They're old softball buddies. "But I was better," Steve Harris '81 says laughingly. When it comes to his law partnership with Richard Kessler '82, however, competitive advantage is quickly replaced by mutual regard.
"We're both intense," says Rick. "Steve is more approachable. I'm more in your face. But we have a common goal: to take care of clients and staff as if they were family."
"Rick is a good person to the core," says Steve. "He's very consistent and walks a straight line. I'm more excited and emotionally driven. I'm more like the line on a stock market chart. He's a great complement."
Steve met Rick through Steve's younger brother Mitch, who was friends with Rick at the University of Illinois. All three played on the same softball team, with Steve and Rick moving on to law school and Mitch moving on to medical school.
After Rick graduated from IIT Chicago-Kent, he worked as a prosecutor for the Lake County State's Attorneys Office, criminal division, while Steve worked for the Northern Trust tax group. From 1984 to 1986, they worked together in a small downtown Chicago firm, then Rick set up a practice in Highland Park. In 1990, he left law altogether to trade options, hated it, and in 1991 opened his own boutique litigation firm. Steve had his own practice by then, "on the corporate deal-making side," and they would send referrals back and forth.
In 1995, the idea of joining practices was broached.
"We thought about it for 30 seconds," recalls Rick, who moved into a former closet in Steve's space. "For nine months," he says, "Steve was in opulence, and I was in an interior space. If that didn't do in our friendship, nothing will."
In 1996, the law firm of Harris Kessler & Goldstein moved to a more comfortable setting at 640 North LaSalle and built their firm until they merged with McDonald Hopkins LLC in February 2007.
"We needed to expand our platform in Chicago," explains Steve. Their 15-lawyer firm didn't have expertise in intellectual property and restructuring/bankruptcy and were losing business to larger firms because of it.
Since the merger, they don't work together often, but one skill set leads to another.
"I'm the deal person," Steve says. "If the deal goes south, the case may go to litigation, in which case I'll rely on Rick. I know it will be a seamless transition. I trust him implicitly. He's like a brother. Whether it's meetings or business opportunities, I know he'll protect me."
Rick echoes the sentiment. "Communication, trust and respect are the basis of any relationship, personal or business." He says he's seen too many former friends "ripping each other's hearts out over the almighty dollar. We won't let that happen."
When Steve served two terms this past decade as Deerfield's mayor, Rick stumped for his friend, and Steve says he was able to balance the political and professional dimensions "in large part because of Rick." In turn, he felt his political involvement helped give their firm "some cachet."
Their friendship also comes in handy with prospective clients. "There's a chemistry," Rick says, "that creates a level of confidence when they see how we work together. We finish each other's sentences."
Rick says he would encourage young attorneys to consider partnerships. "It's a great way to get through what is sometimes a difficult way to make a living. Having someone with whom you share a common goal, whom you respect and trust, makes that road a lot easier to travel. When you find that magic, you hold on to it."
Steve calls law "a great profession but a tough business. The pleasure comes from working through the ups and downs with a friend. We're one of the lucky ones. We've been able to grow the firm and our friendship at the same time. I appreciate the risk. If the business goes awry, the friendship could follow suit. But that risk never stopped us. It feels just as good today as it did in 1995."