Posted 7/8/2013 12:00 am
Last month, Arkadelphia attorney Don Chaney celebrated with his two adult sons a ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a $1 million jury verdict for their client.
Those sons, Nathan Chaney and Taylor Chaney, are attorneys at his firm, the Chaney Law Firm PA, and worked on the case for their client, James Bradshaw, who was injured in a motor vehicle accident in 2006.
“We’ll all … celebrate a firm victory as a family,” said Nathan Chaney’s wife, Hilary Chaney, who is also an attorney and also works at the family firm. “And that’s really a fun thing to do. Most lawyers don’t get to go home and have dinners with their partners and celebrate a nice victory.”
While it’s not all that unusual to have a parent practicing law with an adult child or a husband-and-wife attorney team, it is unusual for a law firm to be made up of four attorneys who are all related. What’s more, office manager Terri Chaney is Don’s wife and mother to Nathan and Taylor.
The family connections have worked for the firm, which practices on the second floor of the two-story U.S. Bank building on Main Street in Arkadelphia.
In April, the Chaney Law Firm received the Outstanding Trial Lawyers of the Year award from the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, marking the first time the award was given to a firm rather than an individual attorney.
“We couldn’t narrow it down to one person in the firm,” Matthew Hass, executive director of the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, told Arkansas Business last week. “It’s the whole firm that made it happen.”
No one case stood out for the firm in earning it the award, Hass said. The firm, however, has a history of “going to the mat for their clients,” Hass said.
The Chaney practice mainly handles personal injury and intellectual property cases and Social Security disability appeals.
There’s a downside to having the work life spill over into the family life, though.
While at home, “there are definitely times when somebody says, ‘OK, it’s time to stop talking about work,’” said the older son, Nathan Chaney, 33, who, along with his family, recently talked to Arkansas Business.
Taylor Chaney, 30, said working together and being a family means “we can have an impromptu firm meeting at just about any time.”
And the firm, with a staff of seven, is busy. Don Chaney said he has to turn down cases because the firm doesn’t have the time to take them.
Nathan Chaney handles the intellectual property lawsuits and has clients across the country. His wife, Hilary, 37, works part time and is assigned the Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income appeals.
Don Chaney, 60, declined to divulge the firm’s revenue.
But winning cases is key to the survival of the business, which takes personal injury cases for a contingency fee. If the case settles before it reaches trial, the firm receives 30 percent of the settlement amount. But if the firm wins the case at trial — or just before the trial starts — it will receive 40 percent.
An insurance company, however, can drag its feet on reaching a settlement, Don Chaney said. “Not only are you investing a substantial amount of time, but also it can be a substantial amount of money,” he said.
Preparing for a personal injury case could cost the firm $50,000, and the investment can be several hundreds of thousands of dollars for a medical malpractice claim. “Cash flow is affected,” Don Chaney said. “Compensation is related to cash flow, so there could be feast or famine” in some years.
Dad’s Early Days
Growing up in northeast Arkansas, Don Chaney wanted to be a country lawyer.
His father died when he was 10. At the time of his death, Chaney’s father was involved with insurance sales. Don Chaney’s mother managed a small manufacturing company before she retired.
After graduating from the law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1977, Don Chaney returned home to practice at the law firm of Cathey Goodwin Hamilton in Paragould.
He wasn’t there long. He left the area in 1979 to start a firm in Arkadelphia with another attorney, Bill Wright. That firm grew to seven lawyers.
“After a period of time, you figure out what you don’t like to do and what you like to do,” Don Chaney said. “Eventually I figured out I liked fighting for the ordinary citizen.”
In 2002, Wright left the firm to go into banking and Chaney started his own firm with his wife as his office manager.
Don Chaney didn’t lobby for his children to follow in his career footsteps when they were growing up.
“Lawyers, at least the way I was doing it, tend to work too hard,” he said.
Still, Don Chaney wasn’t surprised that they became lawyers. “Both Taylor and Nathan were Eagle Scouts. … I think that had a positive influence on character development, leadership development, personal confidence level, … learning how to be prepared and doing the right thing,” Don Chaney said.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a bachelor’s degree in computer systems engineering in May 2001, Nathan went to law school at Washington & Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va., where he met Hilary Martin. They were married in 2006.
After graduating from law school, Nathan Chaney returned to Arkansas and started practicing law at the Mark Henry Law Firm in Fayetteville, where he handled intellectual property cases.
But he said the work kept him on the road and away from his wife and small child, River. “It was time to settle down and come home,” Nathan Chaney said.
Hilary Chaney, who worked at the Hall Estill Law Firm in Fayetteville, also wanted a lighter case load that would give her more time with her growing family. “I sent my oldest child to day care at 8 [a.m.] and picked him up at 6,” she said. “I said this really isn’t the life I wanted for my children.”
In 2009, Nathan Chaney asked his father if there was a place for him at the Chaney Law Firm, telling him that if so, he would be willing to move. Don Chaney agreed and his son joined the firm.
Hilary Chaney took a few months off from practicing law. But after her break, she decided in 2009 that she wanted to return to work, though only on a part-time basis.
“It turned into a good fit,” Don Chaney said. Hilary was assigned to the Social Security disability cases.
“It’s been so wonderful to have a flexible schedule,” Hilary Chaney said. She said she can work from home and raise River, 5, and Carter, who is 19 months old. And she can take the children to the firm to be watched by Terri Chaney or another member of the staff.
“It’s a much better life,” Hilary Chaney said.
In 2010, Don Chaney said, there was a need for the firm to hire his other son, Taylor Chaney, who had graduated from the University of Tulsa College of Law in 2009, which happened to be during the Great Recession.
“The thought of having to start my own firm scared me to death,” Taylor Chaney said. “So I started doing some work for Dad and ended up moving down here at the beginning of 2010.”
Don Chaney and his two sons have a balanced case load, but when a lawsuit is heading for trial, all three will prepare for battle in the courtroom. Don and Nathan will act as lead attorneys, with Taylor in a supporting role.
For the case involving the crash of two semi-tractor trailers that injured James Bradshaw of Pike County in 2006, the firm received a $1 million judgment from a jury in the U.S. District Court in Hot Springs in 2011. But the defendants — FFE Transportation Services Inc. of Dallas and the driver of the semi-tractor, David A. Booker Sr., of Kaufman, Texas — filed a motion for a new trial and it was granted.
At the second trial, held in 2012, another jury returned a judgment of $1 million. FFE and Booker appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the judgment was upheld in June.
The Chaneys spent countless hours on the case. While the close working conditions might fuel sibling rivalry in some family businesses, that’s not the case between Nathan and Taylor Chaney, they said. “What we do is very complementary,” Nathan Chaney said.
Don Chaney said he doesn’t regret the decision to hire his sons and daughter-in-law. The move has brought the family closer.
“I’ve enjoyed as an adult having the opportunity to become better friends with my kids as adults,” he said.
Don Chaney said he has no plans for retirement anytime in the near future.
“I like what I’m doing and plan to keep doing it,” he said.