Love, Sunday is honored to shine the spotlight on Stephen McArthur, founder of The McArthur Law Firm, a boutique intellectual property law firm located in Los Angeles with a niche in trademark law and the booming video game industry (Hello, Pokémon Go!). Stephen was named one of Southern California's 2016 Rising Stars, just a few years after having left the comforts (and salary!) of a big firm job to pursue his own dream of practicing law, his way and on his own. Read how Stephen took a passion, a lot of initiative, and hard work to become the well recognized Super Lawyer that he is. If you're interested in reading more about Stephen, check out the article on him on Super Lawyers where he talks about how his obsession with video games influenced the type of work he does today.
What is your current role? I founded and run a boutique law firm with a niche focus on trademark law.
Tell us a little bit about your background - what made you decide to pursue a career in intellectual property law? I didn’t know that I wanted to be a lawyer until my sophomore year of college. No one in my family was a lawyer and the first lawyer I ever met was at a law firm job interview. I began college as a business major thinking that I would go into banking or trading of some sort. I felt apathetic about all my business classes, but absolutely loved my government, political science, philosophy, and current-events classes. I decided to stick with subjects I enjoyed learning about. I recognized early on that the only reasonable career paths from those subjects required a law degree, so I set my sights on law school.
My first job in law school was as a clerk at an intellectual property boutique law firm in NYC where we represented Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. We represented Brown in defending claims from another author alleging that Brown had stolen the ideas for his book. I thought the legal issues were fascinating, so I took every class Columbia Law offered on copyrights, trademarks, and patents. Out of law school, I got a job at a large NYC law firm where we shut down the very service I had just used a few years earlier in college to download Weezer's entire Pinkerton album. From there, I wanted to work at the best intellectual property law firm in the country, so I took a job in Los Angeles where I worked at a firm in Century City for a few years. I eventually left that firm and opened up my own legal practice.
Your story sounds like the ideal career path for many aspiring attorneys. What changed? I wanted independence. I was tired of spending my days working on clients and problems that someone else told me to work on. I wanted to work only on the type of law I found interesting. I wanted to work with only the clients I found interesting. I wanted to call the shots. I wanted to reap the rewards of my hard work. The only way to do that was to start my own firm. I also wanted the self-satisfaction of building something great from the ground up.
What challenges did you face when you decided to start your own practice? The biggest challenge is not having the support and resources I had over the years of working at fancy law firms. No secretary, no 24/7 on-demand technical support, no assistants and paralegals keeping everything organized for me. The first time I had to mail something for my new firm, I realized I had no letterhead and no labels. I had no idea how to even print labels onto an envelope because I’d never done so. It took me about two days to mail that first letter. Those kind of administrative tasks may seem menial, but they end up taking up a huge amount of time and energy – especially the first time you have to do them.
What were some of your concerns about opening up your own legal practice? I had no idea how to get a client or if I would ever get one. I had worked for 7 years at big law firms and never once had to think of bringing in clients. When I started, I knew I could do the work, but I had no faith in my ability to ever land even one paying client. My first client was a longtime friend. He paid me a few hundred dollars to draft and negotiate from scratch a long publishing contract. I was ecstatic to get that first paycheck. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the fact that after so many years of doing work for other people’s clients and making them money, I had finally brought in work myself and gotten a paycheck directly for it from the client.
What are some of the benefits that you've experienced in having your own practice? Freedom. I love being able to take a walk in the middle of the day or pretend a Tuesday is a Saturday without the fear that a supervisor may notice that I am gone. I love the ability to plan a vacation without worrying or stressing. I like working from home. I like being the final decision maker on every major client or firm decision and not having to worry about office politics or my decisions being overruled. I now know that I will never work for another law firm again.
What was your go to resource when you started out on your own? A mentor is absolutely necessary. One of the hard parts of doing things on your own is that you have no one to bounce questions and ideas off of. You will encounter things you’ve never dealt with before on a weekly, if not daily, basis within your first couple of years. You need someone experienced, friendly, patient, and willing to be your sounding board for questions.
What are 2 of your strengths and how do you use them daily to build your business? I’m extroverted. Networking and talking to people has helped me earn clients and referrals. The vast majority of a lawyer’s referrals come from other lawyers. So the ability to simply make friends with lots of other lawyers has led to a lot of business for me. I also obsess over things that I enjoy. I may not be smarter or naturally better than the next guy, but when I have a challenge, I examine it over every angle. I dream about it. I cannot stop puzzling over it until it is solved. Now, when a client asks me a question I usually know the answer without hesitation because I’ve already puzzled through every potential question, problem, and solution.
How has opening up your own business changed you? It’s made me think a lot more about retirement and how to live a balanced life. Work can take over your life when you work for yourself because there is no separation between hobby, work, and home. And when you work for someone else, there is often little incentive to go the extra mile. If you work for someone else and put in twice as much effort, you don’t see twice as much reward. When you work for yourself, putting in 200% effort often leads to 200% reward. So where does it stop? Sometimes I find myself putting in 300% or 400% effort to keep bringing in more clients or doing more work because the incentives are there to do so. But then I have to step back and realize that there is more to life than career and money. That’s when I stop to take a walk around the neighborhood or turn my Tuesday into a Saturday.
How do you stay focused and motivated to build your practice? I love what I do. I enjoy going in to work. It takes no effort or extra focus for me to build my practice. It would take effort not to do so.
What has been the best way for you to build your clientele? I wrote useful articles online. Not those short blog posts you see other people write just to pump out content. But comprehensive, useful articles that clients will read and refer to. I have gotten many great clients from writing those articles. Also, staying friends with lots of other lawyers and making sure they know to refer trademark work to me. And finally, working hard to have a very strong online presence so when people google their problems, my name, website, or articles come up.
What are your plans for your business? I want to build it into a small boutique of about ten incredible lawyers. Right now, the hardest part is finding the right lawyers that perfectly compliment my firm.
What advice do you have for people who want to start their own law firm? The internet and referrals from other lawyers are your two most powerful marketing tools. Be prepared to make sacrifices. Be prepared to make your career your first, second, and third priority for the first couple of years until you have built up a client and/or referral base.