Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 2, 2021

Late works great for Sanders, Kuebler

Attorneys William “Buster” Sanders and Michael Kuebler became lawyers after spending decades in other professions. They both say their years of life experience are allowing them to be better lawyers than they would have been as young men. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Upon first meeting attorneys Michael Kuebler and William “Buster” Sanders, a client of their two-man firm might assume the pair has decades of experience in the law under their belts.

Between Kuebler’s distinguished gray mane and Sanders’ tastefully retreating hairline, they do look as though they could be seasoned attorneys.

But this client would be mistaken, as both men have been practicing lawyers for only about five years.

“We’re first-time attorneys,” Kuebler, 53, says without a hint of irony.

“I was 50 when I started law school,” Sanders, 58, adds. “I was prepared to be the oldest guy in my class, but I wasn’t prepared to be older than most of my professors.”

Having laid the elephant in the room to rest, Kuebler and Sanders say their ages allow them to bring more to the early years of their practices than a degree: Unlike a twentysomething law school graduate, they also bring decades of professional experience to the table.

This is making a difference for his clients, says Kuebler who spent nearly 30 years in construction before becoming an attorney. “I built everything from houses to $20 million multistory projects in 16 states. I did just about every kind of construction there is except nuclear.”

Kuebler adds he also encountered nearly every legal knot in which a builder can become entangled, which is informing his work today on construction dispute cases and as an expert witness.

“There isn’t a dispute or defect I haven’t handled, on the ground, as it was happening,” he notes. “I know all the nuances of construction and can read between the lines in disputes because I’ve been there.”

Sanders’ resume feeds less directly into his practice but is still relevant, he says. A former real estate broker, mortgage broker and real estate investor, Sanders is focusing a portion of his practice on the needs of small businesses.

While Sanders claims his years of working as a lone wolf allow him to understand and address the travails of entrepreneurs, he adds that his years of life experience and the maturity they nurtured in him are having an even greater impact on his law practice.

“When I graduated from [the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga], I wanted to go to law school but couldn’t make it happen financially,” Sanders begins. “That’s probably a good thing because I would have been too immature. Attorneys need to be patient and find a compromise. At 25, I probably would have wanted to sue this person and that person and file this thing and that thing, but now I’m more likely to ask, ‘How can we work this out?’”

Kuebler says patience is a virtue he’s learned since becoming an attorney – and he’s a better lawyer now than he would have been when he was younger because of it.

“When I graduated from high school, I was in a hurry to get out of the house and make my way,” he remembers. “I started as a laborer building Hamilton Place Mall in 20-degree weather. At the end of each day, my fingers would be cracked and bleeding from the cold. When I saw the superintendent wrapped up like the Michelin Man and standing by a BTU heater, I asked someone, ‘How can I be that guy?’”

The individual told Kuebler he needed to gradually work his way up a tall ladder, but lacking the patience for a slow climb, Kuebler earned a construction engineering degree from Chattanooga State Community College and then went to work for his father.

While this allowed him to skip a few rungs, the nature of his work fed his impatience rather than diminished it.

“When you’re on a job site, you have to make 100% of your decisions with 30% of the information and then move on. That’s the life of a general contractor, and it’s what I was used to doing.”

But the practice of law has taught Kuebler a different way of thinking and working.

“In a small law practice with two partners, you learn there are 100 ways to skin a cat, and I’m no longer tied to my way to skin a cat,” he explains. “I’ve come to the point where I can say, ‘Here’s what I think, but you’re a smart guy, and I know you can handle this, so do what you want to do.’

“William wouldn’t say I’m more patient, but I’m far more patient than I was.”

While Kuebler and Sanders learned patience over time, they have never lacked courage, as their history of entrepreneurial endeavors shows. This sense of enterprise proved useful to each man when it was time for him to pull the plug on an established career.

Sanders set his sights on the law when the housing market turned in 2008.

“When the bubble burst, I started looking for something else to do,” he recalls. “As I was considering different things, my wife asked me what I would do if I wasn’t afraid of failing, and I said I would go to law school. And she said, ‘Then that’s what you need to do.’”

Kuebler was 44 when he decided he’d been on the hamster wheel known as the construction industry long enough.

After he earned his degree at Chattanooga State, he found work as a traveling superintendent, which required him to move with distressing regularity.

“I moved 11 times in five years,” he says, looking tired from the memory.

Kuebler then worked for his father’s general contracting company 19 years, but the pace was just as relentless. “I was traveling three days a week and my days didn’t end until 8 p.m.,” he says.

The demanding schedule combined with the feast-or-famine nature of general contracting work brought Kuebler to another junction. Instead of choosing a path that would place him back on the same hamster wheel, he elected to attend law school.

“When I was a kid, everyone told me I would make a great lawyer, but I was too impatient for that,

 he says. “But I had learned enough patience for it by the time I was 44 and decided it was time to bite that bullet.”

Kuebler needed his newfound fortitude to survive school. Not only did he launch his own construction concern – Embark Project Services – as a way of making a living while in school, but his schedule made the previous hamster wheel on which he had been running look like a training bike.

“I would be in the office at 8 a.m., leave at 4 p.m. and finally make it home at 1 a.m. It was brutal.”

Although Sanders was able to pour all his time into law school, his educational journey had its own unique challenges, the least of which was being the oldest student in his class.

“I was the oldest, but I wasn’t the smartest or the quickest,” he professes. “So, I showed up early and stayed late.”

Sanders’ strategy enabled him to graduate as the valedictorian of his class. But in spite of his success at the academic level, he says he still felt unprepared for the work ahead of him.

However, when Sanders began taking appointed criminal cases in Hamilton County after he passed the bar in 2017, he learned he had more to offer than he realized.

“A judge kept giving me cases I didn’t think I could handle,” he says. “One day, I was telling him about the difficulty I was having negotiating a plea deal. I was concerned about a young girl’s future and was trying to get a diversion, even though she had committed a serious crime.

“I said, ‘If this goes on her record, it will haunt her for the rest of her life. I want her to become a productive member of society and a person with options.’

“And the judge said, ‘Young attorneys never think of that.’ I realized he was giving me those cases not because I was a legal expert but because I had more than 50 years of life behind me.”

Kuebler and Sanders first met at a Starbucks in Chattanooga after Sanders connected with him in an effort to learn more about law school. They remained in contact over the next few years, and in April of this year, formed Kuebler Sanders Law.

“I didn’t want to go gangbusters on legal work because I was a one-man show,” Kuebler says. “But once William was able to be in the office during the day, we formed the firm.”

Together, Kuebler and Sanders provide counsel in construction, real estate and business law, while also offering estate planning, mediation services and criminal defense work. Motor vehicle accidents and other personal injury claims are also part of their practice.

Looking beyond the list of practice areas, potential clients can see two attorneys who might have far fewer years of legal practice under their belts than other lawyers their age but whose life experiences enlighten their work.

“I’ve become more pragmatic,” Kuebler says.

“And I’ve become less trigger-happy and more solution-oriented,” Sanders offers.

“I’m still less risk averse than you, though,” Kuebler adds.

Clearly, the dynamic between Kuebler and Sanders is still developing, but they’re settling into a carefully calibrated groove.

“Michael can juggle five or six balls at a time. I can juggle, but just one ball at a time,” Sanders laughs. “We were discussing a case yesterday, and I couldn’t wait to do the legal research and find out the different causes of action we could pursue. After I did emerged from my comfort zone, I gave the ball back to him.”

With this in mind, it will be interesting to see what happens when the men add a paralegal to the mix next month or so. Or, maybe even later, they say.

“We want slow, conservative growth,” Kuebler says.

“Slow, conservative growth,” Sanders nods.