Can women have it all? Join us as owner & founder of Markham Law Firm, Jessica Markham tells us the key ingredients to opening her own successful law practice & breaking through the ‘good old boy network’ to become one of the D.C. areas leading, female attorneys.
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Tracy: Hello. This is Tracy Merda with Speakeasy Marketing. I have a special guest today joining me. Attorney Jessica Markham of Markham Law group, a leading law firm in Maryland and Washington DC. Welcome Jessica. Thank you for joining me.
Jessica Markham: Thank you Tracy. Thanks for having me.
Tracy: I wanted to get. I’m kind of doing a series, if you will, on female attorneys and what it is like. What challenges you face, so I was just wondering. Tell me a little bit about your upbringing, what your early career goals looked like as a young girl, maybe as a teen and then when you entered college?
Jessica Markham: Okay. I really took kind of a circuitous path to being an attorney and sort of fell into family law. When I was growing up, I was just really a good reader and I didn’t think too much about exactly what I wanted to do and then in High School, I was really big into photography and I thought, for a while, I wanted to be a photographer and then I thought that an artist’s life was just a little too scary for me. I didn’t really want to be a starving artist or be travelling as a photojournalist, so I ended up just being an English major in college and I knew I didn’t want to do those, it was just too difficult for me. So, not knowing what I was going to do with my English degree I ended up going to Law school and then from that point on, I was never really sure exactly what I wanted to do with my Law degree but I went to a school that had a really big emphasis on litigation, University of Miami Law School and a lot really depends on good litigation experience so I ended up sort of falling into family law at that point.
Tracy: So that kind of sold you on it, huh?
Jessica Markham: Yeah.
Tracy: Jessica, did you ever have any apprehensions about going into law where primarily, it’s been always known as a male dominated field?
Jessica Markham: I think that where I am from which is Montgomery County, Maryland which is right outside Washington, DC, there were always a lot of examples for professional women. My mother wasn’t really super career focused but there obviously were lots of powerful women al around me so I never really considered the fact that it wouldn’t be completely natural and normal for me to go into law. I’m not sure but I think that Law school enrolment might be close to 50/50. Maybe you know better than I do but I do know that in this area, it seems to be quite a bit of family law attorneys that are women. At least for family law and where I practice, it’s not unusual to be a woman. What I will say is that most of the law firms seem to be owned by men or are mostly men as partners so I do things that are somewhat unique to have; a woman owning a law firm is more rare for sure.
Tracy: Tell me a little bit about that because obviously venturing out on your own, opening your own firm. That’s risky in any business. What made you decide to go ahead and do that versus maybe just joining a larger law firm?
Jessica Markham: That’s a great question. I was with another firm for 10 years and there was one other woman and 4 men. The composition of the team for 10 years but it was mostly men and then I obviously had a lot of meetings and cases and conferences and things of the kind with other law firms in the DC area. I remember one meeting in particular in 2014 where I accidentally showed up half an hour early. I actually got the time wrong. It was a pretty large local firm, one of those really fancy like marble hallways and all glass, very modern kind of layout. I was in the reading room for quite a long time and chatting with the receptionist who I’d been interacting with for like 10 years. She was a woman and you could see in all the conference rooms because they were all glass and I could see in six conference rooms, there were six meetings going on what appeared to be all weird and it was all older men and then in one room, I saw one woman and I actually commented to the receptionist. I said, Wow. A lot of men here and, Oh there’s one woman in the corner there. She said she is a big eyed secretary. That was the first time I really started to think about the fact that most of the firms all around me seem to be primarily male dominated in the leadership roles. I started to think about how cool it would be just to start my own firm and I really do think it’s important to have women in leadership roles even if you’re working privately. That was part of it. Another was that I was at one of the leading firms for 10 years and I was a partner there and so I started practicing when I was 24 and I didn’t really feel like there was any other place for me to go. I was there for so long that I just wanted the challenge of having my own law firm with no partners which is definitely less than a safety net but I saw it as a personal challenge. That was interesting to me.
Tracy: I love that. What did you see or notice at the beginning of your career or when you were starting out either with your new firm or is there anything that you found as a challenge as a woman or just in general in starting a new firm?
Jessica Markham: There are obviously a lot of challenges associated with starting your own firm. I would say, specifically as a woman, I’m married and I have a child and many of the people that I interact with, primarily men assumed that I was starting my own firm because I wanted to spend more time with my family and wanted a flexible schedule which is definitely sometimes a benefit and sometimes, it’s the opposite because I have left people too. You know, I don’t have partners to rely on if needed , but a lot of the men in particular assumed that I wanted to work less and that’s why I did it but in reality, it’s great that I don’t have anybody to report to but the buck stops with me and sometimes I don’t have flexibility. I think that it’s not true when a man starts their own firm, nobody assumes that they started their own firm because they want to work less. I’ve actually talked to other men about that as well and I talked to one male attorney in particular that he did step back from his job to take a primary parenting role so that his wife could take a more demanding job but nobody thought that it was why he made his move, so I thought that was interesting. In terms of just starting my own firm in general, what are the challenges? I mean, I think when you have a family and a job, you have to juggle all of these demands and there are several ones where I would be at my other firm and was preparing to start to open the doors of my firm and so I would be doing my date and taking care of all my clients during the day, taking care of my daughter in the evening and then from 9:00 to 4:00 am every night I was doing the work that I needed to do to open the doors of the Markham Law firm. That was definitely a challenge. It took time and I needed the support of my spouse and a supportive family that needed to help me pick up the slack. I think that if I hadn’t had those things it would’ve been more difficult and I have also spoken to other people that are interested in starting their own firm because a lot of people have asked me about my experiences. Basically weekly or every other week. People ask me. How you did it? They are asking for advice and I think it can be more difficult for people in a way that are unmarried because they feel like either everyone is very scared about starting their own business or worried about the income that they are going to have and at least I knew that we had one very stable income in the family even if I brought in nothing which thank goodness was never really the case but it was a comfort to know that we had one steady income in the family no matter what happened to my firm.
Tracy: When it comes to the courtroom and I’ve talked to other female attorneys who, some say, they feel no challenge or no sexism at all and then others are constantly bombarded by the old boys’ club kind of spiel both from judges and other attorneys. Do you ever get that sense when you are practicing in your areas?
Jessica Markham: Again I’m in a very progressive area where there are a lot of female attorneys. I don’t have to deal with any of the things that I’ve heard of in other places like the women have to wear tanks or things like that. I’ve heard of women kind of getting in trouble and their courtrooms don’t have women that wear pantyhose with their skirt suit. I don’t want to have to deal with things like that but I primarily do litigation and what goes along with that is a certain toughness in the courtroom and a certain toughness at negotiating and that’s what I’m saying. I think we are always looking for women to smile and be nice and if you don’t smile and be nice then that gives a really negative impression and it’s not always possible in this line of work to always be smiling and be nice. I mean I’m always courteous and professional and civil but I don’t always necessarily have a smile on my face. It’s not like the client is paying me for it so, I think we always have to, women have to be a little bit more concerned about being judged in that way whereas I don’t think men always do. I think a male attorney that is litigating a case, nobody is expecting him to be smiling all day long but somehow women have a double standard. The only other challenge, I think, as a woman litigating a case that I’ve had is when I was nursing and I had to stop every couple of hours to pump breast milk. That’s another thing that men don’t have to do, I try to just be totally forthcoming and not ashamed of it. It is what it is and I told many a male judge or male opposing counsel that I have to pump breast milk and it is what it is. Mostly that was just using up my time whereas men were probably going out and getting a bite to eat.
Tracy: Oh my goodness. As a mother, I can relate. What do you think are maybe some of the mistakes you’ve made early on in your career that you could warn others who are maybe just starting out?
Jessica Markham: That’s a great question. I don’t know how many times I’ve looked back with rose colored glasses. I can’t really think of any major mistakes per se. Let me put it this way, I would say, in the early years, I stressed quite a bit, more than I do now. When I was practicing as an associate, at least I had somebody else sort of checking my work and helping me along the way so you would think I would be more stressed and worried now but in early years I really lost a lot of sleep worrying about my cases. To some extent I think that’s healthy because some attorneys don’t understand the gravity of the fact that they have somebody’s livelihood and family in their hands and maybe they don’t take it seriously or don’t stress enough but my mentor told me early on and said it would take at least 5 years of litigating to feel like I knew what I was doing and at least 10 years to feel like I was good at it and that was completely true. So I think that in the first 5 years there were a lot of sleepless nights and worrying about mistakes that I could be making or things that I could do better and I probably spent a little too much energy worrying about that. In terms of career mistakes I think that I’m really fortunate to be in a good firm and I worked as hard as I could and I learned much continuing legal education as I could. I can’t really look back and say that there is anything that I would change but I think to some extent, when I saw myself or when I compared myself to my peers, when I first started out, I didn’t have children and I didn’t really have any obligations to anyone but myself, so I put in a lot of hours of work and I spent a lot of extra time educating myself that I didn’t have to do because I wanted to know as much as I could as quickly as I could. I didn’t feel like I’ve only been practicing for one year therefore I’m the dumbest lawyer in the courtroom. I wanted to eat up as much information as I could so I wasn’t clueless by comparison. Most of the attorneys that I interact with or interacted with on a daily basis are in their 50s or 60s so I just didn’t want to feel like the clueless one. I just went, I think above and beyond to try and educate myself. I took a few courses at the community college. I read every book that I got my hands on. I mean to this day, there is one book that I’ve read in probably 2007 and I had the time and I still recommend the book to people and people with respect to retirement accounts and things like that have been sort of known to be my specialty. People say, how do you know that? Where did you learn that? I go, I just bought the book and read it. It’s like no secret, it’s nothing that anybody else couldn’t have done. It wasn’t any kind of wizard, I can give you the same book and you can learn all of that stuff. I’ve seen a lot of people that didn’t seem bothered at all to get that book or take that extra class and I think that just by doing those easy things that anybody could do, I’ve really benefitted from those things.
Tracy: What are the biggest factors that have made you a successful attorney, female or not, and that has made your firm successful?
Jessica Markham: It’s interesting that when I started out, My husband has this background, he is an MBA and he has actually had some marketing and business background whereas I have no training on that. He asked me how is your firm going to be different from all the other firms? I realized that the Bar association in our local jurisdiction has over 500 attorneys that identify themselves as practicing family law and so I really thought about it a lot, how is my firm going to be different and one day, like I say, I really try to put a lot of emphasis on education. So, anybody that wants to go to any class, I’m more than willing to pay for that. I do trainings, everybody does trainings together. Every month we do webinars and get together in the conference room on the big screen and order pizza. We talk about it and try and make everything, I mean certainly, I don’t know everything about family law, so I always want to keep my education going and try and make sure that whenever I have an interesting case or interesting fact pattern or interesting legal issue, we try and talk about it with everybody and everybody kind of shares their issues with each other so we can all continue to learn. I think that we have a lot of experience and a lot of sophisticated family law issues that some other firms don’t, so we do get a lot of very tough cases, complex litigation and we get referrals from other attorneys that have very complex cases and they want somebody to aggressively represent them as we’ve encountered these kinds of legal issues before that isn’t going to charge $700 or $800 an hour. I think our prices are, they are not the lowest but they are also not the highest. We try and keep them fairly reasonable as compared to our level of education or experience and what we have to offer. I have some online reviews and I think that the common denominator is that all the clients feel that they are being taken care of and we actually care about their case. So that’s extremely important to me that all of us be extremely responsive towards our clients because they are going through unbelievably difficult times. So even if I can’t get back to somebody on the same day, I make sure somebody gets back to them or I was out sick yesterday and certainly made sure that my office contacted people that might be expecting to hear from me and let them know that they couldn’t hear from me yesterday, they are going to hear from me today. So I think it’s really important to give people that level of customer service and be responsive to their needs at what’s most likely a very difficult time in their lives.
Tracy: Are there any final words of wisdom that you might share with other attorneys specifically young women who are starting out or maybe already have a firm that they are just maybe not quite where they want to be?
Jessica Markham: I would say, I’ve read a lot of things that I find extremely interesting about male communication styles and female communication styles. I read this interesting article about and I’m probably going to misquote it in some way but something about men typically overestimate their level of knowledge or competency in an issue and women typically do the opposite. They rate themselves lower and they have sort of lower expectations from themselves. I think that there are a lot of women that might say I can’t do that whereas a similarly situated man might say I could do that and may give that a try. So I’m going to say, particularly to the women that if I can do it, you can do it. Anybody that I know that has started their own firm, I don’t know anybody that has regretted it. I mean certainly, it takes a level of planning and you have to not be rehearsed or at risk, I would say, but don’t doubt your aptitude and be willing to take a risk. There are lots of different tips I would give if you are starting a firm. If you want to work for yourself, obviously do your best in the beginning, keep your expenses low and save money where you can. I think a good website is really important and at the end of the day, you still have to believe in yourself and put yourself out there and be willing to take a risk in all those things but I think that it’s worth doing. It’s very rewarding.
Tracy: We want to give a special thanks to you Jessica. Jessica Markham here of the leading law firm in Maryland and in Washington SDC. Jessica if someone would like to reach out to you for more information or possibly with their legal matters, what is the best way to do so?
Jessica Markham: I would encourage them to check out our website. It’s Markhamlegal.com and we have all our information on there. We also have a blog that we update regularly. All our contact information, our twitter and anybody can find me that way.
Tracy: Awesome. I really appreciate your time today. It was some great information and insight for young female attorneys or any attorneys out there who are looking to get out there and start their own firms. Thank you so much Jessica, I appreciate it. Have a good one.
Jessica Markham: My pleasure. Thank you Tracy.
Jessica Markham: Bye
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