When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a princess, an actress, and a firewoman. For most, growing up means losing the “and” (and the dreams of doing something so far-fetched, by which I mean me becoming a firewoman). Indeed, for many of my lawyer friends, particularly those in Biglaw, you become “a lawyer,” no “and.” Billing hours overtakes your life. If you are lucky, you become a lawyer AND someone who sleeps occasionally (on a huge pile of money).
I recently met a small-firm lawyer who embraced the “and.” Whether it is unique to the small firms where she has practiced or is true of many small-firm lawyers, Cheryl “Cheri” Richards reminded me of something I had forgotten about lawyers: they can be interesting and multidimensional….
I met Richards at an HLS alumni lunch featuring a panel presentation on small-firm practice. (Yes, Valerie goes deep undercover to find out small-firm news.)
Richards graduated from HLS in 1987. Upon graduation, she cut her teeth as a corporate finance attorney at Chapman & Cutler. After having her second child, Richards realized that despite her positive experience at Chapman, she could not balance her work life and home life at a large firm. So, Richards joined the small firm of Johnson & Colmar. There, she got great legal experience AND was able to be a mom.
As Richards explains, being a successful part-time lawyer and mother requires work and compromise. Her firm allowed her to maintain a flexible schedule, but she was willing to make sacrifices when necessary to meet a client’s needs. Richards continued as a lawyer AND mother, AND in 1994, she became a law firm owner, starting the firm of Hupert, Richards & Wood. Shortly after starting the firm, Richards added another title: specialist in commercial leasing.
Then, in 2001, Richards changed course. She became a lawyer, mother AND teacher. For seven years, Richards taught at a public charter school in Chicago AND became a charter-school advocate.
In 2008, Richards returned to the practice of law, joining her current firm, Riordan, Fulkerson, Hupert & Coleman. AND, she has rediscovered why she loves being a lawyer.
Looking back on her career, Richards has unlocked the secret to maintaining a well-balanced life AND excelling at small-firm practice. The secret is flexibility — flexibility in your own views of your career, and flexibility in your firms’ view of how work gets done.
For instance, it is important (especially in the current economic climate) to be flexible on the type of law you practice. Richards did not set out to specialize, but over time she developed a niche. She also made sure that she did not lose her abilities as a transactional generalist because as a small-firm attorney, you are the person a client calls with problems (and those problems can be varied). And, she was willing to handle any issue her client may have, including going into court and arguing a motion. The end result is that your practice is elevated as you are able to approach problems and draft documents from a more holistic perspective.
Similarly, it is important to allow your practice to change with the times. As Richards explained, “Article IX changed while I was away from practice and I had to learn a new area of law.” She also recalls colleagues who started their own antitrust practices. When that specialty went away, they had to evolve and adapt.
As a consequence of this flexibility, Richards was able to redefine herself throughout her career AND end up as a happy lawyer. Behold the power of “and.”
When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.