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Setting Up Practice: The Story of a Women-Owned Law Firm

by Marilyn Monaco

Summer 2006, Vol. 69, No. 2

Imagine two women lawyers in mid-life, survivors of several years of law practice in conventional and some non-conventional firms, with minds of their own, confident in their lawyering skills, but just not inclined to work again for a “boss.”

That was me and Karen Kelly. We had worked together quite amicably for several years for a sort of Svengali of a boss, strategizing, talking things out and supporting each other in the stressful times. Like that week before Christmas, in a back room of the office—one proofing, the other collating copies of exhibits for the brief due in the Supreme Court that day. Our colleagues were consumed with preparations for an elaborate holiday party: caterers, lovely decorations done by the professional plant keeper, a small jazz trio warming up, a guest list of worthies among whom were corporate clients, labor union bosses, politicians and a few scoundrels. After the brief was filed, we collapsed in laughter and high spirits, too tired to party.

The entire time we had practiced law, Karen and I had never learned the business of law practice. Not really. I had worked at a large firm and then moved to the smaller firm where Karen and I met. (Both of us had been lured by the “Svengali” with promises of exciting work and lucrative rewards). Clients came and went; bills were reviewed; the younger lawyers were supervised; office problems were resolved; and after six years at the firm, we had both become partners. But the mysterious part, the business of getting clients, was not discussed. The “big boss” did that part and kept that part covetously to himself. If we wanted our own business, we would have to, in a very real sense, start over again.

It started in September 1993, when Karen called me for advice about where she should go to get a new client; and I told her who to call. There was a short pause and then she said, “Want to do this with me?” What an amazing and intriguing suggestion, I thought. “OK, I’ll come to Philadelphia and we can talk.” The two of us were on the brink of abandoning the law: Karen had resigned from the firm to have a baby, and now that the baby was weaned and she was ready to resume working, she hesitated about looking for work. I had married and moved to New York and had just resigned from a firm where I had been treated badly. I was in the midst of a business plan for a completely different venture.

And so, we met and talked about getting started. Our first call was to an old friend, a claims manager for a former client. He advised us to become certified as a female-owned business and solicit work in that capacity. If we became certified, he promised us work. With that advice and that promise, we began.

What did we begin with? Two thousand dollars and an office in the kitchen of one of our homes. Our first purchase was stationery. Beyond that, we didn’t purchase anything. We used home computers, home telephone lines and the dining room table for sorting documents. When we needed privacy, one of us would step into the kitchen pantry with a wink and close the door. Once we received our stationery, we sent out letters to old friends, former clients, agencies, banks, big law firms, politicians and judges—everyone we could think of. We did all of this with purpose but also with lots of self-deprecating humor. Our efforts reminded me of a talk given once by an old friend, Holly Maguigan. Holly is a superb lawyer, a fierce advocate with a terrific sense of humor. She came to the law school I was attending to give a sort of pep talk to the young law students. She aimed her talk at the women in particular and told us that we would find ourselves practicing law and wondering when everyone would catch on that we were big fakes. Just keep pretending, she advised, and one day, you will be a real lawyer.

Our certification as a female-owned firm is one of the ways we get business. Various government agencies and some businesses have committed to giving work to minority or female-owned firms, which are typically small firms. In addition, some of these entities require larger firms to bid on work with minority or female-owned firms. The irony of the certification process for us at the beginning of our business venture was that while we had no clients and no material goods to speak of, we had to prove that we were “legitimate.” That is, we had to prove that we were female, that we owned the business such as it was, and that the little we had was not owned or controlled by our husbands, parents or another firm. We were asked to produce a mountain of documents. The entire process was gut-wrenching. We had to show bank receipts for our two-thousand-dollar investment, old tax returns, a business plan, resolutions, licenses and letters of reference. A kindly reviewer looked over our documents and smiled, realizing what neophytes we were. In the end, we were certified as a female-owned business and a disadvantaged business enterprise.

As promised, two cases came from the claims manager, familiar brown expanding folders arriving like precious cargo. We spread their contents out on the dining room table and did what we had done for years: we organized, reviewed and typed memos to the file. I still find the memos we did twelve years ago and declare them fine work, done with an eager heart and a proprietary sensibility.

Four months after we started the firm, we moved into the first floor of a charming old house in Chestnut Hill that had been converted into an office. Our first employee was an office manager, and a year later we hired a part-time associate lawyer. When she left us in 1998, we hired a full-time associate, Bethann R. Naples. Beth had been working at a firm in New Jersey. That firm had expanded and Beth saw a change: the more volume the firm had, the less control there was over the quality of the work, and most of the lawyers seemed to be totally consumed in their work. Beth was looking for an alternative and she said when she interviewed with us, what we said was music to her ears. She would have responsibility for her cases from beginning to end and also have the collaboration she desired. Perhaps most alluring was our telling her that we believed she should have a life outside of the office. Beth accepted the job with a salary cut, and after several years with the firm she became a partner. In 2003, we expanded our office space to the second floor.

Over the years, we have supported various political candidates. It has come naturally to us. I am a child of the sixties. I once sat in at the president’s office at Penn to protest the secret germ warfare research being conducted there. Karen is the daughter of the first female Afro-American Alderman in Evanston. Beth is the daughter and sister of former School Board members and township managers. We have all campaigned, canvassed and worked at the polls. We talk politics in one form or another nearly every day, and on occasion, we have sat with political operatives and chiefs of staff who work for political candidates and talked politics and business. If one of these people happens to be a woman, we usually get to ask questions and talk more frankly. One time we left a political event to seek out a state official’s chief of staff, a woman who had been a political mentor to us. We found her sitting in the official car, window down, giving orders to staff members, talking on the phone. She saw us and waved us into the car; we sat and talked about the political history of Philadelphia. During the conversation, she chided us for expecting that we could get work just by being good lawyers. “Unfortunately, my dears, doing a good job is not the most important thing on the list.”

In our business, we have learned a most important lesson: it was not what we knew that was most important, it was who we knew. Smart, engaging or competent as we are, there are still those moments of comeuppance when we are reminded of this lesson. One day we walked into the office of “Mr. Big,” a man who knew many powerful people in Philadelphia. If Mr. Big were in the right mood, he could make our dreams come true. On this particular day, it so happened that the chair of the Board of a local authority was in the office as well, and Mr. Big asked the chair to give us some work. Within days of that meeting, we were assigned a few cases from the authority, and for seven years we continued to receive a steady stream of cases from the authority’s general counsel.

This issue of “rainmaking” is of enormous importance, especially for small businesses. It takes chutzpah to start a business; it takes fortitude and a certain amount of luck to keep it going. As we have been told, “you have to stay in their faces.” You build alliances, you go to public events where business people or power brokers will be in attendance and you try to remain au courant. You offer your help and hope that someone will remember the kindness. There is a certain amount of “smoke and mirrors” about getting business: if you look busy and important, more business comes your way. We strategize all of the time about where to go to get business. And like so much else that we do, we try to have fun doing it. We have had business meetings at one partner’s swim club, a lovely, remote spot in Montgomery County, with tall trees, wide-open fields and few people on a typical weekday in the summer. The caretaker would laugh at us when we told him we were discussing business; he’d joke that we really looked very serious discussing buying a new copier while stretched out in our swimsuits. I can remember staring up at the clouds and concocting schemes that would assure us a steady stream of work; such dreams seem possible on a lovely summer day.

Once a year, we go off to New York City to attend the Pennsylvania Society. In the incredibly luxurious setting of the Waldorf Astoria, dressed up for Christmas, we rub elbows with Pennsylvania’s “political swells” and candidates, a slew of lawyers, bankers, manufacturers and their respective spouses. It is a “see and be seen” event, and for relative newcomers like us, it can be fun. Everyone is in good spirits, and though one runs into the same people over and over again throughout the weekend in the narrow halls of the upper floors of the hotel, somehow all rise to the occasion of glad-handing and backslapping; and it is just possible that one might overhear a political coup being hatched.

In the spring of 2000, we three shared the VIP box at the Women’s Basketball Final Four tournament at the First Union Center with a number of influential Pennsylvanians; even Governor Ridge came up to the box to pay his respects. One of the partners had befriended the manager of Philadelphia’s team, The Rage, and to support the team, the firm bought season tickets. Although the team folded, the manager, Cathy Andruzzi, went on to run the Final Four. Cathy is one of those remarkable women who really believes in advancing other females. Here I have stumbled onto a complex subject—what one of the partners called “the chick thing”—the sometimes-mistaken notion that women will help other women as a matter of course. The problem with the notion is that women are still ascending into positions where they can help other women if they choose to and if they understand fully that they do have this power. Some women understand it, some women don’t.

It is possible that it will be easier for women entrepreneurs when women with power finally realize they are free to choose to give work to other women. Of course, women must first come to trust themselves (and other women)—ah, now there is the rub.

Just one more note: that we have lasted as long as we have is because of our relationships with women. Some have taken a chance on us. In the beginning, one female general counsel of a public entity gave us a great boost when she assigned us fifteen cases at one time. Imagine how thrilling that was for a small firm! She made the decision to give us the work and told us all we had to do was go and introduce ourselves to a local male power broker, which we dutifully did.

I firmly believed that many female lawyers leave the practice because it is so toxic to their lifestyles and to their happiness. The long hours of tedious work; the lack of autonomy and decision-making power; the undermining of confidence; the very long period of apprenticeship; and the sheer loneliness of the profession all strain many lawyers, both male and female. You will notice that I have said nothing about the substance of the work: the advocacy; the development of strategy and argument, the negotiation and the acquisition of legal knowledge. Many female lawyers are quite prepared to spend their lives mastering the skills of lawyering. Their dreams of becoming good lawyers fueled them through the well-known agonies of law school, through law school examinations and the final challenge, the bar examination. It is not for lack of ambition that some women fail in the profession or leave the profession. They fail or leave because they want personal lives.

What helped me enormously when I started practicing law was collaboration—talking out the issues and strategizing with colleagues. And learning how to balance my personal and professional lives was what kept me in the lawyering business. When we decided to open our own business, we were old enough and experienced enough to know that we could be good lawyers without becoming curmudgeons or strangers to our families. In order to succeed in this new model of lawyering, one has to be self-assured, in the sense that one can listen to another’s ideas without feeling threatened by them. That sounds simple, but it runs directly contrary to the isolationism and egotism of the profession. The prevailing wisdom is that a lawyer is not ultimately judged by his or her ability to share; the bottom line is that one side wins. The cushion for a successful lawyer in the model of the big firm is that the numbers of names on the letterhead are his credentials. The quality of the work is assumed if it comes from a member of a large firm.

The notion of starting a small firm run by females was therefore a huge deviation from the successful model. It wasn’t so much a financial risk because we had so little money and we were wise enough to be conservative in choosing office space and the other accoutrements of the business. Our goals were modest as well. We would not concentrate exclusively on the bottom line, which the model says must grow exponentially from year to year. In exchange for the discount in our salaries, we would get to control the quality of the work and to spend time efficiently. We vowed that we would do the work that was required and make sure it got done, without working until midnight or on the weekends unless it was absolutely necessary. For the most part, our new model has worked. We have retained our oldest clients, and many of them appreciate the quality of the work at the reasonable price charged. There is a genuine spirit of camaraderie between us and the litigation managers who rely on our thorough and honest assessment of our cases. Of course, we have had to compromise. We do not get paid the market price for lawyers with our experience and record of successful results, and (egad!) the partners even sometimes empty the trash bins and sweep leaves from the entrance porch.

There is a huge emotional and personal pay-off for our autonomy. Apart from the control over the quality of the work product and the keen sense of achievement when a collaborative legal strategy works, we have the luxury of practicing this much-maligned profession with personal integrity. Like most lawyers, we do pro bono work because we cannot imagine not giving back to our community. We attend community meetings, give advice to our alma maters, compose issues papers for political candidates, work the polls on election day, represent people without means—and show up for dinner at home and attend our children’s sports games. Practicing law in this manner has prolonged our professional lives. Yes, there is still a certain amount of ignominy we experience. For example, working as a female-owned small firm on a contract with a majority firm can sometimes mean that not only are our proven skills presumed somehow deficient (like the insidious prejudice against a college applicant admitted under an affirmative action policy), but also that we are sometimes not given any work at all, and the majority firm is. If we get angry at this treatment, our anger is written off as an emotional reaction, when it is really business, not personal. We have survived these insults because we have each other, we are resourceful and we get help from our “godfathers” and “godmothers.” We recognize that we are a new model and that we represent the changing face of practicing law. Although the oddness of us may make others uncomfortable, we have made a place where we can work in our profession, support our families and communities, be loyal to our friends and associates, and be who our parents wanted us to be. Our small and beautiful firm suits us.

10 THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND WHEN STARTING YOUR OWN LAW FIRM

1. Have a business plan (however modest)

2. Find a friendly banker

3. Be flexible: not everything you do will be successful

4. You’re the boss: you can’t have a bad day

5. You will be involved in every decision however small

6. Use common sense

7. Ask questions

8. Be realistic about your finances in the first years

9. Expect ups and downs: a small business is like a roller coaster ride

10. Self promotion is a good thing

8 COMMON PITFALLS

1. Assuming too much overhead

2. Being underinsured

3. Worrying too much (it’s counterproductive and clouds your judgement)

4. Partners who have distinctly different expectations (re: salaries, working hours, management responsibilities, etc.)

5. Relying too heavily on one client

6. Failing to keep communication lines open

7. Blaming others for what goes wrong

8. Allowing the business to consume your personal life