Although I’ve always loved what I do, I came to the realization in my early 30s that I didn’t necessarily “love” my life. I was working A LOT and was on the quintessential road to success—great job right out of law school, partner at the age of 28; my career was right on track, but something was missing.
That’s when the “inner work” began. I did some serious soul searching to find something that would ignite a fire to sustain me for the next 30 years. I remembered one of the happiest times in my life: working with gorillas and chimpanzees as a teenager. My journey started with a volunteer trip to Africa, which led to my involvement in several primate-related nonprofits, and ultimately to co-founding a 501c3 nonprofit organization with my husband. Our charity provides educational funding for children of wildlife sanctuary workers in Africa.
During that time, I stayed on course with my career.
My passion for helping others intersected with my career in a way that I never would have imagined. When a chef at one of my client’s restaurants was diagnosed with stage IV gallbladder cancer, the owners came to me (because of my nonprofit background) and asked for advice on how to help raise money for their friend. After several discussions, we decided to think a lot bigger and started The Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit that would benefit not just their chef, but any member of the restaurant industry facing unanticipated hardship.
It’s been a lot of work, and long hours, but it’s also been an incredibly fulfilling way to work side by side with folks who were once just clients, but have now become tremendous friends fighting for the greater good.
On Getting People to Know Who You Are and What You Can Do
I love being in court and I love arguing a case to a jury. I live to make arguments to judges. I have no problem asserting myself in mediation. However, put me in a networking event, and I’m the one standing in the corner.
Some of the best advice I ever received came from my first mentor, Ben Weinberg. He said, “Don’t try to be something you’re not, focus on what you’re good at and the rest will come.”
I realized that my strength is in public speaking. I started giving seminars on topics that were important to my clients, and as a result, I have gained a reputation for not only being knowledgeable on the topics, but also providing added value for my clients.
On Knowing when and how to Make Your Next Leap
I was recruited by Taylor English in 2006 to help grow its hospitality practice and add breadth as a senior female litigator.
I had been successfully running a consulting company and my own firm for a little over seven years (along with my husband who left his career as an architect to help me with alcohol licensing work), and it was intimidating to think about leaving the autonomy of our own business.
I first joined the firm as “of counsel” while maintaining my own practice. Over the next six months, I was able to witness tremendous examples of integrity within the leadership of the firm. I also came to see that it was a group of extraordinarily talented attorneys driven by a desire to truly work more effectively and efficiently with clients.
The firm’s targeted growth plan to expand in the areas most needed by clients, and the firm’s ability to recruit the best attorneys in those fields would open the door for me to be able to provide my clients with a much broader range of services than I could as a small firm.
Once I realized that the integrity and focus on the client’s best interests were truly at the core of the leadership, I knew it was a place I’d want to be for the rest of my career. The most valuable talent asset I gained along the way was the understanding of what it takes to run a business. This has proven to be a tremendous asset as a partner in the firm.
I also learned from running a small firm how to quickly clear a jam in almost any copier, which comes in handy when one of my partners is in a bind and we don’t have time to wait for the service guy.
On Finding Success and Staying Competitive
The ability to see the big picture and analyze situations objectively; the willingness to go the extra mile while maintaining efficiency; the confidence to stand your ground when necessary; and the conviction to do all things with integrity.
On the Importance of Role Models and Mentors
A chemical engineer with a brilliant analytical mind, my dad taught me to think through all options. More important, he taught me to always do “the right thing.” Follow that rule, and you’ll always be able to stand up for every decision your make.
On Facing Challenges
Starting my own law firm was my biggest challenge. When I was 31, I volunteered in Africa for three weeks, and it changed my perspective on life. I came back and started my own firm, so I could dedicate a portion of the proceeds to helping others. The first couple of years were tough, but it gave me the freedom to make a difference in other people’s lives.
Michele’s Advice to Young Women Starting Careers
Work hard, be prepared, and always do what’s in your client’s best interest. Don’t fixate on a societal stereotype of success. You can be great at what you do, while living a fulfilled life. As our careers start to soar, it’s easy to let things get off-kilter; but feeling good about your personal life actually enhances your ability to do your job.