The pursuit of mindfulness is often an afterthought for lawyers but former Willkie Farr & Gallagher attorney Amy Cherry-Abitbol has turned it into her business model by opening a Japanese wellness center in the Hamptons.
The former Big Law attorney opened the Shou Sugi Ban House earlier this summer in Water Mill, New York, which is part of the town of Southampton.
A 13-room retreat is spread across three acres and features a tea lounge, meditation hall, and Japanese-inspired gardens that aim to combine fitness, relaxation and meditation for its guests in four, five- or six-day retreats. Everything is personalized for guests from the in-suite therapies to the daily cuisine prepared by Michelin star winning chefs.
“[Things] are going incredibly well, I have to say,” said Cherry-Abitbol, the retreat’s creator and co-founder. But though the retreat is designed to help guests decompress, operating it isn’t as relaxing as one would think.
“It’s incredibly difficult to run, I’m not going to lie,” Cherry-Abitbol said. “I thought pulling all nighters in my early legal career was tough, but nothing compared to this because you’re never off. It truly is 24-7.”
The opening of the wellness retreat this past May comes nearly five years after Cherry-Abitbol decided she wanted to try something new outside the legal industry.
Cherry-Abitbol began her legal career at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in 1986 and in the early 1990s, she became an associate in the Tokyo office of the now-defunct New York-based firm Coudert Brothers. She wound up suing the firm alleging it refused to give her work and requested that she quit her job after she returned from maternity leave in 1991. The case went to trial in the Manhattan Supreme Court but later settled.
In 1992 she moved to AIG as legal counsel before starting a boutique law firm with her husband five years later.
“It is rather discouraging that women lawyers are still forced to resort to legal action themselves to seek justice in the workplace,"Cherry-Abitbol said, noting that she was encouraged by the fact that women are no longer as intimidated by doing so as they were 30 years ago.
“I was very fortunate to land on my feet and develop a successful women-led project. I feel that in retrospect the experience strengthened my resolve professionally,” she said.
‘Actually Build Something’
In the spring of 2014 Cherry-Abitbol enrolled in a course at Harvard Business School’s “New Paths” program geared towards professional women wanting to change careers. She credits this as the catalyst for the creation of the Shou Sugi Ban House.
“I wanted to do something more tangible than what I was doing, you know, actually build something,” she said.
The opportunity arose in the Hamptons, where her family lived full-time, to create a retreat. Cherry-Abitbol closed on the site in January 2015 but it took three years to get the necessary permits and approvals from the Southampton town planning board, the zoning boards, and the Suffolk County health department.
“It’s simply a long, convoluted process at all levels,” she said. But her legal know-how came in handy as she navigated issues around code regulators, insurance, labor and consulting contracts, environment assessments and more.
“I don’t think I could have done it without the legal background,” she said. “It’s been invaluable.”
Though it has only been open for six weeks, the retreat has received glowing reviews from its guests which is exceptionally gratifying for Cherry-Abitbol and her team, which is virtually all female. She’s even had at least one attorney guest — her business partner, Kathleen Kapnick. “She loves it!"Cherry-Abitbol said.
Like many attorneys in their career second acts, Cherry-Abitbol is gratified that she’s giving back to her community in a way that she said she didn’t in her law career. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t grateful for her time in Big Law.
“I don’t miss it, but I don’t regret it,” she said.