I am fascinated with the passage of time. I find it captivating to learn how people I know – but perhaps don’t see every day – have spent their time and applied their talents while I wasn't watching. Often when I have had the opportunity to reconnect with someone, I find myself proudly exclaiming under my breath, “…and I knew you when …”
This new and sporadic series, “I Knew You When ….” is designed to introduce Around the Water Cooler and Attorneys in Transition readers to some amazing lawyers in Chicago who have achieved great things in their careers. My hope is to shine a light on these individuals and their accomplishments. Hopefully, readers can identify with the people profiled and feel validated about their own professional journeys. The lawyers I will write about generally inspired me long before they ever became “anybody,” and with few exceptions, none ever intended to evolve into the big deal that each has become today.
The series debuts with Brian LeVay, Managing Partner of Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC, who I met while I was practicing law years ago. Originally from New Jersey, LeVay graduated from Tufts University and then Washington University School of Law. Then, in 1988, the job market was dismal – even for top-tier law school graduates.
After law school, LeVay moved to Chicago, took the Illinois bar exam, and began his job search. With only a friend’s couch on which to sleep, no income and no legal experience or contacts in Chicago, he researched Chicago law firms for potential employment in the evening and walked his resume door-to-door in the Loop during the days.
LeVay finally landed a job with a small firm in December 1988. The experience he acquired – learning how to handle real estate closings, draft estate plans, and litigate commercial disputes – far exceeded his minimal compensation.
A year later, searching for an opportunity to learn and earn more, LeVay accepted a position with a 25-lawyer Chicago firm, handling sophisticated litigation matters and doubling his salary. After two years at the firm, where he enjoyed both the work and his colleagues, LeVay became engaged to his wife, Debbie. Days later the firm’s largest rainmaker switched firms, taking with him most of the matters LeVay was handling. The firm terminated LeVay and two other young lawyers, providing him with an important, if not pleasant, life experience.
“Twenty years later, it remains the seminal event of my professional life. It was a humbling experience. But it gave me a chance to think about the big picture. I wanted to have and provide for a family. I couldn't permit someone else’s career decisions to impact my life so dramatically ever again if I could help it.” He decided that his best protection was acquiring his own clients.
First, he married Debbie, whose support and confidence in him was paramount for him to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.
After he returned from his honeymoon, he hung out a shingle; The Law Offices of Brian D. LeVay was born - with few clients and even fewer paying clients. Answering an ad in the Law Bulletin, he sublet an office in a suite of solo practitioners, bartering a few hours of legal research in exchange for free rent. His suitemates, classmates and friends referred him clients. LeVay was and remains grateful for their generosity while his practice was in its infancy.
LeVay eked out a living practicing law, often serving as his own paralegal and secretary late into the night. His practice was diverse, doing whatever work he could bring in the door. He enjoyed calling the shots and often turned down offers to join other law firms. Eight years later, though, his practice reached a plateau, and he needed a larger platform. LeVay merged his practice into a 20-lawyer Loop firm.
LeVay became a partner there, primarily responsible for its real estate practice. His book of business grew, attracting middle market companies, real estate investors/developers and, a few banks. He built a network of referral sources and realized the value of connecting the individuals in that network with each other, often resulting in legal work and/or good will.
But this firm, LeVay determined, would never afford him the opportunity to be a decision-maker, which he felt was necessary to afford the control over his life he needed.
In 2003, he helped found Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC (“LLF”). Today, LeVay is the firm’s managing partner, and has spearheaded its growth to a 17-lawyer (and growing) middle market general business practice. “It’s hard to believe! We never had a number in mind; just a desire to have a firm that was able to attract like-minded attorneys and to service the firm’s clients. That being said, we project we’ll eventually be around 25 lawyers.”
“We've assembled an extremely talented group. I’m proud that we've created a firm that provides outstanding legal work for a fair fee. I’m equally proud that we have developed a nurturing environment. Experienced lawyers join us from large firms seeking the flexibility to establish reasonable hourly rates and grow a deeper clientele. Associates have started and grown significant books of business at the firm. Id like to think the firm has been helpful to each of them.”
“Stepping back, I think it’s important to take a long-term view of your career. Learn your craft and build a reputation as a fine practitioner and trustworthy individual. Good things will happen. Once I decided to try to generate business focusing on adding value to existing and prospective relationships, everything began to make sense. If you throw in the essentials - working hard, being accessible and honest and treating people with respect – I think you will be able to live with the outcome. I am constantly thinking about ways to help my clients and the people in my network. Investing time to help others has really been rewarding to me, both professionally and personally.”