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Family First

Between Suzie’s estate planning practice, Jay’s DUI defense shop, and three kids, keeping up with the Tiftickjians is no easy task

Published in 2022 Colorado Super Lawyers magazine

Photo by: Paul Wedlake

One morning last fall, Suzie Tiftickjian had no sooner hunkered down in her home office after the weeklong quarantine of her 11-year-old son Mark than the phone rang. Five-year-old Audrey was sick and needed to be picked up from school. 

“I recognized that it’s going to be a day that I don’t get a lot done, and the next day I’ll power through,” says the estate planning attorney, 49, a marathon runner with a knack for organization and time management. “There will be days where you will have a kid home and the next day you’ll go to your desk and work till 11 because you’ve got to finish up what you didn’t get done the day before. That’s inevitable.”

Suzie’s flexibility that week allowed her husband, DUI defense lawyer Jay Tiftickjian, 46, to maintain client meetings at his Bonnie Brae office. “She’s a great mother,” he says. “She’s very intuitive with the kids’ needs and is a good advocate for them.”

The Tiftickjians have plenty of complementary differences, both personally and professionally. A careful writer with a practical mindset who helps clients plan for, and deal with, the aftermath of family loss, Suzie dislikes the spotlight and arguing in court. Jay, meanwhile, enjoys interacting all day with clients, juries and judges. “He’s good talking on his feet,” Suzie says. “That doesn’t faze him—it doesn’t stress him out like it would me.”

Similarities abound, too. Both are solo practitioners. Both concentrate on legal matters that tug at their heartstrings. Both grew up elsewhere and fell in love with Colorado. And both put family first.

“My first career is [being] a dad, and lawyering comes second,” Jay says. “We both have successful practices, but we’ve never used nannies or anything like that. We do it all ourselves.”

 

Jay grew up in Buffalo, New York. His father, whose family emigrated from Armenia, runs Tiftickjian Oriental Rugs to this day.

Athletic and musically talented, he admits that in school, “Nothing ever came easy to me. I had a lot of friends who would just study for tests on the bus on the way to school for 10 minutes and they would get better grades than me. And I would have to study really, really hard just to keep up.”

His floundering grades improved upon enrollment at a private Jesuit high school, and his work ethic paid off in college. Jay wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he didn’t want to take over the rug business. In retrospect, he says, his interest in law was most likely sparked in a high school social studies class that introduced him to the criminal code. So after earning his undergraduate degree in English and psychology from State University of New York at Buffalo, he attended law school on the same campus. From the beginning, the only subjects that interested him were in criminal law: “And if I’m interested in something, I’m all in.”

Two things happened in law school that would help sculpt his future. Early in his studies, Jay visited a buddy in Colorado. “The first thing I noticed was the blue sky that never went away. And everybody just seemed to be vibrant, athletic, more patient, happier, more courteous than the East Coast.”

So he returned the summer after his second year, sleeping on an air mattress on a friend’s floor. During the day, he got his feet wet prosecuting misdemeanor cases—mostly DUIs and domestic violence—during an internship at the Denver County D.A.’s office. Around the same time, a Buffalo lawyer and adjunct professor named Michael Taheri, a.k.a. “The DUI Guru,” took Jay under his wing. “He always told me there was a lot of money in booze and drugs, and his practice allowed him to not just have a family—he had young kids—but also spend time with them. And that’s the practice I always wanted.”

Yearning to settle in Colorado but with a job already lined up at a large firm in Buffalo—his parents were pressuring him to stay close to home after his brother passed away years prior—Jay flew straight from his New York Bar exam to take another one in Massachusetts since he’d be doing mostly federal work. “I saw these Harvard graduates puking in the bathroom [in Boston]. And I was like, ‘I’m just here hanging out for the day.’” He joined Buffalo’s Brown & Kelly in 2000, the same year his future wife started practicing law in Denver.

 

A San Francisco native, Suzie was raised by a single mom, a German immigrant who scraped together the money for Catholic school tuition for Suzie and her older brother. Suzie loved literature, but after watching her mom worry about layoffs and making ends meet, she chose a practical route. “Law is a good fit for my strength as a writer, and it’s also a tool for helping people,” Suzie says. “I didn’t really want to struggle like my mom.”

After finishing her liberal arts degree at the University of Notre Dame in 1995, Suzie volunteered in a Head Start classroom in Colorado Springs. “I just fell in love with the mountains,” she says. “I like to ski, so I decided to take the Bar out here and see if I could land on my feet.”

The spring before she started law school, however, her mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, leaving Suzie in charge of the modest estate. The family lawyer advised her to hire a broker to help with investments. “But,” she says, “I just kind of thought, ‘I’m pretty sure I can figure this stuff out by myself.’ … I wanted to be responsible with what [my mom] had worked hard for.”

Upon graduating from Notre Dame Law School, she was interested in pursuing estate planning as a career but found that positions were scarce. So she spent the first 10 years of her career at three large Denver firms, defending builders and design professionals in construction defect lawsuits and attorneys in legal malpractice defense cases. One client in particular stood out, an architect. “I remember him being sued and he was worried for a year and a half. He said, ‘I have my house. I have my cars. I have a little bit saved for retirement.’ And this one lawsuit, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong, could’ve cost him his entire life’s earnings. Getting him out—I was very talented with dispositive motions—was a huge relief for him. I had a number of clients like that.”

 

In an early case, Jay represented a man caught with an eight ball of cocaine who had been sentenced to a whopping 240 years in federal prison. Jay was appointed to argue the resentencing on appeal. “I really got obsessed with this case,” he says. “And when everything was said and done, his sentence got cut by 210 years, which at the time was the largest resentencing in the system in New York.”

Jay still has the thank-you card from the client. “I’m so passionate about criminal defense because the little guy has to be protected. The government is such a big machine it can come down and crush somebody if it wants to. People like that need an advocate.”

Still, he felt most of his white-collar cases were “tedious and very paper-intensive,” so he was glad when he landed a gig as deputy district attorney for Adams and Broomfield counties. “My heart,” he says, “was in Colorado.”

After prosecuting thousands of DUI, domestic violence and drug offense cases, Jay joined another criminal defense firm in 2004. Unlike in Buffalo, where the prosecutor-to-defense-lawyer path was encouraged, members of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar were hesitant to accept a former district attorney. He later overcame their misgivings and became the first former prosecutor elected president of the organization. 

Hans Meyer, a Denver immigration attorney and former public defender, served on the CCDB board with Jay. “You can see the creativity in the way he litigates and the way he works with others,” Meyer says. “He is the kind of guy I could call out of the blue with a legal question or a request, knowing that he will always take my call and share his knowledge without condition.”

In 2007, Jay struck out on his own; about 10 years ago, he decided to handle only DUI cases. “Unlike a lot of the other cases, I actually like my clients,” he says. “In a lot of those other criminal defense cases you’re dealing with individuals who have anger issues, who are violent, and they intentionally try to hurt other people, whereas the great majority of DUI clients are just normal good people that make a mistake.”

Take, for example, the client whose vehicular homicide charge was reduced to a traffic offense. “He has recently graduated law school and I’m very happy about that,” Jay says. “It could be argued that he did something horrible, but it gave him a second chance.”

 

In 2009, when her Denver firm split and laid Suzie off, she went solo too. “They recognized I don’t have the heart of a litigator,” she says of her former employer. “I’m not someone who likes to be in the courtroom. I don’t like contentious depositions.” 

She hung her own shingle for a few years until an opportunity arose for her to hone her skills at three boutique estate planning firms.

Then the pandemic hit and she found herself paying support staff now sidelined at home while juggling many of their tasks. This time, she took a steady stream of business with her into her revived solo practice, and Jay welcomed her to his freestanding office to meet with clients.

Although she no longer litigates, her practice comes with its own type of drama. “I have a case now where there are two handwritten wills, and that’s unusual,” says Suzie, who has transferred assets ranging from cattle brands to expensive hobby airplanes. “I have clients who are handling probate for family members and they don’t have any knowledge about what their grandpa’s tax situation was, so we have to get transcripts from the IRS and piece that information together.”

Such matters are loaded with emotion, and she frequently shares her own story about her mother’s estate with clients. “I think I have more credibility when I talk to clients, even if I’m 20 years younger than them or if I’m their children’s age. They know that I have the maturity and the life experience, in addition to the competence and the training as a tax lawyer.”

Sue O’Brien, a litigation and large loss technical claim specialist at Church Mutual Insurance Company, has known Suzie since they lived in the same dorm as freshmen at Notre Dame. “The reason I recommend Suzie to people seeking legal advice for any trusts and estate issues is the same reason we became friends long ago,” O’Brien says. “Suzie is a brilliant, organized and responsible attorney. More importantly, she is a sympathetic listener and a kind and compassionate human being who truly wants the best for others.”

 

Suzie and Jay met on Match.com when he moved to Colorado. She was beautiful—“She still looks like she’s in her early 30s, and I don’t,” he says—but what attracted him most was her hard-working attitude. “She’s really serious about things, sometimes too serious,” he says. “But she’s just a person who cares.” The couple married in 2006. 

Jay helps coach baseball and travel hockey on their sons’ teams; Luke, 9, plays basketball and, along with Mark, is a competitive diver and golfer, while Audrey plays soccer, swims, figure skates and does gymnastics. The Tiftickjians rarely miss a practice or game and they ski with the kids whenever possible. Suzie oversees tutoring and testing for her sons, both of whom have learning differences.

Suzie has completed 15 full marathons, including races in New York, Chicago and Boston. She still runs daily, mostly to stay in shape, relieve stress and connect with friends. “I’m not athletic and I’m not coordinated,” she says, laughing as she recalls a conversation with a former law professor, a young mom who got up and ran before dawn. “I thought she was absolutely nuts, and now here I am, a mother of three, and I often set my alarm for 4:30.” 

Jay is more apt to unwind with one of his guitars. “Suzie says I have way too many and I don’t think I have enough,” he jokes. 

One thing they don’t usually do together is talk shop. “No one wants to hear about tax law changes unless you’re a client and you’re worried about that,” Suzie says. 

Adds Jay, “The last thing Suzie wants to do is hear me talk about my practice and what I do. Everyone always asks, ‘What is it like being married to a lawyer?’ And I always say, ‘I don’t know.’”

And no, they’ve never, ever considered sharing an office. “We have very different practices,” Suzie says. “They’re just night and day.”

Besides, Jay quips, “My last name is so big that no other name’s going to fit on the door.”

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