Confessions of a Recovering Trial Attorney Turned Business Owner

I realized something over the Memorial Day weekend.  For the first time in my career, I realized I have arrived.

But first, since this post is the “maiden voyage” for the Durfee & Phelps blog, it feels right to dedicate it to those it is meant to serve and with whom Rick and I have a deep connection – the small business owner.  The brick and mortar proprietor; the professional; the manufacturer; the property owner; the entrepreneur.  And so while I am committed to future posts being more current, as is customary in the blogosphere,  it feels right to initiate the blog with a reflection on how our small business came to be and why I finally realized, I have arrived.

I love the courtroom – especially old courtrooms.  The wood.  The jury box.  The bench.  The musty smell.  The high ceilings.  I have said many times through the years that I never feel more alive than when I am in the courtroom.  You feel every human emotion – but magnified to the nth degree.  Whether big or small, every case tried in a courtroom feels like it is the center of the universe.

I started my courtroom career in law school under the mentoring of two of the best trial attorneys in California – Professors Joseph Taylor and Mike Sands – both recognized in their time as two of the top courtroom attorneys in California.  I made my law school’s trial team.  I remember getting permission to practice in our mock courtroom late at night and even into the early morning hours.  One night in particular, I remember my wife and two toddler children falling asleep on the floor of the jury box while I practiced my closing argument into the wee hours of the morning.

After law school I just wanted to get into the courtroom and try cases so I accepted a position with a small personal injury firm where the partners would let me try my own cases from the beginning.   Within a month I tried my first arbitration.  Within 5 months, my first jury trial.

I became a student of the art of trial advocacy.  Clarence Darrow, Irving Younger, Roy Black, Gerry Spence, and Thomas Mauet became my courtroom heroes.  I read their books and attended seminars – including a week-long boot camp.  I identified the local courtroom “rock stars” and would go to the courthouse and watch them in action.  I enjoyed the personal growth that comes from trying to master a craft.

My career goal was to get recruited by a large prestigious firm and become the “hired gun” other attorneys call when it was clear the case was not going to settle and they needed to bring on an attorney in the late stages of the litigation process who knew how to try a case.

I litigated for 10 years.  Then my sixth child,  Benjamin Joseph, was born.  The night he was born, I was drafting a Motion for Summary Judgment on my laptop in the hospital in a hotly contested case – a case where another attorney was the defendant – and who was represented by a team of very able attorneys.  I was also preparing for a wrongful death jury trial scheduled to take place only a few months later.

At 6 weeks old, Ben stopped breathing.  It was wintertime.  They rushed him by ambulance to the hospital where he was ultimately diagnosed with RSV, Pneumonia, and the influenza.  We spent a week in the hospital watching the doctors do spinal taps (I had to leave the room) stick tubes down his nose and throat and suck the stuff out of his lungs. At times, for the first time in our parenting lives Wendy and I wondered during that week if we were going to lose a child.  But he recovered and we still consider it a literal miracle we have him with us today.

The thought of losing Ben changed my life.  Though rewarding, trial work is a jealous mistress.  It’s hard to leave it at the office.  It’s all-consuming – constantly thinking about how to out prepare and out strategize your opponent.  After Ben recovered, I tried my last jury trial and hung up my briefcase.  I had no idea what I would end up doing.

Ten years ago, I could not fathom being a small business owner.  I would literally try to imagine what it would be like to not collect a paycheck every two weeks and to have more to think about than just focusing on my craft.  I would cringe at the thought.  The financial risk.  The instability.

After I quit trial work, Wendy and I somewhat unwittingly entered the world of the small business owner when we started purchasing investment real estate.  My circle of contacts broadened.  I started talking with small business owners.  For the first time in my life, I began reading books on business – and could not put them down!  Inc. and Grow Rich, The Richest Man in Babylon, Own Your Own Corporation, Rich Dad Poor Dad (and every book in the series) The E-Myth Revisited (and every book in the series), Leadership and Self Deception, Blue Ocean Strategies.

As I read these books and talked with small business owners, not only did I start to believe I could be a small business owner, I realized I may actually have something to offer small business owners.  I went looking for a law partner with a  “transactional” (code for “Won’t get within 100 miles of a courtroom”) practice that catered specifically to small business owners/entrepreneurs.  These are the clients I wanted to rub shoulders with and build my business around.

Rick Durfee and I had crossed paths periodically as volunteers for Boy Scouts of America.  While I knew he practiced “estate planning” (which had always sounded boring to me in my previous life) with a downtown law firm before going out on his own, his reputation was such that I knew he was the “estate planning” attorney other estate planning attorneys referred their small business owner clients to.   I sought him out and found out why.

In our first meeting, Rick talked – and drew pictures – while I listened.  Using arrows and geometric shapes such as triangles, ovals, circles, and squares, he demonstrated how to build a legal structure for a business that accomplishes the estate planning, business planning, and asset protection planning aims of the business owner.  It was not boring.  It was engaging, stimulating stuff.

It was also not “out there” like some techniques I had heard of.  His structures were founded on well established legal precedent and the entities used in the structures were mainstream – with decades to centuries of legal precedent.  But the power of what he showed me was the way the pieces were put together.  Even with my limited knowledge in matters of growing a business, it was clear to me this amazing concept was being under-marketed.

In our first meeting, it was apparent to both of us what a powerful and unique resource our combined experience would be for the business owner – Rick’s 20 years of experience in advanced planning techniques – the “front end” – with my decade of experience in the courtroom – the “back-end” and the very thing the business owner wants to prevent and protect against.

On March 1, 2006, we formed Durfee & Phelps, PLLC.  And four years later, my family and I have not missed a meal yet.  Yes, we have felt the pain of the small business owner – especially in a down economy.  And I expect future posts will address some of the inevitable unpleasant things we deal with as small business owners.  But over this last Memorial Day weekend, as I was reading my latest choice in the business book genre, What Clients Love, I realized for the first time that I would genuinely consider being employed by the most prestigious law firm in the country as a step down from being a small business owner.   I really have arrived.

Kent Phelps


About durfeephelps

Attorneys helping small business owners, professionals, real property owners, and high net worth clients structure their companies and personal assets so they are protected from predatory lawsuits, unnecessary taxes, probate, company and family disputes, and other life crisis events.
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3 Responses to Confessions of a Recovering Trial Attorney Turned Business Owner

  1. Michael Marx says:

    Great inaugural post Kent and welcome to the blogosphere! I’m looking forward to learning more from you by reading your blog.

  2. Very nice, Kent. I look forward to future posts as well.

    I think you have found a perfect place (the small business world) to let your skills shine…I’m glad you have found that crucial balance at work so that you can focus on what really matters at home.

    I think the small business community will be gathered around the monitors waiting for more of your advice and guidance…both from this blog and from your “paid” services. Best of luck!

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