By Cory Bilton
A couple of months ago, I met Bruce Klores. Bruce’s recent claim to fame is opening Washington, DC’s first grilled cheese restaurant, GCDC. But prior to opening a restaurant, Bruce spent a long career as a personal injury attorney representing plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases. I recently sat down with Bruce to learn more about his restaurant, his legal practice, and his reasons for starting a second career.
During the course of this year, you’ve gone from operating a successful law practice to opening a grilled cheese restaurant. What made you decide to leave the practice of law?
Bruce Klores: I can tell you what it wasn’t, first. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it and that I didn’t love it, because I did and I still do. It was more of a restlessness in me, feeling confined, and turning 60 and deciding I wanted to try something else. I wanted to see if I could transfer some of those skills that I have from practicing law. But moreso it was just a matter of personal restlessness and trying to achieve some of those things that become hard to achieve because you’re so inundated with the everyday practice of law, which can be very demanding.
Were you looking for new challenges? Did you think the law wasn’t challenging you as it had before?
Bruce Klores: Yes, I was looking for new challenges. My practice was always very challenging in so far as as I continued to practice, the stakes in my cases changed, the degree of the litigation became much more sophisticated and difficult. I always found the practice challenging. I think what I was trying to get away from was the fixed mindset of the day-to-day practice of law. Also, to be perfectly honest, as I got older, dealing with some distasteful lawyers on the other side, or people I just didn’t really like very much, or that I liked personally but not professionally… it started to wear on me more than it did in the past.
You started your law firm more than 30 years ago and now you’ve started your own restaurant. How do the experiences compare?
Bruce Klores: Let me tell you the story about how I started my firm. It’s actually a great story. So I graduated law school in 1981 and went to work for a small, two-person firm in Dupont Circle that did real estate and general practice, in the building that I’m now in. After I was there for about 9 months, this medical malpractice case came in and it really interested me. So I asked them if we could take the case. They said no, they didn’t want to get involved in it because they thought it was going to be too expensive. So I asked them whether or not I could leave the firm and move downstairs to the basement with this case. And they said, “Fine.”
So, they hired another lawyer and I moved down to the basement of this townhouse and I worked on this one case. This was 1982-1983. I borrowed $25,000, I sold my car, borrowed $25,000 unsecured from a friend of a friend who worked at Riggs Bank. I worked on this case by myself with no secretary, no staff, no nothing, downstairs in the basement. I used up all the $25,000. I was literally at the end of it. I was thinking about this last night because all of the defense lawyers on this case—these are guys you won’t know now, because you’ve started practicing much more recently—but four of the stalwarts of the defense bar—Joe Monadago, Joel Savitz, Nick McConnell and Dick Boone were my four adversaries. They had 200 years of experience between the four of them. And literally, on the… I was broke. My income in 1983 and 1984 on my tax return was $0 both years. We settled the case. And that’s the way my practice started. Gradually, I hired a secretary and I moved to the first floor of the building. Then I moved out. That’s pretty much the way the whole thing began. It’s a great story.
So when you go full circle 25 years later, I’m about ready to retire. This was 7 years ago. The building that I started my practice in, I jogged by in Dupont Circle, was for sale. It had been ruined by them. The place was just dilapidated. So I bought it and fully renovated it and made it into a beautiful place, with a working fire place in my office and a parking space in the back. It just gave me a new lease on life in the law practice. From 2005 until now—it has been 9 years—I’ve had the most successful cases in my practice.
So how does that compare with starting a restaurant?
Bruce Klores: Here’s the difference. The difference is that when I was twenty-six years old I had no idea. I didn’t care about risk. It didn’t really matter. It didn’t matter that I was earning nothing. I’ve never been driven by monetary considerations for the most part, but this is a whole different thing. There is food involved. There is a whole different staff involved. You’re dealing with employees who are not paralegals and don’t think that way.
But the similarity is that you’re still trying to convince people in that same way you were in court, when you are trying to convince a jury about your product or your client. This business is about trying to convince people about your product. Basically, it’s about relating to people, which is why I’m at the door everyday talking with people that come in. It’s that trial lawyer skill that’s been invaluable here. So there are some similarities in so far as understanding the bottom line as revenue versus costs. But there is no grilled cheese in medical malpractice.
Do you work more hours now?
Bruce Klores: Towards the end of my legal career, I was only working four or five hours per day. So I’d go in at one and work until five or six. I had a nice office. I had good lawyers working with me. So I really had sort of a patriarchal, mentorship sort of relationship. It was wonderful.
Now I’m working lunch here from eleven until three, then I go back to the law firm to work on a few matters I still have for another four hours. Then I come back here and work at dinner, until usually about 8:30. Then I go home and instead of being kept up at night worrying about closing arguments, I wake up in the middle of the night about tomato soup.
What strengths does your legal background provide you in opening a restaurant?
Bruce Klores: Clearly, in so far as the complexities of negotiating a restaurant in a building like we’re in now, which is right across from the white house—a class A office building—where the other tenants are Starbucks and a large national salad chain, the landlord was very skeptical about someone coming in and starting a business, but with no experience in the food business. The risk of failure is higher than 40%-50%. So my legal skills and the background that I had in running a business were very important. Also important was my ability to communicate and my ability to prove that I had done something successful in town. Then there were the lease negotiations, dealing with my own lawyers in the lease negotiations, dealing with lawyers in all the trademark stuff that we did, dealing with employees and writing contracts for the major employees—in all of that stuff my experience was extremely invaluable in opening this place.
In one sense, being a lawyer and operating a restaurant are both customer service jobs. In opening your restaurant, what new lessons have you learned about customer service?
Bruce Klores: That you can’t satisfy—well, I always knew that you can’t satisfy everyone. I like to think that the vast majority of all of my law firm clients left as happy clients. In the food business, you deal with social media. That, at least in my law firm, was something I never had to deal with. So you finish your day at the end of the day, or maybe every two or three days, you check your site on Yelp and you find somebody who’s given you one star. You know, you’re trending in the right direction and then someone comes in and gives you a one star. Those types of customer service issues hurt—you know, they’re not supposed to and we say they don’t. But with any type of business, if somebody gave you a bad rating or was dissatisfied whether in the law or the restaurant business… but it’s much more prevalent now, because we see 250 people a day at GCDC, so that’s 1300 people a week, so figuring that’s 4,000 people a month that come through these doors. So that’s a lot of folks.
What do you miss the most about practicing law?
Bruce Klores: I miss my clients the most. I was very fortunate for the last 20 years of my practice that I was really able to pick and choose cases. Which, by the way, in my view, is the key to success as a plaintiff’s attorney. You get tied up in thinking that you want to take another case that is going to settle quickly, or that there can’t be a defense in this case. Those are always the cases that end up being aggressively defended, filling five cabinets. So, I miss my clients. I miss the kids; most of my practice for the last 15 or 20 years involved disabled children. So I miss those kids. I miss that dynamic. I also miss the strategizing. I miss sitting around a room with really good lawyers and thinking about ways to beat the other side; to set the chessboard up. I miss that intellectual exercise… a lot.
What do you miss the least?
Bruce Klores: I miss “preparing for trials” the least. That was the worst part of my job. I was fine trying cases. I was good at it. I like being in trial. But the anxiety of preparing for a six-week jury trial became overwhelming for me. It really became very difficult.
If you had the opportunity to start your career over again, knowing what you now know, what would you do differently? Should you have started a restaurant a long time ago?
Bruce Klores: No. I always felt I was going to get out of the practice. When I was 30, I would walk around Superior Court and see guys with silver hair that were in their 60’s and 70’s schlepping their big briefcases. I would always say to myself, “I’m never doing this. I’m getting out of this while I’m still healthy and young. I’m not going to be one of these guys banging around the superior court, when I’m that old.” But I loved what I was doing, so 30 became 40 and 40 became 50. Then I just realized that if I wasn’t going to do it by 60, then I was going to have too much pressure from my wife, who would say, “Listen, we’re going somewhere warm and we’re going to enjoy ourselves.” So that was a major issue, because she was getting ready to sort of enjoy the fruits of my career and do stuff. But now I’m stuck here working, so I don’t get to go away at all now.
Based on your experience and career, what advice would you give to young attorneys who are just starting out now?
Bruce Klores: Ok, so there are a couple of things. I’m fortunate enough that I get to talk to young lawyers all the time that come into my office and ask these kind of questions. Generally I love the idea of people coming and talking to me about that for a variety of reasons.
The first thing is—and this is a lesson I learned from my dad who was a door-to-door salesman—don’t be motivated by money. The money comes if you’re good and ethical and work hard in this line of work. In personal injury law, medical malpractice, or product liability, if you’re good at it, you’ll make a great income. The people that I’ve always held in disdain were the ones that looked at a case as just a check. I felt that was really doing a disservice to the profession. There were times when I passed up a couple of cases when I was younger that I would have made a lot of money if I had taken them. But they involved some very questionable ethical issues or things that I knew if I did, I would probably not have felt good about myself. I certainly would not have maintained a reputation of integrity with the lawyers on the other side from pushing a particular issue. So I declined those cases. Other lawyers took them and settled some of those cases well into a million, two million, three million dollars. I never regretted that. I always thought it was really important to stick by that principle.
The second thing was to always be able to find time to get away. When my kids were three—I have twins—so 22 years ago when my kids were three, I had this practice with four or five lawyers working for me where I was the business-getter and the trial guy and it was my firm—we took eight weeks off. I kept the practice open. My story was that if I came back and the IRS hadn’t padlocked it, it would be a success. And they came pretty close. But we went out and rented a house in the rocky mountains and we just travelled for three-and-a-half months. Then we did it again when they were six. I schlepped them all over the country. I’d set out four months that I was going to go away. Then I know I’d have to whittle down two weeks at either end, so I’d have three months. I’d prepare the people in my office. We would plan it and then I did it. So I never had that regret—I mean, I always did, getting ready for trials I never saw my kids. But I did that and it was really critical.
I think for me, it was really important to be able to lose cases with some sense that I had worked as hard as I could on them and win with some sense of humility. I’ll tell you a funny story. I tried this huge case when I was a kid, like 28 years old. We fought a crazy judge in Superior Court, an old guy named Richard Saltzman. And I got this great verdict. It was my first seven-figure verdict. I’m coming home—this is pre-cell phone. I’m walking back to my house in the Palisades, can’t wait to tell my wife about this verdict. I’m walking up the stairs to the house and she opens the door and she has the trash there. She throws this big black bag of trash out. “Take the trash out, sweetie.” This was before I got to say a word. So just the sense of not taking yourself so… not being so proud of yourself. Lawyers tend to be that way; a little hung up. So I think humility is really important. I was never one of these guys… I’d be at a cocktail party where all of these guys were talking about their $50,000 verdict or $80,000 verdicts and I would have walked away from an 8-figure verdict and I would never mention it. I enjoyed that. I really felt that it separated me from the other folks.
What is your favorite grilled cheese on the GCDC menu right now?
Bruce Klores: It’s the buffalo blue; it’s chicken, blue cheese, cheddar, and a lot of Frank’s hot sauce. And I eat it on sourdough bread. I let myself have one grilled cheese a week.
(This post was transcribed from a recorded interview with Bruce Klores at GCDC. It has been edited slightly for content and readability.)
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