As Founder of Orange County’s Largest Family Law Firm, Lisa Hughes has been blessed with the life of her dreams by helping others through trauma and tragedy.
I am not successful because I am smart or educated or tenacious although those are important attributes. I am successful because I associate with lots of smart, educated and tenacious people. Their success is my joy. They cause the firm to have stature. We are all a part of an organization with a purpose. That purpose is to provide the finest family law services that are available in our community,” says Lisa Hughes, Founding Partner of Hughes & Hughes Attorneys at Law in Tustin.
Indeed, Hughes has tenacity in spades. In fact, to those who don’t know her, the fact that she had her own traumatic challenges to overcome often comes as a surprise, given Hughes’ wildly positive outlook on life. That is, despite a seemingly less than ideal childhood, Hughes refuses to see herself as a victim. On the contrary, to hear her tell it, she’s been nothing but fortunate, resulting in a life that is better than any she could have ever imagined.
“Even as a child, I had a sense of humor, and found life to be a hoot. I was blessed to have been born into circumstances that would without question shape my personality and define my character, work ethic and aspirations. My mother was married to 13 men and my father was not one of them. My mother would eventually go to jail for murder and my childhood was spent in group homes, foster care and a brief stint at McLaren Hall in Los Angeles. But the most important result was that I asked God to help me be able to change the wrongs that I saw. I also knew that someone always had it worse than me,” she says.
To that end, Hughes admits that she did not intend to be a family law lawyer, though she says in hindsight it all now makes perfect sense. Instead, Hughes says that family law chose her, but only after she’d followed her first love of numbers into a career as a CPA. “I graduated law school cum laude in 1975 and at the time, my career opportunities were limited because I am a woman. Women’s compensation at the time was generally substantially less than a male in the same or similar position. A friend advised me to become a Certified Public Accountant as it would level the playing field and it would be easy. He was absolutely right as to the first part and he lied about the second part,” Hughes says with an easy laugh.
SHAPING A POSITIVE PERSPECTIVE
While earning her CPA, Hughes met her now husband of 37 years. “Bruce was an accountant who became an attorney in 1979, I left the CPA practice to practice law. We formed the Hughes & Hughes model in 1980,” she explains. “The practice grew because of my accounting background and a personality that says there are no problems that do not have a resolution.
My childhood and the ability to use my circumstances to teach others how to capitalize on seemingly impossible situations give me a unique ability to counsel a hurting client,” she says. Speaking from the heart she adds, “I know that there have been times when I was reading the Book of Job to cheer up. After all, I have seen rape, robbery, murder and incest firsthand. My mother’s children, myself included, were given the opportunity to either take these events and learn from them or give up. Some gave up. I learned that faith, a sense of humor and a positive attitude will get you through anything. I bring those lessons to our clients. For example, the destruction of a marriage is an opportunity to do all of those things you blamed your ex-spouse for not allowing you to do. It is a time to review your personal successes and to work with those attributes that interfered with your most successful life. I convey these concepts on a firsthand basis, and I love the fact that my title is attorney or alternately, counselor.”
While Hughes has her own story of triumph over trauma to share, an additional strength in working with clients who are going through a terrible time in their own lives lies in her expertise with accounting. “Family law is intrinsically tied in with money. Even cases that at first glance seem about custody or domestic violence, a lot of the problem can be traced to money. There is always a cash flow analysis that needs to be done” she says.
Hughes also can’t deny the fact that family law would put her in a courtroom over and over and over again, which she absolutely loves. “The courtroom is the center stage of it all. Most family law cases do settle, with the public really only seeing 5% of the cases, but I do spend a lot of time in court.”
BUILDING A PURPOSEFUL PRACTICE
In addition to working alongside her husband and best friend Bruce, Hughes & Hughes is fortified by a third principle, David Wald, who Hughes jokingly calls “Switzerland.” “When it comes to working with a husband and wife couple, his calm demeanor, outstanding intellect and unquestionable ethics make him the perfect firm principle,” she says. To boot, “We all have early bar numbers, and years of experience,” she adds.
The firm itself is certainly in a class of its own when it comes to innovation, clear guiding principles, and standards for success. In addition to being CPAs and attorneys, Lisa and Bruce both hold Master’s Degrees. Lisa’s Masters of Public Administration with an emphasis on organizational development has helped the firm to develop and grow, not only as a successful law firm, but as a successful business which places client care at the center of everything it does.
“There are four T’s that our firm embraces,” says Lisa. “The first is teamwork. We are organized around several teams. Each team is headed by a principle and a team leader. The team leaders assure accountability to the client in workflow, and confirm that the billing is appropriate and accurate. This assignment to a team of lawyers and paralegals assures that someone is almost always available who is familiar with the client’s file. It also allows work to be done at lesser billing rates by support staff. Each team is also supported by a non-billing administrative person, who files and attends to ministerial tasks to our clients’ benefit.”
The second T that the firm embraces, stands for training, according to Hughes. “We maintain a substantial education budget. This includes sending our staff to multiple Bar and commercial education opportunities. Our lawyers are required to belong to at least two specialty Bars. Additionally, we maintain a large, in-house training facility. We bring in outside speakers on a number of related issues, such as forensic valuation, psychology experts, real estate specialists and the like. The learning is constant at Hughes & Hughes. We are also an MCLE Provider, and provide continuous educational opportunities.”
Technology is the third of the firm’s three T’s. “Due to our size, we have the ability to have all of the bells and whistles available to a family law firm. With the paradigm shift in the legal field to electronic research, file maintenance and soon to be a complete paperless court, our firm must be cutting edge. We work diligently to stay ahead of the curve, while at the same time maintaining a balance with the old, established and effective ways of running a law practice such as picking up the telephone and writing an old fashioned letter in lieu of a stream of emails,” Hughes explains.
Of course, the three preceding T’s would be for naught if the firm weren’t laden with talent. “Bruce, David and I represent decades of experience in family law. The younger lawyers, however, are amazing in the talent they bring to the firm. The lawyers speak a total of nine languages. Some also have additional graduate degrees and one is taking the C.P.A. exam. They bring an enthusiasm and energy that the older lawyers complement with wisdom and experience,” Hughes says proudly.
“We invest in human capital. It sounds cliché, but we are only as good as our weakest link, so we don’t have a weak link. There is a requirement to joining Hughes & Hughes in that the candidate must love the work they do. They might get past the interview process and be hired on credentials, but unless their attitude and work ethic reflect a genuine interest in the client’s welfare, they won’t stay,” she quips.
Not surprisingly, the firm also holds itself to customized Standards of Success. “We don’t set goals that are ambiguous, and I tell our staff to take the Standards of Success off of the wall and carry them in your heart,” she says before acknowledging that the onus is on her to lead by example. While there are 12 Standards, some of Hughes favorites are: ‘We have unquestioned integrity, always put our clients’ interest ahead of our own and do the right thing’ as well as, ‘We hold ourselves to be individually accountable to our clients, our team, and the firm. We do it today, not tomorrow’ and ‘We give back to our communities. Each team member is committed to performing quarterly community service.’
CARING FOR CLIENTS AND THE COMMUNITY
“Hughes & Hughes is not content to be a good law firm, we strive to be a great law firm. That means sometimes stepping out in front of our competitors, sometimes trying new protocols which may or may not be more successful, and investing the firm resources to accomplish these goals. We don’t experiment on our clients. However, we allow staff to charge their time to my personal billing account to create a new form, write a new protocol or spend time to analyze a new strategy,” Hughes says.
Moreover, she explains, “Recognizing that the dissolution of a family is an anguishing event, we provide up to three free hours of counseling to our retained clients. If the initial interviewing attorney finds that the client has no therapist available, and the client is in distress, either from the grief of the dissolution, having been involved in domestic violence, or issues dealing with children going through a divorce, we will put them in the ‘therapy program.’ We give them a list of about a dozen professionals we know in the community and let them pick, without the firm’s input. They get a certificate for three hours and the therapist sends the certificate back to us as a bill. It is not charged to the client, and thus the lawyers will have no idea what happened unless the client volunteers that information. I assume some of the clients have maintained relationships longer than three hours and it has helped them through the process. I do not have to assume that the availability of a professional therapist to a client in a divorce is in the client’s best interest, or makes them a better client, and makes the process go smoother; I know it does.”
In addition, Hughes & Hughes provides a trial assistant for court, which is not billed to the client either. “We employ a former Superior Court Clerk. He is responsible for bringing client files, filing documents as necessary, finding witnesses, and meeting the comfort needs of clients that day. He also brings equipment so that our lawyers can access the computers at the office and make copies. Pleadings can be created on the spot. Research from our computer banks can be accessed and instructions can be given to the office in real time,” Hughes explains.
As if it weren’t enough to invest in her team, and do whatever it takes to help her clients through an incredibly painful time in their lives, Hughes is also determined to make an impact in her own community. She currently chairs two Orange County committees, including Drug Use is Life Abuse/Project No Gangs in conjunction with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, and the Public Finance Advisory Committee, appointed by the Orange County Board of Supervisors. “Our firm philosophy is that to whom much is given, much is expected,” Hughes says simply.
While all that she has done to build one of the most successful family law firms in Southern California would seem to leave no time for recreation, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a mother of four, and grandmother to another four, Hughes is also a “lover of critters,” which includes her horse Nacho, who she loves to ride. She also happens to be an incredibly talented painter, who relishes the time spent at her easel.
“Oil is my medium although I have done some watercolors,” she says. Currently her portrait of Lincoln is hanging in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, while The Spirit of Democracy was displayed in the California State Senate Chambers and still others have been donated to raise money for various charities. “I am an artist, whether it be at my craft or at my easel. Long after an artist is gone, if they are any good at what they do, they leave a legacy.”
Hughes is most certainly going to leave a legacy, as she’s already been given the proclamation of Woman of the Year from the California State Senate, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Association of Women Business Owners. Incidentally, those are just a few of dozens of awards she’s received, and while she’s humbled to have received them, they are frankly just a byproduct of doing what she loves to do. And what she loves to do is help others, whether through sharing her own life story, or lending an ear along with her expertise to those struggling in their own lives.
“As a family law firm, we are constantly facing emotional and sometimes dangerous situations. A successful outcome is often determined by empowering a client and helping them to make appropriate choices. I encourage people to see past the present circumstances to find their best future. I assure them that it is all about positive attitude, utilizing your best skills, calling on your faith and maintaining a sense of humor. Every day gives us the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. At Hughes & Hughes, we have the best job in the world.”
Lisa Hughes Hughes & Hughes Attorneys at Law
W. First Street Tustin, CA 92780
About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal