In the late summer of 2010, we began talking about joining forces to start a law firm. We were both solo practitioners in the same office space. Our practices started to overlap, with referrals back and forth between family law and criminal defense cases. We envisioned a partnership based on our common interest in helping clients reach their goals and providing care in a difficult time. While we were both young, we weren’t brand-new lawyers. We knew this endeavor would be tough, but we were excited. This excitement carried us and gave us energy to persevere when things got tough. Never did we imagine the hurdles we would have to overcome to bring our vision to reality.
We didn’t have a handbook on how to start a small family law and criminal defense law firm. We sure didn’t learn many of the practical skills we would need to start a business in law school. Even so, we were not dismayed. We were ready to take on the challenge and learn from our (not many, we hoped) mistakes along the way. During the process, though, we couldn’t help but feel we weren’t taken seriously as young women.
The first major hurdle we knew we had to tackle was securing capital to fund the firm. We both had been in business for a handful of years and had paying clients that we would bring into the new firm. We quickly learned that a business without any equity is not worth anything to a lender. We were extremely lucky that we had a developed a relationship with the vice president of a major bank through a networking group. He was willing to loan us the capital we needed to start the firm. Given that we had no business assets to secure the loan, we were required to personally guarantee the loan and our husbands had to co-sign all the loan documents.
The next major hurdle was finding and setting up the office space we would need. We had no experience in this area and didn’t realize how helpful a commercial real estate agent would have been. So, not knowing any better, we contacted several leasing companies to look at spaces and negotiated a lease ourselves. This is where we saw the most blatant judgment against us because we were young women. We were asked, “Who are the lawyers you are setting up office space for?” We heard, “It’s so nice of you to set up an office for your dads.” Talk about not knowing your audience!
Finally, we narrowed our search to a particular space and had a meeting with a leasing agent to talk through specifics. During the entire meeting, we felt we weren’t listened to. Still, after the meeting, we were ready to move forward and asked to review a proposed lease. It was crickets after that. We reached out and again requested to review a lease. We either weren’t called back or we would hear, “It’s on the way.” We never did see a proposed lease from them.
We moved on and found our current office space. The difference in the way we were treated was shocking. We were listened to, and coincidentally, we just learned that the president of the management company for our building specifically wanted to take a chance on us as young, female attorneys, and he wanted to see us succeed. Too bad for the first leasing company; they missed out on seven years of our rental income.
Another example of not being taken seriously as young women occurred when we were shopping for carpet for the new office. Commercial carpeting is not really that exciting, but to us, all choices we were making for the new office were important. We went to a showroom and looked at samples. Only one salesman was in the store and he was talking with other customers when we arrived. He asked us how much carpet we needed and what our budget was. His reaction was obvious: we weren’t important enough for his time. We looked at samples while he continued to talk with the other customers. We ended up looking at samples for over an hour with no further help from him. So we left. We figured we’d have to get carpet somewhere else.
Throughout the process of starting our firm, we noticed that we weren’t working with other women. This was not intentional on our part, it just happened that all the people we were referred to or had previously networked with were men. Since starting the firm, we have become more intentional about seeking out women to partner with on professional projects. Going forward, our goal is to support other women professionally and be ones taking chances on other women.
We know that the practice of law is male-dominated, although women are becoming more prominent, not only attending law school in higher numbers but also becoming partners in major firms. Thankfully, now when we’re in a room meeting new people and we’re asked, “What do you do?” the surprised reactions when we say, “I’m a lawyer,” are dwindling, but we still have some headway to make. Projecting confidence is an important trait for any business owner, but particularly for women seeking to be taken seriously in a male-dominated profession. Our journey was not always easy, but we continued to march on and didn’t quit until we found the right partners to help us get off the ground.
About the Authors
Susan Reff and Tracy Hightower-Henne are the founding partners of Hightower Reff, a law firm in Omaha, Nebraska focused on family law and criminal defense matters. Contact them on Twitter @HRLawOmaha.