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Palm Coast Tuesday, Apr. 9, 2019 4 months ago

'Healthy fear,' hard work and empathy: Chiumentos reflect on 45 years at law

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Father and son built their offices in Town Center when it was poised to grow. Now that vision may be about to come true.
by: Brian McMillan Executive Editor

At the 2019 State of the City address, Palm Coast Observer Publisher John Walsh reflected on Mayor Milissa Holland’s theme: One Palm Coast. Walsh joked that he thought back to decades ago when "one" didn't refer to unity but to the small-town feel: one stop light, one pizza restaurant, one attorney.

Mike Chiumento was that attorney who stood out in Walsh's mind. The firm started 45 years ago, predating the incorporation of Palm Coast by a quarter century, and it has grown to 13 attorneys and 18 staff members, including several who have been with the company for more than two decades: Paralegal Michele Hurd, for example, started with the firm when she had small children; now they're graduating high school. Chiumento's son, Michael Chiumento III, joined the firm in 2001 and is a partner today, along with Marc Dwyer, Ron Hertel, Andrew Grant and Erum Kistemaker.

Mike and Michael reflected on 45 years in the business recently, at their offices in Town Center.

 

Q: To what do you attribute your longevity?

Mike: A good friend of mine said, "It only takes 20 years to be an overnight success." When we’re here at night, or we’re coming in here on a Saturday, you’re out of the house, so it’s difficult. You couldn’t do it without the acceptance of your spouse. In that regard, both Michael and I are extremely fortunate. Also, no matter how good you are, no matter how hard you work, if you don't surround yourself with good support staff, you won't be successful. We treat them with respect. We treat them as coworkers, not necessarily as employees. 

The clients are the natural resources of the firm. You have to treat everybody empathically, the way you would want to be treated; you have to be honest with them, humble, and, most importantly, transparent.

A successful business is not necessarily generational unless you have a good succession plan in place. Most family businesses fail when you get to the second and third generation. I’m very proud that my successor is my son, Michael. He came into the firm many years ago. We hit the recession, we both worked hard, and truthfully he’s done a better job than I have of taking the firm to the next generation. I see a lot of companies and kids going into the businesses, and they turn out to be schmucks.

Michael: I have a couple factors that come to mind. One is value: What is your value to the client and their problem? Hard work is obviously No. 1. In a way, a little bit of fear — fear of not succeeding for your client, fear of not having the positive feelings from your client. It's a healthy fear that motivates you to go work on Saturday and Sunday when you want to sit around and do weekend things.

 

Q: Michael III, you have represented some big developers in Palm Coast. What do you like and not like about that aspect of the practice?

Michael: After 20 years, both emotionally and intellectually, it's satisfying to know that I had a significant part in the development of Town Center, Palm Coast Park, and lots of others. To see that success, that vision come to fruition, is fun. You've been part of something, built something.

 

Q: With new apartments in the works, it looks like Town Center is poised for growth after several years of dormancy. What was it like to watch Town Center development come to a halt?

Michael: We were the first to build anything in Town Center.

Mike: At that time, everyone was very optimistic. The growth was late coming, but now we have a significant building and are poised for the future. It’s rewarding in that respect, but it was tough to weather through.

 

Q: How is practicing law in real life different from what you see on TV?

Michael: Stuff doesn’t get resolved in 30 minutes.

Mike: It's certainly not as glamorous, and it’s not as intriguing, with all the little subplots going on.

Michael: One of the exciting things about law is that it changes, and we have to continually learn, day in and day out. But it's also the hardest thing about the job. You can ever sit back and think that you know it. Every day, you gotta get up and say, "What don't I know?"

Mike: We built a balcony off my office, so we could sit back there and have our cigars and scotch at the end of the day like they do in "Boston Legal." We haven't done it since. We go out there, but it’s not like we wind down each down commiserating on the day’s events and having a scotch.

Michael: We go home to football practice, and doing algebra II till 10 o'clock at night.

 

Q: What has being involved in community organizations done for you? What motivates you to be involved?

Michael: We have now 30 people in the firm, and everybody is pretty much involved in some community-benefit activity. I don’t know why, it just is. If the community’s doing well, we’re doing well.

Mike: In the early days, it was a very small, close-knit community, and you had nowhere to go but to participate in the various civic associations. I'm proud because our law firm is the longest-tenured member of the Chamber of Commerce, as far as I’m aware, and both of us, father and son, were chairmen. 

Your community is where you draw your natural resources: your clients. And you need to be out and about, developing the community, making it a better place for you to raise your families. And you become very empathic, and you are thankful for your success and realize that the community is a major part of your success, so you've got to give back.

 

Q: What is the best advice you ever got?

Michael: Surround yourself with smart people and work hard. Bring value.

Mike: You meet the same people going up the ladder that you do coming down the ladder, so treat everybody with respect and empathy.

 

Q: How do you feel when you win a case? How do you feel when you lose?

Michael: After a large, two-year project, took a piece of property from a value of X dollars to 10 times that. Clients are thrilled and ecstatic. Four months later, Tuffy’s was being built — just a Tuffy’s. We lost, and it infected my brain for weeks. And Bruce Page says, "You hate losing more than you like winning." There's a running joke in the firm: "Don’t come back unless you win." Winning — in some form or another — is expected. That’s what people come to us for. Losing is an expensive and emotionally taxing proposition for our clients. So losing is multiple times worse than the benefit of winning.

Mike: People wouldn’t come to you if they didn't expect you to win, and you can revel in that success until the next day, and you gotta strap it up all over again. Losing is humbling, and it comes back to haunt you.

 

Q: How has the practice of law changed over the past four decades?

Mike: Technology. I still go back to the day when it was the cat's meow to have a fax machine. Or back to the electric automatic typewriter. Now, there's a much faster pace in a practice, and tangential to that, technology makes you more effective and more economical because you have all these resources available to you, to research and prepare for whatever your case is. And the last thing is, because of all that technology, your clientele has become more sophisticated and knowledgeable. Many times, they research the statues before they get here.

 

Q: What do you see happening with the firm in the next decade?

Michael: We’e got a lot of partners that are the same age and that are going into the second half of their careers. How do we ensure that the firm continues to grow, to meet the needs of the people and the businesses in the community? We’re fortunate to be surrounded by people who share those visions. 

Mike: Legal zoom, and those things that are out there to the run-of-the-mill type of client, that’s going to make it harder. The pressures on the economics are going to continue to drive the cost of legal services up, and we just need to be careful that we don’t price ourselves out of the range of the general population. 

 

Brian McMillan has been editor of the Palm Coast Observer since it began in 2010. He was named the Journalist of the Year for weekly newspapers in North America by the Local Media Association in 2012. He lives in Palm Coast with his wife and five children. Email...

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