San Diego attorney Robert Kolodny has been running his own law firm -- a boutique shop focusing on real estate work -- for nearly 35 years.
Not bad for a self-described "un-employable" law school graduate whose first legal fee came in the form of food.
Today, Kolodny & Pressman isn't much bigger than the one-man operation Kolodny opened in 1975. But the firm is as strong as ever, maintaining a loyal client base and constantly receiving referrals.
"I just decided that I wanted to go out and see if I could start a law practice and do it on my own," Kolodny said. "I just thought it was a challenge and decided I would see if it would work."
His first clients were a pair of friends opening a restaurant in Del Mar called Dini's. The fledging foodies, however, didn't have any money for legal fees. Since Kolodny, who had just passed the bar exam after graduating from California Western School of Law, didn't have any clients, he took them on, agreeing on a meal for his initial payment.
His friends later opened three other establishments, including one that still operates in Carlsbad, and Kolodny continues to represent restaurants and restaurant chains as part of his practice.
Kolodny took on a partner, Howard Katkov, in 1976. Then, in the mid-'80s, litigator Joel Pressman joined the duo to form Kolodny, Katkov & Pressman.
Katkov eventually left to become a major real estate developer while Pressman joined the bench in 2002. He currently is the supervising judge of San Diego Superior Court's North County division in Vista.
Many of the firm's original clients have stayed with Kolodny & Pressman through the years as they have grown into some of San Diego's leading builders and developers.
"We realize that the type of clients we represent obviously could go to any law firm they want," Kolodny said. "We're fortunate to have an opportunity to represent them and have (built) meaningful relationships.
"And when you have long-term relationships with principals and presidents of successful companies, you get a sense as to what they're looking for in terms of your role. You get a sense of what their goals are, and hopefully you can be a part of that team in a meaningful way."
Kolodny represents public and private companies and individual investors in all phases of the real estate transaction process, from acquisition to leasing or sale.
The firm also works with several banks, escrow companies, brokers and title companies and has assisted large land-holding companies in the entitlement process, negotiation and sale of some of their larger parcels of real estate.
The firm represents some of the larger car dealers in town as well.
"We provide an alternative to larger firms in that we are very focused on what we do," Kolodny said. "And our clients have afforded us the opportunity to take on a role with their businesses. We are not just acting as scriveners, drafting documents, but (have) a pretty active role in both analyzing transactions and helping to negotiate transactions."
It is that involvement that has kept him invigorated after more than three decades of practicing law.
"I thought that in practicing law after many years it might be something that I grew tired of," he said. "But I find that I'm still one of those lawyers who thoroughly enjoys most aspects of the practice of law."
He particularly likes being able to take a difficult set of facts, analyze it and develop a successful strategy for his clients.
"I feel fortunate in that my clients have afforded me the opportunity to be a cog in the wheel of their success," he said.
Throughout his lengthy career, Kolodny has experienced the many booms and busts of the real estate market. He's lived through various financial crises, including the savings and loan collapse of the late '80s and early '90s and the burst of the dot-com bubble a decade ago.
Overall, he's handled more than $1 billion in loan workouts and restructuring.
The experience has given him a unique insight to deal with the current recession, caused in part by one of the worst housing markets ever.
Kolodny feels the current downturn could be much deeper than any of the previous ones.
"Not only are we facing all of the problems on the residential side, but the amount of commercial loans that have not yet been acknowledged to be as problematic as they are will make this a longer, deeper and more problematic cycle to get through," he said. "And (it) will take a lot of creativity on both behalf of the borrowers, the guarantors and the lenders."
Kolodny said the crisis is particularly troubling because everyone is feeling its affects.
"It's very, very difficult because I have a lot of clients who are wonderful developers," he said. "They didn't do anything wrong, but the market turned and values dropped and, in many cases, the loans exceeded the value of the real estate and that created problems."
These days, Kolodny & Pressman receives numerous calls from borrowers and guarantors who need help restructuring loans.
Even banks have come to the firm asking for help "in trying to assess from a business perspective how best to represent their interests in deciding whether to foreclosure or to do some sort of loan restructure with borrowers or guarantors," he said.
But through all the gloom, the firm is still handling some positive transactions.
"We're fortunate in that, because of the long-term relationships we've had with a number of both public and private builders, we're still actively involved in the sale of various properties and subdivisions," Kolodny said.