Seven Years, Seven Lessons

Ricardo Casellas sits down with Hispanic Executive to share his top takeaways from his years thus far in his private practice, Casellas Alcover & Burgos, P.S.C.

Ricardo Casellas, with his partners, opened Casellas, Alcover, and Burgos P.S.C. in 2007 after 22 years of litigating and serving as external counsel for Dell in Puerto Rico.

1. Craft your own identity

I learned that clients hire the lawyer, not the firm. My partners and I were working together for another firm. When that firm terminated pension plans, we decided to go out on our own. We wanted to create our own identity and brand. This would involve picking our employees and developing our own way to manage a practice. We were encouraged when most of our corporate clients followed us. I learned through this process that America truly is the land of opportunity. If you are ethical and do good work, your clients will support you.

2. Don’t be a follower, be a leader

We have a saying in Spanish: más vale ser cabeza de ratón que la cola de león; it is better to be the head of a mouse than the tail of a lion. We all worked for a very large firm before starting our own and agree that it is infinitely better to lead a small firm than to be a cog in the wheel of a large organization. You are able to carve your own path by choosing the work that is important to you. Coming to work is different each and every day, and it’s endlessly rewarding.

3. Stick to what you know

In building this firm, I’ve found that it’s important to develop one area of expertise, instead of trying to be everything to everyone. We try cases in local courts, federal courts, and administrative agencies. We do both domestic and international arbitration cases, but we stick to the basics of what we’re good at. We are experts at commercial litigation and counseling in corporate matters. We can adapt to change, but keep the focus on these areas. You don’t learn this in any textbook, but developing a focused expertise makes you different from any other good lawyer out there. The best way to serve clients is to be excellent in just a few areas. That’s your best calling card.

4. Believe in your abilities

Over the years, I’ve also realized how important it is to have confidence in yourself. We’ve represented PETA, Kellogg, Bacardi, Welch’s, Pfizer, NBC/Telemundo, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and other major organizations. We’re also very active in litigation involving distribution law issues, First Amendment defense, and health laws. It is crucial to be certain of your abilities when representing big companies on high-profile cases. For me, that certainty was acquired during a mid-’90s case I handled for the Miami Heat. Their mascot was sued in federal court for his actions at an exhibition game in Puerto Rico. He grabbed a woman out of the stands against her will and pulled her across the court. She was the spouse of a Puerto Rican Supreme Court justice, so nobody wanted to take the case. I believe everyone is entitled to a defense, so I represented the team and the mascot. They received a fair jury trial and eventually reached a favorable outcome after two jury trials and an appeal. During this case, I proved to myself that I could overcome adversity in order to defend a client. I earn respect by taking on sensitive cases, and I always enjoy the challenge.

5. No case is a lost cause

A lawyer has to analyze a case on its nose. From the facts and the law, you can predict success or failure. However, I never reject a case simply because I believe the client has a probability of losing. Over the last seven years, I’ve seen some unlikely outcomes. I’m always open with the client about the probabilities, and again, everyone deserves a defense. If a client is truthful about their version of events, I will represent them.

6. Law is a business

Many of us get into this line of work because we want to contribute to a just society and do work we believe in. But when you open your own firm, you also have to manage it well. You need great partners, great associates, and a great staff. And you have to treat them fairly and with respect. For the firm to operate at high levels, you must make sound business decisions. Being a good lawyer isn’t enough—you have to be a good businessman, too.

7. Find a balance

While lawyers are notorious for working long hours, the past seven years have shown me how important it is to have a healthy balance between work and life. I have more flexibility now since I manage my own schedule and hours, but I have to work harder to manage the business. Technology is a huge help. I can work with all of my firm’s resources from home if necessary, or I can use FaceTime or Skype from almost anywhere in the world. I don’t always have to be in the office to get things done.