Anne Ross’ calm, elbows-in approach keeps clients coming back for decades
Published in 2012 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine
on November 12, 2012
Updated on February 20, 2013
Anne Ross has spent the past 31 years with Foley & Lardner in Madison handling mergers and acquisitions, securities, equity financing, corporate insurance and venture capital. The days are long, and the pace of the work is accelerating, as clients, pinched by tight finances, set higher expectations on turnaround time for documents and communications. Then there are her added duties. Starting five years ago, Ross became the first woman in the 36-year history of the Madison office to become managing partner, making her responsible, along with her legal work, for the administration, morale and performance of the 60-lawyer office.
So the binoculars come as a surprise.
Ross keeps a pair of binoculars on her desk on the top floor of a five-story, glass-walled building pressed close to the Lake Mendota shore. From the water below to the sky above, Ross can spy a huge outdoor expanse at a glance.
“I pick these up several times a day,” she says, raising the binoculars to her eyes as she stands and turns toward the window.
Ross calls the binoculars one of the most important “toys” in her office that give her a short break during the day.
“I can see if that guy out there just caught a fish,” she says, smiling. “It’s mostly [for watching] birds. But I do see people catching fish. It’s really fun.”
Ross thrives on it all. She expects to finish this year with a higher volume of client work than at any point in her career.
“The work is pretty consuming,” she says. “But the mental puzzle of keeping 30 different terms and conditions that need to go into a contract in play and fitting them in correctly, I find that stimulating.”
“Probably the part I like best is getting to understand a client’s business: what the client’s trying to accomplish and their needs and goals,” she adds. “The most rewarding thing about the job, and the thing that drives me, is to live up to the confidence that my clients are placing in me. It’s the relationship of trust, and the opportunity to be a counselor and have my advice valued.”
She espouses a nuanced approach to office management.
“I’m very much a proponent of asking people to take responsibility for themselves,” she says. “We have a very good group here in terms of expecting that and having them live up to that. I see my role as managing partner as doing my best to make sure people have the resources they need to do their work really well and deliver what we’re trying to deliver to our clients.”
Her personal style—open, friendly, calm and helpful—feels like an extension of that work philosophy.
“There’s no pretense with Anne,” says Jay Rothman, chairman and CEO of Foley & Lardner, a national firm with more than 900 lawyers in 21 offices in seven states and Washington, D.C., plus Brussels, Shanghai and Tokyo. “She’s very confident in who she is, but she doesn’t have to go out of her way to show us. There’s not arrogance. She’s just a very, very superb lawyer who’s very comfortable in her own skin.”
Ross was born in September 1955 on an Army base in San Antonio, Texas. When she was 18 months old, the family moved to Madison after her father’s discharge from the service, and, save the three years she spent at Stanford Law School, Ross has never lived anywhere else.
The second child and oldest of four daughters, Ross grew up on the west side of Madison, where she and her siblings helped tend a big family garden every summer. Her father worked as a professor of agricultural journalism at University of Wisconsin-Madison and her mother taught piano part time.
Ross decided to become a lawyer her senior year at UW-Madison after taking a course in constitutional law.
“I realized maybe that’s where my aptitude was leading me,” she says.
At Stanford, Ross expected to specialize in constitutional or civil rights law. But she gravitated toward business law after the mock negotiations and the process of drafting contracts in a commercial real estate class intrigued her.
“Again I surprised myself by just thinking, ‘Wow, I like this, and I’m good at it,’” she says.
After graduation in 1981, Ross returned to Madison to take a job in the Foley office, which had opened just five years earlier.
Early on, Ross worked with tax shelters and limited partnerships and real estate, but soon added a focus on early-stage technology companies. She felt conditions were ripe for Madison to become a new hotbed for high-tech startups, and she was instrumental in fostering the legal climate to make that happen for biotech, medical devices and information technology.
“I had seen what was happening in Silicon Valley, and I knew from being the daughter of a faculty member that we had some tremendous research going on here,” she says. “I started trying to learn what I could about early-stage technology companies.”
Ross co-founded Accelerate Madison, a local trade association for companies with a strong IT component that builds ties between startups, early-stage operations and mature companies. The group remains active; Ross has been on its board of directors since 2001.
She was also an early investor in TomoTherapy, a maker of medical equipment using computer technology for the precise delivery of radiation for cancer treatment. She now advises an early-stage tech company working on safer, more stable lithium-ion batteries. And she is an investor for a TomoTherapy spinoff focused on using protons in cancer therapy—technology that Ross says could be groundbreaking because protons do less damage to tissues than radioisotopes.
Ross also became fascinated with the insurance industry after serving on the board of Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co., which was created in 1986 by the state bar, Foley and other big firms with bond financing, so small firms could get coverage.
“The truth is I just have this insatiable curiosity and desire to keep learning things,” Ross says about the way her practice has expanded topically. “The common thinking now is that to practice at the highest levels in a national practice you should be very highly specialized,” she says. “I’ve just been kind of reluctant to let go of some things over the years because there’s so many things I’m doing that I really enjoy.”
Case in point: For decades, she was the lawyer for Weather Central, a leading provider of broadcast and Internet weather systems and information. Ross represented the company from its founding in 1974 until its sale in August.
“Everybody else is rushing around like chickens with their heads cut off, and Anne is the force that brings everybody to a central position,” says Weather Central founder Terry Kelly, describing the sale process. “The major thing about Anne that is rare is that she starts with the human side of the equation and not the legal side. She wants to know what is the very best outcome for you personally, and for your business and for your partners, and then will worry about the legal details.”
“The easiest thing is to get lost in the minutiae,” Kelly adds. “It’s so important to call a time out and say, ‘Is this really where you want to go?’ and ‘Is this really the outcome you’re looking for?’ That avoids a lot of regrets and concerns later on.”
Similarly, Ross has advised the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, since its inception in 1982, when Leopold’s five children established the not-for-profit conservation organization to honor their father, a famed Madison conservationist, forester and author. A painting of a Western landscape that once adorned the Wyoming cabin of one of Leopold’s sons now hangs in Ross’ office. It was given to her by his estate after the son died.
Then there’s her association with the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, which she first visited at the age of 2. She’s been a member of its commission since 1999.
“Anne has been one of my go-to people,” says Ronda Schwetz, the zoo’s new director. “I’ve really relied on her experience, both with the zoo and with the community. … She is always positive and enthusiastic and solution-oriented.”
“She’s always been helpful,” agrees Kathe Crowley Conn, president and executive director of the Aldo Leopold Nature Center, on whose board Ross sits since providing pro bono legal services for the center’s incorporation in 1994. “She is always thinking about how to make things work and protecting the nature center’s interests.”
Rothman remembers how helpful Ross was in 1984, when, after his second year of law school, he was a summer associate at the Foley office. “Anne just cares about people,” he says, “and she cares about her clients, and you just got that sense. … She helped convince me this was the right company for me.
“Her approach hasn’t changed,” he adds. “She deals with difficult situations with patience and with a level of calmness.”
Ross has an explanation for her approach.
“I’m just trying to get people to calm down and treat each other with kindness and [to] understand that there doesn’t have to be a winner or a loser,” she says. “It’s amazing the response you get.
“I’d like to be a role model of how one can conduct oneself in the business world and be successful without throwing around sharp elbows.”
It’s no surprise, given the zoo and nature center, not to mention the bird-watching binoculars, that many of Ross’ outside interests involve animals.
“Working with horses, fly fishing, taking the dog to the dog park—things where I’m really completely off the grid,” she says. “I bring my cell phone, but I don’t stop and read emails every few minutes. I think that’s really important, to be able to immerse yourself. Working with animals really gets my head outside my work.
“That connection to other species, I don’t know where that comes from,” she says. “I could just stop and watch a bird for 15 minutes without even realizing that time is passing.”
Ross’ latest equine companion, an American quarter horse named Jake, died last winter. It’s the first time Ross has been without a horse since she was 15, she says, and she isn’t sure she’ll have one again.
“I have to decide whether I want to make another commitment to a horse,” she says. “He was 28.”
Her dog, Huckleberry, a black lab, is only 7. Ross jokes that she has “shared custody” of the dog with her retired parents, who keep Huckleberry busy during the week and hand him off to Ross and her longtime partner, Carrie Nelson, for outdoor romps on the weekends.
“My parents couldn’t give him enough exercise and we couldn’t give him enough time,” Ross says, explaining how the joint arrangement solves both problems.
A big Green Bay Packers fan, she regularly watches games with the same group of pals at a friend’s farmhouse, “with the horses standing outside the open door,” Ross says, “looking at us like they can’t figure out why we’re so excited.”