Ramen Noodles to Steaks Every Day

Episode 2: Ramen Noodles to Steaks Every Day

From being invisible in a large firm and going solo, to starting a partnership only to go solo again, Derek Tran, of The Tran Firm, has seen it all and rolled with the punches on his climb to legal success. On this episode of The Bootstrapped Solo, Pratik and Derek cover all the twists and turns on the rollercoaster of law.

In This Episode

Derek Tran, The Tran Firm

Transcript

Pratik Shah (00:05):
Hi, everybody. Welcome to another episode of Bootstrapped Solo. I am Pratik Shah, and today we’re going to be talking about the good, the bad, and the ugly about running your own practice and what it’s really like. This podcast is for those who want to know what it’s really like to start, run, and grow a law practice.

Pratik Shah (00:21):
Today’s guest is Derek Tran. He runs The Tran Firm, a six, seven person practice that primarily focuses on employment and personal injury. And he started his practice in his second year of being a lawyer and has been growing strong ever since. Derek, thank you so much for joining us.

Derek Tran (00:39):
Pratik, thank you for having me. And just so everyone knows I’m the good, Theresa is the badass, and you’re the ugly. So just to be good.

Pratik Shah (00:47):
I’ll take it. At least I’m included. I’m just happy to be included. So I want to talk about this. I know you started your career at Carney Shegerian’s office, right? Good lawyer, great lawyer, great results. You worked there for about a year and then decided to go on your own. Is that right?

Derek Tran (01:03):
That’s right. Exactly. I went on my own.

Pratik Shah (01:05):
Why did you make that decision?

Derek Tran (01:06):
You know, working 50-60 hours a week was just not in my cards. I knew I wanted a family. I knew I wanted to be my own boss and I thought it was no better time than at that moment to just hang up my own shingle.

Pratik Shah (01:24):
Yeah. So you make the decision at some point, I’m going to go out on my own. Did you have a family at that time or was it just you?

Derek Tran (01:31):
I was. I think I was engaged or seriously dating at that time. So I knew.

Pratik Shah (01:36):
Okay.

Derek Tran (01:36):
So the next steps were marriage and then kids immediately after that. Yeah.

Pratik Shah (01:42):
So did you have this conversation at home? Like, “Hey honey, I’m I want to quit my job and start my own law practice.” How did that work?

Derek Tran (01:47):
Yeah. Yeah. It’s more like, “Hey babe, so how much do you make? Because I’m going to lean on you for loans when I’m short for rent.” Yeah, absolutely. I think without having the support of your partner, unless you’re a trust fund kid or you just got investors-

Pratik Shah (02:04):
Right.

Derek Tran (02:05):
… up to Wazo, you need that support from your loved ones, whether it be your spouse, your partner, or your parents or some family member that’s going to help you out when time gets tough and times get freaking tough, right?

Pratik Shah (02:18):
Yeah. And I want to get into that, but when we talk about times getting tough, we’re not just talking about financial toughness because that obviously happens. But there’s also an emotional roller coaster that comes with this, right?

Derek Tran (02:28):
Absolutely. When I went on my own, it was really hard. I was lonely. I had no one to talk to. I had no one bounced cases off of. No one to get input from. Slowly, I built up my own network of people that I can rely on. A lot of that came through CALA. An organizations like CALA and OCTLA and stuff like that.

Derek Tran (02:51):
And then it was also me recognizing that, “Hey, maybe going on my own. Right out of working for someone was not the best of ideas.” So that’s when I decided to partner up and that helped me in my career and my development personally.

Pratik Shah (03:11):
So how long were you on your own before you decided to bring on a partner?

Derek Tran (03:15):
Close to a year. Right before I filed the bankruptcy notice, so-

Pratik Shah (03:21):
As I’m walking to the bankruptcy, so I want to talk about that first year. I want to hyperfocus on that first year. You leave Carney’s firm. You say, “Honey, I hope you got any dough because I’m about to make $0 for a minute.” And you did employment law at Carney’s firm, I imagine.

Derek Tran (03:38):
I did. Yeah. Yeah. So I had no idea what I was going to do. All I knew was look for office space, found a little suite with a little office. And like some phone company, the guy had phones like IP phones everywhere. And he just gave me this little corner office and some signage. And I was operating out there for close to a year and meeting with clients and stuff like that. And in the very beginning, I was just doing any type of law. I can get my hands on. So it’s-

Pratik Shah (04:07):
How did you get your hands on anything? How did you get any clients in the beginning?

Derek Tran (04:10):
So I started advertising in the Vietnamese paper because I opened my office here in Huntington Beach. Now I’m back in Huntington Beach after being in LA. But I started advertising in the Vietnamese paper, did a lot of Yelp stuff, started going to a lot of community events, and just getting businesses that way.

Pratik Shah (04:28):
And just telling people that, “Hey, I’m Derek, I’m a lawyer. I got my own law firm.” What did you tell people when they said, “Oh, what kind of law do you do?”

Derek Tran (04:36):
When I first started, I just told them, “Look, listen, I’m a generalist. I’ll do whatever you need me to do.” I did a couple wheels, knock on wood. I hope I don’t get, malpractice suits on those. I’ve done a ton of family cases. So what I learned was having a practice of law where you can actually build and have money come in on a consistent basis that helped a lot. So I started building up a family law practice. So I was handling those cases for quite a bit, maybe the first three and a half to four years of my career.

Pratik Shah (05:12):
How did you even learn how to do family law? I mean, your experience was an employment law.

Derek Tran (05:16):
Bro. You know, those books like Brother Guy and No Laws. I mean, I bought every book on Amazon. I just taught myself. I mean, it’s called the practice of law. So I taught myself, I really did.

Pratik Shah (05:28):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (05:29):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (05:30):
Did you ever find yourself going to court and watching other people or did you do any of that kind of stuff? What else did you do? Because you can can’t learn how to swim by reading on how to swim book. You got to jump in at some point, right?

Derek Tran (05:44):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (05:44):
So you’ve jumped in, you’ve signed a client, they’re paying you a retainer and you can’t bill them for all the time that you’re reading this Rutter group. What did you do?

Derek Tran (05:53):
You’re absolutely right. I think there’s nothing better than going and observing. So I did attend a lot of hearings. Honestly, I even posted that I would do appearance as an appearance attorney on Craigslist.

Pratik Shah (06:07):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (06:07):
And I probably did half a dozen of those things. I’m like, “What, these assholes are paying me.” Oh, sorry. Can I cuss?

Pratik Shah (06:14):
Now, you’re fine.

Derek Tran (06:14):
These jerks are paying me 50 bucks for something that I should be being paid for 300 or for two hours of my time waiting to be called up, right? So I’ve done some of that. And as I was sitting there and I was listening to some of these stuff, I was like, “Oh, shoot, I can do this. I can make those arguments.” So that’s… it’s all learning, it’s how you put yourself out to learn and absorb the information.

Pratik Shah (06:37):
And one thing you mentioned, I think is important is you start gaining that confidence, right? Because you start seeing what other lawyers are doing. You start reading and everything starts coming together.

Derek Tran (06:45):
Yeah, yeah. No, it comes with experience, right? It just-

Pratik Shah (06:49):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (06:50):
… to a certain extent, I think the nerves are still there sometimes, especially when it’s something… It’s a big hearing that you can lose your case on like MSJ, you still get a lot of the nerves there, but like small little hearings. It’s gone, I get up there. I’m like, “Okay.”

Pratik Shah (07:05):
Oh, in the beginning I was nervous for CMC. I didn’t know what I was going to do.

Derek Tran (07:08):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (07:08):
I didn’t know what to say.

Derek Tran (07:10):
Yeah. Yeah. Same, same. But it goes away. It goes away.

Pratik Shah (07:13):
I’ve never done this before.

Derek Tran (07:14):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (07:15):
Say that again?

Derek Tran (07:16):
It goes away, the nerves go away.

Pratik Shah (07:18):
Oh, yeah.

Derek Tran (07:19):
After 20, 30 CMCs, you’re like, “Okay, I can do this.” It’s no problem.

Pratik Shah (07:24):
Yeah. Right. We know how this is going to go. We’ve seen it happen. It’s going to be fine. Now we make a joke in the office, “Oh, did you win the CMC?” It’s like, “Oh, yeah. Dominated.” Obviously, it’s not the CMCs go, so in that first year, you’re getting your first cases through the community, through the newspaper. You’re building a name for yourself. At what point did you realize, or did you come to the conclusion that, “Hey, I want to have a partner join me. I don’t want to do this by myself?”

Derek Tran (07:49):
Pretty, pretty quick. I would say six to nine months out of being on my own. I was like, “Do they? I don’t want to be by myself. I need someone to bounce ideas off of. I need someone to talk to. I need someone to learn with not necessary-

Pratik Shah (08:04):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (08:04):
… from, but learn with and we can really build up a practice together.” And that came together, but I would caution.

Pratik Shah (08:15):
And how did you? Go ahead.

Derek Tran (08:15):
No. I was just say I would caution like, “When I’m on my own now.” And there’s good reasons for that. So like a marriage getting into a partnership is a huge deal and make sure you get into a partnership with someone that you really know and respect and love, because at the end of the day that you spend more time at the office than you do at home with your own family.

Pratik Shah (08:41):
And how did you know that that was? I mean, I know obviously you’re on your own now, but at that moment, how did you decide that this was a person you wanted to do business with? Or how did that thought process even come up?

Derek Tran (08:55):
I went to law school with her and we were friends. Were being the keyword and we jived well together and-

Pratik Shah (09:05):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (09:06):
… at that time, thinking back, that was the right thing to do, there’s no regrets-

Pratik Shah (09:11):
Right.

Derek Tran (09:11):
… on that end.

Pratik Shah (09:12):
Right.

Derek Tran (09:12):
Because I learned so much, right?

Pratik Shah (09:15):
Yeah. So you’re doing, you come out of law out of law school, you work at Carney’s office, you start your own, you’re doing everything that’s coming in the door that first year.

Derek Tran (09:24):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (09:24):
Let me guess you made a million dollars.

Derek Tran (09:26):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (09:27):
Divided by a hundred, maybe a dollar.

Derek Tran (09:30):
Right. Exactly.

Pratik Shah (09:31):
Yeah. No, look, well, I’m not going to lie. There was a lot of like, “Oh, what am I eating today for lunch?” “Oh, ramen noodles.” Because that’s all I can afford, right?

Derek Tran (09:39):
Exactly.

Pratik Shah (09:40):
So-

Derek Tran (09:40):
Right.

Pratik Shah (09:41):
… I can’t go and have steaks like you every day, Pratik, like it-

Pratik Shah (09:45):
Oh, yeah, right. Okay.

Derek Tran (09:46):
Yeah. My budget at that time, I’m lucky if I can treat my client to Starbucks or something like that. When I met up with them, because pinching pennies and counting everything was so important in the beginning because you can’t just-

Pratik Shah (10:01):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (10:02):
… start splurging money outside of having that.

Pratik Shah (10:04):
There’s no money to splurge.

Derek Tran (10:06):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (10:06):
There’s no money to splurge.

Derek Tran (10:07):
There’s credit, there’s credit. And I looked off credit and you got to take that chance on yourself. I lived off credit. I was maxing out by three cars, because someone had to pay for gas. Someone had to pay for the final fee. Thank God for Capital One and Chase and all that Chase Inc.

Pratik Shah (10:27):
Shout out, shout out to Chase and Capital One. Yeah. So, the first year you get through, I mean, was there a point there in that first year, in the second year where you’re like, “Should I keep going? What am I doing here?”

Derek Tran (10:38):
Yeah. Eventually I got into a groove and that groove was my passion was employment law and I was signing up those cases and I was litigating those cases. But at the same time, those cases weren’t settling for 18 months to two years out. And I knew that-

Pratik Shah (10:52):
Right.

Derek Tran (10:53):
… because you got to litigate those cases. So at the same time, I focused, I became less of a generalist and I more, a family law lawyer. So I was signing up a bunch of family law cases and I was doing custody stuff. I was doing domestic violence stuff, and I took it as experience. One of the things was experience, getting to go argue in front of the court. And then the other one was, it’s a steady stream of income because I charge a retainer and then I build off of that, so that helped me a lot.

Pratik Shah (11:31):
In the beginning, how did you make sure that you were providing competent representation? We talked a little bit about the Rutter guide and watching some appearances. Obviously, there’s that stressor. If you take money from a client, you want to make sure you do a good job for them. How did you ensure that you were doing a good job for them?

Derek Tran (11:49):
It boils down to your belief in your own capabilities and the fact that you’re not slacking and you’re researching the law, you’re learning, I mean, look, how am I confident that I’m not committing malpractice on a daily basis? It’s because I’m learning every day, every moment of the day I’m learning. And I’m bettering myself from that. I didn’t take on-

Pratik Shah (12:12):
Right.

Derek Tran (12:13):
… a big case where my client was a multimillionaire or was trying to sue her multimillionaire, millionaire husband and stuff like that for a divorce-

Pratik Shah (12:22):
Right.

Derek Tran (12:23):
… and get all kinds of alimony and whatnot. I knew my capabilities. I did simple divorces. I did simple child custody modifications and that’s where I learned. And slowly as I built up more confidence, I took on the more complex cases.

Pratik Shah (12:40):
Yeah. Being self-aware is super important, right? Like you have to have the ability when you start off, you have to have the desire to want to say yes to everything, but the self-awareness and the knowledge to be able to say no to things that are not a good fit. I mean, there were times where I had a criminal case come through my office early on.

Pratik Shah (12:56):
The lady told me it was a simple assault. I show up to the hearing, turns out it’s a homicide. I’m like, “I should not be doing this case a year and a half in as a lawyer.” And I had to tell the client like, “I’m sorry, here’s your money back. I can’t represent you in a homicide, we’re all going to jail. Oh, I’m going to be in there with him.”

Derek Tran (13:18):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (13:18):
So there’s a lot of that. Did you have any of a big case or anything like that happen where you were just like, “This is on my zone, I’m going to need to call somebody.”

Derek Tran (13:24):
Oh, absolutely. I think what you said is so key being self-aware and having the network of attorneys that you can refer your clients to because you’re incapable, or maybe you’re just not at that stage where you can represent them yet. And at that level, being able to refer them to someone who can. Yeah, I’ve done it many times. And even today, when a huge PI case comes in or a big wage in our class comes in, I don’t handle that stuff. I’m smart enough to go, “Hey, Pratik, what’s your referral fee? Here’s this case.”

Pratik Shah (13:56):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (13:56):
Right.

Pratik Shah (14:00):
Thanks. Yeah. Yeah. No, exactly. I mean, we do the same thing. Right. It’s all a matter of finding the right home while also trying to make sure you make a little bit money off of that for the work that you’ve done and that’s the only fair way to do it.

Derek Tran (14:11):
Yeah. Yeah.

Pratik Shah (14:13):
And so at what point, you’re a year in, you partner up, you guys are working together, you’re building, you’re learning together, at what point did you feel like, “Okay, I finally got something here. We got some traction. We’re making some money. We can keep going?”

Derek Tran (14:30):
I would say close to two years in.

Pratik Shah (14:34):
Okay.

Derek Tran (14:36):
And when you have the money to hire your first legal secretary to lick the envelopes and the stamps, and send out your mailings, and so you don’t have to do it anymore. That’s when I felt like, “Oh, I could do this. I can make this a successful business.”

Pratik Shah (14:53):
Right. Yeah. You’re not a millionaire yet, but you’re getting there.

Derek Tran (14:56):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (14:56):
And you’re like, “Okay, I can see the steady income coming in. We’re not rich. We’re not buying the house in the Palisades or anything like that. But I can see where this is going, right? I feel like we got something real here.”

Derek Tran (15:09):
Absolutely.

Pratik Shah (15:11):
Was there a moment that you had, you’re engaged. I’m sorry. You were married already, but when you started your practice, right?

Derek Tran (15:17):
I was. I think engaged when I first started. Yeah.

Pratik Shah (15:22):
Okay. So you’re engaged, you’re heading towards marriage. Was there a point in this journey where you were able to go home and say, “Honey, I think I got this.”

Derek Tran (15:32):
I mean, she’s still waiting for me to say that.

Pratik Shah (15:33):
Yeah. Right.

Derek Tran (15:38):
But is there a point? There’s always going to be… One thing about having your own business is the ebbs and flow, the ups and downs of having your own firm.

Pratik Shah (15:46):
Yeah. Yeah.

Derek Tran (15:46):
And I can’t tell you how great 2020 was for me in the start of pandemic. I mean, it was amazing, right? And then 2021 was just a nosedive. I mean, a nosedive.

Pratik Shah (15:57):
Right.

Derek Tran (15:58):
So it was probably one of the worst years I’ve had in a long time, but you roll your punches, you roll up your sleeves and you get back in and you battle it out. I mean, that’s all part of being-

Pratik Shah (16:11):
100%.

Derek Tran (16:11):
Yeah. That’s all part of being an entrepreneur and having your own business. So when you say like, “Is there a point?” I don’t think there’s ever going to be that point because if I come home and I tell I got this like… First of all, she’s going to stop working and I don’t want that. But no, in all seriousness, I think it’s always like, there’s always growth. I have one lawyer full-time. I have a paralegal full-time. I want a second lawyer full-time and another paralegal full-time.

Pratik Shah (16:39):
Right.

Derek Tran (16:40):
And as you keep growing, there’s going to be that constant need where you’re going to have to keep needing to make money and needing to be there. And that you keep moving that needle. And you keep moving those goals for yourself, which is a great thing, but more money, more problems, right? That’s the same.

Pratik Shah (16:57):
Exactly.

Derek Tran (16:57):
I guess it’s-

Pratik Shah (16:58):
Exactly. The great philosopher of our time, Biggie Smalls, right? More money, more problems. And so, okay. So you were doing family law, you’re building your family law practice. you’re a couple years in, you’ve got this kind of robust, consistent flow of income. And then at some point you switch the dial up and say, “I’m going into employment and PI what happened?”

Derek Tran (17:18):
Yeah. So the stress of your clients calling you over every little thing, like he chopped the kids off late again. Like, “I want you to go in for an order or I want to do this.” And that got to me, they’re calling you at nights, on the weekends.

Pratik Shah (17:31):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (17:33):
The stress got to me on that, but more than anything, I think when I settled my first quarter million dollar employment law settlement, that was a big deal for me. I was like, “Holy crap.”

Pratik Shah (17:43):
Oh, yeah. Oh, my God.

Derek Tran (17:43):
Yeah. Real money as I-

Pratik Shah (17:43):
First quarter million dollar case?

Derek Tran (17:43):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (17:44):
Oh, my God.

Derek Tran (17:48):
Holy crap. Real money. So that’s when you’re like-

Pratik Shah (17:50):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (17:51):
… “Okay. I really got to shift my practice and focus.” I can get more of these quarter million dollars, these six figure settlements if my time is not being spent on family law. So there comes a time where you just got to make that adjustment. And that’s your call on how your business is running and what practice area is.

Pratik Shah (18:12):
And how long was it before you got that quarter million dollar settlement from year two as a lawyer you started, which was year one of your practice-

Derek Tran (18:20):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (18:20):
… when did that actually happen for you?

Derek Tran (18:22):
Around year three.

Pratik Shah (18:24):
Year three?

Derek Tran (18:24):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (18:25):
Yeah. And I think that’s important. I want to give people a realistic timeline of what it really takes to start turning the corner financially, right? Maybe in year two, you started feeling like, “Okay, I know that this is going to work.” But it’s not until year three or even post that where financially it starts clicking.

Derek Tran (18:40):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (18:41):
It seemed that’s about right for you is about year three is when it started, “Okay. I’m not having ramen anymore. I’m still not having steaks, but I’ve moved on.”

Derek Tran (18:49):
Subway. Subway.

Pratik Shah (18:49):
Is that-

Derek Tran (18:49):
Subway, bro. Yeah. Subway. Subway.

Pratik Shah (18:49):
I move into the $5 foot logs I lived on, going through that $5 shout out to subway. So on the $5 foot logs, because you’re right. Your penny pinching everything. Especially if you start taking on contingency work, because now you’re like there’s a $435 filing fee. Oh wait, I have to pay that.

Derek Tran (19:08):
Yep.

Pratik Shah (19:09):
Oh no. And that starts adding up. If you have 10 cases, that’s $4,350.

Derek Tran (19:15):
Yeah. No. You’re absolutely right. Like around year three, I felt a little bit more comfortable. I could eat somewhat real meals now, but at the same time, it never stopped me from parking at a cheaper lot to save $60 and times two attorneys like $120 a month. And I had to walk that to a five, seven minute walk. You’re going to have to do and sacrifice what you need to do for yourself and the betterment of your business.

Pratik Shah (19:41):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (19:41):
So.

Pratik Shah (19:44):
And in this time that you’ve been building your practice, how long have you had your practice now? When was it that you left Carney’s firm and actually started your practice?

Derek Tran (19:51):
Oh, God, you’re making me do math. I think I left in 2014 sometimes. I’m sorry.

Pratik Shah (19:58):
Okay.

Derek Tran (19:59):
Yeah. 2014 sometime. And then I’ve been on my own with my own firm, The Tran Firm since the pandemic, which is like a horrible time to go on your own. So 2020, I want to say, late fall of 2021.

Pratik Shah (20:14):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (20:15):
So it’s not-

Pratik Shah (20:16):
And looking back. Yeah. So yeah. So it’s about six. Well, the trans firm is about two years old, but you being your own boss and running your own show with her without a partner has been about six, seven years. Eight years almost.

Derek Tran (20:28):
No. Well, yeah, yeah, yeah. With a partner, you mean like at some point.

Pratik Shah (20:32):
Right. Even with a partner, right? Because you’re still… you guys are sharing the stress, but the stress is still there of, we got rent, we got, we just negotiated a lease for a year. And how do we know we’re going to have enough money to pay for this lease for a whole year?

Derek Tran (20:46):
Yep.

Pratik Shah (20:46):
I’ve had those stresses, right? Or when I hire an employee, it’s payroll comes quick when you got employees, two weeks I can’t settle a case. Where’s the money coming from?

Derek Tran (20:57):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (20:58):
And so the-

Derek Tran (21:00):
I can’t, I’m sorry on that same thought like, “I can’t tell you how times, how many times I called my mom,” And be like, “Hey mom, I need $5,000 just for a month because I need to pay rent, I got to pay a couple filing fee.”

Pratik Shah (21:09):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (21:11):
Absolutely. That was done. Thank goodness. She hasn’t received that call for me in years, but it happens.

Pratik Shah (21:18):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (21:19):
And you got to send your prior aside and be able to do that.

Pratik Shah (21:24):
Yeah. That’s an important thing, right? Is setting your pride aside, not having any ego about when or who you’re going to be talking to for help, right? Whether it’s… I’ve learned from lawyers that have less experience than me, I’ve learned from people that I wouldn’t necessarily want to emulate everything they’re doing, but I’ve learned from little bits of what they’re doing from your wives, from your partners, your parents.

Pratik Shah (21:47):
I mean, everybody has something to offer and not having pride get in the way of being able to ask for help is a huge point that I’m glad you’re making is I think that sometimes what we see out there is ego drives a lot of decisions.

Derek Tran (22:03):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (22:03):
And to me, that’s just going to drive you off a cliff. Your thoughts on that?

Derek Tran (22:08):
I agree. I mean, look, I’ve seen some of these attorneys who right away have the fancy office and they hang up their own shingle and then all of a sudden they’re renting in Beverly Hills in a nice, Highrise building, paying all kinds of money. They pay more in their parking than I do for like, “My paper supply or something like that for half a year.”

Pratik Shah (22:32):
Right.

Derek Tran (22:32):
And I’m thinking to myself like, “Holy crap, if I did it that way, I almost for sure. Set myself up for failure.” So at the same time, yeah, get it. You want to be in the nicest suite, the nicest zip code, but you got to recognize like, “Hey, can you put yourself there? Can you have enough savings to hold you up there for like nine months or a year.” If you do, good for you. Great. Amazing. But if you don’t, it’s a reality check and check that ego and check that pride because that’s going to be your downfall and it could be your downfall.

Pratik Shah (23:09):
Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, for me in the first couple years, there were several months where we had dry spells, where there were no cases, no money coming in, zero income. And I start thinking, what is happening? Am I going to ever make money again? You ever go through anything like that.

Derek Tran (23:27):
Yeah. I mean, I’m going through that right now. Like all my trials from 2021 got kicked to this year. And just last month I got a trial kicked again. So, no trials, no settlement. And that’s so true. Like same can’t be more true. So yeah, look, it happens. You’re going to have great months, when it rains it pours. And you’re be like, “Oh, awesome. Like five settlements in one month. Yes.”

Pratik Shah (23:51):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (23:51):
You’re going to be like, “Holy crap. I haven’t cash. I haven’t paid myself in like six months. I haven’t paid myself in seven months.” It’s going to happen. And you got to make those sacrifices.

Pratik Shah (24:00):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (24:00):
Yeah. So for sure, as a business owner.

Pratik Shah (24:03):
And that’s super important when we talk about, when you do settle that quarter million dollar case, or whatever half a million dollar credit, your first big, quote, unquote, “big case.” And you take a nice chunk home. Don’t go and buy that fancy watch, right? You got to save it. Because we know that these dry spells are coming and you’re going to have to make sure that you’ve got it in the account, especially if you have employees. Because their payroll gets taken out first.

Derek Tran (24:27):
Yeah. Yeah. Don’t splurge, that’s so. That you’re so right. Because saving and setting it up for your future is what you need to do and you need to have that extra reserve in your banks. So that way, the next dry spell that comes, you’re prepared for it.

Pratik Shah (24:44):
Yeah. So let me ask you this, you get in a time machine, you go back, you meet Derek Tran when he just left Carney’s firm, he’s just starting his practice. What do you tell him?

Derek Tran (24:55):
Let’s say in about seven years, you’re going to meet this guy named Pratik Shah, stay the F away from him. Just like stay away from him. Yeah. No matter what they tell you. You can love Theresa, but just stay away from Pratik. Yeah. No.

Pratik Shah (25:10):
Okay. That’s a given. Other than that.

Derek Tran (25:13):
I would say this. I was like, “Hey, no matter how hard it gets, it’s going to be okay.” Just keep your head down, grind, and believe in yourself. And it’s corny, but it’s true because if you don’t believe in yourself.

Pratik Shah (25:28):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (25:29):
You’re going to fail. You’re going to fail. And you are going to have those small hiccups and hurdles in your life, but you just got to pick yourself back up and get through it.

Pratik Shah (25:41):
Yeah. You’re 100% right. I mean, I think believing in yourself, it’s such a, quote, unquote, “cliche,” like you said, but it’s true. Because in the beginning, nobody else believes in you. Maybe your family, right? And you’ve got to support system, your spouse, and partners, and whatnot.

Pratik Shah (25:55):
But like generally speaking, half the time your clients don’t believe in you. They paid you because they didn’t have anywhere else to turn. And really, I mean, that’s how I felt is like, “If I don’t have the confidence in myself, then why should my clients have confidence in me?”

Derek Tran (26:11):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (26:11):
Why should the next client have in confidence in me? And so you have to have that own confidence. You have to catch it and make sure it doesn’t turn into cockiness or arrogance, but there’s but there’s nobody else.

Derek Tran (26:23):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (26:24):
Right? There’s nobody telling you, “Oh, you’re doing an amazing job.” There’s nobody patting you on the back and saying, “Yeah, you’re doing things the right way.” You don’t know if you’re doing things the right way. And so like you said, there are times when you’re a solo, it gets lonely. So I want to talk about kind of the low points in the first year as a solo. I know it’s tough, “But Hey, I’ve been there.” This is we’re trying to give the young kids the real talk, right?” Talk to me about what you’re thinking about when I say the low point.

Derek Tran (26:53):
Look like it doesn’t get any lower than not being able to probably pay for your car payment, right? Not being able to pitch in at family gatherings because you were supposed to bring the Turkey, or the prime rib, or something like that at family function. You got to tell them like, “Hey, listen, time’s a little rough or I just started, I can bring some mashed potatoes or mac and cheese.

Pratik Shah (27:19):
Right.

Derek Tran (27:20):
And then figuring out how you’re going to set up your credit cards to pay for your car payment. It’s real. But at the same time, if you believe in yourself and it’s just a hump that you have to get over, you’re going to get over it because there’s no other choice. If you’re going to admit defeat, then submit and go work for someone, go do the 50, 60 hours a week, go work for someone else because you’ve given up.

Pratik Shah (27:45):
Right.

Derek Tran (27:46):
But if you believe that you’re going to go through months of hard time and yeah, you might be delinquent on a couple bills then, so be it. But there’s no one better for you to invest in than yourself and to believe in then yourself.

Pratik Shah (27:58):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (27:58):
Because why am I going to work 60 hours to make some other dude rich? When I can make myself rich. And it’s not just that, there’s more than just money, right? It’s self-fulfillment. It’s this personal, “Hey, I’ve done it. I’ve accomplished this. And I did it on my own and I can support myself and I can support my family. It’s something that I built with my own hands.”

Derek Tran (28:20):
So it’s a lot of stuff, but yeah, there’s a lot of low moments and I count them all in one or even two hands. Because there’s a lot, I mean, look-

Pratik Shah (28:31):
Right.

Derek Tran (28:31):
… how many times have I gone to lunch with a mentor in the past? Who’s like, “Oh, I’ll pay the bill.” And I’m ashamed because I can’t even throw my own credit card and be like, “No, I’ll split it with you or can I treat you.”

Pratik Shah (28:43):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (28:44):
I can’t treat, you made me meet you at this five star restaurant and I’m not paying like $200 for a lunch.

Pratik Shah (28:52):
Yeah. I’ll take a water.

Derek Tran (28:53):
Right. So-

Pratik Shah (28:55):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (28:56):
… there’s a lot of low moments, but you just got to always believe in yourself. So corny.

Pratik Shah (29:03):
So on the flip side. No, it’s not. I think it’s true. I think it’s, yeah. I think there’s a reason they’re cliches because they’re true, right? They’re absolutely true. And I know exactly. I went through the same stuff, so 100% can commiserate with you on that. But I want to flip it and say, there were obviously high moments because there were some positives that made you keep going, because if it was all low moments, you could just shut it down and be done. But what were those keeps as small wins as they were, as small as those positives may have been, what were those positives that made you keep going?

Derek Tran (29:32):
I mean, look, we got into what we’re doing for a reason, right? Which is helping people. I think every time that I have a client cry because I’ve changed their life or I’ve given them their settlement check or their check. And they tell you, “You don’t know what this means to me, how you’ve changed my family.” Or a client that takes a picture of a house that she just closed for her family when she was fired on a pregnancy discrimination case, those are things that it’s going to stay with me for the rest of my life.

Derek Tran (30:05):
So those highs are always going to be there not to mention the amount of people that I’ve met. And part of my life who I don’t ever envision, not having in my life, you guys being two of them, I love seeing you guys at events and I love bonding with you guys. And some of my closest friends are my attorney friends who I not just talk business or consult business. I consult on life. I wish I do about this. And I buy this, “What do you think of me getting a house now is not a right time or personal problems?”

Derek Tran (30:40):
So having friends in the industry and building on those relationships, it’s a high moment, it’s great. It’s have a meeting these great people who are out there doing what you’re doing, which is getting justice for these injured clients of ours. And it’s an amazing thing. And then getting justice for your clients, you always remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Pratik Shah (31:03):
Yeah. And what is your favorite part about running your own business? I mean, we talked about highs, we talked about lows through all of that in the six, seven years, eight years that you’ve been doing this, what is a thing you just love doing that gives you that high every time?

Derek Tran (31:20):
Look, I got two kids. One of my favorite things to do is I’ll surprise them. I’ll pick them up early from, from school and I’ll just go spend half of the day with them or sometimes a whole day. Can’t do that when you work for someone else. You can do that when you’re your own boss, there’s nothing important going on in your schedule for that day. Go take off, go spend time with your loved ones. I love that. I love the fact that I could at any time, just get up and walk out of my office because I need to go work out or I need to go have lunch with you, Pratik.

Pratik Shah (31:52):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (31:52):
Or whatever it is, there’s no one controlling me from the top, you’re you are the top. You decide what you want to do.

Pratik Shah (32:02):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (32:02):
So that is probably the flexibility is my favorite thing about being my own boss. Now on the flip side, the worst thing about being my own boss-

Pratik Shah (32:12):
That I will going to be my next question.

Derek Tran (32:12):
… is making payroll every month, making rents every month. It’s like, you see these money, that’s a constant, that’s just straining your account, right? But that’s what you signed up for. So I always, I got to remind myself like, “Oh, Holy crap, I’m spending that much on payroll or on supplies or vendors that I need to get productions of trial docs.”

Pratik Shah (32:39):
Right.

Derek Tran (32:40):
It’s all part of the process. Yeah.

Pratik Shah (32:44):
Yeah, yeah. There are pros and cons. I mean, I think that part of the reason we have this podcast and part of the reason I want to talk to people like you is because I think it’s important to let everybody know there are pros. There are lots of great high, huge pros, but that’s all anybody talks about. There are lots of cons too. And no matter how long you’ve been doing the business, those cons are going to exist.

Pratik Shah (33:03):
Because like you said, the dry spells happen, no matter how long you’ve been practicing, maybe you didn’t sign as many cases as you thought you were going to, maybe the trial got kicked that you were relying on happening, because at least that brings that case to a conclusion one way or another, whether it’s a settlement, or a verdict one way or another, at least you know. And that time is now being spent on another case.

Pratik Shah (33:22):
And so that thing doesn’t change. That’s not going to change for 30 years. Now when I say that, “Hey look, these highs and lows that we deal with, you’re going to be dealing with that for the next 30 years that you’re going to be practicing.” How do you feel about that?

Derek Tran (33:36):
I love it. I signed up for this. I mean, bring it on, if this lifestyle is not for you, you got to quickly realize that and get out because you’re just going to waste your time. And you’re just going to be more frustrated with the practice. And more than anything, you’re not going to be happy. So recognize that. But if you recognize and accept that this is what you signed up for and I love it.

Derek Tran (34:00):
I love the dry spells and I love the high points and I love it when the money rolls in and I love it when I have to tighten my belt for this month. No staff lunches this month or whatever it is that you have to cut back on, it’s part of the process. And as long as you recognize that you accept it. It’s fine for me. It’s more than fine. It’s my dream.

Pratik Shah (34:28):
I love that. I love that. And so we’re wrapping up here, but a couple of questions I do have is, you started off advertising the Vietnamese paper, going to the community events. Are you still doing that? Has your marketing plan switched? What do you do now? Or how did it switch? Tell me the timeline of what you learned from those and how you changed things, if any?

Derek Tran (34:50):
Yeah. So, I don’t do as much marketing as I used to anymore only because a lot of my business is word of mouth, and co-counsel, and referrals from other fellow attorneys who don’t practice the area that I do. So I’ve cut back on that. I mean, you got to try what works for you. I remember spending a few thousand dollars, probably nothing for you, but back then, a few thousand dollars every month on Google and Yelp-

Pratik Shah (35:20):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (35:20):
… was a lot of money. I mean, it was more than I was paying for almost my office space, but I wanted to try it out and you got to figure out what works for you. And that’s when I learned that didn’t work for me. I think what worked for me was putting, getting out there, being seen, I was attending every network function there was, I mean, from the downtown LA Bar Association to the Filipino Bar Association, I mean the Thai Bar Association, any bar association, they had a social network.

Derek Tran (35:51):
I was there and I was like, “I do this type of law and I was just building relationships and I was getting cases that way.” So, and now it’s more, more or less the same. I still attend almost every conference possible. And I still sell myself by attending these events and telling people what I do. So I would cut back quite a bit on the marketing, the paper marketing, the ads. But I just recently translated my website into Vietnamese. Thanks to the help of Theresa and her team. So I plan on doing a little bit more work with the Vietnamese community and the community that I’m ethnically associated with, right? So-

Pratik Shah (36:37):
Yeah. Awesome. And how does it? Do your parents live close to you? Where’s the family? How does that work for you? Because I know you mentioned you call your mom sometimes, but she’s local.

Derek Tran (36:51):
Yeah. She’s pretty local. She’s about 35 minutes away from me.

Pratik Shah (36:56):
Okay.

Derek Tran (36:56):
I live in Orange County now. My practice is up here. She’s in the St. Hero Valley. I grew up in the St. Hero Valley. That’s like Monterey Park, Rosemead, San Gabriel.

Pratik Shah (37:04):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (37:05):
So she’s still out there. My dad passed a few years back, so it’s only her, she lives with my siblings, so she’s fine. But yeah. Look, having the people that you love around you is a price is priceless. And especially when you have a family, I mean, it really takes a village, right? And that same goes with having a law practice as well, because you need to know who, “Oh, shoot, who does criminal law, or who does this, or who can answer my question about this expert discovery?” You know, “Oh, this person,” You got to build that village, that’s going to help you. And having that is priceless.

Pratik Shah (37:45):
Yeah. I mean, I agree. I mean, I think I had a group of friends. Some that started their own practicing time. I did some that were more experienced and being able to ask questions that what anybody would consider dumb questions, but I didn’t know. And so I’d ask and I’d get good answers and I’d be like, “Oh wow, thank you. That was so helpful.”

Pratik Shah (38:04):
I mean, there’s so many dumb questions in the beginning, quote, unquote, “but there is no dumb question,” because you’re learning and all guys like us can do is now pay it forward, right? There’s people that are starting out and doing things and being able to console or counsel them or guide them and say, “Here’s what I did. Here’s what helps, I think is super helpful.”

Pratik Shah (38:25):
So I truly believe that a lot of people that are starting their practice are going to find this very helpful because you said exactly what I believe too, is you’re the ups and downs are natural. Don’t beat yourself up too much when you’re down. And don’t pat yourself on the back too much when you’re high. All right. Because the next bump or the next high is coming, they’re coming and it’s just constantly rolling.

Derek Tran (38:50):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (38:50):
Right? A dangerous thing can be, you hit a big case and you’re like, “Oh, I’m the man. I’m the woman. I figured it out now because the next kind of slap across the face is coming is just right around the corner/

Derek Tran (39:04):
Yeah. I agree.

Pratik Shah (39:05):
So it sounds we’ve both been through both of that, but go ahead. You were going to say something.

Derek Tran (39:09):
No, as you were talking, I was thinking one thing that’s important for the younger lawyers and the ones that’s starting out to really keep in mind and that’s… don’t ever, ever, ever touch your client’s trust account. I mean, I was taught that my first year and to this day, I live by that and that’s rule number one.

Derek Tran (39:33):
And that’s the quickest way for you to get disbarred and for you to lose your dream is don’t ever, no matter how bad it gets, do you ever touch the money that’s in that trust account? I don’t care. Call your mentor, call one of us up and be like, “Hey, can you help me out for $3,000 so I can make rent?” But don’t touch that trust account. I mean, we don’t hear that enough, I think.

Pratik Shah (39:58):
Right. No, I agree. I don’t think it can be said enough because I think it’s… now we have a banker, right. That works with our firm and I talk to the banker and he’s like, “It’s not right to touch your client’s trust account, right?” I’m like, “No, of course not like who would do that?” He’s like, “I got other lawyer friends,” that lawyer clients that are like, “Oh, transfer money here and there between my trust account and the personal.” And I was like, “I’m not one to say, I’m not the police, but they should not be doing that.” That’s just going to end in a bad way that’s never going to end in a positive way.

Derek Tran (40:31):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (40:32):
But yeah, I agree. I mean, if you’re at the point where you’re thinking about it, you got to start making calls and asking people for help. And you got to set that pride aside because that is a bright line rule. You just can’t do it. It’s never going to end well. And even if you borrow it from the trust account and pay it back, that doesn’t work. Don’t do that.

Pratik Shah (40:52):
Just move on from it, so that’s great advice. I mean, let me ask you get an email from a young lawyer, Derek, you built an employment law practice. I want to do it. Maybe it’s a young Vietnamese lawyer says I want to do what you did. What do you do, you get that email? What do you do?

Derek Tran (41:08):
I don’t turn anyone away who ask me for my help, whether or not they like what I have to tell them when we meet and because I keep it real. I don’t, I don’t sugarcoat anything and I don’t tell them you’re going to make millions. You’re going to make so much money.

Pratik Shah (41:22):
Yeah.

Derek Tran (41:23):
I’m going to tell, I always tell them like, “It’s really freaking hard.” It’s outside of you getting lucky and getting that one case that just comes in and they want to settle right away or that wrongful death walking in and you settling within six months, it’s doesn’t happen and be prepared.

Pratik Shah (41:39):
Right.

Derek Tran (41:39):
So whether, your Vietnamese or you’re Indian, you’re Hispanic. I mentor everyone that comes my way and I talk to them at least. And I help. There’s one thing that I always give win-win a lot of credit because when I was a young lawyer and I met with him, he was gracious enough to meet with me, take me out for lunch, take me under his wing. And he asks of one thing. And he goes, when it’s your turn to give back, you will without question. And I live by that.

Derek Tran (42:14):
And he’s given so much that it’s time to me as among other attorneys and mentors I have. But he’s taught that to me. And I always tell my mentees that I was like, “Listen, I’m donating my time to you. I give you pleadings. I give you my stuff when it’s your turn, help your mentee. So I think that’s very important. It’s a cycle, we got to help each other.

Pratik Shah (42:35):
It’s everything. Yeah. And that’s the reality, right? You’re not going to help men by giving him pleadings. He knows what he said.

Derek Tran (42:41):
Yeah.

Pratik Shah (42:41):
Right. He gave you a plea. The only way you can pay back a guy like men who helped you out is by adhering to his words, which is pay it forward to the next person. I had a mentor like that for me as well, that helped me through a lot in those early days, because there was a lot of stressors of… I’d wake up in the middle of the night, stressed out about my cases and thinking, “Oh man, is this ever going to end? And then he would laugh at me and goes, I’ve been doing this 25 years. It’s never going to end.”

Pratik Shah (43:07):
You get used to, just being waking up and thinking about your cases and thinking about how you’re going to make payroll and thinking about all these things that still happen. It still happens to me. I mean, it’s just the way it goes. It’s the nature of the business. And what you said was so poignant earlier is that this is what you signed up for. And if it’s not what you want, you got to think long and hard about it.

Derek Tran (43:27):
Yep. Either embrace it or recognize it, get out and go work for someone or-

Pratik Shah (43:32):
Right. And no shame.

Derek Tran (43:35):
No shame.

Pratik Shah (43:36):
Doing what you want, right? Right. And whatever that’s best for that person. That’s what they should be doing.

Derek Tran (43:40):
Yeah. Look, listen. One of my good friends, she works for someone and she loves it and that’s her personality. That’s what she wants to do.

Pratik Shah (43:47):
Right.

Derek Tran (43:48):
And here she is making well over six figures, doing very well, nice downtown apartment, driving a fancy ass car, but it works for her and that’s her personality. She could never be her own boss or run her own firm. So you got to recognize what’s your strengths are? And what you want to do to make you happy and then do it. That’s it.

Pratik Shah (44:12):
That’s awesome. I love that. I want to end on that before we wrap up here. Any last things you want to say to anybody that may be listening?

Derek Tran (44:21):
I think it’s clear through the podcast today that if you ever need any help, I’m available, you can reach out to me. I think it’s going to be hard, but again, know that the storm will pass and you’re going to be okay. And then that’s my parting words.

Pratik Shah (44:39):
I love that. I love that. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Derek, for being here. I really, really appreciate your time. We know it’s valuable. Thank you for everyone that’s listening or watching. We’ll see you on the next episode of Bootstrapped Solo. And remember just because people like Derek make it look easy, doesn’t mean that it was effortless. So thank you, Derek. Really, really appreciate your time.

Derek Tran (44:58):
Thank you, guys. This is my pleasure.

 

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