Single-Minded Passions

Three young lawyers find success by finding the right areas of law

Published in 2009 Colorado Super Lawyers — April 2009

Everyone tells you to follow your dreams, but the magic doesn't really happen until you hit upon your true passion. The three lawyers profiled here created their perfect jobs by focusing on the areas of the law that fit them best.

 

Personal Connections

Marco D. Chayet, Chayet & Danzo

A family tragedy helped Marco Chayet find his calling. When he was attending law school at the University of Colorado, his grandmother was diagnosed with dementia of the Alzheimer's type. His mother and uncle began waging a public court battle over her care and finances. This controversial case even made it on the local news and, as Chayet says, "It really tore my family apart."

After graduation, he wasn't sure what direction his career would take—he just knew he wanted to be inspired. "I was very close to my grandmother as I was growing up," he says. "So my grandmother's case led me to the area of elder law." It wasn't a well-known specialty when he graduated in 1997, but he talked with one of the elder law attorneys working on his grandmother's case and that conversation led to a job.

Chayet spent four years working at a small firm, learning elder law while his family's case was ongoing. Then he followed his entrepreneurial spirit to start a firm with other lawyers. "We didn't pay ourselves for the first year," he says. "All the money that we started making in the first year we put back into the firm."

Today Chayet is the managing partner of Chayet & Danzo, an 11-person business with offices in Denver and the Vail Valley. The company focuses on elder law, probate and complex estate planning, handling everything from contested guardianship and conservatorship litigation to special needs planning. And thanks to the aging baby boomer population, it's a rapidly growing area of the law.

Chayet says he's trying to limit the firm's growth to maintain a better work life balance than what's found at bigger firms. There are no minimum billable requirements, for example, and no mandatory hours for associates or paralegals. "We deal with death, dying and disability," he says. "It's very stressful, so I wanted to create a law firm environment that wasn't going to contribute to that stress, but actually try to relieve it."

It's easy to see why stress management is so important when dealing with delicate and emotionally charged situations. In one case, Chayet represented the stepdaughter of a man who was connected to life support. There were documents indicating he didn't want to remain in this state, but some family members opposed disconnecting him. So Chayet worked to ensure the man's wishes were respected. 

With so many complex family dynamics, Chayet's experience with his grandmother's case proves invaluable. "When I get a client who walks in and says, ‘You're not going to believe what's going on. You're not going to believe how my brother's being or what happened to my mom or the nastiness going on in my family.' I say, ‘Well, yeah I do, because that's why I'm doing what I'm doing. It happened in my own family.'"

 

The Science Lawyer

Jennifer M. McCallum, The McCallum Law Firm

If you've never met Jennifer McCallum, the first clue to her background hangs in the entry hall of her Erie law office. "There's a joke that if people don't understand what it is, then they're walking into the wrong law firm," she says. The item in question is a chandelier that looks like an atom, and it's not an entirely surprising choice for someone who has had a lifelong passion for science.

McCallum originally set out to be a researcher, and she was well into a Ph.D. program in physiology at Colorado State University before law school ever crossed her mind. She wanted to develop a breakthrough technology or drug that would benefit patient care, but amid all her research, writing and speeches, she began to have doubts. "Researchers can toil away forever and may never produce a pharmaceutical product," she says. "And I wanted to be involved further downstream where I could assist clients with obtaining patent protection, funding and regulatory approval for actual products."

So McCallum started requesting informational interviews with people across the country to explore her career options. "I literally would spend whatever I had to get on an airplane and try to get 10 minutes with people who had a science degree and then something else," she says. "I looked at science plus MBA, science plus law, science to be a pharmaceutical sales rep, science to teach high school. I just looked at everything."

Ultimately, she found the law fit best with her Type A personality and she enrolled in law school while finishing her dissertation. She even managed to get married around the same time and land a job at a law firm while still in school. Now she's using those multitasking skills to head up The McCallum Law Firm, where she's the only full-time lawyer. She started the business after spending several years doing intellectual property work, and her focus is on biotechnology patent law.

This career path puts McCallum on the front lines of bringing drugs and technologies from the lab to consumers. Whether she's helping clients get things through the FDA, license intellectual property or obtain protection with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, her Ph.D. helps her understand and advance issues on the cutting edge of science. "I love this," she says. "I'm rolling out technologies around the world. It's science and the law that turned out to be my true passions."

In California, she helped win a case that upheld a woman's right to store umbilical cord blood, which is a good source of stem cells. Closer to home, she worked with a client to gain the first approval in Colorado to produce pharmaceuticals inside of plants—a much cheaper option than old-fashioned chemical synthesis. "People who are looking for help are like, ‘Wow, she understands me,'" McCallum says. "‘She has the scientific background, the legal background to understand my issues.'" A combination as powerful as anything she might have cooked up in a lab.

 

Property Values

Daniel B. Markofsky, Daniel B. Markofsky, Attorney at Law

The only typical thing about Daniel Markofsky's workday is that his two dogs—half Australian shepherd, half border collie—need to go out every morning. After that, you might find this solo real estate attorney driving to client meetings, working the phones or hunkering down behind the two computer monitors in his home office.

The Denver lawyer has been working on his own since 2003, and he handles just about anything that might relate to a piece of land or property. His clients range from banks and real estate developers to neighbors having a dispute over a fence. And in recent years, he's found himself representing victims of predatory lending, even helping his 76-year-old neighbor out of a sticky re-financing mess.

"[A California mortgage broker] was calling an old man over the phone, befriending him and putting him in a loan that was completely wrong for him," Markofsky says. Luckily, the neighbor didn't think the papers looked right and asked the young lawyer to take a look. That gave Markofsky the chance to help his neighbor recoup the outrageously high fee from the out-of-state broker.

Other cases go right down to the wire—with as much suspense as a crime drama—before Markofsky is able to make things right for a homeowner. One woman came to him two days before Thanksgiving, facing eviction, and laid out stacks of paperwork on his desk. "Somebody came to them and said, ‘I will buy your house, lease it back to you and then when you are ready, you can buy it back from me,'" Markofsky says. "Well, this particular company was never intending to sell it back."

The judge was nice enough not to throw the woman out before the holiday, but a week later a sheriff's deputy was literally putting the client's possessions out on the street while Markofsky helped argue the case. He was able to show the client had an ownership stake in the house, so another deputy, who was sitting in the back of the courtroom, made a call on his cell phone to stop the eviction.

It's the kind of case that Markofsky particularly enjoys. But it's actually the transactional part of real estate that helped draw him to this area of the law. He discovered this passion working at two different law firms, before joining with a handful of other lawyers.

"We all maintained our own offices, but we had a firm structure," he says. "It was a great way for a bunch of young upstarts to get going without the potential stigma of being sole practitioners at such a young age." Eventually, the group went down different career paths and Markofsky became truly solo, and it's proved to be a perfect fit for his self-described independent streak.

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