by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, May 2010
John Salazar credits his passion for law to his uncle, Tibo J. Chavez. “Growing up in Belen, my uncle was a lawyer, and he was a state senator. I saw that he was able to do a lot of good for people,” he says. From a young age, Salazar attributed his uncle’s ability to make a difference in his community to his education in law. “As I grew older, I saw the same pattern over and over again with people who had successes in their communities or in their states. ... I always loved the fact that it’s a profession in which you can help people.”
Salazar began his career in 1968 as a litigator, but he always had an interest in property law. Now most of the work he does is real estate-related. And through this work, he says, he sees great opportunity for helping others. “At the end of the day, something good will happen,” he says. “A deal will be made, a building will be built, storm drains will be put in. As a result, people will be employed. It’s part of helping the community achieve its goals.”
The biggest challenge he faces in his practice is bringing all parties in a case together, he says. In any one case, he may deal with any combination of engineers, architects, surveyors, appraisers, bankers and lenders. His job is to get them all on the same page—a duty that is both difficult and rewarding. “In America,” he says, “we solve our differences in court, not the battlefield.”
Salazar says he’s been lucky in the recession and his work hasn’t been affected much. Although he does have private sector clients, who feel the burn of the country’s economic state, he also has institutional clients who’ve been able to proceed with projects, and so he’s stayed busy. His company, Rodey Law Firm, which has about 140 employees, has been affected as a whole, but Salazar thinks “things are looking up.”
Over the years, Salazar has received numerous honors—the Justice Pamela B. Minzner Professionalism Award from the State Bar of New Mexico in 2009, the Erna S. Fergusson Award from the UNM Alumni Association in 2006 and listings in The Best Lawyers in America among them—but perhaps the most significant is an appointment by President Obama to serve a six-year term as chairman of the board of the Inter-American Foundation. The independent agency, funded by Congress, dispenses grants totaling about $30 million a year to marginalized poor in Latin America and the Caribbean. The grants fund the startup for agricultural, arts and crafts, and other kinds of projects that, once off the ground, help groups of people make a living and support their families. “It’s quite an honor,” says Salazar.
It runs in the theme that’s ruled Salazar’s entire career: helping others. Catherine Goldberg, a fellow attorney at Rodey, has worked with John since 1976. She speaks about her admiration not only for his work ethic but for his desire to make a difference. As an example, she mentions a woman she knows who, early in Salazar’s career, came to him because she was at risk of being deported. “She happened to be Basque, and she went through the phonebook, and she saw the name Salazar, and that is a Basque name, at least to her,” she says. “And so she called up him just without even knowing who he was and explained her plight.” She says Salazar was able to get a law passed through Congress that allowed the woman to stay in the country. “And whenever she talks about John,” adds Goldberg, “she just blubbers, she just wails and cries, because he helped her so much. He has a very deep human connection.”
Paul Fish doesn’t know why he wanted to go into law; he just always did. “I think from the time I was 5 or 6,” he says, “I decided I didn’t want to be a cowboy, I wanted to be a lawyer.” And after staying in the business for 38 years, he’s still just as sure of it. “I like the challenge,” he says, “the challenge of trying to figure out the best way to deal with a problem.”
Fish is primarily a bankruptcy lawyer, but he’s also dealt with commercial litigation, corporate law, loan workouts and foreclosures. It’s easy to tell, though, that bankruptcy law is his real love. Fish doesn’t represent parties that file for bankruptcy; he represents the creditors. The numbers he deals with are usually in the millions—like when Furr’s Supermarkets, Inc. filed for bankruptcy. Fish represented a group of three who had lent $30 million to the grocery chain. They were paid back in full, but not all people involved in the dispute, who were represented by other lawyers, were as lucky.
Bankruptcy law appeals to Fish in part because it doesn’t involve trying to sway a jury. “It’s talking to a knowledgeable judge about financial and business matters,” he says. “I like that more than impassioned pleas.”
The biggest challenge in his practice, says Fish, is moving fast enough. In bankruptcy, oftentimes the longer a case drags on, the less money is available to pay back creditors. “The other side,” he says, “they want to slow things down. And I want to speed them up.”
Fish and his firm, Modrall Sperling, have been unaffected by the recession, he says. In fact, Fish sees new lawyers being hired, joining the firm’s staff of about 150.
Through his experience, Fish has become one of the most sought-after bankruptcy lawyers in the state. He’s been recognized in the book of The Best Lawyers in America since its first edition in 1983. He’s AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell, an international law firm directory that ranks lawyers (AV is the highest possible rating). He’s a fellow of the American College of Bankruptcy. And for the last few years he’s been the chairman of the state’s Disciplinary Board.
Victor Jury, president and CEO of Summit Electric Supply, has been one of Fish’s clients since the early ’80s. Fish is Jury’s outside general counsel, and in addition to dealing with any matters involving bankruptcy, he’s helped with acquisitions, contracts and legal documents for the company. “He’s a creative guy at coming up with solutions to problems,” says Jury. “He’ll keep you out of court.”
“A friend of mine / quasi business mentor many, many years ago, when I was considerably younger than I am today,” Jury adds, “once told me, basically, that in matters where you’re hiring a professional—whether it’s a lawyer or an accountant or a heart surgeon—he said, you know, you don’t go to the Yellow Pages. You try to pick the best person, because you’re putting your life, in some form or another, in their hands. And I’ve just found that over time, I’m extremely comfortable putting my affairs in Paul’s hands and knowing that they’re in very good hands.”
Fish is modest about his success. When asked what his secret is, he says simply, “I think the most important thing is to work hard and be prepared.”