Janine Cerra, left, and Lauren Fraser, right
Janine Cerra, left, and Lauren Fraser, right ()

A pair of lawyers in the Sussex County Bar Association’s leadership group have left divergent practice backgrounds to launch their own firm in Sparta: Fraser & Cerra.

The firm partners are Lauren Fraser, who spent 13 years at Sparta’s Laddey, Clark & Ryan focusing on spinal injury cases, and Janine Cerra, who since 2011 had been with the New Jersey Public Defender’s Office in Morris and Sussex counties.

Fraser & Cerra launched last June but Fraser, in an interview, called Sept. 20 the firm’s “official grand opening”—in a seven-office space at 17 Woodport Rd., on a three-year lease.

It’s something of a unique pairing, with each partner coming from a different legal background. And the significance of a women-owned firm, even in 2017, is not lost on Fraser.

“It’s very important, especially as a role model for my daughter,” said Fraser, who, like Cerra, is a mother in her early 40s. “There are a lot of women-owned firms around. A lot of them are family law. Not a lot of them do what Janine and I are doing.”

What they are doing, or at least trying to do, is build a firm from the ground up. Experience abounds, but foundational clients do not. Neither partner came in with a book of business, according to Fraser. Family law is not among their offerings, due largely to the fact that neither has much experience in that area. Personal injury, for Fraser, and real estate transactions, for Cerra, make up the majority of firm business at present.

Clients have come by word of mouth and referrals, and the firm employs two legal assistants, one of them part time, and a former Laddey Clark paralegal, Tricia Salazar. There’s also a remote part-time office manager who assists with bookkeeping, Fraser said.

With cash investments directly from the partners, and cash flow starting up soon after launching via flat and contingency fees, Fraser & Cerra has not had to borrow to fund operations yet, according to Fraser.

Fraser & Cerra is largely the product of the partners’ involvement in the Sussex County Bar Association, through which they have known one another for roughly a decade. Fraser is immediate past president; Cerra is president-elect.

According to Fraser, last March, the two ran into each other at the State Bar Association’s solo and small firm conference, which they attended seeking guidance on how to launch a firm. Coincidentally, each was scheduled to look at the same Sparta office space on consecutive days later that month, and from there, the idea to partner was spawned, Fraser said.

“We recognized we both had some idea we wanted to venture out on our own,” Fraser said. “We wanted to create a firm that was different than what our experiences had been.”

She said each partner hopes the change will allow for more flexibility with family time. “We had [flexibility] before, but the pressure was a little bit different,” Fraser added.

Fraser & Cerra also owes its existence at least in part to a development in the personal life of one of its founders: Fraser’s divorce from Andrew Fraser of Laddey Clark’s personal injury practice, which she said spurred the decision to form a new firm.

Without that development, ”I probably would not have left,” Fraser said. “Sometimes you need a little bit of a push to do very scary but very important things.”

Cerra, in a statement, said: “Partnering with Lauren was an easy decision. We share a similar outlook on justice and advocating for clients. We are relentless when it comes to obtaining the results our clients deserve and we are not afraid to go to trial.”

Laddey Clark and the Public Defender’s Office were invited to comment on the departures of Fraser and Cerra, but didn’t respond.

Fraser, 41, is a 2003 graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law, and joined Laddey Clark in 2004, first as an associate.

Cerra, 43, is also a Seton Hall Law graduate (2008) and was previously in private practice and a pool attorney for the Public Defender’s Office before joining the office full time. She was an assistant deputy public defender.

Fraser has gone through the transition with what she called a “side gig”—a marketing company she helped found, Full Court Marketing and Trial Strategies. The company does advise lawyers and law firms in areas such as argument strategy, though conflict checks are routine, she said.

As for Fraser & Cerra, it’s a chance to create something new, she said.

“There’s a very different destiny for me when I’m running my own shop,” Fraser said.

Contact the reporter at dgialanella@alm.com. On Twitter: @dgialanellanjlj.