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Attorney Journal’s Solo Practitioner of the Month: Elizabeth J. Koumas: A Comprehensive Approach to “Just The Facts”

It’s been twenty years since Elizabeth Koumas received her J.D. from Syracuse University College of Law, packed all of her belongings into her car, and set out to launch her legal career in San Diego.  But her fascination with the legal system began even earlier.  As a teenager growing up on Long Island,New York, Elizabeth Koumas excelled in high school, granting her an exclusive opportunity to take courses at a local college before graduating high school.  Business Law immediately piqued her interest, and would ultimately result in an extremely successful profession in precisely that field.

Encouraged by her parents to pursue her passion for the law, during a time in which that industry was still a predominantly male profession, Elizabeth Koumas landed her first bona fide legal position as an associate with San Diego based Chapin, Shea, McNitt, & Carter (originally Chapin Brewer) before heading west.

Since that time, Elizabeth, now founder of Koumas Law Group, has cultivated a spectrum of specialized practice areas including employment disputes, class actions, personal injury defense, and other business-to-business disputes.  But even with the multiple niches, Koumas’ core conviction as an attorney has remained consistent regardless of whether she’s educating businesses on litigation prevention, providing ongoing legal advice to long term clients, or defending individuals. That professional commitment boils down to an unwavering resolve to always place her clients interests ahead of her own.

Being involved in a lawsuit can be one of the most stressful times in a client’s life.  Therefore, Koumas tempers her professionalism with an informal approach to communicating with clients. Elizabeth says she “tells it like it is,”  but admits that her reluctance to sugar-coat is risky, and occasionally is not initially welcomed by some clients.  Moreover, it often has an adverse effect on her own financial gain.  “I could be less direct, take more time to communicate, and in turn, line my pockets.  But that is not my M.O, nor is it what I believe is a true measure of an attorney’s success.  My job is to help, not hurt my clients, especially in these difficult economic times.”   It has been Koumas’ experience that as a result of her counseling style, clients find her more credible because it reflects her respect of both their time and their bottom line.

Before The Fact

The reality of the latent cost of litigation is something Elizabeth is determined to make certain her clients understand.   “It is important at the start of any legal claim, that clients use common sense.  If they truly want to avoid the adverse financial (and emotional) effects of litigation, they need to put their best foot forward earlier rather than later.   I am a proponent of alternative dispute resolution, where possible.  However, if my clients have been reasonable with an early settlement offer, I will not hesitate to litigate the case through the court system. But I have to let them know that the longer a case lingers, the more expensive it will become, since the client will have to compensate me regardless of the outcome, and potentially the plaintiff’s attorney.”  Especially in cases involving individuals where pride can sometimes get in the way, Koumas admits that sometimes she has to be the one to remind clients that “principles cost money.”  At this point she has to laugh as she concedes that “I’m often talking myself out of work, which is definitely not in my best interest.”Alas, it is precisely this type of ethic that has won Koumas the longtime loyalty of local San Diego businesses and individuals, as well as national insurance companies, who understand the true value of Koumas’ forthcoming approach.

Recognizing two challenges currently facing the legal profession-the impact of budget cuts and the public’s dissatisfaction with “stereotypical” lawyers-Elizabeth acknowledges that clients aren’t always eager “to pay for advice before the fact.” After all she admits, not many people like to spend money on what-ifs.  However, it is precisely these types of precautionary measures that have saved her clients countless dollars in litigation-related costs.

With Koumas’ expertise in employment litigation and compliance in particular (from drafting of personnel documents, and conducting internal audits of business practices, combined with her in-house training of management and HR departments to ensure that every business she works with is in compliance), it’s no wonder she has earned a reputation as the go-to attorney for all employment-related matters.

Saving Personal Liberties

Accidents do happen, and to Koumas there is nothing more tragic than such an accident where a death occurs. She recounts a personal injury case where a young mother was driving her daughter to school before the sun was up.  She reached the top of a hill, where children were crossing the street at an intersection devoid of lights, a crosswalk, or a crossing guard, even though they were attending a nearby school-sponsored early morning program. The ensuing collision resulted in a death.  Koumas’ client was then sued for damages above and beyond her moderate insurance policy and was facing criminal charges as well as the potential loss of her home and driver’s license, which had the potential to adversely affect her employment and her ability to support her child. “To be able to save personal liberties and assets for an individual client by getting the other side to accept insurance limits is incredibly rewarding to me,” says Elizabeth.

In other areas of civil litigation law, Koumas represents plaintiffs and defendants in cases ranging from breach of contract, to property owners and lessees facing disputes over equal access to public accommodations.

The Ongoing Fact:

Arguably, there are plenty of attorneys who focus exclusively in employment law in San Diego.  Moreover, there are numerous larger firms who specialize in personal injury and other tort insurance defense.  So what is it about Koumas that has kept her existing clients loyal, and the referrals pouring in, since she opened her doors as a solo practice in 2007?  It boils down to her personal work ethic.

“The biggest complaint I have heard about lawyers is that they do not return calls.  Being responsive to a client or prospective client is foremost since it creates a lasting impression-namely that they are important to me,” she says.  In order to reinforce just how important her clients are to her, Koumas guarantees a return phone call within 24 business hours, with no exception.  To assist in this, she has a subscription to a VOIP program which enables voicemails to be transcribed into emails, which she receives even when she’s not in the office.

Koumas also takes her role as an educator very seriously.  From conducting in-house luncheon programs on key employment law topics, to providing complimentary passes for clients and prospective clients to attend continuing education seminars where she is speaking, Koumas does not underestimate the value of teaching.  “California labor laws are generally very misunderstood,” she says.  Educating the San Diego business and legal community about the intricacies of ever changing employment laws and our complex legal system is therefore a priority for Koumas, who regularly participates on panels hosted by continuing legal education associations such as Lorman Educational Services, Sterling Education Services, and the National Business Institute, and at events hosted by East County Personnel Association, San Diego County Medical Society, and the American Payroll Association.

To further keep in touch with existing, past and prospective clients, Koumas authors electronically distributed Newsletters and Alerts on various Employment Law issues.   Her publications include updates on new labor laws, amendments, and/or court decisions impacting San Diego businesses, all of which are also available on a complimentary basis through her website.

So how does a solo practitioner build her business when she’s not educating clients, working to help businesses avoid litigation, or assisting individual clients during trying times in their lives?  For starters, to further strengthen relationships, Elizabeth is following up with her clients to solicit feedback and testimonials at the end of representation, to ensure her clients are satisfied. Elizabeth also makes it a priority to stay personally connected to the legal community through her involvement with numerous associations, including the San Diego County Bar Association and Lawyer Referral and Information Services.

Elizabeth also gives back to the community at large.  She provides pro bono services to military service members under the Service Members Civil Relief Act, volunteered at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, served as a panel judge for both the University of San Diego Law School moot court competition and James Madison High School Senior Exhibitions, and acts as a resource to the San Diego County Medical Society.  Elizabeth also works with Christie’s Place, a non-profit service organization providing HIV/AIDS education to women, children and families, and contributes to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation and Girls Think Tank, a local non-profit for advocacy and activism for the homeless.

But, for all of her affiliations and active professional life, Koumas is also busy during her non-working hours where she relishes her role as a single mother by choice to her 3-½-year-old son.  It is during this time that Koumas transitions from educator and expert to student, saying “Every day I re-learn something through his eyes.”

Contact:

Elizabeth J. Koumas, Founder Koumas Law Group

110 West C Street, Suite 1300
San Diego,CA92101
Tel (619)682.4811

Fax (619)503.4530

www.koumaslaw.com
info@koumaslaw.com

Employment Law Litigation and Compliance, Business Litigation

Experience

Education:

  • Juris Doctor,Syracuse University Collegeof Law, 1991
  • Bachelor of Science, Accounting,University of Delaware, 1988

Credentials:

  • California State Bar, 1991
  • California Supreme Court, admitted 1991
  • U.S. District Courts, Southern District of California, admitted 1996
  • U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, admitted 1999
  • U.S. District Courts, Central District of California, admitted 2000
  • Judge Pro Tem, Small Claims Court (1996-1997)
  • Arbitrator for the San Diego Municipal and Superior Courts (1997-2001)
  • Designated Subject Teaching Credentials, Vocational Education (1997-2002)
  • San Diego Regional Occupational Program Instructor,Sweetwater School District(1997-2001)
  • Dale Carnegie, Management Course, “How to Win People and Influence Friends”

Associations:

  • San Diego County Bar Association
  • California State Bar Association
  • San Diego County Bar Association, Lawyer Referral and Information Services- Employment Law Attorney Panel and SCRA volunteer panel
  • San Diego County Medical Society
  • California Continuing Education of the Bar
  • Volunteer,Scripps Memorial Hospital,La Jolla,

Awards:

  • Nominated to San Diego Business Journal’s “San Diego Women Who Mean Business 2005.”
  • The State Bar of California and University of California, Expression of Appreciation (CEB Program), 2001
  • Sweetwater Union High School District, Regional Occupation Programs, Award of Appreciation, 1997

Karen Gorden

Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.

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