Scaled Up

How one law firm learned the hard way to always plan ahead

"we were always reactive."

Andy Zito/Getty Images

Scaling up is exciting, but there are many factors to consider.

How will we train new employees?

What does the onboarding process look like?

Where should everyone sit?

For rapidly growing businesses, a lack of planning can lead to embarrassment.

That’s what happened with Stewart Guss and his law firm. Over two decades in business, his company required “spikes” of recruiting. But he admits he didn’t properly prepare for where these new employees would sit every day. The situation became so dire that the firm considered desk sharing or even building-tiered desks “in the style of bunk beds.” Guss and his team decided against the “submarine barracks” look, but the situation taught them a lesson every company should keep in mind when growing. He explains further in the Q&A below.

Tell me what your company does.

I’m the founder and owner of Stewart J. Guss, Injury Accident Lawyers, a law firm concentrating its practice in the areas of personal injury and mass torts. For the most part, we represent folks for car and truck accidents, premises liability cases, and for claims involving things such as dangerous drugs and medical devices.

At what point did you scale up, and what did that growth look like?

My firm started with just me, a solo practitioner with no staff, operating out of a 12’ x 12’ office. My first experience with scaling up and space constraints were almost 20 years ago when I hired my first staff member. I had no space other than my 144 square foot office, so I had to go to Office Depot and find the smallest desk they sold so I could squeeze it into the corner of the room! We have gradually grown to over 120 employees in seven offices in more than three states, but the majority of my staff work out of our corporate offices in suburban northwest Houston.

My first major expansion occurred just a couple of years after I hired my first employee, when I bought out the lease of the executive center I was in (approximately 2,700 square feet). I was extremely fortunate in that I was able to hold on to most of the other tenants so as to help defray expenses, and as they left (mostly by attrition), the timing generally coincided with my needing more staff. As such, I was gradually able to expand my staff without “eating” the full cost of a 2,700 square foot leasehold every month. This is a valuable lesson, particularly for those business owners with growing businesses who are thinking about purchasing a building with existing tenants. When managed well, this strategy can really help manage costs for growing entities!

“I feel like I went from the dark underbelly of an 18th-century trading ship to a sleek, modern ocean liner.”

What went wrong when you scaled up?

For the longest time, when it came to planning for space, we were always reactive rather than proactive. As we found ourselves with staffing needs, we focused (myopically so) on the hiring process rather than the workspace and the physical plant.

How bad did things get?

At one point, we had staff from various departments having to take a desk in a completely unrelated department simply because of a lack of planning. As I had mentioned, at one point after hiring several new employees at once, we had to have them working out of our conference room. Having my beautifully designed, floor to ceiling glass boardroom looking like a Starbucks was our final wake up call!

How did you fix the issue?

At the executive and management level, as soon as we saw the possibility of needing to increase staff on the horizon, we made sure that preparing for adequate space was the first thing addressed, well in advance of the actual hiring. This is necessary because buildout and site prep, even if done on an expedited basis, will take at least 30 to 60 days. Our main “fix” to this problem is to ensure that the physical plant and space planning is the first thing we address when looking to make another expansion. For too long, it was the last thing we discussed, often as late as when the new hires were sitting in my boardroom with their laptops and lattes in front of them!

Where did you get the idea for the fix?

There was no real “epiphany” here to our fix, other than when we hit “rock bottom” with the new hires working out of our main conference room. Eventually, my business manager simply injected himself into every discussion of expansion and staffing needs. His mantra of “Great, but where do we put them?” started as a bit of a joke, but has actually become one of the core elements of planning.

Stewart Guss is the founder of Injury Accident Lawyers.

What do things look like now that you’ve corrected the problem?

Today, our physical plant and office spaces are large, efficient, effective, and beautiful. We currently occupy approximately 25,000 square feet in our corporate headquarters, with multiple divisions on three out of the four floors of the building we currently occupy. With intake on the first floor and litigation on the fourth, we house most of our in house processing and support on the second floor, where I keep my office as well. All of our departments are grouped together for easy and efficient interaction.

Although we do use the dreaded “corporate cubicles” for much of our staff, we made sure to make them oversized and comfortable. We also paid quite a premium to have most of the upper parts of our cubicles made of glass, so our workspaces feel open and uncramped while allowing for sound dampening and employee privacy. We ensure that related departments are housed near one another, and strive to have our common spaces open, airy, and pleasant. In many ways, over the last 20 years, I feel like I went from the dark underbelly of an 18th-century trading ship to a sleek, modern ocean liner — a true 180-degree change!

What did you learn from this experience that other business leaders need to know?

I have what I think are two good pieces of advice when it comes to scaling and growth of your business and your staff. First, as hard as it seems to find the time, try your best to plan ahead. Plan way, way ahead! Look at your growth projections, and yes, be excited, but don’t forget to apply my business manager’s question to yourselves: “Great. But where are we going to put them?”

My next piece of advice, particularly if you are just getting started and anticipate steady growth, is this: Try to find a solution where you can scale over time and “buffer” any increase in expense. For example, by subleasing individual offices in our first leasehold, we were able to manage our rent expense with offsetting rental income from our sub-lessees. A similar solution could, of course, also be deployed if you are buying a building that is larger than your immediate needs. Just remember to be careful in drafting your leases for your sub-lessees, and explain your strategy so you don’t lock yourself out of space that you need over time.

Scaled Up is a weekly interview series by Inverse with entrepreneurs. They share how almost everything went wrong while growing their business — and how they fixed it.

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