'A pit bull in heels'

Lawyer rebrands her firm, website to reflect personality

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Annette Benson is brutally honest; she’s not afraid to call out her own clients.

“It’s all about taking ownership,” explained Benson, 45, the head of Annette Benson Law in Bingham Farms. “It’s all about facing reality. I don’t tell them what they want to hear; I tell them the truth. I don’t believe in [telling them what they want to hear]. I tell them, ‘Here’s the reality: This is the best case scenario and this is the worst case scenario. Let’s make some decisions. You’ll get reality – ready or not – that’s why you’re here. We’re not in a land of denial. This is real.’”   

Benson’s reputation for being aggressive in the courtroom earned her the moniker “a pit bull in heels” – something she takes as a compliment. She joked that while she’s “five-foot nothing” in her stocking feet, she can give with the best of them. The heels give her an extra five inches, so she can be seen as well as heard.

“Everyone comments on my shoes,” said Benson, who even went to court once when she was severely ill, wearing her pajamas, robe, and slippers. After meeting privately with the judge – who, she said, didn’t bat an eye at her attire – she went to the hospital.

“I am completely comfortable bucking the status quo and forging my own path,” said Benson, who lives in West Bloomfield with her husband and two children. “Nothing intimidates me.”

The daughter of European immigrants, Benson graduated from Andover High School (now Bloomfield Hills High School) in 1987. From there, she earned her undergraduate degree in social sciences from Michigan State University in 1991 and her juris doctor from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 1993. She’s been a practicing attorney for 21 years.

“I knew at a young age that was what I wanted to do, probably because both my parents were immigrants. Growing up and hearing the traumas they experienced and the sacrifices they made to get here – the United States is the land of opportunity – that inspired me the most to be whatever I wanted to be and to help people find their voice,” recalled Benson.

She chose to go into family law after seeing Seymour Markowitz, a practicing attorney in Bingham Farms, interact with a judge during her first year of law school.

“He was different from what I’d seen of lawyers. He said what he wanted to say. He wasn’t your typical suit, he wasn’t robotic. He was animated and passionate; he was his own person, which was inspiring for me to be me and not play a role,” said Benson. “What I like about family law is you’re dealing with people, interacting with people, and you see an impact. I didn’t want to be a paper-pusher; I’m definitely a people-person. Being able to see change and make the change was very rewarding right away.”

Benson began her law career working for the American Divorce Association for Men (ADAM) for four years, then spent one year at the law firm Adkison, Need & Allen in Bloomfield Hills before taking time off to be with her two children, now 17 and 15.

“I learned a valuable lesson: Being a stay-at-home parent is the hardest job in the world,” said Benson. “That lasted less than two years. I missed my career.”

In 2000, she founded Annette J. Benson and Associates.

“I work for myself because I always wanted the ability to be selective about whom I worked with in terms of staff and in terms of clients. I really have to feel connected to the client and I have to feel the passion. In my experience in the short time I’ve worked for other firms, I didn’t have that luxury,” she said. “I’ve always stayed true to myself. What I learned from Seymour is be your own person; it’s okay to stand out and do things differently because there are people who want you for that reason. Through the years, I’ve stayed true to that.”

Late last year, she rebranded her firm and her website. Annette J. Benson and Associates became Annette Benson Law. She employs four people: associate attorney Amy Byer, associate attorney Alicia Champine, office manager Colleen Williams, and bookkeeper Shellye Dade.

Unlike more traditional legal websites, Benson’s is campy and unconventional, highlighting her personality. The home-page features a black and white photo of Benson, clad in a dress, holding a briefcase and personalized boxing gloves with line drawings of identical, non-descript suits in the background.

“Why not state what I’ve always been and be more comfortable doing it? So I redesigned my website; it’s very different from other lawyers’ websites. That is me – it’s who we are, you got to laugh a little bit. I wanted to take that comfort level and make it global. It’s all-encompassing. I didn’t change who we are, but let more people know who we are. It totally fits my personality,” explained Benson.  

According to Benson, she focuses her attention on the personalities of the people involved because how certain personalities interact is the reason the relationship got to the point where divorce is imminent.

“Other attorneys don’t look at, nor pay attention to personalities, how to package information, how to get things done, and understand the personalities of the people involved. There are times when I take a direct, assertive approach and times when I take a different approach… I may approach it so (my clients) can reach a conclusion on their own… I use different approaches to get to the same bottom lines. Who’s your audience? What’s their mental state? Their ego? A lot of attorneys are intimidated to go to court or trial. I am not,” said Benson.

The most frustrating aspect of her job is when clients don’t recognize their own power.

“It’s okay in the beginning to come in with blame, anger, all those emotions – we get that – but when there’s enough time to deal with those emotions and the client doesn’t own the power they have and still feel like they’re victims, that’s the hardest part,” she said. “I haven’t done my job if they feel they’re the victim. Whether they recognize that component is up to them. To me, it’s so critical because once you’re divorced, you have to reinvent yourself and go in a new direction. To me, confidence is the key.”

While Benson believes family law is one of the hardest areas of law to practice because of the raw emotions her clients are experiencing during their divorce proceedings, it is also the most rewarding to her.

“I have the same passion that I did when I started,” said Benson. “That’s pretty rare, especially in family law. It’s easy to get burned out, depressed, easy to focus on the negative in people, including lawyers and judges. I’m good at staying positive and helping people find their voice and new beginnings. To help them reinvent themselves. You always have the opportunity to be anything you want to be.”

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