Attorney Eric Guster: The Business of Building a Brand

By Anita Debro
Special to the Birmingham Times

Attorney Eric Guster drives between properties he is renovating for office space in Roebuck and Bessemer, Ala., Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. (Photo by Mark Almond)

Eric Guster is ready to go home.

It’s been a long day of driving from one place to the other, and the fundraiser he is scheduled to attend is making him feel a bit blasé.

“It shouldn’t be more than 45 minutes, maybe an hour,” he tells his girlfriend on the other end of a phone conversation about when he will head home.

He says it again—“45 minutes tops”—sort of like a pep talk to himself on the ride over to the Harbert Center, where this fundraiser will take place.

Guster is an attorney, businessman, and part-time legal analyst on cable TV, who does not like to schmooze. Politics, he confirms, is not in his future.

“If this wasn’t for Danny, then I wouldn’t be going,” he said, referring to longtime friend Danny Carr, an assistant district attorney in Jefferson County who is running for district attorney.

When Guster arrives at the Harbert Center in downtown Birmingham, just a few blocks away from his office, the room is already filling up with well-heeled folks filling their plates with finger foods. Guster, trying to stay true to his word, does not dive into the crowd. Instead, he hangs out near the exit, managing to move just a few dozen feet the entire time.

He greets Carr first: a warm “what’s up” along with a photo opportunity. The two linger a few minutes to talk before Carr, man of the hour, must move on. Guster also must move on to the next person and the next person, careful to not invite too much attention. He will leave after Carr’s speech.

Attorney Eric Guster (right) talks with Danny Carr at the Harbert Center in Birmingham, Ala., Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. They were attending the campaign kickoff event for Carr’s run to be Jefferson County District Attorney. (Photo by Mark Almond)

While Guster holds court in the back of the lounge area, three of Birmingham’s mayors make their way into the room. Former Mayor Richard Arrington is shaking hands at one end of the hall. A few minutes later former Mayor William Bell and his wife show up, attracting a crowd. While Guster is deep in conversation in almost the same spot where he entered, current Mayor Randall Woodfin quietly makes his way into the room, also hanging toward the back, greeting attendees.

Guster, 46, who has grown to prominence in Birmingham in a relatively short time as the face and managing partner of the Guster Law Firm LLC, would much rather be at home or at his office working—or at a golf course golfing and working.

Guster loves golf. He really loves golf. He walks the entire course, unless a buddy wants to cruise the course in the cart. The first sign of good weather, and Guster is on the green at a Birmingham-area golf course, where he can broker deals or mentor an up-and-coming black attorney. It’s his preferred place to be, but cold weather has kept him from spending as much time there as he would like. So, he pushes on.

Attorney Eric Guster plays golf at a Birmingham-area golf course, Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018. (Photo by Mark Almond)

When Carr wraps up his speech and thanks his supporters, Guster makes his move. He’s done. He heads toward the exit, slowing down only a second to greet his friend Ronda Robinson, who got him into the television side of legal analysis.

“How long before you’re back in New York?” she asks, inquiring about Guster’s time spent on cable news shows.

Guster tells her he will be in Birmingham for a while. He managed a little more than an hour at the fundraiser, and he can now head home.

Hustler

The January morning before he must appear at the fundraiser is bitterly, bone-chillingly cold. And Guster needs to check on the progress of his two new office buildings under construction: one in Huffman, and the other in Bessemer. Bundled in a puffy jacket on top of his blue slacks and checkered button-down shirt, Guster meets electrician Curtis Richardson to take a look at the work being done at an empty building that has a view of the grand and imposing Huffman High School across Parkway East.

This is not something he necessarily needs to do—walk through a shell of a building with no heat and no walls to check the progress of construction—but he wants to do it.

“I need to see what’s going on,” he said. “I want to pick out the fixtures. I want to see the floors being done.”

While Guster is primarily known as an attorney, who pops up on MSNBC and Fox News from time to time, he is also focused on real estate development, which may be his first love. Before finishing law school, he was a real estate agent, and he still flips residential properties in Birmingham.

Guster owns a respectable portfolio of properties, including the sizable former Red Cross building in downtown Birmingham and the building he is rehabbing in Bessemer—a prime piece of real estate for an attorney. The building sits just across from the courthouse in Bessemer. Guster was surprised it had been empty for as long as it had been, but when he noticed it one day during a work trip to the courthouse he immediately jumped at the opportunity to purchase the cluster of buildings. He is always on the lookout for opportunities like this.

“You have to stay ready,” he said.

Attorney Eric Guster inspects a building he is renovating for office space in the Roebuck area of Birmingham, Ala., Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. (Photo by Mark Almond)

Real estate, he learned early on, was a path to becoming a millionaire.

“When I was young my mom introduced me to her friend who was in real estate, and he made a lot of money,” Guster said. “I remembered that.”

In college, Guster, who was already on his third or fourth business venture, wanted to get his real estate license, but his parents talked him out of it.

“I would have probably lost focus,” he concedes.

That did not stop Guster’s hustle, though. While an undergrad student at Alabama State University, he already had a lucrative business, selling Greek fraternity and sorority paraphernalia. He didn’t just focus on his fraternity brothers in Alpha Phi Alpha, either. He marketed to them all and did very well for a college student.

At Ensley High School, enterprising teenager Guster sold candy bars to students at a price lower than what the school was already selling the same candy for. His mother, Gwendolyn Guster Welch, took him to buy the candy bars.

“Business is something Eric has always liked to do,” she said. “When he was little, he would cut grass [with his stepdad Arthur Welch) to make money.”

When Eric was in fourth grade, Arthur bought him stock in Wendy’s, one of the boy’s favorite places to eat, his mom remembered.

“He told him, ‘If you are going to patronize a place, then you need to own a part of it,’” she said.

That, along with Arthur teaching young Guster how to read the stock page of the newspaper, set him on a path that would lead him to entrepreneurship. But his mother, who raised him alone until he was 12, when she remarried, never really saw him as an attorney.

“Maybe once, when he got in trouble for questioning a teacher about an assignment in middle school,” Guster Welch recalled. “The teacher called us in and said, ‘Eric challenged me,’ and I asked her if he did it respectfully. We always encouraged him to challenge and ask questions but to not be disrespectful.”

Fighter

When Guster completed his studies at the Birmingham School of Law in 2002 and before he had even passed the bar exam, he already had business cards made up and was set to open his business. Because he wanted to be a good criminal lawyer, he approached well-known Birmingham attorney Emory Anthony for guidance.

“Eric is aggressive,” Anthony said. “So, I am sure he sought me out.”

The two talked about cases. Guster watched Anthony try cases. And, eventually, they tried criminal cases together, including a high-profile rape and kidnapping case. The higher the stakes, the better for Guster.

“I love trials,” Guster said. “I love a fight. It’s a rush.”

Guster started as a court-appointed criminal defense attorney, and that’s where he focused his energies for the first years of his career. He enjoyed the rush, but he was also very conscientious about what was on the line.

Attorney Eric Guster discusses a case in his office in Birmingham, Ala., Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. (Photo by Mark Almond)

“I would get a migraine before a trial if I knew my client was innocent,” he said. “I knew I needed to win.”

While trying court cases, Guster was approached by Robinson to provide legal commentary on Birmingham’s WBRC Fox 6. Guster enjoyed it and used that experience to hustle his way onto cable news shows to provide legal commentary. For a long time, he would spend weeks in New York, analyzing cases on the news shows as a legal pundit, but that changed as soon as Donald Trump became president and the news shows pushed legal stories to the side in favor of wall-to-wall coverage of the White House’s new occupant.

“I miss doing that consistently,” he said.

Guster’s time in the courtroom also has been altered as his business has grown and he has taken on more attorneys and more personal injury cases. He is still in court about every week, but he has help from six staff attorneys at the Guster Law Firm, which is housed in a comfortable, modern office downtown Birmingham.

So, Guster takes on the role of boss now. Around the office, you find a handpicked staff that Guster proudly looks after. They all like the boss and appreciate that he cares about them outside of work.

“I like happy employees,” Guster said, adding that he urges them to take vacations, attend their kids’ sports events, and do the work they are most passionate about.

“I know a lot of unhappy lawyers, but I want my people to have a work-life balance.”

As Guster walks through a maze of cubicles inside his office building, he stops briefly at his workspace, which is no more distinct than the rest; you can tell it is just a place to collect papers and hang a few pictures.

He checks in on his case-intake worker Curtis Carter, a Birmingham School of Law student. Carter had worked at a local posh country club, hoping to parlay connections with attorneys who were members there into a job at a law firm. That didn’t work out—until he met Guster.

“He gave me a chance,” Carter said.

Guster sits down in the conference room with a young attorney, Michael Marable, and they review a stack of potential personal-injury cases, including a slip-and-fall case and an 18-wheeler accident.

Guster makes it clear that he supports black attorneys and does not want to be one of the only shops in town. So, like Anthony did for him, he reaches out to young black talent.

“There is so much room for black attorneys in this city,” Guster muses, as he heads out of the office. “That is why I like to help young lawyers. We probably have room for five to 10 black law firms.”

Humanitarian

It’s another cold morning—no golfing in sight, at least for the next few days—and Guster has just gotten his weekly haircut in preparation for a speaking engagement at Huffman High School. He is sitting down for breakfast at the Waffle House in Roebuck, gearing up for what he thinks will be a small group of business students at the Birmingham City School. Guster is often called to do these sorts of engagements, and he relishes the opportunity.

“Part of the reason I speak to students often is because one interaction can change their lives for the better,” he said.

Asked about what other organizations and boards he volunteers on, Guster shrugs and says none. He does not gravitate to that structured type of humanitarianism, but he sometimes gets a notion to feed homeless people camped out in a warming station, making dozens of sandwiches for them. He does not look for the self-congratulations that may come with working on a board.

“We always taught him, ‘Don’t go out and brag about what you have done,’” Guster Welch said about her son. “I really love that we know what he does to help people, but he never brags about it.”

Guster, a proud product of Birmingham City Schools, jumps at this opportunity to talk one-on-one with teenagers and preps for question-and-answer time. As he makes his way into the school, however, he realizes that he will not just be talking to the students but to an entire auditorium of people as the keynote speaker for the National Business Honor Society induction ceremony. He quickly readjusts his plans, pulls on his suit coat, and without much preparation heads up to the stage to give an impromptu speech to the students, parents, and faculty who are starting to crowd the auditorium.

Guster is a natural speaker—what attorney isn’t?—but his passion shines through for the intended audience on the receiving end of his words. On stage, he stands behind a podium, a pop of lime green flashing from his tie, and imparts the wisdom he has garnered over the years to the students.

“Surround yourself with people who want to be great,” he said.

Heads nod in the audience.

“Read everything you can about what you want to do,” he continues.

More heads nod.

“Protect your reputation,” he offers as a warning to the students to keep their business off of social media.

Several in the crowd respond with, “Yes.”

“Be legit,” he said. “Give them no ammunition.”

He has his audience hooked.

“And never quit. Focus on your goal, and don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do.”

Then, he adds, “I have no fear of failure because I know I will bounce back.”

Afterward, Guster is all smiles. He is not in a hurry. When parents and student inductees gather for a reception in the school’s media center, Guster moves easily from table to table talking to parents and students.

This is where he wants to be.

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