The Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association recently interviewed Erik Ladenburg and John Ladenburg for the Pierce County Lawyer magazine. Here is the interview, published on our site with their permission.
Brothers John and Erik Ladenburg have been practicing plaintiff’s personal injury law together for years. As most readers know, the brothers come from a well-known family of lawyers and public servants. Their dad is former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg and their mom is former Tacoma Councilwoman and State Legislator Connie Ladenburg. So I thought they could give a unique perspective on practicing with family. The Ladenburgs have a great sense of humor and we had a lot of fun with this interview.
Steve Krupa (SK): So guys, tell me, why did you become attorneys?
Erik Ladenburg (EL): I didn’t want to be a lawyer. My dad was a lawyer, my uncles were lawyers, my brother was in law school. So I didn’t want to do that, it’s already been done you know (laughs). But when I was in college, I took some law classes and fell in love with law itself. Prior to that I was leaning towards a career in law enforcement, but I realized that being an attorney was more of what I wanted to do. So despite my best efforts to steer away from it, I went to law school.
John Ladenburg (JL): Well I can tell you that unlike Erik, I had no desire to be involved in law enforcement. My dad was a prosecutor when I started thinking about being a lawyer and before that, he was a criminal defense attorney. I wanted no part of that. But I was interested in history, civil rights, and political scienced in high school and I knew I would go to Gonzaga undergrad and Gonzaga Law School. Once I got into Law School, I found that I really enjoyed Torts and Civil Procedure and I knew that it would be my career path.
SK: How did you start your firm?
EL: Well, I started my own firm in April, 2001. John can tell you how he joined me (laughs).
JL: I started out doing government defense work at Burgess Fitzer right out of law school. Then Ross Burgess retired, and I ended doing more insurance defense practice on car claims. This wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew Erik and his partner at the time were going to rent a space that had an extra office, so I figured the timing was right.
EL: We struggled a little for a bit, we answered our own phones and did everything ourselves. Our only source of steady income was a prosecutor contract for the City of Eatonville! We had that as a nice diversion from a normal practice until that court shut down.
SK: How do you guys divide cases? Do either of you specialize?
EL: Well we’re equal partners so it’s basically whoever answers the phone. But I do take the medical malpractice cases and John is better with the government cases. If it’s a big case, we work on it together. We’ve done several trials together.
SK: So what’s it like going to trial with a brother?
EL: Well its great because John is actually organized! He reads the Rules of Evidence and has the civil rules in his back pocket. I’m more focused on the human story (laughs).
JL: Erik thinks if it sounds it is fair and that’s the way it should be, so it works out pretty well (laughs). But we don’t go to trial a lot in these COVID days anyway. So in our day-to-day practice, it’s great. We bounce things off each other and talk about our cases all the time. Our dad has also been a great resource since he left the government. From a business perspective we each have different strengths, I’m more of a technical guy and Erik’s more of the marketing guy and it works out fine.
SK: So, what’s the hardest part of working with your brother?
JL: I’ll let Erik think about that, but at first, the hardest part was making money (laughs). But really as brothers, we know that we have to work well together because we’re going to see each other at Thanksgiving (laughs). People used to ask me, “how do you and your brother settle disputes?” I would tell them, “we’ll take to the basketball court or the pickleball court and settle it one-on-one (laughs).” Honestly though, I can’t remember a single conflict that we couldn’t work out.
EL: That’s right, I can’t remember one either. Honestly the hardest part of working with my brother is that people think he’s my dad (laughs).
JL: Actually, most people think I’m the youngest! But really for us the hardest part is going away together. We like to do things together as a whole family with our spouses and parents and extended family. Of course, nowadays it’s easier with being able to work remotely. But hey, those are first world problems (laughs).
SK: What are some of the benefits of practicing with your brother?
EL: Well, I work with someone I can absolutely trust and rely on. I can talk to him about things I might be reluctant to ask another colleague. I mean he’s my brother, I’ve been asking him for favors my whole life. I know there’s not going to be any pushback or hard feelings because that’s how we’ve always done things.
JL: And because he’s my brother, it’s easy for me to say: No, go look up the rule yourself (laughs)! The other thing is, with my brother and our family in general, you have people that you can turn to talk with about a case. And these are people you really like and want to go have a beer with at the end of the day!
EL: In our family with my brother, my dad, my uncle, we all genuinely love the law so it’s actually really fun talking to family about any issue.
SK: Well that brings up a point, especially in a family like yours where there are so many lawyers. What do you guys do to disconnect and get away from the law?
JL: Well really we have a lot of other passions. We love doing things with our families, we love sports, we’ve played in leagues together. I mean Erik and I were teammates in an adult baseball league for 10 years and it wasn’t like we were talking about our cases in the dugout (laughs). Really, we just try to leave work at work.
EL: I agree, I know my brother as my brother, not just as some attorney, so we talk about other things: family, kids, sports, life in general. We do talk about law sometimes but when we do bring it up, it doesn’t dominate the conversation.
JL: The other thing is that as brothers we can give each other the time to leave the office and do things with our families if we need to.
EL: If we can do this and make our clients happy, we’re happy and that’s what we have.
SK: Thanks guys. How about some takeaways for our readers thinking of opening a practice with a family member?
JL: Well like a marriage or any business partnership, you’d better like your partner. And some family members don’t like each other (laughs). I think people that get into family businesses know better than people not in family businesses whether it’s going to work or not, once they become lawyers because they grew up together.
EL: The difference is, if you’ve become a partner with some random person and things go south, it probably doesn’t matter if you never talk to that person again. Whereas if you split up with your brother, that could turn into hard feelings and maybe break the family relationship. So the advice I would have is, ask yourself when you’re getting into that relationship: is this for the benefit of making money, or is it for the benefit of doing something that you both love and want to do together? If you’re looking at this solely as a money-making opportunity, you’re probably coming into it with the wrong mindset. Working together should be the prime motivator.
Steve Krupa is a Staff Attorney at Northwest Justice Project working to bring civil legal aid to veterans. Prior to that, he was a partner in a Tacoma litigation firm for 24 years. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.