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10 Accounts of Women Who Left Big Law to Run Their Own Firms

Sept. 19, 2017, 11:01 AM

[caption id="attachment_55732" align="aligncenter” width="266"][Image “Nancy Mertzel” (src=]Nancy Mertzel[/caption]

Nancy Mertzel started her own firm in New York in 2017

“I found that in large law firms it wasn’t helpful for me to have any initiative or investigate things. I kind of squelched that aspect of who I am.”

“Once I decided to explore hanging out a shingle, I started getting in touch with a lot of friends and colleagues who have left and a surprising number of the ones I spoke with have been women.”

“I can’t really say that I bumped up against a glass ceiling, but then on the other hand, if this is happening to so many women, you begin to wonder.”

[caption id="attachment_55737" align="aligncenter” width="282"][Image “Nicole Galli” (src=]Nicole Galli[/caption]

Nicole Galli started her own firm in Philadelphia in 2015

“There has been no go-to place for women legal entrepreneurs, there is no existing infrastructure in that way. One of the things we’ve been hearing from people is, ‘Oh this is fabulous because I would really love to refer work to other women but I might not know someone who does x or is in my location.’ There’s an identity piece of it that, for some reason in the legal community, we’re not thinking of ourselves as entrepreneurs.”

[caption id="attachment_55742" align="aligncenter” width="299"][Image “Emily Kirsch” (src=]Emily Kirsch[/caption]

Emily Kirsch started her own firm in New York in 2015

“I’m building it in exactly the image that works for me. I’m working for my clients, I’m not servicing anybody else’s clients.”

“It used to be the case that the in-house lawyers were viewed as somehow less than the law firm lawyers, and now if you leave your firm and start your own practice there’s this lingering stigma of why did she leave, she couldn’t cut it.”

[caption id="attachment_55747" align="aligncenter” width="245"][Image “Elaine Johnson James” (src=]Elaine Johnson James[/caption]

Elaine Johnson James started her own firm in South Florida in 2015

“When you’ve been doing something for 25 years and you know you’re good at it, your talent is portable. In my instance, my kids were out of college, my son had graduated from law school, my daughter had just started law and business schools, so I wasn’t as risk-averse as I had been. I know that the degree of risk-aversion changes as you get older.”

“It’s the unfair distribution of work, the battles over origination credit, the assignment of work that would be perfect for you to somebody who doesn’t know how the heck to do it, but is a member of the inner circle or who has a protector. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to bail younger white male lawyers out of situations in which they had no business being in in the first place. If you are a 10-year lawyer and you’ve never picked a jury, your first jury trial shouldn’t be a $50 million case. And that just never happens with women and it never happens with minorities. You have to get tested and tested and tested and tested.”

[caption id="attachment_55752" align="aligncenter” width="273"][Image “Susanne T. Jones” (src=]Susanne T. Jones[/caption]

Susanne T. Jones started her own Washington, D.C.-area firm in 2007

“What’s different is, would women have had the courage to start these firms before? To me, it’s more that women have the confidence to do it [now].”

“When we started, we were shy to rely on being women-owned as a selling point. A large reason as to why we got certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) is that our clients wanted that.”

[caption id="attachment_55757" align="aligncenter” width="271"][Image “Virginia McMichael” (src=]Virginia McMichael[/caption]

Virginia McMichael started her own Pennsylvania-based firm in 2013

“I probably could have gotten a job at another law fum, but I was pushing 60 years old and I thought, I don’t want to be in another situation where another firm is doing cutbacks and you’re older and you’re female and maybe you don’t bring in as much business as they want you to, and you lose your job. I wanted to be in control of my own fate.”

“I think some of us women are just real tired of other people defining who we are. Who says someone in a solo firm or small firm can’t be just as good as a lawyer in a big firm? In fact maybe they’re better lawyers because they have to wear so many hats. Maybe we women are better at defining ourselves.”

[caption id="attachment_55762" align="aligncenter” width="226"][Image “Margaret “Petty” McCausland” (src=]Margaret “Petty” McCausland[/caption]

Peggy McCausland started her own firm in Philadelphia in 2006

“I can remember being at a table at an event and hearing my male partners say, ‘When are you going to send me more business?’ I would never be able to do that. But when that’s the behavior that’s modeled for you, you can fall into the trap of thinking that’s what you have to do to market. For many people, that’s actually very off-putting.”

[caption id="attachment_55767" align="aligncenter” width="268"][Image “Stephanie Scharf” (src=]Stephanie Scharf[/caption]

Stephanie Scharf started her own firm in Chicago in 2012

“I think that our firm generally, not just for me, but generally gives a great deal of flexibility in hours. We don’t have minimum billable hours. That’s huge flexibility for people, men or women.”

“Unlike a big firm, where there’s a lot of air cover from other people doing marketing, in our firm pretty much everybody has to do marketing in one form or another and we all depend on each other to bring in businesses, and we share business. We share origination credit.”

[caption id="attachment_55772" align="aligncenter” width="211"][Image “Laura Solomon” (src=]Laura Solomon[/caption]

Laura Solomon started her own Philadelphia firm in 1999

“I am approached frequently by large and medium size law firms that think I want to sell my practice to them, that I need to be saved. I say, ‘I don’t think I understand the potential, what is the benefit to me or my clients?’”

[caption id="attachment_55777" align="aligncenter” width="218"][Image “Beth Wilkinson” (src=]Beth Wilkinson[/caption]

Beth Wilkinson started her own firm in Washington, D.C. in 2016

“I haven’t seen much change at Big Law firms in 30 years, and so somebody has to try to do it differently, and that’s what we’re trying to do. There’s something about the system that is not a total meritocracy and doesn’t reward all people in the same way.”

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