Ellie Stang talks with Leslie Firtell, Founder and CEO of Tower Legal Solutions
Jan 12, 2020
Stang: Leslie, why don’t you start by telling everybody a little bit about what you do.
Firtell: I’m a lawyer by trade. My company is Tower Legal Solutions, and we place temporary attorneys and paralegals at law firms and corporations. It could be anything in terms of a big litigation where you need a lot of extra people, or it could be that someone goes out on maternity leave and you need someone to fill in. We’re based in New York and have offices in Washington, DC and in Dallas, but we place nationwide.
Stang: Leslie has been an entrepreneur since she was a little kid. We were laughing about her when she was six putting dirt in a Dixie cup, putting a flower in it, and selling that in her neighborhood. Clearly, she’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit. And I think it’s always great for people to hear what led to founding a company. So, how did that concept come together [when you founded] Tower Legal Solutions?
Firtell: Well, the truth is, I was working for someone else’s company, and I made him a hundred million dollars. The company was sold to private equity shortly thereafter, and I got fired. And I got calls from all these different competitors to come and work for them, and I just said to myself, “I mean, it could happen to me again. Why would I put myself in that position?”
So, as a young woman and a salesperson, I had paid off all my loans already, and my father said to me, “You know what, Leslie? Try it on your own. And if it doesn’t work after a year, you say you did it, and you move on.” So I did.
I took $200,000 dollars, and I opened up my own business. I was lucky. I mean, I had my family’s help and my friends' help. And I just took a chance, and that was basically how it started.
Stang: Tell us a little bit about those early days. How were you able to get the first employee and then the second?
Firtell: I was begging them to come work for me. I had my dad come in and help me check references. My best friend’s niece was home from college, and she was my receptionist and would help out. You do what you have to do. Right?
Stang: As you think about that growth, there are good and bad days. There are years that are great, and there are years that are really hard. And you don’t want them to give up too soon. Founding a company is not done in a day. It takes years to really get a good, solid company off the ground.
So, if you look back, are there things in the early years [that make you] think, “Gosh, I wish I would have done that differently?” Was there a mistake you made along the way were you said, “Boy, if I had only known. I would have done it a little differently?”
Firtell: Well, I would say my story is a little different because I had been in the business, so I already had a customer base. And so for me, it was a lot of putting money in the infrastructure to make it seem like we were bigger than we were. Because I did that, we just ran out of the gate, and in our first year, we were able to do $20M. It was amazing. It was up, up, up, up.
And then subprime happened, and it went all the way down. I lost my two largest customers, which were Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns. So I really was starting all over again.
But I would say probably the learning experience in that whole growth and then plateau was, “How do you keep up with growth and still not get over your head in terms of overhead?” Because that’s really the biggest challenge.
Stang: Do you think, as you scaled the company, your teams have changed over time? If so, how did you manage some of that growth through those various stages?
Firtell: We were up to about 80 people at the time, and it actually got too big in some ways. But the thing is, as you grow and you have more and more demand, you’ve got to put more people on the payroll because you’ve got to still make that widget. Then it becomes about reinvesting in what you’re making—you put it back into the company—and you hope that growth grows exponentially.
Stang: Did you ever think about investors or did you have enough to self-fund the business all the way through?
Firtell: Well, in the beginning, we definitely got a lot of interest, especially in the first 8 years. But I heard horror stories. Based on what I had gone through, I thought, “God, people come in here, and they can completely take over the business. And it won’t be the same.” I think for me it was just, “Let’s so how far we can go.” And I was never really at that point where I said to myself, “I really need to go in and take outside money.”
Stang: When you’re in something for a long period of time, and you’re looking at growth and scaling a business, you’re going to go through periods where you have to pivot. It’s really pivot or die. So you’ve now diversified your business model. Right? Talk a little bit about that.
Firtell: I think that the most important thing is to not always be the first person. But you should be very close to the person in front of you because if something changes, you need to be able to pivot fast and go. When things started to change, and really change, I watched competitors being acquired, going out of business, or all going into the same business. I started going into other channels. I started going into the staff augmentations.
Things don’t stay the same, ever. You have to be able to just be flexible and innovative and say to yourself, “You know what? The sun’s going to rise tomorrow. We just have to figure out a better way to do it.”
Stang: With grit and that determination, founders never lose hope. I think it’s something that a true entrepreneur has. You never lose hope or belief in what you’re trying to solve.
Firtell: Yeah because you’re connected to it.
But you’re also employing people, and you’re employing families. They’re coming to work every day because they believe in you. Your people, that’s what going to make your company. No matter what, they are your best marketing tool ever. And if you treat people well and they believe in you, and you treat them exactly the way you want to be treated, people will go that extra mile for you. I promise that. And honestly, what I went through, what we went through in building the business back up, I owe those people everything. Because if they didn’t stick by me, I don’t know what I would have done.
Stang: If you look back 12 years ago, or even 8 years ago, about that journey, was it worth it? Would you have changed anything having done that?
Firtell: Well, I wouldn’t have changed it because I knew I didn’t want to go and work for someone else. I was fortunate because I had the savings. But I would just say, be willing to take risks. And always hire people that are more talented than you are in particular areas. This is an egoless job. Trust me. Jim Collins always said, “Get the right people on the bus and then put them in the right seats.” That’s really important.
And you have to be able to move and pivot when the time prompts you to. My motto is always just to exceed expectations. If you promise a client something, do it.
But I think that the most important thing is to be able to take risks and believe in yourself. And unless you’ve really had it and you can’t do it anymore, there’s always a way forward.
Leslie Firtell is the 2019 Vertex Award winner. Read more about her journey.