ALPS In Brief – Episode 66: Saying ”Hell Yes” with Megan Hottman

ALPS In Brief – Episode 66: Saying ”Hell Yes” with Megan Hottman

Don’t miss our third “Solo Session” in partnership with the NCWBA — How Do I Grow My Business? Thursday, October 27, 2022 from 1:30 PM to 2:30 PM EDT We’ll cover networking & marketing in the virtual world; how to define and leverage your niche; how to turn your community connections into effective referral sources; succession planning and mental support; and more. Featuring: Claire Gibson, Esq. Principal Attorney, The Gibson Law Practice, PLLC, Sherry William, Principal and founder of Pacific Ivy Law Group, and Megan Hottman, the Cyclist Lawyer. Register here: https://conta.cc/34Wqs9s

Transcript:

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

Hello, I’m Mark Bassingthwaighte, the Risk Manager here at ALPS, and welcome to the latest episode of ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence Building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. For those of you that have listened to my various stories and podcasts over the years, I had a short series called, Listening to Your Life. And that was telling some stories about cycling. I’ve done a fair amount of cycling over the years and it’s a way I stay in shape and so enjoyed it, particularly in 2020 when we had the shutdown. And boy, that’s how I dealt with cycling, or the shutdown, just getting out and putting on a lot of miles. That summer I put in, I think it was over 2,200 miles. So that was quite a summer.

I also have an interest in niche practices. Years ago, I spent many, many years doing some consulting work and have worked with over 1200 firms all over the country. And one of my favorite practices was a niche practice of guy up in Alaska that specialized in dog sled law. And I actually pulled up to the firm in the summertime and there was maybe two parking spaces, but there are about 15 spaces for dog sled teams. It was just an interesting, interesting story, or I should say, interesting experience.

So all of that kind of plays into my guest and conversation we’re going to have today. I’m so pleased to be able to welcome Megan Hottman. She is an attorney in Colorado, but I really want you folks to have the opportunity to hear and enjoy listening to Megan. So Megan, please welcome to the podcast and if you want to take a couple of moments and just share anything and everything about yourself. What do people need to know?

MEGAN HOTTMAN:

Well, thank you for having me. What do the people need to know? Well, everyone wants to know how I became The Cyclist Lawyer. And the truth is that I was a cyclist and a lawyer and I became someone who wanted to represent cyclists in my law practice. So that unfolded really just a confluence of events, you might say. I was a baby lawyer, kind of fresh out of law school and I was also an aspiring bike racer chasing the professional bike racing dream. And I wasn’t sure how to put the two together because both are very time demanding and energy demanding. And long story short, people that I raced bikes with and against at events knew I was an attorney but had no idea what area of law I practiced in. But a few of them would ask me at events, “Hey, I was hit by a car while I was training. I have no idea what kind of law you do, but is that something you could help me with?”

And I realized that working for people that shared this passion of mine for two wheels, life on two wheels, was very compelling and interesting to me and helping them try to get back in the saddle after having been involved in a collision with motorists. That really is how the practice unfolded back in 2010. And I was scared to death, of course, to start my own practice. I was 29, I’d been out of law school for five years and people said, “Well, you can’t start a practice of your own that soon. That’s not how this works.” And I just felt that to do it the way I wanted to do it and to simultaneously be able to chase my bike racing dreams, I really couldn’t work for someone else and be on someone else’s schedule, I needed to be on my own schedule. So that’s how this whole adventure began. And here we are, 12 and a half years later.

MARK:

That’s really interesting because again, I was referring to this dog sled lawyer and a fascinating guy, but it was the same kind of thing. He was a racer, passion, enjoyed it. And other people, he got to know that the circuits and well, I have this problem or that problem in racing. And it’s just this kind of organic evolution. And I love that. Folks, this is obviously an audio podcast here and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Megan in Missoula at a corporate event earlier this year, but I am so struck by the joy and the passion that you see in her face when she talks about what has happened and her life.

And why I think that’s important, I like that you were taking risks and really wanted to go this way. But when I hear your story and interact, I’m trying to remember the name of that, there’s a Disney movie where a guy goes out and plays baseball. It’s a true story, Disney eyes, but he’s a high school coach down in Texas and he ends up trying out for the majors and makes it. But as he’s in the minors working up to the majors, he just talks about, “I can’t believe. Guess what I get to do today? I get to play baseball.” And I see that in you. It seems to me you very much enjoy what you’re doing and have found. The one thing I want to say folks is Megan took some risks, but they were so calculated and good risks to take because of the interest and the passion. And I just want you to hear, because I believe niche practices can be very, very successful. Not only financially, but in terms of the lifestyle, the wellness. Would you tend to agree with that, Megan?

MEGAN:

Yeah. I don’t even know so much that it’s a niche practice conclusion so much as it is doing something that really lights you up more than just the billable hour or the money in the bank. And that’s true for everyone, whether they’re an attorney or someone else. And even if your job doesn’t light you up, having hobbies outside of your job that light you up. I think it’s critical more than ever now these days, more than ever. And I’m a big fan of Dan Buettner’s work, the Blue Zones, and he talks about what some of the common factors are among people that live to the age of 100 and are in good health. And one of the big ones, in addition to healthy diet, daily movement, a community of people that you are close to, is having a sense of purpose.

And so we can all go to work and punch a paycheck, a pay clock, and work our nine to five or whatever, and that’s important. Sure, we need to pay for our homes and our meals and support our families.

MARK:

Absolutely.

MEGAN:

And I felt the calling to it needed to be more than that for me to be successful. In this profession, it needed to be really compelling and important to me. And in addition to serving these cyclists all these years it, I think, understandably grew into a desire to make cycling safer and really within a couple years getting that clarity that my ultimate goal is to put myself out of business. And if we’ve made cycling so safe that cyclists aren’t hit anymore and don’t need lawyers like me, that would be the biggest win and the biggest victory ever.

MARK:

Yes.

MEGAN:

And like you, a lot of people came to the bike or came back to the bike during COVID. We really saw this massive bike boom. Actually worked part-time at a bike shop in 2020 just to help one of our local shops out. And the lines of customers were around the block on both sides of the building.

MARK:

Wow.

MEGAN:

Couldn’t believe it.

MARK:

Yeah.

MEGAN:

And we had hoped that COVID was going to be the rebirth of cycling for the US and a re-appreciation for how it can be not just a tool for fitness and recreation, but for transportation. And it gave us a lot of hope. And instead, we’ve unfortunately seen a real change in motorist behavior and everyone is sensing it. There’s just an increase of rage and frenzy and anxiety. People are driving fast and reckless and maliciously and we’ve actually seen a huge uptick really since 2021 in this area, unfortunately.

MARK:

Yeah, that’s sad. It doesn’t surprise me. My wife and I were in Montana for many, many years and just within the past year we’ve moved down to central Florida and I still try to ride and I get out, but I will tell you… And I’ve talked to, we found a physician down here, a really nice guy, and he bikes a little bit, saying, “This is a very, very dangerous area to bike,” and for this very reason. The drivers are just crazy. And I see some folks out going, “They need to take a course from Megan because this is not where you want to ride.” Just, oh my gosh.

Well that’s, talk a little more about the evolution of your practice.

MEGAN:

Yeah.

MARK:

You have these two passions and there’s this organic kind of start. How did you though really finesse that to move from, this is an idea, this is a passion? And I think I know the answer based on some of the things you’ve just been sharing. But it’s one thing to have people say, “Can you help out a little bit and do all that?” and turn that in to a full-time practice where you can pay the bills and where you can… I assume you have some staff or others that you work with. Are you solo?

MEGAN:

Yep. Nope, I did have a team. I’m in the process of scaling down, but we did have a team. I was the only attorney, but support staff. Yes.

MARK:

Okay, so how do you get there?

MEGAN:

Well, whether you’re in a niche practice or a niche profession or not, one thing I quickly realized was you still want to be really intentional about who you’re serving. And early on in our startup, as anyone is in startup mode of any business, you take whatever comes in the door and you’re just thrilled that people want to hire you. And so you’re a bit of a basket case, you’re responding to everything and it’s, “Oh, you want me to jump? How high?” kind of mentality. And that’s fine for the first couple years. It’s not sustainable, but that’s part of any startup. And then at least for me, I started to get some clarity on, okay, yes, I want to represent cyclists. But within that group of people there’s a subset, there’s a specific type of case or a specific type of client that we really want to represent.

For example, I don’t find certain types of bike injury cases compelling because I’m so focused on changing motorist behavior that I tend to be less interested, let’s say in a cyclist on cyclist collision, on a bike path. That can still be very bad and still someone’s at fault, but that is less interesting to me because I’m really more concerned with how do we change the motoring public’s perception of cycling. Or if someone rides their bike into wet concrete in a construction zone for example. There’s definitely a claim there and someone probably made a mistake. I don’t find that interesting because again, I started to get clear on what are the bigger changes and impacts I wanted to have.

And even drilling down within that subset and saying, is there an opportunity here to mobilize the media for the greater good? Does this case lend itself to us going to the legislature and asking for some new laws on this particular topic or in this type of instance? Does this lend itself to us leveraging state or city financial resources to put in new infrastructure to prevent this type of thing happening again? And so just getting really clear on, yes, this particular client certainly deserves their compensation for this horrible thing that has happened to them, but can we make the impact broader than just that client?

And then all along the way, sort of taking stock of, okay, have I let myself now get so spun up and so caught up in the business frenzy that I’m no longer living the life that I want to live myself. And that’s easy to do too. I don’t care how passionate you are about the subject matter, you can take the entrepreneurial mindset and you can let it get totally out of hand and then it can consume you. And suddenly, you wake up and you say, “Whose life is this that I’m living?” I’m making more money than I ever thought I’d make. I’ve reached all my goals. This is exciting and amazing and oh my goodness, this is so exhilarating, and yet I’m not riding my bike suddenly. Or my health isn’t good, my sleep is breaking down, I’m not managing my own stress very well. What’s going on here? So I think it’s important to ask those questions too.

MARK:

And I agree. Wellness is a big issue for me in terms of what I do and what I’ve seen. So many people, attorneys and non attorneys alike, when we talk about malpractice, they want to know, “What are the big mistakes?” And those are important things to look at, but it’s not the right question. I’m more interested in why the mistakes occur. And that gets into wellness. There are so much of the malpractice and even the disciplinary issues that are out there have some, more often than not, have some impairment component.

MEGAN:

Yes.

MARK:

Whether it’s dementia, stress, burnout, addictions, all kinds of things. That’s why the clients might have got neglected. I struggle with depression and on and on, and all these different things. So how did you balance all that? Were there things, as you start to ask yourselves these questions, am I still living the dream or is this getting a little cloudy?

MEGAN:

Great question.

MARK:

What did you do? What was your response?

MEGAN:

There’s a couple prongs that I’d like to respond to in that. One is I noticed I was drinking too much. Nothing that affected my work, thankfully, but more than I wanted to be drinking myself. It certainly was affecting my ability to perform as an athlete. Even if you just go to social events and you have a couple glasses of wine, it totally makes your sleep garbage. And then you’re just a dull down version of yourself the next day. So just noticing that I was less sharp than I wanted to be, I was less of an athlete than I wanted to be. I just really realized, my goodness, I am diminishing my own capacity with this thing that is such a central pillar of this profession. Between lawyers and entrepreneurs, everything is alcohol centric it seems.

And just decided I wasn’t going to engage in that kryptonite for myself anymore because I live a pretty clean, healthy life otherwise. And especially with my focus on getting good sleep, which I do believe is the foundation for a good human existence and experience, here I am undermining even my own sleep with this socialization around alcohol.

So I quit drinking in the end of 2017, very much on purpose with those things in mind. And no surprise, 2018 was an exceptional year business wise, bottom line sword, I rode 10,000 miles on my bike that year.

MARK:

Wow.

MEGAN:

I competed in numerous big bike events, a lot of them on a single speed, 150, 200 mile gravel bike events. And everything went exceptionally well that year. And I thought, wow, this is what it’s like when I’m actually firing on all cylinders. This is really great. And I still don’t drink. And I preach the sort of alcohol free life. Not in a sense that I think alcohol is bad per se, or I’m not trying to be the fun police, I just do think it’s important for us to call into question why we are so socially accepting of something that is so damaging. And in this particular profession, that 2016 Betty Ford study, that’s been many years now already, that’s six years old, one in three lawyers is a problem drinker. That is terrifying. And yet, when I am at legal events, I have to tell you, I conclude the same thing in my observations.

MARK:

I absolutely agree. Yeah, it’s been my experience too in a lot of the things, you get involved around the country, the annual conventions, bar conventions and whatnot, you bet.

MEGAN:

You see it. So on that note, really where your question I think was going was how do you stay in alignment?

MARK:

Right.

MEGAN:

And for me, I personally, I’m not a psychologist, I am not a substance abuse professional or expert, but I personally believe that the reason our substance abuse is so high in this profession is because there’s a lot of things that we are not acknowledging and addressing as lawyers and as a profession that inherently drives people to numb out because it is so overwhelming and it is so hard to face. One thing I’ve really become keen on observing and noticing and learning more about is secondary trauma because I work in the personal injury space. We observe people’s trauma in these horrific situations. We don’t just cut them on the emergency table, stitch them up, and then go on to the next patient. We live with these clients and their stories for years and we have to convey it effectively as a storyteller at trial.

And so we take on, whether we mean to or not, a lot of that trauma ourselves, vicarious trauma, secondary trauma. And no one’s teaching us this and no one’s even telling us, here are the warning signs that you’re getting too much of that in your life, in your practice. So it does not surprise me that a lot of lawyers turn to substance to try and just numb out for a little bit.

And I’ll finish this thought by just by saying I pride myself as being someone who doesn’t really numb out, especially once I quit drinking. It was like I’d rather confront stuff head on and say, “What’s really going on here?” And as my practice unfolded into year seven, year eight, a lot of that trauma started to catch up with me. A couple cyclists that I knew very well were hit and killed, and I’m involved in their cases. And then that became really overwhelming. And I thought, “What’s wrong with me? Why are other lawyers seemingly managing this far better than I am?” And it really started to knock me down pretty hard core. I was planning to take sabbatical at the beginning of 2020, but that’s right when COVID started. It was supposed to be March of 2020. And I knew that I needed to punch out for a little bit because I could tell that things weren’t okay. That was before I knew about secondary trauma.

And what I’ve come to realize since, because I was hit by a car this June 5th and very badly injured, was in a wheelchair and relegated to a walker, there were no walks, there were no bike rides, there were no yoga classes, there was no van adventuring, all the things that I really love to do that light me up worked, it’s full stop. And I realized in part that those things are a bit of a numbing behavior for me. That is kind of how I escape the stresses of this work.

And so when you strip all those numbing agents away and you really are forced to confront the discomfort. What I’ve concluded is most of us will go to great lengths to avoid that. It’s very uncomfortable. We will look to anything else, whether it’s shopping or what have you, as a distraction. And so my advice for lawyers would be to start honoring those nudges because there is something in us that knows when something’s not right. And if you’re tempted to say, “Oh my God, I really need some wine, I’ve had a horrible day,” or “I can’t wait to take the edge off” or what have you, you can still go do that if you feel called to that. But first, ask the question why, what’s going on inside me that’s got me stolen knots, and pay attention to that.

MARK:

Yeah, yeah. Well said. And I absolutely agree. You had talked too a bit about getting involved in education and trying to do some things to change laws. And I believe there’s been some charity work you’ve been involved at too. Was that intentional, in terms of even if just an organic involvement? I’m not sure else to describe it, but it was that part of the growth of the practice process? Was that part of just a desire to give back? Was that part of trying to keep things, and I really don’t like the word balance, but to try to maintain sense of purpose and well-being? How did all that come about?

MEGAN:

Sure. Early on, when I started my practice and started to realize some success, it’s incredibly exhilarating to make great money. We’re not going to candy coat that. That’s why we went to law school, most of us. We’d like to live the lawyer lifestyle. And when you start cashing in on big cases, that’s incredibly exhilarating and affirming and it’s quite a rush. And for me, that was really great for a few years of just saying, “Wow, this is cool.” This has this capacity and I got really involved in real estate and I’m super passionate about real estate stuff. That didn’t last very long for me. Yes, you still need to earn money and pay the bills for sure. But then I started to say, well I’ve now had 20 or 30 or 40 clients hit in bike lanes. What the hell’s the point of having a bike lane if we’re not going to offer any legal protection for people in bike lanes as one example.

And that really climaxed when I got hit myself in a bike lane in 2019 and I thought, well we’ve gone to all the trouble to put this on the road and paint the lane and paint it white. And yet, I still got hit here in broad daylight. We need some legal protection. So that prompted myself to partner with one of our legislators to write a bike lane bill here in Colorado, which says that motorists must yield to cyclists in bike lanes. So duh, but the law didn’t exist before that. Similarly, with some of my other clients, just starting to observe, we’re not being treated fairly by the district attorneys. There’s no real prosecution happening of these drivers. No one’s losing a driver’s license, no one’s getting any real punishment, there’s no lesson being learned. These drivers aren’t suffering whatsoever for the carnage that they’re leaving in their wake.

And so started getting more and more involved in the criminal and the traffic cases of my clients, even though that’s not part of my civil representation, that I’m not being paid for that part. But as far as the greater good, if there’s no prosecution of drivers who harm cyclists, what are we doing here? For me to just move money from insurance companies into client’s pockets, yes, that’s part of the process, but it needed to be more than that for me.

So started to get involved in educating law enforcement, teaching them what the rules say. Whether they agree with it or not, this is what our legislature has decided. And taking that into teaching bike shops and bike teams what their obligations are so that we can be following the laws as cyclists, talk to several driving schools to teach driving instructors what the laws require as they’re teaching our youth how to drive, trying to approach it from all angles of let’s make safer cyclists, let’s make safer motorists, let’s make safer roads. And the truth is that there’s advocacy organizations whose entire purpose in all day, every day is focused on lobbying and getting money for the infrastructure in our cities. And so that’s the lane that they swim in. I don’t need to be in that lane. That’s what they do. So I decided to focus on the legal side of things and either writing the laws or dealing with the punishment in the criminal cases because that’s of course more uniquely suited to my skillset.

MARK:

Well, as a guy out there on the road at times and enjoying as a fellow cyclist, nowhere near your level, but there’s just something about riding.

MEGAN:

Amen.

MARK:

It’s a quiet place. And when you’re out, really just riding. Around here, I’m still learning and I’m going to have to get a bike rack till some other trails get built. What’s coming is going to be awesome, but we’re a few years away yet.

MEGAN:

Gotcha.

MARK:

But also thank you for the work that you do. I’ve always said to even our kids, we can’t necessarily change the world, but boy, we can do something in our little corner of it. And if enough of us work on our little corner of it, we can accomplish some great things at a larger level.

MEGAN:

That’s exactly right.

MARK:

So that’s awesome. Well, you had talked a little bit about slowing down a bit. May I ask, what’s next? Where are you going?

MEGAN:

Yeah, great question. I remain open to what the universe directs me towards. It’s really cool how just being open, it does open doors to things. I think it’s really fun too to just say, why not be curious? Rather than immediately disregard things that seem impractical, why not just see what comes in and what I can call in for myself. I just got off the phone a few minutes ago with a lawyer out on the East Coast that wants to hire me as a bike expert in his case. And I love doing that work, helping other lawyers improve their case for the cyclists that they represent. And adding my unique expertise as an expert for them has been great.

So I’m doing some of that work. And I’m also coaching other lawyers, specifically those who have formed their own firms, to really help them try to get clarity on what their ideal life and how they want this to look and how they want this firm to serve them in the hopes that I can help them avoid some of the pitfalls that I’ve mentioned for myself, where we get so spun up in it, we kind of forget why we started. So I’m coaching a handful of lawyers and I really enjoy that.

And as you mentioned, I got to speak at the event for you guys in July. I really enjoy doing keynote speaking and those things seem to pop up once or twice a quarter and that’s really fun. I do still have my current caseload that I am still in the process of finishing up, and whether I fully withdraw or retreat or not is not clear to me just yet. But I have felt really called here in the front range of Colorado, just the summer specifically, to take on a few cases pro bono, some really heinous hit and run cases.

MARK:

Oh my gosh.

MEGAN:

Two very serious injury cases and one a death case where we have drivers hitting cyclists and leaving the scene, which is just so appalling. I can’t even conceive of that. And unfortunately, does often involve impairment of these drivers. So they’re not in their right minds, but that’s not an excuse. So trying to help those families through the process has been really rewarding for me as I’ve been recovering from my own collision.

MARK:

And is cycling still in your future? You’re going to come back and get back on the bike and keep going?

MEGAN:

Absolutely. Yeah. You probably have to cut my bikes up into little tiny pieces to keep me off of them. One of my favorite things in life is to bike commute. I’ve really designed a life for myself here in Golden, which is a little subset of Denver. It’s a little kind of small town feel, home of Coors and the School of Mines. It’s a great place to live if you want to ride your bike everywhere. And so I really, within a 10 mile radius, can do basically everything that I need to do in my life. And that’s been one of the things I’ve missed the most from this collision and these injuries. And I don’t know what that looks like going forward because commuting does involve quite a bit of being on the road. I’ve grown to just love my e-bike for commuting. My car sits in the garage.

Like you mentioned, being on the bike is just such a special time. And then to be able to pair that with a trip that you need to make anyway is just so fulfilling for me. Right now, I am cleared to do a little bit of e-bike rehab. So I’ve just been doing that on the bike paths, just to keep the knee continuing to come back full strength.

MARK:

Good.

MEGAN:

And that’s great for me right now because there’s no cars and I can enjoy that. But the truth is that bike paths don’t usually get us most places that we need to go and want to go. So it’s more of a joy ride.

MARK:

Yeah, I get that. Well, I really appreciate your taking a little time out of your day to visit with us. I will give you a chance, if you have any additional final thought in terms of wisdom you’d like to pass along, you want to share any information about your book, contact info. Whatever you feel comfortable sharing, you’ve got the last word.

MEGAN:

Okay, cool. Well, my Instagram is where I put out most of my content. And so if people are interested in following along, my Instagram handle is, @cyclist_lawyer, or my website is meganhottman.com. Megan, M-E-G-A-N, Hottman, H-O-T-T-M-A-N.com. Those are great places to find me and contact me if something I’ve said is calling to you.

As far as words of wisdom, I think I would say yes, we go to law school to be lawyers. That’s usually the outcome, that’s the objective. But if someone in this profession feels that it’s no longer serving them, I would encourage them to give themselves permission to say it’s totally okay to pivot. And everything that we learn in law school and everything that we learn in this profession is so beneficial in so many other lines of work.

We’ve really moved past being a population that picks the one thing and sticks with it for 50 years and then retires. We’re really not that anymore. And I don’t think lawyers need to expect that’s the way either. So if you’re sensing that something’s not right and it’s getting louder and louder, I think what I would also say is that the universe will get your attention. And if you choose not to listen, usually the outcome can be quite drastic. And so it’s important to listen to those nudges when they’re the size of little pebbles or little rocks before they grow into boulders and meteors. There’s something in you that’s trying to get your attention and it typically doesn’t go away until you acknowledge it and face it full on.

MARK:

And you’re a perfect example of the success that can come in so many ways, choosing to listen to your life. And that’s how I have said it over the years. But that’s wonderful. Well, I wish you all the best in your recovery and whatever the coming chapters in your life hold. I look forward to hearing in future how this all evolves.

MEGAN:

I can’t wait to find out too.

MARK:

I get that. All right. Well folks, thank you for listening. I hope you found something of value and I encourage you to check out Megan on Instagram or her website. There’s just a lot of really good information on her website, I’ll tell you that too, as a risk guy. So that’s it, thanks for listening. Megan, it’s been a pleasure.

MEGAN:

Same with you. Thank you.

MARK:

Bye all.

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Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 550 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.