EPISODE 24 — John Berry — The Warrior Ethos
As a second lieutenant, John Berry had high-profile postings all over the world, from Iraq to Bosnia. The grueling experience of training and active duty taught him dedication, fortitude, and the wisdom to choose your battles.
In this episode of The Game Changing Attorney Podcast, John explains how he applied that warrior ethos and love for the mission to both the courtroom and to the business of law, building upon his father’s practice to become one of the fastest-growing law firms on the Inc. 5000.
He pulls back the veil to answer the questions:
- Why do veterans make the best trial attorneys?
- How did John Berry grow his father’s niche law firm to even greater heights?
- Why is ego the downfall of true personal growth in leadership?
- How do you create the ultimate brand affinity in a niche legal space?
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2:15 – The key to his ongoing success. “Without a doubt, the leadership team. We’ve grown 5x in five years, and it’s not because of me. It’s because I chose the right people who wanted to build and develop as leaders, and then they chose the right people. There’s this effect of getting the right people in the leadership team and those leaders developing the junior leaders, and then those leaders develop the leaders below them. So, the growth of your subordinate leaders is going to dictate how fast you can scale.”
3:01 – Why John became a lawyer. “My father was a famous trial lawyer. He was my hero, and I always wanted to be in the courtroom. I love being in the fight, and when I could no longer be an athlete, that was the way I could still feel like I’m fully engaged in the moment. There’s no better feeling in the world, whether you’re playing in a football game, skiing, or you’re in a trial. Being a lawyer, you’re able to be fully engaged, and just to feel that the pressure in a criminal case, someone’s life — their future is on the line. It’s up to you. You’ve got to come up. You have to show up as your best every single day, and it makes you better. That pressure makes you better. Pressure makes diamonds. I thrive in high pressure situations, and that’s why I wanted to be a lawyer.”
7:52 – From lieutenant to law firm owner. “I liked the idea of going into the army for a while because I knew I was going to be a lawyer, but I loved my military experience. The greatest time of my life was showing up as a new second lieutenant in my unit. There is no better leadership lesson. When you show up as that young college grad, you’ve got these experienced combat veterans, and they’re looking for you to give them direction when training, or in combat — it’s crazy. You can’t control a lot of what you don’t know. So you’d say, ‘What can I control?’ And you show up neatly dressed, shined boots, a pressed uniform, and a fresh haircut. You have to be in phenomenal physical shape. Those are the things you can control — because other than your attitude, you can’t control the things that are going to happen due to your lack of experience. So now as a leader of a law firm, I feel like a second lieutenant every day, like I’m a new guy who doesn’t know anything, and I’m listening to experts, and I’m trying to appear like I’m seasoned and experienced, knowing that I’m not.”
11:20 – Looking to the future. “The first decision was the decision to grow. I was fortunate that I had all these goals that I had set, and then by the time I hit about 40 years old, I hit them. I had a battalion command. I was a lieutenant colonel in the Nebraska National Guard. After I served my time in active duty, I had won about 50 jury trials. I had all these career goals that I had hit, and then it was like, ‘What’s next?’ And as you know, your future has to be bigger than your past. I didn’t just want to hang out and do nothing and be the guy who won the case 20 years ago and is still talking about it. So, I looked at my life,I looked forward, and I thought, ‘What do I want to? What is my life going to look like when I’m 50 years old?’ I didn’t want to be working 70-80 hours a week on cases, and so that’s when I decided I was going to grow the firm.”
14:15 – Never give the how. “In the army, we have a mission statement. It’s going to tell you who, what, when, where, and why, but it never gives you the how. So the key is to hire the who, and then give them the other four — they’ll figure out how to do it. You don’t have to figure that out. So, I started hiring people for their capabilities, and for cultural fit, then the dominoes just started falling. Once I felt secure that someone was covering my six, and I could just move forward, that’s exactly what I did.”
16:16 – Learning from failures. “Pain is a teaching tool. Pain teaches us so many great things. When we failed to hire the right person, failed to have the right type of insurance, failed to have the right systems, that’s where we’ve learned, and we’ve gotten a lot better at that. So to say that you make a decision and it happens is complete bullshit. That’s not how it happens. You make a decision, you fight through it, and eventually it does happen — but you have to have that warrior ethos. You’ve got to get up every time you get knocked down.”
17:20 – Good versus elite law firms. “The elite law firms have the elite systems. I’ve seen some good law firms with phenomenal attorneys, but the problems that they run into are due to a lack of systems and a lack of decision-making in terms of making a bigger vision come into fruition. A lot of times they may have a vision, but they’re not making the day-to-day decisions to get there. It’s almost like they’ve made a decision, they’re committed, but something’s missing. Somehow they cannot paint that vision, they can’t paint the picture of the vision for their team to see, and they’re always on the cusp of becoming great or elite — but they just stay good.”
22:02 – Fire and forget. “When I was a Bradley platoon leader, we had the TOW missiles and the Bradley. The company that created the missile launch system, their motto was ‘Fire and Forget.’ When you fire the missile, it’s going to reach the target based on the system. That’s the way I look at it. I hire people who are ‘fire and forget.’ If I send you an email, you’re going to get it done. I’m not going to look at the task again. I’m assuming you’re going to get it done. And if that doesn’t happen, then I’ve chosen the wrong person.”
27:55 – Nothing wrong with moving on. “Nobody’s position is ever permanent, and that’s the way we should see it every day. That’s how we have gratitude for our team. No one’s going to be in that position forever. The good news is, if you’re in a shitty position it’s not going to last forever — but also knowing that there’s the ability to change course and do these other things is helpful. So, when people come here, we generally see that the people who want to work here are goal-oriented, and some of them want to be here for a while, some of them want to be here for a short period of time — it’s a stepping stone. That’s fine. I’m completely fine with that because ultimately it’s about the team you build, the leaders you build, and at the end of the day my proudest moments will not be the things that I accomplished, but the things that my team accomplished — and more importantly, what those subordinate leaders accomplished.”
29:05 – How do you define success? “Winning. Winning every single day. Winning consistently. I don’t consider myself to be successful. I consider myself a winner when I win. When I lose, I learn. But I don’t say I’m successful or I made it. Now, some people will say, ‘But John, this is where you are financially. Look at your firm. You guys made Inc. 5000 four years in a row. You’re a fellow of the American Board of Criminal Lawyers. You have all these great things.’ I have a lot of successes, but I’m always hungry. As soon as I get that one success, I want the next one. As a leader, I want to develop more leaders. I get a guy who’s going to blow past me as a better lawyer than I’ll be, a better business owner — I love that, but I want 10 more of those. There’s never enough success. It’s an addiction, but it’s a good addiction to have.”
31:07 – Attracting the right cases with their brand. “Our real brand is the veterans brand. As a veteran, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, and you take a similar oath as a lawyer. For us, that really is the brand. It is the veteran brand. Americans serving Americans. Veterans serving veterans. At the end of the day, people who agree with our values and our brand come to us, and people who don’t, don’t come to us — and that’s great. I don’t want everybody’s case. I want to know who I can be a hero to. And so, the great thing is when I wake up every morning, I get to decide who I’m going to be a hero to, and that’s part of your brand. You have to make that clear in your brand, so that you can attract the right people. And when the right people come to the door, they’re always going to be the right fit, and you’re always going to say the right thing because they believe what you believe.”
34:58 – You can’t put us out of business. “You can’t. Every day, I think about how I would destroy Berry Law. I do a pre-mortem. And the reality is this: you could kill me tomorrow, but I’ve got so many great leaders on my team, the team would grow and flourish without me. In fact, they’d probably do a lot better. In many ways, I’m a bottleneck and I know it, and as a leader, I hate that. But no, you can’t stop Berry Law — you can’t put us out of business. We’ve got a great team, great systems, but at the end of the day, we’ve got the backing of the veterans, America’s greatest treasure. It’s like saying, ‘What would you do to destroy the United States of America?’ You can’t do it, and it’s the same thing with us. We won’t be put out of business because we won’t let anybody do it. You could take away one of our practice areas, but we’ll grow another one. If you take me out, another leader will step up. We won’t lose.”
43:34 – Like father, like son. “Legacy is very important. I can’t say that legacy will be important to me, but for him it’s extremely important. And to be fair, as a father, he was very invested in his children — always wanting to help us, hiring us coaches, telling us, ‘You can do anything you want, but you got to go full speed.’ He was the first person I ever heard say, ‘It’s either hell yeah or f*ck no. If you’re going to go, you’re going to go all-in, and there’s no two ways about it.’ And so I think that for him it’s kind of a sense of pride for him that his name lives on.”
45:59 – What does being a game changer mean to you? “Being a game changer means understanding the absolute rules, and then getting rid of everything else. It’s understanding the environment in which you must play, and then getting rid of all the crap that doesn’t matter. A game changer understands that ‘fair’ is a word used by spectators, but those of us that are fighting in the game know that there’s no such thing as fair and not fair. We know that there are some rules we’re going to have to follow, but if it’s not a ‘real’ rule, then we need to create rules that will help us be successful and help our teams be successful.”
John Stephens Berry
Huskers Training Center
Bradley Missile Launcher
American Board of Criminal Lawyers
Scottish Rite Temple