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Female attorneys dissatisfied with large-firm life and traditional practice arrangements increasingly are striking out alone or with partners to plot their own career paths. “I would say it’s been the best thing I ever did,” Bennett & Associates managing partner Elizabeth L. Bennett said. “I finally really enjoyed practicing law.” Bennett began her career in 1978 as a solo practitioner, exchanging work for office space because, she said, Delaware County, Pa., firms were not hiring women lawyers at the time. Eventually, Bennett found her way to a large firm where she found success. She decided to leave the firm as it began cutting its ranks. “One of the reasons I stayed on at a big firm was that I thought it would provide me security,” said the single mother of two. “In the end it provided me with a very traumatic event in which I thought I might lose everything I had as a single person and a partner in a firm that might go belly-up.” Bennett said during her years as a large-firm lawyer, she did everything possible to hide the fact that she was a single mother, for fear that knowledge of her children and obligations would hinder her progress through firm ranks. According to Bennett, her Wayne, Pa.-based three-attorney firm differs from traditionally run firms in that her associates find themselves blessed with flexible schedules. “I trust them to get the job done, period,” Bennett said. “I never ask them how they are dividing their time between home and family. And it works. They perform for the firm, and the work’s been getting done with a minimum of stress because I give them the freedom to figure it out, and that includes providing computer access from home.” Wendy Castor Hess, a co-founder of the Law Offices of Goldblum & Hess in Jenkintown, Pa., also cited an ability to place family on equal — if not better — footing with her practice as an advantage to owning and running a firm. “I have a female partner, so if I say I don’t have anybody to watch my daughter and she comes in and drinks a Coke and eats popcorn … [it's] OK,” Hess said. Hess’ co-founder Jane W. Goldblum said the two women are fortunate to practice immigration law since it permits them to be mothers and still do their work. “If we were litigators or involved in many other fields, we wouldn’t be able to control our practice and therefore our lives,” she said. And according to Hess, being mothers brings a unique perspective to her and Goldblum’s lawyering styles. “One of the things you learn as a parent is that when somebody asks you a question, what they ask in a question is not necessarily what they are concerned with,” Hess said. “With our immigration clients, there are many issues behind the questions they pose and you have to be able to read the questions on two or three levels. … What we do is we apply our parenting skills to our clients. Not just what is the law, but also how is it affecting their lives?” The women agreed that their partnership has been successful since its 1988 inception because they possess the same work ethic and the same philosophy, and are simply good friends. “Every morning, we have our morning coffee together,” Hess said. “We catch up on what’s going on in our personal lives, and then we talk about the cases.” Goldblum said she and Hess enjoy their practice and couldn’t imagine being employees again. “We are really proud of ourselves,” she said. “And we look at our client base, and we really built this practice.” Unfortunately, according to those women who have done it, starting a new firm is often a bumpy ride. “When we opened our doors 14 years ago, we had one secretary. [And] we told her to bring Time magazine because we weren’t sure we would have any business,” Goldblum said. A woman who wants to start her own firm must first and foremost have an ability to bring in clients, Goldblum said. Nancy H. Fullam, who formed McEldrew & Fullam along with James J. McEldrew III, also said a substantial base of business is a necessity. “I think that in the commercial litigation area it has taken time for women to achieve positions in larger firms where they would have the ability to be rainmakers,” she said. Of starting a firm, Fullam said it’s an enormous and time-consuming responsibility because the founding attorney or attorneys must maintain a practice while simultaneously running the firm. “I think with the responsibilities that women tend to have at home … taking on the responsibility of running a practice is an awful lot to expect of one human being,” Fullam said. During her firm’s infancy, Fullam found herself working at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week, she said. The heavy hours were the result of maintaining a lean staff for fear the firm would overextend itself financially. Fullam said this apprehension emanated from simple inexperience in terms of managing a firm’s finances. Accordingly, Fullam recommended having a clear business plan and good financial management assistance in the beginning. Attorneys should then continue to seek advice from others. “Lawyers are very good at being lawyers, [but] very few of us have an innate ability to be business managers as well,” she said. Kathleen Herzog Larkin, a Chester County solo practitioner, said women who want their own practices need a network of fellow attorneys for support. “Even in a small firm … issues come up that you will want to run by somebody,” she said. Larkin is another attorney who hung out a shingle — this time with two other female law school graduates — after earning her J.D. “Essentially, it was because law firms wouldn’t hire us,” she said. “It was too hard for women to find jobs. As a result, we decided that we would go out on our own.” After moving on to the Pennsylvania Department of Justice, later serving as chief counsel of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and ultimately landing a partnership at Blank Rome Comisky & McCauley, Larkin opted for practicing on her own. “Having a firm gives you a certain amount of freedom,” she said, “but it’s also a 24-hour commitment.” Still, for those willing to take risks and make sacrifices, owning a firm may be just the ticket for female practitioners. “I think that those people who do form their own … practices find that it’s wonderful,” Goldblum said. And according to Goldblum, forgoing the security of being an employee is no reason to shy away from giving an independent practice a try.

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