A Family Affair
What's it like to work every day with the person you wake up next to each morning? Or to settle payroll disputes with the man who paid your first allowance?
Published in 2009 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on March 13, 2009
Updated on September 17, 2009
Attracted to Law
For Laurie Higginbotham and Jamal Alsaffar, life and law mix 24/7
Laurie Higginbotham inexplicably assumed that everybody knew she and Jamal Alsaffar, her partner in the Austin law firm of Archuleta, Alsaffar & Higginbotham, were married.
She was wrong.
Last year, when the firm handled federal tort claims cases related to Hurricane Katrina, they hired a number of temporary workers to tackle the mountain of paperwork. One day, some of the temps were talking when one commented: “I think there’s something going on between Higginbotham and Alsaffar. They’re always smiling at each other and leaving together.”
Higginbotham loves this story. “Jamal and I pretty much flirt shamelessly all day long,” she laughs. “Nobody in our office seems to mind. We don’t do anything over the top or inappropriate, but we sure don’t try to hide it, either.”
The pair may flirt, but it’s not like they make a point out of marketing themselves as “Austin’s Married Lawyers,” either. Their different last names help to makes their relationship more ambiguous, and that’s OK with them. “Most clients don’t necessarily find out we’re married,” Higginbotham says, “but those who do have never objected.”
And why would they? Higginbotham says that when clients hire them, they’re getting the added benefit of two attorneys who talk about their cases all day and all night, at work and at home.
“It is fun for us to stay up late working,” Higginbotham says. “After the kids are in bed, we spread stuff on our dining room table and work into the wee hours. Work really is a 24/7 commitment for us. If we weren’t working together, think of all the time we would spend apart.”
The pair met when they were students at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), while they were participating in mock trial.
“I saw Laurie before she noticed me,” Alsaffar recalls. “I volunteered to coach her mock trial team because I was too shy to introduce myself. I wanted to meet her. I thought she was real pretty and I heard that she was real smart. I figured she was out of my league, so I knew I’d have to work all the angles.
“From the very start of our first mock trial, we worked amazingly well together.” At first, he says, Higginbotham “coldly” brushed off his advances, but “the judges kept commenting, ‘You two have a real natural connection.’ So I’d say, ‘That means you should date me.'”
Higginbotham agreed to one date, which led to others. They dated through much of college, and while attending separate law schools—Higginbotham at UT, and Alsaffar at Baylor. They’ve now been married for eight years, and they have two young sons, ages 6 and 3.
Higginbotham and Alsaffar didn’t begin working together right out of law school. They both took jobs as trial lawyers at separate Austin firms, handling medical malpractice claims.
“We both fell into medical malpractice individually,” Higginbotham says. “We both wanted to represent plaintiffs and do litigation and we both wanted to do trial work.” Adds Alsaffar: “I’ve always been attracted to the David and Goliath story. I like being the David.”
Higginbotham’s first job was with Whitehurst, Harkness, Ozmun & Archuleta in Austin. In 2002, Michael Archuleta, one of the partners at Whitehurst, left to start his own small firm. He hired Alsaffar, who was then working at the Sharp Firm, a personal injury firm headed by the husband-and-wife team of Lance and Laura Sharp.
In 2006, Archuleta and Alsaffar decided to offer Higginbotham a job at their firm. She didn’t accept right away.
“At first, I was a little nervous about working with my husband,” she admits. “It is a very small firm. I wanted to make sure that working together wouldn’t mess up our marriage. I asked Jamal maybe 500 times if he thought it would mess up our marriage. He always said no. And on the first day I started it was like coming home. I love working with Michael. I love working with Jamal. It is a great feeling.”
Alsaffar never worried about going into business with his wife. Not once.
“I knew it would work,” he says. “Laurie and I have been talking about working together for a long time. It was a dream of ours. In my mind, it was always a matter of when, not if.”
Now that the dream has been reality for more than two years, Higginbotham says she can never imagine working anywhere else.
“Michael, Jamal and I are the perfect team,” she says. “We’re the three legs on a stool. We hold each other up. Some people think, ‘You’ve got to be crazy,’ when we say that we’re practicing with our spouse. But it works for us—and for our clients, too.”
Like Father, Like Son
Walker and Harold Crowson each like-no, love-their law partner
Walker Crowson loves to sing his dad’s praises. His father, Harold Crowson Jr., is proud of his son, but he’s more the strong, silent type.
“I’m a very private person,” Harold explains. “If you want to get a good quote out of somebody, you need to talk to my son. Anything he says, I’ll agree with. He’s a wonderful man, and he’s the talker in the family.”
Even though Harold prefers not to run at the mouth, he somehow still manages to make a big impression on his son.
“I’ve always wanted to be like my dad,” Walker says. “That desire led me to go to law school and become a lawyer. Growing up and seeing how my dad interacted with people, I saw that he was well-respected and well-liked. Nobody ever has a bad thing to say about my dad. I want people to feel that way about me, too.”
After embarking on the career he planned for himself “since I was a kid,” the younger Crowson built a respectable legal practice at Kemp Smith, El Paso’s largest defense firm.
For six years, Walker Crowson’s wife, attorney Jennifer Crowson, also worked at Kemp Smith. Because the firm is so large, the couple didn’t see all that much of each other during the work day. But it was, he says, a good glimpse at what it could be like to work with a close family member.
“Jennifer and I have different practice areas,” he says. “We were on different floors. Most days, we’d get to work and we wouldn’t see each other for nine or 10 hours. Then we’d see each other again at home. Because we made a point of not bringing the office home, it worked out just fine for us.”
Walker made partner at Kemp Smith, and was happy at the firm, but saw other friends and colleagues who had left the firm become successful on their own and wondered if he should pursue that path.
“I was going through the seven-year itch,” he says. “I was wondering if I’m going to have to stay here for the rest of my career or do I need to establish roots somewhere else.” Then it dawned on him: The roots he was searching for were in a small law practice, working side by side with the person who inspired him to practice law in the first place.
When Walker raised the idea of going into practice together, Harold was welcoming but low-key.
“I talked with my dad who’d been practicing for 30 years, and he said, ‘If you want to do something else come over to practice with me,'” Walker says. “He was solo at the time so it was perfect timing.”
“We never had a dream of working together,” Harold insists. “I’ve been doing this for 37 years and I was doing just fine on my own. Still, I had absolutely no concerns about him coming to work here either. He’s a good person and a hard-working, smart lawyer.”
That was all the encouragement Walker needed to make the leap to independent practice. In 2005, the two-person firm of Crowson & Crowson was born. Both partners believe that the firm works well because their specialty areas are complementary. Walker is board-certified in labor and employment law. He also does collection and commercial litigation. “A majority of my practice is in employment defense,” he explains. “My dad mainly is into a traditional practice of real estate and commercial litigation.”
“Law firms always talk about synergy,” Walker continues. “If one area of a firm brings in a client for one service, we want to be able to provide services for other issues that may arise.”
Though he says he was always confident in his decision to go into business with his father, Walker admits that his leap into the partnership wasn’t completely worry-free.
“The biggest concern for me was, ‘What’s it going to be like having the dual role of son/partner?'” he says. “It’s hard to tell your dad, ‘No’ or ‘You’re doing something wrong.’ It’s hard to talk business with your dad—at least that was my perception before we went into business. It hasn’t been like that. For me, the biggest thing is not wanting to let him down.”
After working with his father for three years, Walker is starting to see some changes in himself.
“We work really well together, which has been a pleasant thing to discover,” he says. “Many people say I’m a spitting image of my dad in terms of how I present myself. I sure hope that’s so.”
Harold has one objection to that observation.
“Walker’s not just like me,” he says. “He’s better.”