In The News

One Lawyer's Work to Rebuild a Practice After Surviving Cancer

Nov 23, 2016
The Texas Lawbook

A few months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, Houston construction lawyer Thomas Barber decided to wind down his practice at Coats Rose. Six years later, after his cancer went into remission, the newly married Barber joined a new firm and has spent the last year embarking on the demanding task of rebuilding his practice.

"I essentially started completely over again with one or two clients I had kept the work for. Production time is well right up there with normal, but not as many billables due to recruiting and business development," Barber said about his new role as a construction shareholder in Munsch, Hardt, Kopf & Harr in Houston.

He said he's spent the last year or so rebuilding relationships and his practice, by taking lunches with potential clients, conducting seminars for clients and doing public speaking for groups in the construction and risk management industries.

"It's a lot of face time with clients, and getting out of your chair is essential to business development. Technology has lulled people to the sense you can do it from your chair. You have to get out of your chair," he said.

Ben Wheatley, a construction shareholder in Munsch Hardt in Austin who first talked to Barber about moving to his firm, said the lawyer he's known for more than 15 years has done much over the last year in establishing the firm's brand in construction law.

"He has exceeded every statistical goal we set for him in the first year and just played a hugely positive role in terms of mentoring, too, and I think that's very important because he likes doing that. He's a builder," Wheatley said.

Barber, now 61, said he was diagnosed with lung cancer in August 2009. It wasn't a complete surprise to him. He had smoked many years ago, but he was also the fourth of six in his immediate family to get lung cancer. His mother and oldest sister had already died of the disease by the time he was diagnosed, and his other sister subsequent to his diagnosis also got lung cancer and has since passed away.

By the fall of 2010, Barber decided he was ready to scale back his practice because he wanted to reduce his stress level and also have time to help his sister in her fight with cancer.

"I'm such a fortunate person all the way around. I had the financial wherewithal to be able to take some time off. Many people don't. It allowed me to slow my practice down without the additional stress on how I'm going to make it financially," he said.

Barber sat down with lawyers and legal assistants who worked for him in the Coats Rose office in Galveston County. His plan was to phase out his practice and transition it to the lawyers he worked with most frequently, Barry Rabon and Richard Fulton, now both directors in the Coats Rose Houston office.

"We literally sat down at a conference room table, all the lawyers involved in the cases that I had, and essentially decided who would take over which clients and how we would transition … the cases to the new lawyers, how we would discuss that with clients and accomplish it in as short of a time as possible," he said.

The transition took longer that Barber expected, about 24 months, but that was because the team was getting new work as well during that time. He and the firm agreed to substantially reduce his income as a director based on a substantially reduced commitment. He kept a few clients, including the City of Sugar Land and the West Harris County Regional Water Authority, and worked an irregular schedule. He spent time on the board of the State Bar of Texas Construction Law Section and just ended a term in June as chair of the section.

Barber said he married a woman with two children in June 2014, and after doctors said he was cancer-free after five years, he came to the realization that he was ready to work more. He said it was a "restoration of normalcy," and he decided to "not act like it's going to be the last days of my life." During his recovery, he ran a half marathon and a couple of triathlons.

In early 2015, Barber said he talked to leaders of his old firm but wasn't able to negotiate an agreement that he felt would optimally benefit his family, so he started talking to other firms including Munsch Hardt.

"They really seemed to understand what I was looking fornot back to 60-70 hour weeks again but contribute significantly and spend a good deal of time with my family," he said.

Barber joined Munsch Hardt in October 2015 as a shareholder.

At Munsch Hardt, Barber said he works about 35 to 45 hours a week, but some of it is not billable hours and is spent on rainmaking, networking and mentoring younger lawyers.

"The mechanics of rebuilding, it's hard work. You've got to go out there and do it. You've got to get a few breaks like when you were starting out. You have to have a contact list," he said.

Phil Appenzeller, the CEO of Munsch Hardt, said Barber's talents were needed in the firm's Houston office. "We've had some good construction lawyers here in Dallas and some good ones in Austin and we really didn't have anybody in Houston," Appenzeller said, noting that Barber has brought in work around the state.

Because Barber needed time to rebuild his practice, Appenzeller said, the firm structured his compensation with a lower billable hour requirement but in an arrangement that works for both the firm and Barber. "He's done great, really well," Appenzeller said.

Patrick Gaas, a Coats Rose director in charge of the construction section, said the firm would have liked Barber to stay, but it did not work out. "I wanted more from him obviously. After about five years had gone by, I talked to him about possibly transitioning to start ramping up again and eventually he decided he was going to do that and decided he could do that better at another firm," Gaas said.

Gaas said he doesn't hold Barber's departure against him, because his former colleague made a business decision for his career. Gaas notes that he joined Coats Rose in 2003 in part because he and Barber met and developed a working relationship when Gaas was at another firm.

Wheatley, the Munsch Hardt shareholder, formerly practiced with Barber at Coats Rose and said Barber helped him through a health crisis right before Barber learned about his own cancer. Wheatley said Barber was immensely supportive when he was undergoing treatment in 2009 and 2010 for Hepatitis C, which he contracted after a wrestling injury during college, but has now beaten. "Tom helped me through that while I was at Coats Rose. He was my confidant, cheerleader [and] helped me keep my practice," Wheatley said.

Barber said he hopes that other lawyers who are diagnosed with cancer will see from his experience that they have career options. "I'm hopeful it will give them a path they can elect to take, to focus on their health. They don't lose it all. It can be rebuilt,' he said.

By: Brenda Sapino Jeffreys