Ties That Bind

Families who litigate together stay together  

Published in 2008 Michigan Super Lawyers — September 2008

"Family-friendly" has become a fashionable term at law firms, with a younger generation of attorneys demanding balance in their lives. But even at the most progressive firms, co-workers don't typically share holidays or child-care duties. For those who do—spouses, siblings, parents and children who practice law together—the lines between family and firm tend to blur. Two sets of local lawyers, who happen to be related, say they wouldn't have it any other way.

 

George and Kristen Netschke, Plunkett Cooney

George A. Netschke and Kristen M. Netschke are among 62 lawyers at Plunkett Cooney's main offices in Oakland County's Bloomfield Hills. But one thing sets them apart: They are married to each other. Like many recently married couples, they are adjusting to a life together that includes a cat (hers: Sadie), a consuming hobby (his: golf) and conflicting work schedules that have put a kink in their recent decision to carpool from their home in Ferndale.

"I am in the office probably 80 percent of the time," says Kristen, 34. "There could be weeks where he's not here at all."

"Which makes our carpooling thing difficult," adds George, 33. "But I'm pushing it."

Managing a 20-minute commute might seem like a small detail. But when your work is the law, with its intense requirements of time and emotional investment, juggling the needs of firm and family requires navigating a long series of such challenges.

Neither Netschke had a family member in the law to serve as an example for the journey. "I come from a family of professionals," George says, "but most of them are accountants. I went to law school because I wanted to be an FBI agent."

Kristen's interest was piqued by an eighth-grade trip to the state capitol. It was a day when the Michigan Supreme Court was in session. "I just thought it would be so cool to be one of those people, to be so prestigious and argue in such a place."

They were undergrads together at Michigan State University but don't recall meeting there. George graduated from Wayne State University Law School in 2001. "I've been at Plunkett Cooney since my second year at law school, as a summer associate," he says. Meanwhile, Kristen headed to University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, graduating in 2000.

She and George were officially introduced on her first day at Plunkett Cooney in 2002.

"We thought we knew each other," Kristen recalls. "Once we started talking, we realized—"

"—we had a lot of friends in common," George says.

They have been finishing each other's sentences as husband and wife since June 10, 2006. Kristen says, "We're very lucky that we work at a firm that allowed us to be together—"

"—where one of us didn't have to leave."

The firm's large size and diverse practice has helped to make that possible. "Ninety percent of the time, our work doesn't intersect," Kristen explains. "But I practice appeals, and he's in construction litigation."

"We've only started driving together now that the gas prices have gotten so high," George notes.

"And I'm still not enjoying that!" Kristen says, laughing. "Too much time ..."

George smiles. "Yeah, even though we don't do very much work together, when you're both in the same circle of work and home and everything, sometimes it gets a little challenging. You want to say, ‘I need a break.' That's a moment when we'd say, ‘Let's not talk about work.'"

Adds Kristen, "I am so lucky that, every day when I come home—whether I have a bad day or a good day—I'm with someone who gets exactly why I'm upset, why I'm happy."

"Obviously, you have a lot of collaborators when you work in a law firm," says George. "But it's nice to have somebody to collaborate with or bounce ideas off of that you—"

"—that you really don't want to tell anybody else!" Kristen finishes.

"Right. There's no judgment, no ‘dumb questions,' none of that."

"It's great that we do the type of work we do. I come to him with lots of trial questions, and he comes to me with appeal and legal questions." She pauses. "It's not all bad."

George smiles. "It's really good, actually."

 

Valentine & Associates

Less than 15 miles from Plunkett Cooney is the office of Valentine & Associates, a four-lawyer firm sandwiched among strip malls in West Bloomfield. This is the home base for a powerful, family-driven practice with a global reach.

Here, Stephen K. Valentine Jr., 68, and daughters Victoria Ann Valentine and Veronica Valentine McNally—along with Shelli Barish Feinberg—handle domestic and international business litigation, business contract law, employment issues and some personal injury cases. (Joanna, a third Valentine daughter—the "smart one," Stephen likes to joke—is a successful salesperson in the fiber optics industry.) Both daughter-associates say a passion for the law is "in the blood."

It started with their maternal grandfather, who was a lawyer. Stephen's father also attended law school, although he did not finish. "He was remorseful about the fact that he took a different path," Stephen says. "He always thought it was important that people associated with the profession would have the highest standards and would be most cognizant of the obligation they had to their clients and to society as a whole. That's what got me interested. Once I developed that interest, I can honestly say that from about the eighth grade forward, the goal was to become a lawyer."

Victoria and Veronica were similarly influenced by their father's example. It wasn't unusual for the family to be out to dinner, only to have their father's clients stop by their table to tell him how much they appreciated his work. "He helped other people, and he was passionate about what he did," says Victoria, 36.

Veronica, 28, grew up admiring her father and older sister. "I looked at these two people and I saw that they really enjoy what they do. That was what inspired me to go to law school."

"I never once put any pressure on them to pursue a law career," Stephen adds. "I wanted them to feel that there was no pressure to go into the law because I was there." Nevertheless, the law and family life have been intertwined from the very beginning. Stephen's office has been in West Bloomfield since 1968.

 "As children, we would come in and lick stamps or do whatever we had to do," Victoria recalls. From the time she finished at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 1998, she's been associated with the firm. She and her husband, Anthony DiVergilio, a commercial custom builder and remodeler, have three children.

Veronica graduated from MSU College of Law in 2004 and joined the firm full time in 2005, working on several large international arbitration cases. In 2006, she also took a job—now her primary employment—at MSU, where she is associate director of trial-advocacy programs. She commutes between East Lansing and West Bloomfield several times a week, as needed to provide litigation support. Veronica and her husband, Sean, a lawyer with Kotz, Sangster, Wysocki and Berg, have one child.

Father and daughters alike credit Stephen's wife, Frances, with helping to make their careers possible. "She is the rock of the family," Veronica says. "She's just been a wonderful support for all of us."

Some acquaintances have suggested that working for your father is a free ride. According to Victoria, nothing could be further from the truth. "He's tough. He's litigated for 40 years, and he's been in front of the U.S. Supreme Court and the international tribunals. People have no idea how hard you have to work to be here, how hard you have to work to be a partner. It's not easy because it's a family member. It's probably a lot harder."

"But it's nice, too, because it is your family," Veronica interjects. "So even if you're here until 10 o'clock at night or you're away for a week doing arbitration or litigating a matter, you're with your family. I don't want to say we don't have boundaries. I definitely think that we do and I think we have a good balance. But it's just really enjoyable to be able to do what you love with people that you love."

For the Valentines, family time and work time are held in balance. "I'll go over to Vicky's house during the day and I'll see my grandkids," Stephen says. "A lot depends on what we've got going on during the day, as to whether or not we're going to discuss a particular case at these moments. If it's something that has to be addressed, we don't have any discomfort in doing that. I don't think we feel that is an infringement on private time."

Veronica adds, "In having family that does this, there were no surprises when we got done with law school. We knew what to expect. We knew what the life of a litigator was like. And we also knew—and I think this is overlooked by a lot of people who graduate from law school—the practice of law, particularly litigating, is a journey, not a destination. We're here for the next 40 years doing this."

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