As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gustavo Mayen, owner of the Law Office of Gustavo Mayen, where he practices litigation law. He also recently started volunteering in helping veterans with their legal veteran benefits appeals at the Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims, where he just won the first case he volunteered on. Gustavo is also a Marine combat veteran and the first in his family to graduate from college with not just one, but two graduate degrees.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
I am an immigrant that grew up poor, and in a big city, I am also a veteran. I believe that it was this background that paved the way for me to be a litigation attorney. I do, among other law, criminal defense and veteran benefit appeals. Because of my background, I know first hand the importance of good legal representation and that as a poor minority in a big city, there are many things already against us, so I try to be a good role model. As a veteran that has had to deal with the process of disability benefits, I know the headaches, frustrations, and complicated process of applying for these benefits. It is an honor and gives great personal and professional pleasure to be able to serve other veterans by volunteering my time as an attorney is fighting for their veteran benefit appeals in court.
Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
After I graduated from High School, I did not know what I wanted to do with my life. I could not decide what to try to study in college, I could not afford to go to college, and because of this, I thought I would be a college drop out.
Thus, I decided to enter the workforce. I had many job positions during this time (at times working 2 or 3 jobs at a time). I always obtained great work reviews, and at times even getting promoted. But I soon realized I kept hitting the professional ceiling, being that I only had a High School education. It was frustrating that even though I earned decent money when I had two jobs, I had no time for anything else, I was not taking care of my health, and I was still stuck economically because I could only afford much for housing, transportation, and the necessities, plus I also help my family out.
The times when I only had one job or unexpected expenses, I would still struggle economically to make ends meet and would have to take out loans to buy a car or for any other major expense. Although the thought of going to school crossed my mind, I was not sure who would accept me, I could not afford it, did not see many opportunities for grants, and was reluctant to get into debt with school loans.
What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
My mindset was that I needed to change something. My mindset was also to continue working hard and show strong work-ethic so that further opportunities could open up. I also grew up poor, so I became accustomed to having or ending up with the bare minimum. My family taught me to have a very strong work ethic and to keep a positive attitude, even in dire times.
Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
My first major break came in joining the military service. This did not give me the drive, as I had that, but it gave me better direction and a better way to plan and execute on things. It also allowed me to get further education. If I was not deployed, I was doing night school, weekend school, online school, basically any type of schooling I could do. This allowed me to get that ever so elusive education I knew I needed, while at the same time be able to do this without getting myself into serious debt from school loans. By starting and continuing with this journey, not only was I able to get my first undergraduate, but it also helped me with obtaining two more graduate degrees. The first one being the law degree, which allowed me to become a lawyer, the second (and more recent) an MBA degree, which has allowed to better understand how to run my own business, understand other aspects of the business besides law and start looking on how to grow. Such success has also allowed me to give back by volunteering my time as an attorney in representing veterans in their legal veteran appeals at the Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims. I recently won the first case I volunteered for and plan on doing this more often.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
First and foremost is to not allow others to dictate your limits and your goals. Because neither my parents were high school graduates and I had no one mentoring me nor pushing me to seek an education, my mindset at that time was full of doubt as to whether college was even for me. Because I grew up poor (and at the time was unaware of the array of grants, scholarships and even loans available), I also limited myself in overthinking and negatively reasoning the economical part of going to school. I think the fact that I am somewhat stubborn helped me get passed this and those that may have hinted my education and professional goals should have limits. After this long road, I am glad I did not listen to my old self and to those that tried to limit myself or my goals.
Second, growing up poor and the Marines taught me to do the most with the bare minimum. In order to persevere through adversity, you have to be able to do this in tough times. If you get complacent during the better times, when adversity arrives, it can throw you off your feet and put additional stress on the situation.
Lastly, have mentors and a good support system. You do not have to go at it alone, and you do not have to re-invent the wheel. Having mentors and those that can support you or give you advice goes a long way in achieving your goals and not getting sidetracked.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Honestly, there are too many to list, from my parents that have always supported me no matter what I do, to my aunt and uncle who raised me for as a child and taught me to have an entrepreneur mindset, to the mentors I have had in the military, in the legal, and business profession.
But to share a quick story, at the beginning of practicing law, you learn that you have to allow your time properly and to not let the job take over your life, one mentor in particular has helped a lot to put work and the work/life balance into a good perspective, I know I can always count on this person and this person will be honest in answering my questions. Having mentors like this one makes a big impact in not only achieving success but in keeping you grounded.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes. As mentioned, I started to volunteer on taking on legal veteran appeals at no charge to the indigent veteran. I believe this is a niche area of law and a pain point in the veteran community. Veteran benefit appeals are complicated, can be intimidating, and the road of the appeal to get all the way to the court system (in this case the Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims) is very long. By the time the veteran’s claim get here, the veteran has been fighting for his/her benefits for quite a few years (unfortunately some veterans give up on their application much sooner and never pursue the appeal), and some veterans cannot afford a lawyer or cannot find legal assistance through general non-profits.
As a service disabled combat veteran myself, and one that has and continues to go through this process, I know first-hand about all of the above, and how at times it feels like both the VA and everything else is against the veteran and their claim. Because of this and because we learn in the military to take care of our own I have made it my goals to try to represent veterans with their legal benefit appeals. The process can be long, and legally complicated, but there is no better price than a sincere “thank you”, knowing the veteran will be in a better position once the case is won, and letting the veteran know he/she is not alone in the fight.
I do not think there is a way to explain how good it feels to do good, for the right reason. To be to have that instant rapport as a veteran myself and tell that veteran I got their back, and to be able to let the veteran see that at this stage, he.she (with representation) is in the same position as the VA (with its cadre of lawyers) is. Sure, I’m only one lawyer with a solo practice, but I’ve never shied away in front of great odds. At the end of the day, it is all about the law, and how it was, and is, applied to the veteran’s claim (which is what I take care of on the veteran’s end). I recently won the first appeal I took on, and in honor, I am standing up a green soldier — and one for every win thereafter — on my desk.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Having both the legal and business background has allowed me to verify what I already hypothesize: that there is a real need for legal representation for veterans in their legal appeal for benefits. During business school, I constantly tried to bring this issue and sought advice from various people in school, both students and teachers. In the last two years, I have also been part of the elevator pitch (called the Rocket pitch at school) competition at my business school. This has allowed me to refine the message, the pitch, and get great feedback and great connections.
To this end, and after working through and winning my first appeal, I see a need in (and currently working on) developing a non-profit to specifically do this type of legal representation. Developing a non-profit would allow funds to be collected from 3rd parties, corporations and grants. It would also allow to do this endeavor at a larger scale, which would mean being able to represent more veterans. Lastly, as a veteran-owned entity providing services to veterans, it would allow me to recruit veterans who are currently in school to work here, thus providing experience, a source of income, and a way to give back. Lastly, it would also allow me to reach out to the medical community for assistance, as there is a lot of medical terminologies and medical paperwork in the discovery of the veteran appeal. Having assistance there would greatly cut back on the time spent understanding this and properly applying it to the legal part of the appeal.
Lastly, it is my hope to develop this as a business, allow it to grow, and at the end be able to more efficiently run it, so that more indigent veterans can be represented free of charge, and so that these veterans can keep more of the money (which is part of the benefits awarded to them) they have rightfully earned, and be able to get better assistance with their disabilities.
Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share
Yes, this: There is always a light at the end of the tunnel. The path is never easy and you will have to make a lot of sacrifices. But it is worth it at the end. Just know your destination, and make sure that is where you want to end up, then start your journey.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
As odd as it sounds, I currently tend to stay away from most social media, except for LinkedIn. Once I move on the mentioned veteran non-profit, I do plan on developing a stronger social media presence.