Franchise law attorney Eric Riess was named "Trainer of the Year" by the Franchise Brokers Association, a national organization that helps franchise brokers build their practices and expand.
Riess earned the FBA's top honor as the 2012 "Trainer of the Year Gold Award" winner for the legal, business and sales training he provided to franchisors and franchise consultants last year. He's practiced franchise law more than 20 years. His employer, Greensfelder Attorney at Law, has an office in Belleville. Riess recently sat down with business writer Will Buss to talk about his practice:
So what is a franchise lawyer?
"What that means is I advise franchisers like McDonald's that have the concept and are franchising it, and then I also represent and counsel franchisees, the people who are investing in McDonald's or whatever the franchise is. There are 9,000 franchise concepts."
How did you get started?
"I was a CPA in St. Louis for many years with a company called KPMG. I graduated from Mascoutah High School in 1980 and went to undergraduate school at the University of Arizona and went to law school at (Washington University) in St. Louis. I practiced tax accounting for a number of years. Then I decided to go to law school, came back out, worked in Clayton for a number of years, then worked at Thompson Coburn, which is a large firm in St. Louis. I have been with Greensfelder since 1999. I picked franchising because you have to have a niche in the practice of law."
"What I wanted to do was I picked a niche that I can practice on a nationwide basis. Franchising is one of those rare things in the practice of law where you can practice in every state as opposed to if I was litigating for example, I can't litigate in California without being admitted to the California bar. And so franchising was exciting for me, as boring as it may sound to others, because one, it was a niche and two, it was a niche that I did not have to rely completely on the St. Louis economy for my practice. So when the economy started tanking and going down, my practice continued to grow just because I can get business from where ever. In addition to that, the beauty of being in St. Louis is when I go the coasts, LA and New York and every market in between, I can still offer St. Louis or Midwest rates. So the rates for a franchise lawyer in LA are $500-plus an hour. My rates are not half that, but certainly substantially less, which permits me to produce the same legal work for a lot less money. Everybody out there is concerned, not only about cost, but they're always concerned with lawyer's legal fees because they tend to spiral out of control."
"I started charging on a fixed-fee basis, so there's certainty in legal costs. So I do that on the franchisee side and on the franchiser side, it's the same deal ... You're going to negotiate modification agreements with those people who want to buy that franchise. So I give franchisers fixed fees, which is very attractive to them because at the beginning of the year they want to know what they're going to spend by the end of the year. So my business has been up. Since 1999, my business has never been up less than 15 percent, year over year, which is really good."
How did you learn about this?
"In 1999, I started buying sales books on tape because I was not a salesman, I was a CPA and a lawyer. And I stopped at Borders and the first sales book I bought was 'How to make people like you in 90 seconds or less.' I actually bought two other books because I was so embarrassed by buying that because it was like buying your wife's tampons at the grocery store. You buy extra stuff. So I bought two books that I didn't want and I bought that book and stuck it in between because I thought they would say what a loser I was. So that book talked about mimicking. It said if you're in a sales presentation and somebody is leaning up against the table, you're supposed lean up against the table. If they sit back, you're supposed to sit back. If their voice is elevated, you elevate your voice. The whole theory was people like people who like themselves. And so right then and there, a salesman was born. After that, I started buying books by Zig Ziglar and bought every sales book I could find on CD and I started to listen to them while driving from my home in Belleville to St. Louis, which takes about 45 minutes in rush hour. I started listening to all of these sales tapes back and forth. I took it to heart and felt that I could go out and sell legal services."
What is your advice for attorneys who are looking for their own niche?
"I tell young associates this all of the time. It starts with understanding what you are trying to achieve. And so these young associates, the younger lawyers, they want stability. I say that the easy way to stability is to have your own book. So the worse case scenario, if somebody other than you isn't successful, you're not relying on their success for your success. Now, even though we have 160 lawyers in my law firm, when I go into work in the morning, my existence is defined by my little practice. It's like I'm a small firm in a much bigger firm."
What have you enjoyed most about it?
"In franchising, for example, my wife and kids and I will go on vacation, we'll see franchises that I've been with since the beginning. Orange Leaf is a classic example. We're at 250 stores. I was with them at store number one. What other job can you see in different cities come from what you helped build? It's not about the money because lawyers are perceived sometimes as a little greedy. At 50 years old, for me now, it's feeling some sense of accomplishment, looking back and saying what have I done and am I impressed with what I have done? One of the rare times that I am impressed with myself is when I'm in different cities and I see concepts that we actually were there for at the beginning. You know all of the people behind the concept. I think that's probably the most rewarding. Where else could you live and operate on a national basis and live in our little town of Belleville? It's really the best of both worlds."
Contact reporter Will Buss at email@example.com or 239-2526.