Chad Johnson: Succeeding in the Business of Law

Chad Johnson
2024 Feature Nominations

When David Hellmuth and Chad Johnson formed Hellmuth & Johnson PLLC more than 23 years ago, they were two young guys at the beginning of their legal careers with some office supplies and a keen vision for how a law firm should be run. “In the beginning, it was just the two of us,” Johnson recalled. “We had no receptionist or secretary. My first desk showed up in a box, and I put it together. We answered the phones, balanced the checkbook and did everything else. Looking back, I think it was a good experience.”

Managing partner for most of the firm’s existence, Johnson represents clients from individuals to corporations in matters spanning business and corporate concerns, real estate issues and transactional goals. With his good instincts and sharp business mind, Johnson has led the firm from its humble beginnings to its current place as the 18th largest firm in Minnesota, with nearly 60 attorneys providing the best possible representation across a broad spectrum of practice areas, both transactional and litigation, representing individuals, emerging businesses and established companies.

So what does it take to succeed not just as a lawyer, but in the business of law? Johnson said it begins with looking at a law firm like any other business. “You have to make sure your product is top notch, and that you’re taking care of your clients. If you’re giving them what they need, they’ll continue to come back and refer other people.”

That may sound simple enough, but in practice, this strategy requires diligence and an ongoing willingness to adapt. A year after forming the firm, Johnson had a conversation with a colleague that shifted his view of himself and his business. “He called to ask how things were going, and I said, ‘Great, we hired a secretary and have a new associate coming on. Working for myself was the best decision I ever made.’ He said, ‘You don’t work for yourself anymore. Now that you have employees, you have a responsibility to grow the firm and provide them with opportunities, as well.’ That’s when I realized it wasn’t just about Dave and me anymore, it was about the people who worked for us. We had a duty to grow the firm to give them opportunities to grow. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that over the years.”

In the spirit of practicing what he preaches, Johnson has guided the firm through good economic times and bad, with a year-over-year record of steady growth, and the firm never experiencing a down year in revenue. In the early 2000s, Hellmuth & Johnson was one of only two law firms recognized by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal as among the 50 fastest-growing businesses in the region.

A few years later, in the throes of the Great Recession, many firms were laying off and few were hiring. Counter to the trends, H & J was not only poised for continued growth, but began erecting a tribute to the future in the form of the five-story building that houses the firm today. “Frankly, during the recession, I received more than a few calls from other lawyers asking what we were thinking. At that point, we had 30- plus attorneys, and we were looking at the new building to get us to about 65 attorneys and 130 people.”

Johnson’s foresight paid off, as the building’s contribution to H & J’s visibility and name recognition has helped propel the firm to new heights. Now he gets phone calls from other lawyers who concede, “I guess you did know what you were doing.”

“I think good luck comes out of hard work and taking risks,” Johnson said. “Growing in down markets means you have to adapt and make changes. For instance, certain practice areas are hotter at certain points in time. Any good business person will tell you that you have to take some risks. Hopefully with experience, you learn to take better risks.”

H & J is a meritocracy made up of quality professionals who have something special to contribute, and according to Johnson, its people are the big why behind the firm’s ongoing commitment to growth. “The number one thing I’ve learned about leadership is that you have to have good people. Dave and I may have taken the risk and founded the firm two years out of law school, but we wouldn’t be where we are today without the ability to attract, cultivate and retain great talent over the years. A lot of firms follow a system of advancement based on how many years someone has been with the firm. We don’t follow that model. Our firm’s star performers receive compensation based on their merits. In our world, a second-year equity partner can be the highest paid in the firm. Whether someone is a secretary, paralegal or partner, we want to make sure everybody feels there is no ceiling, and they can reach as high as they want. If we stop growing, they have to give up on their goals or go someplace else to attain them.”

Likewise, the firm’s attorneys appreciate being part of a progressive entity whose strong leadership allows them and their clients to prosper.

Blake Nelson is a partner at H & J and chair of the firm’s construction law group. He commented: “Many firms practice law while struggling to run a business. In contrast, Chad has always operated Hellmuth & Johnson as a business that practices law. Chad has an economics degree and is the rare attorney that truly understands every aspect of how to run a business and analyze and maximize profitability. I attribute much of our firm’s rapid growth to that mindset.”

John Steffenhagen, a partner at H & J with more than 25 years of experience representing an array of business and litigation matters, said: “Chad is an effective counselor and managing partner because he can quickly spot an issue and effectively address it. What I appreciate more, however, is that he can do so without the personal airs that one might expect from someone who built a major Twin Cities law firm.”

As a successful entrepreneur and business attorney, Johnson enjoys a uniquely symbiotic relationship with his clients. He not only dispenses sound legal advice, he also learns from the entities he represents. “I’ve learned from clients with sales-driven companies that a law firm is really a sales organization, selling legal services to its clients and selling its reputation to the judges, opposing counsel and mediators it encounters in the legal space. In those terms, I think I learn as much from my business clients as they learn from me. I want to make sure that we are growing as a firm, and that means growing the company and its brand in the marketplace. Thinking in those terms is different from a generation ago and how attorneys thought about a law firm and practice. It may look a little different, but the goals are still the same – provide excellent service, develop relationships with clients and keep them coming back.”

Johnson also does a fair amount of entrepreneurial reading, and he made two book recommendations for his fellow attorney-entrepreneurs. “I’ve read a lot of great books over the years. A good resource for lawyers is ‘Rainmaking Made Simple’ by Mark Maraia. It is excellent from the standpoint of classic professional advice for an attorney interested in growing his or her practice. Another good general business book is ‘The Ultimate Sales Machine’ by Chet Holmes. It’s more related to the growth of a sales organization, which can be applied to a law firm or any other sales business. I don’t always agree with everything I read, but it makes me examine my own philosophies and why I dinner with the writer.”

Looking to the future, Johnson sees the firm continuing on its upward trajectory, driven by the synergy of his dynamic colleagues. “I don’t want to put a ceiling over anybody’s career. Where we go in the future depends on where the partners want to take this thing. As long as our lawyers are still striving to grow the practice, we will continue to grow and become whatever the collective wants to be. My partners and I are not complacent about where we are today. What we have become as a law firm shows you don’t have to follow a traditional path to building a firm and practice. There are other ways of doing it. You don’t need 50 or 100 years of history. You can grow it in a way that makes sense for you. We’ve made that self-determination and grown in a way we think is special, and we plan to continue for years to come.”

H.K. Wilson

H.K. Wilson is a contributing writer for Attorney at Law Magazine. She has been writing features for the publication for more than four years.

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