, such as Lord of the Rings or Dune. For non-fiction, I always recommend Devil in the White City — you don’t even realize it’s non-fiction because it reads like a novel.
Connect with Russ on Linkedin here.
Learn more about Russ’s law practice here.
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This interview is one of 24 interviews included in a book by Chris Dessi called
Just Like You: 24 Interviews of Ordinary People Who’ve Achieved Extraordinary Success.
Order your copy for just $2.99 today.
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