Door Law — Whatever Comes Through the Door
Episode 7: Door Law — Whatever Comes Through the Door
Alex Comley was paid $40 for appearances, but after deducting gas and parking fees, that dropped to around $18. However, Alex didn’t give up. After years of pounding the pavement and pressing flesh, Alex finally found success as a solo practitioner in Southern California. He went from practicing on Craig’s List to working in a big office with a view.
In This Episode
Alex Comley, Comley, Deacon & Fresch
Pratik Shah (00:07):
Hello, everybody. Welcome, welcome, welcome. Welcome to 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 law practice. This podcast is for those that want to know what it’s really like to start, run and grow a practice. Today’s guest is my very good friend, Alex Comley. He’s one of the partners over at Comley, Deacon and Fresch. He runs a practice focused primarily on personal injury. He started the practice right out of school in 2012 and has been growing strong ever since. Alex, welcome to the podcast.
Alex Comley (00:43):
Thank you, Pratik. It’s good to be here.
Pratik Shah (00:45):
Man, it’s always so good to chat with you. I remember in the early days when you started your podcast, or excuse me, when you started your practice, you started it right out of school, right?
Alex Comley (00:54):
Yep. Yep. I started it at a table inside of an apartment.
Pratik Shah (00:59):
Yeah. So tell me about that. This was just the apartment that you were living in in law school or what?
Alex Comley (01:04):
Yeah. When law school finished, it was ’08. Oh, no. 2012, sorry.
Pratik Shah (01:12):
Alex Comley (01:12):
2012. You graduated in 2012 also. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t like it was now where there’s a lot of jobs. There were no jobs. I was working for the public defender’s office as a clerk. And they said, “Congrats on passing the bar, but now that you’re a lawyer you can’t work here anymore.”
Pratik Shah (01:30):
Yeah. Congrats and your homeless now. Yeah.
Alex Comley (01:33):
There’s literally a hiring freeze going on. It was totally different.
Pratik Shah (01:38):
So what did you do? How did you come to the conclusion … I mean, you didn’t just jump from, okay, well, public defender’s not hiring, I’m going to go start my practice, right? There must have been some other discussion there. Or is that how it went? I don’t know. You tell me.
Alex Comley (01:50):
Yeah, no. I mean, I applied to some jobs through on campus interviews and there was zero interest in me, so I figured I had to pay the bills somehow. I say that being a lawyer’s kind of like being a plumber. You just go out there and try and get some work.
Pratik Shah (02:08):
Yeah. Okay. So you apply to all these jobs. You’re not getting callbacks, you’re not getting hired. You finally make the decision, “You know what, I’m just going to start my own. Screw it.”
Alex Comley (02:19):
Pratik Shah (02:20):
So what do you do? What do you do day one?
Alex Comley (02:23):
Well, we’ve talked about this a lot and I think maybe you did it too, but I posted ads on Craigslist. I had no money. I had nothing but a credit card that had a little bit of debt on it. So buying advertising wasn’t an option. It’s funny, when you post ads on Craigslist, you can only post one ad per email address. So I went onto Google and I got 15 email addresses and every morning I’d post my ads. What do you got? DUIs, evictions, civil litigation. And I’d post 10 ads. I’d click through all the emails and then I’d do it in the afternoon again. And I would do that as much as I could. And yeah, the phone would ring.
Pratik Shah (03:14):
And the phone would ring and you’d pick up or you have somebody else pick up? What’d you do?
Alex Comley (03:18):
Yeah. No. All I had was a cell phone. I had a printer, a cell phone, I had a Prius, and that was it.
Pratik Shah (03:33):
Those were your life’s possessions at that moment in time.
Alex Comley (03:36):
And a couple suits. Yeah.
Pratik Shah (03:37):
So the phone rings, the first phone call comes in from one of your ads and you’re thinking, “Oh, thank God. Here we go.”
Alex Comley (03:44):
Yeah. Yeah. I remember some of the calls were crazy. They’d come at like three in the morning and I would jump up so excited. My phone’s ringing. You know?
Pratik Shah (03:54):
Alex Comley (03:54):
I’m excited to take this call. And it would just be the wildest stuff. Some drunk guy saying his girlfriend stole his dog or something. How can he sue her. And he’s calling me at 3:00 in the morning. Gabby, my wife, who you know, will tell you that I would happily take that call and talk to that person and see how I could help them.
Pratik Shah (04:14):
Right. You’re just racking your brain. You’re issue spotting, right?
Alex Comley (04:17):
Pratik Shah (04:17):
You’re like, “What can I do here and is there any way to make it profitable for me and my law firm?
Alex Comley (04:24):
Pratik Shah (04:25):
Go ahead. Go ahead.
Alex Comley (04:26):
Yeah. The first case I actually got was … It was an eviction defense case. And I remember I got paid, I think $500. It might have been less. It might have been $300. I don’t know. But I was like, all right. And I poured my heart into that case. It was in Lancaster, which I think is an hour and a half from Santa Monica where I was living. And I drove out there at least three times. Filed motions for $500 or $300. I mean, just driving out there three times is nine hours. Not including the court time. Not including the research time. Not including-
Pratik Shah (05:10):
Alex Comley (05:10):
Yeah. So that was first-
Pratik Shah (05:11):
And just thinking about that today of doing that for 500 bucks today, make you want to throw up.
Alex Comley (05:18):
Yeah. I mean, I would do that for free now if I felt like somebody needed help, but I’m not going to … I don’t charge by the hour anymore ever.
Pratik Shah (05:27):
Alex Comley (05:28):
Pratik Shah (05:28):
Right. Yeah. So now you do personal injury. Obviously your first case was eviction. You were advertising for everything. Did you just get a hodgepodge of calls or what happened?
Alex Comley (05:38):
Yep. Just a lot of eviction defense stuff at the beginning. I talked to you about this. I couldn’t do personal injury because for personal injury, you need to invest your time and your money up front and maybe you get paid later. But when you have bills … I had an apartment, I had a Prius.
Pratik Shah (05:59):
And no money.
Alex Comley (05:59):
And no money. You can’t do that type of work. You need the upfront stuff. So evictions and then criminal defense, because I had worked for the public defender. In a perfect world, I would’ve taken a lot of criminal defense cases, but when you’re advertising on Craigslist, you’re taking whatever you can get.
Pratik Shah (06:20):
So how did you learn how to even do eviction cases? I mean, obviously you didn’t do it. You worked at the public defenders. What did you do?
Alex Comley (06:27):
Well, the LA law library. I became a member there. I think I spent like three … You can go for free, but you can pay a little bit of money and you get a little bit of additional privileges. So the LA County law library downtown, across the street from Stanley Mosk, it was a godsend. Because the Rutter guides, the CEB books, anything you want to do … When it’s eviction stuff, it’s mostly CEB. California continuing education of the bar. And they have … Give me one second.
Alex Comley (07:07):
Alex Comley (07:11):
I’m alone at the office. I didn’t think somebody else was going to come today, but there you go.
Pratik Shah (07:14):
Alex Comley (07:15):
So CEB books and they have something called the eviction defense manual. They have eviction or … Anyways. They have … They call them secondary sources or practice manuals on pretty much every subject. So if you want to learn something, the Rutter guides and the CEB books are amazing.
Pratik Shah (07:40):
And I want to focus on that first year. Okay. Or that first, probably six months. You make the decision, I’m going to start my practice. You start posting up ads on Craigslist. You got your phone and your Prius and you’re driving all over. If you even remember, how long did it take you to even get that first $500 Lancaster case?
Alex Comley (08:01):
Gosh. I don’t think it took that long, if I had to remember. If you’re ready to pound the pavement and post ads on Craigslist and take anything … Door law. That’s the old joke. When practice door law, anything that comes in the door. You can get cases. They’re going to be crazy cases. You’re probably going to end up losing money for how much you’re going to work for how much you’re going to get paid. But the cases are there. There’s a need for-
Pratik Shah (08:34):
Yeah. So …
Alex Comley (08:35):
Pratik Shah (08:35):
No. There is absolutely a need. I think I read a statistic that said that 80% of people that have legal needs are not being met. So there’s definitely a bunch of people out there that have legal work. Now, I don’t know if those are legitimate legal issues or if they have money to pay for a lawyer, but there are legal needs out there. So focusing on this, you get this $500 Lancaster case. You’re working on it. You’re reading the CEB. You’re doing all the things you need to do to get up to speed to properly represent your client. But at the same time, you’re still advertising for more stuff. You can’t survive on a $500 flat fee.
Alex Comley (09:14):
Oh yeah. Yep. And so I remember parking ticket … No. What is it? Speeding ticket defense stuff.
Pratik Shah (09:20):
Alex Comley (09:23):
I think people would pay 100 bucks for that. Oh, appearances.
Pratik Shah (09:27):
Alex Comley (09:28):
There were a couple companies that would hire you to go to court between 35 … The lowest was $35. Most of them were $40 and some of them were 50 and that was kind of the high end. So yeah, you could go to court. And there was no Zoom back then. You had to get in your car. And this is funny. So if I had-
Pratik Shah (09:53):
You sound like an old man, Alex.
Alex Comley (09:56):
If they were going to pay me 40 bucks to do an appearance at Stanley Mosk, I’d put my suit on, I’d drive my priest to downtown. How much does it cost to park at Stanley Mosk?
Pratik Shah (10:06):
Yeah. 10 to 20 bucks to park.
Alex Comley (10:07):
Right. But if you go to Chinatown, they had a lot for like $8. So I would walk from Chinatown.
Pratik Shah (10:15):
The life hack.
Alex Comley (10:16):
Yeah. Because you can’t pay $20 to park if you’re only getting paid 40.
Pratik Shah (10:23):
Right. For the appearance. Right.
Alex Comley (10:25):
Yeah. So appearances-
Pratik Shah (10:26):
And so you’d walk from Chinatown over to Stanley Mosk to do the appearance, to get your 40 bucks minus your gas, minus your $8 parking. You’re looking at a net of like $10 to $20.
Alex Comley (10:38):
Pratik Shah (10:39):
Hey, I used to do it too so no shame in the game. You and I know. We did it together. We’d be like, “This guy wants to pay me 60 bucks for an appearance? I’m in.”
Alex Comley (10:47):
Pratik Shah (10:49):
So you’re doing appearance work, making 40 bucks a pop. You got this monster $500 Lancaster case. You’ve got these little traffic tickets here and there. How are you making your rent? You’re in Santa Monica. How is this even working?
Alex Comley (11:05):
Well, I was doing everything I could. So the traffic tickets. Every once in a while I did pick up a criminal defense case. Maybe I charged 1500 bucks, $2,000 if I was lucky for a DUI. Some domestic violence cases. All misdemeanor stuff, because when you’re a first year lawyer, I didn’t think I could and I probably shouldn’t have been doing felony work. So yeah. I didn’t have any kids. I didn’t have a mortgage. I still don’t have a mortgage. But you can do it when you don’t have a ton of overhead. I didn’t have any overhead.
Alex Comley (11:55):
So you can do it if you’re willing to pick up enough cases. I don’t think I was saving any money. But the important thing at the beginning was I was learning a lot. I was in court a lot. And I told you this. When you finish a hearing or when you’re downtown, I would just walk up and down the courthouse halls and look for trials to watch. I would stay late after my appearance and just watch other people appear and you kind of learn. And then after you do enough work for other people, then you might get your first referral.
Pratik Shah (12:34):
Alex Comley (12:35):
Pratik Shah (12:35):
I remember when you and I used to talk in the early days a lot and not only would we get excited about this appearance work because we were about to make our $18.50 on this appearance, but you and I would talk and say, “Look, not only am I getting paid for this appearance, I’m going to go and I’m going to sit and see how to handle a CMC, how to handle an arraignment, how to handle et cetera, et cetera, et cetera so that next week when I have my arraignment coming up or I have the CMC coming up for one of my clients, I know what I’m doing. So not only am I getting paid …” And then I would even use that as a networking opportunity to go there and start talking to other lawyers. I imagine you did the same thing.
Alex Comley (13:14):
Absolutely. And I would love to-
Pratik Shah (13:16):
You have no choice.
Alex Comley (13:17):
I would love to watch and see how other lawyers did things. It was fascinating. It’s still fascinating to me. If you want to do this line of work, you have to love it. It’s going to not be fun if you don’t enjoy it. So I was fascinated by other lawyers and how they composed themselves, how they did things. And then I forgot about 12 months in, I had a mentor who was invaluable and he was giving me some work too.
Pratik Shah (13:51):
How did you find the mentor?
Alex Comley (13:55):
He was doing a criminal case while I was a public defender. And when I got my license, I sent him an email and six months later … Because he was old school. His secretary printed his emails and he read them and he would write the response. So six months later I get a call from him. His name’s Ira Salzman. And he said, “Alex, I got you your first case. Meet this guy here, ask for this amount of retainer and then give me a call.” And that was the phone call. Click, hang up.
Pratik Shah (14:33):
Done. You’re like, “Done. On my way.” Yeah.
Alex Comley (14:36):
Yeah. And so that was my first … I got a decent retainer. It was a pretty serious case. It was a civil case. And yeah, I learned a ton on that case. So yeah, meeting this mentor. Sending out cold emails to different firms. That’s how I met him and I-
Pratik Shah (14:54):
Alex Comley (14:54):
Pratik Shah (14:56):
All right. So you said you met your mentor about 12 months in, right?
Alex Comley (14:59):
Pratik Shah (15:00):
So that first 12 months, what was that first 12 months? Was it just a combination of eviction defense, criminal defense, this and that and just surviving for a year? Or were there moments within that year where you were like, “Okay, I think I got something here.”
Alex Comley (15:18):
I don’t remember like, okay, I think I got something. I mean, at some point I was like, yeah, I think I got something. And I remember telling-
Pratik Shah (15:25):
When did that moment come?
Alex Comley (15:27):
I remember telling you if I could make $30,000 a year, then I could pay my bills.
Pratik Shah (15:34):
I do remember that conversation.
Alex Comley (15:35):
And so I don’t know, probably at some point I made like 2,500 bucks a month and I was like, “All right. I can keep going.” And so maybe that was the first-
Pratik Shah (15:47):
I don’t even know if that was in the first year.
Alex Comley (15:50):
Yeah. I don’t know. But then at some point I start earning a little bit more and then I was like, okay, well this is better than I expected. And if you keep going, it’s surprising. There’s a-
Pratik Shah (16:04):
I … Go ahead. Please.
Alex Comley (16:07):
There was another business owner that I know, my wife’s friend, and he’s not a lawyer, but he said, “Look, if you can keep this going for five years, you’re going to be surprised. It’ll be kind of self self-sustaining and you might even be successful.” And I think at the five year mark, that’s kind of when things solidified.
Pratik Shah (16:31):
Yeah. I think that’s similar for me. And I think a very important point you just made is that just keep going. This stuff compounds. Just stay alive, stay in the game. As long as you’re in the game, you can keep playing. And the goal is just keep playing for as long as you can, until you, at some point, run out of money. If you run out of money, you lose.
Alex Comley (16:50):
Yeah. Low overhead. Low overhead.
Pratik Shah (16:54):
Low overhead. Yeah.
Alex Comley (16:55):
Pratik Shah (16:56):
From your office. Nowadays there’s no stigma. Right?
Alex Comley (16:59):
Pratik Shah (17:00):
But going back to that really first year, because I think what’s important … What I see a lot of and what’s been bothering me on social media is a lot of people saying, “Go start your own. You’re going to make so much money. You’re going to be so rich.” And I think what you just said is a very valuable point is that it took you about five years to finally be like, “Oh yeah, this is something I can do and I can make money doing it and I can make good money doing it.” Not just scraping by. Not 30,000 a year. You know what I mean? So there must have been some moments in that first year or that second year where you’re just like, “Can I keep going? Is this sustainable?” What were those moments like? I want to talk about those low moments.
Alex Comley (17:39):
Absolutely. I had a full on breakdown at some point. I forget how deep I was in. I don’t know if it was two years, one year, three. I don’t remember. But I was down. I felt like one of the cases I was working on … Looking back, I was doing everything I could, but at the beginning when you’re learning, you think you’re failing your client if you’re not winning. Right?
Pratik Shah (18:13):
Alex Comley (18:14):
But even if you’re going to lose a case, as long as you’re doing everything you can, that’s your job. But I didn’t understand that early on. That was a rough patch. I called my mom. I was like, “Mom, I got to come over.” And just, I was-
Pratik Shah (18:38):
No. And having that support system is everything. For me, it was my wife. It was just being able to come home, be like, “I don’t know if this is going to work, but I’m going to keep going.” And so you call your mom and you say, “Mom, I’m struggling.”
Alex Comley (18:53):
Yeah. And she, like a good mom, “You got this, Alex. You can get through this.” And I eventually did. There was a case that I think I lost 12 months worth of sleep on at the beginning. That happens less. I lose less sleep now. But you probably are making mistakes early on, but you always think you’re making mistakes. You don’t know if you’re making a mistake or not.
Pratik Shah (19:25):
And I think that’s the scary part, right?
Alex Comley (19:28):
Pratik Shah (19:29):
Is you don’t even know. It’s one thing if you know that this is the right thing, this is the wrong thing. That’s different. But the scary part is you don’t even know if it’s the wrong thing. So what did you do in the beginning to find out if it was the wrong thing? Other than, okay, so you go to the law library, read, talk to your mentor. You and I would chat on the phone, but not like I do anything. That was the blind leading the blind there. And so what else did you do?
Alex Comley (19:56):
That’s it. A lot of time in the law library. If you really dig into those Rutter guides and CEB books, they cover everything. I mean, these are-
Pratik Shah (20:07):
Alex Comley (20:07):
Yeah. But you’ve got to dig into-
Pratik Shah (20:09):
Alex Comley (20:10):
You got to dig into them. And then ask other people, other lawyers.
Pratik Shah (20:17):
And in the beginning, when you’re learning the basic stuff, the stuff they don’t teach you in law school. How to file in the court. Where the courthouse is and what the court clerks are supposed to do. How did you learn all that?
Alex Comley (20:36):
Filing is just trial and error. I think it still is. I’m almost 10 years in and there’s some trial and error on filing. Don’t file it at the last minute because if it gets rejected, at least you have another day to fix it. It was totally different. There was that filing room at Stanley Mosk. That doesn’t exist anymore. And you could walk in with your papers and talk to the filing clerk and maybe they’d give you some guidance, even though they say they shouldn’t.
Pratik Shah (21:10):
Yeah. You got to sweet talk them a little bit.
Alex Comley (21:13):
Yeah. So it was more hands on. And now everything’s eFiling. I mean LA’s eFiling. I have my first federal case so I’m literally relearning how to file things right now. But yeah, at the beginning it was trial and error. I’m going to keep talking because I got so much to talk about.
Pratik Shah (21:37):
Please, please. That’s what you’re here for. I want you to-
Alex Comley (21:40):
So if I had a UD in Pasadena, what would I do right now on a case if it wasn’t eFiling? I would hire somebody to go file the documents for me. And they might charge me $50 or whatever. I would drive the papers to Pasadena from Santa Monica because I didn’t have $50. And if I started spending $50 every time I filed a document in a case, I would lose money on the case.
Pratik Shah (22:06):
Yeah. Yeah. Because we didn’t have clients paying us 1,000 bucks, 2000. Well, we had 1,000 and that was it for everything.
Alex Comley (22:12):
Maybe. So you had a question, how did I pay the bills at the beginning? I picked up two regular-ish clients doing evictions for landlords. So I got lucky. One I met through Craigslist and then I did good work for him. And then he hired me to do some regular-ish evictions. And then my uncle gave me evictions on the landlord side. So lucky breaks/nepotism/whatever.
Pratik Shah (22:47):
Hey, but the lucky breaks came because you’re willing to put in the work. Right?
Alex Comley (22:51):
Pratik Shah (22:51):
Nobody helps out people that aren’t willing to help themselves. And when you can go to people and say, “Hey, I’m trying. I’m doing everything. Here’s everything I’ve done. I know the law. I’ve studied it. I’m willing to go to any courthouse, any city, any county, any time. I’ll pick up your phone at 3:00 AM. I’ll do all those things.” Okay. Somebody’s going to say, “I’ll give you a shot.” Your uncle doesn’t call you and say, “Here’s a $10,000 case day one because you’re my nephew.” He doesn’t want his eviction screwed up either.
Alex Comley (23:21):
Pratik Shah (23:22):
Because he’s losing rent every month, you know?
Alex Comley (23:23):
Yeah. And I was working hard on his cases and I was charging him whatever I would charge anybody else. I think I was making $240 per case. I don’t even know if that included the filing. No. Anyways. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it was regular work. I was learning. It was paying the bills. And he was a great guy for even sending me the work.
Pratik Shah (23:47):
Yeah. He’s great. I mean, for giving you a shot. A first year lawyer. Props to him and good for you for doing good work on it. I remember you and I talking in the early years and you had kind of turned the corner a little bit. You were doing regular UDs. UDs were your thing the first couple of years. I remember talking to you about unlawful detainers and you being like, “Man, I got a nice system. I go to court three times a week. I got these unlawful detainers. I’m finally got some regular business going.” And I don’t remember if that was … That must have been year three for you, year two for me because I was at the DA’s office for a little bit. But you remember that moment? And I was starting to do PI and we started talking about what other areas of law are out there that can make sense.
Alex Comley (24:33):
I honestly do. I have like an independent recollection of saying, “I feel good about my UD business.” Probably.
Pratik Shah (24:42):
I remember you were like, “I’m making a couple thousand dollars a month. It’s pretty regular.”
Alex Comley (24:47):
Pratik Shah (24:47):
I remember that.
Alex Comley (24:48):
I have notes. If I go back in my notes, I’m like, okay, here’s my mix for the year. I’m going to try and make $10,000 from UDs. Divorce stuff. I forgot. I’m going to try and make $15,000 on divorce cases and $20,000 on criminal defense cases. And I would have this mix of cases and I was like, “Okay, if I can hit these numbers and these segments.” Those were my goals back then. So yeah, divorce stuff. Forgot about that.
Pratik Shah (25:18):
You did family law stuff. Was that also just from Craigslist? It seems like Craigslist was your best source of cases.
Alex Comley (25:23):
Oh gosh. I think I did divorces from Craigslist. Yeah. I mean eventually I-
Pratik Shah (25:29):
I can’t even imagine what those divorces were like.
Alex Comley (25:31):
Oh, terrible. Eventually I started paying for leads.
Pratik Shah (25:40):
Okay. So tell me about that. Do you know when this was? Year three? Year four? What are we talking?
Alex Comley (25:46):
I was working out of my apartment again. So I started in my apartment. Then I got a subterranean office with no windows. And then I went back to my apartment. So I was in the apartment, I don’t know, year three or four.
Pratik Shah (26:02):
Yeah. Yeah. Well the reason I keep asking, kind of getting the timeline is for people that are listening, I want them to know that this is not a year one, year two thing.
Alex Comley (26:09):
Pratik Shah (26:11):
By year two, you’re making 200 grand a year. That’s not what … So I’m just trying to get this timeline of giving a realistic experience of what happened. Because I was there with you. We were in the trenches together, you know?
Alex Comley (26:23):
Pratik Shah (26:24):
And so year one, year two, year three. You had mentioned by year five it was finally starting to turn the corner. So it must have been before then. In that range, but it was pre year five. So in there somewhere you’re back in your office, you’re starting to pay for leads. So tell me about paying for leads. How did that go?
Alex Comley (26:43):
It worked. I forget how much leads were. But I think the service would send the lead to four lawyers. So it was no fun because then you’re talking to clients and trying to sell them on why you’re better than these three of the lawyers and then they all have their own prices and everyone’s trying to do it for as cheap as … It was no fun. It was terrible.
Pratik Shah (27:11):
It was a nightmare.
Alex Comley (27:12):
Pratik Shah (27:12):
So these first five years that are just brutal. And how much of a wake up call was that from what we thought, all of us thought we were going to be doing as lawyers when we were in law school?
Alex Comley (27:25):
Oh yeah. When I went to law school, I thought I’d be a real estate lawyer. And what does that even mean?
Pratik Shah (27:34):
I don’t know.
Alex Comley (27:35):
Yeah. That’s what I told people I was going to be. Which would probably mean-
Pratik Shah (27:41):
Alex Comley (27:42):
Yeah, exactly. Which would probably mean transactional work. And I would be terrible at transactional work. I cannot do it at all. So yeah. What did I think I was going to do in law school? I thought some big firm was going to hire me and pay me a lot of money and it would be fancy. No man.
Pratik Shah (28:03):
Yeah. Not even close.
Alex Comley (28:04):
But I was parking in Chinatown, walking-
Pratik Shah (28:09):
To save two bucks. 12 bucks on parking. I was there. I know the pain. So at some point you decide, okay, I’m going all in on personal injury. Even though UDs are making me money, even though divorces are making me money. You’ve got this little mix of, I’ve got 10 grand coming from this, 15 grand coming from this. And then at some point either you get a personal injury case or how did you end up in personal injury?
Alex Comley (28:37):
Where did I get my first case from? I don’t remember where I got my first personal injury case from. I kind of remember the first big-ish one. I had this client and I did an eviction defense for his sister. And so he had a car accident and I did that for him and his mom. And I think I made $11,000.
Pratik Shah (29:07):
11 G’s. I mean, considering doing UDs for 500 bucks, picking up 11,000 is six months worth of income.
Alex Comley (29:16):
Yeah. That was going to pay my bills for a long time.
Pratik Shah (29:19):
Yeah. So then you’re looking at this and you’re like, “I guess I’m doing personal injury now. Huh?”
Alex Comley (29:26):
Yeah. I remember talking to you when I would have a roster of open cases. I would say, “Okay, I can safely assume that each one of these cases is going to average me $2,000 in fees.”
Pratik Shah (29:40):
Alex Comley (29:43):
And yeah. So that’s how I used to value cases. Each personal injury case was about $2,000. And a lot of them were.
Pratik Shah (29:51):
Alex Comley (29:51):
Rear end, chiropractic, and they’d settle for 6,000 bucks.
Pratik Shah (29:56):
Alex Comley (29:57):
And at the time, making $2,000 sitting in my office versus going to court six times on a DUI.
Pratik Shah (30:08):
Right. There’s a math that gets done there of hey, what makes more sense?
Alex Comley (30:17):
Pratik Shah (30:18):
And so what happens? So you get your first personal injury case, you get your check for 11,000. Do you just immediately say, “I’m done with anything else and I’m going all in on this personal injury thing.”? Or did you kind of like, “Hey, maybe this is an anomaly. Do I got to just hedge my bets a little bit?” What do you do?
Alex Comley (30:36):
No. It was not I’m going to go all in on personal injury because it was one or two cases. I didn’t have a ton of cases. So I could go back in my notes and it was … The mix went from criminal defense, UD and family law to maybe … Maybe I got rid of family law and I was like, okay, now personal injury, UD and criminal defense.
Pratik Shah (30:59):
Got it. Right. Right. And then as that time goes on, then it becomes okay, personal injury and just UD or something like that.
Alex Comley (31:05):
Pratik Shah (31:05):
And then eventually just personal injury. And at what point did your firm actually become pure personal injury? Ballpark?
Alex Comley (31:14):
Yeah. It’s a good question. Maybe 2017? I don’t even know.
Pratik Shah (31:27):
So about five years in.
Alex Comley (31:29):
Yeah. Probably five years in. Maybe when I joined forces with my partner, Brett Deacon. I think that is when it became pretty much personal injury only. If I had some old civil cases, I was closing them up. I wasn’t taking new civil cases. So at some point before I became just personal injury, I was doing some civil work. Business litigation stuff. There was a trade secrets case. There was some higher level eviction stuff like commercial. Higher dollar. Yeah.
Pratik Shah (32:14):
So this is obviously a little trip down memory lane for both of us, right? At what point … Not at what point, but in those first three, four years before you decided, okay, I’m all in on personal injury, did you feel like in those first three to four years, “Okay. I’m making more and more money every year. I’ve got a little system going on how the cases are coming in. I’ve got referrals for my old clients.” And I guess for lack of a better word, there’s some traction there, right?
Alex Comley (32:45):
Yeah. Yeah. That’s fair to say.
Pratik Shah (32:49):
And at some point you stop advertising on Craigslist. When was that?
Alex Comley (32:54):
Oh yeah. Oh, I probably stopped advertising on Craigslist after year two.
Pratik Shah (32:58):
Yeah. But it’s about a year of doing that. And I think that’s an important point is a year or two years of logging in every day. And it kind of tapers off. Because at first you’re logging in every day and you’re doing it, because you have no other choice. Then it tapers off to like three days a week and then a day a week. And then eventually you’re like, “I don’t even want these calls anymore.”
Alex Comley (33:18):
Yeah. I mean it was three or four years before I would spend more than $5 on lunch if I was outside of the house. I was not … Yeah.
Pratik Shah (33:30):
So you graduated from Pepperdine. You had a bunch of classmates that probably did go off to some nice fancy job that you thought that you were going to do. And you probably had some classmates that were out there working. How did that … If it did, did it mess with your mind at all to see, “Hey look, maybe I should just go get a job because these guys are out here making decent money and I’m over here advertising on Craigslist.” How did you deal with that emotional side of it?
Alex Comley (34:00):
To answer that question, I don’t remember ever being like, man, I wish I had this corporate job paying me a lot of money. I don’t think that crossed my mind because, I’ll tell you the truth, I was having so much fun. Driving to courthouses, sitting and hearings. To me, it was a ton of fun. So no, it never crossed my mind because I was just having a good time. I was paying my bills. And yeah.
Pratik Shah (34:32):
And you were married at the time when this was happening or were you just dating Gabby?
Alex Comley (34:38):
We probably got married … 2014 maybe.
Pratik Shah (34:47):
So you’re in the middle of your Craigslist dealings and you decide let’s get married.
Alex Comley (34:52):
I remember the night before I got married, I’m in the room, getting ready for the wedding, on my cell phone talking to a guy about a speeding ticket he got that I’m going to appear for him for.
Pratik Shah (35:15):
Excuse me. But that’s what I’m talking about. I think that’s just what it takes. There’s that sense of there really is no off limits. And maybe now at this point, you’ve got a good firm. You’ve got a good roster of cases and you’ve gotten some great results and you’re starting to siphon off time. But we’re still always answering the phone.
Alex Comley (35:34):
Oh yeah. My phone rings, I’m answering it. 90% of the time it’s a robo caller.
Pratik Shah (35:41):
Yeah. But it never changes.
Alex Comley (35:42):
Yeah. I’ll answer the phone. Because in our line of work, any potential client could cover your bills for the year.
Pratik Shah (35:53):
Right. Right. And I want to focus on that just for a second because for the first five years when you’re really in the dirt and just scraping by for every little thing, it’s just pure survival. It’s an emotional roller coaster. It’s ups and downs. Things are good. Things are bad. Every week is just an emotional roller coaster. But even post five years. Okay. You’ve turned the corner. You’re doing okay. There are still certain things you do now that will never change. Answering the phone. How often are you working nights and weekends, for example?
Alex Comley (36:34):
How I work is probably different than most people. I like to work nine to five. But that doesn’t mean I’m not answering the phone or thinking about my cases. I’m thinking about my cases 24/7. I’m thinking strategy. So yeah. Are you working? Yeah, I’m working. And my wife will tell 24/7 his mind is not present. Because I’m thinking about, well, when am I going to send this 998? Or how are we going to get coverage on this? Or how are we going to prove liability on this? If you’re doing what I do, what we do, you can’t not think about that. Or maybe you can, but I can’t turn my brain off. So my brain’s always on. My phone’s always on. If someone’s going to call me, doesn’t matter when they’re going to call me, I’m going to answer the phone. But when I’m sitting down doing emails and doing written work or research, that’s nine to five.
Pratik Shah (37:37):
Yeah. And I think it’s good to have that compartmentalization. Everybody works differently. And it’s probably good for the relationship that Gabby knows she’s going to get to see you at a certain time.
Alex Comley (37:49):
Yeah. I mean, I’m home at 5:30 every day.
Pratik Shah (37:53):
Well, I love that. There’s a lot of people jealous. I’m jealous of that. I mean, I work from home, so I guess I’m home all day, but I’m still in my office. But okay. So I want to go back to you getting married in 2014. So 2013, you start your practice. Because we got sworn in at the end of 2012. 2013, you start your practice. That’s year one. You’re still kind of in the dirt. How is Gabby handling all this?
Alex Comley (38:17):
She was great.
Pratik Shah (38:19):
When you tell her, “Honey, I’m driving to Lancaster for a $500 case six times,” was there a point even in those first couple years where she’s like, “Alex, is this going to work? How is this going to work?”
Alex Comley (38:30):
Never. Not once. She was nothing but supportive.
Pratik Shah (38:32):
Alex Comley (38:33):
Pratik Shah (38:33):
Ride or die.
Alex Comley (38:35):
Pratik Shah (38:37):
I love that.
Alex Comley (38:38):
Yeah. So in terms of my relationship with her and how she supported this, 100%.
Pratik Shah (38:43):
And that’s amazing because now there’s validation. It feels good at this point to be like, “Hey, your belief in me wasn’t unwarranted. It was justified.”
Alex Comley (38:53):
Pratik Shah (38:55):
What was it like the moment you came home after you settled your big case? I know you’ve had a couple big cases throughout the years, but that first big case, and you got to go home and tell your wife that it all paid off?
Alex Comley (39:09):
It’s fun to tell her that I resolved a big case, and maybe this is standard, but what happens to me on a big case is I kind of go flat and I just start thinking about what I need to do to grow the firm or get the next case or what I need to do on other cases. It’s weird but every single time I have done a … At the beginning, a big case to me was a little bit different than what it is now. But it’s always the same feeling. Okay. Cool. What’s next? I almost don’t even want to have a beer. I always want to have a beer, but there’s some chemical reaction in my body when I settle a big case where I’m like … You always get tired.
Pratik Shah (40:09):
Yeah. It’s like all that work just paid off.
Alex Comley (40:12):
Pratik Shah (40:15):
And so do you remember your first … And I wouldn’t say your big case today, but I would say your first time when you felt like, okay, I settled a big case. And if you’re okay sharing numbers, what was that number and what did it feel like when you settled your first “big case”?
Alex Comley (40:31):
Yeah. From what I remember, my first pretty big case was … It was $240,000.
Pratik Shah (40:43):
Yeah. I mean, that’s a big case.
Alex Comley (40:46):
Yeah. And I don’t remember how early on, but it was pretty early. Well, might have been four or five years in. I could go back.
Pratik Shah (40:54):
Yeah. No that’s okay. Yeah. Ballpark.
Alex Comley (40:57):
So yeah, I think four or five years in. We mediated it at … Because I remember. We mediated at Judicate West in Santa Ana.
Pratik Shah (41:08):
Alex Comley (41:08):
Settled it for $240,000. And I remember just driving home and happy but thinking about what’s next.
Pratik Shah (41:21):
Yeah. Yeah. So you’re able to make that call to the … Well obviously the client’s there with you. But you’re able to call your wife and say, “I can’t believe it. This just happened.”
Alex Comley (41:30):
So what do you make on that? 80,000. That’s a lot of money.
Pratik Shah (41:34):
That’s a lot. You wanted 30,000 a year. You just got almost three years worth of income.
Alex Comley (41:43):
Crazy. Yeah. That was-
Pratik Shah (41:48):
Crazy time. Yeah.
Alex Comley (41:50):
Yeah. That was probably ’16. 2016.
Pratik Shah (41:50):
Yeah. And I think setting some realistic expectations for a lot of younger lawyers, for me, it took me seven years before I got my first seven figure case.
Alex Comley (42:00):
My first seven figure case?
Pratik Shah (42:02):
Yeah. I just thought for the longest time when I was running my practice, if I get one seven figure case, oh my God, I’m going to retire and I don’t know what else to do. That would be the pinnacle. You think when you start doing PI, these are just out there and you’re going to get them because you see them everywhere.
Alex Comley (42:21):
I think it took me until … No. I know. It was during the pandemic was my first seven figure case.
Pratik Shah (42:33):
So about eight years. Yeah. Not that different from me. Yeah.
Alex Comley (42:36):
Wait. How long did you say it took you?
Pratik Shah (42:37):
Seven for me. Yeah.
Alex Comley (42:38):
Yeah. Eight years.
Pratik Shah (42:40):
Yeah. It’s crazy, right? Because you do PI, you see all the billboards everywhere.
Alex Comley (42:44):
Obviously the … What’s it called? Do not disturb. Oh, I see. I didn’t even turn it on. Got it. Sorry.
Pratik Shah (42:55):
That’s okay. That’s all right. I mean, for me, obviously when I started doing PI and I started seeing all the billboards and I’d go to all the Cala events and I’d see everybody talking about these seven figure cases they got and I’m working on these chiro only $6,000, $7,000, $8,000 cases, you think you’re doing something wrong because you’re not getting a seven figure case. At least I felt that way.
Alex Comley (43:17):
Yeah. I knew that I shouldn’t be getting all the seven figure cases if any of them because there’s better lawyers than I am.
Pratik Shah (43:30):
Right. But you would hope to still get it in co-counsel or do something like that.
Alex Comley (43:34):
Right, right, right. Yeah. They’re there. But I’ve told you this too. People go through their entire career and probably never get a seven figure case.
Pratik Shah (43:47):
It’s true. And I think that’s … When I settled a multi seven figure case a couple years back, I got a lot of calls from friends of mine. They were like, “You should be super proud because there are people that go their entire careers and never get that.” And that kind of puts things in perspective because it definitely makes you feel these days with everything that’s out there, all the conferences, all the CLEs, all the Instagram posts, that oh man, everybody’s just killing it and everybody’s doing seven figures a year. And the reality is that’s just not true. The vast majority of lawyers that do PI may only get one or two seven figure cases a year. May not ever get one.
Alex Comley (44:28):
Yeah. I mean, if I had to think how people get tons of seven figure cases, their marketing budget is massive.
Pratik Shah (44:36):
Massive. And that’s just that massive overhead that you don’t have in the beginning. So going back and focusing on you a little bit, you turn the corner, you start paying for leads year four, year five. Some calls are coming in. You’re chasing with other lawyers to try to close these deals. Do you eventually find a channel of marketing that works for you?
Alex Comley (44:58):
Pratik Shah (45:00):
And what was it and what did you do?
Alex Comley (45:03):
Pratik Shah (45:05):
Okay. And how did you even do internet ads? Did you hire an agency?
Alex Comley (45:09):
No, I did it myself. At the beginning … Actually, Yelp. If you can get your Yelp reviews up … Back in the day, it was effective to just get your reviews up. But then they started doing paid marketing and I think my first paid marketing was through Yelp.
Pratik Shah (45:27):
Okay. And was that successful for you? You still doing it?
Alex Comley (45:32):
I don’t do it anymore. And it was … I think it was good enough.
Pratik Shah (45:42):
Everything’s ROI positive, right? As long as its ROI positive, we’re okay.
Alex Comley (45:48):
Yeah. I mean, I’m not doing it anymore, so I don’t-
Pratik Shah (45:49):
Wasn’t that great.
Alex Comley (45:49):
I think it’s changed a lot too. But I’m not an expert in Yelp ads anymore. But I know that I used to do them and I think they worked.
Pratik Shah (46:00):
So you said you do internet advertising and you did it yourself. Did you have a background in that? Did you go to the law … I mean, they don’t have that in the law library. How did you even learn that?
Alex Comley (46:13):
Well, you got to do what you got to do and-
Pratik Shah (46:17):
You don’t have to divulge your trade secrets.
Alex Comley (46:19):
No, no. At the beginning, it was Google AdWords. And how do you learn that? I mean, I remember talking to you about it. They had something called the Google AdWords Express back in the day. I don’t even think it exists anymore.
Pratik Shah (46:33):
I remember that.
Alex Comley (46:36):
And so it was simple. Now it’s incredibly … I don’t think the express exists anymore and it’s incredibly complicated. But the reason I was able to get into AdWords in 2016, 2017 was it was way cheaper. And now the competition is crazy.
Pratik Shah (47:01):
It’s crazy. I mean, the numbers are insane to be able to compete. And that’s okay. Whatever channel works. I think another thing that the message I would want to get out there is all channels work. Whatever you want to do, whether it’s internet advertising, social media, whether it’s just advertising on Craigslist. I mean, I did that too, right?
Alex Comley (47:22):
Pratik Shah (47:22):
All channels work. Some work better than others. But whatever you do, you got to spend the time learning how to do it the right way.
Alex Comley (47:29):
Yeah. I look at it this way. Who are the guys spending tons of money and what are they doing? Well, they’re doing TV, they’re doing radio, they’re doing billboards and they’re doing internet. And they’re probably doing social media too. I’ve never done social media. I know nothing about it. And I’ve never done billboards, radio or TV because the upfront is … It’s just too much. Right now the best cases are referrals from former clients because they want to work with you. And a lot of times they’re the best cases just generally,
Pratik Shah (48:15):
Right. Just the quality of the case.
Alex Comley (48:18):
Yeah. And when you start spending money on marketing, you got to start spending money on overhead.
Pratik Shah (48:24):
Right. Because then you need intake.
Alex Comley (48:25):
Yep. You need more-
Pratik Shah (48:27):
Somebody’s got to analyze what’s good and what’s bad and what’s worth sending over to Alex to talk to.
Alex Comley (48:33):
Yeah. So there’s this balance like, okay, I have a little bit of money. Should I spend it on marketing? Well, if I’m going to spend this much money on marketing, can my office handle how much that’s going to generate? And I’m super cheap. I don’t like spending money on overhead. So that’s the balance we deal with. So if we can do really good work on our cases and just squeeze more money out of cases, that’s the goal, but yeah.
Pratik Shah (49:04):
Yeah. No, that makes sense. So coming up on time here, a couple of questions. We talked a little bit about the marketing side, the business side, being a lawyer side. I mean the first couple years, you’re trying to figure out how to be a … Have you ever ran a business before?
Alex Comley (49:21):
I don’t think so. No.
Pratik Shah (49:25):
Okay. So no experience running a business, no experience being a lawyer, no experience in internet marketing. You jump right in and it worked. You jumped right into the deep end and it took a while and there was ups and downs, but you’re there now.
Alex Comley (49:39):
I think that’s fair. You can say that. I came out at the other side and I’m alive. Yeah.
Pratik Shah (49:46):
You came out the other side looking great, right?
Alex Comley (49:48):
Pratik Shah (49:49):
It’s Comley, Deacon and Fresch. You got a couple lawyers at the firm, you got some staff. And so now, in having to learn all those skills, those were all new muscles you were building. How to be a lawyer, how to be a business owner, how to be a marketer, all these things. How would you find yourself splitting your time? And I know there’s no mathematical formula of I’m spending this time, but looking back in a ballpark, how would you say your time was split those first couple of years in figuring all those things out?
Alex Comley (50:20):
Oh man. It’s probably not very much time on actual legal work in the beginning. More like research, driving to court, talking to clients. And then yeah, how much actual legal work are you doing? Two hours a day maybe.
Pratik Shah (50:44):
Yeah. And not because you don’t want to. There’s just no time for it.
Alex Comley (50:47):
Right. You don’t have much work. That’s why malpractice insurance is cheap when you’re a first year lawyer. Because what are you going to mess up?
Pratik Shah (50:56):
Right. You don’t have any cases and any case that you get isn’t going to be that big of a loss anyways.
Alex Comley (51:02):
Pratik Shah (51:04):
Okay. I think that’s an important note, right? A lot of people, they work at a firm for a bunch of years. They go, “Hey, I know what I’m doing. I know how to do all this legal work. I’m going to go out and start my own.” And that’s fine. They should. I never discourage anybody from starting their own. Because obviously you did it, I did it. We’ve all done fine. It can be great. But it’s a reality check to say, you’re not going to be spending all day writing motions and answering discovery. Your day going to be spent figuring out how to get clients, how to get them to cut you a check, how to figure out the logistics part of getting mail out, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Because everything was done by hand. Paying bills. Everything was done by hand. I remember I talked to some of my friends that would refer me cases in the beginning and they’re like, “I still remember getting handwritten referral fee checks from your personal account.”
Alex Comley (51:50):
You still write handwritten checks?
Pratik Shah (51:53):
You still write handwritten checks. It’s like, I don’t know what to do. I didn’t have money to pay for QuickBooks. I just wrote them by hand, you know?
Alex Comley (52:01):
Pratik Shah (52:01):
So bringing this to an end here. And this is kind of a cheesy question, but you’ve got a young lawyer that emails you kind of like the way you emailed your mentor, and says, “Hey Alex, I heard your practice. I heard how you built it. I want to learn how to do it. Can you give me just a couple pieces of advice?” What would you say to that person?
Alex Comley (52:25):
Whew. Oh, man. It’s a good question. A couple pieces of advice. Young lawyer. Do good work. You’ve got to do good work. Even if the value’s not there, you’re not getting paid what you think you should be paid. Don’t worry about that. I mean, I still do stuff for free. That’s a good piece of advice too. If somebody needs help and you’ve got a ton of time because you don’t have many cases, why don’t you just work on the case even if they can’t pay you or if they can’t much.
Pratik Shah (53:08):
Just work on it. Yeah.
Alex Comley (53:09):
So yeah. Do good work. Spend the time to do the research on things because you got to love it. You got to love researching the law. LA law library is huge. I don’t know. I don’t have great advice. It’s kind of all over the place.
Pratik Shah (53:29):
No, that is great advice. When you look back on those first five years, any shout outs or dedications, thank yous that you want to give out to some of those folks that were there. Like obviously LA law library had your back. So props to the LA law library. Your mentor. You mentioned his name, but I forget so props to him. Is there anything else that you can point to, CEB, where you’re like, yeah, this was so crucial in me making it because it was just something that was cheap and easy to use and learn from and I couldn’t have done it without it?
Alex Comley (54:06):
Keeping your overhead low. And then Pratik, I spent, like you said, a couple hours a week with you on the phone, just talking.
Pratik Shah (54:15):
Well, I wasn’t giving you advice. That was just us commiserating. Because I didn’t know what I was doing either.
Alex Comley (54:18):
No. It was just talking through it. So if you have somebody that you could talk through issues with, that’s important and … Yeah.
Pratik Shah (54:31):
Yeah. I think finding a good tribe to be like, “What do we think about this? Let’s analyze this. Let’s talk.” I think is super important. Any final thoughts before we wrap up here, Alex?
Alex Comley (54:46):
No. I think I was telling you, people are going to be in court less because of these Zoom hearings and stuff, but if you can go to court and watch real trials and see real lawyers in court. If you want to be a litigator. If you want to be a transactional lawyer, I have no advice for you. Good luck. But if you want to be a litigator, seeing people in court, go out of your way to try and do that. Hopefully it’s going to be different in a couple years and it’s going to be easier to do that. But I think that was invaluable. Super invaluable to actually see good lawyers, other lawyers, even bad lawyers. See what they mess up on. And just get out there and figure out how to do it. Yeah.
Pratik Shah (55:42):
Yeah. So with that, I’m going to wrap up. Thank you, Alex, for being here. I really appreciate all the insight and everything. Thank you to everyone for listening and watching. We’ll see you on the next episode of Bootstrapped Solo. And remember, just because people like Alex make it look effortless and easy now doesn’t mean it always was. So thank you, Alex, for sharing your story and telling us about the dirt and the hard work and the grime that you had to get through to where you are today. And that’s it for us. Thank you.