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Mom Owned Law Firm Interview with Michelle Cohen Levy

Today, we feature two Mom-Owned Law Firm Profiles where we celebrate mom lawyers who have chosen to own, not loan their talent.  First up is Michelle Cohen Levy owner of the Law Office of Michelle Cohen Levy PA in Fort Lauderdale Florida.  Although Michelle started her firm after three and a half years working as an associate at a large and small firm, ownership runs in her blood since both of her parents were professionals who were their own bosses. Michelle focuses on employment and business transactions and litigation.

To view past Mom-Owned Law Firm Profiles, click here.

Money Quote:  [If you start a law firm], let go of the way you’ve practiced before. You have to be more flexible than ever. And you have to let go of this profession’s apparent need to do everything at the last minute. And you must have a village – not just for your child, but for your practice.

What is your name?

Michelle Cohen Levy

Law School attended and year of graduation.

 University of Miami, 2009

Name, location(s) and URL of Law Firm.

 The Law Office of Michelle Cohen Levy, PA; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; www.cohenlevylegal.com

How long has your firm been in operation?

 4.5 years

Summarize your work experience, if any, prior to opening your firm. Both as a lawyer or prior to becoming a lawyer.

 Associate in small law, associate in big law

Why did you decide to start your own law firm?

 Both my parents were their own bosses (dad as a doctor/lawyer and mom as a speech pathologist) and I was raised with the idea that being the boss gave you control over your destiny.

What practice areas does your firm concentrate on?

 Employment and business – transactions and litigation

How large is your firm?

 True solo – just me

Do you practice full time or part time?

 Full time

How many children do you have and what ages are they? 1 son who is 2 years old.

Has becoming a mom influenced your decision to start or continue to operate your own law firm? If so, how?

 It was a large factor in why I left big law when I did. I was up writing motions at 3am, or staying late on a regular basis for “emergencies” and I told my husband that there had to be more than this. I decided I wanted to practice law, litigate, and be a wife and mom. And the only way that I’d figured out how to do it would be to work for myself.

What is your marital status?

 Married

If you are married, what role has your spouse played with respect to your practice and mutual family obligations and conversely, what impact has owning your firm had on your marriage and role as a mom?

 I’m the primary bread winner in our family and I always have been. When I decided to make the leap and open my own firm, my husband was 100% supportive. He didn’t question anything or whether I could do it. He literally said “do it and don’t look back.” He has always been wonderful. Before we had our son, he was already great at keeping the wheels turning at the house. He handles all the laundry (except for the 2 weeks right after we got our new washer and dryer when I was all excited), and the dishes. The only household chores that I do on a consistent basis is cook, and that’s because I won’t give it up. As far as caring for our son, it’s a team effort. I usually do pickup and drop off, but he mostly handles bed time since he has a more consistent (non-lawyers) schedule. He’s also super supportive of my weird hours and my need to spend time out networking. Since we had our son, I’ve struggled with getting out there and networking after work because I want to come home and be with the baby. Which is why I like Facebook! It has been GREAT for networking without having to actually leave the house!

I’m also very thankful for the internet and the ability to work anywhere. I was never that great about doing work after leaving the office. But now, I’m much better about flipping the switch between mommy-tracking and lawyer-mode. I also don’t care if my clients hear my family in the background. This day in age, I think clients are more understanding that their lawyer could be anywhere at any time, but it’s still important to be available. I do try to have a blackout time from when I pickup my son until he goes to bed so I can just be present with him.

If you are not married, what challenges have you faced in balancing parenthood with law practice and how do you manage?

 This doesn’t apply to me, but man do I respect these women like woh. I literally have a village and I can barely do it.

What are the pros and cons of law firm ownership as a mom with respect to attaining work-life balance?

 I think the cons are probably the same across the practice of law, whether you’re a partner at a big law firm or a solo. At the end of the day, this is a service industry. If you’re not available, there is another lawyer who is and the potential client will go there. You have to get to a place where you realize that it’s ok. You can’t spend every moment of your life chasing every client and every dollar. You have to find a place where you’re doing well but not missing out. And that’s hard.

The pros of control are great. When I’m super busy, I can decline new work. I can decide what needs me attention and what doesn’t. I can say to a client “I know you think this is an emergency, but it isn’t, so it needs to wait.” I get to establish my boundaries and stick to them.

What are the pros and cons of law firm ownership from a professional standpoint?

I’d say this is a mixed bag. I started my own practice after 5 years of practice and 2 years as a law clerk at a firm. Of course, I could have waited and gotten more guidance and experiences. But I also would have had a mortgage and a child to feed. I’m glad I did it when I did it. And I have a network of other attorneys throughout the industry who I can turn to if necessary.

How open are you with colleagues and clients about your family? Do you tell them about your kids? Do you ever use child-related activities as an excuse for changing your schedule, and if so, are you open in sharing those reasons?

 I am very open. When you hire me, you get all of me. I explain to clients that you don’t just get my billed time. You get my 3am wakeup time when I’m laying there thinking about your case. If I’m laying on the floor with my kid because he’s sick, and he is finally asleep in my arms, and I can’t sleep (because who can sleep like that?) I’m laying there thinking about a case. I also tell my clients that I’m a mom because they need to understand that I am human. I’m a person and I have a life and priorities and boundaries. And if you reach out to me in a Saturday at 11am, you’re not going to hear back from me unless we have trial starting on Monday. I have told clients I can’t have a call/need to cancel something because of my sick kid. It happens. If they don’t understand then maybe we aren’t a good fit.

What was your worst or funniest child-related scheduling mishap?

 Nothing yet, I’m sure it’ll happen.

As a mother who owns a law firm, have you ever encountered discrimination from colleagues or judges or been taken less seriously or treated with less respect? How did you respond?

 I’m sure I have but it hasn’t been to my face. I’m sure I’ve taken calls from potential clients and they heard a crying baby and they decided not to hire me. Their loss. Because I’m damn good at what I do. And if you’re deciding not to hire me because I’m a mom, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Being a mom has forced me to be even sharper and more organized. I’m efficient, smart, and caring. When a potential client makes that decision, it’s the client who loses.

I’ve been discrimianted against just for being a woman, but who hasn’t? I’ve had clients tell me they hire me because of my picture. I’ve had clients eye me up and down and make comments about my body. I’ve had clients tell me how to dress. I’ve had bosses (before I was a solo) tell me they wished I wore makeup so the judge would like me more. It happens to all of us and I think, in the moment, I’ve mostly frozen. Though, recently, I’ve taken to correcting the behavior and telling the client that I prefer a purely professional relationship and asked them to refrain from making comments about my appearance.

Would you recommend to other women lawyers who have children to consider starting a law firm – and what advice would you give them?

 Absolutely. But let go of the way you’ve practiced before. You have to be more flexible than ever. And you have to let go of this professions apparent need to do everything at the last minute. And you must have a village – not just for your child, but for your practice.

If you can, share the name of (or if possible recipe for) one of your family’s most reliable, easy go-to recipes:

 Chili. I start with an onion or two and sautee that. Then I take nearly every other vegetable in my house and throw them in. Two packets of trader Joe’s taco seasoning. And a couple cans of stewed tomatoes. And beans. Tada. Chili.

You can find more Mom Owned Law Firm Interviews by clicking here.

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