When long-time real estate executive Greg Hague found himself working more with banks, foreclosures and short sales than with real people, he decided to make a “metamorphic” change and return to his first career choice: Law. A year later, the 62-year-old received the top score in the February 2010 bar exam and joined one of the country’s top law firms. Law Practice asked Greg to tell us about his career leap.
I’m an attorney with Stinson Morrison Hecker LLP, focusing primarily in commercial and business litigation matters, as well as non-litigation matters. I believe my 30-year business background, founding, building and operating businesses, gives me a different perspective than most attorneys. That experience has proven extremely helpful in representing my business clients.
You first passed the bar quite a while ago—how did your path lead you into the business world and back again? Ever since I passed the bar exam in 1974 in , I wanted to practice law. However, my father became ill and needed my help to run our family business. So, instead of law, I stepped into my family’s real estate business. My legal knowledge, combined with a team of great people, helped me to build several successful real estate and development businesses, both locally and nationally.
But two years ago, when the real estate market began crashing, I realized that I no longer enjoyed what I did every day. I felt like a physician, giving one poor prognosis after another to my clients. I found myself working more with banks, foreclosures and short sales than with “real people.”
Then in September 2009, my wife, Roseann, and I rented a big beach house in and invited our three boys, their girlfriends and buddies to join us for a week at the beach. On the drive out there, I had been thinking about what I wanted to do in the next chapter of my life when I turned to Roseann and said, “I think I’d like to take the bar exam and practice law. I haven’t studied that stuff in 30 years, but I think I really want to do it.”
Roseann encouraged me to do what made me happy. When I got to the beach house, I talked to my sons and they encouraged me as well. That’s when I made the decision. I admit, as I walked the beach that week that I had a few niggling thoughts: “Greg, you’re 61 years old. Is this really the time to make such a metamorphic change?” I realized that I’d be starting over from scratch.
But as I walked, I remembered something Roseann had said to me long ago. I am a pilot and flew my own small plane. Roseann had a fear of flying in small planes, but one Saturday morning she woke up and said she’d like to fly with me that day. “What brought this on?” I asked in surprise. Her reply: “I decided that I can live my life afraid or I can ‘live large.’ I’m gonna live large.”
Ultimately, I decided to go for my dream and to “live large.”
For the next five months I put my life on hold and did nothing but study—14 hours a day, all day, every single day, seven days a week. The most difficult part for me was the isolation. I’m very social and not being able to play golf, ride my motorcycle with my buddies, or even go out to dinner was hard for me. It was the single toughest, loneliest year of my life. But it was worth it and I’m so glad I did it.
Were you able to totally step away from your past career? I still own a real estate firm in the high-end market of . When I decided to practice law, I hired one of my agents to oversee every aspect of that business.
I am also involved in a few other businesses and work with great people who run them. I’ve found that law is something you must devote every ounce of energy to. And I do!
Why did you ultimately make the change? Was it just not fun even prior to the economic crash? Honestly, it had become “not fun” for me even when things were booming. I struggled with making a change, though, because I had an enormously successful real estate business. How do you walk away from that?
But I remember many mornings when I would say to my wife, “There’s nothing I’m doing today that I look forward to. It’s the same old, same old. I’ve been doing this all my life. I don’t want this to be the only thing that defines my life.” I remember telling her that 100 times, and each time she would respond, “Greg, only you can make that decision.” We had that same conversation over and over, and then I’d go ahead and go to work. It was clearly not fulfilling me anymore. I guess you could do anything for 42 years—even eating ice cream—and burn out on it.
What is the biggest surprise you’ve encountered in your current practice? Timesheets! I hate them! I love everything about practicing law, except I had no idea you had to keep track of every six minutes. On the positive side, I love practicing law more than I ever thought, and I really thought I would love it. It surprises me how I can’t wait to get to the office each day.
What’s been the biggest hurdle? My biggest hurdle has been learning litigation. I had dreamed since I was a kid of being Perry Mason or one of the great courtroom attorneys. I know that’s silly, but I always imagined myself being “that guy.” That’s why I went to law school. Handling business matters and advising business clients is easy for me because I’ve been doing it myself for years. But for the past 11 months I’ve worked to become a capable litigator. The partners here have given 1,000 percent to help me learn. That’s what’s gotten me over the hurdle: knowing I’ve got these mentors to back me up.
What makes you love it? Helping people. In most businesses—whether it’s real estate, Proctor & Gamble or a car dealership—what does every single one of them do? They sell something. They’re helping people, but their first goal is to sell them something. I find enormous satisfaction in the fact that I go to work every day purely to help others. To me, that just defines life. What can be more significant and give you a greater sense of purpose and satisfaction than spending your time helping people because you’re fortunate to have a specialized knowledge and set of skills and experiences? I think that’s so cool. I really do.
Anything you would change? No! I know that sounds crazy, but I don’t think I would because I don’t know how I could have had a better life. And I intend to have a lot more life, by the way. I love my life. I always have.
How did you know you were meant to be in this particular place? I didn’t. I knew I wanted to practice law. Obviously I knew what it was all about—I had hired attorneys for years and have been one since 1974. But I never thought specifically about what I would be doing when I was studying for the bar. I just figured I’d be doing the “Perry Mason thing,” trying cases in court all the time.
As you might expect, that’s not the way it has come around. I do have some litigation going, but the most rewarding aspect of my practice is helping people in business and real estate, where I’ve spent most of my life.
What is your best advice for someone who is contemplating a similar career move? My best advice would be to make an unequivocal, “cut-the-umbilical-cord” decision. Do all your due diligence up front, and then if you decide to make a metamorphic career move, go for it, and go 100 percent. No looking back. And don’t take no for an answer. I’m not a “dip my toe in the water” kind of guy. I’m a “triple cannonball” kind of guy.
What can’t you live without at work? Without question, I could not live without my assistants, Kathleen and Mandy. Kathleen is (managing partner) Mike Manning’s and my shared assistant. She’s brilliant. Mandy is my personal assistant, who I brought into the firm. She has grown amazingly and I am so proud of her. Kathleen and Mandy make my life here a joy.
Parting words for our readers? When we do something for a long time, we tend to lose appreciation for where we are, or take certain things for granted. (That goes for people as well as circumstances.) I realize I’m the “new kid in class” here, but I hope that I don’t lose an appreciation for what an amazing profession this is. I have seen the world outside of law. This profession is truly unique in terms of the colleagues we interact with, their educational level and their professionalism. I’m proud to have joined the ranks.