What is the point of life if you don’t fight hard for what you get? That’s been Ralph Strzalkowski’s philosophy since childhood and has guided him through many challenges he’s faced in business and his personal life.
We talk about growing up behind the Iron Curtain, how he came to the U.S. (it wasn’t a smooth process), and why he became a lawyer… an unusual lawyer at that who is unlike any you’ve probably ever met before.
Listen in to find out…
Why legal work should be a collaborative process
The attitude most attorneys are missing
The key to flexible problem solving
How to get the most out of your relationship with your lawyer
Jay Sparks: Hi, this is Jay Sparks, your host of Finding Unique Value, where I am the bringer of brilliant people that can find that unique value. I’m excited today to talk to Ralph Strzalkowski, who is a fascinating story. Most people are, asset managers like us, we’re looking to find value. Ralph is the value. We’ll get to this hopefully later on, but he was born into a situation where he was not expected to be anything or do anything. He was expected to live his life as essentially a ward of the state, being paid to do nothing. Some people would find that a dream situation. Not Ralph. Ralph rejected that idea and found a very unique way to provide value and leverage his intellect and also helped many people that couldn’t help themselves along the way.
With that, Ralph, welcome to the podcast.
Ralph S.: Thank you so much for having me. Yes, what a wonderful introduction.
Jay Sparks: You know what? I hope we can get to all the details throughout this. There really is a … is amazing and the more I get to know you, Ralph, the more incredible the story becomes. Could you just take a minute and just introduce yourself in your own words and tell us what you’re doing now?
Ralph S.: Sure. Why don’t we start by saying that in full disclosure, I’ve known you for what now? About three years or something like that? In many ways, it feels much longer, but then three years feels like a really long time. I was thinking about it yesterday and I thought to myself, “Wow, we’ve known each other since 2016, and it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. It feels like we just got started, but on a level that we’ve been talking and interacting, and getting to know each other, it also feels much longer.
Let me just introduce myself briefly. Well, where do I start because there’s so many different aspects to who I am. Why don’t I start with, first and foremost, I’m a lawyer. I’m licensed in D.C. and your state recently, Massachusetts, as of three or four days ago. What your introduction was really about is that I was born with cerebral palsy behind the Iron Curtain. I was born in Warsaw, Poland. I grew up in the ’80s, right in the middle of Communism. All these stories about people waiting lines for meat and food and stores being empty and trying to get toilet paper that you hear on TV, which is very current and relevant today, in respect to other countries. That was my family’s experience for years, so years ago.
Basically, what is my story-
Jay Sparks: Just back-up just one second. When you were born with cerebral palsy, was that immediately apparent or is that something that they figured out later and were they able to take care of you properly right away if it wasn’t diagnosed correctly?
Ralph S.: Well, when I was first born, I was born prematurely. I want to say seven and a half months or something like that. I mean, don’t quote me on that because I was there, but I don’t really remember. What had happened was, when I was born, I was so small and so weak they put me on incubator. From what my mom told me, and they only told me this recently, I didn’t even know this. They were telling my parents I’m not supposed to make it. They were saying, “Hey, we’re going to take a look.” The first 24 hours, the first 36 hours, then the 36 hours became the 48 hours. They were not sure if I was going to make it. I think I was told-
Jay Sparks: Excuse me for interrupting. Was that because you were so premature? I know your lung development, they couldn’t take care of that.
Ralph S.: I was small and I was weak. At that time, it was 1979. That was a long time ago. I’m going to be turning 40 this July. Can you imagine? I mean, that’s some respectful age. Back then, what they were working with was not they are working with today. Today, the likelihood of CPs kids is much greater than it was back in the day.
They just didn’t know, and they were telling my parents to just be ready for anything. My mom was telling me how my aunt was putting a ceremony together. They wanted to have my baptism just in case I didn’t make it. Back then, getting food, getting the resources, putting something like that together was quite a challenge because it’s not as if you can just easily go to the store and buy anything you wanted back home.
My family was hustling to put something together just to be ready. Then, I made it. It seemed like. I started to grow and gain weight, and everything seemed to be doing okay. Then, when I was a couple of months old, I think I was about one and my mom started to notice because the mother always knows when there’s something wrong. She started to notice that I’m missing some of these marks, if you will, that a child when they grow, you expect them to hit. I was not sitting properly. I was leaning against the wall. My mom would go to the doctors and they would say, “Oh, no. You’re just imagining things. You’re crazy,” essentially for thinking that something is wrong.
Then, the diagnosis came in and they say, “Yeah, this is cerebral palsy.” All of a sudden, my parents and my mom and my dad, I think they were 28, 29 at the time. I was my parents’ second child. I was thinking about this recently what it must have been like for them to be hit with this diagnosis, because you don’t know anything. You don’t have any background in medicine. This is something that changes your entire life. This is your life from now on. Everything has to change.
I don’t know what I would have done if it was me. I have always been very impressed by everything that my parents have sacrificed and done, for me, for that reason because it takes a lot.
Jay Sparks: Sure. Sure.
Ralph S.: Especially in a country where you grew up in a country that is not really built with people with disabilities in mind. It was a country … The propaganda of success didn’t really have a place for people that had mobility issues or any kind of disabilities altogether. They were hidden from public view. I was expected-
Jay Sparks: Now, if I can interrupt you just a second. As you moved along this and grew, did it immediately impact your ability to move around or does that happen later? For instance, were you able to play with the other children or is that immediately an issue right from day one?
Ralph S.: Ever since I could remember, our entire apartment was basically taken over by all my rehabilitation equipment. There was a mattress in the living room. It always about exercising me every single day. My mom ended up having to quit her job. When she was pregnant, she was expected to go back. She was an accountant, but she quit her job so she can exercise me every single day and that’s part of the reason why I am so mobile and so capable and independent. My parents put all that work into me.
Yeah, but basically, our entire … We had a small apartment. It was a three-room apartment which is as much as you can get in Poland back in the day, basically. Three rooms and a kitchen and a bathroom, can you imagine? Every basically, every single space that my parents could convert into was something serving a double purpose. Something was … you used it for hanging your clothes, but it also was some rehabilitation gadget that I would use for walking or grabbing or leaning or stuff like that. It was definitely interesting. Then, my parents were-
Jay Sparks: Yeah, but did you resent having to do all these extra exercise ’cause of course your older brother wasn’t doing them? Was it tough or was it just something you didn’t even think of, you just did because your parents expected you to do the exercises?
Ralph S.: It is something I just did and it was normal. Also, I did resent it in a sense because it felt like it was never enough. I know, I guess my dad just wanted to push me to do more and do it all the time because he felt the idea of the pressure of time because the older that I got, it will be more difficult for me to do things unless I got to a certain level of mobility before then. Then, when you grow, your body just kind of less plastic so that there’s less you can do.
My dad was pushing me hard. It was always, he felt I didn’t have enough ambition to do it. It was something that … I didn’t even realize until recently how much of a stressor it has been for me when I was a kid. You kind of accepted as part of your childhood and try to have as much as a normal childhood as possible.
Also, growing up generally, I mean, when you’re in a country that doesn’t really elevators and there’s stairs everywhere and you’re not really expected to go to a normal school. My parents were carrying me up two floors every day all through elementary school. The cost was great for them I mean they all ended up having a really bad backs. As I grew heavier, you’re faced with this idea that you don’t know even if you’re going to be able to finish. How is anybody going to be able to carry you when you grow and you’re heavier? Back then, I guess you don’t really realize that there are other solutions if there is a problem of solving things. You don’t see in that moment, but you see your parents getting weaker and you see yourself getting bigger and heavier and that’s depressing.
Jay Sparks: Yeah, true.
Ralph S.: It’s something that I don’t think any 12-year-old should be 11, 12, 13, 14 should be thinking about, but that was my life.
Jay Sparks: Can I ask you also can I ask you one more question about that because this will tie into something that you’re working on right now I think that we don’t have to talk about that yet. As a 12-year-old, did you have any role models or any way to get information like what does a person who has cerebral palsy do or expect? Did you have any other role models besides obviously your parents were very influential and-
Ralph S.: My parents were essentially trailblazers back home. Nobody had ever done it with kids with cerebral palsy or any other disability because these types of kids like me and others were expected to be in special schools. By special schools I mean, low quality education with different types of disabilities lumped together because they’re not really expected to do anything. Maybe some manual labor of low intensity.
The idea was for me not really do anything to accomplish anything and maybe just be productive on some level. If I have to. But mostly I was expected to either end up in an institution or stay home and just collect whatever checks the government would send me in their great wisdom. My parents were the ones who attempted to take me out of that school system.
At first, I was going to a normal school unofficially. It was an agreement that we had with the teacher that I would just go every day, and nobody really knew. Officially, I was homeschooled for eight years. I don’t think I’ve ever had a single day of a homeschool because my parents just wouldn’t allow it. I also wanted to say that my parents are really very invested in investigating every single new method that they heard about.
For the four years of my life, I don’t know if you know about this, I lived on and off in Hungary because they had this Institute in Budapest so I will spend six or eight months out of the year over there just getting intensive rehabilitation. That was the interesting part of my life at the time because on many levels I felt limited because I couldn’t do what my friends at school did. They were running, they were meeting up, they were doing other things, but at the same time, I had an interesting life in a sense because I lived in a foreign country for a bit which none of the kids my age at the time would experience. That was really interesting.
Jay Sparks: Surprising you say that because I don’t know I think most people would not experience that is interesting because it wasn’t glamorous it wasn’t fun. Going there to essentially be worked out. To do the exercises and to make sure maintain to help increase your mobility. It wasn’t like a vacation of any sorts.
Ralph S.: I think this is part of my attitude in life going forward and I think because we’ve known each other. I like doing things that other people are not doing. When you say, “Hey I have this idea,” I will most likely say, “Put me in it,” because I want to try. Experiencing new things and I like to travel meeting new people. I mean don’t really remember much of the Institute itself. I remember everything around it. I remember being in that rented apartment with my parents, going to the movies when I was seven or eight. I remember seeing Roger Rabbit in Hungary. My parents didn’t speak the language, so I had to translate it to my mom. Stuff like that because English of course is not my first language, but it’s not even my second language. It’s like my third and fourth.
Jay Sparks: Unbelievable.
Ralph S.: Well, I don’t speak these other languages really except for Polish because I use it daily. Hungarian was my second language and I learned it when I was six. For that reason. Then in school my first foreign language that I studied was German. I learned English by watching TV like the American and British shows. With my mom, I would watch Bewitched every day and Facts of Life and stuff like that, Different Strokes. This is how I learned English, but also this is how I experienced American culture. This is what America was to me. All my cultural references in my understanding as they were forming actually comes from ’80s TV sitcoms thing or like the ’60s or ’50s even.
Jay Sparks: I don’t recall in the ’80s any famous TV lawyer, so how did you get involved in law? Unless you like looking at Perry Mason, who would be interesting because he was in a wheelchair, Ironside. How did you make the jump to law other than typically the smartest people tend to gravitate towards that? Was that the case for you? I assume you were a very good student.
Ralph S.: I was really a good student. I would have to say is especially, because the educational system in Poland was a little different than it is in America. It’s different than what it is now. Back then the elementary school was eighth grade and then you would go to high school which was four. Through eight grades, I was always the top student. I would always get every year you will get the grade diploma thingy and the top students would always get the red stripe. I would always get the red stripe or be really upset if I didn’t get it.
Jay Sparks: How did the other students react to you getting the red stripe because of course, you weren’t the typical valedictorian. In some ways at least. Were they proud of you and happy for you?
Ralph S.: My mother will not let me live this story down, but it’s true. It did happen. There were situations in which other students would complain to the head teacher of our class that I would finish the projects first and raise my hand that I’m done because it would create extra pressure on them to work harder.
Jay Sparks: Of course, right. You did that on purpose. You’re smart just to make them feel foolish right? It wasn’t because you wanted to learn.
Ralph S.: That did happen. The interesting thing about me, my thing was always, I would excel in things like writing and Polish and literature. While my brother is more math, physics, science. I have an older brother. He’s seven years older than I, but we never really competed directly in that sense because we had completely different interest. He’s a software designer.
When you’re asking me how that the idea of law came about, it’s because I always knew I was going to be a writer or journalist or translator. Although I think my parents wanted me to be a translator at one point. That didn’t happen. I think when I was seven and I was in Hungary, I actually met a Polish/Hungarian translator and she was showing me her book. This is something that I remember for years later. She was showing us just a printout or typed version of a book translation and I thought it was most amazing thing. She took something in one form, in one language and she turned it into something else it’s really amazing.
I always knew that I would want to do something that has to do with word. With writing or speaking or expressing yourself in that way. Never really had any other interests. I mean I know a bit about computers and coding because I have a brother who does that. It was never my passion and I was always horrible at it. He would get me for not … ’cause I’m really messy. I don’t really have the discipline … When you look at my code and I code something, it’s all over the place. I’m not watching myself. I will type everything in a single line. Because I don’t really think about the, okay I need to have some organization and separate it out. That’s not where my instinct is.
I like all these things that have to do with speaking and writing. The law was not really originally an idea. It was something that I realized that I can do to make an impact and I can compete with other people and be equal with them in that sense. What is it that I can do? That I can successful at and make an impact and speaks to my strength?
Jay Sparks: Sounds very much like our investment process. We’re looking for a great opportunity, but we don’t want to take a lot of risk. You knew you were good at this. You were always told you were good at these things and you obviously liked it, so it wasn’t like you had to try to force yourself. I think if you’re good at something, it makes you want to do it more anyways. I think that comes after in many cases.
Ralph S.: Exactly. But you also need to remember or now, I should say, that back home, the legal profession was dominated by children of other lawyers. There’s a very closed profession that we didn’t really have any connections. There were a couple of steps I needed to take before I got there. I guess that’s what I’m saying. Back home, University education is free for those who pass the entry exam, but you need to beat out 10 or 13 other people for spot. Before we were even talking about me becoming a lawyer, I had to get educated as a lawyer at the top university in my country.
At the time it felt like a pipe dream. I took courses in high school. I did a weekend school when we had … They were re-educating me on my history, politics, and current events because unlike in America, where you take that LSAT exam, that doesn’t really test you on anything practical and it’s a closed universe. Back home, in order to be a lawyer you need to be a well-rounded person first. You’re taking a test about all these things that a person should know. It’s basically about history, and government, and politics, some culture, some geography, and is very competitive. It took a lot of work to even get through the doors that’s what I’m saying.
Jay Sparks: Sure. Sure.
Ralph S.: And you do have some kind of a bit of imposter syndrome because you’re there and you’re first getting started and you don’t know, do I really deserve it? Can I prove myself that I’m worthy of this? You do it for five years and it turns out that you’re pretty good at it and you get good grades every year and you get the scholarship because I was getting paid to go to school. Not only is it free, but if you have the top grades, you’re over a certain GPA, you’re actually paid to go to school at the university level.
Jay Sparks: That’s awesome. You were able to qualify for that then, with your grades?
Ralph S.: Yeah, for four out of five years or something like that. Then, we started doing more and more things. I took the Cambridge course in European and English law which was a night school. There were years that at the university, I was at school for 12 hours out of the day. This is something that go on for 5:00 to 8:00 every night. Then, I think on my third or fourth year, I signed up for the American Legal Center, which is a program that the University of Florida did in Warsaw.
They were participating in this mock court thing in Washington, D.C. and I think it was 2001. I qualified for the post national team. They sent us over to Washington and I have never done anything like this. I really wanted to be in independent and I really wanted to go by myself because up until that point, I’ve never lived by myself. I’ve never done anything by myself because you have your family take you everywhere. Probably, wanted to prove that I could do it, but my parents insisted that I take my brother. I’m glad that he went.
We competed against all these teams from all around the world. I think it was over 100 teams. I’m not sure how many of them actually made it to D.C., but it was a big, bib competition. I think at the time, we ended up ranking 12th internationally so we made it off to the run-off rounds with the top 16. I think we were the highest ranked Polish team ever. I think what really contributed to this is we had no idea how big this thing was. The stress wasn’t really … I mean there was some stress, but we didn’t really feel the gravity and the scale of this thing. We went and we did great and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
This thing empowered me so much that a month later, I was going to Budapest again. 15-20 years later after I left it as a kid, to present a paper that I wrote for a conference. And I thought to myself, “Wow. This is really cool. This is something I can really do.” But the reason I bring up the American experience from many years ago so much is because that was the moment that I realized that I can function by myself, and I can be independent and maybe coming to America, America could be the place where I go, and I can be successful and I can do something.
Jay Sparks: Did you feel you couldn’t be successful in Poland or was it that you felt you had more opportunity in America?
Ralph S.: Yes. That is correct and I will tell you one story. I remember it was my fourth or fifth year in law school and you know when you’re in law school and you have all these years to go because it’s a long program. It’s a five-year master’s program to law school in Poland. You think that things will work out somehow. You don’t have to worry about them right now when you get started and you think that the life will come up with solutions when you need them. There’s no reason … You shouldn’t worry about it. Don’t let it ruin the five-year experience, but the sooner that you get to the finish line and you realize that the world is not changing around you, it becomes a problem. I mean, I was lucky enough that when I was in law school, they just built a new very accessible law department and the new library, so it was a new building with ramps everywhere.
Even then I still had classes that were up on the second floor without an elevator or my professors had their offices and their office hours, up the stairs and I couldn’t get to. When we were doing our mandatory practice training for a month, which was by the way, the most boring month of my life when I was sitting at the courthouse just licking envelopes for a month.
We had a hard time finding a court that I could get to. The big court in Warsaw, the Warsaw Courthouse, it had those big stairs and the elevator’s nowhere, maybe there is an elevator somewhere. A common practice and the commoners building, even with buildings that had elevators they had some steps leading up to the area that you can get the elevator from. How do we find a courtroom that I can actually go to and how can I work if I can get anywhere? The transit system is not wheelchair assessable. Although that started to change at that point. They started to employ more and more buses that lower themselves or have ramps. Although the drivers wouldn’t pull the ramp out for me most of the time, so that was always … I had to on the few times that I had to use the bus, I had to ask people on the side to pull me in or stuff like that.
How do I get to the courthouse? How do I get my clients? How do I get around? It was something that was taxing on your mind daily. How can you have a life if you can’t … It’s not that you’re not able to do something based on your ability and the power of your mind, it’s that the reality is not there for you to support you.
Jay Sparks: You could have relied on the government kind of throw your hands up and say, “Okay,” and take whatever they give you, but you didn’t so what kept you moving forward thinking you would find a solution whether it was there or somewhere else?
Ralph S.: What is the point of life … What am I doing if you don’t fight hard for what you get? If you don’t really work for what you’re getting? That’s been the philosophy of my life all through my life. I only want to get what I deserve, what I worked on. I work hard on everything that I do.
We’ve known each other so you know how I am with my clients. Sometimes you go through sleepless nights or irritation or clients that don’t really appreciate you, but you get this sense that you’ve accomplished something. You worked on it, you built it, and you made it. I don’t know what the purpose of life would’ve been if somebody would have given me something that I didn’t feel that I deserved. It’s just not in my character. I mean I think that’s fine. You work hard and don’t get me wrong, I worked really hard and I think a lot of times I’m not really paid what I should be paid for something. That’s a separate issue, but that’s my choice.
What I really didn’t like is that my choices in life were being made for me. It had nothing to do with how hard I work and what my goals are and what my drive is. You can call it the American dream. I wanted my American dream. I wanted to go from the shoeshine person to some degree of success. I wanted it to happen because I made it happen because I worked hard, and I did all the right things. It’s not even about shortcuts in life. Everybody takes shortcuts sometimes if it’s okay. So it’s not like, “Oh, I need to go every single level,” but we all I think, you want to have that feeling at the end of the day that you worked hard and you have a good feeling that you’ve done something good and you made money and that’s the reflection of the hard work that you put in. Does that make sense?
Jay Sparks: Yeah, I know, it makes perfect sense and I can see why you would be attracted to the United States. Most of us that were born here don’t realize that there’s other situations around the world where hard work is not necessarily rewarded.
Ralph S.: Here’s the thing. I didn’t even know until that experience in 2001 and we green, but we were going around because it’s only been my second time that I’ve been to the States. The first I’ve been to the States was when I was 19 and we went to visit my cousin for a month.
Jay Sparks: What changed in 2001? What did you see or experience that really was surprising to you to the point that you would actually uproot your whole life and move to this foreign country and start over?
Ralph S.: It’s basically two things. You see the ramps, you see the accessibility, you see the streets, you can cross the street because there’s a ramp. You have the transit that is accessible. You have buildings that you can get into and you think to yourself, “Maybe I can do this. Maybe there’s a place that I can actually be worth something.” Where this is not entirely excluded me from life.
Jay Sparks: Sure. No, that’s great. We take that for granted in this country. We still have a long way to go to be truly for instance, wheelchair accessible, but it’s great that back then that was such a big difference it changed your mind about some things.
Ralph S.: Also, I think part of this is this. I grew up with oldies movies where you see people with disabilities in wheelchairs and hospitals and it’s always horrible. It’s like the end of everything as soon as you end up in a wheelchair. Even the way you phrase it, “You end up in a wheelchair,” that’s just like giving up on your life kind of thing. I also spent quite a bit of time when I was younger in hospitals, I think I had my first surgery when I was six. I had surgery on my legs, so I’ve seen that side of … I don’t know how to explain it. I would say hopelessness.
Hopelessness that this is, and this was not a feeling that I want to experience. I knew that I would fight as hard as I can not to be that …
Jay Sparks: So how did that attitude then … that’s not something that everybody has. How did that change how you … kind of switching topics here a little bit, what your philosophy of law is because you are a very different type of lawyer and you do have a different attitude that I think takes you out of all those awful lawyer jokes we hear in this county all the time. How did you make that switch or was it just you just kept being who you are and that was ultimately different than the way other lawyers are?
Ralph S.: I think in everything that I do, being a lawyer, running a nonprofit, but also talking about my life experiences, I’m always being consistent as to who I am as a person and how I am towards other people. I mean it may sound like a cliché that I really try to treat other people the same way that I would like to be treated. I mean it doesn’t mean that I’m always true blue, let’s cry together type of person. In fact, I’m very sarcastic a lot of times when you get to know me. I’m always trying to be respectful. I’m always trying to be understanding because I know what it’s like for example to have a lawyer who you feel isn’t always there or isn’t really responsive, or doesn’t care-
Jay Sparks: How do you know that? At the point in your life did you experience that?
Ralph S.: When I was dealing with my immigration situation, that was an issue that went on for six years. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to stay in this country. I only became an American citizen in October of last year. I tell people that President Obama tried to remove me. President Trump made me an American citizen. Which is true.
Jay Sparks: Congratulations.
Ralph S.: That’s not most people’s experience I guess, but it was a long fight and I really felt at the point, I felt abandoned. If you wanted to see me at my lowest point, it would probably be 2009, when I was dealing with my immigration issue that I had. I never came here illegally or something like that. I was just struggling to transition from a student visa to my green card.
I had a job offer lined up, but the immigration didn’t really see it that way. In 2009, I was graduating for my second American law degree because I have two American law degrees. I have the JD and LLM in comparative law and I have the Polish Masters. I had the diploma that I was telling you about.
In 2009, I was about to graduate, so my parents came over to see me graduate. I was broken as a person because they saw me coming to the mailbox every day opening that mailbox just expecting bad news and I was so stressed out. I was so tense. Again, this is something we were discussing before. You don’t know what your future is going to be like. Because we discussed it before, my goal in life in terms of any kind of economic future for example, butt everything else it’s not that I want a lot from life and it’s not that I want it all. I want stability. That was my drive from the beginning. If you can’t rely on your own ability, you don’t have stability. You don’t know what the future is like. You don’t know what tomorrow is like.
But when I was dealing with immigration that was kind of the same story. We were looking … I was looking at it and I didn’t know what the next year, what the next two years or the next three years. I didn’t know what the next month would be. The next next year that thing resolved itself. A year later I became a Florida attorney which was again, a difficult thing to do because you are taking this test and all this immigration stuff on your mind.
When it first blew up, I was graduating. It was weird. You have this two-track mind. On the one hand you have this big thing to worry about and on the other hand you are trying to finish your studies and get your degree and move your life forward. It’s so surreal that you don’t even get the full appreciation, but that next year I became … I got a green card the year after I became a Florida attorney and the year after that I became a D.C. attorney.
Last year, after all these years, I mean, I could have done it earlier, I just didn’t, but last year I became an American citizen which again was a mental exercise. It was something that I felt like I needed to be ready to fully appreciate so I waited longer than most people.
Jay Sparks: How did you feel when that day finally came. Did anything change with you or was it just another day. I mean I’ve seen some people here in Boston-
Ralph S.: I was proud of myself for having accomplished that and it is something that I wanted, but I didn’t feel any different in the sense that I’ve always known who I was. It’s good that other people recognize you for something, but it doesn’t change the way that you feel about who you are and where you are and why you are here. Does that make sense? I guess so.
Jay Sparks: No, no absolutely. How does that … shifting just a little bit, now that you’ve been on both sides of the law of having your lawyer that don’t care, now you can be that caring lawyer. What advice do you have for any business person who wants to get the most out of the relationship with their lawyer? There’s an old quote I think it was Sam Adams that said, “All businessmen hate lawyers except for one. Your job is the that one.” For us, you’re that one for us, Ralph.
What advice do you give for those people that need someone they can work with and help guide them through this legal system we have?
Ralph S.: It’s interesting because from time to time, I experience the opposite a little bit because it’s usually with business people and I deal with a lot of business people. Mostly small and medium businesses. I deal with in corporations or for-profit businesses, but I also handle a lot of nonprofit information and other issues people may have.
What I noticed is a lot of the business people because they’re strong-willed, so they want to get their value out of me. They push me to … I don’t want to say take advantage, but there is this drive to get as much out of me as possible for as little money as possible. I will never have a business client who will say, “Hey, how can I pay you more money? Right?
Jay Sparks: Sure.
Ralph S.: The experience and I learned not to take it personally. It’s like, “Hey, you’ve done all these things, so why don’t you do all these other things for free for me.” Or “Let’s limit your hours for how long you are able to do something.”
Let me just tell you what happened last week is a good example. A first-time client wanted me to redraft a contract. It was on me because I didn’t really appreciate the scope of the work and how much time it would take. When someone when somebody says, “Oh, I have this contract. I just want a quick fix up.” I should have known not to expect that this was not going to be a lot of work, but I ended up … No, it doesn’t look like I’m going in more than six hours so that’s no problem. I did end up spending 36 hours on that thing.
That’s fine we agreed on a fee and I really didn’t have any problems with it, but the client was still … they were happy with what I’ve done, but they just wouldn’t admit it. And they were not very gracious, and they were not very thankful. That was a bit annoying because I felt that I’ve done something titanic in a very short period of time. Not to pat yourself on the back, but we did a good job with this why can’t you just say it’s good.
Jay Sparks: You need to be working with someone that appreciates the value and the work. It’s one of the things that I know we appreciate you, Ralph, is your ability to very quickly get the crux of the issue and you have an opinion. A lot of your peers don’t really have an opinion. They’ll do whatever we ask in which case effectively, I become a lawyer. Which I’m not qualified to do. I need someone that has … once they have the right information, they have a strong opinion and you really do and that’s really what’s valuable to us. The other charges have always been more than reasonable, but that’s what we’re trying to find with our investments is to make sure you get the right value and you’re getting results you anticipated or more. You always-
Ralph S.: Well, guess what? Now that I’m licensed in your state, magically, what a coincidence. I am able to assist with that kind of stuff, but you know again, I understand when it’s coming from because people are used to being taken advantage of lawyers by lawyers. Sorry. By lawyers. What means to most people, is, “I need to be guarded. I need to fight back. If he’s going to take advantage of me, I need to take advantage of him,” kind of a situation.
People, you know, I am in one those … you can find me on one of those lawyer websites that offer online advice. I’m not an online advice person, but they’re online marketplaces for lawyers. That’s where …. Those are lower, I don’t want to say low rate, but lower rates services. Typically, people that go there they’ve already dealt with a lot of lawyers. They didn’t have a positive experience and of course they project everything that happens to them, they projected on me.
I understand that and we’ve done some stuff together before so you know what I’ve been through, I’m sure. They don’t really like lawyers doing very much. I don’t like the whole set up of having a law firm and 50 million clients and most of them will deal with my secretary or whoever else.
When you call me, you always deal with me directly. Because I think it’s important that I dedicate the time to give you the full understanding. I mean, some of the things that I don’t really know like right off the top of my head, I need to think about it or I need to have a conversation with you. For example, if we’re dropping a contract, there’s some stuff I know that I can maybe guide you and if I have a good understanding of the issue or I’ve dealt with it before if you need me to help you find solutions.
A lot of times you educate me on your issue. Just to give you the broad scope of the people I’m working with for example, I’m now working with people who build boats. I have no idea. I don’t know anything about building boats myself. I’ve never built a yacht or renovated a cruise ship. But you tell me about your business, and I can say, “Hey, let’s talk about this idea, let’s talk about this aspect. Do you think this is a problem? This is how we develop a contract not because I come up with some fully developed understanding and I say you need to sign this. That’s why legal services that is the service. I’m giving you my time and my thought process. I’m not giving you forms. I’m not a legal secretary.
Jay Sparks: Yeah, we try to understand the situation before you give an opinion as opposed to like you’re saying, give them a template and a form sign and charging a lot of money for that.
Ralph S.: When you’re negotiating contracts, which I do a lot. I will say I’m good at it. I don’t really like it because it’s very taxing on you physically and mentally. It is an interactive process. You talk to me, I throw some ideas or write something down and I send it to you, we talk about it some more. I can be taking a shower and have an idea. Maybe you should do this thing differently or maybe you should do that thing differently.
But at the same time, I have to say, I like to be trying new things. Mostly because of some of the other lawyers that I work with, I get to do things I’ve never done before and sometimes clients push me in other directions. I mean when I first started, I never thought I would be a litigator. Mostly, because when you are in a wheelchair you don’t really have all these theatrical things that people will do in a courtroom that’s available to you. You wink and you turn, and you do, and you take a pause. That kind of a presentation.
When I was in law school and we were doing trial practice, which I wanted to take because wanted to have that experience. We actually needed to figure out a completely new mechanics for me that I could employ for myself. How do I present exhibits? We came up with this idea that I would just send my partner over and I would be talking about it and she’ll be pointing to the exhibits that we we’re showing for example, the pictures.
But it’s something that nobody ever really done or at the law school where I had to deal with the podium. You go and you present behind the podium. They didn’t have a podium that was my height of course. There was nowhere for me to put my things, so what I’m saying is when you are in a wheelchair, you deal with those small things that can derail your whole thing and you need to reinvent the wheel sometimes. Those basic things. Lost my train of thought you were saying something about … What were we talking about?
Jay Sparks: Oh, no, this is good because your challenges and this and that happens with all people. Your challenges in one area of your life have led to a strength in another area. Because you have to think through all these problems that very few other people have to think through. When a business person present you with something that’s different, you’re not fazed by it at all.
Very much like in this country with people that grew up around World War II, there were a lot of them on farms. If something goes wrong on a farm, you have to fix it. There’s no Walmart back then. There was no Internet. You couldn’t just dial up someone and have them come out and do it. You really had to be really very, very self-sufficient. When new problems came up, they were very good at handling them.
It sounds like as tough as your childhood was, it prepared you in many ways for a lot of these other challenges that you’re facing now that other people aren’t prepared to take on even though they may have the same training.
Ralph S.: When you say tough childhood again, I don’t want it to seem like … Yes, yes, it was in some respects, but I always said that I had very loving parents and I think that’s the basis for everything that result accepted. If there was something more, they could have done for me, they would have done it no question. I don’t want to say, “Oh my God, my childhood was always it was such a horrible experience.”
I mean, I do think in my life, we deal with what we deal with. This is the lot you have, and you can make the best of the lot you have with the abilities, the talent that you are God-given. You shouldn’t complain about it. I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining about like, “Oh my God my life,” but to your other point. Like I was saying before, I had a client who said, “Hey, I want you to go to litigate this issue in this other state. And I had never done it before. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, but I really wanted to try, and I was working with another lawyer. It actually turned out that I’m pretty good at it.
It’s not something I would have chosen myself to do. If it wasn’t for that experience at a particular time, I would not have known that I am capable of doing that. It was a very positive experience because a lot of time what happens was people would turn to me … Unless it’s one of those online things that people want to have a consultation with me, but typically when people reach out to me, they already have some kind of a messed up legal situation that is often messed up and beyond repair and other lawyers turned them down or I get like a fifth referral or something.
But if I see, “Hey, this is something we can try.” I want to try it. I don’t want to push people in something that they don’t want to do. I will always get an honest assessment of what I think. I really don’t like lawyers who say, “Hey, let’s do this and let’s do that. Let’s sue all these people,” and I see that on Twitter a lot. Like. “Yeah, let’s win this case.”
You would never say that. I don’t think it’s ethical. But also it’s not me who’s on the hook or whatever the outcome is. It’s always going to be the client. If you need to say, “Hey let’s win you $1 million dollars,” if I’m not really responsible for any costs or any fees or whatever may happen.
I always try to remember that dealing with the client, it’s your choice right. It’s not also your choice, but you make your decision based on whatever circumstances work in your life that have nothing to do with me. That I may not understand it.
The idea of law to me, and I know we brought it up, is basically the purpose of law to assist people in their life and empower them with their choices. They’re your choices. I’ve seen even like yesterday, I was reading some document that a lawyer drafted for a client and some client wanted me to read it and tell them what I thought. It’s always weird how a lawyer tries to impose their own view and their own understanding on a client. If they’re not the one in the transaction or I mean,-
Jay Sparks: Why do you think that is? Do you think that’s just being in control or not focusing on the client? Or not thinking they know enough to really make a decision, so they need to do it for them? Where that … from your opinion.
Ralph S.: I think it’s an interesting question. I think it’s a combination of all these things. I think lawyers tend to be a bit full of themselves. I don’t know where that is coming from. Just because you have some education that you were taught how to do something … For me, American law school in particular because in Europe is more of an academic experience. In America, it’s more like a trade school. I am in this trade school. It’s called a professional for a reason. It’s not like you’re doing a lot of research.
You are in this for three years, but you are given a skill. It’s a skill and I know how to do certain things because I went to school for this and I know how to do it. It’s no different to me, than being a welder or being something else. There’s no value and I think I create just by the essence of being a lawyer. I think I’m a lawyer, so I exist and I know how to read and I know how to interpret the legal system that somebody else created. I have no role in creating this reality. I’m just kind of like a secretary in that sense. Or an interpreter or something.
If those rules ever change, all I know and all I do can change just as easy. It’s not something that exist on its own. I’m always mindful of that. I do think that because it’s such a high-end profession for God knows what reason, people … I know people like that who feel like they see their clients as ignorant or whatever it is, beneath them in some ways they need to be educated. They need to be like, “Oh, no, you’re not seeing the light.” I can fix it.
For example, recently I was reading this operating agreement for an LLC and the lawyer was insisting … there was a new partner coming in and the lawyer was insisting they make no changes to the operating agreement because he wrote it before. Which to me is weird because you’re bringing in a new person so the circumstances change and you need to sit down with these people and figure out what are your needs right now. How do you see this new relationship? It became a weird thing because they were telling me about there are two people in an LLC, but one of the them basically essentially has all the power and the other one came with all the money, but they have no influence. It is a concern. Why is this a fair relationship, that I would say.
Jay Sparks: But you’re focused on the client and what they’re trying to do when you’re trying to figure out a way to use the law appropriately to get the result and that’s not always the way some of your peers look at-
Ralph S.: For me, when I deal with the business client, I always send them a list of questions. Like how do you want this done or making this decision, what do you think will happen when this. But what is the idea, your vision for this. I’m not going to say, “Hey, I wrote this contract and therefore I think it’s great and you need to just take it.
Jay Sparks: No, no that makes sense it’s a good approach. Switching topics a little bit. We’re almost out of time here I want to be useful of our time, but-
Ralph S.: I can talk to you for five hours at a time every week.
Jay Sparks: Just send me a bill.
There is one more thing I think that really is important to you not only the law and how to use it to help business people in particular get the things that they want and to structure things properly, but also you have a unique take on a nonprofit. I think this may have come about from what you were thinking about when you were 12 years old. Can you talk a little bit about that? And what you’re doing and that.
Ralph S.: That said. It complying it combines also how I approach my business clients because I don’t think … the one thing that you know about the nonprofit that I start, is that they basically the idea behind it was to create a pro-business approach to accessibility and disability. Our first idea only started a nonprofit was to educate businesses and tell them, “Look, people with mobility issues and other issues, they’re paying clients too even turn them into customers.” We wanted to create this level of awareness. It’s not just a burden. It’s not just something you have to do because that’s what the law mandates. I wanted to navigate away from being the type of lawyer you have all these people joining with the ADA they go into this mom and pop store and threatening to sue them because I don’t have a lift, they don’t have a ramp, they don’t have all that.
Jay Sparks: For those people that don’t understand. You just described the Americans Disabilities Act, just so they know why that can be a burden for a business person.
Ralph S.: That’s the American Disabilities Act, but also all other registration that we keep them abreast some are outside of the act itself. There’s the Rehabilitation Act and other acts. It’s all these laws that we have. I feel sometimes that the stories that the lawyer is threatening to sue all these places because they don’t have the proper level of accessibility and business owners, they tend to, I don’t want to say everyone, but from my experience a lot of people tend to avoid it as much as they can because it’s expensive.
If you can cut corners and you don’t see the benefit of having a lift that’s running. I mean, I’ve been at a bar for example that used their little lift thing between floors as a trash chute because they wanted to save space. I can see their perspective, but this is not something that they used every day for people with disabilities because they didn’t have all these people with disabilities coming in. They had all the space that they felt was going to waste.
My attitude was, I don’t want to go around town suing people. I don’t want to hurt local businesses. I live in a small Florida town. It’s not all that small a small Florida city. It’s primarily a college town and I want to see the businesses grow because I’m part of this community. I want to see everybody succeeding. I also want to create more and more awareness.
So I created this nonprofit called The Florida Disability Act and Awareness Foundation or FDAAF. You can go and you can see fdaaf.org or you can find us on Twitter or on Facebook. The idea was how to use the modern media and technology to create more awareness? To convince to be more accessible on their own without being threatened, but also give people with disabilities the appreciation that they exist, but also the information like how to get around.
My problem when I first came to America, is I never really knew … I mean, yes, most places are wheelchair accessible and that’s great. But when I was going somewhere, I never knew if, especially with older buildings, if there will be … I go to a bar because … All my usual stories are about like going to a bar because of the college towns so most of the stories kind of end that way. At some of these places, you have bathrooms that are not wheelchair accessible and you can’t get through in a wheelchair. If you’re planning a night out with your friends, you need to have that. I’m not saying I demand you build me a bathroom, but I need to know it so I can make arrangements. If I go to a place that doesn’t have a bathroom, I need to figure out what do I do if I drink and I need to use the restroom. Do I go to the gas station? Where’s the gas station? Or maybe I should not be taking as much fluids so I don’t have to use the restroom.
So what I’m saying is if I have the information, I can make the informed decisions for myself. Essentially, we created this nonprofit because we thought to ourselves, “Hey, why don’t we build an app that will give people with disabilities the full information where like how accessible specific places are. What to expect when you get in there.
There are websites and there like wheelchair map and others, but they just give you partial information. When you tell me something is assessable or not accessible, it doesn’t really tell what this mean. I don’t know what to expect. You don’t really know if this information is true, complete and verified by anybody. This was the idea that we had back in the day, and it’s developed into these causes that we have that we wanted to use the idea of apps and video games and modern media because I don’t think nonprofits use these modern tools enough to create awareness. Also to create modern electronic projects that show people with disabilities as empowered, and having value in this modern world.
Jay Sparks: Didn’t you look into doing a comic book with that or is that still a project?
Ralph S.: We are right now developing … What is it called? It’s called a visual novel. Which is an interactive game that is static. Basically, you make choices for a character, you see like a screen, there’s video animation. The character interacts with other characters and they make choices. Kind of like make your own adventure book, like they used to have back when you were a child, however long ago that was. So you may remember. It’s in that electronic format.
We are developing this game called Change and it’s about this veteran who, as much as I hate this word, ends up in a wheelchair and it changes his entire perspective and his entire life and how he feels about certain issues and so essentially, he has to evaluate. He has to think about things he never had to think about before. He has all these people in his life who has all kinds of different challenges of their own, that are as pressing to them as they are to him.
We wanted to combine different issues that people deal with and to show that everybody has something in life that they struggle with. I’m not saying, “Look at me. I have a disability and you need to pay attention to me. And poor me.” I’m saying the opposite. I don’t want people to be sorry for anybody. I want people to feel empowered by who they are. And I’m not saying that having a disability is a wonderful thing. Most of the time, it doesn’t really have an effect on me because it is kind of baked into who I am, but it sucks. It’s not a good thing to have a disability. I would never say that. I really look at things and people say, “Oh, look at our disability,” in pride or whatever.
If I had a choice of having a disability or not having a disability, I would not have it. No question. But I have no problems with it. It does have implications in everyday life. And one thing that really gets to me for example and also one of the reasons that I wanted to start a nonprofit, is I think, I’ve been telling you how on some nights when I get home from the bar and I’m just trying to get home and luckily you were asking where I live and how I get along, luckily these days I live downtown. A lot of the things that I need to get to, like if I want to go grab food or go get a drink or meet new people, they’re right there in the area. I don’t even have to get on the bus.
A lot of times when I will be getting home people will stop me, probably more drunk than I was, trying to give me money, trying to give me a pillow. The attention was, I was in a wheelchair so I must be homeless. They’re not bad people. They’re not evil. I can’t be mad at them for wanting to do what they think is the right thing, but it’s hurtful and it is annoying.
I wanted to create a setting that would deal with these types of attitudes. I wanted to create something that would be pro-business. Also because when we develop all these projects when we’re looking for corporate sponsors and friends that we can feature all things like that, it’s not only that these people will be tied to a positive message. It will be a message that reaches a lot of people. Not because we are talking about disability or whatever it is. It’s because we are developing a quality and entertaining product that people want to use. They would not be doing it out of the sense of obligation, because it’s actually something that they want to try.
Jay Sparks: Incredible. Well, I think it’s a great stopping point. I don’t know if I can hold anymore incredible stories in my head here. Gone through a lot from learning Polish, Hungarian, German, English, watching all the 80s TV shows and now we have a 2001 Polish national team member, we get to claim as one of her own as of October of last year. So congratulations on that. And becoming a US citizen. That’s an incredible journey.
Ralph S.: Those things you can find in the book I read all these years ago. I think you got yourself a copy.
Jay Sparks: That’s incredible. You already have a biography out and I’m fascinated to see what the next chapter would be because I don’t think you’re anywhere near finished at this point. If somebody wants to reach out to you for any reason whether it’s they identify with your life story or your philosophy on law or your nonprofit or just need some legal help, what the best way to reach you, Ralph?
Ralph S.: You can always … the best way to reach me is to shoot me a message or tweet at me on Twitter @lawyeronwheels. At lawyer on wheels. I’m on wheels.
Jay Sparks: Lawyer on wheels, I like that. Do you have a racing stripe on that other chair?
Ralph S.: Yeah, it’s partly because a lot of people assume, if they want to dig or something at me they accuse me of being an ambulance chaser. I think we had this conversation. It’s funny because they don’t even understand what that means. It doesn’t mean that you’re sitting behind the ambulance in a car and following the car around. It’s lawyer on wheels because I am in a wheelchair. I mean I do change my chair every few years. I have to say usually they’re high-class, high-end, custom-built chairs. I used to have a Crucial Chair that was Swiss built and now I have a Ti-light which is American.
Jay Sparks: Incredible. Well just means you’re built for speed, Ralph. You get the value and the crux of the real issue quickly. Which I’m sure your clients appreciate.
Ralph S.: Whatever gets you from point A to point B. Yeah but definitely if you ever have any follow-up questions or you want to learn more about me, or you want to probe any particular asset … I love interacting with people because everything I do, I really think, as sentimental as this may, for me it’s always about the human connection and we talk about having values. I think the true value always comes from who we are as people and how we connect to others. And what we contribute. I’m always up for being surprised and taking on a journey that I don’t know where it would take me because that’s how I got here. You got to be able to say yes to things. Right?
Jay Sparks: That’s right. That’s right. Well, I’m going to end it there and tell you I’m very happy to have found the unique value that is Ralph Strzalkowski and thank you for listening to Finding Unique Value and we look forward to next time. Bye for now.
Ralph S.: Thank you so much.