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A Prescription for Professionalism: Jim Klepper – Interstate Trucker, Ltd.

By: Brad Bentley

Brad Bentley

A University of Alabama graduate with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, Bentley spent 15 years as a trucking Publisher before becoming the Editorial Director for Randall-Reilly's Recruiting Media division.



jimklkepper

Do it right now.

That was the first advice Jim Klepper remembers getting from his father, a postman in the small town of Mangum, Oklahoma. “When he finished delivering the mail to each house on his route, he grabbed me and we went to work on fixing-up houses he bought to rent. We worked till dinner, ate, then went back to work,” Jim said. “I loved to follow him around, and he gave me a great work ethic.”

There were three industries that made money in Jim’s hometown – trucking, pharmacy, and law. Jim’s career path would lead him to all three, but not without a few bumps in the road. Now the president of Interstate Trucker Ltd. (www.interstatetrucker.com), a law firm entirely dedicated to legal defense of the nation’s commercial drivers, Jim recently took the time to reflect with Best Driver Jobs magazine about his journey.

Klepper’s father didn’t believe in taking shortcuts, and Jim had a sense of urgency instilled in him at an early age. It would be a common theme in his adult life as well. He met his soul mate, Pam Smith, in fourth grade. Still together today, they made it through high school and college and had started a family together by the time Jim graduated from pharmacy school at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in 1973.

An inauspicious start

Klepper had a job lined up with a pharmacist named E.D. Wilson, but Wilson sold his drug store the day Jim graduated pharmacy school. Klepper had thought about going to law school, but he was in debt and needed an income. Wilson helped Jim get a job at another pharmacy, where he remained for a few months before becoming the pharmacist for Valley View Hospital in Ada, Oklahoma.

Ada is the birthplace of evangelist Oral Roberts and former Oklahoma governor and U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr, and is known more recently for country music superstar Blake Shelton and NFL player Jeremy Shockey. At its core, Ada was an oil town where it’s 15,000 residents lived with and worked off of each other. There were several truly independent businesses in Ada, and after six months Jim went to work for a discount retail pharmacist.

He stayed there for two years, but preferred to work for himself rather than for other people. Willing to invest in entrepreneurial ideas, Jim soon took advantage of an opportunity to begin his own business. Thus, Jim’s Prescription Shoppe opened on Main Street in downtown Ada.

Boom and bust

Things went well for several years as Jim grew his business, but the early ‘80s were full of challenges. There was an oil bust, which created a banking crisis, economic hardships of double-digit inflation, and high unemployment. Suddenly, Jim’s friends and neighbors had difficulty paying their bills. “New drugs like Tagamet were expensive, and the state quit paying their vendors; insurance companies and the government really started to take advantage of people,” Jim stated. “I learned that I did not want to count on the population of one town to make a living.”

However, Jim stuck it out in Ada for a few more years. His son, Brad, was still in high school, and Jim wanted to see him graduate with the same group of friends. In 1988, after Brad left for college, Jim finally followed his instincts and enrolled in law school at Oklahoma City University. He went to school during the day, and worked at a local pharmacy from 8:00 p.m. until midnight and all day on weekends. Klepper kept up this schedule year round and survived the anxiety of “making it” by finishing law school in 2 and 1/2 years.

Klepper jokes about not graduating at the top of his class. “Do you know what they call the last guy or gal across the stage at medical school graduation?” Klepper asked. “Doctor – and you can call me Lawyer!” All kidding aside, Klepper says he appreciated the experience of working full time while attending law school. “It was one of my most exciting times. There was nothing frivolous and everything had a purpose,” Klepper stated. “I was laser-focused then, and I miss it.”

A decision to defend

Jim says there was an adrenaline high associated with that pace, and it took him almost a year after graduating law school to become “normal”. Meanwhile, he had taken a job in the prosecutor’s office in Wewoka, Oklahoma. After six months of seeing the same individuals committing the same crimes and getting out of jail to do it all again, it became too much for Klepper to bear. He began to dread going to work, and he knew it was time to make a change. He wanted to branch out on his own but needed to decide what type of law practice to launch.

“In law school, one of my professors asked me if I was going into medical law because of my pharmacy background, but I told him no,” Klepper said. “I knew you could not expect perfection in any field, and I did not want to sue the doctors who were caring people that wanted to do their best.” Klepper said three factors lead him to transportation law: lack of competition, timing, and blind luck.

Jim conducted research to see what types of lawyers were most prevalent in his area. This was before the Internet and the days of Google and Bing search engines, so Jim looked where everyone did to find local businesses – the Yellow Pages. There were plenty of divorce and real estate attorneys, but transportation was an untapped market, and Oklahoma was well-known as a trucking state.

When Klepper started his firm in 1990, the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) had been mandated but was not in force yet, and drivers were aware of it. Jim held a chauffeurs license so he could drive a truck from the farm to town, and he decided to take the CDL exam just before the program went live on April 1, 1991. “If I was going to represent drivers, I wanted to know what they were going through,” Klepper said. Fortunately, his first assignment in the prosecutor’s office was traffic ticket arraignments, so he had some experience interacting with clients, other lawyers and judges. “I had the opportunity to see how the prosecution side did it, including how they interacted with law enforcement and what to expect of the police,” Jim said.

With that knowledge, it was time to defend drivers.

Fulfilling a need

Klepper knew he did not want to only represent drivers in Oklahoma City, so he launched a regional, transportation-only law firm named Interstate Trucker, Ltd. “I figured if it would work in Oklahoma, then it could work in Texas or Arkansas too,” Jim said. “I really thought the concept was survivable and could go national. The need was there, and we were willing to help.”

He put his theory to the test and placed an ad in a trucking magazine to see if there would be any interest. “I sat around and waited, and it wasn’t long before I got a call from a driver in the Southeast who had a speeding ticket,” Jim stated. “I charged him a flat fee of $165 and started getting more calls each day.” Word of mouth among the professional driver and owner operator community helped Jim slowly grow the business for a few months, but a request from a local fleet would soon change his business model.

Klepper had represented a few drivers from Oklahoma City-based DonCo Carriers, and their safety director (Angel Arzaga) contacted Jim to set up a meeting. “Angel wanted to save their drivers some money, so we set up a focus group to see what was fair,” Klepper recalls. The end result was that drivers wanted good service for a good price, so Klepper came up with a way for fleets to work with him on a “retainer”.

Interstate Trucker would payroll deduct $2.98 per week from the driver’s settlement check, and then represent them in court for a $100 flat fee. The concept caught on and would become known as Drivers Legal Plan (www.driverslegalplan.com).

In theory, Drivers Legal Plan would work with the carriers to help keep their drivers on the road and allow the fleet to retain that driver. After three months, DonCo saw it was working and that they had increased retention. Arzaga was so pleased with the plan that he called a second carrier on Jim’s behalf and recommended they try it.

Klepper understood the power of networking and began to attend trucking industry conventions and truck shows. “I think if you are going to be in an industry, you should participate,” Jim said. He would soon find a like-minded fleet owner when he struck up a conversation at a convention with Pat Quinn, who was co-founder of U.S. Xpress Enterprises. Quinn thought the program had merit and put it into place the following week. “Pat was a lawyer and a smart guy, and you could tell he knew where he was going,” Jim reflected. “He had the unique ability to see, take action, and get results.” U. S. Xpress would be the next in a long line of fleets who have implemented Drivers Legal Plan. Klepper and his team have now represented more than 275,000 cases for drivers and their carriers, but he still charges the same price as he did in 1991.

To put that in perspective, the average price of diesel was $1.07 in 1991 but regularly tops $4.00 now. That begs the question of whether Interstate Trucker was charging too much for their initial service or how have they been able to keep the price consistent for more than two decades. Klepper has an easy explanation.

“We try to be fair to our hard working clients, and we have modernized our technology over the years to keep their rate the same,” Jim, who operates under the mantra of ‘it’s half enough’, said. “I feel like we can always do more and do it better. At the end of the day, I feel proud of the help we’ve given drivers.”

Regulation nation

Drivers Legal Plan is actually seeing more activity now because of CSA. “Carriers, especially small fleets, are starting to call us because they are in trouble with CSA,” Jim said. “Unfortunately, I believe CSA will develop to include all citations and violations not just roadside inspections.”

Truck drivers may feel singled out with CSA, Hours of Service, medical cards, texting, sleep apnea and other recent litigation, but Klepper says everyone needs to understand that the government creates regulations as a way to control society. “Instead of enforcing current laws, they make more,” he added.  In essence, regulators don’t feel they have been successful unless some new legislation is adopted, but this phenomenon often creates more problems than solutions.

The fact is 20% of my business is affected every year by mistakes made by the government, your home state DMV, or human errors in a judge’s or prosecutor’s office. “It could be something as simple as a code not matching, but someone’s carelessness could cost a driver his career – and it is magnified now because of CSA,” Jim added.

Having represented so many drivers, Klepper said he’s seen just about every mistake that can be made. One of his favorite stories involved going to court in Oklahoma to represent a husband-wife team who had been ticketed for have a child riding in the front seat of the truck. The officer said the child was not in a child restraint seat and “he saw it with his own eyes”. As it turned out, the “child” in question was a four-foot tall stuffed Santa Claus that had been put in the seat while the wife was in the sleeper cab. Klepper still laughs when he reflects on that story and says he is still known as the “Santa Claus lawyer” in that courthouse.

Like father, like son

Klepper says he truly loves what he does, and he tried to pass along that advice to his son – who is starting to make a name for himself in legal circles as well. Brad worked for several years as an architect, traveling the country to consult on construction projects; but a desire to create a more stable home environment for his family lead him to law school, where he would be a magna cum laude graduate that landed him a position with McAfee & Taft- the largest law firm in Oklahoma. Brad stayed there for seven years before joining Drivers Legal Plan, where he represents all of the firm’s carrier cases. DataQ challenges (which are no extra charge to the driver) are his niche, and Brad has already saved several fleets “six figures” a year in fines.

With father and son reunited, the Kleppers share a passion for sports and regularly attend Oklahoma City Thunder NBA games. “It’s a good family environment, and family is important to me,” Jim said. Jim also loves to cook, especially Italian food, and says his favorite dish to prepare is Pasta Bolognese. “I look forward to getting home with fresh ingredients and cooking the evening meal every chance I get.”

The Road Ahead

Klepper’s recipe for success in the trucking industry has included active involvement for more than two decades. He has served on the boards of the Truckload Carriers Association, Arkansas Trucking Association, and the Oklahoma Trucking Association , but he is most proud of what his firm accomplishes on a daily basis.

Drivers Legal Plan has given the individual driver the opportunity to defend himself by lawyers who know transportation, and Jim says he looks forward to going to work each morning. “I never want to retire if I can make a positive impact, and every day we save drivers from losing their license,” he added.

It’s been a lot of years since the elder Klepper ran Jim’s Prescription Shoppe, but he wants to fill one more order for the clients he now serves. “What our industry needs is a prescription for professionalism,” Jim stated. “Trucking is a great profession if you treat it professionally, and there is no reason why you can’t start with one truck and be the next John Christner or C.R. England.”

Klepper’s opinion is that professional drivers with good, clean CDLs can get a job anywhere with anybody. Regulations will dictate that drivers can make more money by following the rules, but many drivers still do not fully understand CSA. “Their understanding of the regs is just as important as us defending them,” Jim says.

Perhaps Klepper’s father’s original advice can be applied to truckers who are clients or potential clients of Drivers Legal Plan. All you need to do is add a comma.

Do it right, now.

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