When Phaedra Parks describes her transition from corporate attorney to independent practitioner, she sounds a bit like one of her celebrity clients.
"If I was at a big law firm, I would have to stifle the essence of who Phaedra is," says the 34-year-old Atlanta entertainment lawyer whose client list includes Jermaine Dupri, Jazze Pha, Mannie Fresh and, most notably, Bobby Brown.
"Being my own boss means that I'm the decision maker, that I ..." She hesitates, then laughs, as if embarrassed by what she's about to say. "I have control."
This desire for control is something she shares with other young attorneys who decide to go it alone. They have entrepreneurial or philosophical urges-or both-to satisfy.
"I have eight uncles on my mother's side and three uncles on my father's side who all own their own businesses, so that idea has always been instilled in me," says trial attorney Derric Crowther, 39, who started his own firm in 2003. "And there was always this side of me that said, ‘If I was doing it, I'd do it this way instead of that way.'"
For Stephanie Friese, self-employment was in her DNA. She grew up with her father's law firm in Cuthbert, a town of about 3,500 in South Georgia. After studying abroad, the thought of competing for a job held no appeal.
"When I got back I saw everybody scrambling and stressing about interviews and grades," says Friese, who was 23 when she and her father started their own real estate law firm in 1999. "I had a fresh perspective and refused to get sucked into the stress."
Of course, starting your own firm doesn't exactly eliminate stress, either.
"One of the more difficult jobs is staffing," Friese says. "Hiring the right people and making hard decisions. Firing people is not fun for me."
She adds: "It can be a struggle, wearing so many hats. There's accounting, human resources, marketing. There's the practice of law. You have to balance all of that, allocate your time in a way that is productive, delegate tasks to the right people. I am never bored."
For Holly Geerdes, whose practice is focused on an underserved immigrant clientele, a lot of thought also went into atmosphere. Legal action is inherently stressful, she reasoned, so she wanted to create a calm environment, "where you walk into the space and feel very relaxed. The office décor is very simple, classic with a slightly Asian minimalist style-not too much heavy wood like many law offices."
Geerdes' main office is surrounded by glass and trees, accentuating the soothing feel of the place, and she purposely avoided the stifling cubicle approach in favor of open workspaces.
"The art tends to be contemporary, the work of local up-and-coming artists, because we want to promote Atlanta's art community," Geerdes says.
The following six lawyers, all of whom hung a shingle at an early age, are a diverse lot; but Richard Ryczek sums up one piece of universal advice: "Get a bookkeeper. ... There are taxes I have to pay that I'd never heard of before."
The Parks Group
Parks thinks of her three-attorney outfit as a lifestyle management firm.
"Sometimes I'm an accountant, psychiatrist, counselor, friend, voyeur, doctor," she says. "I've wrapped bloody wounds."
When Bobby Brown's troubled life makes headlines, Parks says, her role is "to support and encourage and push in the right direction. ... I was asked about Bobby: ‘Why do you stay involved?' It's because I see a success in the making."
She got her start as an attorney with GEICO's in-house law firm, Bridges Ormand & Faenza, "watching and learning from seasoned lawyers," she says, "who knew how to handle clients and judges and million-dollar deals."
A former beauty pageant contestant, Parks comes from an artistic family. Her brother Jacque, a backup singer with a number of bands, introduced her to other musicians, and her family is close with the family of rapper Too $hort. "His mom is like my godmother," Parks says.
But her transition to full-time entertainment law started when hip-hop impresario Shakir Stewart saw her working a civil trial and tried to lure her out of the corporate grind. Then her pal Atlanta DJ Ryan Cameron convinced her that if she didn't have more clients than she could handle within six months of hanging her shingle, he'd personally go to GEICO and get her old job back. She finally gave in.
Almost immediately, she was referred a high-profile case by Atlantic Records, whose young star, Drama, languished in a Georgia holding cell when he had tour dates scheduled. She spoke to the judge, acquired a temporary furlough for Drama and accompanied him on the road for several months.
"Accompanying Drama was not part of the written agreement," she says, "But the record company wanted to make sure he made it back to jail in time and it was sort of understood that I would be responsible for that."
The case brought her quick fame, and Too $hort's radio interviews, in which he claimed he had the prettiest and toughest lawyer in town, only pushed her deeper into the spotlight. Magazines and radio shows referred to her as the young, hip-hop guru chick.
Business took off. She has been a legal analyst and commentator for NBC and FOX News, and still finds time for civic endeavors. She stays active with organizations like the Gate City Bar Association (GCBA, the oldest African-American bar association in Georgia), where she served a stint as president.
"Phaedra has accomplished a lot for many reasons," says former GCBA president Avarita Hanson. "She's an excellent listener, very patient. Underneath her gorgeous exterior is a very grounded person with a good value system and sound judgment. She's a shrewd businessperson with a teachable spirit. And if she wasn't such a good attorney, she couldn't pick her own clients."
Christopher D. Pixley
Christopher D. Pixley, LLC
It was just a brief on-air interview about five years ago for a case in Miami, but Chris Pixley had a look and poise that appealed to the executive producer of Larry King Live.
"They saw me by pure happenstance, asked if I'd be interested in coming on the air, and it's been kind of off and running since," says Pixley, the Atlanta trial lawyer who gets almost as much face time as James Carville.
He has made more than 150 appearances on Larry King Live, including stints as guest host when interviewees are involved in big legal stories. He makes regular appearances on Nancy Grace's shows, and has appeared on ESPN's SportsCenter to discuss the legal problems of athletes like Kobe Bryant.
When a courtroom drama captures the nation's attention-Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson-Pixley's on-air presence increases, as he takes on the mantle of "noted defense attorney" (his typical intro on CNN) to provide commentary and insight, or to spar with former prosecutor Grace.
"Nancy and I come from diametrically inconsistent world views," says Pixley, whose measured delivery counters the excitable Grace.
It's reality TV, it's courtroom theater, and it's something Pixley could only do as his own man.
"[TV commentary] has been a blessing for me. It fits my skill sets. I like doing it and I do a decent job of it, but I don't see how this would work with a big firm. Striking out on my own gave me flexibility, in terms of commitment, and in the types of cases I take on," says Pixley, who is handling the appeal of Erik Menendez.
Pixley, 39, has won numerous multimillion-dollar civil cases, and has been admitted to practice on a permanent or visiting basis before state and federal courts in 22 states.
He first hung his shingle after leaving Atlanta firm Dennis, Corry & Porter (now Dennis, Corry, Porter & Smith) in 2000, joining several fellow Vanderbilt graduates who started their own firm. He went solo in 2003. His staff consists of himself, a paralegal, a secretary and "of counsel" relationships that help him handle the far-flung caseload.
"Almost 50 percent of my work comes from outside the state of Georgia," he says, "and there's no question that the scope and quality of the work is entirely due to my media work. If you represent yourself well, the opportunities will come."
Crowther & Ashby, P.C.
There is no Plan B for Derric Crowther, a mindset that once cost him a girlfriend.
"I told her I wanted to go to an Ivy League school and she said, ‘You dream too much,'" says Crowther. "That stuck with me. I was heartbroken at the time, but I embraced it. When I went out on my own, it was all or nothing. That's always been my approach."
Crowther, who played linebacker for the Ivy League champion University of Pennsylvania football team, brings an athlete's zeal to his firm, which represents mostly plaintiffs in a stacked caseload that includes medical malpractice, products liability and toxic tort cases. All of which makes dinner conversation in the Crowther home pretty interesting. His wife, Dr. Freda McCarter, is a surgeon who was once sued for malpractice.
"I think I took [the lawsuit] harder than she did," says Crowther. "It was dismissed. Somebody was totally fishing."
He cut his legal teeth defending big companies in tort cases for Evert & Weathersby (now Evert Weathersby Houff) in Atlanta. Crowther first met Michael Weathersby, by chance, on a flight to Philadelphia, and Weathersby hired him several years later when Crowther turned up in his office to apply for an opening.
"Clients were really drawn to him," Weathersby says. "I always felt like his charisma and personality would make up for what he may have lacked in terms of hands-on experience and expertise back then. I was not proved wrong.
"His motor ran too fast to want to stay in a firm and earn the stripes and so forth. So I was not at all surprised when he told me he wanted to go out and hang a shingle. It just happened earlier than I expected. But people who are going to be stars don't want to spend so much time in somebody else's house."
Weathersby, a renowned trial lawyer, ought to know. He opened his own firm after practicing only five years.
Law Office of Richard T. Ryczek Jr., LLC
"I have plenty of clients who come in and tell me they were driving perfectly fine, where the police officer says they were weaving all over the road," says Ryczek, 35, whose firm Web site is goodbyedui.com. "Often I think the truth lies somewhere in between."
Driven by what he calls his entrepreneurial spirit, Ryczek left the DUI firm of Clark & Towne to start his own DUI practice, in the same town, Lawrenceville, in May 2004. Plenty of opportunity for both firms in metro Atlanta, with its legendary conga-line traffic.
"I learned a great deal from them, but nobody can care more for my client than I can," says Ryczek, who counts only his paralegal as an employee, and shares office space, and a receptionist, with three other attorneys.
One office mainstay is the Intoxilyzer 5000-the same breathalyzer machine Georgia police officers typically use.
"I'll have a client who swears he or she had only two drinks, so we'll have someone drive them down here, let them have a couple of drinks and blow into the machine, try to re-create what happened," he says.
The machine should be able to detect the difference between alcohol on the breath and alcohol in the bloodstream, but the results are sometimes skewed and it can mean the difference in a verdict. "It's been a useful tool," says Ryczek, who admits to having tested the machine himself when he's off the clock. "Oh, yeah. It's been a great party favor."
Ryczek's work at Clark & Towne prepared him for the transition to private practice-"Billing, forms, so many forms," he says-but he learned how to work a case during his time with the Rockdale County public defender's office.
"I was in a court with an extremely conservative judge, and it forced me to be on my toes. It made me a much better lawyer," Ryczek says. He adds, "Before I retire, I'd like to go back and be a public defender. It's the purest practice of criminal defense. The focus isn't on the practice. It's on the law, and the courtroom. There's something magical about it."
The Law Group of Geerdes & Kim
Holly Geerdes was raised by adoptive parents in Iowa and brings a Midwestern work ethic to her law office. But she was born in Korea-exactly when she isn't sure-to parents she has never met. So when she started her own general practice focusing on an immigrant, mostly Korean clientele, there was an underlying sense of the familiar.
"Everything that has happened to me in my life has been unexpected," says Geerdes, who thinks she is 33. "In law school, I wanted to do indigent defense, but I never thought I'd wind up doing death penalty work. When I left that to start my own firm, I didn't know there was a burgeoning, underserved Korean community.
"I've been blessed in ways I never anticipated. God and destiny have brought me full circle, from Korea to Iowa and back into the Korean community."
Geerdes may sometimes kvetch over her balancing act-"The legal work is more than a full-time job, and the business side is at least a full-time job, and if you neglect one, you jeopardize the other"-but she knows where the real stress lies.
"Nothing can be harder than death penalty cases, and the appeals on top of that," she says. "After that [kind of work], there's nothing I can't do."
Two years out of law school she was writing appeals in death penalty cases and arguing before the Georgia Supreme Court. She has won the "Case of the Year" award four times since 2001 for her work, which resulted in many successful death penalty appeals.
"I would try them and she'd appeal them," says Mike Mears, who ran the public defender's office. "Or, as we used to say, I'd bust them up and she'd clean them up."
He adds, "Holly is one of those young attorneys who comes into the profession with a very serious attitude of perfection, a quiet assuredness," Mears says. "There's been a natural progression of confidence and competence in what she does, and I'm really taking some personal pride in seeing her develop as a lawyer and an entrepreneur."
In January 2006, Geerdes left to launch her own practice with partner Irene I. Kim. The firm has already grown out of its satellite office and recently moved to a larger space.
"The sudden and rapid exponential growth of the firm is like having quintuplets when you were expecting just one," she says.
Friese Legal, LLC
Friese never needed a big-firm mentor. She had her father, James Friese, who ran a small-town firm.
"My dad was my mentor, and he gave me some early hands-on experience," she says. "But a lot of it is attitude and confidence."
Friese, who was 16 when she left home for college, has plenty of both. She recommends that young attorneys seeking to start their own practice get to know their business prospects before hanging a shingle.
"You don't want to be in a position of being desperate for any client," she says, adding, "also, you've got to understand numbers and know how to read a balance sheet, manage cash flow, create a budget."
Several years ago she took a "fast track" business course the state offers for small businesses: one morning a month for 10 months. "You have to take initiative and be responsible for your own education," Friese says. "Sitting back and expecting a partner in the firm to teach you isn't the best way to learn. Jumping in there and handling it, finding a way to get involved, making client contact, learning to understand the deal-that's how it happens."
Now her father is a partner in her firm. Stephanie says, after some hesitation, "I'm the boss, but not because I asserted myself that way. Dad doesn't want to be the boss. He's happy to let me make the business decisions."
Business has been good for the little Atlanta firm that focuses on leasing, commercial real estate closings and lease enforcement litigation. Friese Legal, the only commercial real estate law firm certified as woman-owned by the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, counts The Coca-Cola Company among its clients.
"I've gotten offers from other firms, to work or to merge the practice, but every time I break it down and think about it, I'd be giving up some aspect of control of my life," she says. "I'm not ready to do that."
Super Lawyers is a rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high-degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The selection process is multi-phased and includes independent research, peer nominations and peer evaluations.
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