Jim Chester, has staked out a leading position as an innovator in the legal profession. He has created a new business model with his firm Chester Jeter Siekierski LLP, and has broken even newer ground with a project called VENUE.
Chester says, “My term for what I am doing is independence enabling.”
Working With the Chaotic Awesomeness of Entrepreneurship When asked what he does for a living, Chester replies that he is an “attorney for entrepreneurs, and an entrepreneur for attorneys.”
“I have a similar mindset as my entrepreneurial and innovative business clients, so I can better appreciate what I call the chaotic awesomeness of being an entrepreneur. There’s no better phrase for describing working with entrepreneurs because it is both awesome and chaotic, and a lot of attorneys can’t handle that. I thrive on it.”
Chester enables his clients to receive superior legal services by enabling his partners to exercise maximum independence within the structure of a firm that also allows them to share resources and offload some of their administrative burdens.
Chester developed his innovative model after much study and observation of the way typical law firms function. “Despite their best intentions, most law firm compensation models actually punish attorneys for activities that are good for the firm. Thus, an attorney either has to be a philanthropist or a masochist to do things like develop associates, handle administrative functions, or even refer legal matters to colleagues,” he says.
He uses experiences gained in a variety of law firm models over his 17-year legal career – positive and negative – to craft a unique new model that keeps most of the benefits of traditional firms, while eliminating virtually all the negative aspects of other firm models.
“There is room in the right model for the million-dollar guy and the quarter-of-a-million dollar guy to be different equals. If you push 90 percent of the money out to the attorneys who bill and collect it each month, you allow the attorneys to decide how they want to run their individual practices. If they want to do their own work or use associates or paralegals, spend thousands on marketing or client gifts, or bill 1,000 or 2,000 hours a year – each partner decides for himself or herself.”
Some firm expenses are shared – such as insurance, rent – and the attorneys outsource their managing attorney responsibilities to Chester. “The management duties add a little to my plate, but someone has to do it. Our model builds in a modest fee to offset the time I have to invest in firm management, which is typically a few hours a week. The result is a fair, transparent and lean business model that allows us to focus on providing better legal services and value to our clients.”
VENUE – Being the Lawyer You Want to Be VENUE is Chester’s ultimate expression of independence-enabling. Chester and business partner, Jeff Martin, began building VENUE in 2014 in response to what they perceived as a significant need in the legal industry, a better place for business lawyers to work, meet clients, network, and access training and resources.
Chester says, “Nothing like VENUE has ever existed before. It is a true working clubhouse designed to serve the needs of business attorneys and litigators. Before VENUE, no other place provided the professional, secure home that independent business lawyers need to work, meet clients and network.”
Chester and his partners are some of the attorneys working from the downtown Dallas facility, a move which will expand their access to additional resources for firm clients.
VENUE is more than just an office space for business lawyers. While workspace is a key element of the appeal, not all members have offices—some have dedicated desks or use co-working areas. But all VENUE members have access to secure Internet, office equipment and supplies, conference space, coffee and media lounges, reception and mail services, and a host of other business services and resources, including paralegal, administrative and bookkeeping support.
VENUE also provides 30-plus hours each year of CLE and business management and development training. Moreover, because members must primarily serve business clients and have at least five-plus years of experience, the network of 100-plus partner level peers at VENUE creates tremendous collaboration and referral opportunities.
The facility will allow for more of what he calls, “personal destiny deciding” for the independent attorneys who join the new business community. “VENUE is my Sistine Chapel, my Mona Lisa. Not only do I get to help my business clients as an attorney, I know that with VENUE we are building something that can fundamentally change the way lawyers will practice law.”
“In some ways, VENUE is just a more independent version of my law firm’s business model. Both are designed to allow me to achieve what I believe to be my calling: helping attorneys to become the lawyers they want to be without having to sacrifice the person they need to be. I can make a good living and can also teach at Baylor Law School, be involved in my community, coach my son’s baseball team, and even launch VENUE. I get to be the dad and husband that I need to be, but I don’t have to feel as if I’m letting my partners or my clients down.”
Feeding the Good Wolf Chester grew up in a modest home in Sulphur Springs, Texas, and wanted to become an attorney as far back as he can remember. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and political science and graduated, magna cum laude, from Texas A&M University at Commerce and he earned his Juris Doctor from South Texas College of Law. He also earned an LL.M in international economic law from the University of Houston School of Law. Chester was the first in his family to complete college, much less earn graduate degrees.
Going to law school in Houston provided Chester with the opportunity to experience the practice of law directly, and he was well on his way to becoming a litigator, especially as a part of his law school’s nationally renowned varsity advocacy program. During law school, he held a variety of clerkships and internships, including working in corporate legal departments, for the Harris County Attorney’s Office, for the Texas Court of Appeals, and for a handful of law firms.
Among other things, his experiences showed him how different the life of a litigator was from what he had expected. During his third year of law school, Chester had a personal epiphany. “I’ve always been very competitive – in fact, that’s probably how I made it this far. But I realized that if I stayed in that competitive, conflict-driven field of litigation, that I would end up bringing out the worst in myself. I likely would have been successful, but I don’t believe I could have become the husband, father and citizen I wanted to be if I followed that path. I know litigators that can, I just knew myself well enough to know that wasn’t the path for me.”
He illustrates his point with an old Native American proverb that says everyone has two wolves inside: the good wolf and the bad wolf, and they battle for your soul. The one that wins is the one you feed. “Being a litigator – with my competitive nature – I would have been feeding the bad wolf all the time.”
Chester then shifted his practice focus to helping businesses with transactional and regulatory issues, ultimately developing expertise in business, technology, intellectual property and international law, which he synthesized into a new area of legal practice that he calls, business and innovation law.
IDEA Clients “We don’t seek to be everything to everybody. We have created a new practice of law designed around a particular type of client, not a particular practice area, so we can serve a broad array of industries. Our experience also allows us the ability to see a larger picture as compared to the sometimes myopic vision other attorneys in different situations have.”
Chester call his clients “I.D.E.A. clients,” a term he created. The acronym stands for innovative, dynamic, entrepreneurial and agile. While IDEA clients can come from a number of industries and range in size from startup to billion-dollar companies, what they have in common is that they are privately held, are heavily invested in intellectual assets, and their legal needs are constantly evolving as they grow or enter new markets.
“That’s a perfect client for me and my firm, regardless of whether the company is a startup or has been around a hundred years. We’re all senior counsel and we’ve aligned our interests with our clients so we can really serve those IDEA clients efficiently and effectively, including more sophisticated matters such as intellectual property, acquisitions, technology and international transactions. Because of my unique background and experience, I am better able to serve the needs of these clients.”
After working in and with a number of firms, he hung out his shingle as a solo practitioner in 2003 with the goal of doing more for fewer clients, with a special focus on startups, and small to midsized businesses. Over the years, his firm – and its clients – have grown. These days, although most of the firm’s clients are entrepreneurs and family-owned businesses, they also represent billion-dollar companies.
Chester’s practice areas are international business transactions, international trade; intellectual property protection, enforcement and transactions; e-commerce and Internet business; business formation and transactions, and technology transactions. Chester’s colleagues at the firm handle litigation, tax and employment matters.
As Chester looks to build the firm, he recruits partner-level colleagues who fit the innovation mindset and work ethic he has established. “My goal is for my firm to do 95 percent of the legal matters needed by a small or midsize privately held IDEA company.”
Teaching and Preparing A significant element of Chester’s independence- enabling philosophy is extending that philosophy to law students. For the past 15 years, he has been an adjunct professor of law at Baylor University Law School, teaching courses on international trade law and international business transactions. He also served for several years as an adjunct professor of Business Law at the University of Dallas.
Chester says, “Law school does not prepare you to be a lawyer any more than reading a book about hitting will prepare you to be a major league baseball player. The academics do a good job in terms of teaching research and reasoning skills, but in terms of practicality, someone from the real world needs to provide input.”
“As an adjunct, I tell my students that I’m not a real professor, but I’m a real lawyer. That’s important because a lot of these students need insight into the real world of being an attorney.”
Spice of Life Like his entrepreneurial clients, it is difficult to put Chester’s intellectual and business interests into a single classification or box. In addition to his professional pursuits, Chester’s interests include tennis, fishing, reading Stoic philosophy, music, and whatever sport or activity his four children are into. “My approach to life is like that line from Kipling’s ‘If,’ ‘I want to fill each minute of my life with 60 seconds of distance run.’”
Chester combines his innovative approaches to his culinary interests by exploring and inventing a number of spice blends. One blend, “Chester’s Grillin’ Blend” has been a popular holiday gift to clients, colleagues and friends for several years. More recently, Chester invented a salsa blend that won third place in the ISC Texas State competition. His interest in spices stems from a love of outdoor grilling and barbecue – not to mention his family connections; his wife is the great-great granddaughter of Clinton DeWitt Pendery, the inventor of chile blend. In fact, Pendery’s – which has been owned and operated by Chester’s wife’s family since 1870 – produces all of Chester spice blends.
Enabling Dreams “I like to help people and to solve problems. Because of the types of clients I work with, my clients are personally invested in their companies. As such, when I draft or review a contract, I’m not just working on a document, I’m trying to protect my client from negative implications that could cost them jobs or even make them shut down. For my clients, business is personal, as well.”
In addition, through his innovative law firm business model, as well as VENUE, Chester wants other lawyers to become the lawyers they always wanted to be. “I enjoy giving other lawyers the opportunity to do the things I’m able to do – in my law practice, my other business and professional endeavors, and in my personal life. That’s the best gift I could give to my colleagues, and a professional legacy I can be proud of.”