Even when he was young, when he ran his family’s diner in northeast Philadelphia, Nikitas Moustakas showed signs of becoming a successful business attorney.
There was the time he wanted to buy the building that housed the diner. He approached one of his regulars, who happened to be the president of a bank branch down the street. “I went up to her and said, ‘Can I take out a loan?’” He prodded: “You do eat here every day. You know me, you know my mom.”
She conceded it was a safe bet: “All right, come on down,” she told him.
Then he persuaded the landlord to accept his offer. “I said, ‘This is what the value is; I’ll pay a little bit more because we’re [already] here,’” he relates. Soon, Moustakas became the proud owner of real estate. At least, his mom did. He was only 19.
“I was too young to take out a loan,” he says.
Moustakas emigrated with his family from Greece when he was 3. They settled in Philadelphia and started their business.
“My father and mother always said, ‘Whatever you want out of life, you can do it. Nothing stops you.’”
He took those words to heart. Yet he was on no fast track to a legal career at the time. In high school, he told his dad: “I’m going to drop out of school and go into the restaurant business.” His dad said, “OK,” and stuck his eldest son in the back as a dishwasher on a busy Saturday. “I cleaned 2,000 dishes that day,” recalls Moustakas. “I went right back to school on Monday with a smile on my face.” He adds, “He wanted me to get educated. I’ll never forget how important that was for him.”
In high school, Moustakas did the bookkeeping for his parents, who understood very little English—or American business law.
Working in the family business, Moustakas realized the importance of understanding rules and regulations. “I really started to love—and started to read and study—law,” he says. “And understand how business and law work together.”
Moustakas went on to earn his undergrad degree in pre-law and finance, an MBA to strengthen his business sense, that coveted J.D., and—to top it all off—an LL.M. in taxation.
His father’s sudden death, before Moustakas’ second year of college, only fueled those ambitions. But in addition, he was thrust into running the restaurant.
“Three days after we buried him, the fourth day, we opened the restaurant. And that was unbelievable, just walking in there and trying to figure out where to start,” says Moustakas. “All of a sudden, I have employees. I have a payroll.”
He continued plugging away at college at Temple University: going to class, then returning to the restaurant to work. “Sit at the counter, study, take people’s money,” he recalls.
Moustakas would arrive at the diner before dawn to learn recipes from a family friend. “At 2:30, 3 a.m., he’d teach me: This is how you make the spaghetti sauce,” says Moustakas. “Even today, I can’t cook small meals because I learned how to cook for hundreds of people.”
One evening, shortly after earning his bachelor’s degree, Moustakas found out his younger brother had leukemia.
“It felt like your heart just dropped to the bottom,” says Moustakas. “You think the room is spinning. It’s just the worst feeling. And then you have to get your bearings and be strong for him and try to figure out, ‘OK, what’s next?’”
His brother needed a bone marrow transplant, and Moustakas was an obvious candidate. “I remember this doctor running down the hallway, jumping up and down, saying, ‘You’re a perfect match!’” says Moustakas. “These doctors really loved what they did and they wanted to help people.”
But after the transplant, his brother relapsed. “That’s when it got tricky,” he says. Moustakas plunged into research, locating doctors in Seattle who were on the cusp of the latest white blood cell treatment. Again, Moustakas was the donor.
His brother’s leukemia has been in remission for 12 years and Moustakas beams as he talks about his brother’s wife and son. “We’ve been through the hardest [part] of our lives and we’re still together,” he says. “We’re very close.”
After landing the MBA—in international business and business administration—Moustakas moved to Boston to attend the New England School of Law, coming home on the weekends to oversee the restaurant. He earned the LL.M. at Villanova.
After starting at smaller firms while commuting to New Jersey, he moved to the Garden State in 2006 and took a position with Parker McCay, in the firm’s business and corporate department. He spends his days drafting leases, handling real estate transactions, creating trademark registrations and writing commercial contracts. His clients are owners of small to large businesses, with issues ranging “from A to Z in business,” he says. “You name it.”
Through it all, he relies on skills he learned with his first round of clients. “At the restaurant,” he says, “people came in, you took their orders, you listened to their stories.” When they came in arguing with one another: “You’d sit there; you’d tell them, ‘Why don’t you calm down and we’ll work this out.’”
He’s still helping people work things out, and many of them are physicians. That started when he began fundraising for hospitals. “Seeing all the craziness that I had to deal with and being in hospitals as much as I was, I [realized] the importance of raising money for [them].” Soon doctors were calling him up for employment matters, or help in joint ventures. “Even though [someone’s] a physician,” says Moustakas, “he’s really running a business.”
Moustakas is also president of the Hellenic Lawyers Association, a group of Greek-American attorneys who assist young professionals in their career goals. It’s all part of the latest chapter, which includes his wife, Jade, also an attorney, and their two daughters, both under 3.
In 2007, 17 years after his father’s passing, Moustakas sold the restaurant.
Finally, he says, “I felt like I had more time … until the kids came along.”
“It’s not easy,” he concedes. “It’s a lot of balancing.”