Justin Stivers - Estate Planner and Lawyer (Episode 42 Transcript)

Kyla Denanyoh (KD), host of You Are A Lawyer:

You are listening to You Are A Lawyer Podcast. I am the podcast host Kyla Denanyoh, a 2015 law school graduate. This podcast was created to share the experiences and successes of law school graduates who created their own paths to career success. 

In Episode 42, I am speaking with an estate planner and lawyer. This guest uses his experiences in the peace Corps and living abroad to make him a better lawyer. Based in Miami, Florida, today's guest is Justin Stivers. 

Welcome to the podcast, Justin. 

Justin Stivers (JD): Thanks guys. I appreciate you. Yeah, 

KD: Would you tell the audience a little bit about yourself. 

JS: Yeah. So Justin Stivers currently living in Miami, Florida, been here about 11 years and practicing.

I've been practicing since 2013 from I've had my own firm called the probate law firms since about 2017, kind of bounced around a little bit before. And so I'm sure we'll talk about the practice, but you know, pretty lawyer, I was born in Florida, raised in Tennessee, undergrad at Appalachian state in Boone, North Carolina, somehow wound up in Honduras, lived in the peace Corps for a couple of years.

And I don't know why law school seemed like a good idea, but I guess it did at the time and then went to the University of Miami for law school and been here ever. Yeah. 

KD: So speaking of Appalachian state, you studied religion and philosophy. What? 

JS: I haven't been asked that in a while. I haven't thought about that in a while.

So the religion aspect was probably just background growing up in the south for you around it, whether you want to be or not. And so why people believe what they believe that kind of always intrigued me. I studied world religion and was just interested in getting exposed to different beliefs, different, you know, way of thinking.

And so that's probably the religion piece. And then the philosophy piece, I think I took an intro to philosophy class as a freshmen, and it was a small class of about, I dunno, had to have been less than 10 of us in the professor office around a round table. And I just found the topics interesting. And we would just discuss things.

I just thought it was cool. I mean, if like someone is. Philosophy person. They see that I studied philosophy. They'll ask me like, oh, you know, what was your favorite film? It's like, I don't remember any of that stuff now, but it was very interesting at the time. 

KD: And so North Carolina was where you went to undergrad.

How did you choose that? Like what caught your eye about Appalachian 

JS: state? Another good question. So I was originally gonna not go to college and I wanted to play music and another life used to play a lot of guitar and, uh, and some other instruments. Uh, I don't really play it that much now anymore, but I used to play a lot and that was kind of dead set on moving to California and tried to play music.

A girl I had always liked became single at the time. And she said, Hey, I'm going to go to Appalachian state or app state is what we call it. And I was like, okay, I don't even know where that is. I don't even know what that is, but I'll, I'll apply, you know? And you know, so I went, she ended up not going. It was amazing decision.

I had such a great time there. So, um, but it was not on my radar for any particular reason, other than for a girl. 

KD: Yeah. I was curious because you're in Florida now from Tennessee. So it was like weird at North Carolina come from. So you said you played guitar. That was okay. So that in your questionnaire, I was like, that's cool that you almost dropped out to play.

JS: Yeah, there's I mean, there's definitely a creative side still in me. I mean, you know, we're not filming this, but the wall behind me is a bunch of, you know, musicians, miles Davis, Robert Johnson, Aretha Bob Marley, the Beatles Bebe, you know, it's a very eclectic, you know, style of stuff. And I've got a record player in here.

So I. You know, bringing out that side as much as possible. I feel like there's a, a never kind of a friction with the lawyer in me. So I try to keep that stuff around me. Remember that 

KD: stuff. Do you play every now and then when you get stressed out or just need to unwind? 

JS: Probably a year ago, I picked it up and I got into playing again a lot and tried to make it a priority, but I love what I do and I love the business and everything.

And I just kind of felt like, you know, I heard it, I heard a quote. Uh, recently and they said, you can do anything, but you can't do everything. And I love trying different stuff. I mean, I scuba dive, I just ran a marathon earlier this year for the first time. So I'm always like doing different unique types of stuff.

I kind of felt like I was just spread too thin. So I tried that. Shed some of those things and get hyper-focused on, on some of the main things right now, 

KD: plus the laws of delis, mistress. 

JS: It's true. 

KD: It always tends to take over everything. I understand. And I don't think you mentioned this here, but in your questionnaire, you said you were interested in being a scuba instructor.

Was that before college? During college? 

JS: Yeah. I mean, you, you you're digging deep, all these other lives, all these other lives that I had. Yeah. So when I was in, so I was in the peace Corps, uh, living in Honduras. Uh, remote village, but there's some islands off the coast of Honduras that are pretty famous.

And so me and a group of people went and got certified and I was in my early, early twenties or early to mid. And I just thought it was, I mean, I was just, I fell in love with scuba diving in undergrad. I traveled a lot. I did several semesters overseas worked abroad, and obviously I'd been living in Honduras for a couple of years at that point and I wanted to stay overseas.

And so my original plan was to try to find something in international development. At that time I was, this was like 2000. 2009, somewhere around there. And so I wanted to find something in international development, be overseas, do development work, whether central America, Africa, wherever I was just wanting to be somewhere, but I couldn't find anything.

I just could not find a job doing that. Or they said, you know, you need to have. A master's in international development, but I just thought, Hey, with an undergrad in philosophy and religion, which is not useful for anything, for the most part. And then, and then a master's in international development, if it turns out not to be anything, maybe that's not a good route either.

You know, I'm the first to graduate from college in my family. I didn't know any lawyers. I don't have any lawyers in my family. But I just heard this voice, which it's, I feel like a lot of lawyers have heard where someone had said, you know, go to law school, you can do anything with a law degree. Right. I don't know if that's true or not.

I probably don't think that's true, but somehow I heard that and I was like, all right, I'll go to law school. So I gave up on the scuba idea and decided to go to law school instead. 

KD: Well, hearing your story, it sounds like you made the right choice. Not only because of your law firm, which we'll talk about, but like you said, you pretty much had like a blank slate of things you could do, right.

Philosophy and religion. You could do anything with that. So. I could see where you would then look for law school, which will kind of lead you in a direction. So it makes sense. 

JS: Yeah. 

KD: So that phrase go to law school, you can do anything. Did you recite that to yourself as you were studying for the LSAT, you know, as you were applying to law schools, did it help propel you through the process?

JS: I think I was very naive. I had zero expectations, which I don't know if it was good or bad. I mean, I didn't know what. I think, I just thought it would be a extension of undergrad to some extent. And so, you know, I had been living for about three years in the middle of nowhere, Honduras, really? No running water, barely electricity.

And then I go to Miami and I haven't been to Miami before. And I'm like, you know, Rolls Royces everywhere. People live in like, and so like, first semester I did not study. I was like,

yeah, I was in Miami and honestly, you know, Like the smartest guy, but I did okay. In undergrad where I like could coast ish by, you know, by not like being in the library, but I, I honestly nearly failed out of the first semester because like, I didn't even know that it was one test at the end. I, you know, I, I remember getting to my torts exam and I opened it and I was like, as soon as I read it, I'm like, I failed.

Like I don't, I don't know anything. End of the story is I turned it around and did it pretty well next semester, the rest of the year, but the first semester, not so much. And so, yeah, I mean, I think that mantra maybe propelled me a little bit, but I think I'm just a very determined individual. And so when I kind of made the decision, like, okay, Hey, I'm going to law school because it takes, it's not like you just decide, Hey, I'm going to go to law school.

And then you get in it's a lot of prep time, a lot of study time for the LSAT and application. Costs and everything. So once I made that decision to go, I think I was all in. And then, you know, that it was just kind of my innate drive to complete it and to finish it. Yeah. 

KD: Okay. Well, I am glad that you finished it and did well.

Um, yeah. And I will say you can do anything with a law degree. That's what this whole practice is about. I talked to people who went to law school and then become nurses. They start their own beauty companies. They become art sculptors. 

JS: Yeah. I shouldn't have said it like that. I think there's so many skills.

There's so many things that you can do, but so many people do get stuck into, I've got to just be a lawyer, right. And it's hard for people to kind of get out of that mindset, especially with. You've dedicated so much time and frankly money to it that it's almost like scary to pull the trigger and decide to do something else.

KD: It is, which is why, you know, I'm not trying to be like super nosy and all your business, but I love to hear about what led people to law school and then what they're doing after law school. Because I find that, you know, there might be someone in the audience who plays music and it's like, how is that going to relate to law school?

And they could learn something from your story. So, yeah, I like to just touch on all that. 

JS: Yeah. And I, I think, you know, you are who you are and you kind of follow, you know, what, you know, what drives you, what motivates you? And so, you know, I think I've taken all of those things that, you know, are not necessarily law related.

You know, I wasn't exposed to the law and in the music, in the. In the travel, any of that sort of stuff didn't expose me to the law per se. But one of the underlining threads for me personally, was I knew I wanted to do something that I got to build. I knew I wanted to build something. I don't even know that it was necessarily a business at the time.

I don't know that I knew I wanted to build a business, but I knew that, you know, I'm a good employee, but I'm not like a great employee. And I knew that. I knew that I had it in me to kind of create my own thing. And I think that's maybe where the creative piece of it comes from. I've found that kind of creative outlet and kind of my, if you want to use the word passion within the law, not necessarily by being a practitioner, I don't really see, I, you know, I'm an okay practitioner.

I'm an okay attorney. I think I'm a pretty good business person. And so that's, that's how I've. You know, found my role and kind of found myself within this space is that I don't have to be the greatest, uh, estate planning attorney there is, but, you know, I want to hire those people and I like building the business and putting all the pieces together.

KD: I mean, you're the master connector, right? You're the part that combines it all. So, um, and I mean, I don't know of course, but I bet. You're able to like, focus so much on your business now because you don't have to daydream about what if I just moved to Honduras. We've already done that. 

JS: That's a dangerous trap.

If you let yourself, you know, wonder and think about, well, what if or what if I could do this? You know, for me, it's all about giving yourself those experiences. And to see what you actually like and what you actually want to do. So, you know, here's a good example. So for the past couple of years, me and my wife have been talking for a while.

We're like, you know, cause my business is pretty remote. I'm like maybe we just move to an island, work on an island, have a more, you know, low key life, a little bit more chill. You know, whatever. And so we had had our, in our mind that we wanted to go to St. Croix in the Virgin island and live there. Cause we watched like an HGTV show where it's like, they, you know, they buy a home.

And so we like, Hey, this island looks awesome. It's a little bit off the beaten path, but still a U S Virgin islands. So you still have like the amenities of the U S it's easy. You don't have to apply for visa, whatever. And so we finally, this past August, we went. Almost as soon as we got there, we were both like, no way we'll ever live here.

St. Croix was nice, but it just, it wasn't for us. And even the eyelid thing, it's like, no, I can't, this is not the life I want. Like, I would be bored out of my mind. Like I can't, I can't do this, but literally for like two years, like, Fantasizing that this is the life that I want. I even kind of reverted back to that older self, where in my college days I had really long hair, big beard, kind of hippy-ish looking.

And so I had been doing that for two years, almost like, kind of like thinking about, you know, this island life. And then shortly after I, you know, I was like, no, I can't, I can't do that anymore, but, but had I not gone and done that? Vision or that idea of like a life that I maybe could have had, would have still been there.

And so I think it's easy to like fantasize or romanticize about like all these other things that you could do. I mean, if you're out, you're absolutely miserable in what you're doing, then that's a pretty good sign, but if you're not miserable and you're just like, the grass is greener on the other side, You know, you don't have to like stop everything right now and go full force into it.

Like, I didn't quit my job and just move to St. Corey without doing it. I went and looked and had enough of an experience where I was like, no, this is, this is not what I want. 

KD: I mean, you did it in a smart way, which is good because most lawyers are kind of risk averse. So I liked that you guys went and tested the waters and you were like, it's not for us.

So, yeah. Okay. So you said earlier, you're a good employee, not necessarily a great employee, but you knew you always wanted to create your own thing. Did that come to mind when you were in law school or was it after law school while you were interning that you thought, Hey, I need to start my own firm?

JS: No, it was never a thought that I had in law school.

I don't think I ever even thought, Hey, I could open up a law. The first firm I worked for just didn't work out. So I left there, the second firm I went and worked for, they filed for bankruptcy and let everybody go very basically unexpectedly. So it was like, kind of like a series of unfortunate events that I was like, well, I felt like I could do it.

I just kind of, I felt like, Hey, you know, if they can do it, I can do it sort of thing. I think I had very little guidance and while I was in law school about what. What happened after, or expectations, which is kind of a unfortunate thing about law school, because they kind of just promote big law for the most part.

And they don't really. I feel like do kind of the disservice to a lot of the people who are maybe not in the, you know, 0.02% of the class, who's not going to work there. And so, you know, I found a job, I got a great job after law school, but, um, through those experiences and seeing, and, and working for people and who, all of my bosses that I had in the past are now like great referral sources for me now.

Like I didn't burn any bridges, but yeah. I think just seeing that, that I could do and feeling that I could do it just kind of made me want to give them. 

KD: Yeah, I have never owned a law firm, but I have worked at a couple and I cannot even imagine what it's like in the ownership chair. I mean, there's so many decisions.

I've run a department before in a farm and that alone is enough moving parts for me. But you mentioned that every day could look a little bit different. Right. Sometimes you're making marketing decisions other times, you know, you could be involved in hiring, you could be involved in all kinds of places.

How did you learn about how to run your law firm? The probate law firm, where you just reading a lot of books. 

JS: You know, I do read a lot of books. I have been very active in just seeking out coaches and programs and finding whatever I can to learn about how to run a law firm and how to market and, and how to do sales and how to be a good leader.

And, and so, yeah, constant learning, constant reading, constant, just trying to find things. Okay. Yeah. When you start out, you know, that you don't really know how. And we don't even know what marketing is. It's not a legal word that we're too familiar with. So then you like go down the rabbit hole of like, what is marketing and how to market for a law firm.

And then like what types of marketing work, what types of marketing don't work and what I've found with self-help or business development? I mean, it's a lot of repetition. It's a lot of repetitive stuff is a lot of the same things. Just set a different way that at times point back to older books or whatnot, There's so many resources out there that even if you're alone, quote-unquote alone doing it.

There's so many things out there that if you're just willing to, to seek them out and try to learn and don't think that, you know, it all it's been great. I mean, but that's how, that's how I've done it. It's just constantly seeking stuff out. Yeah. 

KD: Marketing is a really hard piece. I think it's because when you're in law school and they try to like scare you about marketing and how you have to, like you can't solicit and referrals and all this stuff, I think it terrifies lawyers. So they just don't.

JS: I think they're also, you know, their mindset has been, especially with like older attorneys, it's like do a good job and the clients will come sort of thing. And. Not a great business model. Not right. Not right now. Cause it's yeah, maybe, but, but you know, I mean, how many lawyers are there?

You know, people are searching online. I mean, it's just, how do you get that first client? And then they refer one client and how long does it take you to get 10 clients? And, you know, I speak with some younger attorneys and they say that same sort of thing. And I'm like, well, I don't know if it's working, it's working, but there's probably a lot better options.

KD: Yeah. There definitely are. And. Speaking of marketing. I've noticed that you have a lot of social media videos. They're very engaging. They're very funny. They're informative. What made you start doing that on social media? 

JS: Well, I'll preface it by saying, but I generally hate social media. So I'm not for people like to hear that.

Yeah. For people who like hear that and they're like, oh, you just love social media again, remember I'm a retired hippie. So I don't really, I think I do a good job at it, but I think the main thing is consistency. When it comes to social media, I think it's whatever you do. Do it all the time, don't start, don't stop.

Don't start, don't stop. And, you know, be authentic, you know? So my philosophy with social media is don't overthink it. I think I had a goal, I think like three years ago where I wanted to do a post on Facebook every single day for the entire year. And so I would spend like a day and write out the next month worth of content and then I would schedule it for good to go out.

So I'd take, you know, a couple hours. To do it. And then I was like, all right, let's start doing some videos and we want to get more active on Instagram. So then I would take, you know, 15 minutes every Monday morning film, a couple of videos with my iPhone, no major setup, just me hitting start, record it, stop it.

I don't look at it. And then we post it. And so, you know, I think that's been my, my kind of strategy is that just don't overthink it. Just do it consistently. Put it out. And just make it natural. And it's tough because most lawyers topics are not very sexy most. I mean, I deal primarily in the world of death and probate and people passing away and people planning for their death, you know, not topics people really want to hear about, but if you're going through it or if you need the information it's going to be.

You know, and most people choose whatever platform, LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Tech-Talk, whatever it is, put out that information and make it useful. I think people will find you. So that's kind of been my strategy and I think the consistency and just not overthinking, it has been helpful and just keep putting content out there because there's no shortcut.

If you go to our Facebook page and you see that we've been posting for the past, you know, four years, every day, well, someone who decides they want to start a Facebook campaign tomorrow. I've already got four years of content. They could, they can't really beat me on that. Just start and keep doing. 

KD: Yeah. I love that.

You said record it and don't look at it because lawyers are natural editors. You will edit something to death and never put it out because you keep tweaking it. And, oh, let me just read through this part and let me redo that part. So that's a really good part. Yeah. I have a lot of law students who are listening a lot of perspective.

For the audience members who don't know, would you explain a little bit about probate law and the probate law firm that you run? 

JS: Yeah. So probate's a word, most law students, and really, even in law school, they don't teach necessarily. There'll be a course, I think, called trust in the states. You know, the simplest way to think about it is probate happens after death estate planning happens before death.

So estate planning. That's what a lot of people think of writing a will, a last will and Testament. Who's going to get. After you pass away, who do you want to take care of your minor children? If something happened to you and the other person. You know, that sort of stuff. The probate happens after somebody has passed away and it's when nothing was done in advance and now there's going to be a court involved.

And the judge is going to say, essentially, who gets what of a person stuff. So those are our primary areas, writing the wills, writing trust while people are alive. And then after they pass away helping distribute the assets to the right. 

KD: Probate law is very important. I remember we didn't learn about it until I was a three L, which by the time you're three L your foot is halfway out the door.

You're not really listening, but probate law and estates are very, very important. And they'll pretty much touch everybody at one point or another, you know, you'll have to deal with them or at least hear somebody talk about them. 

JS: I say, you know, sort of jokingly, but probate is kind of recession-proof because people are always going to pass away.

The majority of people are going to have to go through it. We do about four to 500 probates every single year here in Florida. And you know, that's just a small percentage of the probates that happen in Florida. So it's going to happen in big law, small aw mid-size law firm. You'll have some sort of client who's going to, you know, bring up some sort of probate or planning related issue at some point, for sure.

KD: Okay. So jumping around here. Do you think being in the peace Corps made you a more empathetic lawyer or do you think it affected your law practice? 

JS: Hm, I think it contributed to it. Cause I think that probably go into the peace Corps. I probably have some sort of empathy to decide. I want to go live in a rural village with no resources and you're basically not getting any money.

It's almost unpaid with the primary goal of helping people that you don't know. So I would say I probably already had that in me a little bit, but whatever area of the country you live in the us doesn't compare to the level of poverty, you know, in some of these other third worlds and whatnot. So to see that to live, that was pretty eye-opening.

I think it contributed to maybe me becoming a little bit more humanized. Attorneys are really bad at this intentionally or unintentionally. They're not approachable for them for the most part. If you're on the other side of the desk and the client is coming to you to realize they might not have ever seen an attorney before, or if you imagine why people go to an attorney they're getting divorced, they're filing for bankruptcy.

Somebody has died. There's a business dispute. It's usually not a good thing for the most part, so they're not in a good place. And then they come to you and they don't know how much it's going to cost. So being able to have those experiences get allowed you to be more relatable and yeah. Contributes to, to being more empathetic.

KD: Yeah. As a retired hippie, did you have to teach yourself how to negotiate and how to make hard decisions? Or are you like a perpetual nice guy? You know, when it comes to. 

JS: Yeah, I'd say my demeanor is generally pretty nice. I think that I get triggered by jerk attorneys, jerk clients, you know, whatever it is.

And so I can lose that demeanor pretty quickly. I think I can hold my own. I'm definitely not the most aggressive litigate or out there, which is why I don't do litigation. That doesn't fit my likes. 

KD: So Justin you're licensed in Florida. That's correct. Okay. Did you get licensed in Tennessee? Just because you're from the antiques, you ever go back for any reason?

JS: There might come a day. We open an office there, but my dad is a financial advisor in Tennessee. And so for the listeners who don't know, you know, financial advisors and estate planning attorneys tend to work well together because you know, the advisor knows their financial assets and then we'll refer them to the estate planning attorney to kind of make sure that they're.

Or vice versa. So we have mutual clients and he's licensed in Florida. So I got it primarily for purposes of referrals and, and working with him and doing some business together. 

KD: And last question here. Is there anything that you would like to say about law school or practicing law? 

JS: So the theme is, you know, if you go to law school, you can do anything.

I think that you don't have to get stuck in one specific thing. And you know, and what I mean by that is you don't have to go to law school. Right. So if you don't want to go. I saw that in law school, where there were a lot of kids who just seem to be like incredibly miserable. Uh, and just, you could tell from the very beginning, like they just didn't like it.

I don't know why they were doing it. Maybe parents, maybe pressure, maybe whatever, but like, they didn't like doing it. I mean, it's a very expensive thing to be miserable for three years. There's other things that you could do, but I would probably say there's nothing wrong with taking a year or two off or doing something else to figure out if that's still something you want to do for the lawyer.

I would say, you know, you don't have to, maybe you have to take the first job just cause you need money to survive a little bit, but you don't have to stay stuck there. And I see a lot of, yeah. We seem to get stuck, but they're miserable, but they don't know what else they do. So they just kind of like reside themselves to stay there.

Or, you know, you go work for a mid-size firm doing insurance defense. You hate it, but you don't know what else to do. You don't want to open your own shop and you don't know where. Or even the solo law firm, who's like struggling and barely making ends meet. They're doing, you know, every task themselves can't afford to hire staff and they're miserable.

So in all of those instances, I think that you have to kind of have an honest conversation with yourself and if you don't. You know, don't do it. I think lawyers are gluttons for punishment. We're good about just like saying, Hey, well, I'll just suck it up. I'll keep doing it. But that's a, you know, it's kind of a miserable, miserable way to live.

And I think it doesn't have to be miserable. It's not miserable for me. It's not miserable for a lot of people that I know, but if it is miserable for you do something else. So I feel like people don't say that enough and they're just kind of like just, oh, you know, tough it out. And there's all these memes and stuff out there about how miserable lawyers are.

And there's, there are a lot of. Yeah, there's a lot of other things you can do. Other than that. 

KD: Absolutely. And there's a difference between being challenged and being miserable, right? Like it can be challenging, but it doesn't have to be absolutely miserable. It can just be tough, you know? 

JS: Yeah. I mean, studying for the bar is one of the toughest things that I've done.

I mean, you're back in the library you're studying, but it's temporary, you know, it's a temporary thing, you know, it's not free. And if the desire is strong enough that you actually want the outcome, you actually want to be the attorney. You want to practice, you want to do those things, then you'll stick with it.

But if you don't really have a strong enough why as to why you're doing it, just you're doing it just because like, you feel you need to do it. I don't know that that seems, that seems brutal. 

KD: Yeah, that probably won't sustain you. So, yeah. All right. Well, thank you so much, Justin. 

JS: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Thanks for having me on, oh yeah, you have a great evening. 

KD: Thank you for listening to you on lawyer while you are here. Subscribe to the show, leave a rating and tell a friend about this episode. New episodes are released every other Thursday. Thanks again for listening. I hope you enjoy the conversation. Bye.

Click here to listen to Episode 42 of You Are A Lawyer with Justin Stivers. 

NOTE: This transcript was created from the You Are A Lawyer podcast episode with Kyla Denanyoh and GUEST. This transcript was not edited to correct grammar and follow writing rules.

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