Michigan lawyers contribute to ABA book "The Road to Independence: 101 Women's Journeys to Starting their Own Law Firms"

By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News

Starting your own law firm is a daunting task for anyone and even more so for woman lawyers with the challenges and obstacles that go with being a woman in a predominantly male-run world. One hundred and one women who took on that task, establishing successful and satisfying law practices, answered the call from the American Bar Association to share their experiences with others. The result is the book, The Road to Independence: 101 Women's Journeys to Starting their Own Law Firms, containing 101 letters telling the writers' experiences and offering insights into the obstacles they faced in forming a law firm of their own.

Four Michigan lawyers, Cheryl A. Bush, Julie I. Fershtman, Patricia M. Nemeth and Monika U. Holzer Sacks upon receiving the invitation from the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession answered the call. Their letters appear chronologically according to the date each started her woman-owned law practice. Bush, Fershtman and Nemeth began their practices in the early 1990's and Bush in 2003.

Arranging the letters chronologically revealed an acceleration in the rate at which women are starting firms. According to the introduction to the book, in the '50's and '60's each claim just one woman starting a practice. In the '70s, seven of the writers started firms while by the 2000's, 57 women lawyers started their own firms. Thirty-seven of the 101 writers founded their firms in the last six years, the years 2005-2010 and one on January 1, 2011. The arrangement also revealed that an increasing proportion of women starting their own firms are, in fact, seasoned women lawyers with significant practice histories.

The letters present "a picture of the legal profession that the reader may recognize on a personal level--a profession that underestimates the power and grit of women lawyers who comprise the essential half of the profession's talent still not at the table in traditional firms." Nemeth would agree with that assessment, noting that when she and her partner were first practicing, they were called the "chick firm." Now a firm of 13 lawyers, 12 support staff and covering 15,000 square feet of office space on two floors of the Talon Center in downtown Detroit, "I could not tell you without looking at the mast-head, how many of our lawyers are women."

Who will want to read this book?

Bush: "I think anyone, man or woman, who wants to start their own business. I have always felt that being a woman in the legal professions was an advantage, not a detriment. The practical stuff I talk about is how to run a business. I want to give the people who work with me a fair salary, I recognize merit publicly, we have a good time here. There is no real hierarchy--I encourage everyone to comment. Our goal is give fabulous quality legal services at a better rate.

Fershtman: "The Commission envisions the reader being a woman who is looking to set up her own practice. On the other hand, I think any female who is in practice would want to read it. Some of us talked about how we chose our target market and I think those questions are unique to the legal world.

Nemeth: "Anyone who wants to start their own law firm--male or female. And people who are in firms should also read it because it gives an idea of what we have gone though to get where we are." And, she added, the book is about lawyers and gives good practical advice. I think it is a great idea--and I'm pleased to be part of the project."

Sacks: "I think the ABA is trying to address the problem of women not maintaining our presence in the profession."

While women constitute 50 percent of the law students, they tend to drop out of the profession after a few years of practice.

"This book can help women consider some ways in which they can tailor the profession to meet the needs that they have. Women's needs are different--we have to take care of our families--the law firms haven't really accommodated women.

She commented on recently meeting a group of young women lawyers working in large law firms, making big money but not liking what they are doing."

She believes the book will give readers a new perspective on private practice.

How started law practice and why?

Bush: I spent the first ten years of my career at Dykema and then went to a small firm, which was approached by Dykema to return to the firm.

I decided I would rather do my own thing. I can treat people who work with me the way I think.

We have nine lawyers, four paralegals, five administrative people and one in-house investigator. I love my work.

Bush works hard at hiring smart people and promote from within. When you have big law firms, she opined, there is a lack of creativity.

For example, we allow flex time--"I don't care when someone works as long as they get the work done."

In my letter, I state that I never take credit for something that someone else does. I believe in giving credit and that needs to happen in front of clients.

I am totally on merit and not in lock-step. Here it is all about the quality of their work.

Fershtman:

After being out of law school for a few years, Fershtman started in her own law practice, specializing in equine law.

"I had an idea of who I wanted serve and what I wanted to do and I worked exceptionally hard to get the clients to come to me."

In 1993 when she left the firm, she spent a lot of time in the law library researching equine law. She used that information to write about horse ownership issues, insurance, contracts and then she started offering herself as a speaker.

After 17 years, Fershtman left private practice to join Foster Swift, in 2009 because she had more work than she could handle.

On August 5th, Fershtman will participate in a panel discussion of the book sponsored by the ABA in Toronto and she will answer the question, "Why did you give it all up to go with a firm?"

Answering the question, she said, "I think that a lot of the same motivations to develop a practice and to be self reliant exists when you're with a firm. The same types of thought processes and the same efforts are still going when you are part of a firm."

Nemeth: I had a perfectly good offer on the table, but thought I could do better elsewhere. I realized that an environment didn't exist where I really wanted to work.

I almost quit the legal field and then I thought, well, if the right environment doesn't exist then I will have to create my own.

She began with $500, buying used furniture, leasing space from an attorney, rented hourly secretarial service and used the local bar library for research.

She had practiced labor and employment work at her previous firm so stuck to that field. She taught night classes until the firm was earning enough to cover her expenses.

The office has moved several moves during the years she has been in practice. Two years ago "we moved to fill half of two floors of the Talon Center in Detroit.

The moves have been some of the most stressful times for our firm.

Hers is a big operation--in answer to the question 'how big do you want to be?' she set a limit and then passed it so now she doesn't know the answer. The firm now has 13 lawyers and 12 support staff.

Sacks: We began our firm in 1994 with four principals and we have grown and contracted since then. Now we are five with one associate.

We expect to add some associates, but we do this one person at a time.

In part, we are a high service law firm and we want people who can provide our level of practice.

Sacks passed the bar in 1979 and was with a firm until 1994. While she learned a great deal she was ready to move on to meet her personal objectives. Ailene Slank joined her.

She and Slank did the majority of domestic work at the firm so they decided to try that area as niche market.

Their practice grew. Their plan presently is to grow the firm and to promote collaborative practice and alternative dispute resolution in domestic disputes.

The book is available at the American Bar Association Bookstore at http://www.americanbar.org and will soon be available at the State Bar of Michigan Practice Management Resource Center lending library.

Published: Mon, Aug 22, 2011

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