As the daughter of Steve Fleschner, it is often assumed I always planned to become a lawyer. That is not the case. Growing up, I had a great respect for my dad and his work ethic–he poured his heart and soul into his cases, and the work sparked joy for him. For some reason, though, “attorney” was not the profession I had in mind. I loved science, I loved to write, and I loved to investigate. I attended a small liberal arts college, and I majored in biology and minored in business. I tried my hand at all sorts of jobs in college, from interning with Greenpeace in Washington, DC to living in Idaho and working at a large resort to helping with accounting at a local business. As I look back, what stands out to me is my parents’ enthusiasm for me to do whatever it was that I wanted to do. As a child, and as I was finding my way as a young adult, neither of my parents spoke words that put limitations in mind. I can not tell you the number of times I was told, “Katie, you can do whatever you put your mind to,” and so, I believed it. They never pushed me in a direction I did not want to go; they encouraged me as I pursued my own interests and passions. Never once was I pressured to become a lawyer and work at the law firm. As one of four children, I never felt that my two brothers were treated differently than my sister and me. We were all taught to set goals, to visualize ourselves achieving those goals, and to put in the work to make it happen. I never felt like I’d been put in a box labeled “girl” and only given opportunities associated with that label. Instead, my parents saw me as all of my qualities. As I grew older and more aware, it became apparent how fortunate I was to have had that experience.
Nevertheless, when I graduated from college, I found myself uncertain of my career path. I asked my dad if there was a job available at the law firm, so I could work while I figured out my next step. He didn’t nag at me about using my college degree or shame me for not having a clear idea as to what I wanted to do. Initially, I was hired to work in an entirely different department than my dad, and I was hired to do something I’d never done before. I was hired as a brief writer for social security disability cases. I scoured clients’ medical records and wrote briefs for the judges to read. When I would complete a brief, the brief would be sent to a lawyer to review and give feedback. Despite my inexperience, I was treated with respect and kindness and was given the tools to improve my work. While most of the attorneys at the firm were men, most of the employees at the firm, completing a vast amount of the work—intake, client communication, case management, brief writing, appeal writing, scheduling, and more—were women. I had so much respect for my women co-workers, the amount of knowledge they possessed, their problem solving skills, and their readiness to take me under their wing. Many months later I told my supervisors I would be getting married and moving to another state. FSTN’s tech team set up a desktop computer with the applications I used for my work, and I was encouraged to take the computer with me and work remotely for the firm. Looking back, I see what a defining moment this was for me.
I moved to Michigan and worked many remote hours, sitting on my old green leather couch. During that year of working remotely, I began to feel connected with my cases. I checked the status of cases, months after I wrote the brief, to see if the client was granted social security disability. I became aware of the significance of my work and the impact it had on the lives of people I had never met. I decided to go to law school. This is another place in my story where I was met with encouragement and support. I was seen as capable; my ability to thrive in law school was never questioned. My husband, already in his second year of law school, responded with excitement for me finding something I wanted to pursue. My parents, again, met me with their steadfast support.
I began law school in the fall of 2011. Though I do not have the statistics in front of me, I recall showing up for orientation and being surprised by how well represented women were in my class. As my time passed in law school, I saw women take on various leadership roles, winning various contests, and securing highly-sought after internships. I was told on more than one occasion, by men and women practicing in the legal field, that women bring something different to the legal profession than men. This “something different’ was the ability to empathize and connect with clients, bringing another dimension to client representation that is important. Fortunately, in law school, my experience was that women’s unique qualities were seen as desired assets by hiring law firms.
My final year of law school, I went into labor early, the Friday before my last final exams. At the hospital, I turned law thoughts off in my brain and I focused on my baby. I now know this is a trick that many women attorneys use daily—attempting to keep work thoughts at work and allocating time specifically for family. It is a challenge, but necessary for balance. I returned to my apartment with a new, colicky baby, studied as any new, overwhelmed, exhausted mom would do, and I passed my finals! Those moments were my first moments of recognizing that being a mother added a whole new level of complexity to being a woman attorney. While challenges have popped up as a result of being a mother and an attorney, I am certain that my role as a mother has made me a better attorney. For one thing, I know love in a different way than I knew before. I understand my clients when they talk about the sadness and loss they feel when an injury keeps them from riding bikes with their kids or walking up the stairs to put their child to bed.
I recognize that my experience as a woman in the legal field is not the same as all women’s experiences. I have been fortunate to have many supportive, encouraging, and kind co-workers, professors, mentors, family members, and fellow attorneys beside me along the way. I do experience the occasional snub from men, and even women attorneys. For example, in the personal injury department, all three attorneys, two men attorneys and me, always have an appearance on file for each case. It is not uncommon for me to prepare a detailed mediation brief and send it to opposing counsel, and to have opposing counsel create a new email and send it to a male attorney in response to the brief, rather than responding to me. Another instance I experience this is when I send demands for a specific settlement amount to opposing counsel, requesting that opposing counsel contact me to discuss, and opposing counsel contacts a male attorney to discuss the case instead. To prevent this from happening, it is now standard procedure at our firm to forward the e-mail or phone call to me, so that I cannot be bypassed, when opposing counsel reaches out to a male attorney instead of responding to me. Again, this is another example of support in the workplace. My male counterparts recognize and respect my work and knowledge of cases and defer to me, while they subtly put opposing counsel in place by not personally responding. It is so important to be treated and respected as an equal when working on a team, and I am hopeful that more women attorneys are finding the same support in the workplace as I have at FSTN.
Fleschner, Stark, Tanoos & NewlinN/a
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