Hanging Their Own Shingles

Who’s the boss? Three area lawyers told us how they turned the answer into “I am.” They left other legal jobs—or never really had them to begin with—and mustered up the courage to go it alone. Their firms are dreams realized, but entrepreneurship also means figuring out accounts payable

Published in 2009 Oklahoma Rising Stars — November 2009

Chad Moody

Chad W. Moody P.C.

“I had no desire to be a lawyer,” says Chad Moody. He was perfectly content working as a researcher for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He considered it to be the best job in the world. Then he quit. “I became frustrated and concerned with the perpetual encroachment upon liberty being perpetrated by the federal government.”

Moody didn’t just research the outdoors when he was in Alaska; he also studied the Constitution. He began seeing contradictions in the actions of the federal government. This inspired Moody to take some law classes. He was intrigued. “By then,” Moody says, “it made sense to go ahead and get the law degree.”

And then it made sense to start his own firm in Oklahoma City. “The Field of Dreams business plan, i.e., ‘If you build it they will come’ is utterly absurd,” Moody says. “One must build it and advertise it ad nauseam.” There was, however, one thing that came easily for the new lawyer. Finding clients in criminal law “was unexpectedly easy,” he says. Finding clients who could pay for his services was a different hurdle altogether.

That’s when his sense of survival kicked in, for better or, at times, for worse. “As a young and hungry lawyer you take cases against your better judgment. Like that time I took a check on a bogus check case—with predictable results.”

He started thinking about focusing on criminal defense, but Moody decided he didn’t want “to make keeping violent or dangerous people on the street my stock and trade.” The cases he wanted to take were civil rights suits; which is now his primary practice area. But it can be tough. “The deck is stacked against civil rights litigants who sue the government,” he says. “I came to understand that the courts and government are so hostile to civil rights actions that one can rarely see his/her rights actually vindicated.”

That’s when he decided on drug work—a way he could still fight government oppression. “Billing myself as ‘The Drug Lawyer’ simply made sense,” says Moody. He believes the war on drugs is a failure. In particular, Moody is concerned about the war’s infringement on constitutional rights, specifically the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments.

The upside of his business? “I genuinely like most of my clients,” says Moody. “Those who are not addicts are simply civil libertarian entrepreneurs. I am all the time telling prosecutors, ‘He’s not a drug dealer. He’s a Freedom Fighter.’ I like to think that I am too.”

 

Erik Johnson

Johnson & Romero

In 2000, Erik Johnson was able to check some big to-dos off his list. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma, worked in Oklahoma County’s District Attorney’s office, became a municipal attorney and then, because his list was looking a bit scrawny, he started his own law firm.

Talk about a lot of check marks.

But not, suprisingly, too stressful for the young attorney. “I’m not going to lie and say it was crushingly difficult,” Johnson says. Now, at age 36, Johnson’s office, Johnson & Romero, has expanded from one office to three in Tulsa, Miami, and the Grand Lake area. “I’ve always been a very independent minded person and comfortable being in a leadership position,” says Johnson.

He’s also quick to point out that his father—a lawyer of 40 years—is an indispensable resource. “His background and experience is beneficial,” Johnson says.

Even as a young boy Johnson realized the importance and influence a lawyer has in society. But it’s the huge difference he can make in his clients’ lives that keeps him going. “When someone comes to me it’s [a result of] their biggest problem. I can have a positive effect with someone’s largest problem,” Johnson says. The focus at his firm is helping individuals navigate through the troubles they have with big business, government and personal injury.

With so much valuable advice from his father—now of counsel at the firm—Johnson has come up with yet another lofty to-do list, this time full of his own good advice. “Surround yourself with good people,” Johnson says. “Find people who are dedicated, then take care of them.”

Check, check and check.

 

Catherine Zilahy Welsh

Welsh Law Ltd.

“I spent my college years focused on majors in biology and chemistry, thinking I wanted to be a doctor,” Catherine Zilahy Welsh says. But after graduation, she felt a “natural calling” to become a lawyer and help vulnerable people.

“My parents encouraged me to sit for the LSAT,” says Welsh, who enjoyed debate and English in high school. She scored in the top percentile and was accepted into the University of Texas College of Law. After she graduated, Welsh found work at the University of Tulsa as director of the Older Americans Law Project. But in 2005 her position was nixed and, again, she had to try something else. “I loved working with senior citizen clients and was very confused about what I would do next,” says Welsh. Then came the idea to start her own firm in Tulsa, focusing primarily on guardianship, estate planning, probate and Social Security work.

So her next step, as it had been after college, was to find some good advice. “Two local attorneys who are solo practitioners invited me to their office for a meeting one evening to encourage me to try solo practice,” Welsh says. But she still had her doubts, wondering how to go about opening a firm, how building a practice would affect her family, how would she find clients, and that classic: What if I fail miserably?

In the end, it was the encouragement from Welsh’s husband that finally urged her to rent a small office space. She moved in an old desk and only allowed herself to buy only two brand-new items: a computer and a file cabinet. “I may not have had the most posh office space,” says Welsh, “but that allowed me to not go into the hole from moment one.” It’s a good thing she didn’t skimp on phone service. “I thought I would have several weeks to a month to get organized.” But she started getting calls her first day. And so began a rigorous schedule of working evenings and weekends to keep up with her new workload. Welsh admits, “I probably should have declined [some cases].”

With the heavy workload her first year of going solo, she found the advice from her mentors priceless—it made the task of starting her own firm “surprisingly easy.” What were those mystical words? Be economical. “Basically, my philosophy is the less overhead, the better,” says Welsh.

As she looks back on her career so far, Welsh is careful not to forget why she was drawn to the law in the first place. “I think it is important to take [court appointments] and remember where I started and stay in touch with people who need assistance but may not be able to pay,” she says.

As for her old desk and small office? “I have moved to a nicer office,” Welsh says. “And have acquired nicer furniture over time.”

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