Plea Enterprise

Randy Amis knows what law school doesn’t teach

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

photoWhen Randy Amis moved his practice, L. Randolph Amis Esq. PC, into its Burlington offices at 110 Main St., he felt he had come full circle by moving into the building where he first practiced law.Ask attorney Randy Amis why he chose to study law, and he gives an answer that reveals a lot about his personality and his approach to life. 

“My psychologist would say it’s my overwhelming need to please everyone; my mother would say it’s the only way I could possibly afford my spending habits; my father would say I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to school next to a world-class trout stream; and I would say that it had the right balance and gave me the option not to immediately choose what I was going to be when I grew up.”

This is classical Amis — humorous, insightful and to the point. It’s an approach that, quite possibly, also helps bring business to his law firm, L. Randolph Amis Esq. PC, Attorneys-at-Law, on Main Street in Burlington.

Amis attended Hamilton College in upstate New York, “which really stresses learning for its own sake,” he says. Not having a direction upon graduation, he decided to go to law school. 

He researched possibilities and narrowed his choices to the University of Puget Sound and Vermont Law School, both with good trout fishing and skiing nearby, he adds, then deadpans, “Puget Sound was too far away.” 

The son of a U.S. Air Force career man, Amis had traveled plenty since his birth in Cambridge, England, and Vermont was closer to Washington, Pa., where his parents lived. 

That’s what brought him to Vermont, he says. A couple of things conspired to keep him here. “One, I liked it a lot. When I came to school, I had skis on top of the car and fly-fishing equipment in the trunk. Then in the second year of law school, I met Jane Wiggins.”

Seeking a transcript to be sent to a firm in Pittsburgh, he encountered Jane, who said she came from a place near Pittsburgh. “I asked where, and she said, ‘You’ve never heard of it: Washington, Pa.’” Turns out Jane had grown up right across the city park from where Amis lived. “She was a couple of years older, so I probably wouldn’t have encountered her there,” he says.

After graduation in 1980, Amis headed to Burlington, where Jane was doing graduate work in audiology at the University of Vermont. They married that October, a month after Amis became a clerk for Jim Wick, who introduced him to real estate law.

Amis was admitted to the bar in May 1981 and stayed with Wick until January of ’83, when he went out on his own briefly, before being joined by Lindsey Huddle. Their partnership lasted until 1989, when he joined the firm of Wiener, Olenick and Bothfield.

photoBetween 40 and 60 percent of the firm’s income stems from residential and commercial real estate closings. Stephanie McElroy, a paralegal, handles title searches. Jason Burgett, Amis’ associate, joined the firm in November 2005.

“At that point, we were all in our 30s,” says Amis. “Mark [Wiener] was the best known of us, because he had basically busted the real estate market in terms of volume, low prices and all that. That was his contribution to the bar, for which he was roundly lambasted by all the old boys. His was the first consumer real estate firm in the state.”

The firm became Wiener, Olenick, Amis and Bothfield until 1991, when, “due to internal strife, it suddenly became Wiener and Amis.”

In April 1995, Amis left to open his own practice on the first floor of 110 Main St., the building where he had worked with Wick. He felt he had come full circle. In March 2006, he moved to the third-floor space the firm now occupies. 

“One of the biggest challenges of a solo practice is that law school doesn’t teach you how to be a business person,” Amis says. His first hint of that came when he learned he had to prepare withholding taxes.

“When I was just solo, I could do estimated taxes, but I hated coming up with money every quarter, so I incorporated. There’s a form called a 941 where you report what contributions should be, and it was never right! I finally found Norman Larson, my accountant buddy, and he’s been my savior.”

His second-biggest challenge, he says, was trying to figure out which practice areas to pursue. Early on, he took whatever business he could find. That meant doing a lot of criminal defense and family law, including acting as guardians ad litem for minors during legal proceedings. 

Slowly the practice evolved away from family and criminal law, and real estate grew in importance. 

Amis was comfortable doing real estate law; it fit with his personality. “It’s resolution-oriented,” he says. “The goal is to complete the transaction, not to beat each other to a bloody pulp. It’s a puzzle to understand everything completely, then find how to fix it.”

In 2005, sensing his practice was at a crossroads where he had to decide whether to grow it or keep it relatively small, Amis sought the advice of career and vocational counselor Ellie Byers. 

Randy Amis says of Judy Letourneau,“ Judy and I have worked together every day for about 17 years. She has been a secretary for longer than I have been a lawyer. There is no way I could have accomplished what I have without her assistance over the years.” Letourneau is the primary contact with most of Amis’ clients and is the one who is able to comply with most of their day-to-day requests. “Judy is incredibly dedicated, organized and professional,” Amis says. “She is in charge of the schedule and deadlines and assists me with personnel matters, management of our relationships with vendors, with our landlord and the full scope of office management. There is no way I could have accomplished what I have without her assistance over the years.”

“I went through a process of finding what I wanted to be when I grew up,” says Amis. He took the Myers-Briggs test and learned that his personality type was ENFP (also called “The Inspirer.”) “When she gave me the list of professions, I said, “I don’t see lawyer anyplace here.’”

He was reassured by Byers, who led him through what he calls “an enlightening experience from a business point of view.” It give him the ability to recognize his path. “Trying to be the hard-core adversarial — we need to have some lawyers who can be that way,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be me.”

photoJudy Letourneau, Amis’ office manager and administrative assistant, sits in the reception area of the lovely office suite, which retains much of the building’s original brick and wood.

He’s quick to point out that doesn’t mean he doesn’t go to court. He does, and actually enjoys it in the right circumstances; but problem-solving is the area he loves best — “people having difficulties, in real estate or business, and needing to wend their way through a series of obstacles and come out with a result.”

Between 40 and 60 percent of the firm’s income stems from residential and commercial real estate closings. The remainder, he says, deals with “people who have estates and situations that need special help, special needs trusts for children who are going to be mentally disabled for life, and a lot of estate probate stuff, too.”

The last area is business formation, says Amis — “finding what’s the best kind of business; how do we make this agreement work; is this going to work for me; those things.” 

Confessing he’s not an early-morning person, Amis jokes, “I’m usually here at the crack of 9. I like a gradual ramping-up of the day.” A typical day finds him on the phone almost continually. “I walk to get the mail every day, no matter how cold, then pick up lunch and come back.” Most days have lunch appointments. Real estate closings are usually scheduled for the office. He stops answering the phone about 5 p.m. and is usually home about 6:30.

He travels less these days. Stephanie McElroy, his paralegal, handles the title searches. He admits he misses chatting with the town clerks in Chittenden and Addison counties. “I knew almost all of them; it was nice to keep up,” he says. 

Rounding out the office are Jason Burgett, Amis’ associate, who joined the firm in November 2005 and was admitted to the bar in June 2006, and Judy Letourneau, the office manager and administrative assistant. 

One area where Amis has cut back is bankruptcies. “Until the law changed, I did a fair amount — one Friday a month was in bankruptcy court.” He still represents creditors occasionally, he says, “but with debtors, it’s so stark — the difference between the law before and the law after — that I didn’t feel the debtors were getting enough benefit to make it worth my while. Now, almost the only people who can file bankruptcy are the ones who don’t really need it, and it’s important to me to feel like I’m doing good.”

“I would say Randy is one of the good guys in the legal community,” says attorney David Greenberg, another solo practitioner Amis has consulted since the middle 1970s. “I have found our relationship to be beneficial, because I know he’s going to be straight with me. If I need to find out if something is the right action or if it’s ethical, he’s a good person to run things by. He’s not one to take advantage. Plus,” Greenberg continues after a pause, “we laugh a lot.”

“Doing good” means more than just work to Amis. He has been active in community service from the beginning, on the boards of groups such as Children’s Legal Services,  the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, the Skate Park Task Force, American Diabetes Association, the county and state Democratic committees, and many more. He’s proudest, though, of his work with Champlain Housing Trust, the organization recently formed from combining Burlington Community Land Trust and Lake Champlain Housing Development Corp. He was just re-elected president.

“The whole feeling of being able to do good with my connection with the housing trust is a source of a lot of what I need to get out of what I do over the years. 

It’s clear that Amis has found that comfortable niche many people seek. He’s doing what he loves to do, in the way he loves to do it. In his spare time, he pursues his other interests, such as skiing, fly-fishing, gardening and birding. He and Jane periodically travel to Delray Beach, Fla., where they have family. “My wife is visiting with her sister and mother, and I’m fishing, hanging out on the beach,” says Amis. “They have just started a community land trust, so when we go down there, I have lunch with those guys and talk about that.” 

Their three children, ages 25, 23 and 19, are on their own or in college. “The dog died in 2005,” he says, “and Erma Bombeck famously said, ‘Life doesn’t begin until all the children leave home and the dog dies,’ so I guess I’m there.” •