Friday, August 8, 2014

‘Ask Me Anything’ - An interview with a UH Alumni Personal Injury Attorney in Houston

Stewart Guss is 47 years old and has 20 years experience an attorney, concentrating primarily in personal injury law at his practice in Nortwest Houston. Stewart graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and is a proud graduate of the University of Houston Law Center. He lives in Tomball with his wife, two rambunctious children and one rambunctious dog.

Attorney Guss has a long track record of making substantial recoveries for his clients while providing “top shelf” customer service.  Building a niche in the ultra-competitive personal injury market in Houston has been difficult, and it remains an ongoing challenge.  A good reputation as a personal injury lawyer is hard earned and is far from “static.” What factors go into his success and professional satisfaction, and what advice does he have for law students and graduates?

Q: What made you decide to study law?

A: I’ve got to be honest here.  As I approached college graduation, I was equally interested in a career in business and in law.  After spending a year at the McCombs MBA program at UT Austin, I realized that I was not “corporate” material.  I needed a career where I could express my creativeness and individuality and wear my hair long if I wanted to.  (Hey, it was the 80s!)

Q: Why did you focus your practice on Plaintiffs Personal Injury Law?

A: I actually started off doing mostly appellate work and business litigation.  While I found this work intellectually challenging and stimulating, I didn’t necessarily “feel” the tangible successes I had.  As I started doing more and more personal injury work, I realized that I thrived on the satisfaction of looking a client in the eye and saying, “This is what my work has done for you, this is the difference I could make in your life going forward.”  When I did personal injury work, I really felt like I was making a significant and tangible difference in someone’s life.

Q: I am told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day… What’s your typical morning routine? And please expand to give us an idea of a day in the life of a Personal Injury Lawyer

A:  <laughing>  Oh no, don’t tell my mom, but my typical breakfast is a huge cup of coffee!  My day normally starts before the rest of my staff arrives at the office.  I like to catch up on emails and interoffice messages in our case management system.  I’m lucky enough to have a pretty sizeable docket, so I usually set aside a dozen or so cases to review for status every day - just to make sure everything is moving ahead as planned.  When finished, it is usually safe to start returning calls to clients, adjusters, opposing counsel, etc.  After lunch, I’ll usually move on to my bigger projects - preparing or reviewing demand packages, reviewing medical records, reviewing or responding to motions or other correspondence.  I’m typically the first in and the last out, but this is a habit my family is desperately trying to get me to change.

Q: What separates the good, the bad and the ugly in Personal Injury Lawyers?

A: That’s a great question!  I’m lucky enough to be friends with a LOT of really great, talented, and very caring personal injury attorneys.  Typically speaking, these men and women share the same passion for justice when working on their clients’ cases.  I know that sounds hokey, but its really not.  The Plaintiffs bar in Texas is MASSIVELY outgunned and out-resourced by the insurance industry.  We are underdogs almost EVERY single time we take on a new personal injury client.  The best personal injury lawyers that I know really look at their cases as a personal challenge to “take on the system” on behalf of a deserving client and make a difference in their lives.  While I truly think that there are WAY fewer “bad” personal injury lawyers than the public may think, I do see that there are some lawyers that start to focus on the money and the business end of things more than doing the right thing for a deserving client.  These guys are few and far between, however.  I think most of us at the Plaintiff's bar believe the best way to do “well,” professionally, is by doing “good” in the world and for our clients.

Q: What advice would you give graduates starting out in the job?

A: My best advice is this - find a job where you can learn what you need to learn and “earn your stripes” in the field.  Think of your first job out of law school the same way a doctor looks at her residency - an opportunity to work massive hours at modest or low pay and learn a HECK of a lot in the process.  My second best piece of advice - LISTEN to the long time legal secretaries and other staff.  You may be a newly minted “second lieutenant” but you better pay attention to experienced support staff.  They are the “career sergeants” that keep things running!

Q: What is the best professional advice  you’ve ever received?

A: The best professional advice I ever received is simple.  Attorney Alvin Rosenthal, another University of Houston Law Center graduate (class of ‘55) told me that I would achieve success on the cases I declined, not the cases I took.  That is to say, trust your instincts.  Make sure that when you accept representation you do it with the right client and for the right reasons.  Alvin is passed now, but I often find myself in my professional career thinking, WWAD?  (What would Alvin do?)

Q: How do you distinguish yourself from the pack in Personal Injury Law?

A:  As I mentioned, there are a lot of great lawyers doing a lot of good work for Plaintiffs in the Houston area and around the state.  There are lots of lawyers getting lots of great settlements and verdicts, and I do concentrate on results of course.  But in addition to focusing on our results, we also focus on providing excellent customer service and communication.  Most of us know that the number one complaint about lawyers from clients is lack of communication.  At my office we have a “4/24” rule in place:  All calls and emails should be returned within four hours, and MUST be returned within 24, even if it is say “we don’t have an answer or solution yet, but we’re working on it.”  

Q: Aside from law, what should every graduate understand about running a business?

A: Only some of the Law Center graduates will immediately open up their own practice.  Even for those that initially go to work for someone else, they may end up running their own business or with partners at some point in the future.  For this reason, it is a great idea to understand the business of law, not just the practice of law.  If you ask 10 law firm owners their “secret to success,” you’ll surely get 11 different answers!  I suspect, though, that there may be a few universal truths:  1) Find and keep good employees and support staff.  Pay them fairly, treat them fairly, and let them grow professionally.  2) Implement technology that will help increase efficiency and effectiveness, but don’t implement technology just for the sake of having the latest and greatest bells and whistles.  3) Concentrate on steady and measured growth, and avoid excessive debt.  Many personal injury lawyers and law firms launching an office will start out with large debts so they can have wood paneling and antique fine furniture in their reception and offices.  There is a difference between an air of “success” and an air of “opulence.”  Your clients are interested in your results, not your furniture.  Besides, do you REALLY want them wondering if their case will buy you your next Persian rug?

Q: What trends do you see in types of personal injury on the rise / decline?

A:  No surprise here - texting and driving!  Or, more specifically, using a smartphone while driving.  While commuting, I can’t tell you the number of people I see with phones pulled up to their faces.  We see accidents caused, not just by texting, but by people browsing the web or looking at Facebook updates!

Q: Which cases most interest you from a point of financial / personal satisfaction?

A: At this point in my career, I really enjoy working on serious injury cases.  A great many of my cases involve moderate car accidents and slip and falls where a client is injured, receives medical treatment, and eventually recovers.  I do enjoy these cases, but they tend to be more straight-forward.  I tend to get the greatest satisfaction working on serious injury cases where I have to work closely with my client to establish the full scope of a damage model - loss of future earning capacity, the full effects of ongoing disability, and the loss of damage of life.  My serious injury clients have an important story to tell the insurance company or a jury, and I really appreciate the opportunity to help them tell it.

Q: If you weren’t a Personal Injury Lawyer what would be your dream job and why?

A: Psychologist.  My undergraduate degree is in psychology, and I am constantly fascinated by the human mind.  My twenty years practicing law has given me the opportunity to help a lot of injured people get through a really tough time in their lives.  I really appreciate that opportunity to be of service to people, and if I weren’t doing it as their lawyer and advocate, I think I would be doing it as a therapist.  (Which is, by the way, a role most attorneys will have to play part of the time anyway!).

Q: Final question: Which three famous  lawyers (dead or alive) would you like to have dinner with and why?

1) Thomas Jefferson.  Not just because he was one of the most fascinating of our founding fathers, but because I’d like to know what he thought of the effects of the Marbury vs. Madison decision (decided during his presidency) over the last 200 years of American jurisprudence.

2) Justice John Marshall Harlan.  To thank him for his dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson.

3) Atticus Finch.  To thank him for inspiring me to become a lawyer and, every time I re-read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for reminding me what it means to be a lawyer.  (Yes, I know, he is a fictional character - so sue me!)

Students: send us your questions! 

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