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« Two Attorneys Sharing One Job - A Work Life Balance Solution for Law Firms? | Main | Wall Street Journal Explores Retention Problems at Large Law Firms »

Interview: Patrick Della Valle: Leveraging Employment Law Expertise Into An Internet Business

Patrick Della Valle started off his legal career practicing management-side employment law at major law firms; he worked at Kelley Drye & Warren, Mudge Rose Guthrie Alexander & Ferdon, and Hughes, Hubbard & Reed. While at Mudge Rose, Patrick assisted partner and former Federal District Court Judge Kenneth Conboy in his capacity as the Election Appeals Master for the 1996 Teamster's national elections. Della Valle also assisted editors in revising the leading labor law treatise, the American Bar Association's Developing Labor Law, and the leading employment law treatise, Schlei and Grossman's Employment Discrimination.

After 10 years practicing employment litigation, Della Valle began to feel disenchanted with the law. In his own words, "I couldn’t look back on anything that I had created." He also felt that law wasn't providing the kind of risk-taking and creative environment he sought.

Intrigued by the Internet, Della Valle took a nine-month course in web programming and then used his training to build an Internet portal that would connect employment lawyers, in-house employment counsel and human resource professionals. The site was dubbed ELIN, the Employment Law Information Network.

At this stage, in a typical month, ELIN has 60,000 to 70,000 unique visitors and more than 170,000 page views. Della Valle attributes alot of the traffic to the site's high ranking in search engines such as Google for phrases like "employment law."

Della Valle has no regrets about leaving law: "With my own business I can be creative, take risks, and see long-term projects through to completion. It’s very positive and affirmative to build and control something myself.."

Read our interview with Della Valle below.

JD Bliss (JDB):  After a decade of labor and employment practice, you left the law to start an online labor and employment law web site that links human resource professionals with law firms.  Can you describe what initially led you to pursue a legal career?

Della Valle:  I got my undergraduate degree from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and decided to pursue law school because I felt my training would give me an advantage in employment law – plus, I sometimes joke that because I always argued with everyone as a kid I was naturally inclined to be a lawyer.  After I got my JD from New York University in 1990 I practiced in employment litigation at several major New York firms.  I was asked to join a group of employment partners from my first firm out of law school when they left to start a new department at another firm.  That firm, unfortunately, disbanded, but I was able to secure a third associate position at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed.   

JDB:  What did you like and dislike about the big firm environment?

Della Valle:  While I don’t think it’s true for most practice areas, as an employment lawyer, I did get excellent hands-on experience as a young lawyer, getting involved very early in things like depositions.  The training, including the opportunity to work with lawyers who are at the top of their profession, was helpful.  I represented major employers like Union Carbide and Pitney Bowes, and helped with major matters like the 1996 Teamsters national elections.  The worst thing, in my opinion, was the pressure for absolute perfection in big firm litigation, with no leeway for any mistakes.  There was also no room for the kind of risk-taking or creative approaches that were important to me.  Add the pressure for business development, and I definitely felt that practicing in a large firm was a mixed opportunity at best.

JDB:  What led to your decision ultimately to move in the direction of starting your own business?

Della Valle:  When I got to Hughes Hubbard as a sixth year associate it was soon apparent to me that I had no real chance of advancing to partner, so I was ready for a change.  The opportunity for that came when my wife and I decided to relocate to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  She is Vice President of Store Operations for a major retailer that has a large distribution center in Wilkes-Barre.  I didn’t leave practice right away – in fact, I spent three years with a small firm in Scranton, defending employers in discrimination and other employment controversies.  But I remained dissatisfied with what I was doing and ultimately realized that my dissatisfaction was not with the firm but with the practice of law itself.  I felt I had become a successful litigator, but couldn’t look back on anything that I had created.  It was in 2000 that I decided to move in a new direction.

JDB:  That direction kept you involved with employment law, but with an entirely different focus that emphasized technology.  Why and how did you make the leap from lawyer to web entrepreneur?

Della Valle:  A lot of different factors converged to take me in that direction.   I had a strong interest in computers, and the Internet opened up all kinds of new opportunities for people with specialized knowledge.  Portal sites were the main players at that time and I knew that many law firms, such as the ones where I had practiced, were attempting to market their capabilities by producing and putting on their web sites a lot of quality articles, client updates and other information that related to employment law, but there was no organized way to access that information.  It seemed to me that there would be a real opportunity for the first person to gather all this information in one place and make it available to HR professionals who needed legal assistance.  So I took a nine-month course in web programming to learn HTML and other web skills, and applied my training to open an Internet portal that would connect employment lawyers, in-house employment counsel and human resource professionals.  I went live with ELIN, the Employment Law Information Network (www.elinfonet.com) in May of 2001. 

JDB:  What did the site startup involve in terms of financing, technical support and marketing?

Della Valle:  I kept everything low cost.  I rented space on a shared server to host the site, and used open source programming to set it up.   I did all the site design, programming and maintenance myself.  Back then, the cost to physically run the site was about $25 a month.  I did some direct marketing, calling up law firms directly and developing flyers that I distributed at employment law seminars in the Philadelphia area.  However, by this time Google was coming into its own and I knew that because ELIN focused on a single topic we were much more likely to get high search engine rankings.  So my primary means of developing an audience for the site was to maximize our search engine positioning. 

JDB:  Did you have a formal business plan for using the site to generate revenue?

Della Valle:  When I first started, my goal was to generate most of my revenue by selling advertising.  That certainly became less possible in the wake of the dot.com crash, although Google has now revived that opportunity with their AdSense program, which allows qualified sites to run targeted ads.  My primary revenue source, though, is law firms that pay to have their employment law materials linked to the site, based on the amount of visitor traffic that we generate.  That traffic is almost exclusively corporate HR professionals, in-house counsel, business owners and managers.  We’re the most highly ranked employment law portal on the web.  My pitch to the firms is that they are spending a tremendous amount of money, directly and indirectly, to add employment law content to their sites, and that we can help them leverage that expense by direct focus on their target market.  If you’re spending thousands of dollars maintaining your web site and writing articles, shouldn’t you spend a bit more money to target a broader audience for that information?

JDB:  What is the current volume on your site?

Della Valle:  When Google really took off in 2003 we had a big upsurge in visitors, and have remained pretty steady since then.  In a typical month ELIN has 60,000 to 70,000 unique visitors and more than 170,000 page views.

JDB:  With that kind of volume, what does your own time commitment to the site involve?

Della Valle:  Although I do have some access to technical and marketing support if I need it, I primarily do everything myself, and ELIN is definitely my full-time job.  I dedicate about 40% of my time to keeping the site content up to date.  The rest of my time focuses on administrative tasks like maintaining search engine positioning and developing other linking opportunities.

JDB:  How does your satisfaction at being an entrepreneur compare to what you felt as a lawyer?

Della Valle:  They’re worlds apart, with the advantages all on the entrepreneurial side.  With my own business I can be creative, take risks, and see long-term projects through to completion.  It’s very positive and affirmative to build and control something myself.  Employment litigation was quite the opposite for me – while I was solving problems for clients, it always seemed that they were problems the clients wished they didn’t have.  Looking back, I now realize that I just didn’t have the desire to be a litigator.  I wanted to be in a position where I was creating something.

JDB:  You’ve obviously found satisfaction running your own business.  Is this path something you would recommend to other attorneys who may be dissatisfied in their practices?

Della Valle:  It is, but you have to be smart about making a change.  Not every entrepreneurial venture will work, so you have to make sure you can do without a lawyer’s salary even if your startup costs aren’t substantial.  There are no guarantees, but the best chance for success is to combine what you enjoy with what you’re skilled at.  In my case that was the combination of my interest in computers with more than a decade of employment litigation experience.  Everything came together the right way, but a lot of time and preparation was necessary to make it happen.

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