Stuart Chanen





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Stuart, by Stuart

I confess: I was one of those law school nerds who really enjoyed what he was learning, and I am now one of those lawyer nerds who actually loves being a lawyer. I love arguing, writing, learning my clients’ businesses, getting to know them, absorbing new areas of the law, picking juries, arguing (I said that already, didn't I), learning what makes an assigned judge tick, and devising creative strategies to solve problems and win cases. That's the good stuff. That makes me a happy lawyer. (No, it's not an oxymoron.)

But as happy as that stuff makes me, by 2000, after fifteen years at a growing and successful firm, I grew increasingly frustrated with BigLaw’s model for providing legal services:  large teams of lawyers lined up vertically in hierarchical organization charts, with ever-increasing hourly rates, pressure to meet billing targets, and the sending out of monthly bills, often devoid of logical relation to the specific results so far obtained or even to be later obtained. I watched clients, forced to settle cases, not based on the merits of their claims or defenses, but simply because they could no longer withstand the crush of the hourly fees. Nothing frustrated me more than when a client abandoned a winnable case on the sole ground that the pressure of mounting fees made it untenable to try the case to verdict. 

Instead of just being frustrated or complaining, however, I left my partnership to become a "One-L": a "line assistant" in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago.  (I believe I am only one of three lawyers to start in that office as a line assistant over the age of 40).  Few understood at the time why I would resign my partnership and take that kind of cut in pay, but I got what I craved:  lots of courtroom action.  I was exhilarated working with federal agents, conducting complex investigations, trying 11 multi-defendant jury trials (and one to a judge), and arguing eight appeals in the Seventh Circuit. My lawyerly battery was recharged, I got to do the lawyer things I loved to do (have I said "argue" yet), and not let the bad guys win.

By 2004, I returned to private practice. I came out of the U.S. Attorney's Office and joined Katten Muchin Rosenman equipped with sharpened advocacy skills, criminal law experience, and my prior 15 years of handling civil cases – and also hoping that perhaps BigLaw had changed.  I enjoyed doing criminal and civil internal investigations, grand jury investigations, white collar criminal defense, and whistleblower cases. I was especially gratified representing victims of fraud.  I helped a doctor/entrepreneur recover a $17.5 million verdict against the largest privately held company in France, when the company breached a joint venture agreement and attempted to steal her intellectual property.  I helped protect a partner’s interest in a joint venture, when several of its partners attempted to siphon money from the joint venture to prop up one of that partner’s other, wholly unrelated, failing companies. Knowing that obtaining a Court-appointed receiver would only work if we moved quickly, we told the Court and kept to our word that the depositions would be done in a week. We ultimately settled for well in excess of our clients' investment.

May 2009 brought a defining moment in my legal career.  I co-led a team of lawyers from Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and my former firm to obtain the full exoneration of an individual wrongfully-convicted of murder, Thaddeus Jiminez ("TJ").  Ripped from his home at age 13, TJ was framed, convicted, and sentenced for a murder he did not commit.  TJ served 16 years, two months, and 27 days until we were able to get Cook County prosecutors and the Cook County Criminal Court to agree to his release and full exoneration, including granting him a Certificate of Innocence.  I cannot adequately describe my elation the night I hugged TJ as he emerged from the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg and how it felt to deliver him to his mother's home late that night. (Since that time, Valorem and I have successfully helped to exonerate three other individuals wrongfully convicted: Vincent Thames, Robert Veal, and Deon Patrick, and we are vigorously working on two more cases, Jose Velasco and Charlie Vaughn, both of whom are innocent and wrongly incarcerated. Stay tuned.)

In spring '08, my then partner (and now partner again) Nicole Auerbach announced that she was leaving Katten to start a new law firm in which four "BigLaw Refugees" were going to trade in their pinstripes to become "revolutionaries, risk-takers and entrepreneurs" and were dedicated to principles such as "collaboration," "the team," and "value billing." I also had known two of the other Valorem founding partners for 25 years and thought very highly of them.  I checked out their website and laughed.  (How often does a law firm website make you laugh? Smile, even?)  By summer '09, I realized that BigLaw had not changed and, after looking at several alternatives, I moved to Valorem. Valorem was the only place that made sense for the direction I wanted to take my practice. 

On August 24, 2009 (coincidentally the same day the Wall Street Journal ran a cover story on law clients seeking alternative billing agreements), I joined this merry band of revolutionaries, risk-takers, and entrepreneurs, and I have loved every minute of it.  Every day is about results, not hours – and every day we try to enhance our understanding of our clients and their goals and provide them even better service.

All of this has made me a happy lawyer again.