Veronica Norgaard and John Koufos didn't find success in their careers by simply ambling down a smooth road paved with industry contacts and privileged access. It was more like they charged up a steep, rocky path, kicking doors down and ducking bullets along the way.
"When you pit two people like us, who have fought for everything, against people who have been given most of what they have, who do you think is going to win?" asks Norgaard.
Adds Koufos, "Everybody's Richard Nixon and we're G. Gordon Liddy. We fill a market—attorneys willing to go to war. You have to be willing to put it on the line and fight. If you do that it doesn't matter if you have been doing it 40 years or four years."
Both grew up with renegade fathers: Koufos' is doing time on a weapons charge; Norgaard's is a drug user, drinker and womanizer, she says. But in true Nietzschean fashion, both, in their way, made their kids stronger.
The 30-year-old Norgaard found solace on the sports fields of Seattle. As a softball player she was nicknamed "Griffey" because she was known to climb fences to rob batters of home runs. But her true love was soccer. She was selected for a U.S. all-star team in high school and played intramural soccer at the University of Washington. Her grit was her greatest strength. She was hospitalized several times for injuries, including broken ribs, but would never back down.
While in college she served as an unpaid investigator at the public defender's office in Seattle, which whetted her appetite for the law. After graduation she headed east to Syracuse Law School. She didn't know much about the area, just that it was cold and 3,000 miles away. That was enough. She became class president.
"She had a great sense of humor," recalls Bill Dowling, who supervised her participation in a clinic that handled cases involving child abuse, neglect and custody disputes. "She brought a refreshing attitude and sense of scholarship. She also had a sense of how to bring a nontraditional approach to solving problems. Boring she was not."
Norgaard also helped low-income residents with tax issues. "She was a great student, but more importantly she did a great job at the clinic," says professor Robert Nassau. "In fact, she had our first great success."
The case involved an IRS decision to seize $25,000 in savings from a woman who had carelessly thrown her unopened IRS notices into a drawer. Eventually the woman went to the bank to take out some money and was told there wasn't any left—the IRS had seized it all.
"Veronica single-handedly got the money back, with interest," Nassau says. "She is a go-getter."
Koufos, born in Stamford, Conn., bounced around when he was young, thanks in part to his father's instability and eventual incarceration. (While working as a bounty hunter, his father was alleged to have helped in the kidnapping of the girlfriend of a man who had skipped bail—the plan was to hold the woman until she gave up the location of the boyfriend. It didn't work. His father, a former locksmith, beat the kidnapping charges but was convicted on federal weapons charges stemming from another case and remains in prison in New Mexico.)
"Although I don't like my father, I learned more from him about fighting the system than from any other source," Koufos says. "This is literally the man who told a judge to ‘rack 'em up' after one of his trials ended in a hung jury. Most of this does follow through today. I probably acquired my relentless trial attitude from watching his legal battles. Moreover, when you grow up with a father who is being tailed by the feds it becomes difficult to fear a local, county or state law enforcement authority. Despite the fact that he ruined my mother's life and nearly ruined my life, I sincerely feel sorry for him. He is a man who is incredibly intelligent but will always be incarcerated because he cannot live without being the center of attention."
After his father was sent up, Koufos' mother moved the family to Brick to escape attention from the media. In high school he was the kid with the big mouth who was good at English and hated math. Out of school he pumped gas and worked at a nursing home. His father's involvement in the criminal justice system haunted but interested him, so he began studying at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. His goal: become a police officer. That's when the fire was lit.
While working nights and weekends as a security guard, he finished a five-year combined bachelor's/master's program in just under three years. He would be a police officer today if it weren't for two professors who nagged him to take the LSAT. "With a brain like that, why would you want to be cutting tickets?" they asked him. So he took the exam and the result was impressive enough to land him a half scholarship to Fordham Law School.
He met Norgaard when both were clerking in Toms River: she in family law, he in civil work. It wasn't a mutual admiration society at first—"I thought he was a pompous prick," she says—but soon they were talking about starting their own firm. Not long after, they opened their first office in Brick. They couldn't afford administrative help, so friends came in and answered the phone, which didn't ring much at first.
"I remember being scared to death, and I don't scare very easy," the 31-year-old Koufos says. "We would both have collectively dry months. But we found strength in each other."
They networked relentlessly. They called everyone they knew, went to happy hours, sat through chamber meetings. They even hit the jails, taking time out on Christmas and Easter.
Since throwing in together three years ago, they've had more than 400 clients, not counting pro bono work. They have three full-time staffers for administrative and paralegal work, and one part-time staffer. Koufos handles most, but not all, of the criminal work, and Norgaard takes the family law and tax and real estate work. They moved out of the Brick location and now have offices in New Brunswick and Long Branch.
Through it all they've remained committed to helping society's underdogs. They know what it's like not to have any advantages.
"Neither of us had a mom or dad around to pick up the phone and call someone to make sure our résumés wound up on the right desk or in front of the right person," Koufos says. "And if we had known somebody who could do that we wouldn't have done it anyway."
Adds Norgaard: "I am also deeply cynical when people with a family structure complain about problems that are largely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Although I endured so many problems I know there are still people out there that have it worse than I do, and I have never tried to use my past to gain sympathy from others."
"John is a tiger—when he gets a case he really works it from top to bottom," says Reginald Johnson, president of the Metuchen-Edison NAACP branch, for which Koufos serves as chair of the branch's Legal Redress Committee. "He doesn't half-step. He has always had a sense of community and paying back to the community."
One of their most satisfying successes involved an African-American woman who was harassed by a Caucasian customer while working in a drug store. Store supervisors told her to wait in the back—"much like Rosa Parks," says Koufos. Yet when an African-American customer harassed a Caucasian employee, the customer was arrested. Koufos settled the case in her favor.
"These are cases most attorneys would not touch with a 10-foot pole, and they didn't make anything from it," says Johnson.
Norgaard and Koufos have a yin and yang that works for them. She's neat and meticulous; he isn't. She's a huge sports fan, especially of the Seattle Seahawks—she even goes on a cruise with them once a year. He less so. She pays attention to detail and doesn't mind handling payroll and other administrative duties. He's a big-picture guy. It works, although they have their moments.
"I get a little snappy," she admits.
They split revenue down the middle regardless of who brings in more business that month. They both say there have been months, and will be, when the other is immersed in a single case and simply can't do anything else.
At one point in their lives, they had no one they could trust. Now they do.
Alone, each is tough. Together? Look out.