By Jo Mathis
Legal News

Patricia Nemeth, founding partner of Detroit-based employment law firm Nemeth Burwell, P.C., is included in a recently published book by the American Bar Association. “The Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting their Own Law Firms” was written as part of the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession and contains insights of women lawyers and the various issues and obstacles they faced in forming their own law firms.

Mathis: When and why did you decide to open your own firm?
Nemeth: I had received a partnership proposal from the firm where I had been working and I did not believe that the firm would be in existence in 10 years. I also felt I could do better on my own. I had been interviewing and had received a few job offers but the atmosphere in which I wanted to work did not seem to exist at the firms where I was interviewing. I even considered giving up the practice of law. During that time some of my friends were telling me that they saw me owning my own firm. They saw it before I did. I felt that if I were going to work in an atmosphere I wanted, I would need to create it myself.

Mathis: Did anyone discourage you from making the move? How about an inner voice?
Nemeth: No one discouraged me — not even an inner voice. Maybe it was good I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Mathis: Did the fact that you’re a woman influence your decision?
Nemeth: I don’t think my gender influenced my decision — though I guess I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been any other gender. Male or female, one just makes the decision to own his or her own business. Perhaps it’s wanting to be independent, a chance to control your own destiny, a chance to create a good working environment, but I think those needs are there for someone who thinks as an entrepreneur, male or female.

Mathis: Did you have enough money to start your own firm? In retrospect, was it the right time?
Nemeth: I only had about $500 on which I started the firm but I never lived outside of my means and I did have savings which I was able to tap into during the first year that the firm was in business. In addition, I worked part time as an adjunct professor at Walsh College teaching human resources to managerial level employees for the first two years of the firm’s existence. By doing so, I knew that at least I would have the office rent paid.

Mathis: If you could give only three pieces of advice to women thinking of starting their own firms, what would you say?
Nemeth: 1) Make sure that you have a good corporate attorney and a good accountant. I have had the same consultants since day one and their advice through the years has been invaluable.
2) Surround yourself with smart, collaborative people. I am so amazed by the people in our office. Each has different strengths and when put together it results in great synergies and service for our clients.
3) Treat the law firm as a business.

Mathis: Can you elaborate on Number 3?
Nemeth: When a person opens a law firm, she or he has to understand that it’s a business. You must comply with all of the laws. For your employees’ sake, you need to make sure the law firm is financially sound, and your decisions need to be with the best interests of the firm/business in mind. For example, you have a choice as a business owner to take profit or to reinvest in the future of the business. We have chosen to reinvest in our firm and look to the long term versus the short term.

Mathis: The world was a different place in 1992. Would you have had the guts to make the move in 2011?
Nemeth: I was fortunate in 1992 given that the Anita Hill hearings had just occurred in 1991 and companies were looking for female attorneys to defend them in sexual harassment lawsuits. In 2011 of course, there is a much broader view as to the type of claims female management employment defense counsel can handle. I don’t think it would have mattered what year it was. My belief has always been “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

Mathis: What would you do differently today?
Nemeth: I would spend more time researching options for effective IT help. While we currently do have that in place, this was not always the case. Our firm grew beyond the capabilities of the IT personnel we had in place, and we didn’t recognize it until the firm suffered some issues. Suffice it to say, we had one very long hot summer. In the end we spent a significant amount of money to upgrade our technology and continue to monitor it closely.

Mathis: What are the pros and cons of being boss?
Nemeth: Pros: You can make your own hours. You can choose to a large extent the people with whom you work. You can create a work environment that is healthy and fun.
Cons: Even though you make your own hours, the hours that you make will be very long hours. You feel the responsibility of providing for the firm’s employees and making sure they have jobs. When you’re boss, you don’t have many people at the firm you can confide in or who just want to hang out with you. It’s a stressful job. There are a number of administrative and managerial issues you need to deal with aside from all of the issues involving the cases the firm handles.

Mathis: Are there times you wish you weren’t boss?
Nemeth: When I’m on vacation. There’s so much to do before leaving and so much to do when returning and issues that crop up during.

Mathis: Are you glad you decided to stay in Detroit?
Nemeth: Absolutely. I love Detroit. We are located right on the river in a mecca about three miles east of the Renaissance Center. It’s great being close to the Wayne County Courthouse, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Labor, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. Our firm has been and will continue to be dedicated to the city of Detroit.

Mathis: What would surprise people about owning a law firm?
Nemeth: It can be very rewarding. When I think about our firm, I think about the people in our firm and how much of themselves they have personally invested to make sure we provide excellent legal services to our clients and to make sure that our firm is a great place to work. I love to see our employees learn, grow, and take on new challenges. I love teaching others about the law and learning from them as well.


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