Among the pioneers: Employee benefits attorney began as paralegal in Detroit

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Although Nancy Keppelman enjoyed studying music in college, she knew she lacked the chops to be a professional musician. 

After graduating, she spotted an ad for a paralegal school in Philadelphia and thought she’d give it a try — and landed a job working for a large Detroit law firm right after completing the course. Since she was already doing some of the work lawyers do, and was good at it, Keppelman decided to take a further step and earn her law degree from the University of Michigan.

“I didn’t enjoy law school — it was both too impractical to be useful and too practical to be interesting,” she said. “But my fellow students were great — smart and challenging.”  

Keppelman was active in the Women Law Students Association and, as its president, worked with her colleagues to put on a conference with U-M Law School Alumnae. 

“That was very rewarding — not too many years before I started law school, there were only a handful of women law students,” she said.  “It was great to hear about the experiences of women who graduated and started work as lawyers in the years before us.”

Landing in her specialty of employee benefits was pure chance for Keppelman, who is of counsel in Butzel Long’s Ann Arbor office and who also practices in the area of executive compensation law.

“After I left law school, I learned some of us are good at thinking on our feet and structuring our cases to fit case law — that wasn’t my strength,” she said.  

However, Keppelman was good at reading and applying tax law, having handled estate tax returns as a paralegal. 

Early in her career, she was able to get the IRS to approve a retirement plan for a local restaurant, even though many of the restaurant’s employees were excluded from participation, which is not usually permitted.  

“That gave me a taste of reading, understanding and applying IRS regulations, which has been the basis of my work in employee benefits ever since,” she said.

When she was offered the choice of working in litigation or employee benefits by a large Detroit law firm, she decided to give employee benefits a try. 

“And here I am, decades later, specializing in that area,” Keppelman said.

Her specialty has earned her kudos. 

She became a fellow in American College of Employee Benefits Counsel (ACEBC) in 2002, is listed in The Best Lawyers in America for employee benefits expertise
and is among Michigan Super Lawyers and DBusiness Top Lawyers.

Keppelman also is among a handful of Michigan lawyers given the highest rating in employee benefits law by Chambers USA, America's Leading Lawyers for Business.

A past member of the Tax Council of the Michigan State Bar, she is a frequent speaker and author on pensions and employee benefit matters, a contributing author to the first edition of “Michigan Business Formbook” (ICLE), and is the editor and an author of “QDROs, EDROs & Division of Employee Benefits on Divorce, a Guide for Michigan Practitioners” (ICLE 2d ed).

Keppelman also annually updates the ICLE Michigan Family Law Benchbook chapter on the division of pensions and employee benefits in divorce.

While she enjoys the regulatory interpretation, Keppelman also finds it satisfying to help people save for retirement, and keep their money from the IRS with tax-deferred contributions to retirement plans.

Keppelman launched her career in the 1970s, not an easy time to be a female lawyer. 

“Not long before I went to law school, women who graduated from the top of their class at U-M were told they could be legal secretaries, or maybe they could do probate law, but they ‘weren’t suited’ for anything else,” she said.

Her role models were early pioneers like Judge Cornelia Kennedy; Michigan District Court Judge Margaret Shaeffer; Julia Darlow, first woman head of the State Bar of Michigan; and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg who successfully litigated a number of sex discrimination cases Keppelman studied in law school.

Keppelman was in a second round of pioneers — the first big wave of women attending law school. 

Her 1978 U-M Law School class was 28 percent women, the largest percentage ever.  

“I’m convinced that had I applied to law school when I graduated from undergrad in 1972, I wouldn’t have been accepted simply because I was a woman,” Keppelman said.

When it came time to interview for jobs, Keppelman was fortunate in that no interviewer asked whether she planned to start a family. 

“But I was prepared for that question,” she said. “And many law firms decided women were going to marry, so they didn’t need to be paid the same as men for the same
work.”

Attire was a big issue, she notes. Women wore suits with skirts and for a time, even wore bow ties with suits in the early ‘80s.  

“We were trying to ‘look like the guys’ so we would be treated equally,” Keppelman said.  

Some judges required women to wear skirts of certain lengths or refused to allow women to wear pantsuits in the courtroom, she added. 

“Men could pretty much look any way they wanted,” Keppelman said, “but women had to be attractive and well-groomed, but not dressed in a revealing way.”

Keppelman noted that — although this never happened to her — it was not uncommon for male attorneys to assume the woman with the file sitting in court was a secretary or file clerk, not opposing counsel.  

“That actually sometimes added up to an advantage when the male attorney was embarrassed by his gaffe,” she said.

It was also common, Keppelman said, for women in law firms not to have mentors who would advance their careers by giving them good assignments and client contacts.  

“Women who had children were viewed as ‘less serious’ and were shunted off the partnership track,” she said “This happened so much that many women left large firms and started their own law firms, or went in-house.”

When Keppelman started at a large Detroit law firm in 1982, the women associates occasionally went to lunch together, to support each other. When a male colleague complained that this discriminated against men, Keppelman told him, “The guys have meetings without women all the time. They’re called partners meetings.”

While overt discrimination has died down, Keppelman still sees women lawyers facing some implicit bias.  

“We can wear pantsuits to court now, and clients aren’t asking that they be served by a male attorney — some clients even ask for women to represent them. But there are still ‘old school’ men who view women as less able as the male attorneys,” she said. “Fortunately, I’m lucky enough to practice with men who appreciate the talents and hard work of women lawyers.”

When Keppelman became active in the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan (WLAM), it was to provide and get support from other women, and to share experiences in a largely male profession. 

“That’s still true today — but I also think that specialized bar associations give young attorneys, women and men, the opportunity to learn leadership roles and raise their profiles within the legal community,” she said. “This is very valuable as we advance in our professions.

“WLAM has given me this support and many opportunities,” Keppelman said.  “And many of my good friends are women I met at WLAM meetings. So I would highly recommend that all young attorneys try to fit bar activities into their busy schedules.” 

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