Going Solo . . .



Bereza strikes out on his own after successful software career

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of monthly profiles of solo firms in the Grand Rapids area. If you have a suggestion for a firm to cover, please email cprice@legalnews.com.)

While Bill Bereza is not a household name, many in this area and even nationally are familiar with the success story of the software development company he co-founded, Atomic Object.

Though his partner Carl Erickson was (and is) the point person for most of the public, Bereza led the development teams. Erickson was a professor at Grand Valley State University when the two met as Bereza was doing an undergrad research project, having earned his bachelor’s in Computer Science from Grand Valley, with honors, in 1996. The two started Atomic Object in 2001.

Bereza developed specific expertise in something called “agile embedded development,” writing two papers on the subject and giving conference presentations around the U.S.

As the business, known for its laid-back approach and employee-friendly set-up, grew to 20 software developers and revenues of $4 million — beyond the co-founders’ expectations — Bereza decided he needed a new challenge.

Narrowing down his career goals to becoming a lawyer (he is also an accomplished photographer whose work has been used commercially), he went to Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Along the way he studied International Human Rights Law at the National University of Ireland in Galway.

He was also Associate Editor and Senior Associate Editor of the Cooley Law Review, and graduated magna cum laude.

Bereza says he never really gave any thought to working at a multi-attorney law firm. “I haven’t worked as an employee since 2000, so the idea of becoming an employee somewhere wasn’t very appealing to me.”

After graduating from Grand Valley, Bereza worked as a Computer Scientist at the National Security Agency (NSA) and a Senior Software Engineering for Deltamode Inc.
So, since Bereza already had the experience of starting up a company, he was drawn to a solo practice. First, though, he clerked for attorney Christopher Gibbons, whose three-attorney office in the Ledyard Building is very close to Bereza’s current space.

The name of that firm has just now changed to Dunn/Gibbons, and the other two lawyers are Michael J. Dunn and Karen M. Boer. While Boer’s practice is in divorce law, they are all litigators.

Bereza says they are kind enough to continue to give him support when he needs it. “I’m glad I have the close connection with Chris’s firm. Although I also use contacts I made at Cooley, I feel like I can go to Chris and Karen with questions — their experience with knowing the judges and the courts, helping me know what to expect, is great. I can’t imagine doing this without somebody like that,” he says.

“I mentored Bill when he was in law school, and he shared our space when he was first starting out,” Gibbons comments. “We’re still in close touch —?he’s right down the hall.”

Bereza too is a litigator, doing some contract law as well. He focuses on criminal law, mostly through public defense, as well as family law and general commercial litigation. “Most cases don’t require going to trial, but the very first Monday after I got sworn in I had a divorce trial in court, so litigation is a large part of what I do.

“I started out wanting to do public defense, but I found out that’s not as easy as I had thought. At the same time, the family law and contract law have been more interesting than I expected.”

Naturally, among the small firms he works with locally are software companies, performing such tasks as contract review. He also focuses on farms, including Right to Farm Act, estate planning, and the full range of concerns with running a farm business.

“Having grown up on a farm in Ravenna, I just find it a really interesting area of law,” he says. “As of now in Michigan, there are a lot of new things happening. Michigan is doing voluntary farm conservation certification, which I think has implications for farmers. I think that when it comes to disputes, a farm having decided not to certify may be used against it.”

Bereza Law has a brochure marketing specifically to farmers, and his website (see address below) includes a blog on farming issues.

In addition to photography, Bereza is an avoid bicyclist and has lent his skills to biking groups in town; he also has been involved with an organization called GR?Makers, an “open community lab” where his technology know-how has helped others. However, he is currently looking for both pro bono and community board placements.

When asked about his biggest challenges in going solo, Bereza says, “The big thing for me is having to do all the marketing. When I was working with Carl at Atomic Object, he was more the person who developed the contacts, went out to meet clients, drummed up business. I learned a lot from observing him, but it’s more of a challenge for me in law because in the computer software world I already knew a lot of people.”

The flip side is that his in-depth knowledge in the tech realm has helped him set his business up for maximum efficiency, a big advantage in a one-person firm.
“I’ve been able to do things to help streamline the business, from real basic things like templates and macros in Word so I can scan documents and make changes, to keeping virtual records that are easy to find. My office is really all in  my computer and on the Cloud.”

He also credits the State Bar of Michigan and the Institute for Continuing Legal Education for offering courses that have helped him stay on top of the business end of the

One of the corollaries of that technology background is that Bereza is very connected electronically. His website is http://berezalaw.com, and the contact page redirects to his email, bill@bereza.net. His Facebook page is http://www.facebook.com/berezalaw, and his Twitter handle is @bereza. He says he has already run a few targeted Facebook advertisements.

Bereza definitely plans to stay in the area. He says, “Except for a few years living in Maryland [when he was with the NSA], I’ve been in Michigan all my life. I’ve been happy here.” He and wife Bridie are raising two small children, aged 3 and 20 months.

“Being from here has helped me expand the business. I know a lot of people who might need my services, and friends and family give me a lot of referrals. I’m using all the friends I?have,” he adds with a smile.