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Sometimes law just ain’t enough: Lawyers find startup success

Bill Cresenzo//March 7, 2019

Sometimes law just ain’t enough: Lawyers find startup success

Bill Cresenzo//March 7, 2019

In 2014, Chad McGowan, an attorney with McGowan, Hood & Felder, which has offices in Charlotte and Rock Hill, South Carolina, spent his days representing the state of South Carolina in an intense antitrust case.

At night he took care of his young twins, thus making him a very busy man. So when he could catch a break, he’d sit around the kitchen table with some of his buddies and toss back some beers.centerpiece1

Five years later, that antitrust case and bonding over beer have led to the creation of a new brewery with 65 employees. The appropriately-named Legal Remedy Brewing in Rock Hill, just south of Charlotte, has so far poured 680,000 pints of beer for 180,000 customers.

“Frankly, I had no idea it would take off the way it did,” he said. “We are still growing and expect to grow another 20 percent this year.”

Armed with a law degree, attorneys like McGowan are stretching out into other fields, whether leaving the practice of law behind completely or, like McGowan, venturing into new businesses on the side.

Whatever the case, lawyer entrepreneurs who spoke with Lawyers Weekly say that a law degree is an asset that has helped them with their success in other fields.

MeToo movement strikes chord

Attorneys have leveraged insights gleaned from serving their clients to identify market opportunities that weren’t being met, and created new businesses to fill those niches.

After earning his law degree from Duke University in 2013 and spending four years in the legal profession, Andrew Jennings took what he learned from his time handling workplace harassment cases and last year returned to Durham to start a new company called Ekdesk that helps other companies maintain a harassment-free and equitable workplace. Ekdesk uses computer software that, among other things, analyzes random, anonymous surveys that employees complete regarding their company culture and work environment.

“In 2017 and 2018, we saw a lot happening with the Me Too movement, and I saw some of that in my investigational practices as well,” he said. “It struck me that there is a data gap around companies being aware of these issues of harassment and discrimination, so I developed a method to help them get better.”

He doesn’t regret that he doesn’t practice law anymore, though he concedes that “I was a little bit sad when I left my firm to start this company.”

“There were cases I enjoyed working on, but I always wanted to start my own business,” he said. “And I’m glad that this business is law-adjacent. It was the right time for me, and I wanted to branch out and try this new thing while I am still young and have the time to do it.”

For Michael Kahn, formerly a practicing attorney in Charlotte, the unmet need he discovered was within the legal profession itself. So he and another attorney, Chris Osborne, founded ReelTime Creative Learning Experiences, which offers training and seminars for attorneys on topics such as sexual harassment, diversity, wellness, and ethics.

“I encourage lawyers considering new possibilities to identify aspects of the law and their practice that they like and are good at,” he said. “Are those interests and abilities transferable to other careers? Also, consider their interests and passions generally. Don’t be afraid to try something completely new. Be sure to have a plan, though.”

Startup culture meets high culture

For other attorneys, a new business not particularly connected to the law can be a way of immersing themselves in something they’re passionate about. Beth Fleishman, who retired from Cranfill, Sumner & Hartzog in Raleigh in 2015 after having practiced law since 1977, transformed herself from a courtroom hard-hitter to an antiques globe-trotter.

In 2001, she started a part-time antique business, Knick Knack Paddy Whack. That energized her in her law practice, but as the business grew, she knew she had to make a choice: practice law or curate antiques. She chose antiques and doesn’t regret it.

“In my opinion, trial lawyers do not grow old gracefully in the courtroom,” she said. “Over a period of years I wound down my practice and finally was able to leave private practice,” she said.

Now she travels to Europe six times a year, scouring the continent for unique antiques and collectibles, and her daughter has opened a similar business in France. Fleishman is not out of the legal profession completely, however, and currently serves as the chair of the North Carolina Board of Law Examiners.

Scott Tobin of Fox Rothschild in Raleigh, who has moved back and forth between the business and legal sectors several times in his career, advises attorney to make sure that they are running toward something they are passionate about, and not running away from practicing law.

“Be sure that you continue to value the people you have come to know as a practicing lawyer and realize that whatever new path you choose your time as a practicing lawyer will not have been wasted,” he said. “You will use your law degree and your legal experience to your continued advantage every day.”

From beer snobs to beer jobs

Attorneys are used to conducting research, and McGowan’s success as a brewery owner came after a lot it. It started when one McGowan’s beer buddies brought over a book called “1,001 Beers to Drink Before You Die.”

“Then it was game on,” McGowan said. “We’d get the beers from the book and rate them. After a while, we realized that most of these beers were just not that good.”

He had learned to home brew during his clerkship year after law school, when he lived in the basement beneath the home of a professor who taught him how to brew. So McGowan and his collaborators decided to dust off his home brew equipment. After much trial and error, they perfected a brew that’s now sold as Pro Bono Vanilla Porter. The men entered the beer in the Fort Mill Beertopia Home Brew competition and won. (Although the beer is called “pro bono,” you do not get it for free, unfortunately.)

After that confidence boost, the gang entered more competitions and did well, convincing them that they could make a go of turning their passion into a business. They began making two kegs a month in McGowan’s garage.

Meanwhile, the state of South Carolina ultimately recovered more than $25 million in the antitrust case in which McGowan was representing the state. His fee from that case allowed him to start the brewery, which included purchasing the home of a former car dealership that had been abandoned in the 1980s. He and his partners turned the showroom into a brewpub and the service bays into the brewery.

The brewery has been a success, so much so that McGowan and his partners are opening a brewpub and taco joint in Riverwalk in Rock Hill. Most of their beers have legally-themed names like Dubbel Jeopardy and Alibi Pale Ale.

McGowan said he’s been able to juggle his law practice with his brewery with the help of other people, including his wife, who runs the day-to-day operations. He had advice for attorneys who are looking to either leave the legal field or at least take on an additional venture.

“Make sure it’s something that you really love,” he said. “You are trading law stress for a different kind of stress. You need to know that going in. And at the end of the day, our chosen sideline is beer. It’s not like it’s medical research or something important.”

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw


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