Local firm brings new meaning to ‘family law’

By Jim Davis
The Herald Business Journal

Thomas Neeleman took his daughter to work.

She stayed. And she wasn’t the only one.

The bankruptcy lawyer has hired on all four of his working age children to his practice, one as a partner, two as associates and another as his head paralegal, working in offices in Marysville, Everett and Bellingham.

“I say on the website that I couldn’t find any good employees so I had to raise them,” Neeleman jokes.

Talk about family law.

Parents often bring their children into the family business. It’s more unusual to bring them in to the law profession. For one, the children have to be interested in the law. And then, there’s the whole legal training.

Even when they choose the legal profession, the children could go to another firm. But the Neeleman children all trained in the law and they all returned to the Neeleman Law Group.

A law practice where Dad is the senior counsel has its ups and downs. It’s easier for the Neeleman children to take time off to attend to family matters.

“I love the flexibility,” said Emilee Neeleman Morzelewski, 38, who works as the firm’s lead paralegal. “It’s always nice to come and leave when I need to.”

One of the drawbacks is family familiarity. Phone calls about cases at a quarter to midnight aren’t unheard of. And screw up and the boss is going to get mad.

“I’m sure he yells at us more than he would yell at his other employees,” said Ben Neeleman, 34, who just joined the firm after passing the bar. “That’s one of the negatives.”

Then, there are family gatherings. Thomas Neeleman said his wife, Kristi, who spent a short stint at the law office as a receptionist, runs “screaming from the room” when talk turns to work.

“Everybody gets together and we’ll say we’re not going to talk about the office today,” Thomas Neeleman said. “And then it will be that way for two hours and then someone will say, ‘What about this?’ and it rolls back in.”

It wasn’t the law practice, but actually restaurants that started this all off.

Thomas Neeleman received a law degree and a masters of business administration from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, worked for an accounting firm in Texas and then returned to Utah.

“I had a little stint buying bombs — doing price negotiations with the Air Force — for about six months right after going back to Utah,” he said.

He eventually put his law degree to good use with a practice in Salt Lake City in the early 1980s.

“I took the bar and hung up my shingle and started doing the normal things, divorce, suing people and that kind of thing,” he said. “A guy walked in and said, ‘Can you do a bankruptcy?’ and I said, ‘Well, I can’t dance.’ So I did it and it just felt right, helping people instead of suing people.”

His bankruptcy practice eventually expanded to add an office in St. George, Utah. Neeleman’s own parents had always run restaurants. And he had that bug. So in Salt Lake City, he opened a restaurant called The Shed, an all-you-can-eat, steak-and-chicken restaurant. His law practice was on the second floor above the restaurant.

He had a manager running The Shed. But he hired his oldest daughter, Jennifer Neeleman, who started off putting lemon slices in water and wrapping potatoes with aluminum foil.

As the children came of working age, each would work at The Shed or his other restaurants, the Good Old Days Cafe or later on his doughnut shop, Legal Doughnut. Once in the restaurant, it was only a short hop away from the law practice, helping with cases when his firm got too busy.

“In Utah, we were filing over 100 cases a month at that point,” Thomas Neeleman said. “It was a busy, busy practice. Emilee came one day and sat behind a counter and I was back in my office and came out and the whole entire front was under her control.

“I go, ‘What can I say, Emilee, you found your niche.’”

Thomas Neeleman moved his practice from Utah to Washington 12 years ago. He started off in Long Beach in southwest Washington, but moved to Everett just six months later.

The Neeleman Law Group now is located in a converted house at 1403 Eighth St. in Marysville. The practice has eight employees — Neeleman and his four children and three others — working in Marysville and satellite offices in Everett and Bellingham.

Jennifer Neeleman started practicing law with the firm when it was still in Utah in 2001. Emilee had started a family, but spent time to get a paralegal degree and worked in Utah.

His third oldest daughter, Angie, received a law degree and started at the practice in Washington in 2006. Ben Neeleman, the fourth oldest, cast about looking for another profession. A little bit of work in Marysville helping with case files convinced him to pursue law and choose bankruptcy.

Jennifer Neeleman, 40, said that working with her Dad and her family always felt right.

“We’ve always just got along well,” she said. “It’s kind of all I know at this point.”

But yes, like any family, things aren’t always smooth.

“We have days where we get along and it’s great and we’re good resources for each other and there are days that aren’t like that,” said Angie Neeleman, 36. “When you fight with a coworker, you get to leave. When you fight with a family member, you’ve got to see them at Thanksgiving. So you’ve got to make this work.”

Neeleman has two more children, Feliciti, 19, who goes by Felix, and Robee, 17.

Felix hopes to go into computer design and Robee is involved in music and drama at the high school where his mom, Kristi, is a substitute teacher.

“Like I say, it seems like I’m forcing them into this,” Thomas Neeleman said. “But we kind of let them do what they want to do. Who knows? They may migrate back. If they do, we’ll figure it out.”

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