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Happiness is a Decision

Interview with Coni S. Rathbone, JD, CRE

headshot of Coni Rathbone
Coni Rathbone, JD, CRE

When I finished interviewing Dr. Ott, he insisted that I also interview his wife, Coni Rathbone, and get the other side of the story. I’m so glad I did. She describes so well the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own happiness, regardless of the circumstances. And the importance of making conscious decisions. This is her story...


When I got my undergraduate degree in 1979, I did a lot of work for my Dad in Ontario, Oregon. I got tremendous experience for a 21-year-old because, in my father’s view, there was nothing I couldn’t do. I did pre-sales and marketing for a number of sports clubs. I managed a sports club, condominiums, apartments, and even a mobile home lot. I put together financial packages for people to obtain large loans.

Gail and I got married in 1980. In about 1983, I’d watched a woman from Ontario do the long-distance law school thing—she had a family in Ontario and commuted to Willamette University in Salem. I’d always wanted to go to law school, but when I finished my undergraduate degree, I just wasn’t ready for three more years of school. So I thought about it for a long time and one day I asked Gail, “So Laura’s doing this and what would you think if I did that?” And he said “Nope. I don’t like that… Let’s go. Let’s sell everything and go back to school.” He’d also been thinking about going to chiropractic school.

So we went back to school. You would never jump in the water if you knew how deep it was. But we treaded water and made it. I graduated in 1988. He graduated in 1990. I started working at the big firms in downtown Portland, because that’s where you can make the most money. I met Jim Zupancic, my current partner, at my first law firm, Bullivant Houser. Not long afterwards, he and I both started working at Davis Wright Tremaine where I spent the next 20 years of my career. I became a partner in a big law firm, with all the prestige and work that that entails… and it’s a lot of work. I had a very successful career there. By the time I left, I was the top grossing lawyer in the Portland office for two years in a row.

By that time Jim had retired from the practice of law and became a real estate developer. He’d been my mentor from the time I was a law student and I worked with him a lot early in my practice. We always figured I would join him in the real estate development company when I was ready to retire from the practice of law.

One day he called me up and proposed that we start a law firm and build it just like we wanted it. It would include a related development company so we could not only practice law, but also build assets through real estate acquisitions. That sounded pretty attractive. So a year and a half later, exactly 20 years after I started at Davis Wright, Jim and I formed our own company, Zupancic Rathbone Law Group. All of our clients came with us, of course. Now we have this little power firm, a small firm made up of big-firm lawyers. I work for the same clients, with a much lower overhead so we can charge much less in our hourly rates to our clients. We also have a higher net return on our time invested, so I can work less. This is one of my definitions of prosperity.

Most Valuable Lesson

To me, prosperity to me is… happiness. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned in my private or professional life is that happiness is a decision. Sometimes it’s the hardest decision you make each day. You get up and you choose to be happy no matter what’s going on in your life.

The practice of law can burn people out. And it does; regularly. But I believe that it is not the practice of law that’s burning them out, it’s their choice to practice in a particular way. For example, when I first started practicing law, I was tough and gruff and very unlike myself because that’s what I thought was expected. A few years into it, I realized I was not going to survive because that’s not who I was. If I had to come in every day and be someone I wasn’t, it wasn’t going to last.

So I began creating what I call an environment of “happy law” — I am who I am, and I joke that “I get everything I want, but in the nicest possible way.” I’m not combative. But I’m also very tenacious in getting what my clients need; but in a collaborative way. It’s about figuring out what works for everyone rather than winning. I’m not about winning. I’m about building things and crafting good deals. So I started creating this atmosphere of happy law where I have many long term clients that I know and I love and I’ve been working with for years and years; there’s a connection. I’m happy to do a one-off deal for someone, but my favorite clients are the ones I’ve been working with for 15 years. You become friends with them and you have a relationship with them. It’s about the relationships in your life and fostering them and focusing on them. It’s about building relationships to help people accomplish what they want to do. Prosperity to me is about changing the world, one person’s world at a time.

I know a lot of people who are waiting for their employer or their husband or their job to make them happy. It’s never going to happen. You have to make yourself happy or you will never get there.

Here’s another profound truth that I learned from a speaker. She was talking about these big schmooze events we all have to go to, but that everybody hates. You have to go, but you don’t know anyone and you feel uncomfortable. She said, “Okay, the next one of these you go to, treat it like a party in your own home.” You walk in and imagine this is your living room, this is your party. What do you do? Well, you go in and you extend your hand to everybody who’s in there and you introduce yourself. Right? You do everything in your power to make them feel comfortable. Do that at these big schmooze events, and it works! What a simple concept, but it works.

Biggest Hope for the World

This sounds really strange… of course I’d love to take on things like world peace and global warming, but… I wish that the people in the world, including myself, would learn better to be present. If everyone was present with everything they’re doing every day, it would change the world.

It’s hard, because there are so many things distracting you. The whole concept of multi-tasking—and I’m a master of it— really does disintegrate relationships. Because you’re not giving full attention to anything. You’re keeping balls in the air. That’s what you are focused on. Not the associate that you’re mentoring, not the client that you’re helping, not the grandchild who’s standing in front of you wanting your attention. When you have a focus on relationships, you really must focus and be present with them. This same issue is a problem with social media. “Social media” is not “social”; it’s individual. People today don’t talk, they text. They don’t interact, they view each other’s lives on snap chat. Being present, means being present in person.

Being present is something I work on every day. When I have succeeded at it; I will have accomplished prosperity. I am much better at presence with my grandkids than in any other area of my life. Not just being with them, but really being with them. Not just being around them, but being with them. It’s one thing to take the kids to the lake house and get in the water and play with them and interact with them versus taking them and just letting them go play. Where are the memories being created in that?

I think there is so much improvement in our daily lives when we are present with whatever we are doing.

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