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MS&A Attorney Chris Matthes' interview from Inter Alia Magazine

A Rare Renaissance Man

by Diane Skouti
Inter Alia Magazine - Volume 33, Issue 3
San Joaquin College of Law

For most attorneys, free time is a scarce commodity given over only to family, favored activities, and rest. Because of their universal penchant to serve, many legal professionals serve on boards and volunteer, in addition to pursuing a few hobbies.

For Chris Matthes (Law '16) time doesn't seem to exist. A newly promoted Supervising Attorney at the Fresno office of Michael Sullivan & Associates, Chris is obviously devoted to his legal career. The firm specializes in workers' compensation law, but also handles employment law, general liability, and the like. In his new role, Chris oversees junior attorneys, along with his own case load of workers comp defense, and the niche area of defending insurance carriers and third-party administrators against audit. There are nearly 100 attorneys among the firm’s nine statewide offices, and, like the Rhino featured in the firm’s logo, they are aggressive and effective in their approach.

Chris Matthes

Chris Matthes
MS&A Supervising Attorney

The antithesis of the Fresno office and Chris's fellow Rhino-esque colleagues (most of whom are also SJCL grads), is Buckeye Farms. Pastoral, mountainy, and situated halfway between Marshall Junction and Auberry, the farm receives an equal amount of Chris's devotion, as do his young family, his love for the violin, his aptitude for languages (the "s" denotes the plural - as in – he is conversational in some 12 languages!), and the animals he and his family steward. Chris Matthes is a rare, modern-day Renaissance man. His image could accompany the definition in Merriam-Webster: 1) a person who has wide interests and is expert in several areas. "I grew up working on an almond ranch," Chris explains. "I always wanted to do something in agriculture, but you really can’t anymore unless the operation has been passed down through family." He noted the extreme cost of farming these days, and the disappearing margin of profit. After years of higher education and a lot of really hard work, Chris says he was able to purchase the property to create Buckeye Farms. "It’s as much work as any ’regular' job,” he says, “but it’s also very therapeutic.”

A lot of attorneys develop bad habits to deal with the stress of the job. "I don’t drink or have other (damaging) habits," he said. "I do physical labor as a healthy alternative, to balance out my life."

For his undergrad degree, Chris studied German. With no other ideas in mind, it was something he knew. His grandfather was a first-generation German. As a teen Chris traveled to Germany to embrace the culture and attain a native command of the language. Later, after briefly considering a career as an M.D., he got his master’s degree in German, and began teaching it at U.C. Davis and Sacramento City College.

"Since attorneys are wordsmiths with language, I felt a connection to the law," Chris says. After teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) at both Davis and Sac State for three years, Chris came back to Fresno with his wife, Heather, who had enrolled in nursing school. During this time he worked as the manager of the Japanese Kitchen in Clovis, a favorite lunch spot for SJCL’s Joyce Morodomi, Jill Waller-Randles, and Lonzetta Hightower. As they chatted over teppanyaki, the staffers asked Chris about his plans. They encouraged him to think about law school, so he did. He took the LSAT, enrolled in the 3-year program, and graduated with his J.D.

Chris credits his multitude of experience and activities for his various successes. Having studied the violin from the age of 10, he has played semi-professionally in various quartets and orchestras. "But the demands of the farm, in combination with the legal profession, keep me from joining a group these days."

Chris Matthes with Family

The Matthes family

Chris notes an interesting conundrum when mixing the disciplines he loves so with farming. He explains: "They are opposing forces. Music, language, and the law require an esoteric discipline. I don’t discount those or farming as they both demand skill sets that are not necessarily better than others." At the same time, he says there is an interplay between managing his cattle and his job as an attorney. It’s all about strategy, he says. Planning and looking out for the health of your heard is similar to developing a strategy for managing each case.

And where does he find the time? He feeds his animals at 6:00 a.m. and then at 7:00 a.m. transitions over to law. After he has finished lawyering for the day, he fits in a little more farm time with his five-year old son and his wife, Heather. "They are very helpful and participate in the process every day of the week. The Matthes family doesn’t go on many vacations!" he adds. Chris says he only relaxes on the 8th day of the week, which of course, means never! His quest for continued learning and achievement is relentless. He recently passed the exam required to become a Certified Specialist in workers’ compensation law.

When there is "free time," Chris goes to the marketplace in search of cattle to add to his heard. Our interview was precisely timed, in fact, because he had to rush off to see a man about a bull. "There’s a rancher from Santa Maria who wants to buy our Ferdinand (the Bull)," he said. In addition to cattle, Buckeye Farms also features sheep, chickens, a rooster named Roger, turkeys (who, by the way are higher on the cognition scale than chickens and quite friendly, according to Chris), ducks, and guinea hens, who help control insects and rattle snakes. They also have a small herd of Nigerian Dwarf Goats, who Chris says, make excellent pets. "With the exception of the beef cattle, all of our farm animals are sold with the intention of being pets," he said.

While Chris notes that it is difficult to focus on just one facet of his life at a time, he hopes he is setting a good example for his son. "I hope his is a childhood without a heavy influence of electronics or video games. The life experiences on the farm, of seeing the birth of animals, of understanding the process of life and what it means to sweat, goes a long way in developing an appreciation for hard work - and for life," he said.

While he admits he is a "total workaholic" putting in seven days a week both on the farm and at the law firm, Chris says he is quite happy. He has spent his life getting up each morning for a full day of work. Never missed one, in fact. He credits his grandfather for teaching him that, and the tendency to always do his best. "I wouldn’t be able to have done any of it without my legal education, and the amazing opportunities the firm has given me," he said.

“I want to impress upon people interested in law school that the opportunity to pursue your dream can become available by working hard and getting a legal education. There is no limit to what you can accomplish by becoming an attorney and striving to be the best in the field. SJCL gives you that opportunity, the rest is up to you."