Every year, the University of Georgia Alumni Association’s annual Bulldog 100 list celebrates the fastest-growing businesses owned by UGA grads. Spanning industries from retail to real estate, the list spotlights successful entrepreneurs across the country, fostering the Georgia alumni network and helping to inspire other graduates looking to lead the way in business.
But with about 300,000 alumni over the past 30 years from UGA’s 17 schools, what are the odds of three 2002 University of Georgia School of Law alumni friends making the 2019 list? Especially considering that UGA School of Law, by focusing specifically on cultivating legal expertise, is known more for graduating great lawyers than successful entrepreneurs.
For Todd Stanton, Darren Gaynor, and Bryan Baer, however, UGA’s focus on preparing lawyers for life outside of the courtroom developed them into the confident Bulldog 100 business owners they are today. “We came away from Georgia with a well-rounded education,” said Stanton, the owner of Stanton Law and a Bulldog 100 honoree since 2016. “But we also left with the basis to start our own practice or business.”
Shortly after the 2019 Bulldog 100 celebration, Stanton, Gaynor, and Baer sat down to discuss the value of their UGA School of Law education, reflecting on the skills that helped them transform into the professionals they are today. They also found commonality in their backgrounds and outlook: a similar path to success and a shared attitude about the future.
Todd Stanton: Learning Business and Balance Through Entrepreneurship
After wilderness school, computer sales, and a stint coaching a traveling baseball team, Todd Stanton decided he was ready to make some major career moves. An interest in politics and a competitive streak with his wife, who was in the process of earning her MBA, made law school a natural choice. But with a gap of a few years under his belt, Stanton noticed a change from his undergrad days. “I already understood work, so I treated law school like a job,” said Stanton. “You have to get up early, work all day, and then do it again.”
Along with some very Y2K-era memories (a school librarian introduced him to Google), UGA exposed Stanton to practice areas he hadn’t considered before, like labor and employment law. “The quality of the faculty and teaching was just excellent—no matter what type of law you decided to pursue,” he said.
For Stanton, UGA’s famous alumni network proved instrumental in landing his first job after school at a major firm. With the knowledge he needed to start his own practice, Stanton then went solo, finding that he enjoyed the business side of practice as much as his legal work. His early work added to his skills, but it also clarified what he desired most. “I wanted to create a law firm that allowed lawyers to be humans, with adequate balance and time to spend with family and friends,” he said.
Today, his business law firm, Stanton Law, employs nine attorneys (including three UGA grads) and still makes family-friendly schedules for employees a priority. “One thing from school that stuck with me is that people depend on us—whether they’re clients or employees,” he said.
Darren Gaynor: Utilizing Legal Training to Transform a Family Business
Darren Gaynor’s company, Crate Services, made its Bulldog 100 debut in 2017. Gaynor, like Stanton, did not go directly from college to law school; he worked as an auto mechanic before enrolling in UGA School of Law. “It was great experience, and it was just long enough that I was ready to get back to school,” said Gaynor.
Although he had not considered himself the most serious undergraduate student, Gaynor was driven by the rigor and enthusiasm surrounding him in law school. “I had to be completely prepared—every day and without fail—for whatever the professors would throw at us.” Of the three Bulldog 100 honorees, Gaynor was the “law geek,” enjoying school for the sake of the ideas he learned there.
Gaynor traveled the now typical path of multiple law firm jobs. Like Stanton, he took his first job out of school at a large law firm in Atlanta. He subsequently relocated to a smaller firm in Athens—always a temptation for any Georgia grad. Gaynor ultimately landed at Parker Hudson in Atlanta, and he was a litigation partner there when his career took a turn in 2014.
Gaynor’s father, a serial entrepreneur, asked him if he had any friends who might want to help out in the family business. Gaynor was surprised when he started thinking about a role for himself at Crate Services, a company specializing in the repair of reusable wood pallets. Ultimately, he decided to join his father. After learning the business, he took over as president, today leading a team of 400 employees. “I never expected to own my own law firm, let alone run a business,” said Gaynor. “Once I got started, I realized how well UGA School of Law and my litigation experience had prepared me. I learned to be a problem-solver, and I analyze everything as if I am on the other side. It’s a powerful way of thinking.”
Bryan Baer: Using Persuasion to Build a Company Culture
Unlike Stanton and Gaynor, Bryan Baer, now a principal at the personal injury firm Kalka & Baer, knew that he was destined for grad school. Both of his parents were lawyers, and he’d always assumed he’d be one, too. After studying economics in undergrad, Baer worked at a Big 5 consulting firm. “That was where I learned how to present myself professionally, earn trust and respect, and work hard to thrive in a competitive field,” Baer said.
Baer found UGA School of Law competitive but friendly, and he grew to love the intense effort that his peers brought to critical thinking and problem solving situations. Over time, he shifted his focus from making the “final grade” to putting in the day-to-day grind—something that helped him understand the strengths he draws on today.
After law school, Baer worked at medium- to large-sized litigation firms for almost 10 years. He knew that the fit was wrong, but he still didn’t consider becoming an entrepreneur until having lunch with Tony Kalka, his partner today. “We’re the yin and yang of law firm principals,” said Baer. “Tony goes out and seizes every opportunity. I act as the COO, focusing on the infrastructure and culture required to keep the business growing. I wouldn’t change a thing!”
Realizing that his strengths were in the business side of practice allowed Baer to draw on UGA School of Law skills he’d never recognized before. “Tough situations are to be expected, whether it’s litigation or business,” he said. “I’m good at processing the here and now and then executing.”
Three Unique, Yet Similar Paths
As non-traditional students, Stanton, Gaynor, and Baer shared a drive to make their time in law school count. “We went in hoping to get the most out of what we learned, not to use the study of law as a vehicle to wealth,” said Stanton. That mindset made them receptive to everything a UGA School of Law education had to offer—teaching them a new way of thinking, helping them solve complex problems, and enabling them to thrive in competitive environments. All three have used law degrees to help propel them beyond the courtroom and start or transform businesses.
Their sometimes-circuitous paths from undergrad to law school to their current positions also helped them realize that careers are fluid. “We don’t ask ourselves if this will be the right decision forever,” Gaynor said. “Instead, we try to determine if it’s the right move right now.”
Part of the UGA Alumni Association’s goal with the Bulldog 100 list is to help spread community among graduates and offer inspiration. Stanton, Gaynor, and Baer are eager ambassadors. “Once you leave law school, there should be no barriers to being a partner or running your own firm,” said Stanton. “You just need a computer and the Internet.” Baer added, “It’s important to remember that success doesn’t mean having it all figured out. We’re here, we’re happy, and a little uncertainty is just fine.”