'Wow moments' common at teen center, says attorney


by Jo Mathis
Legal News

It’s 6 p.m., and attorney Tara Mahoney is busy in the kitchen.

Though she has a husband and toddler at home in Superior Township, Mahoney is also the new president of the Board of Directors at the Neutral Zone teen center in Ann Arbor. And tonight was the board’s turn to treat the teens to a potluck.

If Mahoney would rather be home with her own family at the end of a long working day, you wouldn’t know it by her perpetual smile and easy-going disposition.
In fact, she loves this place and its mission.

“No matter what room you’re in at the Neutral Zone, you can have a wow moment,” said Mahoney, a partner at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP in Detroit who specializes in labor and employment law.  “Adult or teen. And to me, that’s what makes this a unique place.”

Mahoney believes teen leadership and empowerment are the most impressive benefits of Neutral Zone, which is recognized across the country as a model for teen centers because of its teen leadership opportunities as well as its programs in visual arts, music, and more.

“Basically any teen can find something they’re interested in here,” said Mahoney, who graduated from Saline High School in 1998, the same year Neutral Zone was established. “And at a minimum, we have a drop-in program for teens who come in, do homework, hang out with each other in a safe space.”

Mahoney’s father, Perry Kantner, is a corporate lawyer in Ann Arbor.

“Growing up, I was always interested and intrigued by what he was doing, but at the same time, as he explained it to me more, I realized that the transactional side of things is not where I wanted to focus,” said Mahoney, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. “My dad despises going to court. But that’s what I enjoy, and decided to focus my career on.

“So he got me interested, but I’m 180 degrees from where he is.”

Practicing law is more rewarding than she expected, and her favorite part of her job is working with clients to come up with the best way to handle sticky situations with employees.

“Because I practice labor and employment law, I’m able to work with clients to devise strategies, procedures and practices to try to prevent litigation,” said Mahoney. “The advice and consultation aspect of my work is very rewarding and initially was a bit unexpected.”

Her cases have a story behind them, with real people and real life, she said.

 “I love the human aspect of it.”, she said. “General litigation is necessary, but to me, fighting over who’s obligated under a contract to pay to fix a $50,000 machine that  doesn’t operate correctly—while important work, is not exactly what I want to focus on.”

She loves going to trial, but finds herself doing it less these days.

“I think it’s just the nature of litigation right now,” she said. “I find there are fewer motions, and parties tend to work things out. When I was newer in my career, there were lots of motions to compel discovery, fights about protective orders and random small issues. Those seem to be things people now work out more frequently without getting the court involved.”

Mahoney lives on 13 acres in Superior Township with her husband, Dan, who is vice president of membership and development with the Small Business Association of Michigan; their 2-year-old daughter, Ryen; and a 120-pound Great Swiss Mountain dog, Attlee.

Attlee was named for Lord John Attlee, for whom Mahoney worked one summer during college while employed in Parliament’s House of Lords.

“When I was interviewing at law firms, that was the one thing I could guarantee every interviewer would ask about was my time in London at the House of Lords,” she said.

On good days the commute to Detroit is about 40 minutes. 

“I find I can use that time well in the morning – basically planning my day and priorities,” she said. “On the way home, however, 40 minutes seems quite long because I’m always anxious to get home and see the fam.”

Luckily, she’s been able to work out of Honigman’s Ann Arbor office one day a week, which cuts her commute in half.

It was at a community event in 2008 that Mahoney met Neutral Zone’s executive director, John Weiss, who was looking for additional members for its HR committee. It was a natural fit based on the work she does. That quickly led to becoming chair of the committee, and then she was invited onto the board in June of 2008.

“The interaction you get with the teens here is the coolest part about the experience of Neutral Zone,” she said.

When Ann Arbor attorney Bill Stapleton was wrapping up his term as president of the board, Mahoney was asked if she was interested in the post.

“We’re not aware of another board in the country where adults and teens serve together,” Mahoney said. “Half of our board is made up of teen members. That experience, for both the teens and the adults, is amazing. If I had had that opportunity as a teen, I would have loved that. To be engaged at that high level of an organization I think provides invaluable experience moving forward.”
“For the adults on the board, it’s just such a nice surprise to sit among 10 to 15 teenagers at least once a month and have them contribute as members of this board.”

“I just think it’s such a cool place and I wish it were here when I was a teen. Being part of this organization makes me proud of our community, that we support a place like this.”