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December 04, 2007

The Secret Of My Success: Christopher Jeffries Speaks at Law School

By Cisco Minthorn

I really didn’t want to be late. I woke up, looked at the clock and knew I would have to hurry. I threw some clothes on, splashed my face with water and ran out of my Lawyer’s Club room. As I entered Hutchins Hall and race-walked to room 138, I saw a table, upon which was an untouched bounty of Zingerman’s sandwiches. “Great!” I thought. “I’m not late!” I was first in line to get my share of the food. I didn’t want to appear greedy, but I was starving and I wanted to get a seat up front. I didn’t have time to be polite -- I boxed out my peers as if I were Shaq going for a rebound until I could grab my lunch and a can of pop.

The first one in the room, I sat in the front row and eagerly began to gobble down my chicken salad sandwich. I wanted to finish before the man of the hour came into the room, because when he did, I wouldn’t want to miss a word. Desiring to become what our guest speaker is – a real estate developer – I was especially eager to hear him speak. As I feasted upon my sandwich, I could overhear the murmur of various conversations going on in the room. “Who is this guy?” “How old is he?” I heard someone say. “Sixty, I think.” replied another. Many thoughts were racing through my head: “God, if he just gave away $5 million dollars, how rich is he?”; “How did this guy get from where I am to where he is?”; “Geez! Getting to be a big-time developer takes a ton of financial backing.”; “Ah, the guy probably comes from money.” All the while I envisioned this person as a stereotypical, rich fat cat – a short, portly gentleman with sparse grey hair and a monocle.

Then, a woman came in the room and sat in the chair next to me. She appeared to be in her early sixties. She was well dressed and well spoken. We exchanged pleasantries – she told me she was “eager to see Chris again” (they’ve been friends since law school). We talk for a bit – she said something to the effect of “Chris’s story is really inspiring” -- then I went back to devouring my sandwich. An announcement went out to the crowd that Mr. Jeffries was running a few minutes late. Instantly I was concerned. He was already late, and I had a group presentation in my next class – on North Campus! “Oh God! What if I don’t get to stay for the speech?”, I thought. “Can I miss class? No, I can’t do that, I have a group presentation!” “Oh, but I really want to hear what this guy has to say – how he became who he is, how he got his start, how he made it.” “Man, I just can’t leave; I’ve got to stay for as long as I can. Besides, Res Gestae is depending on me to write this artic…” “Hang on; what’s that going on in the hallway? Hey, there’s that law school photographer who is at all the important events. Finally! He must be coming down the hallway right now…yes!”

From my seat I could see into the hallway. There was an entourage of well-dressed, important-looking people. Even though I’d never before seen him, I could instantly tell who the man of the hour was -- there was an aura about him. He glided into the room, hugged the woman sitting next to me and went up to the podium. He wasn’t the stereotypical fat cat at all – he was over six feet tall, handsome with a full head of hair, and trim as an athlete. And so he began to speak.
He was an impressive public speaker -- his words were thoughtful and deliberate. He told us where he came from – Flint, Michigan -- and how he went to college at Columbia but chose Michigan over Columbia for law school because he was eligible for in-state tuition. The few thousand dollars he saved coming here meant a great deal to him back then. Turns out he didn’t come from money. Now I was starting to understand why that woman said his story was inspiring.

Mr. Jeffries went on to tell us that after graduating from Michigan Law in 1974 he made a conscious decision to practice law at a small firm – “15 or 20 lawyers” – instead of a big firm as most of his peers did. He didn’t want to be just a number at a big firm; he wanted his first job to be one in which he could gain valuable experience right away. It was a good decision. He made partner in five years. “After practicing law for a few years and helping mostly small business clients,” he said, “I felt as though I could do what they were doing better than they did it. Plus, going through contracts with a fine-toothed comb was getting tedious and I craved something more creative.” Hence, Christopher Jeffries decided to leave the practice of law and enter the world of business. He started with a leveraged buyout venture – a deal which gave him the capital and experience to start doing real estate deals. At first, he developed low and middle income housing; then eventually he moved into the luxury market. Now his company, Millennium Partners, develops only high end mixed-use developments in the most glamorous U.S. cities.

I wanted so badly to hear Mr. Jeffries speak because I wanted to come away with a lesson in real estate. And, yes, I did learn about some recent industry trends, but I ended up coming away with a much more important lesson. His speech was timely, coming at the tail end of the 2L interview season. I realized that so many of us in law school think that our success depends on going to the “right” firm in the “right” city -- as if our success in life depended solely upon our first job out of law school. Mr. Jeffries’s experience proves us all wrong. Here’s a guy that was at one time worried about paying a few thousand dollars extra for law school, but now was able to give away five million; he started his career at a small Southfield, Michigan firm but is now a major player in the country’s hottest markets. It’s not about which firm you work for directly out of law school or in which city you first practice. Success depends on hard work, ingenuity, and the ability to take risks -- the same qualities that got us to this fine institution in the first place. As Mr. Jeffries put it, “well-trained lawyers will succeed in anything they do.” An education in the law will take each of us far. Alright, I know you’re thinking “Well, that’s just one person, his story is a one in a million kind of thing, blah blah blah.” Ok, maybe. But Michigan Law success stories are all around us. That woman sitting next to me for instance? She’s a former CEO.