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Working with the one you love can create stress — especially in the highly charged atmosphere of a law firm. Yet even with the inevitable challenges, several couples have said they would not want it any other way. Couples’ practice can be twice as enjoyable and rewarding as going solo or practicing with strangers, these pairs said. Of course, a firm’s size and culture affect the roles its principals assume. Couples interviewed for this article cited several informal rules of thumb that make their working relationships work. Near the top of the list: a shared sense of humor. “I couldn’t afford to hire her, so I had to marry her,” personal injury attorney Manuel Romero jokes about his business partner and the mother of their two children, Susan Romero. She has heard the line so many times she knows it is his way of introducing a list of appreciative remarks. The Law Office of Manuel Romero, which moved from lower Manhattan to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was a team effort from its inception. Before Mr. Romero even started the firm in 1991, his then-girlfriend supported his vision with her own salary, time, expertise and home computer. As a systems analyst with an economics degree from New York University, she had designed computer systems for corporations large and small. Mr. Romero’s technological needs posed a new challenge, she said. “He had the vision, and I knew we could do it,” she said. Ten years later, Mr. Romero had hired five attorneys with 11 support staff. Ms. Romero is administrator. The firm downsized after 9/11, and now has three attorneys in its new location. When interviewed for this article, Mr. Romero said they were looking for a managing attorney. With two school-age children at home, the Romeros said one reason they moved the office to Sunset Park was to reduce their time in transit. Now, they live five minutes from the office. LAW PARTNERS Barry Elisofon had been practicing as a matrimonial attorney on Court Street, Brooklyn, for several years when he married his wife, Pamela, in 1999. Ms. Elisofon, a labor and employment attorney, left her former firm a few months after the wedding and took over the conference room in his office suite. “So, now I pay two-thirds of the rent instead of one-third [for the three-attorney suite],” Mr. Elisofon said. “But, you know, she’s my wife.” He said he wanted to help launch her practice, by providing free office space, utilities, and the use of his secretary. While they share space and sometimes discuss cases, the Elisofons said they basically work as two solo practitioners with adjacent offices. “We share cases with each other and talk about issues, and each of us has different experience, so that we bring different perspectives to the case,” Ms. Elisofon said. She sometimes asks her husband about procedural matters, because of his experience as a court attorney. He might ask her about landlord/tenant matters, because she previously practiced in that area. Attorney Gail Kelner joined her husband’s labor and employment firm, Kelner & Kelner, named for her husband and father-in-law, almost as a matter of convenience when their children were young. Robert and Gail Kelner had met as law students, but Ms. Kelner chose to practice for several years as a tax and trusts and estates attorney with other firms before joining the firm started by her father-in-law, Joseph Kelner, who is now retired. After the couple’s second son was born and the family moved to Long Island, Ms.Kelner took a few years off. She returned to professional work by doing litigation research in Kelner & Kelner’s Long Neck office where she had a flexible schedule. In 2000, after their children were grown, Ms. Kelner moved to the firm’s new downtown Manhattan office. (Eventually, all 10 attorneys at the firm will be based in Manhattan, Mr. Kelner said.) Though it is great working with her husband, Ms. Kelner said, the years she spent working in other firms were crucial to her professional development. DIVIDING RESPONSIBILITIES In each practicing couple, there appears to be an idealist and a pragmatist. “We have slightly different views of the law,” Mr. Kelner admitted. “Gail is more idealistic and very insightful when it comes to the law. I’m more realistic,” Mr. Kelner said. “We complement each other,” Ms. Kelner said. When a new client or case comes in, she might evaluate the legal arguments while he considers the likelihood of success at trial. Usually they agree — but when they do not, Mr. Kelner decides. After all, it is his firm, Ms. Kelner said. They are especially proud of a case in which Ms. Kelner’s research enabled Mr. Kelner to argue a summary judgment motion their opponents had called impossible. When the federal judge said he planned to rule in their favor, the Kelners’ opponents settled for several million dollars and a confidentiality agreement in Telegdi v. Anonymous Corporation Nos. 1,2,3. Mr. Kelner does not question his wife’s research and appellate work, and she does not interfere with his work in the courtroom (except once, when she helped select a jury). The Kelners are columnists for the New York Law Journal. In the Romeros’ office, it is Ms. Romero who monitors the case flow and worries about maintaining the delicate balance of trials, new clients and dispositions. A growing law office typically underwrites new cases and, particularly in plaintiff-side personal injury law, resolution and payment can be unpredictable unless the office screens new clients carefully. “We reject a lot more than we accept,” Mr. Romero said. “We have to.” “Manny is cool as a cucumber,” Ms. Romero said. “He’s a trial lawyer, a chess player — and I get impatient.” While Ms. Romero focuses conservatively on the bottom line, Mr. Romero dedicates most of his time to developing and trying cases. Because it is his name over the door, Ms. Romero said, Mr. Romero has the last word on all business-related issues — except personnel. Both Romeros work with the staff, and both must agree on all personnel decisions. This makes it tough to find just the right person, they acknowledged. KEYS TO COMMUNICATION It takes practice to develop a business relationship distinct from the relationship at home. Respecting each other’s experience, strengths and weaknesses facilitates the process. “When you have a staff, you can’t always talk to your husband as if he was your husband or your friend,” Mr. Romero said. For example, when they disagree outside the office, Ms. Romero tells him directly that he’s way off base. At work, however, she now tries to pull him aside and tell him quietly, the Romeros said. Public disagreement “just doesn’t build confidence with the staff.” Similarly, Mr. Romero said he has learned to treat his wife like an equal even when he is issuing orders. “For example, I wanted to get a rush letter out, and told her, ‘Susan, get this letter out.’ I would never do that to a male partner. I don’t do that anymore; we talked about that.” Both the Romeros and the Kelners said they do not see their spouses much during the working day. “That might help,” Mr. Kelner said. “A little absence is not a bad thing,” Mr.Romero said. The Elisofons said having separate offices provides “a buffer” between them. Still, Mr. Elisofon likes to stop next door and kiss his wife in the afternoon. “We have a repartee which is fun to both of us,” Ms. Elisofon said. “A mental challenge to both of us, and usually it has a humorous side to it.” She said she is careful not to overuse their shared secretary, who still takes dictation from Mr. Elisofon (although his wife ribs him about not using the computer more). Mr. Kelner admitted that he and his wife have “a very violent disagreement,” that is “like a knife in the heart”: Ms. Kelner’s life-long passion for the Boston Red Sox. “We do have a mixed marriage,” they joke. The only real work-related argument between the Kelners, apparently, is what time to stop. “I have to drag her out of the office at the end of the day,” Mr. Kelner said. He gets frustrated when he is ready to leave and she needs a few more hours. Ms. Kelner said she takes an early morning train to pick up some extra time. Unlike the Romeros, the Kelners said they avoid working at home. PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES Small firm attorneys know that developing a successful practice involves professional activities, as well as time behind a desk. Mr. Romero was inducted as president of the Brooklyn Bar Association in June, and is a delegate to the New York State and American Bar Associations. Ms. Romero adjusts her schedule to join her busy husband, spend time with the kids, or mind the office. Last spring, Mr. Elisofon recommended his wife as a reform Democratic candidate for a Civil Court judgeship in Brooklyn. Although she lost in the primary, Mr. Elisofon (who served as campaign manager) said the experience was beneficial for his wife and their combined family. The Elisofons, both in their late 50′s, met at a Lawyers Torah Club luncheon and have been active in several local organizations. Ms. Kelner said she and her husband have avoided scheduling conflicts, largely because she is not as involved in lecturing or leading professional associations, as her husband. Mr. Kelner has served as co-chairman of the Civil Trial Practice Institute at the New York County Lawyers’ Association for more than 10 years and has lectured at several bar associations. The couples said they also try to make time for each other. Mr. Elisofon writes poems to his wife, and the Kelners spend weekend afternoons at the ballpark — with or without the kids. “When the pressure [of starting the firm] was hard,” the Romeros said, “we took each other’s hand, and talked it out, and walked by the water.” Fifteen years later, they still try to combine business with pleasure. Last year, for example, they went to a bar association event on Long Island and stayed overnight. Ms. Romero said, “It was very romantic.”

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