Ellen C. Brotman is a member of Griesing Law, LLC and chair of the firm’s White Collar Crime and Government Investigation Group. She concentrates her practice on government investigations and white collar criminal defense and representation of attorneys before the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Ellen has defended a wide variety of criminal cases, including political and public corruption, corporate securities fraud, tax fraud, money laundering, currency structuring and other white collar crimes involving complex trial, sentencing and appellate issues. She is a Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional (CCEP), having received certification from the Society of Corporate Compliance & Ethics (SCCE) Academy in September 2010.
You have been extremely successful, holding positions at prominent law firms and as a partner/member of smaller, more entrepreneurial firms. What are the key attributes you have identified to adapting and succeeding in any environment?
When I was a pretty young lawyer, I had an opportunity to get to know a group of lawyers who worked together and were all recovering addicts. They “walked the walk” and taught me so many life lessons that I try to apply to my work every day: focus on what’s in your control, not what’s outside of it, do the next right thing, take it one day at a time, humility and gratitude beat ego and envy every time. These lessons showed me the big picture at a young age, and have helped me be a positive contributor and team player. No matter how big or small your law firm is, it’s a team and you have to show up for your team every day.
What career advice would you give to a young attorney who is just beginning to build her practice and book of business?
Everyone says this because it’s true: business development is about relationship building. Stay connected to your friends from college and law school, because they will be your peers throughout your career. As time goes by, you’ll find multiple opportunities to help each other. This kind of networking will grow your business organically as your friendships and network of contacts grow. Also, thinking of yourself as a rainmaker is the first step to being one – don’t be limited by your own anxiety about whether you can bring in business – just know that you can! I learned that late in my career and had a lot of catching up to do as a result.
What was the best advice that you were given when you first started out?
The best advice I got was to apply for a judicial clerkship. That credential opened a lot of doors.
How do the size and culture of the firm with which you are affiliated affect your decisions concerning personal branding?
We are a small firm and each of us is encouraged to develop our own brands, consistent with the firm brand of excellence, efficiency and effectiveness. Our culture is extremely collaborative and entrepreneurial, and it creates an environment where we can take risks and not be afraid if they don’t pay off – we just try something else, but we never quit!
How have your marketing efforts otherwise evolved over the course of your almost 30-year career?
In the past years, I’ve been working at developing a national referral network, rather than just a local or regional network. I’ve been on the board of a national criminal defense association and have been more active in national bar associations, like the American Bar Association and the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, since ethics and representing professionals is about a third of my practice. I’ve also started to use technology – I’m on Twitter and you can follow me at @EllenBrotman! Also, I’ve just started guest blogging for my friend and fellow criminal defense attorney, Susan Bozorgi of Marrero Bozorgi in Miami; she has a great blog called Women Criminal Defense Attorneys. I’m also a co-founder of the listserv for the Women’s White Collar Defense Association and I’m very excited about the listserv as a source of referrals for all its members.
Tell me how you got your first client, and how you felt when you landed that person/entity.
Because most of my white collar criminal defense representations are individuals who are involved in grand jury investigations, my referrals largely come from other counsel. But the very first case I was referred when I was a young lawyer came through a counsel who I had opposed in a very hotly contested litigation, and that was very gratifying. That referral helped my confidence enormously because I knew that someone who had been in the trenches with me respected and admired my work.
When we first met, you explained that a certain comradery exists among white collar criminal defense practitioners. How do you leverage those relationships for referrals and to better serve existing clients?
Criminal defense lawyers are really good sharers, and almost all of them belong to active listservs or associations. We share information about local practices and people, referrals and give each other advice. The Women’s White Collar listserv is brand new but is already shaping up to be a great community space for sharing work, learning about each other as lawyers and generally supporting each other as women in a predominantly male field.
I recently heard you speak about volunteerism, and you indicated that your dad inspired you to “fight for the little guy” by exposing you to classic labor songs at an early age. How did that experience influence your decision to practice in the areas of white collar criminal defense and defense of professionals in front of licensing boards?
My dad taught me to question authority and care about the underdog. He introduced me to the concept of social justice at a very early age through the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and other great folk singers of the sixties. I didn’t know what kind of lawyer I wanted to be when I started law school but I knew I wanted to do that vague thing called “helping people.” In my career now, the clients who come to me are at a very difficult time of their lives and sometimes in very deep trouble. Having the skills, knowledge and creativity to help them to a safe landing is eternally and deeply satisfying.
What obstacles did you overcome to build your practice? How did you overcome them?
My path to white collar defense hasn’t been traditional in that I’m not a former AUSA or government lawyer, but an assistant federal defender. As I’ve gained in experience and reputation, I’ve been able to overcome that and convince potential clients that the experience I’ve gained being on this side of the aisle for all these years is just as, and maybe more, valuable than traditional government experience. I also built up my practice more slowly because I took some time off to have children and worked part time for many years. I wouldn’t say this was an obstacle, (my children wouldn’t like to be described that way I’m sure!) but I did make a thoughtful and considered choice to progress more slowly. During those years I served on the board of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and worked in a small boutique firm and that kept my career growing, albeit more slowly.
What techniques do you use to gear up for a busy day or keep calm in the midst of steady demands on your time made by clients, opposing counsel, the court, and the media?
I try to clean my desk at the end of the day and do my “must do” list for the next day every night – though I sometimes do run out the door before I get to it. Also, about two years ago, I got a standing desk in my office and I stand for most of the day. I’ve noticed that standing helps me work off my nervous energy and I find it easier to stay focused.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Several years ago, I was appointed by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to represent a young woman convicted of money laundering charges; I was convinced of her innocence. The court reversed her conviction on the basis of insufficiency of the evidence. I got the opinion at 9:00 in the morning on a Friday and by 3:00 that afternoon she walked out of the prison. I’ve had my share of victories over the years, but the moment my client called me from “outside” was possibly the sweetest and proudest moment of my career.
About the Author
Elizabeth A. Livingston is a senior associate of Griesing Law, LLC, where she represents a wide range of clients from public and privately-held corporations to government entities to small businesses and non-profit organizations. You can reach Elizabeth at 215.501.7845 or firstname.lastname@example.org.