THE

Managing
Partners
podcast

Episode # 185
Interview on 04.26.2022

Hosted By
Erik J. Olson

Featuring Attorney

Brian Walters and Jake Gilbreath



Managing Partner of
Walters Gilbreath, PLlC

About Brian Walters and Jake Gilbreath

Brian Walters is the Managing Partner at Walters Gilbreath, PLLC in Texas.

After graduating from Texas A&M in 1993, Brian went to the University of Texas Law School. While in law school, he worked 30 hours a week to make ends meet. His first job as an attorney was at a big firm in Austin. He learned professionalism and attention to detail. He learned what should be valued in life when the lawyer in the office next to him was killed in a car accident one day, leaving five young children fatherless. He is Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

Learn from his expertise and what trends are helping grow his firm on this episode of The Managing Partners Podcast!

Watch the Episode

Episode Transcript

Erik J. Olson:
Hey there. My name is Erik J. Olson. I am the host of this episode of The Managing Partners Podcast. In this podcast we interview America’s top managing partners to find out how they’re running their firms, growing their firms, and keeping their case pipeline full. And today we have not just one managing partner on, we have two. Jake and Brian, welcome to the show.

Brian Walters:
Hi.

Jake Gilbreath:
Thanks.

Erik J. Olson:
Let me tell the audience a little bit about you. Jake Gilbreath and Brian Walters are co-managing partners of Walters Gilbreath, a top-rated Texas firm that is leading the way in family law. They have a statewide presence with offices in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, and represent clients in cases involving a broad range of issues, including complex property and high-asset property division, characterization of property, jury trials, parental alienation, contested custody and possession, and more. In addition to their powerful presence in the legal system, they take an equal amount of pride in giving back to the community with their time and resources. Jake and Brian, welcome to the show.

Jake Gilbreath:
Thanks for having us.

Brian Walters:
Thank you.

Erik J. Olson:
Cool. Well, it’s not often that we have co-managing partners on at the same time. Usually there’s one managing partner. But I have questions for both of you. Maybe we’ll do this one at a time. So, Jake, would you tell us a little bit more about yourself, and then we can go to Brian, and then I’d like to find out more about the actual law firm.

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah, absolutely. So I always start with telling people that I’m one of seven, and I grew up in Waxahachie, Texas, which is a small town just south of Dallas, Texas. Little-known fact about me that I kind of keep to myself, but I was actually born in Wisconsin. My dad was a veterinarian, went to Texas A&M vet school. That’s where he met my mom, which, I don’t think you get much more Texan than that. But out of vet school, the job that he got was pulling calves up in Wisconsin. So, me and one of my sisters was born in Wisconsin, and then they moved back down to Texas.

Jake Gilbreath:
So I grew up with my mom, staying at home raising seven kids, and my dad owned his own business. He owned, started, and formed and managed Waxahachie Veterinarian Clinic, which is still in existence today. So, that was my first exposure to watching a business run. I did not want to be a veterinarian, and I did not want to be an Aggie. So I went to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., under the mindset I think at the time that I was going to do international politics. And now I’m a divorce lawyer, fancy that. But-

Erik J. Olson:
Same thing, right?

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah. Yeah, sure. It’s interesting where life takes us. But after George Washington University, went to UT Law down in Austin, Texas. Been in Austin, Texas since then, and kind of stumbled into family law. My third year of law school, I was, went to law school, wanted to be a plaintiff’s lawyer, suing evil corporations and fighting for the good guys, and I kind of stumbled into family law, and been doing nothing but family law ever since. I was, worked for a big firm, bigger firm as far as family law firms go in Austin at the time, and did that for five years, then met Brian and been partners with Brian. And now we’ve got this law firm doing historically exclusively family law, but we’ve started doing some personal injury, expanding our areas of practice recently.

Erik J. Olson:
That’s great. And what about you, Brian? Can you tell us a little bit more about you?

Brian Walters:
Yeah, I’m also not born in Texas. I was born in Pensacola, Florida, when my dad was in flight school, right before the Marine Corps shipped him to Vietnam. I guess he thought that was all right, so he made a career out of it. So I actually grew up all over the world and all over the United States, and … But both my parents are from Texas, and so I came back here to go to college, A&M undergrad and UT law school. I actually started working for a medical malpractice defense firm right out of law school, but quickly decided I wanted to be my own boss, or at least not have a boss, more precisely, and so went out and started doing family law. Didn’t really have any intention of doing it either, but I did. I took a five-year sabbatical off and ran a company in California, owned and ran a company in California, and then came back into practice about, I guess it’s been almost nine years now, and-

Erik J. Olson:
Oh, wow.

Brian Walters:
Actually it was like a lot of things. You can, you learn with different experiences. So here we are.

Erik J. Olson:
How difficult was it for you to get back into practicing law after taking five years off?

Brian Walters:
Surprisingly simple, literally nothing had changed in the law. A couple of years after I came back in, same-sex marriage became legalized, which has had, I don’t think, has had too much of a real impact on things, a little bit, but not much. But everything else was the same, so I really didn’t think it was difficult. I thought it might be a bit of a transition, but it really wasn’t.

Erik J. Olson:
And then what about the-

Jake Gilbreath:
Well, I always tell people, I was in law school at Austin when Brian, before he was partners with me and before he went to, took a sabbatical from practicing law, I remember hearing about Brian, his law partner at the time was a law student, about “There’s these crazy guys in Austin. They’re mopping up all the business in Austin. They’re taking all the divorces. They’re running circles around everybody.” I heard that my second year in law school, and then never really made the connection until Brian came back and he and I met, and realized like, “Oh, I know who you are. I heard about you years ago in law school.”

Erik J. Olson:
Brian, your reputation precedes you.

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah.

Erik J. Olson:
In a good way.

Brian Walters:
For better or worse, right?

Erik J. Olson:
That’s right. Well, cool, appreciate the background of both of you. What about your firm? Can you tell us more about your firm, how long you’ve been around, how you got to four offices, number of staff, all that kinds of stuff?

Brian Walters:
Yeah, I can, I can take a swing at that.

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah, go ahead, Brian.

Brian Walters:
As Jake mentioned, we met in Austin, and I was going to, I decided at some point I wanted to move to Houston, and so we talked about partnering up. We did that. At that point I had a couple of, I don’t know, probably around five employees or so, but … So I moved out to Houston, and we were partners there for a little while. And then at that time, I think it was probably as much technology as anything, it was just really difficult to figure out how to make a family law practice work in different cities. I think for certain practices that had been common, but it was really unusual or maybe unheard of at that point in family law, for whatever reason. So we took a little time apart, not being partnered, we were just solo, nothing personal, just didn’t seem to make sense. And then I think we both thought about it and kept in touch and thought “Well, actually I think we can make it work.” And that was, was that four years ago, Jake? Does that seem about right?

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah, it was ’17, I think. It’s May 2017 that you and I were having dinner or coffee or something in Houston, and I think you’re the one, Brian, that said that, because at that time you were just in Houston, I was just in Austin. And you said, “I want to make a,” it was your idea, you said, “I want to have a statewide firm, but I don’t think I can do it without a law partner.”

Jake Gilbreath:
And so me and my wife sat down, Sarah, who’s now actually the CEO of the law firm, and said, “We know and love Brian. He’s crazy. He wants to have a statewide firm. Do we want to join him on that?” And we, it was at Capitol Grill in Austin, Texas, and had dinner and decided, “Yep, that’s what we want to do.” And we partnered up in June of ’17. And yeah, when we started, it was me in the Austin office. Sarah was actually working for another law firm as a paralegal. She’d been doing that for 15 years, something like that. And Brian, Brian, what did you have, like one or two lawyers in Houston at that time?

Brian Walters:
Correct-

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah.

Brian Walters:
… very small staff.

Jake Gilbreath:
So it’s me by my lonesome in Austin, Brian with his two lawyers, and what are we now, 27, 28 lawyers, something like that-

Brian Walters:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Jake Gilbreath:
… with Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and Houston, and adding by the minute, I mean, kind of jumping ahead, the thing that keeps us from growing faster is just, really, commitment to quality lawyers and taking the time to find lawyers to staff up. But otherwise, it’s just exponential and not slowing down.

Erik J. Olson:
That’s incredible growth. So you went from, it sounds like, Brian, it sounded like you had a staff of, I think you said three, so maybe you and another lawyer, four years ago?

Brian Walters:
Correct, it was barely anything, and-

Erik J. Olson:
Yeah.

Brian Walters:
Yeah.

Erik J. Olson:
And Jake, one? So you went from a-

Jake Gilbreath:
Me? Yeah.

Erik J. Olson:
Yeah, so, from three lawyers, where two of them are the, they come in as your partners, and then now you have 28? How did that come about? What kind of triggered that growth?

Brian Walters:
It’s hard to say. I mean, it just, people just keep calling us to hire us, and we’re only, we only can be awake so many hours a day, and we have families. And so we just have kept adding people. And I can tell you, one of the inflection points was when COVID hit in March 2020, and I saw, not surprisingly, all of our competitors retract, kind of cut back on whatever they could do. Marketing was often the first thing they cut, and staff. They either stopped hiring or let off people. One our competitors in Austin just told his staff he was going to just cut their pay across the board.

Brian Walters:
And so we took the, we sat around and took the opposite approach of, we thought about it and said, “We’re going to actually, this is an opportunity, and we’re going to hire.” And we promised our staff, we got on a Zoom with everybody in our staff and said, “Nobody’s losing their job and, in fact, we’re going to add people.” And there was a period of time where it was a little difficult. I think just everybody was kind of frozen in place. But that’s been, it’s been a, really a pivotal decision in our firm. And we’re, I mean, that’s only, what, 18 months ago, 20 months ago, something like that?

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah.

Brian Walters:
And I mean, we’re two or probably three times that size, two and a half to three times that size, even in that time period, so …

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah, and I think it’s, and we can talk about marketing in a second, what we’ve done. I mean, I think the first step is sort of the commitment to having the good structure, to selling a good product, right? I always tell people, “Yeah, BMW, Range Rover, Land Rover, those dealerships, they spend a bunch of money on marketing. They also have a really good product.” Right?

Erik J. Olson:
Yeah.

Jake Gilbreath:
And there’s a lot of law firms out there, I think, that they, and we almost fell victim to this, I think, towards the beginning, but they figure out, “I can pour money on the law firm with marketing with Google or whatever I’m I’m doing,” and then they turn around and they sell a crap product, and then you’re constantly having to buy your new business, right? You’re not going to have the referrals from prior clients. You’re not going to get referrals from everybody else. And you’re almost having to outspend your bad reputation. And frankly, I think, with me and Brian, so me and Brian have always been really committed to client reviews, client satisfaction. We actually have somebody onsite, their full-time job is call clients up, “How are we doing? What are we doing wrong?”

Erik J. Olson:
Good.

Jake Gilbreath:
And so we know if there’s a problem there. I would say, early on, we partner back up in ’17. We both have our own referral networks. We do some stuff with advertising. And we sort of experienced this growth right away, again, and there was a bit of a temptation, I think for a few months we just threw bodies at the problem, right, just go hire, whatever lawyer you can get in the door, hire them, what moron could screw this up? Turns out there’s plenty out there that can screw it up. And you’re firing, hiring, hiring, firing. The clients, you’re the third associate on the case. We experienced that for a few months until it was kind of, “Slow down. Let’s take a breath. Let’s overhire, because we’re always growing, but let’s actually spend time hiring.”

Jake Gilbreath:
And we’ve also taken steps to sort of move that away from just me and Brian, to have kind of a management staff that can focus on that and he and I can focus more on, obviously, practicing law, but looking after the vision of the law firm. But I think that’s really been key to us, is really being insistent on having a good product. Because it can crash, it can catch up to you really quickly, right? I mean, any of us can throw hundreds of thousands of dollars at Google. We don’t, but you could, right, and always make the phone ring, but it’s going to get more expensive. Those dollars are going to get more expensive and more expensive the worse your product is. So I always try to compare us to a car dealership, right, really good product, really good at marketing.

Erik J. Olson:
All right, so a lot of really good takeaways right there. Number one, when coronavirus hit, yes, every business in the United States and pretty much in the world hunkered down, and they were just going to ride this out. And a few, like you guys, took bold action, right? And it was scary. It’s hard to even remember back in March of 2020, but it was scary when that happened, like people thought the world was going to end. And if you took bold action and doubled down your marketing and hired more people, it was risky. It was very, very risky. But it was bold, and it worked out because … And you probably know this, either from experience or from listening to other people who have gone through these situations in the past, when the world zigs, you need to zag. And so everybody was zigging, you zagged. You doubled down. It was an opportunity, and you saw it, so good for you.

Erik J. Olson:
And then also a good product, clearly that’s required, and good people. People are at the heart of it. This is a service-based industry that you’re in, and you have to have quality people. You can’t just put anybody in these positions. So yeah, there has to be a balance between how long you interview someone for versus how long you keep them around when you know that they’re not the right person. You’re going to have to get rid of them, you know? So sometimes that requires [inaudible 00:14:41], because you can only do so much in the interview process to really figure out who they are. But again, it’s a bold move. You have to make sure that you’re confident and you do it, so good job to both of you for doing that.

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah. I think Brian always says, and he’s right, you’re going to know in the first two days if somebody’s going to work out or not.

Erik J. Olson:
Yeah, I have found that certainly at week number three, people have let their guard down. The true them comes out.

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah.

Erik J. Olson:
That’s … Good for you. So let’s talk about, certainly there’s a lot of marketing going on here. There has to be. How do you go about getting your clients, and how do you do it? Is this something you do internally? Do you have people that work for you that take care of your marketing?

Jake Gilbreath:
I’ll talk about the internal/external part, then Brian can sort of talk about what we’re doing now. I mean, we’ve gone back and forth, right? We’ve used vendors. We’ve totally outsourced everything. We’ve tried to totally in-house everything. Right now, we use vendors, but we have a full-time CMO that’s been on staff with us. And she’s relatively new. We’ve had the position since around right, actually right before COVID started, was when we’ve created that position. So we have someone internal that that is their job, but then we also bring in vendors so we’re not just having, keeping the work in-house, but, but we have vendors doing it. And then Brian can sort of talk about what all we’re doing right now that we found that works.

Brian Walters:
Yeah, we’re luckily not having to spend a lot of money out of pocket for marketing. We focus a lot on the, when they call us, so the, once, the intake process, which we are, I think, really, really effective at, and making sure people actually get responded to when they call us or contact us, making, figuring out early on whether it’s a good match for our firm, and then getting them quickly to the person that can take care of whatever their needs are. Sometimes they need to sit down and have a long talk. Sometimes they just want to hire, and many variations in between. So we’re good at that, I think.

Brian Walters:
And our reputation is, it’s always the most important thing in professional services, probably with any product, right, but especially with professional services, and especially the kind of service where we typically don’t have a lot of repeat clients. I mean, most people who get divorced or whatever, it’s the first time, or if it’s the second time and maybe it’s 20 years later and they live in a different city. But they don’t have a family lawyer on retainer their whole life. And our clients are not Exxon, right? It’s not like a full-time client for my whole career that I’m always going to be able to do work for Exxon.

Brian Walters:
So this is, they have to find us. And I think that reviews, online reviews from trust sources, and that’s increasingly become Google, is the, is just a multiplier of your reputation. When I started in practice 25 years ago, I was in Austin, it was a relatively small town back then, and it was clear to me, based on my competitors, that you needed to be in practice 20 years to have your roots really in the community. You could buy an ad in the yellow pages, those were those days, but that was mostly personal injury lawyers. But for family law, you just had to kind of grind it out for 20 years, and at the end of the 20 years you might be one of the top five or seven people, great. And then once you’re there, there’s a little bit of a moat around you, right, because there, it takes your competitors 20 years.

Brian Walters:
But the internet, I mean, fundamentally what that is, is just the much freer flow of information. It’s what that comes down to, with all its, all the good and bad points that come with that. It is. And so, and how do you get reviews? Well, I can’t make somebody write a review, and I’m not going to fake them. Google would probably figure somebody out if they were. And so it’s your reputation. Again, people are going to write a bunch of good reviews if you’re good. They’re not going to write many if they don’t have any feelings about it. And if you’re terrible, they’re going to write a bunch of bad reviews. And so that’s really been a, I don’t know, force multiplier, or a reputation multiplier, for us, fundamentally, so …

Erik J. Olson:
It’s important. The Google reviews are very important because controls that system. They see them. It’s a big factor in their algorithm. One of the things you can do is ask for reviews, right?

Brian Walters:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erik J. Olson:
And a lot of law firms don’t even do that. So, certainly, if you know that you’ve helped someone out, if they’re happy, ask them for a review. Send them the link that they can click on to give you a review. Make it easy if for them, and they’ll probably do that.

Brian Walters:
Yep. I agree.

Jake Gilbreath:
I’m always shocked, yeah, I’m in family law groups on Facebook and stuff like that, I’m always shocked when lawyers complain about reviews. When Avvo was really coming out and making big, what was it, five or six years ago and stuff, I remember lawyers complaining on the groups about how awful it is that there’s this system out there that allows clients to go in and review the product. How horrible for us to do it. And they kind of had a pride of like, “Well, I don’t have an Avvo profile. I don’t get Google reviews.”

Jake Gilbreath:
My theory is it all goes back to, it used to be illegal for lawyers to advertise, right, it’s, until the Supreme Court came out, I forget the case, but said that’s a violation of our free speech. Lawyers are allowed to advertise. But I think the legal profession still has that attitude that we shouldn’t be marketing ourselves. We shouldn’t be advertising, or that’s for the PI lawyers to do that. But me, the esteemed lawyer, would never market myself. It just, I’m so good that people are going to come find me. And that’s just, that’s not what people want. I mean, they, and that’s not what people are looking for. And again, I sound like a broken record, it goes back to the product though. If I’ve got a good product, I’m not scared to pick with that phone and say, “Can you leave me a review?” because I know it’s going to be a good one.

Erik J. Olson:
That’s right. Yep, yep. Well, cool. What are your growth plans for the next couple of years? I mean, so in the last four years you’ve grown from two or three lawyers to 28. Are you going to continue at that rate?

Brian Walters:
What’s the saying, “If you want to make God laugh, make plans”?

Jake Gilbreath:
Yeah.

Brian Walters:
So, I mean, it’s sort of that, right? So we, if you had asked me two years ago, would we have a head count of 43 people and almost 30 lawyers … I think if you count Jake and I, it actually is 30. I think it’s, I think we’re at 27 or 28 of associates. But anyway, I mean, I just don’t know. And it’s a little bit of a, you have to look at the demand and meet it. And so we have a goal to add a net of two attorneys a month.

Brian Walters:
But really, I mean, that’s, as Jake said, I mean, we, if we find four in a good month, we’ll hire four, and if we have to go three months without hiring anybody, then we’ll go three months without hiring anybody. We’d rather not do that. I think that if we ever get to the point where we’re not busy enough for the lawyers, then I think we can simply turn up the marketing dollars, probably with Google or some equivalent, so I’m not worried about ever getting not busy. That might cut into our margins a little bit, but it, but I think we’ll always have the work. Don’t know if you want to add to that, Jake, or not.

Jake Gilbreath:
Well, I mean, it’s, I think Brian’s right as far as what are we going to do. It’s hard to tell. And I do anticipate we’ll continue to grow. I had somebody we were interviewing about six months ago ask that very question, almost exactly the same question, in the interview, which I thought was a good question to ask when you’re interviewing. At the top of my head what I told him, but I still stick to, is like, “I don’t know where the law firm is going. I can tell you that Brian and I, for whatever reason, and I don’t know what this says about our mental health, but Brian and I will never sit there and go, ‘This is great. Let’s coast and just enjoy this.’”

Jake Gilbreath:
It’s just something about the personality, and that’s probably some of the reasons why we’re at where we’re at, and that’s one of the reasons why the partnership works out so well. I mean, Brian and I are 50/50 partners. We don’t have to have some complex agreement between the two of us, or a part, I don’t know if we have a partnership agreement, thinking out loud. We see the world the same way, and Brian’s never going to wake up and say, “I just want to coast and just leave things the way they are,” and neither am I. We’re going to continue to grow. We love what we do. I love the people around us. So, really, the sky’s the limit, and that’s all I can really tell people, is that it’s not going to stop, and we’re certainly not going to stop any time soon.

Erik J. Olson:
Good for you. Congratulations. If people want to reach out to you, if they have a question for you or maybe they have a case for you, what’s a good way to get in touch with you?

Jake Gilbreath:
So our website, waltersgilbreath.com, and then phone number, we have phone numbers to reach the office, but you can just call the Austin office, which is (512)320-9160. People are free to email me or Brian. My email is jake@waltersgilbreath.com. Brian’s is brian@waltersgilbreath.com. I love practicing law. I really enjoy doing stuff like this. I know Brian does too. So we’re always open to talk people’s ear off if they want to chat.

Erik J. Olson:
All right, love it. Appreciate it. Okay, everybody, if you would like to check out other episodes like this, you can go to our website at arraylaw.com/podcast. We have about 150 episodes, each tagged by the practice area of the managing partner and their state, so you can find exactly what you’re looking for. And if you’re looking for digital marketing for your law firm, my agency is Array Digital, and you can find us at arraylaw.com. We offer websites, SEO, online advertising, and social media. All right, Jake, Brian, thanks again.

Jake Gilbreath:
Thanks for having us.

Brian Walters:
You bet.

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