How Denver’s women attorneys are standing strong for their clients

By Your Side. How Denver’s women attorneys are standing strong for their clients and the justice they believe in. Let’s face it – if you need a lawyer you most likely have a problem. And while the situation is rarely is positive, it is encouraging to know that your lawyer doesn’t see you, or the situation, as a problem at all. Four of Denver’s top lawyers shared with us the secrets to their success, and none of them think of the cases they handle as crises; instead they see the opportunity to use their knowledge and power as means to a better outcome, and in doing so ultimately improve the lives of their clients. These women not only change lives by offering positive solutions, but they have also changed the game in the process, rethinking how business is done and relationships are handled.

Kim Willoughby
Willoughby & Eckelberry

When a career in philosophy didn’t seem realistic, Kim Willoughby embraced the law. She combined her love for theory and human interest with a lawyer’s ability to create change, and today reaches out to serve new and underrepresented communities. Willoughby began her law career in 1994 at a small Denver satellite office for a larger Minnesota firm. Less than two years into her first job the company closed, and she recalls legal opportunities at the time being very competitive. “I figured I had already been in one firm that went under, and if that was the worst that could happen I could do that all by myself,” she says. So at 26 years old she rented a small office in an old Victorian house with other solo lawyers and opened Willoughby Law Firm with just a few clients. “I started out with a phone, laptop, pen and printer, and I think I was renting the desk,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I also didn’t know the pitfalls. One of my biggest hurdles was looking, and frankly being, too young,” says the petite mother of two, who could still pass for a law student today. But she was aggressive about growing her business and took cases in every kind of law possible – criminal, juvenile, employment, franchise, family, etc. One area she found particularly intriguing and untapped was Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender family law. (Though you could not call it that then, she says; it was referred to as GLBT “issues.”)

“It wasn’t what was paying bills, but was very interesting,” Willoughby says. And because it was such a new area it incorporated constitutional law, the “holy grail” for lawyers Willoughby explains. These cases allowed her to combine her theoretical interests with her talent for law. In 2003 she wrote Ordinary Issues – Extraordinary Solutions: A Legal Guide for the Colorado GLBT Community, the first of its kind. Today her family law practice is devoted mostly to divorce cases, but she is constantly involved in non-traditional family law such as non-married, transgender, and grandparent and stepparent rights. Currently she is involved with cutting edge issues related to surrogacy. “The law is a really neat look at humanity,” Willoughby says. “I love airports because you see so many people, but a courthouse is even better because everyone is stressed. Personalities come out even more.” Willoughby spent ten years building her practice before she and her husband had kids, a choice she says made the transition to maternity leave easier since her firm had credibility. She has been part-time since her first child was born in 2003, and after her second child was born she decided to expand the firm to allow for her reduced schedule and joined with John Eckelberry.

“I’m really picky about my clients so I don’t find people that make me crazy,” she says. “I like to be interested in the people I am working for. If there isn’t a good bond or trust it doesn’t work,” she explains. Having a strong working relationship is particularly important for divorce clients, and she brings a unique perspective to these cases. “People need to work harder in their divorces,” Willoughby says. “It is disservice to let them hide behind a lawyer. I give people the tools to go forward without me and they should get to a point where they don’t need me. If you don’t do enough work during your divorce you are always going to be fighting.” Willoughby thrives on sharing her continuously growing knowledge about family and non-traditional family law, and she guest teaches law classes, writes an ongoing column in a local magazine, and hopes to publish her second book in the near future.

Leslie Kaye
Hutchins & Associates

Leslie Kaye’s ambition to become a lawyer rose from her desire to be an independent and professional woman. Amid a rowdy San Francisco scene in 1969 the Denver native took the LSAT on a whim, and was the only female law student at DU her first year. But her legal potential was first untapped while studying for the bar exam in New York City. She and a girlfriend had stopped for a drink at the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue, notorious at the time for a mysterious unsolved burglary. “We sat down at the bar, and sat, and sat, and sat, and no one helped us,” Kaye remembers. When she finally brought the lack of service to the manager’s attention, he frankly told her, “We do not serve women unescorted by men at the bar.” “You’ve got to be kidding! That’s illegal!” was Kaye’s reaction, but nonetheless she and her friend were asked to leave, the hotel claiming the enforcement kept prostitutes out. Whereas women before her might have simply turned around and left, not knowing their rights, Kaye refused to accept this treatment. She and her friend sued the hotel for discrimination and won. “It was my first brush with ‘I don’t have to put up with this,’” Kaye says. “Little by little, every woman has had a role in knocking down barriers. Women have more doors open for them today because of these small feats.” A year later Kaye secured one of only 13 female district attorney jobs in New York City alongside hundreds of men, and was assigned strictly to criminal prosecution. It was a job she likens to the marines, but one that she credits for shaping her success and skill. “The obligations of being a public servant with huge responsibilities to society, the overwhelming caseload, the pervasiveness of New York City politics, the long hard hours, the misery I observed in so many defendants, the bureaucracy of the office itself, the skill set required to actually prosecute a case and present to a grand jury – this is what actually turned me into an attorney,” Kaye explains. “And, of course, toughened me.” After seven years and a promotion to special narcotics prosecutor, Kaye left public practice for a private law firm and specialized in product liability defense. After three years of dealing with less-than-admirable managing partners, Kaye quit and made a promise to herself to never be anyone’s employee ever again and to always be in charge of her own destiny. Months later she opened Leslie Lynne Block & Associates, and her boyfriend at the time bought her a typewriter.

“It was a little slow going for a few weeks,” she recalls. “Then, every single client I had at the last firm came over to me. I was home free. It saved my life in many ways,” she says. For the next five years Kaye continued to build her practice and never worked under 70 hours a week, she says. “There were no role models for women to work and have kids back then,” she says. “Most women of my vintage didn’t figure it out. I think that has changed now. I see young women who have it all. I’m sure it’s still very difficult, but the world has shifted to it.” Kaye and her husband, Dick Kaye, had a long distance romance between New York City and Denver for five years before she closed her New York office and gave away all of her clients. They moved to Arizona and then returned Denver, where she quickly joined a prominent Denver litigation firm. Kaye’s current legal expertise in probate litigation came from the unexpected appointment of Personal Representative (formerly called an executor) for her husband’s estate after he passed away in 1999. It took her two years to sort through the assets, and the work was so intense that she first cut back to part-time, and eventually quit her job to deal with the estate.

She became an expert in probate law from the client’s point of view, and in 2005 was asked to use her expertise at Hutchins & Associates, where she is currently the only probate litigator in the estate planning firm. “This position suits me well, but it certainly is a position that requires the broad legal and life experience that I happen to have,” Kaye says. “Somehow, all of the past experience has vectored into my present work and leaves me confident of my abilities to serve our clients.” Regardless of the area of law or the particular case, Kaye says the most enjoyable part of her law career is having clients appreciate her hard work. “When you use your 35 years of experience, your intelligence and your instinct, and you do a great job, the reward is that your client has been served and is happy with your work. That is the only really great reason for being a lawyer,” she says. An avid art collector and theater patron, Kaye made a large contribution to the Denver Center for Performing Arts three years ago that now allows any college student to attend any play, any time, for just $10 a ticket. The only restriction is that seats have to be unfilled an hour before the performance, “but there are always seats available!” says Kaye. She hopes her donation, in memory of her late husband, will allow the next generation of lawyers, doctors or whatever students aspire to be, to enjoy an art form they previously had limited access to.

Mary Ewing
Ewing and Ewing

Mary Ewing doesn’t see her clients on their best days. A call to her usually means someone has reached crisis point and needs her help. But with every problem comes a solution, and Ewing says that is the most rewarding part of her job. “My clients come to me with particular matters that needs to be resolved,” she says. “They need a lawyer to help them navigate toward a resolution, and it’s rewarding to be able to help people. It could be years to resolution, but resolution always comes.”

“I wish I heard more from old clients just to share a cup of coffee,” she says, “but the reality is I always hear from them when there’s a crisis.” Ewing, partner of Ewing and Ewing, which she shares with her husband, specializes in personal injury, employment, workers compensation and divorce litigation. She is in court at least three times a week, and says that trails are different than what has been popularized on TV court dramas. “What is not apparent are the hours spent preparing for that moment in the court room,” she says, comparing it to studying hard and taking a test. “The worthiness of your preparation is on the line.” In addition to being well prepared, a good lawyer also has to respond quickly on his or her feet to issues that arise during the trial. “When cross examinations are going quickly, you’re mentally very highly charged. At other times it may be more important to be more thoughtful, more clear, as you may be explaining a technical matter to someone who doesn’t have that technical expertise. Maintaining your audience (a judge or a jury) and making sure they understand is the most important part. That is how you are able to persuade them in the direction of your client’s best interest,” she explains. “It’s exciting because the issues, while similar, are always different for each individual,” says Ewing, who has been practicing law for over 30 years.

When preparing for trial in her Englewood office, Ewing can bounce ideas off someone most female lawyers can’t – her husband, Craig Ewing. When they met they had similar career paths in trial work with an emphasis in personal injury, but early in their careers Craig took the track of working for large firms while Mary went to a small firm and quickly became partner. “Eventually we decided we could offer a greater service for our clients by combining our time, talent and expertise,” Ewing explains. They opened Ewing and Ewing in 1995 after 14 years of marriage. They have separate clients but often confer on legal issues and refer to each other’s area of expertise, such as Craig for medical appeals and Mary for divorces. “We’re not like two tailors sitting side-by-side at a desk,” she explains. “We’re more often coming and going, and talking by cell phone more than face to face.” Maintaining professional and personal commitments is always challenging, Ewing says, regardless if you work with your spouse or are raising kids at home. “As a mom, all working women worry if they are doing the right thing in pursuing a career which takes time away from their kids,” she says. “Children don’t get sick on schedule.”

Having a strong support system and relationships she could depend on when needed were what helped her balance both sides when raising her son, who is now completing his MBA. “The law has been very good to me,” she says. “I entered when there were virtually no woman trial attorneys. Over the course of time women have extensively entered the field of law and we see many trial attorneys, judges and law professionals. “Law firms, as with any employer, want a well educated and hard working employee. If you are that, regardless if you are male or female, you have the opportunity to succeed.”

Caroline Fuller
Fairfield and Woods

Caroline Fuller specializes in financially troubled company issues, including bankruptcies, out-of-court work-outs, and receivership proceedings. Phrases like “bankruptcy” and “financially troubled companies” have been lurking all over headlines recently and many people associate them with lost jobs and a fledgling economy. But for Fuller, partner at Fairfield and Woods, bankruptcy is a positive means to restructuring and possibly saving businesses. “When you have a viable business and everyone is invested in saving it, it is fun,” she says. “If you can save a business and save jobs it can be very rewarding.” Fuller often never sees the courtroom. “A good bankruptcy case is when you negotiate and plan outside the judicial setting and everyone is more or less on board. The preference is always to stay out of bankruptcy, as it can be very public and costly,” she explains. “That is the dream world and it doesn’t always play out that way,” she admits. “One of the most challenging parts of my job is that business owners don’t recognize that they are in trouble soon enough.” Fuller, who has been practicing for 28 years, feels that the law found her. She chose law school because it sounded the most interesting of all graduate options, and one of her first clerkships was for a bankruptcy judge. She joined Fairfield and Woods in 1986, and making partner seven years later seemed to come naturally for her. “At the end of the day you are an owner, and you share in good days and bad days. Ultimately you are part of the success of the company,” Fuller says. “I’m fortunate to work in a firm where we really like and respect each other.”

During her nearly thirty years at Fairfield and Woods she has rode the bus from Boulder to her downtown office almost every day. “I love letting someone else do the driving while I check email, or do whatever I want to do. I’d have to find a new job if someone made me drive into Denver every day,” she laughs. Fuller believes the key to enjoying a law career is to find the area of practice that suits your personality. “If you are a financial whiz, specialize in tax or business transactions,” she suggests. “If you like the more public arena maybe go into litigation. Some people find it terrifying and some people thrive on it. “One of the reasons why I like my area is because every case is different and involves a new industry, whether it’s oil or retail. I learn a whole new field of business. The dynamic is always different,” she says. She acknowledges that her area of expertise is drawing more public attention recently. “Financially troubled companies are in the news a lot these days,” she says. “The scope of the current economic recession and the government bailout efforts are unprecedented.

“One of the outcomes is a renewed focus on the bankruptcy laws, including amendments made in 2005 when the economy was booming, to consider their impact in a recessionary time. Those of us actively engaged in turnaround efforts, whether in or out of bankruptcy court, have to remain informed on the evolution of these laws, as changes affect how we approach each case.”

By Colbert Callen

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