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Our guest today is James Helm, founding attorney of Top Dog Law.

James grew up as an only child with boundless energy. He always wanted to know what was next and he spent most of his time playing sports with the neighborhood kids.

A curious mind is one of the hallmarks of James’ personality; even as a young kid, he was always asking “why,” sometimes to the chagrin of his teachers. His desire to get to the root of an issue is a characteristic that makes him a diligent attorney and businessman.

James started wrestling at a young age, and he discovered he was pretty good at it. He continued wrestling throughout grade school, where he tore his rotator cuff. While recovering from his injury, a doctor prescribed Percocet. Although James didn’t abuse the opiate at the time, he would later end up taking opioids recreationally at parties as a way to “fit in.” Before he knew it, he developed a full dependency that followed him through the remainder of high school and higher education.

James graduated from Penn State and later went to Rutgers for his law degree. Even with his success at school, he hit a breaking point with his addiction and entered rehab in August 2016.

In today’s episode, James and I talk about the start of his opioid addiction, why he chose the name Top Dog Law, and the power of wearing your heart on your sleeve.

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Transcription

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Luke W Russell:

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James Helm:

While in recovery from that procedure, I took them as needed. I think that the light bulb went off though, as I took them. I remember I was actually at a wrestling match watching my team and one of the other kids’ fathers said something like, oh, he’s got those painkillers for his surgery. He must be feeling great or, something like that. And again, I wasn’t abusing them at the time, but I think this thought started to form like, drugs aren’t so bad. You took these after your procedure. They made you feel kind of good.

Luke W Russell:

Welcome to Lawful Good, a show about lawyers and the trials they face inside and outside the courtroom. I’m your host, Luke W Russell. I’m not a journalist. I’m not an attorney. I’m trained as a coach. I love human connection and that’s what you are about to hear. My guest today is James Helm, founding attorney of TopDog Law. James grew up as an only child with boundless energy. He always wanted to know what was next and he spent most of his time playing sports with the neighborhood kids. A curious mind is one of the hallmarks of James’ personality. Even as a young kid, he was always asking why sometimes to the chagrin of his teachers. His desire to get to the root of an issue is a characteristic that makes him a diligent attorney and businessman. James started wrestling at a young age and he discovered he was pretty good at it.

Luke W Russell:

He continued wrestling throughout grade school where he tore his rotator cuff. While recovering from his injury, a doctor prescribed Percocet. Although James didn’t abuse the opiate at the time, he would later end up taking opioids recreationally at parties as a way to fit in. Before he knew it, he developed a full dependency that followed him through the remainder of high school and higher education. James graduated from Penn State and later went to Rutgers for his law degree. Even with his success at school, he hit a breaking point with his addiction and entered rehab in August 2016. In today’s episode, James and I talk about the start of his opioid addiction, why he chose the name TopDog Law and the power of wearing your heart on your sleeve. You were born in 1991. Is that right James?

James Helm:

Yep. That’s it.

Luke W Russell:

And your dad described you even going back to when you were just three or four years old saying that you’d wake up and be like, what we do today, what we do day. And I was curious, do you have any early memories?

James Helm:

Well, I grew up as an only child, which I think a lot of people ask, oh my gosh, how was that? But I loved it. Since I was born, I always had so many friends to play with. And my parents used to joke. I would go spend six or seven hours running around outside doing something and I would get home and within 20 or 30 minutes, I’d be like, “What’s next today?” I had this joyous childhood where I felt like I was constantly playing sports, having fun in games, doing all types of social activities. I had one of those great neighborhoods where there was probably 10 boys around my age in the neighborhood. So we would play Manhunt and lacrosse, baseball, football, every sport you could imagine.

Luke W Russell:

I love it. Speaking of being an only child, a 19th century psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, described only children as spoiled, selfish, self-absorbed, maladjusted, bossy, antisocial, and lonely. What would you have to say about that?

James Helm:

That’s a tough criticism of my people. I would say first off, we had no choice in the matter. It wasn’t a decision that I personally made. I do think when I have children, I’d like to have a lot of children and I wonder if that’s a reflection of being an only child. I have been called selfish or spoiled growing up. And I actually remember taking that to heart, being offended by it and then trying to be the opposite. So if somebody called me selfish, then I was like, “Okay, well, how can I be selfless?” And I haven’t always been perfect about that and I definitely am selfish in moments. But I actually think being an only child maybe inspired me to want to serve others because of that stigma that’s associated with it.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Were you pretty argumentative growing up?

James Helm:

I don’t know if argumentative is the right word. I definitely wasn’t one of those people, you hear about a lot of lawyers that their parents were like, oh, you’re really argumentative as a child. You should be an attorney, which I don’t think is the best advice. I think I always wanted to know why, and I’m still like that today and it can lead to disagreements simply because I want more information. Like I’m told, hey, you need to go do this. Well, why? And if I understand the context behind the why and why it’s valuable, then I’ll do it. But if I disagree with the why behind the instruction, then I might push back a little bit, which I think got me into trouble a little bit as a kid.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. I was curious, did you ever have like teachers that were frustrated because you wouldn’t just do something simply because they told you to?

James Helm:

Yeah. I was pretty disciplined as a kid. I did well in school growing up and I always wanted to I think impress my dad with my grades that I could get in school. So I tried really hard. There was a moment though, I remember in elementary school where we went outside and we were supposed to be doing poetry in the courtyard. And I had a buddy of mine who lived up the street and we thought it would be a good time to go do back flips off the swing set. And the biggest problem with it was not only how upset the teacher was when she came outside and she saw us doing crazy, dangerous back flips.

James Helm:

But then when she walked over to yell at us, she actually tripped on the curb and she broke her heel. And I feel like that upset her more than the fact that we were doing the back flips. We were in for recess for weeks. It was the only time my elementary school called my parents and they actually asked, is something going on at home? Which like, no, nothing was going on at home. I was just a seven year old kid with a ton of energy. But my mom and dad were very, very upset. That was one of the few times I remember at least in elementary school where I was in big trouble.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Now, did you grow up in the same house for most of those years or did you all move around a bit?

James Helm:

No, we grew up on Olde House Lane. Lived there my entire life. My parents still live there today. It’s kind of a one story ranch house. It’s got four or five rooms. By no means is it a nice house but it also was plenty of room for three people. The best part about it though, was the neighborhood. I mean, there was a family right down the street, the Chrodaskas, who had six boys in the family growing up.

James Helm:

And so they ended up finally having a girl as their last child, but we would just call it seven, and I was just lingering around the house. I kind of learned through the grapevine, when dinner comes out, you better get to dinner because if you’re not on the ball, you’re not going to be eating that night. But I’m grateful for the Chrodaskas in particular, because they had kids two years below me, two years above me, one my age, so I was able to kind of just blend in with them. And I think it helped me in sports a lot. Just kind of playing with older kids and getting pushed around a little bit so that when I started playing with kids my own age, I felt strong and capable.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Did you have any grandparents around?

James Helm:

Yeah. So my dad’s side of the family group was in Springfield, so it was pretty close by. My grandma, who now passed away, she would always come over and try to take us out, take me out and my cousin, John. I remember she was actually the one that told me Santa Claus wasn’t real and my parents were pretty upset about that. I remember her being like, “The other kids at school are bullying him. You have to tell him.” She was great. I will say quite candidly though that I didn’t grow up with a ton of family. And I’ve always been attracted to families that have generational get togethers on a regular basis. My family has very much been kind of fragmented and we’ll get together as an extended family on Christmas and Easter. But other than that, we’re not super involved in each other’s lives.

James Helm:

And so I think it’s actually attracted me to, whether it’s somebody I’m dating or a friend to see those big Italian families and be like, “Oh,” about what could have been. And I guess what I try to do now when I have that thought is, well, dude, you have a family. How are you doing in terms of taking initiative on scheduling get togethers with your cousins and your aunts and uncles, and your grandparents. And so it’s just an area I need to work on, I think.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. And what was your relationship like with your parents? I know you mentioned you wanted your dad to be proud of your grades. What was your relationship like with him as well as your mother?

James Helm:

So my mom is the most sweet, loving person you’ll ever going to meet. I mean, she is very agreeable, I think almost to her disadvantage sometimes. She is very well liked in every circle she’s ever been in. And I think that I probably get some of my emotional intelligence from her. My dad is not like that. My dad, I think is very opinionated. My dad is very smart. My dad had high standards and I felt like growing up I always wanted my dad’s love. I’ve heard people ask, which parents love did you want more, your mothers and your fathers? And then the subsequent question is, well, who did you have to be for them?

James Helm:

And I think for my dad in a lot of ways as that only child, I felt like I needed to be perfect. And that wasn’t anything that he told me. He didn’t do anything wrong parenting wise. It was more just who I felt I needed to be. And so whether that was being the best athlete or getting the best grades in the classroom, or running for the president of my class. I did that in fifth grade and then later in high school. I think deep down in my psychology the reasons why I was doing that was to get my dad’s love.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. I know you played a variety of sports, as you mentioned. I know you did basketball, wrestling, football. Were there other sports too in addition to that?

James Helm:

So I messed around with a bunch of different sports. Growing up baseball was always my biggest sport and wrestling, as well as football. Baseball was kind of funny because my uncle actually owns a club lacrosse program called Duke’s Lacrosse that is super popular in the area. And looking back, I wish I would’ve switched to lacrosse because he’s gotten people into Georgetown and Johns Hopkins in Virginia. They’re really a premier club program. But I always loved baseball since I was eight. And then I remember when I decided to start wrestling, I think I was nine or 10. And my dad, I was wrestling with some kids outside of soccer one day and I remember my dad going home and being like, “This is something he wants. I didn’t push it on him.” Because my dad wrestled his whole life and wrestled at Lafayette, and they were near the top of the country.

James Helm:

And so I think my mom was a little hesitant. My mom’s always kind of scared and so wrestling can be kind of intimidating as a parent. But wrestling was the first sport that when I got into, I knew I was really good. Particularly when I was nine, 10, 12, 14, I worked really, really hard and I got to win a bunch of tournaments. I think there was a year in middle school where I went undefeated one season. I really had high aspirations for wrestling until I got to the ninth grade. Well, actually it was the eighth grade. I was told to wrestle up with the high school team and the coach had a different level of intensity that I was used to. I remember it being Christmas break and we had six hour full day practices during Christmas break of running miles and then practicing, and then running miles again.

James Helm:

And as an eighth grader, I hadn’t hit puberty yet. So my lungs weren’t there. I was a boy wrestling with men. And I remember first questioning, do I really like this? Is this what I want to do? And at that point in my life, I was starting to get into girls and friendships. We played poker. It was during kind of the online poker craze and all my friends were all hanging out at somebody’s house. And I was like, “I have to go to wrestling practice for six hours a day.” And I remember it was actually a big argument. I told my dad I don’t want to wrestle anymore. And at the time, I was one of the best wrestlers in the class.

James Helm:

And so that was the first, I think big argument I ever had at my dad and actually looking back, it was maybe the first time where we saw differently about my future. And so I felt like I was kind of taking control of my future and I didn’t wrestle my freshman season. I ended up trying to come back later in high school and I tore both my shoulders. But I think I regret not wrestling my freshman year. I think I was just intimidated and my priorities were not there. But looking back, I think I wish I would’ve strived to achieve my goals. But I think it is important that I was able to vocalize how I felt to my parents and act on my own autonomy, because that would be a topic that came back later on.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Was religion or spirituality part of your home growing up?

James Helm:

So I remember growing up I went to a Presbyterian church and my mom said years later, this was actually a pretty funny story. I don’t even remember this. But we were sitting in the Bible study and I remember I told whoever the teacher was, “I’m bored. I want to go outside and play.” I think whether I have ADD or not is kind of debatable, but I definitely have always had so much energy inside that the idea of spending a weekend indoors doing some type of studying was always really hard for me as a kid. I will say later in life though, I ended up getting baptized again after everything I went through and I’ve since reconnected spiritually in a way that I really didn’t have growing up. My parents pushed it, but they didn’t force me to do anything I didn’t want to do and at the time I just didn’t see the value in it.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. You grew up being called Jake. When did you start going by James?

James Helm:

This is a great question. My friends today are still surprised when they hear my parents or my high school friends call me Jake. And I think a lot of people associate it with after I recovered from addiction going by James. But the truth is actually a little bit simpler. In law school I went by James, when I started law school. And the reason why I did that was I always had to tell professors, no, it’s not James, it’s Jake. I always had to correct them.

James Helm:

And when you’re in high school or middle school, or elementary school, that’s fine. But then when I went to Penn State, it’s like, I’m not going to have a close relationship with this teacher, let alone bother correcting her on my name. So I did that a little bit at Penn State and then when I got to law school, it was like, okay, I’m just going to go by James. I think I also probably thought James sounded more professional. So I was in law school and at that time I’m trying to unsuccessfully transition from this partier whose dependent on substances to this professional person. And so I think maybe subconsciously I thought the shift from Jake to James would help with that transition.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. So you mentioned earlier sophomore year, you went back into wrestling, you tore your rotator cuff. I believe this was in a wrestling match where you were matched up against a senior. Is that correct?

James Helm:

Yeah. The kid I was matched up with was the defending state champion. Pennsylvania’s always one of the best states for wrestling in the entire country and the kid that I was wrestling against had won the states the previous year. And so I actually was faring pretty well in the beginning of the match, but granted, I’m just coming back from a year off because I didn’t wrestle my freshman year and it’s an off season tournament. I probably shouldn’t have been matched up with this kid, but I was holding my own in the first period and we were neutral, which is standing up. And somehow I just went down in this really awkward position, almost vertically down and landed sort of on the side of my neck. And it completely tore the subscapularis, which is the back muscle of your rotator cuff. And I remember just being in so much pain and being scared, and leaving that tournament, and ending up going to the hospital, and got diagnosed with the rotator cuff tear.

Luke W Russell:

And so at this point, what kind of painkillers were you given for this injury? You’re also like 16 years old at this point.

James Helm:

Yeah. So I’m 16 years old. I go to this surgeon out in Delaware who did Curt Schilling’s shoulder and bunch other professional athletes, Elton Brand, who’s now the general manager of the Sixers. And so I was glad that the best person was working on my shoulder, but he was not a people person by any means. I mean, he probably met with me for 30 seconds prior to scheduling the surgery and then I got the surgery. And it was not an orthoscopic procedure, it was a full surgery. I actually still have a pretty big scar on my right shoulder from it. And he prescribed me 10 milligram Percocets. And I remember my mom being very cautious of the Percocets and wanting to give them to me one by one. So I actually didn’t abuse them while in recovery from that procedure. I took them as needed.

James Helm:

I think that the light bulb went off though, as I took them. I remember I was actually at a wrestling match watching my team. And one of the other kids’ fathers said something like, oh, he’s got those painkillers for his surgery. He must be feeling great or, something like that. And again, I wasn’t abusing them at the time, but I think this thought started to form like, drugs aren’t so bad. You took these after your procedure. They made you feel kind of good. And I think a year later when I ran into drugs in kind of a more social setting, I didn’t have the fear that the DARE campaign beats down your throat. Because in my mind it was like, oh, this is just the same prescription that I had taken last year for my surgery.

Luke W Russell:

Okay. So you are 17 years old and can you take me back to this moment where you’re in more of a social setting and you’re introduced to drugs outside of a prescription environment?

James Helm:

Sure. So I didn’t drink, let me just give a little context. So I didn’t drink really for most of eighth grade, ninth grade. I think it was maybe somewhere in 10th or 11th grade where I started drinking. So I progressed from having my first beer to doing my first Oxycontin 80 milligram in a year. I think that there was this, I remember the first time I drank and I remember this girl who was one of the most popular girls at my school, was beautiful. And I remember her seeing me drinking outside of this campfire and being like, I’m Jake at the time, being like, “Jake, you’re drinking. I thought you were kind of a square.” And then kind of doing something flirtatious. And at the time I was like, “Oh my gosh. Look how I can be considered if I participate in this.”

James Helm:

And then I think what my brain did was I realized, well, if being the drinker makes me not a square, what does smoking weed or selling weed, or doing painkillers do? And there was this weird dynamic at my high school where the people that were engaged in drugs and pills, and all that sort of stuff happened to hang out with the popular, beautiful women. I think it’s probably like that in many schools. It’s the counterculture element of it. And so I think quite honestly, I wanted to be cool is why I started using any type of substance.

James Helm:

And specifically painkillers were really blowing up in that era. I mean, everybody on my football team had tried them. And so all my friends, and my friends were the group of guys who liked to go out, liked to hang out with girls, but we were all going to college and in good classes. And we weren’t the group of guys that, we felt like there was another group of guys at our school that didn’t have their lives together. And these 17, 18 years old, we used to joke, is going to be like the best point of their lives. Where for us, it’s like, we’re going to have fun now, but we all have ambitions and dreams outside of this.

Luke W Russell:

So you were kind of going from how you were saying like, well, we’re just having fun, but these other people are the ones, they’re peaking now and their life’s just downhill from there. I think a bit of as maybe a justification or something for how you were looking at your lifestyle.

James Helm:

Yeah. I always thought of myself as somebody who wanted to be financially successful and have a career, and go to college. And I think what happened is that junior year of high school in particular, I started going from somebody who tried their first pain killer to somebody who would do painkillers before school, to somebody who would always have a bag of painkillers, to somebody who would show up high. I remember at my senior prom, I showed up and I had done a bunch of painkillers and took an ecstasy pill.

James Helm:

And then I was that president of the class who went on the stage and announced the prom king and queen, that happened to be two of my good friends. And I actually had pride about it. It’s so backwards in retrospect but I had pride about the fact that I could live this double life. That I could on one hand be this person that’s the president of the class in the level one classes, going to school, had these career ambitions. And on the other side, I could balance this life of picking up drugs, selling some drugs to my friends, showing up high to events, having my social circle, including the girls know that I had this edgy side of me. It was something that I took pride in at the time.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Now, where were you getting your drugs? Where were you getting your painkillers?

James Helm:

Most of them I was getting from other students around the school. There was one close friend that I had from childhood who probably got in even worse than I did, but he was somebody who always helped facilitate my drug transactions. And then there was a girl up the street who I knew sold Oxycontin 80 milligrams. And at the time the 80 milligram pills were like $30. Now they’re not even available and I have no idea what the prices are but they’re not that easily accessible and they aren’t that cheap, but at the time they were. And so I would just pick them up and soon enough, they became my drug of choice. I still would drink, I would still smoke weed, but Percocets were really the thing, Percocets and Oxycontin, that my system started to crave. And I think even in that 11th grade and 12th grade year, I started to develop physical dependency to them because I was using them every day.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Now, I’m curious, so I know you had another injury at some point later in high school where you were, I believe you were prescribed for opioids again. What happened there?

James Helm:

So I made a wrestling comeback, I think this was my junior year and I ended up tearing my labrum in my other shoulder. And after that, it was sort of the end of my wrestling career. I remember being like, “Okay. This is it.” And I can’t recall specifically if I was prescribed drugs. I know by that point though, I was using them regularly. I do remember there was a girl that I dated my junior and senior year of high school and I was really proud of dating her. I felt like I had achieved some degree of popularity, which was something that I was craving and I had this girlfriend.

James Helm:

And I do remember, when we actually broke up, I was leaving for Penn State and she was going to be a hairdresser around our hometown. And I remember her saying like, “You’re a pill head.” And I remember my thought being like, “What?” I couldn’t believe that somebody thought of me like that because that wasn’t how I thought of myself. And it actually hit me really hard at the time. I played it off as if you’re just upset that I’m going up to college and you’re staying here. But internally I remember thinking when I go to college, I’m going to drink and smoke weed, but I’m not going to get into the pills because I’m starting to see the road that that’s taking me on.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. So as you’re looking ahead toward college, what were your career ambitions at that point?

James Helm:

I think I wanted to go to law school. I was never somebody who grew up and was like, this is 100% what I want to do. I didn’t know I was born to be a lawyer, but for me it was sort of this thing where I always wanted people to see me in this particular light as this person who was successful and ambitious. And in my mind, nobody could call me a drug addict if I was going to law school. So it was this thing it would make my dad proud because my dad looked up to lawyers, he’s involved in local politics. I think maybe he wished himself, he’s never said that to me, but maybe he wished himself he would’ve went to law school. So it satisfied that checkbox of making him proud and then I think it also satisfied the checkbox of other people thinking that I was successful or I had it together when in fact I had all of this stuff going on behind the scenes.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Okay. So you head off to Penn State in 2009, I think we’re at. And did anyone else have any idea that this, I guess, obviously some of your friends knew, but what about like your family? Who knew that you were dealing with various drug addictions?

James Helm:

My parents didn’t know because I actually remember telling them for the first time later. My friends knew. My friends started to see me hanging out with some of those guys in the other crowd, because I started to be accepted in that crowd because of buying and selling of drugs. And to me that was almost exciting. It was like, oh, I’m accepted by this other crowd of guys that I could hang out with sometimes. And my close friends, my real friends, they didn’t like that. And I ended up rooming with one of my best friends and he still wanted to room with me, but I know that he was very much not in agreement with me doing pills all of the time.

James Helm:

It was a sort of thing where if we’re going to a house concert and we’re taking ecstasy, good. And if we’re smoking weed, good. And if we’re going out drinking with girls, good. But you doing prescription pills by yourself on a weekday, not good. And I remember, I didn’t use pills, that whole freshman or my sophomore year, I didn’t use pills. Because I had this moment with my girlfriend and because I realized that it could be an issue. That really wasn’t until I got to my fraternity at Penn State that this dynamic started to play out again.

Luke W Russell:

Okay. Tell me a little bit about that?

James Helm:

My fraternity at Penn State had one of the big three days. It was like, there’s 45 fraternities at Penn State. If you could have the best party on Thursday night, Friday night or Saturday night, it was a huge deal. And I almost didn’t pledge a fraternity because a lot of the guys from Delaware County don’t pledge fraternities, they’re anti fraternity people at Penn State. But I remember seeing all of the sorority girls walking down to these big fraternity mansions. And at that point I had been going to my local house parties with a group of people from my immediate area and I just kind of wanted it bigger. I wanted to see what that life was like. But if I was going to do it, I wanted to join a fraternity that really had it going on. And I think the same dynamic played out there where this fraternity was known for having some edgy guys that were really involved with drugs.

James Helm:

And so I remember being the person that picked that fraternity and my best friend, Dan, he kind of came along with me, but it was, I think me who insisted on joining this particular one. In part, because I knew what that edgy dynamic had done for me socially in high school. And so I thought subconsciously, “Hey, I’m going to go do the same thing here.” I went in, I was instantly somebody who had connections in Philly to cheap drugs that I could get them for the fraternity brothers.

James Helm:

And as a pledge, when other pledges are cleaning the house, I’m tasked with rolling blunts and hanging out with some of the brothers in the fraternity. And I just fell into that trap. I thought it was so cool. And before I knew it, I was back to the races again with the pills, just going to Philly from Penn State, it’s like a three and a half hour drive, picking them up, driving back up to Penn State. Not really selling them outside of the house, but kind of splitting them up with the other guys in the fraternity and just physically dependent. And over time it started to make my life unmanageable.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. And as you’re at this, thinking about graduation from Penn State, you do go to law school next. And at this point though, is being a lawyer still about acceptance and are you really thinking much about the future? Because I know we still have a couple more years left of facing addiction and so what was your mental space when you were still in that transition and moving toward lawyer hood? If that’s a word.

James Helm:

So I told my parents my junior year about my drug issues and the reason I did that was I owed several guys in our fraternity thousands of dollars and I felt no way out. My solution was to go home and I remember crying my eyes out and being like, “I’m going to go home. I’m going to tell my parents the bad news is I owe thousands of dollars and I’m addicted to drugs. The good news is, I have the solution to this problem.” And there was a doctor in my hometown, Dr. Demanti, who prescribed Vivitrol, which is a shot that would make you unable to feel the effects of opiates for 30 days. I think it’s important to note, it wasn’t any of the mental or spiritual work that looks into why you’re going through this problem, but it’s just a physical blocker. And that was the early days of that drug being prescribed.

James Helm:

And so I would go in there and he would administer the shot, and I would go home and it would send me in instant withdrawal. And I remember sweating through my sheets at my parents’ house. And I actually picked up a bunch of other drugs to try to offset the effects of the withdrawal. Just really being in a terrible spot. I think my parents at that time started to worry about me for the first time. It was like, I think through most of my childhood, they had so much confidence in me and what I was capable of.

James Helm:

And I think starting in that period, they started to really wonder what was going to happen to me in the future. And so to be honest, I didn’t finish Penn State. What happened was I was supposed to graduate in 2013 and I just couldn’t get myself together. I had more credit stuff to finish up. I think I made up some excuse to my parents. Like, the guidance counselor told me that I would have finished, but I didn’t finish. I was always just full of crap. And I had to finish up at what’s called Penn State World Campus and then I couldn’t even bring myself, it was two, 100 level classes, like a 100 level communications class and a 100 level writing class. And I couldn’t even bring myself to do the work.

Luke W Russell:

Did you develop a pretty strong sense of self-loathing?

James Helm:

Yeah, definitely. For once, I stopped believing my own crap and I think I started to realize that I was full of it. And when you realize that you’re full of it, that you’re not sure if you’re a good person, that you are lying to the people that you love. It really just is the opposite of self-confidence. It’s this feeling, and I try to teach people in recovery this today, because I think it’s so important. It’s this feeling that no matter what you do, you’re trapped and you are destined for a life like this. And what you can’t see at the time is that you’re in chapter two of a 20 page book, because chapter two just feels like every other chapter’s going to be just like that.

Luke W Russell:

So we graduate in 2013, you have this year in between where you’re, well, I guess you finish your fourth year in 2013, but then we have a couple more classes to wrap up and we get graduated in this next year, and in 2014 you head off to Rutgers Law School.

James Helm:

Yeah. So Rutgers Law School, I guess I did start in 2014. It wasn’t the year after school though, there was a year off in between where I studied for the LSAT three times, I took it three times and I did terrible all three times. No wonder because I wasn’t sober while I was studying. So I wasn’t making too much progress with my preparation. And even though I had a pretty decent GPA because I had this bad LSAT score, I couldn’t really get into any of the schools I wanted to go to. So there was one school that takes a lot of people where I got accepted and so I started out there, but I got so lucky. Rutgers had a student who started the orientation then decided not to go that semester and I was on a wait list and I got a call that said, hey, a spot opened up.

James Helm:

If you can start tomorrow, you’re in. And I jumped at that opportunity. And law school in my world was new life because I was so down in the dirt at my parents’ house and miserable, and law school was not only am I going to law school and there’s these new tasks to try to level up. But also there’s the social dynamic that comes with law school, like 120 people and happy hours, and girls in my grade.

James Helm:

By that point, I was good at navigating that social dynamic and so it gave me this whole new world to immerse myself in. And even that first semester of law school, I really focused. I mean, I stopped doing drugs. I was scared. I remember my dad sort of walking around and being like, “You got this opportunity kid. You better not fail out.” And I remember my only goal was to not fail out. And then the grades came back and I think I was in like the top 10% of the class. So I went from the 99th percentile admitted to the top 10% after the first semester and it was incredible. But I think it also got my confidence back in a bad way. That was like, ah, you knew it all along. Look how smart you are. You can do this stuff, which led to me kind of going back down the path of addiction.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. And while you’re at Rutgers, you’re studying both for your law degree. But you’re also getting an MBA at the same time while also facing an addiction. You started off, you’re focused, you’re getting your grades and then you kind of fell back into the trap. What was happening in your life at this point that led up to you going, you know what, I’m ready to get help because I can’t face this on my own?

James Helm:

Yeah. So my first year at law school really went great and after that first year is when I decided to do the MBA program. Because at that point, I always loved business and I regretted not being a business major in college. And I was like, “Well, here’s my second opportunity to study business.” And at that point again, the credential it’s like, well, dad checkbox. How other people think of me checkbox. Now I have this super duper dual degree, who could possibly say this, this and this about me. But I ended up my second year falling back into the pattern of drugs. And these schools gave me so much money. I mean, I maxed out my loan money and I think it was like 10 grand a semester. So somebody who has addiction issues then gets like $10,000 wired into their account.

James Helm:

I went and spent it the way that I would spend my last 100 dollars in college. And I remember some of my classmates that second year seeing me kind of, when you’re taking opiates, you nod off. You kind of daze off and fall asleep over and over again. And I remember some of my classmates seeing me doing that during night class and outside of class. And I was dating this girl at the time and she ended up having a, quote unquote, intervention with me. And I remember her being like, “We think you have a drug problem.” And my response was, “You think. I’ve had a drug problem for seven years. But look, here’s,” I always had the solution. “Here’s how I’m going to solve this.” And at that time I was not only taking opiates, but I had met this doctor in New Jersey that prescribed me Xanax and Adderall to my name, where I could go to a pharmacy and go get that stuff.

James Helm:

And I really started to lose my bearings. The worst that it had ever happened that second year and it culminated with a trip to Las Vegas. I’m working for the chief judge of New Jersey at the time and I’m bringing in my pills into the chambers every day. Now, they’re the ones that are prescribed in my name. So I have my papers in case anybody ever asks about them, but at the same time they’re mind altering substances. And I went on this trip to Las Vegas and I was with some of my college friends and a whole group of other guys. And I ended up just having four days or five days where I don’t remember and doing a lot of drugs and drinking. And I basically had my ticket to go home and at that point I was just so lost in my life that I decided, you know what, I’m not going to go home.

James Helm:

Instead, I’m going to go hang out with these people that I had met a couple days prior who had more drugs. And I stayed there for like five days. And I remember my parents calling me, my phone was off for a little while and then when it was back on, my parents calling me worried sick and I’m like, “Oh, I’m coming home. I’m coming home. Just one more day.” And I ended up flying back to Philadelphia and I took a train basically to my school on zero sleep. I took the red eye flight in. And I got to the courtroom and there was a legal writing seminar.

James Helm:

And I went in to sit in the seminar and my heart just started beating out of my chest. I had my first ever panic attack. It was almost like drug-induced schizophrenia. I thought that all of the court-martials knew who I was, what I was doing. They were after me. Fortunately, I didn’t cause a big scene. I felt like I had a heart attack. I thought the medics were going to be around. I kind of just opened my eyes and I realized this legal seminar was still going on, that that all had just happened in my head. And I walked outside and I called the only person that I could at that moment, which was the therapist. And she said, “Are you ready?” And for the first time it was like, I’ll do whatever to not feel like this.

Luke W Russell:

And you’re now redesigning the world, the story of James Helm. And you get through your program and graduate with excellence. I believe you were magna cum laude on both of your degrees. Is that right?

James Helm:

Yeah, I was. Crazy, right?

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. And so here you are, you graduate and you have opportunities in front of you with the various firms and now what?

James Helm:

So I started to evolve as a person and the idea of what I wanted in my life was now just this open canvas. And so I had accepted tentatively a offer from one of these OCIs, which was a large six-figure salary at this prestigious white shoe law firm. And coincidentally, a friend of mine started selling pay per click and SEO advertising. And that fourth year, I really only had like eight credits a semester. I was ahead, believe it or not. And so I didn’t really have much of a social life because I’m this new sober person. My social life was going to meetings with other sober people. And so I was like, “Okay. I’ve always been a good people person. I helped my dad sell insurance when I was a kid, like doing cold calls. I’m in-law school so maybe that’ll give me a in to talk to lawyers. I’ll help you sell this advertising to attorneys.”

James Helm:

And quick, funny story about that. So I started blasting 800 emails a day off my rutgers.edu domain. So it never got put in the spam folder. And I was getting this unbelievable response rate on my emails. I was scheduling like 12 appointments per day with different attorneys all over the country. Finally, one attorney from Florida complained that I was spamming and actually wrote to the Dean of Rutgers Law School who called me into his office and was like, “Hey, we love what you’re doing. We love your entrepreneurial enthusiasm, but don’t send these emails off our domain anymore or we’re going to suspend your account.” And so I ended up transitioning it, but by then I had built a book of 20 to 30 paper click and SEO clients nationally, most of them personal injury firms.

James Helm:

And the unintended benefit of that, there are two benefits of it. Benefit one, I started making a lot of money. I mean, I made, I think maybe 6,000 or 7,000 a month at the time. But enough side money that I felt kind of like I could do whatever I wanted career wise. I wasn’t that much dependent on the six figure salary anymore. But I think the bigger unintended benefit was I ended up flying to see a lot of these lawyers. One was Craig Goldenfarb who was in West Palm Beach, who’s a mentor of mine. Another was a big firm in Atlanta. Another was a big firm in New York. And I got to basically meet with the owners and understand what a personal injury law firm did. And I think what was most appealing to me at the time was, in my rediscover, I kind of realized I don’t like law that much.

James Helm:

I don’t like the process of reading documents and crafting motions or pleadings. What I like more is business and entrepreneurship. And what I saw in these personal injury firms is that they’re run like businesses and that the owners of the firms, many of them didn’t practice law themselves. They managed the business. And so I ended up asking the owner of that pay per click SEO company, who I just made all this money for, for a piece of the business. And when he said, no, this is my business. My mind started to be like, okay, well, if this is his business. I don’t want to continue to build somebody else’s business, but maybe now I know what kind of business that I could build.

Luke W Russell:

When we come back, James talks to us about why he decided to build his own business. Stay with us. I’m Luke W Russell and you’re listening to Lawful Good.

Speaker 3:

This show is made possible by the following sponsors. We are happy to partner with Milestone Foundation. Milestone Foundation provides the financial assistance plaintiffs and their families need to pay for basic living expenses during litigation. They offer non-recourse advances with low, simple interest so people in need can go the distance against deep pocket defendants. Learn more at themilestonefoundation.org. A big thank you to Hennessey Digital. Jason Hennessey uses SEO to generate millions of dollars in results for law firms across the country. In his book, Law Firm SEO, Jason takes you behind the scenes to see what actually works to rank on Google. Pick up a copy of Law Firm SEO on Amazon or download it on Audible.

Speaker 3:

Are you interested in learning trial skills from some of the best attorneys in the nation? Check out Trial School, a not-for-profit collaborative effort to provide free trial advocacy training for lawyers who represent people in groups fighting for social justice. Are you a personal injury attorney who’s looking to get high value cases? Our team at Russell Media has been doing social media marketing for PI lawyers for over a decade and we’re pretty comfortable in saying we’ve cracked the code. Because for years we’ve been generating six and seven figure cases for law firms through social media advertising. Curious? Head over to 7figurecases.com. That’s the number 7figurecases.com.

Luke W Russell:

When we left off, James was talking to us about how he fell back into the pattern of using drugs and the moment he decided to pursue rehab. As we continue the discussion, James tells us about how he started building his career and how he came up with the name TopDog Law. Yeah. And so here you are, you’ve graduated. You did some work on this digital marketing and then decided, you know what, I want my own thing. And a part of that process is coming up with the name, your firm being TopDog Law. What was that process like for you and why TopDog?

James Helm:

So I was really nervous about the TopDog name. I mean really nervous. I felt like it was so contrary to the traditional naming of law firms. I was terrified that I was going to be laughed outside at the building. When I was doing marketing, there was this lawyer in Texas I ran into that went by Law Boss and his billboards were all 1-800-LAW-BOSS. And I remember thinking like, “What an ego maniac. Calling himself the Law Boss.” And sure enough, day after day, week after week, I’m like, Law Boss, Law Boss. I’m like from a, I starting to think from an MBA perspective. Why are all of these law firms not recognizable brands? They’re people’s last names that nobody can pronounce. So you go to tell your friend about this great experience. Oh my God, you got to meet my lawyer. He was so great.

James Helm:

Oh, I’ll call him. What’s the name? It’s like, God forbid, it’s like Schmitz, Goldstein, Lavin. They can’t even tell people about your services. So I was like, I definitely want to do a brand name. And I feel like this has since become a bigger thing than it was even in 2018, just with other lawyers on social media and elsewhere using more branded names. But at the time I thought, there was only a couple people doing it and I wanted to be the Philly LawDogs. But I went and looked up in the trademark system and some attorney in Florida owned the trademark to LawDogs in legal services. And I even called this guy and I begged like, “Let me just use it in Pennsylvania.” And he even had an IP lawyer write this agreement that basically said I would license the use of LawDogs, but it would be limited to this specific geography.

James Helm:

And this would be the annual fee that you would pay for the licensure. And right before I signed, I’m like, “What am I doing? Just come up with a different name.” And sure enough, my friend who had created the marketing agency, he came up with TopDog and then another friend who lived at my building and came up with the slogan TopDog Get You Top Dollar. And the domain, I think I had to pay like a couple 1000 dollars, so topdoglaw.com. So it wasn’t free, but it was manageable and nobody owned the trademark. And I was like, “Okay, that’s it.” And today I think TopDog’s actually better than LawDogs. Yeah. And then there was, I guess the second part of the question is even when I made the website, I was terrified to release it, this was in 2018.

James Helm:

Because not only was I using the name TopDog, but I was also making this introductory video. And in that video, I talk about my struggle with opioids and how I want to fight for people who’ve been through ups and downs in their lives. And I think I delayed launching the law firm in part, because I hadn’t talked about that story publicly. I mean, there’s a lot of backlash, I would call it, in the 12-step community about speaking your story outside of that forum. And so in part, I felt a little guilty sharing that story and it took me really removing myself from that situation to be able to look at it and be like, “If my story helps people, why wouldn’t I share it?” And so I launched the firm and simultaneously launched this video. Which to my teachers, friends from high school was this like, oh my gosh, I didn’t know he went through that moment, which was big.

Luke W Russell:

Were you surprised when the response was positive? And also with that, how did you get those first few clients? Where did those come from?

James Helm:

Sure. So I think one thing that’s important to remember is that at the time I launched my law firm, I didn’t know how to do personal injury law. I literally hadn’t ever studied from anybody who’s ever done personal injury law. I didn’t take, I took a basic torts class in law school and I did well. I think I got an A or an A plus in that class. I liked it a lot. It was one of my favorite classes, probably my favorite professor. But I never interned or was an associate anywhere. My whole reason for starting the firm was getting the cases. So that was the one part that I felt comfortable that I could do, which I think is backwards from how most lawyers start it. They go in, they practice under an established firm, they learn the basics of how to do the cases.

James Helm:

And then they have the challenge of, well, if I want to go on my own, how do I get clients? I went in the opposite way. And I basically said, “Okay, I’m going to get the clients and everything else will work itself out.” Which you have to be able to learn on the fly. Now, I got really lucky that I had such relationships with personal injury lawyers. I ended up striking a relationship with a mentor in my city, in Philadelphia, who had an upstairs vacant place. He’s like, “Hey, I know you don’t have any money. Here’s this place upstairs. You can come down all day and ask me as many questions as you want. From how to send a letter of representation and how to fill out a personal injury protection app, and how to write a demand letter.” I mean, he literally taught me the nuts and bolts of how to do a case.

James Helm:

And in turn, I sent him all the cases that I couldn’t do myself, which was most of them. So it worked out really well for him, but at the time I was still doing the marketing thing. So I was making a bunch of money through the marketing. I mean, I think in 2019 I made like $100,000 through the marketing. And I basically used that 100,000 along with 80,000 that I begged for from a personal bank credit line, two business bank credit lines, and a, lack of a better word, loan shark that gave me a bunch of money at an incredibly high interest rate. And I pieced together like $187,000 that I basically just pushed into marketing, which I think again is kind of backwards. A lot of lawyers build up their staff and I remember pulling teeth for attorneys to get them to spend $2,000 a month on some type of paper click campaign.

James Helm:

And I basically took all the money I could get my hands on. And I remember thinking like, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll just go bankrupt or something. I don’t know. I’m going to try this.” And it didn’t work. I remember the first couple months in 2019, I didn’t really bring in very many cases, but I think around June or July 2019, I started to get some momentum and I started to get 25 or 30 calls per month. Some were from people who heard of me through friends. Some were from people who saw the content I was posting on social media. And then I really worked my personal network to basically get friends and family of people who were injured in an accident to think of me first.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. When did you feel like things started to get under control? I mean, we’re just talking about a few years ago. But from when you started, when did you feel like, okay, you know what, I’m starting to get this under control?

James Helm:

Yeah. So I made a decision, which was a hard decision at the time, but I think I had about 180 files near the end of 2019, beginning of 2020. And I had hired, I think, two or three support staff members, maybe two paralegals and a legal assistant. And my landlord at the time had just said that I was going to have to start paying rent and I hadn’t yet made any money on the cases. And I literally could not get another credit line to try to keep this thing afloat any longer. And I did have like a breakdown at that point where I had so much, I felt like I was under so much pressure. Around that time I met another lawyer in my city who has a really big firm, 200 people. And we have type of cases, limited tort in Pennsylvania, where you have to get over some type of threshold.

James Helm:

You have to prove permanency. And I was trying to prove permanency by myself and this guy had done it for thousands of people. And so I made it a business decision. I said, hey, why don’t I keep the cases that I don’t have to litigate and prove permanency on. So the fractures, the surgeries, what’s called the full tort cases. And why don’t I offload half of my inventory now, which was the limited torts, and why don’t, for the next six months, any case that comes in that’s a limited tort, I tell the client, hey, I’m going to joint counsel it with that firm. And that was a big decision for me for a couple reasons. One, it, let me keep my staff because at that point they were just working so hard. And two, it let me breathe a little bit to go focus on continuing to get more clients.

James Helm:

Because at that point I was almost so overwhelmed that I was getting ready to stop marketing, which would’ve been the worst thing I could have done. But I think a lot of lawyers run into this problem where they can’t wear every hat. You can’t be the litigator and manage the pre leg cases, and be running all the marketing initiatives. And so it was able, it freed up my time to keep investing in the marketing, which was the very thing that was working to put me in the place where I was.

Luke W Russell:

You mentioned that, you’re going through this, you’re having different challenges, people quitting. I mean, you were going through a lot of business challenges. And then of course, amid all of this, we have a pandemic hit, which throws a whole new wrenches into the system. But you mentioned you had to take a hard look in the mirror. And I remember earlier you talked about in your teen years, how you couldn’t look at yourself in the mirror. And so I’m curious, here we are more than a decade later, you’ve been sober for several years. How did the experience of that process of taking, of introspection, how did that shift and change, and how could you, what was looking in the mirror like now?

James Helm:

I think self-esteem comes from esteemable acts, mainly 1000 little decisions. And when I started my journey of recovery, I took my commitments, my promises I made to myself very seriously. If I said I was going to wake up at 5:45 the next morning, I would not sleep in. I would be up at 5:45. And if I said that I was going to go volunteer at some church to give out food to the homeless that weekend and I told somebody I was there. I was going to be there by hell or high water. And that was so different from who I was in active addiction. And I was able, between 25 and 28 before I started my law firm, to build up thousands of esteemable acts to generate confidence in myself. That if I said I was going to do something, or I put my mind to something, that I’m going to do it, and I’m smart and capable, and able to figure it out.

James Helm:

And I think, you look back and you’re like, okay. I was 28 years old starting a law firm. That seems so young. But relative to the lifetime journey that I went on, I had to joke with people, I’m 30 going on 55. I live the most conservative life. I’m in bed by 9:15 every morning. I take pleasure in the little things. I feel like I’m an old soul now. And I think that’s because I tried the other way and saw what that life did to me, and how it made me feel versus how I feel about myself today.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. I love that. I have a handful of yes, no questions I’d like to ask you here, we call it our high velocity round. But the rule is you’re not allowed to only answer with yes or no. I mean, you can say yes, but I’m going to sit here silently until you give me something more.

James Helm:

Just make me feel super awkward. All right.

Luke W Russell:

Okay. Have you ever hiked a mountain over 14,000 feet tall?

James Helm:

Yes. One of the things that I never understood in active addiction is why people loved nature. I felt that was super weird. I spent all my time in clubs and bars, and now I’m obsessed with the outdoors. And I just hiked my first 14,000 foot slope this past year, which was incredible. And I want to put together a bucket list of crazy adventure challenges around the world that I can go do in my spare time.

Luke W Russell:

I love it.

James Helm:

But there’s this guy who’s currently climbing Mount Everest right now, but he is doing it solo without supplemental oxygen and he’s taking the hardest path you can possibly take up the mountain. I’ll find you that article. You might appreciate it.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Are you hypercompetitive in everything?

James Helm:

Yes. Absolutely. I look at business as like playing sports. I view it in very much the same vein. I like to be cordial and respectful to people I compete with, but I like to compete. I think that’s part of the fun in it.

Luke W Russell:

What about miniature golf?

James Helm:

Oh, I understand probably where this question’s going. I’m very competitive in miniature golf. And I took a pretty hard loss down in Long Beach Island rather recently, if that’s what you’re referencing and the person that beat me was not a big, strong male. Instead, it was a woman who just kicked my butt.

Luke W Russell:

Are you a good dancer?

James Helm:

No, I’m not a good dancer. It’s funny, I actually dance on the internet. So I’m a knowingly bad dancer that attempts to dance, which I think is the worst form of dancer.

Luke W Russell:

Do you consider yourself the life of the party?

James Helm:

Not anymore. I think that I have a big personality, but when I go to parties nowadays, I’m very much there at the very beginning of the party to pay my respects and then I am out before any of the shenanigans start.

Luke W Russell:

Yes. Is there anything better than a good CrossFit session?

James Helm:

Oh, I loved CrossFit for a long time, but I will say I’ve gotten on an F45 kick, where I’ve really bought into F45 and the community around the F45 program. And so I would say that F45 is a little easier on the joints. So if you’re getting to be an older guy, it might be the better play.

Luke W Russell:

Did you have any childhood heroes?

James Helm:

Yes. And the biggest childhood hero I had was my dad’s boss. This guy by the name of Ed Snow. He was this entrepreneur that was larger than life, who grew up in a poor family, the youngest of 12 kids and built several businesses from scratch. And he was also my football coach and a mentor of mine and I looked up to him most of my life.

Luke W Russell:

And can you tell us about your baptism?

James Helm:

Yes. So I got baptized for a second time at Epic Church. Epic is kind of one of those new era non-denominational churches. They were playing Drake outside, which kind of lured me in. I was like, “This is the church. They’re playing corn hole and Drake.” And so I went in, I got super involved. They do amazing stuff in the community. And I was a couple years sober at the time. I think, I might have been 27 and I thought, what other better way to show my new life, this restart button I’ve pressed on my life, than to actually get baptized again. And I remember after I did it, I did it pretty spontaneously. And after I did it, I was on cloud nine. I mean, I can’t even be begin to explain the joy that was in my heart just realizing that despite everything that I went through, I was loved.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. When you look back and you think about, when you were 16, 17, 18 years old, you looked at the other kids who were also doing drugs, but they were the other crowd. When you look back and you think about your own journey, do you think you’ve become a more compassionate person?

James Helm:

Absolutely. And I think this has a lot to do with my personal injury success and why I relate to my clients. A lot of personal injury clients are very poor, not much education, will act out. And I think if you come from a place of, if you knew everybody’s true story, you’d love them, which is a lesson that I learned in the 12-step rooms. That a lot of the behavior you’re seeing on the outside is a reflection of trauma that’s happened years earlier in their life. If you take that same lesson and you apply it to personal injury clients, you’ll learn to be a lot more compassionate about your clients. And realize that somebody screaming at you because they’re having a bad day isn’t anything to do with you but it’s to deal with the life that they may have had living up to this point. And if you had lived that life, you might be sitting there screaming like that.

Luke W Russell:

Some people suggest that mental health challenges could maybe just be circumvented with practicing gratitude. Given your experiences, what would you say to that?

James Helm:

I think it’s impossible to be grateful and unhappy at the same time. So practicing gratitude is a great way to shift your mindset. With that being said, if you dealt with any type of trauma during your life, there’s nothing that’s going to be better than you digging up that trauma and the roots of that trauma, and working through your issues. So I don’t think you can tell somebody who hasn’t done any work revisiting their past to just be grateful and think that by any means that’s going to solve whatever they have going on.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Are there circumstances that you either actively avoid or it’s kind of you maybe take as your cue, like this is when I exit?

James Helm:

Yeah, definitely. I learned some early rules in recovery that I still use today. Like I always drive myself places. I refuse to ever carpool with anybody because I always want to have an exit plan if I ever feel edgy or uncomfortable. I mean, I’m so lucky that I haven’t had an urge to use or drink, or drug in three, four years, but today maybe it’s, I feel uncomfortable in a certain situation. And if I’m ever in a party or at a bar in particular and I’m like, “You know what, this just doesn’t feel good.” I always have a way that I can leave.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. What’s something you wish people knew about addiction?

James Helm:

I wish people in addiction would know that it’s not their fault. That they’re not weak. I think for a lot of years I thought I was weak. Why could my other friends do these drugs the night before and I was the only person that woke up the next morning and was like, where are those? Can we get some more? And that’s not because I’m weak and they are strong, it’s because my brain reacts different chemically to mind altering substances than theirs does. And this is largely genetic and you see it repeated over and over, and over, and over in families. And so it’s not a scenario where you just need to try harder. It’s a scenario where if you have this genetic makeup or you have this reaction to mind altering substances, you need to ask for help and then decide to not use them again.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. You’re 30 and you mentioned earlier, you’d like to have kids one day and maybe lots of kids. Did your younger self think that you’d probably have kids by now?

James Helm:

Yeah, I think so. And I think there’s a lot of pressure in your 20s or early 30s to get married and have kids, and you see other people doing it. And I’m a slow learner, I think with a lot of things in life. And one thing I haven’t talked much about in this podcast is relationships. And when I got sober, I had to figure out what type of partner that I wanted. And it hasn’t been as easy as, oh, I’m going to go find someone that meets these criteria. I’ve now gone five years since I’ve got sober and I’ve been in and out of a couple of relationships and they haven’t worked out.

James Helm:

And each time I think I start to learn a little bit more about myself and what I’m looking for in a partner. And I always think it’s crazy when people who are 18 or 19, just miraculously find their life partner. But I think for other people like myself, it just is a lot of trial and error to really realize not only what you want, but who you are and to attract the person that is going to bring out that next level of you, whatever that looks like.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. When you think about relationships, do you have insecurities around your past or do you feel like you’ve come to a place to where you are comfortable with your history with addiction and different trials you faced?

James Helm:

Let me answer this question super honestly. So it’s probably not what you think. I actually have gotten so comfortable with my story and I’ve used it. It’s almost become a marketing narrative as opposed to something I really feel and tap into when I talk about it. Fortunately this interview I feel like I was able to tap into it. But sometimes I’ve found myself on dating revealing too much about my story too quick. And then sometimes that actually leads the other person to reveal a lot of stuff about their past. And because I’m listening, it creates this connection that maybe isn’t the best or isn’t right. And so, one thing I’ve actually been talking to a lot in my therapies is as I approach new potential partners to maybe wait for the right time and place to start opening up so much about myself and what I’ve been through, as opposed to sitting and within the first couple dates talking so openly about this stuff.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. And thank you for sharing that. When you think about the word family, what’s that mean to you?

James Helm:

Family is people that you love, trust and can depend on. I think family is vulnerability. Is people that you can be your authentic self towards and can hold space for you.

Luke W Russell:

As you reflect back over your life, and you’ve been through a lot of stages for being 30 years old, and you think about the different, how your relationship with your parents has changed from the early years of desiring your dad’s approval around grades and sports, and your mom’s gentle kindness all through as you faced addiction. What’s your relationship like with them today?

James Helm:

What’s beautiful about my relationship to my parents is I’ve been able to unpack my childhood and recognize that they were doing the best that they could. There’s this interesting thing I heard one time in a AA room that no parent looks at their child, holding their child in their little hand and points at their little infant’s face and is like, I’m going to screw this kid up. Nobody does that. Every parent is doing the best they can. They’re by and large doing what they learned from their parents. And I look back on my childhood and I didn’t have this childhood that I think a lot of people assume people in addiction have. I think by and large, my childhood was very good, very happy. I come from a really beautiful, loving family. My parents didn’t do anything wrong that led me to addiction. There’s what’s called big T traumas and little T traumas. And everybody has their own little traumas that they go for and I had mine, and I just, am grateful that I had mine because it put me on the journey that led to me sitting here today.

Luke W Russell:

What do you hope that your parents are proud of about you?

James Helm:

I hope that my parents look back at my life and even the decisions we had a lot of conflict about, they really didn’t want me to not go to this big shoe law firm. I mean, we didn’t talk for a couple months after that. They were so upset that I wasn’t fulfilling this dream that I felt like they had for me. But I would hope that today they look back and they say, he did it his way and his way worked for him. And there was no right or wrong answer and we loved him and we were scared because we didn’t know if his way would work, but he gave it a shot and look, it seemed to work out for him. So I don’t feel any desire to say, oh, I told you so. But I just would hope that they look at my journey and they’re like, he does things his way and somehow it works out for him.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. I love that. If you could go back in time and maybe it’s that like when you were, I’m trying to think, I think it was around eighth grade or when you first heard this idea that drugs could be this altering thing. And that starts to set this stage for a life where you did face addiction. What would you love to go back and tell your younger self if that younger James or Jake was here with us?

James Helm:

I would probably tell him that the short term social benefits are not worth the long term consequences and he probably would not have listened. Because I’ve found that any lesson I’ve had to learn in my life, I’ve had to learn through pain. I’ve had to learn the hard way. I don’t take other people’s opinions or wisdom about things. I always seem to want to find out myself. And I think that’s served me and that’s also hurt me. And I think I’m just going to keep living that way because pain is the best teacher. It’s the quickest way to realize that that decision is not a good one and that you might want to rethink that.

Luke W Russell:

Yeah. Okay, James, want to fast forward 50 years to your 80th birthday celebration and people from all throughout your life are present. A gentle clinking on glass can be heard and a hush washes over the room. People raise their glasses to toast to you. What are three things that you would hope they say?

James Helm:

I think that I would hope that they say that I was someone that cared about other people. I hope they would say I was somebody who made a meaningful difference in his community. And I think that I hope that they would say that I’m a good parent because that’s a journey I haven’t started yet, but I very much want to start at some point in my life. And I’m excited for that challenge and I know how important it is.

Luke W Russell:

To learn more about James, visit topdoglaw.com. Thanks so much for listening to us this week. This podcast is produced by Kirsten Stock, edited by John Keur, and mastered by Guido Bertolini. A few notes before we wrap up. Please check out our season three sponsors. Be sure to check out Jason Hennessey’s book titled Law Firm SEO, if you want the best knowledge available in the industry. To any plaintiff’s attorneys who have clients in need of simple interest loans, check out the milestonefoundation.org. If you’d like to join a growing group of attorneys that are actively working to improve their trial skills, head over to trialschool.org. For personal injury lawyers looking to acquire big cases through social media, visit 7figurecases.com. And if you want to experience rich human connection, join our LinkedIn group by going to joinbettertogether.com. By the way, are you looking for more great podcasts?

Luke W Russell:

I am also the host of two other shows coming out this year and you can go ahead and subscribe to them today, so that as soon as we start releasing episodes, you’ll be the first to know. Check out the Trusted Legal Partners Podcast, a place where you can find good people, doing good work in the industry. I am also the host of the Society of Women Trial Lawyers. There you’ll find inspiring stories from women attorneys across the nation. You can find links to these in the show description, and they’re also available on the same places you hear Lawful Good. Thanks so much for listening this week. This podcast is produced by Kirsten Stock, edited John Keur and mastered by Guido Bertolini. I’m your host, Luke W Russell. And you’ve been listening to Lawful Good.