I was the eldest son of the managing partner of a midsize accounting firm founded by my grandfather in 1907. During the 1930s, it was one of the largest accounting firms and was supposed to merge with an accounting firm of equal size that is now part of the Big Four. To make matters worse, I was born on March 15, so it was assumed by everyone in the family that I was destined to take over the accounting firm.
For my 10th birthday, I was provided with a copy of the Internal Revenue Code and instructed to memorize it. My grandfather emphasized to me that accountants serve a vital function as they are the doctors for business. You can always hire people the do the mechanical and mathematical functions, but a real accountant understands and analyzes the numbers to advise the client. In addition to the general auditing, the firm was recognized for its tax work involving sophisticated business and personal transactions. The more this was discussed, the more I realized that the primary service providers for business transactions were almost always the attorneys, not the accountants.
While I was in high school, a family friend thought that I would be interested in law school and gave me some briefs to read concerning a case he was arguing to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. After reading the decision below, which was not favorable to his client, his brief, the opposition brief and reply brief, he asked for my thoughts on what he should emphasize at the argument.
I found it fascinating to read the story behind the case, how the district court viewed the plaintiff’s case and how each of the lawyers approached the appeal. I did not know how lucky I was that I was reading papers prepared by exceptional lawyers. They provided a meaningful service to their clients, and I could see that a decision by the Second Circuit could impact many other businesses and people in the future. I also understood that there was an alternative to becoming an accountant.
As the oldest grandchild, one of my responsibilities was to spend time with my grandfather on weekends. He was probably the most brilliant person I have ever known, and he was a very successful accountant, even though he became blind in his early 20s. He was a dairy farmer, but because his retina was detached and there was no cure at that time, he and his wife decided to enroll at the City College of New York to become accountants. He used an abacus, but more importantly, he had the gift of listening to numbers for various items on the balance sheet, the income statement and the cash flow statement and then advising clients on what they needed to do to improve their businesses. For his first four years he — along with my grandmother, who also became an accountant — worked for one of the very large accounting firms. He then decided to open his own firm near Wall Street and was very successful. I loved hearing the stories of how he helped businesses become more profitable and successful.
Rather than going to the Wharton School of Business, where my father was an active alumnus, I chose Cornell University because I wanted a liberal arts education. I had no idea what I really wanted to do for a living. During the summers, I sold Fuller Brushes door to door. One of my territories was in the slums of White Plains. I saw the plight of many of the tenants who were living in rat-infested housing. I started to research ways in which I could help them, including going to the building department to look at property records. Luckily, one of the employees at the building department was a friend of our family, and he directed me to where and what to look for and how I could help these people.
In my junior year, all I knew was that I did not want to become an accountant and stopped by the law school to find out if going to law school would defer my military obligation to serve as an officer in the U.S. Army. While I was asking questions and trying to obtain information about law school, the associate dean asked if I would like an interview. We discussed what I was looking for in life and why I did not want to go into the family accounting firm. At the end of the interview, I asked where I could obtain the application to apply to Cornell Law School. His response was that I had just had my interview and if my grades were as represented, Cornell had a special program that the first year of law school would also be my senior year. A few days later, Dean Penney called and stated that my grades were actually two percentage points higher than what I told him. He asked me why I understated my grade average. My answer was that I was not sure of my exact average. If I told him a number, and he found out that I had understated the number, that was much better than overstating my grades. His response was that was a sign of being a careful, thoughtful, and successful lawyer; I could begin Cornell Law next September.
Being a lawyer is a service profession. You have to generally like people and want to help them make their businesses or lives more successful. In the Army, although I could have been a full-time lawyer in the Judge Advocate Generals Corps, that would require a four-year commitment. As an infantry officer, I only had a two-year commitment. I chose the latter. And after I reported to duty, I learned that if a soldier is accused of an offense, that soldier had the right to choose anyone to defend him.
My personnel file said that I graduated from an Ivy League and law school. People in my unit started asking me to defend them, but I had the option of deciding which cases I wanted to handle. I only took those cases which I thought were interesting, and I learned to be a trial lawyer on the job with no guidance. But I was happy providing this type of service in some unique cases, such as representing someone accused of mass murder and a sergeant who was caught in a homosexual act two months before he would be eligible for a full pension. Although I intended to be a tax lawyer for a Wall Street firm, the idea of defending someone, especially successfully, was very satisfying.
After law school, I became an associate in a midsize New York law firm, working primarily in the tax law department. At 29, my father became quite ill, and I was asked to take over the tax department and manage the firm until he recuperated. The firm had the entire 42nd floor of 20 Exchange Pl., except for a corner office that was sublet to a securities lawyer.
I was very frustrated because at the end of the day, I could not quantify any meaningful accomplishments. Saving a business hundreds of thousands of tax dollars or a wealthy woman $50,000 in taxes left me unsatisfied. Listening to the lawyer who was bringing companies public and the sense of accomplishment he realized in creating new businesses sounded much more appealing. After talking it over with my wife, we moved to Washington D.C., where I was employed as an attorney/analyst with the Division of Corporation Finance of the SEC and acting tax counsel to the division. I never looked back. After all these years, I still enjoy providing legal services to help businesses and individuals. Every night, I feel that I have accomplished something to help someone else.
Charles Hecht is an entrepreneurial lawyer who had his own firm for 39 years and recently joined Balestriere Fariello as a partner. He specializes in innovative solutions to complex litigation, arbitration, and securities transactions. He values teamwork, which is one of the reasons why he joined a New York City boutique law firm. He and his colleagues represent domestic and international clients in litigation, arbitration, investigations by governmental agencies, and securities transactions. You can reach him via email at email@example.com.