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Taking The Fast Track

Jean Chou | Photography by Jill Lotenberg

JLC’s Jean Chou Proves Entrepreneurship Can Begin At The Beginning Of A Career

There’s gutsy entrepreneurship — and then there’s Jean Chou. Barely a year out of law school, at a time when most New York Law School-trained attorneys are still figuring out billing, let alone a path to partner, Chou opened JLC & Associates, her own firm focusing on real estate transactions. Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, her eight-person, mostly female firm handles real estate deals large and small, while finding time to give back to the community.

Entrepreneurship comes naturally to Chou, she said. Her Taiwan- born parents both owned their own businesses after coming to the U.S. Her physician mother opened her own dermatology practice, her father was a professor who also sold medical devices. Raised in southern New Jersey, coming to New York for school was a revelation for Chou.

“I was always someone who liked to look up and peek into people’s apartments,” she said, laughing. “I’ve always loved real estate, with dreams of managing a block. Now it’s managing an apartment.”

While at law school, she interned for Blesso Properties, a boutique development firm known for townhouses in the West Village. She stayed there for a year, then joined a trust and estate firm after graduation, still frequently dealing with real estate both at the firm and to help friends on the side. She decided to take the plunge into her own business shortly thereafter, at the age of 26.

“I think I was naïve enough at that time, fresh out of law school,” she said. “The first time I appeared in court, I spent six hours prepping for a simple security deposit dispute. I was willing to take on the risk, but also willing to put in the work. I’m not sure I could do it now, to be honest.”

At first, operating out of her Murray Hill apartment with a virtual Park Avenue business address, she focused mostly on mortgage closings for lenders, including Wells Fargo, through personal contacts.

“I was in a studio apartment, and I knew that I would always be able to pivot, even change practice areas if it didn’t work out,” she recalled. “I only needed to work out of that studio for three months before moving to a day office. But I still only took a three-month lease at that time.”

She also had business through friends, who at that time were starting to purchase homes.

“In those days, you could still buy a $300,000 condo in Williamsburg,” she said. “That started a lot of my purchase and sale business.”

Still, she remained cautious. It was three years before she felt comfortable bringing in assistance, including a second-year law student. That student, now an attorney, Allison Gaskin, is still with the firm today.

“I realized that I could only do so much as one person. This work is very labor-intensive, but very low margin,” she said. “Our sector of law produces a lot of paperwork and numbers. At the time, I was happy to be busy and have work. But I brought in an intern to help with things like research memos and some bank attorney work.”

Delegating was another part of the learning curve, one Chou acknowledges she repeats with each new hire. Today, her staff includes attorneys, paralegals, clerks, and an office manager.

“The biggest shift in learning to run a business is that you start it for yourself,” she observed. “But you’re maintaining it and growing it for your team in some ways.”

“We want to be successful, but it’s almost become a secondary purpose behind having a community impact.”

The firm focuses on residential closings ranging from first-time homebuyers to multimillion-dollar deals (the sweet spot, she said, is purchases between $750,000 and $5 million), residential leases and licenses (including reviewing the use of co-living spaces), and condo and co-op board representation.

“We’re helping these boards strategize,” as well as offering real estate advisory, largely as a result of working with buyers, she said. “Clients will buy into a building, only to believe it’s being mismanaged, and they call us to help.”

Chou and her team are also growing the commercial transaction side of the business, representing both co-op and condo boards, as well as office and retail leasing deals. As JLC expands, though, it could come up against larger firms. Chou is okay with that.

“I’ve always viewed us as the happy medium. You still get the same personalized service you’d get working with an entrepreneur, and you’re their lifeline,” she said. “Because most of our transactions are consumer-friendly, it doesn’t make sense for larger firms to put a partner on the deal, so they outsource it to a first or second year. We don’t have entry-level attorneys. I’m still on almost every single one of my deals.”

The lawyering doesn’t change much, she observed, but what matters to her is that the business is hers to shape and grow as she sees fit.

And that may have turned out to be something of a surprise. She has no plans to grow into a vast organization.

“When I first started, I had these ideas of grandeur of growing into a big firm,” Chou observed. “Now, I love our size. I can still be accessible to my staff and clients and maintain a level of innovation where we can change things. We operate like a startup where we sit down and brainstorm.”

Chou and her team soon will move to a larger space at its Park Avenue building, which will allow it to hold more events to bring its clients together and position JLC as a thought leader. JLC publishes a regular newsletter and is doing more outreach to the community.

“My own vision for the firm has changed a lot in the last few years,” she said. “We want to be successful, but it’s almost become a secondary purpose behind having a community impact.”

Her pro bono work serves the LGBTQ community, serving as a pro bono counsel for GLAAD, the Homeowner Stability Project, and as a volunteer for New Women New Yorkers, a nonprofit dedicated to workforce development for immigrant women.

“I believe when you’re doing pro bono, there has to be a passion behind it,” she said. “The Homeowner Stability was right up our alley, with a need for our expertise. With New Women New Yorkers, it touched me because my parents were immigrants. I try to encourage everyone to pursue what they’re interested in.”

Right now, the firm is mostly female, by coincidence. It’s even helped business, as she’s found potential clients want to support women in real estate, she said.

“I admit I’m quite OCD, and I find women are more inclined to see multiple solutions to an issue, and that’s how I’ve approached my business,” she said. “But we have two amazing part-time clerks who are men. All genders should help each other, but I do want to spearhead women’s business.”