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Kyle Westaway: Lawyer and Social Entrepreneur

12/01/12

Kyle Westaway: Lawyer and Social Entrepreneur

 

That there is still an active sex trade in the 21st century amazes--and appalls--Kyle Westaway, a New York City attorney and founder of Westaway Law: “Sex trafficking--people see it as a woman's issue, but I see it as a human rights issue. That someone is being raped 10 to 15 times a night is shocking. It’s unbelievable that slavery is still happening in my lifetime--something that should have ended with the Emancipation Proclamation.”

It was this deep sense of injustice that motivated Kyle and a few of his more creative friends to establish Biographe, a socially conscious fashion brand that employs survivors of the commercial sex trade in Bangkok.

As Kyle explains, Biographe grew from their desire to help the victims of the sex trade in the short term by providing jobs and empowering them long term by providing life skills: “Our goal was to give them a job skill that’s transferrable to the larger economy because we don’t want this to be an ending point. We want them to go on to bigger and better  things. So, after they create the apparel and jewelry in Bangkok, we market and distribute them here. Then, we take 100 percent of profits and reinvest to fight the commercial sex trade.”

Making a difference, both in and out of court
 

While in the process of getting Biographe off the ground, Kyle also made the life altering decision to launch his own law firm. After graduating from law school, he worked for a large corporation for a short time, but it didn’t take him long to realize that it wasn’t the right path for him. So, he threw all caution to the wind and launched his law firm, which now caters to social entrepreneurs.

According to Kyle, that decision was pivotal: “So in 2008, I did the stupidest or smartest thing in my life, really almost fresh out of law school. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted my practice to be and the people I wanted to work with, so I launched my own firm in New York City."

Although he initially represented artists, activists and entrepreneurs, over time his practice became more aligned with his passion. He began to serve primarily social entrepreneurs, representing them at all stages of growth, from startup to acquisition.

As he explains, the shift in focus was a gradual one that has served him well: “When I realized there was an entire sector called social entrepreneurship that uses business to solve some of the world’s greatest social issues, I realigned my firm to be in line with that passion. So the way I think about it now, I work with activists and entrepreneurs; but I do most of my work in the area where these two overlap into social entrepreneurship. And, because there aren’t very many people who are doing what I’m doing, there’s certainly an upside.”

Reaching a unique, focused market
 

Just as Kyle’s practice is unique, so too are the tools he uses to reach potential clients, which include an arsenal of traditional and more contemporary marketing methods. For example, in addition to lecturing on social enterprise law at Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School, he also uses social media platforms to showcase his expertise and network: “Once I focused on building my firm around social entrepreneurship, I launched the first blog on social enterprise law called Socentlaw.  In addition to my own blog, I also write for bigger publications that have a more widespread audience, such as Venture Beat and Huffington Post. By taking time to write, I reach many clients that I otherwise wouldn’t come in contact with.”

Kyle has also found Twitter to be extremely useful and explains that when using social media, it’s all about giving, not taking: “I think the importance of Twitter is understanding the ecosystem and conversation that’s going on in your sector. Influence is the currency of our age. You obtain influence by giving, not by taking--by providing real value to the conversation. And then clients follow. The best practice is to give away as much as you can.”

Words to live by
 

For Kyle, a quote from a U2 song, “Moment of Surrender,” sums up his life philosophy and explains what drives him to be a force of social change, both in his personal and professional life; that line is “vision over visibility.”

He explains what it means to him: “For me, ‘vision over visibility’ is the idea that to change the world you have to be able to see over the horizon, have a vision, see past what is to what could be, and to work hard to bring what could be into reality. It’s about faith; it’s about striving beyond what you can see and making things happen.”

 

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This photograph of Kyle Westaway was taken by Mike Carroll in New York City.


Helen Parsonage: Fighting for the Underdog

11/01/12

Defending the downtrodden

A framed picture of Rosa Parks and a passion to defend the underdog. These are just a few of the things that motivate Helen Parsonage, an attorney based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Injustice deeply offends Helen, as does bureaucratic red tape and the arbitrary enforcement of laws. So, for her law practice, criminal defense and immigration law are a natural fit. As she explains, she’s inspired by people who refuse to take “no” for an answer: “I’m inspired by women who struggled for the right to vote, by African Americans who struggled for their civil rights, by Mexican parents who struggle through adversity to bring their kids across the border for a shot at a better education, by all people who come to this country from other parts of this world in hopes of a better life.”

That’s why she has a picture of Rosa Parks in her office--to serve as a daily reminder of the injustices and hardships faced by her clients on a daily basis.

An immigrant fighting for immigrants

Immigration law, in particular, is close to her heart. This is because, as an immigrant herself, she can identify with the plight of her immigration clients: “I know what it feels like to be an immigrant, how frustrating it can be and how scary it is to have your life planned by, and dependent upon, bureaucrats who tell you where you can and cannot live your life.”

She derives tremendous satisfaction from her immigration law practice and has handled a number of high profile cases, including her recent involvement in a number of deportation cases on behalf of immigrants arrested during a Charlotte rally and an asylum application on behalf of a homosexual Armenian couple who faced torture, and possibly execution, if the application was denied. Her work on the latter case helped to earn the Defenders of Justice award for her firm, Elliot Pishko Morgan, P.A..

Helen’s work on behalf of aliens of extraordinary ability--applications for permanent residency (i.e., a “green card”) made on behalf of those with exceptional talent in science, the arts, business, athletics or film--is particularly rewarding to her. She explains that these cases humble her: “These extraordinary people rely on me. These are graduates from institutions like Columbia University, standout community achievers and award winners, people who have an extraordinary gift or talent and have the potential to contribute fundamentally to society. And they entrust me with this life-changing application.”

The importance of a strong online presence

According to Helen, it’s important for lawyers to have a strong online presence: “Have a presence! Whether it’s social media or not, if nothing else, just have a profile because that means when someone searches for you or is looking for something, you’re more likely to show up, and you’re more likely to have control over what does show up.”

She emphasizes that the beauty of social media and online profiles is that you never know what will bring potential clients in the door: “Clients come into my office and tell me ‘I saw you were from England on your LinkedIn profile,’ or they will have seen on Google or Facebook that I went to the same undergraduate university as their uncle. You just have to put that information out there because you can’t predict what will capture someone’s eye.”

For Helen, her personal Facebook page is her most effective client development tool, although LinkedIn has proven to be useful as well: “I hold a fairly open policy when it comes to my personal Facebook page and my friends include former clients, current clients, and colleagues I personally know, most of whom are local. I’ve received lots of inquiries from Facebook friends that have resulted in new clients. I’ve also obtained referrals through LinkedIn. Most of those were from lawyers in groups that I participate in, as opposed to those with whom I’m connected.”

Some advice for fledgling lawyers

Helen--who had attended law school while in her 40s after years of working as a paralegal--offers the following insightful and very useful tip to young lawyers: “Your legal support staff and the courthouse staff are your best friends. Young lawyers don’t realize this and end up getting left in the dark. They show disrespect to their support staff and end up rightfully doomed.”

This is sound advice, from someone who’s been on both sides of the fence. So take this tip to heart, young lawyers, and never forget--offend support staff and court personnel at your own risk.

Someone who cares

For Helen, it’s all about helping fight for the rights--and lives--of her clients. When asked how she would like to be remembered, she replies: “As someone who kept people out of jail one day at a time. In some ways that’s not a measurable answer, but sometimes keeping families together and keeping people out of jail--keeping them alive--is a measurable success. When it comes right down to it, I want to be remembered as someone who gave a damn.”

 

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This photograph of Helen Parsonage was taken by Mike Carroll in Winston-Salem, NC.


Kelly Phillips Erb: 21st Century Lawyer

10/03/12

Tax law is her passion


Kelly Phillips Erb, a Philadelphia-based tax attorney, never intended to be a tax lawyer. In fact, she actually planned to avoid tax law classes in law school, but sometimes, as Kelly explains, the best laid plans go astray: “I swore that I would never take a tax course, but I had a terrible moot court experience and ran to sign up for a transactional course so I could stay away from trial practice. I had a transactional professor whom I just loved, so I took more of her classes and most of them just happened to be tax law courses.”

Although to you and I, tax law may seem a bit dry, to Kelly, it’s a fascinating area of practice and a fulfilling way to help people during a stressful time in their lives:

“The interesting thing is that you can’t walk through any moment of your day and not somehow have it touched by tax. Whether it’s sales tax or income tax. I find this fascinating. Tax is all around us, but nobody talks about it. People don’t understand the tax law because it is so confusing; it’s difficult to sort through and understand the nuances. I have the opportunity to talk people down from ledges and explain things to them in a way that they can understand.”

First and foremost, follow your own path


For Kelly, life as a partner in a small firm is a perfect fit. She gave BigLaw a chance, but it turned out it wasn’t all she thought it’d be: “I thought I’d be handling sophisticated matters but found it wasn’t true. It was limiting; I didn’t get to interact with clients and I spent a lot of time trying to make partners happy. I worried more about the firm’s structure than work.”

After giving BigLaw a fair shake, Kelly decided to strike out on her own. She convinced her husband, Chris, a lawyer with a focus on International Law, to leave his position with a large law firm and start a firm with her. In 2000, their firm, The Erb Law Firm, PC, was born.

She has no regrets: “I like my small firm. It has my name, my images and I care about the work that I do. My only regret is that I wish I’d done it sooner--that someone had given me the confidence boost I needed and said you can do this, don’t worry what people think.”

A 21st century law firm with an international reach


Kelly’s firm, with just five attorneys, may be small, but it relies on innovation and cutting-edge technology to serve clients worldwide. The firm utilizes cloud computing tools for calendaring and billing, in addition to web conferencing and Skype calls to communicate with clients on the other side of the globe.

However, according to Kelly, the firm uses different technologies depending on the situation, since different clients have different needs:

“Our firm is a mix of traditional and cloud computing. We don’t do everything online.  Almost all of our international and corporate clients prefer to use web conferencing because it’s economical and efficient. They like getting files digitally because it’s quicker and easier. However, some clients, even sophisticated ones like my tax clients, need hand holding, and empathy is difficult to relay over the phone. Clients who need to be talked off a cliff because they are losing their home from a lien--they want to see me or hear me. But, that being said, the majority of clients have no problem receiving document drafts via Skype or email.”

Some attorneys in their firm also telecommute, to the extent that their practice allows it: “One attorney telecommutes all the time and my husband and I sometimes work from home. For example, when he calls Germany, because of the time difference, it’s 5 in the morning here, so he makes calls from home.”

Expanding her reach using social media


You may not realize it, but Kelly isn’t just a lawyer. She’s also somewhat of a celebrity in online legal circles, where she is known as “Taxgirl.” On Twitter she is @taxgirl and has nearly 14,000 followers. Her Facebook page has 1,444 fans.

She also has a blog that she started in 2005, TaxGirl, which focuses on tax law issues and is now syndicated by Forbes.

For Kelly, social media is an enjoyable way to share her ideas and expand her reach. As she explains, she interacts on social media platforms because doing so provides her with a sense of connection and community: “For me, moving to social media from blogging was a natural transition, since I could use Facebook and Twitter to promote my blog. But it’s also real interaction between professionals. You can be in a small firm and still feel that you’re part of a big firm because you can post and get a nearly instantaneous response on Twitter.”

When asked if she obtains clients from her social media participation, she laughs, noting that while it’s difficult to gauge where clients come from, social media can sometimes be helpful:  

“It’s rare that you’ll have a lot of people with tax law issues looking for tax attorneys on Twitter. Yes, I’ve gotten some clients from Twitter, but many more have come from my blog. I think it’s because my writing style makes me seem like a real person, not just a picture on a website. It’s not the content, but because I seem approachable. Tax law is scary, but people think: ‘She has kids and she’s a mom.’ So, they feel better about approaching me and feel like they can better relate to me.”

But, as Kelly explains, at the end of the day, social media isn’t about marketing--it’s about interacting and sharing with your network: “Networks--they all build on each other.  I do consider my time spent on social media valuable but it’s a tough balance. I try to avoid using it as a selling tool and instead focus on building relationships. That’s where you find the real benefits.”

 

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This photograph of Kelly Phillips Erb was taken by Mike Carroll in Philadelphia, PA.

 


Daliah Saper: New Media Maven

09/01/12

A hardcore musician, covered from head to toe in multiple piercings and intricate tattoos—not exactly the stereotypical law firm client that every aspiring lawyer envisions during law school. But for Daliah Saper, the founder of Saper Law Offices, LLC, a Chicago-based law firm, this musician was one of her first clients—and she wasn’t complaining:  “My first big client was intimidating. He had tattoos and piercings. I met him at a friend’s party and he told me: ‘I’m a composer so, I can only pay $150/ hour.’ At that time, that was an amazing amount of money to me so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll take it.’”

Starting from scratch

 

The year was 2005 and Daliah had just set up shop as a solo practice, following a brief eight-month stint working for another solo practitioner. As she explains, at the time, she was broke and scrambling for clients: “When I started, I was 24 years old and had zero capital. At the time, I was really bootstrapping. I lived with roommates I’d met on Craigslist for cheap rent and lived off of coffee and pizza. I had no budget to advertise.”

But, in the age of the Internet, she was able to take advantage of innovative online tools instead of utilizing more costly, traditional methods of advertising. These emerging online platforms offered newfound, inexpensive ways to reach potential clients. According to Daliah, the firm’s blog was instrumental to her success: “From the beginning, technology was integrated into my firm. I was a young lawyer. Back then, it was just me, the blog and talking to as many people as possible. My website is now one of the biggest assets to my law firm. I’ve continually added to it over the years.”

Although online engagement was crucial to her fledging firm’s marketing strategy, offline networking was equally important. What was particularly effective, she found, was networking with those who shared her interests: “I wanted to work with people whose company I enjoyed. So, slowly but surely, I went to every event I could find in the city--not necessarily those related to the law. I attended events that interested me: the arts, general business networking, etc. At those events, I told people what I was doing and they referred me to their friends, even if it was just to handle small matter. I took a lot of pro bono work in the beginning.”

A boutique litigation practice is born
 

Over time, Daliah’s networking efforts in the business, technology and creative arts communities paid off. The focus of her practice gradually shifted to representing creative entrepreneurs and others in intellectual property and business matters, including trade secret misappropriation, intellectual property infringement, defamation, and commercial litigation.

One of the firm’s most unique and rapidly expanding areas of practice, social media law, grew directly from Daliah’s networking efforts: “The people I work for are media savvy, and because of that, I was thrown into the social media scene. A lot of law firms claim to understand social media, but aren’t using it themselves. Because of my ability to understand and use social media, I’ve attracted some very interesting, novel cases. I represented a mom whose daughter was cyber-bullied. Another client was defamed online through a fake LinkedIn profile. We also have a case pending before the IL Supreme Court that involves an unprecedented case of internet fraud.”

Another benefit of her firm’s social media law expertise: national media exposure. Daliah regularly appears on national television, including CNBC and  FOX News, where she is consulted about social media and other Internet-based and mobile technology issues.

Practice what you love


The cases her firm now handles represent the perfect blend of her legal background and personal interests, making every day interesting and worthwhile to her. According to Daliah, that’s one of the keys to her success: “I think you have to enjoy what you practice. My practice gives me the opportunity to associate with interesting people doing creative things. I wouldn't be a lawyer if I had to handle cases in areas of law don’t interest me. In order to excel, you have to enjoy the day-to-day aspects of your practice.”

In other words, follow your interests, enjoy your work and the rest will come—but not immediately. Like anything, it takes time and hard work.

Words of Wisdom
 

So, what’s her advice to new lawyers? “Patience. I think when you’re just starting out, you want to see a faster return on investment, but it takes time to establish your practice. And, enjoy your work—if you do, interesting cases will find you.”


 

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This photograph of Daliah Saper was taken by Mike Carroll in Chicago, Illinois.


 


Alan Gura: It's a Matter of Principle

08/01/12

Every once in a while, a case comes along that begs to be litigated. There’s an injustice being done and someone has to do something about it. For Alan Gura, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Gura & Possessky, P.L.L.C, the Flying Dog Brewery First Amendment case that he’s currently handling is just such a case.

The case arose in 2009, when the Michigan Liquor Control Commission rejected Flying Dog’s application for a license to sell one of its beers in Michigan. The reason? The beer’s label, which depicts a cartoon dog and includes the text, “If you’re lucky, your b****h will look this sexy after 20 years,” was deemed by the Commission to be “detrimental to the public’s health, safety and welfare.”

According to Alan, of all the cases he’s litigating right now, this one is a prime example of outlandish and unnecessary governmental regulation: “It’s a great case. I’m shocked at the liquor commissioners’ behavior. It reminds me of something out of Footloose or The Scarlet Letter. It’s 2011 and we’re banning products because we’re offended by names and artwork? It’s truly ludicrous. It shows the importance of suing people to make sure they adhere to the Constitution. This is petty bureaucracy. Do they not have anything better to do with the tax payers’ money?”

Although the Flying Dog case has gotten its fair share of press, the publicity pales in comparison to the coverage of the two cases for which Alan is best known: the Heller and McDonald cases, both of which were pivotal Second Amendment cases he successfully argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. While Alan continues to handle Second Amendment cases and speaks frequently about this topic, these notable Second Amendment cases don’t define, or limit, his practice.

Instead, Alan chooses cases that align with his desire to expand individual freedoms by reducing governmental interference in our day-to-day lives. Whether it’s by litigating a precedent-setting Second Amendment case or handling a beer label dispute, as he explains it, “I try to find intellectually engaging work that will make America a better place. I want to increase individual freedoms. I dislike the petty tyranny, annoying regulations and government nannies trying to control everything. That’s not the society we agreed to under the Constitution.”

For Alan, the ability to handle cases that inspire him is what makes every day worthwhile. But, he acknowledges that he wouldn’t be able to do this if he hadn’t started his own firm in 2001—that decision was one of the keys to his success:  “I didn’t want to go back to the firm situation, so I opened my own firm. I wanted to have a certain level of freedom and flexibility and still maintain control over the quality and type of work I handled, something you can only get from being self-employed. It’s wonderful to be self-employed and to have 100% control over the work you do. That’s a great way to work.”

He admits that it wasn’t easy to hang out a shingle, but notes that changes in technology helped make it possible: “The way that small firms function today is different from how the big firms operate. Small firms are able to do what they do because of technology. There is no way I could have the practice I have without advances we have made in technology over the past 10-15 years. Everything that has occurred over the recent decade has worked to our benefit. Obviously I have an office, but I can be productive on the road. I don't feel like I must be physically chained to my desk at the office. I can be anywhere and get my work done. It allows for family time. We can go on vacation. We can do things. It's very liberating.”

According to Alan, advances in technology and greater access to information have also helped to level the playing field, allowing his firm to compete in ways that wouldn’t have been possible just a decade ago: “Today, you have the cost of information going out for next to nothing. Years ago you needed the library and people to sift through all of the information in it. We’ve benefited enormously from commoditizing the information.”

He explains that more affordable access to information and a workflow improved by advances in technology give him the freedom to focus on cases that matter to him, including “interesting, constitutional cases. I find it difficult to work on boring cases. Life is too short to do boring work.”

But, if you ask Alan, he’ll tell you that at the end of the day, it’s not about him—it’s about doing what’s right and making a difference: “If people want to remember me as somebody who tried to expand individual freedoms, that’s great, but I don't need any monuments or statues. I'm just a lawyer. I hope people have better things to do than remember me.”

 

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This photograph of Alan Gura was taken by Mike Carroll in Frederick, Maryland.


Cyrus Mehri: Leveling the Playing Field, One Lawsuit at a Time

07/01/12

Some things are worth the risk

Nothing matters more to Washington, D.C.-based attorney, Cyrus Mehri, than fighting discrimination. And, as he explains, class action lawsuits are his weapon of choice: “My goal is to be a catalyst for societal change. I believe that diversity and inclusion works. There’s power in diversity and inclusive companies are more successful.”

According to Cyrus, he learned these lessons early in life: “My parents immigrated here and I grew up with the Kennedy-style idealism which infused my early years. I had acknowledgement during my early years that race is one of America’s biggest unresolved shortcomings. I remember spending the summer of ‘74 with friends playing football and then running inside to watch Watergate afterward.”

Cyrus’ battle against discrimination began with the 1994 class action lawsuit, Roberts v. Texaco, Inc. At the time, Cyrus, an associate at Cohen Milstein, was approached by Texaco employees who were seeking counsel. Taking on the class action case was a risky proposition and other attorneys had turned it down. But, his gut instinct told him the case had merit: “I was doing class action work at Cohen Milstein in Washington, and had been asked by Texaco employees to meet with them. They couldn’t find a lawyer in New York willing to take on Texaco because Texaco had a reputation of crushing their opponents. So I showed up at church in White Plains, NY - they later described me in a book written by one of the plaintiffs as ‘Andy Garcia on a bad hair day’ - and when I saw them there, I thought, ‘These are impressive people stuck in a Rosa Parks moment where they could stand up to bring about change.’”
 
That case changed the trajectory of his career. After achieving one the largest settlements ever allowed in a race discrimination case, Cyrus decided to take another risk: he started his own firm.

Small firm, big impact

After the Texaco settlement, Cyrus found himself at a crossroads. It was a pivotal moment for him, but after some reflection, his path was obvious: “The Texaco case created an opportunity. Cohen Milstein offered me partnership, but I knew that if I didn’t start my own firm after that win, it wouldn’t happen. So I took a risk and started this firm - but had I known then what I do now, I might not have taken that risk. What makes this type of practice riskier to start on your own is that you have to fund cases on contingency…you have to be ready to bank roll tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

But the risk paid off. While at first glance, his small, eight attorney firm, Mehri & Skalet, PLLC, might not appear to be a formidable force of change, the results his firm has achieved prove otherwise. From the 1996 racial discrimination class action settlement of $176.1-million against Texaco, the racial discrimination class action settlement against Coca-Cola in the amount of $192.5-million or the recent trilogy of gender discrimination class action lawsuit settlements against Morgan Stanley & Co., Smith Barney and Wachovia, which collectively settled for over $112-million, this small firm gets big results in cases that matter.

As Cyrus explains: “We may be a small firm but our goal is to have a big impact on society. Our firm may see more cases on the issue of race and corporate America than anyone else. We are the engine for change and reform in corporate settings.”

Practicing what he preaches

When it comes to diversity, the legal field is not immune from Cyrus’ scrutiny. In fact, he recently co-authored an article with Danielle Davis, A Few Thoughts on Tackling the Issue of Diversity and Inclusiveness in Law Firms. The article examines the subconscious biases at work that create barriers to the advancement of women and minorities in the legal field and offers suggestions for ways to increase diversity in major law firms.

In the article, he and his co-author conclude that the legal field is just as guilty as corporate America when it comes to discrimination. And, according to Cyrus, while it is of the utmost importance for young, diverse attorneys to work hard and persevere, sometimes that’s just not enough: “When starting out as a young lawyer, you have to master this trade. You have to be dedicated to being the best and mastering the skill set. That said, it’s not a level playing field. Not even close. Mastering the skill set alone won’t get you there.  Because, as a profession, we need to do more to be more inclusive—we need to keep doing more and to keep doing better. I’d like to see more diversity.”

But, does he practice what he preaches? Absolutely. The firm’s employees come from diverse backgrounds and four of the firm’s eight attorneys are women. When asked about the firm’s diversity, Cyrus replies: “There are a lot of women and diversity in the firm. We just hired a new associate, who just happens to be a blind lawyer. She had unanimous support and was the number one person we interviewed.”

Changing the world - for the better

At the end of the day, for Cyrus, it’s about making a difference, both personally and professionally. He explains that the Bob Dylan song, “Every Grain of Sand,” inspires the philosophy that he aims to live by:

“It’s a spiritual song which makes me think that every person is just one grain of sand among millions. I always ask myself, what are you going to do with your grain of sand? Because you just have this brief moment in time. What are you going to do to make your grain have a positive impact on others?”

 

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This photograph of Cyrus Mehri was taken by Mike Carroll in Washington, D.C.


Bill Marler: A Personal Injury Attorney - and More

06/01/12

More than Just a Lawyer

Bill Marler is passionate about changing the world for the better. He started early on when he ran for the Pullman City Council at just 19-years-old, becoming the youngest person ever to serve in the state of Washington.

To this day, Bill, one of the top food-safety advocates in the United States, continues his efforts to improve the lives of others.

“I’m a lawyer, but I’ve always been politically oriented. The speaking and lobbying part is the political junkie part of me. A lot of lawyers make noise that what they do causes social change, and I do think that a lot of the work I have done, suing companies, has changed corporate behavior. But I also know that you have to do more to get people to change their behavior. You have to speak at conferences and tell the food industry what their products have done to people.”

Whether by litigating, lobbying, educating or speaking to leaders at the top of the food industry, his overarching goal is to make the food production process safer for consumers. He travels the world, frequently speaking at conferences on food safety and testifying before Congress. For Bill, it’s all about doing whatever it takes to “do the right thing for the public, whether in education or in my practice.”

In Search of a More Focused Practice

It wasn’t always this way. At the beginning of his legal career, in 1993, he was toiling away as an associate in a personal injury firm when his first foodborne illness case landed in his lap. He received a call from a woman whose child was a victim of the Jack in the Box E.coli poisoning. He ended up representing 100 plaintiffs in that case and it eventually settled for $15.6 million.

From that point on, although he continued to handle other types of cases, ranging from personal injury and medical malpractice to criminal defense, food poisoning cases became an increasingly large book of business for him. This practice niche seemingly chose him, but he had a passion for it. So he decided to go with the tide and follow his gut instinct – which was to limit his practice to food poisoning cases:

“[Foodborne] cases were referred to me because the other lawyers got stuck or didn’t know what to do. From ‘93 to ‘96, I was doing nothing but finishing foodborne litigation. When the Jack in the Box case was winding down in the fall of ‘98, I had a vision to start my own practice to focus on foodborne illness.”

Unfortunately, the partners at his firm weren’t on board. As Bill explains, supporting a niche practice wasn’t something they were willing to do:
 
“I approached my partners (but they) weren’t interested. They were older and content and I was in my late thirties and saw my career ahead of me. I thought it was worth the risk. I was confident in my ability. I had done well on Jack in the Box and Odwalla and knew I could make it successful.”

So, he took a leap of faith and started his own practice, bringing along Dennis Sterns, an associate he’d hired at his old firm, and Bruce Clark, another lawyer he’d encountered while litigating food poisoning cases.

And thus Marler, Clark LLP was born. It’s a unique firm with a unique focus and a unique way of doing business.

More than Just a Law Firm

Because Marler Clark focuses on, and has been so successful with, food poisoning cases, it’s become far more than just a law firm. As the “go to” firm for food poisoning cases, it’s become a foodborne illness clearing house and an extremely effective one at that. As Bill explains, the firm’s cutting edge legal team even includes an in-house epidemiologist:

“Nine out of 10 times, when an outbreak is announced, we know about it long before the public is aware. We have an epidemiologist on staff. People contact us first about foodborne illness, and in many cases, we’re doing the research before the Health Department even becomes aware of the problem.”

Ultimately, the firm’s goal is to prevent foodborne illness by working toward a safer food production process, whether by advocacy or by aggressively litigating on behalf of their clients. To that end, the firm even funds preemptive studies to assess food contamination, such as a recent study which concluded that most of the Seattle area chicken was contaminated with harmful bacteria.

More than just a niche practice

For Bill, advocating for food safety is more than just a job – it’s a way of life that has spilled over into his personal life. According to Bill, the lessons he’s learned as a food safety advocate have changed his family’s food choices:

“My family eats simply. We avoid risky foods like hamburgers, sprouts, raw milk, bagged spinach and lettuce, because if you cut out overly processed food and wash appropriately, you limit the risk for food borne illness.”

And it’s not just their food choices that have been affected. After he made an offhand comment on a late night talk show, his family now has six new members:

“We got six chickens because of the egg outbreak last year. It happened after I was on Larry King. In response to one of his questions about ways to prevent food poisoning, I jokingly said, ‘I'm thinking about getting my own chickens.’ When I returned from Los Angeles, my 12-year-old met me at the door and said, ‘We’re getting chickens, right?’ Now I have six chickens.”
 

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This photograph of Bill Marler was taken by Mike Carroll in Seattle, Washington.


David Mills: A Supreme Solo

05/01/12

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


           --Robert Frost

Solo By Choice

David Mills, a Cleveland-based attorney, scored a huge Supreme Court win earlier this year in Ortiz v. Jordan Case 09-737. David isn’t your typical Supreme Court litigator, however. Instead, this 34-year-old solo practitioner with a home-based office represents the next generation of innovative lawyering.

The start of his career was far more conventional than his current career path. He worked as a litigation associate at Jones Day for four years and then moved on to clerk for two different judges: Judge R. Guy Cole, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

It was after his second clerkship, in September of 2008, that he veered off the traditional career path and made the decision to open up a solo practice, The Mills Law Office, LLC. David describes the motivation behind his pivotal decision:

“The idea of being my own boss was appealing to me. I liked the idea of being the decision maker and of having control over choosing the cases that were most interesting to me and would have the greatest impact.”

After thoroughly researching the ins and outs of solo practice by reading Carolyn Elefant’s book “Solo by Choice” and other resources, David chose to limit the focus of his newfound solo practice to primarily federal appeals. As he explains, his decision allowed him to “stay focused so I could brand myself.”

At Home in the Office

When he hung out his shingle, David made the unusual decision to operate his practice from an office attached to his downtown apartment. Doing so helped him avoid lengthy commutes into Cleveland and gave him much-desired flexibility and convenience.

According to David, it was the right choice and, despite his recent victory, he has no plans to move his law firm to a more traditional office setting:

“The home office was a smart, economical way to start doing my own thing, but I didn’t do it with the idea that this it was temporary until I got a ‘real office.’ A lot of people assumed  that was the plan . But my view is, this is pretty real. The Supreme Court didn’t have a problem with where I practice so why should I?  A home office is perfect.”

Supreme Success

It was in his home office that he first met his client, Michelle Ortiz. Her story was compelling—and heart wrenching. A prison guard had sexually assaulted her on two occasions and the prison’s response was to place her in solitary confinement for reporting the incidents. She sued and a jury awarded her $625,000. The defendants appealed the decision, but the issue on appeal was very limited: whether the defendants could appeal the denial of summary judgment after trial.

Michelle had been trying to find an appellate attorney for some time and David was her last shot; the statutory deadline for filing for an extension of time in which to appeal expired the very next day. David explains that he felt compelled to, at the very least, file for an extension on her behalf:

“I decided to take on the case because it was interesting and I was trying to get involved in Supreme Court litigation . . . . The initial timing was so extreme that there wasn’t enough time to get into a debate with myself about what to do. I knew the case would die if the extension motion was not filed. I wanted the option to remain available and also to give Michelle a shot.”

The extension was granted, as was certiorari—a very infrequent occurrence. Only 1% of cases are granted certiorari and only 1 in 10,000 lawyers ever argues a case before the Supreme Court. And, winning a Supreme Court case on a unanimous vote—a rare event indeed!

No one was as excited about the outcome and more aware of the odds against his stunning Supreme Court win, occurring just two and a half years after he opened his solo practice, than David himself:

“This would have been a dream come true within 10 years, let alone two. It was a combination of hard work, some instinct and some luck. I remember taking a philosophy course in college and learning about the idea of parallel universes. I feel like I somehow jumped the track into a parallel universe because it seems so unreal.”

Taking the Path Less Traveled

It’s obvious that David isn’t your typical ex-BigLaw attorney. Instead of conforming to a well-established mold, he takes chances and defies convention.

Nothing exemplifies this trait more than his legal comics blog, Courtoons. There, David occasionally pens witty and very funny cartoons, many from an appellate perspective.  For him, this project represents the solo attorney’s drive to think outside the box:

“You know Courtoons was a funny thing. In some ways it started because when you start a whole solo practice your mind goes everywhere—there’s all these limits of what you can do, but there’s also limitless things.”

For David, it’s all about creating your own destiny, an idea embodied in one of his favorite quotes: “The ordinary man looks outward.” “It’s a Zen quote. I think that for me, it serves as a reminder that if you don’t want to be ordinary you need to look within and ask whether you’re doing the right things. Don’t go down the path just because there’s a path.”

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This photograph of David Mills was taken by Mike Carroll in Cleveland, Ohio.


Susan Burke: Justice First

04/01/12

It's about a greater good

For Susan Burke, the decision to take a case revolves not around compensation but instead centers on the case's social merit. According to Susan, the more influence a case has, the better: "I want to win a case for the victims but also want to change the American public's views. I want people to say: 'It's not okay for this to be happening.'"

That's why her firm handles the tough cases, the politically-charged cases, the cases everyone talks about. From the Abu Ghraib case, where her firm represents torture victims to the recently filed military rape cases brought on behalf of sexual assault victims who served in our armed forces - her firm tackles the issues head on and fights for change.

She explains, "I take on cases that other lawyers won't touch because there isn't compensation. There are a lot of excellent lawyers out there helping a lot of people and I'm drawn to the cases where no one will help them because it's a tough case." At the end of the day-it's about making a difference and having the greatest impact possible.

Compensation is a balancing act

Of course, she has to make a living, and every case that her firm handles is important. But, for Susan, social justice trumps income potential. If the case has far reaching implications, compensation is a secondary concern: "I don't necessarily map out in advance whether or not I'll be able to recover anything. Sometimes, you just don't know how it will turn out - whether you will prevail or not - but we get by. I just have lower expectations in terms of compensation. I certainly have other cases where I think there will be compensation - but I don't limit my practice to only cases where there is money. I try to take on a mix."

The art of raising awareness

One of the best ways to effect change is to increase public awareness about a cause. However, lawsuits, which can sometimes languish in the court system for years, aren't always the best way to do this. Susan is well aware of this fact and isn't afraid to think outside the box when trying to focus immediate attention on the injustices suffered by her clients.

Rosemary Healy, an attorney and long time friend of Susan's whom she first met in law school, describes how Susan has used art to focus attention on her cases:

"Susan - she is truly a one-of-a-kind lawyer. She's willing to take chances, professionally and personally, and push the envelope. An incredible example is how she was willing to bring artists into the work she did with the Iraqi victims."

Susan has worked with a number of artists in the past, allowing them access to her clients and working with the artists to help champion her client's cause. She explains her inspiration for this unusual, but highly effective tactic: "I got the idea to use artists for my cases from Amnesty International - where they use beautiful photography to try to bring home to people the sense of human dignity. People like Daniel Heyman bring public awareness to the issues in a way that's more accessible than a lawsuit. That's why the artists are such an important part of the equation."

According to Heyman, the artist who created the moving portraits of the Iraqi detainees represented by Susan's firm, working with Susan and her clients was a once in a lifetime opportunity: "She invited me to Iraq to visit the detainees. Artists dont get that kind of invitation very often, if ever. Lawyers don't want artists around, but Susan was very enthusiastic about giving me access and letting me hear these people and what they had to say for themselves...and, through (my) work, giving them a platform to speak."

Small firm and innovation, by choice

Susan started her legal career in large firms. But over time, as her focus shifted to human rights cases, she found that a large firm setting wasn't compatible with her practice: "The type of work I did, didnt lend itself to a large firm setting. I was always happy at a big firm...but the type of cases just became impossible to do in the setting I was in."

So, in 2005 she left her position as an equity partner at the Philadelphia law firm Montgomery McCracken, Walker and Rhoads to forge a new path. She founded her own law firm, Burke PLLC, and has never looked back.

Not surprisingly, her innovative approach to the practice of law extends to the way she runs her law firm. She has no problem allowing her associates to work remotely - in fact, one lives out of state. And, she recognizes and takes advantage of the talent of women attorneys whose careers have been side-tracked by parenting: "I dont think that legal talent is isolated in any one setting. I know (women) who have incredible legal minds, who just took time off to take care of kids. (These) women want to work part-time and have energy and intellect."

Leaving a legacy

It's obvious that Susan dances to the beat of her own drum. She is driven by an intrinsic motivation to change the world for the better, and she does it on her own terms and in her own way.

Heyman describes her as a "real hero," explaining, "she doesnt work out of a norm, she changes the norm...She gives people who have been harmed legitimacy in their own minds that what happened to them was wrong...And, they have someone like Susan who is saying this is wrong, its inhumane, and Im going to fight for you."

Why does she do it? According to Susan, it's because she wants to make the world a better place: "I have 3 kids, a wonderful husband. A lot of the reason I do the work I do is because I care for my family. I want the world to be better, so I make it my business to do just that."

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This photograph of Susan Burke was taken by Mike Carroll in Washington, D.C.


Jay Shepherd: Time for a Change

03/01/12

Business first, law second

Jay Shepherd believes that lawyers shouldn’t hold themselves up on a pedestal. As far as he’s concerned, lawyers are, first and foremost, businesspeople: “We’re no different than any other business. Sure, we’re licensed, but so are hairdressers. Holding the profession up to a different level than any other business is ridiculous to me.”

Nothing ignites Jay’s passion more than changing the business of law – and improving client service in the process. According to Jay, the legal profession’s old standby – the billable hour – is a large part of the problem: “The billable hour is a terrible thing and causes huge problems for lawyers and clients. The focus is on the lawyer, not on the client. But pricing is determining value – not your value, but value to the client.”

Saving the world from lawyers (and saving lawyers from themselves)

It’s a theme that Jay returns to, time and time again – lawyers need to come back down to earth. “Lawyers, as a group, tend to take ourselves too seriously with our puffed-up egos, let me put ‘Esq.’ behind my name,’” explains Jay.

Jay believes that lawyers need to leave their egos at the door, embrace their function of being “knowledge workers,” and price their services accordingly. Lawyers are in the business of selling knowledge, not hours, and their pricing schemes should reflect that. According to Jay, “Businesspeople have to focus on the customers, and lawyers have to do that as well. My goal now is to help as many lawyers and other professionals learn how to price the knowledge they have so that they can make their practices better and more fun. If we can embrace the good things about being a good lawyer, and cut out the fear and risk aversion (which is why people hate them), we can do it.”

Small-firm employment lawyer

Jay concedes that his small-firm career was the result of fortuitous happenstance, as was his focus on employment law. After his first year, a career in BigLaw wasn’t an option: “I didn’t do well my first year, and stumbled into employment law after I graduated without a job and lucked out getting a job at a boutique firm. I basically lied about wanting to get into employment law, but I’m glad I did.”

Jay has never looked back. Employment law is a great fit with his personality: “If, like me, you like dealing with people, every single case is like a soap opera. It’s never boring.”

He has no regrets about the course of his career: “I wouldn’t last six seconds at a big firm – I don’t have the personality. I wish I had known about small firms in law school. I wish someone had said ‘big firm life isn’t for everybody.’ I ended up inadvertently going small, but if I knew then what I know now, I would’ve ended up here on purpose.”

Jay acknowledges that starting a small-firm isn’t easy, noting that he couldn’t have done it without his wife, also an attorney, and the stability of her position at a large firm: “My wife has been incredibly supportive of me. I wouldn’t have been able to start a small firm if she wasn’t at a big firm.”

Their different career paths make family life challenging at times. Fortunately, small-firm life gives Jay the flexibility that he needs to make it work. He explains, “I am fortunate having my own firm so that I have more flexibility so that if a kid’s sick, I’ll work from home, something that is a lot harder for my wife. So you make sacrifices and balance. It drives me crazy when people aren’t serious about work-life balance. There’s nothing harder than being a parent.”

For Jay, with his innovative spirit, small-firm life is a perfect fit: “The real advantage for smaller firms is that they can be more nimble and out there. Technology has leveled the playing field, so I can run my practice from my iPad. I’m in a nice downtown office space, but I don’t need to be. I can be anywhere.”

Practicing what he preaches

For Jay, pricing legal services is a way of life. Jay’s firm first experimented with fixed pricing for cases in 2006, in part because tracking time just wasn’t a good fit: “I stink at tracking my time – I don’t think that way. I’ll have an idea suddenly in the shower and it doesn’t really translate well into a timesheet. So I wanted to figure out how to do that with employment litigation.”

The fixed-price experiment worked so well that in 2007, the firm permanently switched from hourly billing to fixed pricing. The move was a tremendous success. Revenue tripled by the end of 2007 and the trend continues to this day.

Jay admits that, in the beginning, the media exposure didn’t hurt, but attributes the vast majority of success to the improvements that flow from fixed pricing: “The system is so out of whack – people at hourly firms spend time doing stuff they don’t need to do. You work differently when you’re pricing because it doesn’t matter who is working on the case – we’ll sit around and brainstorm with everyone and come up with an answer right then and there. It’s much more effective, whereas an hourly shop is going to be very linear, so you end up focusing your time, efforts, and knowledge differently when you are pricing. You save money and can charge a premium.”

Changing the business of law for the better

Jay’s passion is to change the way that law firms do business. To make that dream a reality, he’s started a consultancy, Prefix, LLC, with the goal of teaching lawyers how to price their services. As he explains, when it comes to alternative billing: “There is not a lack of interest, just a lack of knowledge. People always ask me the same questions, so I thought, ‘This is a real business opportunity here.’ What Prefix does is help law firms figure how to price services and make changes to get the benefit of it. We coach them to help them figure out the best way to do it. The other side is going and talking to clients (that is, in-house legal departments), and teaching them how to talk to their lawyers to get more value from outside counsel.”

When asked about his greatest strength, Jay laughs and replies, “My biggest strength is that I always think you can find a creative solution to something and am always looking to find that.” And how does he want to be remembered? “What I don’t want my tombstone to say is, ‘He was really good at noncompete covenants.’ I’d rather be remembered as someone who helped fix the practice of law.”

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This photograph of Jay Shepherd was taken by Mike Carroll in Boston, Massachusetts.

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