Any entrepreneur could give testimony of the financial hurdles that must be overcome to establish any business. These financial obstacles are particularly prominent in injury law, an industry that typically operates under a contingency fee model, where the attorney is not paid an up-front retainer but instead is paid after the case settles or goes to verdict.
James Helm, the owner of TopDog Law, went all in when he founded his firm in 2019. In the early days of this Philadelphia-based injury law firm, Helm did not hesitate to invest all his savings and squeeze every cent out of his credit limit to launch TopDog Law.
The first year, “I spent over $187,000 trying to get [TopDog Law] off the ground,” recalled Helm during a recent interview. “I remember thinking, ‘if this doesn’t work, I have no remedy but to declare bankruptcy.’ It was so stressful to ensure I could afford to pay my employees and the rent and keep the lights on.”
TopDog Law is today one of the fastest-growing and most recognizable injury law brands in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. TopDog Law has grown into a multi-seven-figure law firm with two offices in Philadelphia and one in Baltimore in just three years of existence. Helm and his team provide top-quality representation to injury victims across Pennsylvania, helping them obtain the maximum compensation.
Before scaling TopDog Law into a thriving multi-seven-figure business, Helm had to risk all he possessed to pursue his dream of opening his own law firm. In the early days of his firm, this Philadelphia-native attorney saw himself forced to invest all his savings and available credit. Yet, it was a risk he was willing to take.
In a recent video interview, Helm connected via Zoom to recount the challenges and financial hurdles he faced after opening TopDog Law.
Helm narrates that the first year of TopDog Law, before his firm could take off, was the most challenging period of his entrepreneurial career. Having graduated from Rutgers University Law School in 2018, Helm did not follow the conventional path most legal entrepreneurs take of working for another law firm, learning the business, and after years of experience, going on and opening their own firm. Instead, he decided to launch his firm within a year after earning his Juris Doctor degree.
Before embarking on the journey of establishing TopDog Law, Helm worked as a sales closer for a branding company that provided marketing services for law firms. This marketing job was critical to helping Helm fund his entrepreneurial endeavor. During the first year after opening his firm, he continued to receive commissions from his former employer.
“Under my contract with the marketing company, I received 20% of the marketing fee for as long as that law firm was an active client,” explained Helm. “In practice, it meant that in 2019, I was able to not work for the marketing company at all but still get paid for all the deals I signed in 2018. All together ended up being almost $100,000.”
Helm saw himself needing to resort to credit to maintain TopDog Law afloat until his first couple of cases were resolved. However, Helm quickly found himself in a financial hole as the months went on.
During the first year of TopDog Law, “I maxed out every business credit line and personal credit line I could get my hands on,” said Helm. “I had someone give me a high-interest bad loan for $50,000 I even took.”
Having utilized all his savings and available credit, Helm was in a momentaneous financial quandary. He recalls the stress caused by the uncertainty of not knowing if his firm would survive the following month.
“I remember some nights of knowing that I couldn’t make payroll the following week unless I had some cases settled,” said Helm.
Helm acknowledges that he underestimated how long it would take to settle his first batch of injury cases. His experience in sales allowed him to generate new leads without significant difficulties. Nonetheless, since his firm operates under a contingency fee model, these new cases would not translate into revenue until he reached a final settlement.
“The issue was not generating new business; the problem was that cases took longer than I had anticipated,” said Helm. “I thought I would be able to resolve some cases in six months, but I realized the hard way that the average case duration is closer to a year, sometimes much longer. The closure of the courts due to the Coronavirus pandemic only extended the duration of cases.
For Helm, the days of financial hardship are a thing of the past. Over the past years, Helm and his team have recovered millions of dollars for injury victims across Pennsylvania, leading TopDog Law to become a thriving multi-seven-figure law firm.
Nowadays, Helm remembers the financial hurdles he faced during the early days of TopDog Law with pride. Overcoming those challenges was a symbol of his resilience amidst adversity and determination to build a successful law firm. This same persistence is today the fuel that drives Helm to work towards making TopDog Law the number one law firm in Philadelphia.
By Juan Sebastian Restrepo
With Artistic Initiative Agency