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It may be a misconception that big-firm attorneys spend much of their time in good restaurants, but for Victoria Watson it is literally true. An associate who practices commercial real estate law in the New York office of Covington & Burling, Watson has worked out a three-days-a-week schedule with the firm that allows her to attend to her other career — running the 115-year-old restaurant and bar her family owns in the southern New Jersey resort town of Cape May. The Merion Inn has been touted in recent years by the likes of the Washington Post and the Boston Herald as a standout in the well-preserved Victorian trappings of Cape May. And for Watson, 44, who took over the restaurant as an ostensibly temporary measure after her father’s death in 1992, it has begun to take on the feel of a permanent attachment. “Maybe it was in my blood,” she said. Watson’s parents bought the restaurant, which had begun its life in 1885 as a boardinghouse, in 1970, and she later worked summers there as a waitress as she attended Princeton University. After graduating from law school at McGill University in Montreal, Watson began her legal career in New York in 1981, first at Weil, Gotshal & Manges and later at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. She was not really involved in the business of the inn until she was reintroduced under difficult circumstances in 1992, when her father died and Watson was named executrix of his estate, including the restaurant. Struggling to manage both the inn and her legal practice at Skadden, Watson took a leave of absence and eventually left the firm as she tried unsuccessfully to sell the restaurant. With no buyer in sight, part-time legal work turned out to be the answer. Contacted by her former Skadden colleagues Jay Horowitz and Elie Gordis, who had started the temporary placement agency Strategic Legal Resources, Watson took a succession of part-time jobs at Willkie Farr & Gallagher; Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel; and Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, which allowed her to spend time improving the restaurant. In February 1999, she began working at Howard, Smith & Levin, which later merged into Covington, because they needed a real estate lawyer to work on a permanent part-time basis. Watson now works Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at the firm and spends the remainder of her time in Cape May working at the restaurant. Since taking over, Watson has worked to prettify the restaurant inside and out, even sewing some of the curtains herself. She hired a jazz pianist who now plays in the bar at night. And she has gradually added innovations to the seafood-intensive American menu. But the Merion Inn remains a pretty traditional place. “Cape May has become a real restaurant town and we are seen as the stodgy old locals’ hangout,” Watson said with a laugh. That may be so, but the inn has still managed to garner some good reviews. The Zagat survey of New Jersey restaurants gives the restaurant a respectable rating of 22 (out of 30) for its food and ratings of 21 for decor and service, calling it a “class act” in an “old-fashioned setting.” And the magazine New Jersey Monthly said the bar, the oldest in Cape May, “makes you feel like F. Scott and Zelda without the psychosis.” BUSINESS EXPERIENCE Perhaps surprisingly, Watson said the hectic experience of running the restaurant has made her a better lawyer. “I really like the small business aspect. I think it’s helped me relate better to clients, especially small businesses and start-ups,” she said. “I tend to see the faces on our clients, certainly more than I did when I was at Skadden Arps.” Now that the real estate market has revived, Watson could probably find the buyer for the inn that she so desperately wanted when she took over. But she has not looked for one and she is beginning to consider that it may be a permanent endeavor. “Without admitting it, I may have reached that point,” Watson said. “There’s so much more that can be done.”

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