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Summit Highlights Women Lawyers’ Entrepreneurial Successes

October 06, 2020

By Jeremy Conrad

More than 380 attorneys and entrepreneurs gathered on September 30 and October 1 for the Lawyer + Mom + Owner Virtual Summit, an event full of anecdotes about obstacles overcome and daring innovations by women in the legal profession.

Organizers Carolyn Elefant and Jeena Belil set the tone for the conference in their introductory comments, recounting the personal crises that helped propel them into entrepreneurship. “We are not here to provide all the answers,” Belil said. “We are here to provide a pearl of wisdom, a silver lining, or some type of inspiration.”

That promise was swiftly fulfilled by the speakers whose success stories spoke to both opportunities available to those willing to rethink some of the basic presumptions about legal practice and employers’ failure to recognize and reward the energy and talent of mothers, and women generally, in the legal profession. Frustrated with the job market’s inability to meet their needs, many set out to create opportunities for themselves.

In the session “Motherhood and Entrepreneurship,” Ticora Davis shared that she founded The Creator’s Law Firm after being terminated by a former employer following the birth of her son. Davis encouraged attendees to make a “success contract” with themselves, saying that she spent thousands of dollars on courses to develop her practice, “betting on herself.”

Ally Lozano talked about how she went from working for law firms to becoming the CEO of her own firm. “Take action. Ideas are worthless. Take action when you are scared. Take action when you doubt yourself. Take action every day. That is the key to your success,” she said.

Breaking Barriers Through Innovation

Alternative practice models received particular attention throughout the summit. In the session “New Business Models for a New World,” speakers presented a compelling shortlist of innovative practice models that included use of flat-fee billing, sale of contract templates and other digital products, virtual practice, and subscription legal services. Potential drawbacks and pitfalls were also explored, with speakers cautioning against process- and systems-based practice models that require a significant amount of planning and setup.

There was less equivocation regarding the potential returns. Alternative business model proponents spoke of increased income, a more flexible working environment, and a generally better quality of life. Kimberly Bennett, whose firm offers subscription legal services, encouraged attendees to move toward these improvements by asking themselves, “What if I just designed a business that worked for me?”

The summit also covered women’s efforts to break ground in new areas of practice. Shabnam Malek described her work establishing a now-thriving cannabis firm that would lead to her participation in founding an international cannabis bar association as well as her role in developing new laws. Noting that there are still opportunities for women in cannabis-related business, Malek listed the names of prominent figures engaged in supporting female representation in the burgeoning field.

Technology played a critical role in the success of many of the event’s speakers, yet some examined practical concerns over its use. Mary Grace Guzmán, who advises attorneys and law students on ethics and professional responsibility, discussed the role of attorneys as custodians of confidential information and spoke about their responsibility to inform themselves about the security of the technology they use. Dineen Wasylik provided an overview of potential legal issues arising from the COVID-19 crisis, including the applicability of the Family Medical Leave Act to small employers, Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness, and other concerns. Catherine Tang recommended planning for the succession of digital assets by firms following the illness or death of an attorney.

Believing in Themselves

None of the speakers at the summit described an easy path to success. But Christy Collins, who talked about her move from law firm owner to judge-elect of Florida’s Ninth Circuit, said risks and challenges shouldn’t prevent progress. “It’s all hard, but nothing easy is worth having,” she said, adding that personal commitment is the most important tool for success. “You are your own best currency.”

Many participants described how their career development required them to shut out belittling and condescending advice. Crystal McDonough recalled being told that starting an energy law firm simply wasn’t done. The conventional wisdom is that aspiring energy law attorneys need to get a job at a big, established firm. McDonough ignored the advice, building a virtual practice and taking to the road in an RV with her family. “I just needed to be me,” she said.

McDonough’s practice is a success. She home-schooled her three children while running McDonough Law LLC, and her family travels an average of four months out of every year. A detailed plan helped McDonough succeed. “What is your passion? What is your joy? What is it you want out of your life? What probably set me apart was that I did some very specific planning about what I wanted in my life and built my practice around that to meet those goals.”

Where planning isn’t possible, determination can sometimes substitute. Pamela Netterville Grady related an early-career story of leaving a firm involved in unethical practice. “I didn’t have any plan,” she said. She did have plenty of gumption, though, and a week later she had an LLC and was billing a handful of clients that followed her. She overcame the resistance of an agricultural community in the Deep South through her sustained and serious commitment to pursuing her clients’ claims. “Sometimes you need to just dig your heels in and make a stand,” she said.

Dameka Davis’s advice for attendees considering their advancement echoed the vision of the summit. “You’re going to be in a lot of situations where you don’t know what to do. I encourage you to draw on the courage of your peers,” said Davis, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney.

The Lawyer + Mom + Owner Summit established a solid starting point to do so. The organizers indicated that they intend to hold the event annually.

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