Just across the alley from the childhood home of Chris Daniels, founding partner of Daniels & Kibort, PLLC, lived a family with five boys. Their father was a lawyer. He was not just any lawyer; he was counsel to the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team that had just drafted Lew Alcindor (better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and won the NBA championship in 1971. “I was totally into basketball,” Daniels said, “and my buddy’s dad would get us tickets to sold-out events and championship games.” A young Daniels was dazzled by this seemingly magical ability that sprang from his neighbor’s career in the law.
After attending a private, all-male high school in Milwaukee, Daniels graduated with a business degree in accounting from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and then pulled up his Midwestern roots and replanted them in Houston, Texas. There, he obtained his CPA working in the oil and gas tax division at Arthur Andersen. After three years, he came to a crossroads in his life: Would he continue his career in the corporate financial world, or pursue his youthful ambition of practicing law?
As he stood at that crossroads in Houston, Texas, straining to see the unfinished outlines of his future, Daniels chose the road to Austin, where he earned his law degree from the University of Texas School of Law, with honors. And that decision has made all the difference.
Little did he know when he chose a career in law, that he had, indeed, set a course that would intersect with celebrity. Daniels first practiced with the national firm, Katten, Muchin & Zavis, in Chicago, where he embraced an opportunity to transfer to the firm’s new office in the glamorous Los Angeles quarter of Westwood. Daniels was duly inaugurated into California living when he sat for the bar examination during a sizable earthquake, which disrupted a test later dubbed the “Earthquake Bar of 1990.”
A short time later, Katten Muchin acquired a prominent entertainment firm, growing the L.A. office from a boutique environment of 10 lawyers to a powerhouse of 80 lawyers that represented such notable giants as MGM and Michael Jackson. Daniels then transferred to a firm that specialized in insurance defense for the entertainment industry. During those years, Daniels represented movie studios and other celebrities, such as Kenny Rogers.
Daniels’ L.A. career continued as he worked with prominent trial attorney William H. Ginsburg, who would later become a household name representing Monica Lewinsky. “He just passed away two years ago, and he was a great guy – truly one of the top trial lawyers in America. He was very generous, very willing to share the credit in front of clients. I learned a lot from my time with him.”
As he began his own family, Daniels desired a return to the Midwest and its familiar mores. He and his former wife chose to settle in Minneapolis, where Daniels had clerked during law school. “We had two young children when we moved here,” Daniels said. “Now they are in college and doing great. I think it was a really good decision for us to get out of L.A. Minnesota is very much the real world, with great schools and a sense of community. It also has a very sophisticated business community and a lot of entrepreneurs, which fits in perfectly with what I do.”
After arriving in Minnesota, Daniels met another former big firm attorney, with whom he began a successful law practice. “At first I took a big pay cut going out on my own. I would probably do it differently in hindsight, but after working for large firms, I discovered that I was an entrepreneur. I have enjoyed the experience, and that’s why I’m here now.”
In 2007, Daniels and his former partner disbanded their firm, and Daniels re-established his business and litigation practice with what has today become Daniels & Kibort, PLLC, a firm of five attorneys and one of counsel, with experience ranging from nine years to 38. “Everyone here is a dynamite lawyer. The reason I can do this is that I have a great group of attorneys and staff who are wonderful people and good at what they do. We’re like a small family here. We all know one another along with their spouses and kids. The practice of law is a tough business – it’s really important to choose the right people to practice with.”
GETTING BACK TO BUSINESS
With a primary office in Plymouth and a downtown satellite location, clients benefit from the firm’s lower overhead structure. “We’re very accessible for driving and parking, and when clients call, they can get us on the phone. We don’t put up barriers, but provide the same level of experience and skill in terms of getting work done as a bigger, downtown firm. Everybody has their own niche, giving the firm a great breadth and depth of experience, including handling disputes involving real estate, commercial construction, corporate issues, and lending, to name a few. And two of our attorneys handle commercial transactions and estate planning. In addition to work for local clients, I still do some work for clients in L.A. and they consider us a real bargain in comparison with L.A. firms.”
After 27 years as a litigator who is licensed in three jurisdictions, Daniels summed up his practice philosophy, “I like to talk first and get stuff resolved. We can always sue it out later. I try very hard to put myself in my client’s shoes. Would I want to spend all that money on litigation and then wait for a judge or jury to give me a verdict? It’s a business decision. A lot of lawyers want to immediately start ramping up for litigation. I’ve practiced that way in the past, but that’s not how I want to pursue every case. I prefer to get through a dispute as expediently and economically as possible, so my client can get back to what they do best – running their business.”
Daniels also believes in the importance of the human element when resolving conflict. If he doesn’t already know the lawyer on the other side of an issue, he wants to meet them as soon as possible, preferably eye-to-eye. “It helps tremendously to personalize what is often an impersonal business,” he said. “I think lawyers treat each other more cordially if they get to know one another. There are a lot of methods, styles and skills out there, and I always try to take away something from everybody I work with.”
Daniels’ concern for the real people behind the issues is especially evident in what he calls the “business divorce” portion of his practice. “This is one of the many things we do as a firm. We step in when issues arise between owners of a company, often when there is a separation of owners. It’s not industry specific, and usually involves small-to-medium-sized companies that are privately held. Occasionally it involves a general partnership. If there is more than one shareholder, they are a potential client.”
According to Daniels, most disputes arise from poor business planning, or because governing documents are out of date. “The biggest issue is valuation. Even if they have agreements about value, often they are not updated. It’s important to be a good listener. I like to start at the end, find out where a client wants to be, and work from that point of view. Nine times out of 10 we find we can settle matters without litigation.”
Daniels draws upon his personal values when the parties in a dispute are also family members. “I’m one of five kids raised by parents who were both school teachers. I come from a very close family and love them all dearly. It would be horrible to me if I had an issue and never talked to my brother again.”
“When a dispute involves a family member, I become a quasifamily lawyer. It adds another layer of complexity to the business relationship. I am respectful of that relationship, and I try to instill a little of my own feelings about that. I like to negotiate a position where things are amicable enough that someday down the road they can still have Thanksgiving dinner together.”
Clients continue to benefit from Daniels’ CPA background, as many business disputes involve collecting money. In one case, Daniels spent over seven years pursuing the interests of a client who was owed in excess of seven figures. “The net in this case just got wider and wider. It was all about leverage. A lot of lawyers won’t stick with a case that long, but sometimes that’s what it takes. We have the determination and perseverance to stick with it until we get results.”
In 2006, Daniels married his wife Martha, whom he describes as “the sweetest, nicest person I know next to my mom.” They have two young boys, the oldest of whom is now attending a Chinese immersion school. Their household has recently grown to include an exchange student from Shanghai. The family enjoys travel, and they make frequent trips to Martha’s home country of Colombia. In order to stay in shape physically and rise to the demands of running a thriving law practice while raising a young family, Daniels recently rediscovered his passion for another sport – biking. He rode several thousand miles during the past summer.
The young man who dreamed of a career in the law grew into a gentleman lawyer who has remained grounded by his Midwest foundations. He is an entrepreneur in a people business, where his expert representation is tempered by respect for family and community. “Our purpose is not making money through litigation. Litigation doesn’t help people sleep at night or give them better relationships. Our purpose is to provide resolution and get our clients back to business.” And that dedicated focus helps Daniels sleep at night.