Steve Bernstein | Crain's Tampa Bay

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Steve Bernstein

Background:  

Steve Bernstein is a partner in the Tampa office of national law firm Fisher Phillips. He leads the firm's labor practice, representing employers on workforce-related matters, including union issues and compliance with federal and state regulations and laws. Bernstein is also chair of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

The Mistake:

It took me quite a while to realize that the work of a lawyer and the opportunities for a lawyer exist largely outside the office environment, not inside.

You come up in a law firm, and ours is no different than most, and you’re handed assignments. You’re working for senior associates and partners, and you put them on a pedestal. You do the assignments and you hope for the best, and you do them long enough and, hopefully, good things happen.

It took me quite a while to realize that, first of all, my opportunities for advancement were ultimately going to be dictated largely by the amount of business I generated. Second of all, that business was not going to generate itself. And I was unlikely to succeed in generating business while I was chained to my desk.

One catalyst was internal. I did make partner and I did have some success, but I was watching my peer group and they were having, frankly, more success than I. And the common ingredient, as far as I could tell, seemed to be that they were putting in the additional time and effort [during] evening hours, before work, breakfasts, lunches, dinners. Business organizations, trade groups – that’s what they were doing. And it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it seemed to be working for them. Our firm’s a very transparent one and the data was there, so you could see these things.

The second catalyst was personal. I moved down to Tampa exactly 10 years ago and found it to be a very open environment relative to Atlanta, quite honestly. I think it’s just a function of the size of the city. And the very first thing that I did, and it was more luck than anything else, was that I got active with the local chamber of commerce. And I began to realize, as I attended meetings and interacted with these folks, that they’re just like I am. I don’t need to walk on eggshells around them just because they don’t have a law degree. They speak my language. They have the same issues and the same opportunities. And that was a huge relief to me.

I also realized that the only investment I could make was my time. In other words, it was an equal playing field. Whether you were a lawyer or sold T-shirts, our chamber – and I think it’s largely true today – rewarded you based on the amount of time invested in the organization. And I invested more time each year because, frankly, I enjoyed it. And this year I’m chairing the organization. So there clearly was a tangible return on my investment.

I was unlikely to succeed in generating business while I was chained to my desk.

The Lesson:

Setting aside success and generating business, it’s far more enjoyable and rewarding and satisfying to be out there among others in your community and, in my case, business people and rubbing shoulders with them and understanding the challenges they’re confronting. And that’s difficult if not impossible to accomplish over the phone.

It took awhile but I got to a point where I realized I might have to sacrifice a few billable hours. What I would get in return was more than worth it. I’m now at a point where my practice has improved and my business has grown. And as a bonus, I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in my community.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve tripled my book of business since I’ve moved here. And it’s not so much the product of the people I’m rubbing shoulders with, although there’s some of that. I think it gave me the confidence to go out into the world and deal with other businesses, not just in Tampa but all over the country, knowing that I can work with these folks – that I can help them. I don’t have to send them a bill every time. And those are things I did not know and could not have foreseen back when I started practicing law.

Follow the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce on Twitter at @Tampa_Chamber​ and Fisher Phillips at @labor_attorneys.

​Photo courtesy of Steve Bernstein

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