When Opportunity Knocked ...
... Michelle Martin always answered
Published in 2021 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine on December 11, 2020
Running a solo law practice, being a single mom and teaching yoga on the side, Michelle Martin balances it all with a low-key charm that might make you think it all came easily.
It didn’t. “A compilation of a lot of things helped me get to where I am today,” says the 37-year-old Columbus personal injury attorney. “First, my faith in God.” Martin also credits her parents and grandparents for emphasizing education, hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit. Finally, there are friends, colleagues and community. “It is the acceptance, love and support I always get from my ‘village’ that has helped me set and achieve my goals.”
Born to teenage parents, Martin was raised by a single mom, and they lived with Martin’s grandparents for her first few years. Looking back, she sees that things could have gone in the wrong direction. Instead, she made the most of opportunities along the way. “A lot of my teachers recognized my advocacy skills,” she says, “and helped me to develop that by reading more and joining student government.”
After high school, Martin attended Morehead State University in Kentucky. “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn’t know the path to doing that. No one in my family had graduated college yet, let alone thought about going to law school.” She decided a major in paralegal studies would put her on the right path.
In her senior year of college, Martin faced a new challenge: “I thought I was going straight to law school from undergrad, but when I got pregnant with my son, I decided to take a year off.” After her classwork was done, she moved back to Dayton.
The challenged deepened. A month after Martin’s son, Tres, was born, his father was sentenced to 13 years in prison. “In that situation, you really have to put on your big-girl panties and figure out what to do for you and this kid,” she says.
After a court hearing for her son’s father, Martin bumped into Anthony VanNoy with the law firm of Wright & VanNoy, now Wright & Schulte. “We were on the elevator following the hearing. I introduced myself and just asked him questions about how his office ran, how did he like being a lawyer, things like that,” she recalls.
Martin told VanNoy she had a 2-month-old baby but needed an internship to complete her degree. “He said, ‘Well, send me your resume. Here’s my card. I’m sure we can find something for you.’” When she went for the interview, VanNoy hired her the same day. After three weeks, Martin negotiated with the firm to create a paid part-time paralegal position for her.
The managing partner, Michael Wright, encouraged Martin to go to law school. When she expressed concerns about juggling law school with being a single mom, Wright told her, “We can help you however you need.” The most important thing they did, she says, was “planting the seed in my head that says, ‘Hey, you can be a single mom and go to law school. It’s going to be hard as hell, but you can do this.’”
Martin moved to Columbus to attend Capital University Law School. “Law school was very uncomfortable for me,” she says. “I actually hated every bit of it. It was very hard, because I needed more time than was available, and I had a toddler and bunches of bills.”
After finishing law school in 2011, Martin moved back to Dayton to work as a law clerk at Wright & Schulte. In 2013, she took a job as a litigation paralegal in the office of the chief legal counsel at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. As a side venture, she helped The Cochran Firm—where she had clerked during law school—open offices in Cincinnati, Springfield and Dayton. Later, she worked with other attorneys to launch their own firms.
But between “paper-pushing” at a large corporation and paralegal business consulting, Martin says she missed “the people aspect” of practicing law. “There was nothing I was doing that could give me that same thrill as actually helping someone,” she says.
Hanging her own shingle in 2014 was a calculated risk. “I already had experience opening up other law firms, just not my own,” she says. Martin’s then-husband encouraged her to go for it. “We won’t have any money for the next couple of months to a year,” she recalls him acknowledging. “You just build the practice.” And that’s what she did.
The bulk of The Martin Law Firm’s practice revolves around personal injury law, but she also handles civil rights restoration, helping convicted felons who have completed their sentences to regain the right to vote, sit on juries or carry firearms. An experienced target-shooter herself, Martin feels a personal connection to clients seeking to restore their gun rights. Another part of her practice involves serving as a court-appointed guardian ad litem for young people, some of them victims of human trafficking. “As a mom first, I’m going to think about the safety of that youth and making sure that we can get whatever services they need ASAP,” she says. “Every little piece of my life has contributed to where I am today.”
To balance out the stressful parts, Martin practices yoga in her own studio near her office. Before the pandemic, she also taught classes there once or twice a week, with donated proceeds going toward victims of human trafficking. Now, she leads class virtually.
“Yoga, and helping others practice yoga, is just really cleansing for me, because I feel like I’m helping to bring other people back to their center and bring them back to a place of happiness,” she says. “I needed something to make me feel like this world isn’t all bad. We can really just share good energy and be in a good space.”
Personal injury, personal connection
Michelle Martin’s connection to personal injury law began with an experience involving her mother. “My mom was a class action litigant because she had been prescribed fen-phen and Redux,” Martin says. Her mother was diagnosed with congestive heart failure after taking the weight-loss drug prescriptions, Martin says, and underwent open-heart surgery at 37.
“Watching her as a client of the attorneys and a patient of the doctors and just being so helpless and being a genuine victim to the system, I saw what that did to our family,” Martin says. Witnessing her mother’s pain and anger also helped prepare Martin for working with her own personal injury clients. “I have clients that get pissed off and they’re in pain all the time. They want to take it out on somebody, and sometimes they get angry at me, but I get it.”