The Fixer

Nothing makes estate lawyer Ruth I. Rounding madder than witnessing injustice. Colleagues at Kohnen & Patton say (good-naturedly) that her middle initial stands for “Irate”

Published in 2012 Ohio Super Lawyers — January 2012

Photo by: Ross Van Pelt

Q: When you started practicing, was the reality different from what you had envisioned?

A: I think what’s different is that you can’t just yell and say, “Look, here are all my facts; this has to be fixed; this is the way it is; I’m right.” You have to be more subtle and compromise … build a case and think about what case the other side has, and maybe think about it from their point of view. The judge has to justify his decision or the IRS agent has to make his numbers or the attorney on the other side has to justify to his client. What can you do that they can hang their hat on? How can you be more strategic? Or maybe you can get further being quiet.

 

Q: What is the best part of your job?

A: Helping my clients feel satisfied and making them feel good. Making them feel that it’s going to be OK. Often [when] I write an email, the first sentence is, “Don’t panic; it’s going to be OK.”

 

Q: Why did you go into law?

A: I really loved crime shows. I’ve loved them my whole life. When I say I love crime shows, I love problem-solving. I was never going to be a criminal lawyer, but I hate, hate injustice. If someone isn’t getting the right results in their property tax or [in] civil rights—any kind of situation—I hate when somebody’s wronged. I’m a pathological fixer. Little-known fact: My middle initial “I” stands for "irate"... over some real or perceived injustice, ineptitude or inconvenience. [It’s] my perpetual state of being. Nickname given to me by colleagues. In fun, of course!

 

Q: So why tax law?

A: My father is an accountant—he’s going to be 100 in a couple of months. In college I did economics [with] a math minor. … At law school, I loved tax and estate planning. When I was in college … thinking about what am I going to do, it was that [tax attorney] or be a math professor. Being a math professor isn’t really fixing things; it wasn’t dynamic enough.

 

Q: You were born in Canada?

A: My mother is from Michigan and my father from Toronto, so I got American citizenship from my mother, and I was born in Canada. I can’t say that either country really loves the fact that you have another citizenship. I really don’t use my Canadian citizenship. I travel on an American passport. … I’ve lived here longer than I lived in Canada. I have a Canadian passport, but I don’t use it. I keep it with me just in case, especially when I travel abroad. I don’t know if it’s an urban myth, but they say people like Canadians better. [Laughs]

 

Q: Tell me about your childhood.

A: I grew up in Ottawa, which is the capital. It has, for its size, a lot of attractions. It has the national art gallery and the national theater. And it’s very beautifully located geographically with nice ski areas and has a famous canal you can skate on in the winter—skate to work. People have summer cottages within 60 miles of home. It’s a nice place to grow up.

It’s relatively smaller than Washington for being a federal capital, and it’s a little more off the beaten track, which was done strategically so it wouldn’t be attacked by Americans. It was picked because it was not on the border.

 

Q: Oh, yes, those skirmishes.

A: The War of 1812. The British were still involved in the continent.

 

Q: Did you spend much time in the U.S. as a child?

A: We went to Michigan to see my grandparents every summer until my grandfather died in ’67. I can remember when we used to take two ferries across the northern route. So coming to Michigan every summer for two weeks was not that common in the ’50s. Canadians weren’t as Americanized; it wasn’t as homogenous. Now you go to Ottawa and every mall looks like it does here, even though Ottawa is 100 miles from the border. All the border cities always looked like the U.S., but even Ottawa now looks like the U.S. But in the ’50s and ’60s, everything wasn’t so Americanized.

 

Q: But you yourself became Americanized.

A: My father could not understand why I had to go to Harvard. This was 1973. I was the baby of three girls. … There were like 12 years between my other sisters and me, so I was different in every way. I sprang it on them; I had not told them I had applied to Harvard, and they thought I was going to go to Canadian law school. My poor father. I said, well, I got into Harvard, so that’s where I’m going to go. It was 10 times more expensive than a Canadian law school because they’re subsidized. They’re public schools. He said, well, why do you have to do that? I said, it’s a big name and why wouldn’t you? You get in; you go. My mother was the American and her father had not finished high school; he was a self-made man. In the great crash in ’29, he had lost a lot and she had had to drop out of college as a result of the crash, and that had been a great trauma for her. So for her, for me to go to Harvard was very important. So they had a big discussion about this. I was 20 when I went to Harvard because I accelerated through school, and I was not mature enough to understand all the cultural issues that were behind it for my parents. Now, as a parent paying for my kids to go to school, I have a lot more perspective on what these issues were.

 

Q: After law school, you stayed in the U.S.

A: Of course when I went to Harvard, I didn’t know I was moving here permanently. I expected to go back. I had been advised that my Harvard degree would be acceptable to the Ontario Bar. Then I found out it wasn’t; I’d have to get an Ontario degree. [Also], in Canada, you article for a period of time, like a year, for [pretty much] slave wages, then their bar is like another six months. You study for a month, take an exam, study for a month … take [another] exam. This was going to be years. With my degree here, I could just take the bar exam in the summer and walk right into a well-paying job. So that settled that question.

 

Q: Luckily, you had American citizenship.

A: I didn’t know I was an American until I applied for a student visa to go to Harvard. I went to the American embassy to get a student visa and they knew my mother, and they said, oh, but you’re an American; I can’t give you a student visa. Well, then they didn’t know what to do with me because I didn’t have the citizenship papers. I had to establish my residence in the U.S. I think it took five years to get my citizenship papers; I just had temporary papers.

 

Q: How did the embassy happen to know your mom?

A: She believed you should have the citizenship of the country where you live and raise your children—which I believe, too; that’s why I’ve really adopted the American … citizenship. She acquired Canadian citizenship by marrying my father. She kept her American [citizenship] until her father died; when he died she renounced her American citizenship. She went into the [U.S.] embassy ... and it happened to be the day they landed on the moon. The whole staff was watching the moon landing. They couldn’t believe that someone was renouncing her American citizenship on this patriotic day, so they remembered her. I had a distinctive name, and so they remembered the name.

 

Q: Was it difficult to be a woman in law school at that time?

A: I think there was a book written about the class before ours; the class of ’75 was the first class with a critical mass of women. We weren’t the first women; we were 20 years after the first women. But we were 20 percent of the class, so you didn’t feel alone. You weren’t picked on like the first women were picked on and made to feel that they didn’t belong there. We were at least a critical mass.

 

Q: And in the job market, was it tough being a woman?

A: If you were from a school like Harvard, the really tough part was over. I think that dam had been broken by the women before us. I’m sure it was hard for women from other schools. There were still many barriers to be broken. At that time, my first years in Chicago in 1976 to ’79, I was just a “working girl,” so to speak, fresh out of law school, just trying to do my job and please the partners. I wasn’t trying to make partner, break the glass ceiling, go on maternity leave or work part time—issues important to more experienced women lawyers and issues that, within just a few years, would really matter to me. Plus, Chicago was pretty advanced in terms of not overtly discriminating against women. I worked three years in Chicago [and married while there], and then moved here, and I went by my maiden name. Nobody here could fathom using your maiden name professionally. … I just gave up. I used my married name, and then when I got divorced 10 years ago, I went back to my maiden name. There were definitely clubs in Cincinnati that didn’t have women. People thought I was the paralegal and the secretary; people called me Ruthie. I was lucky I worked at the same firm as my husband—it was a large firm—and they didn’t care who you were related to. … But at a lot of firms, if two people got married, the wife left. I had my daughter in ’84. I left the firm because I couldn’t work part time. That was a struggle for years, to get part time accepted in this city. Maternity leave was a struggle.

 

Q: How did you end up in Chicago after Harvard?

A: I was a blank slate; I didn’t know where to go. This sounds very nonfeminist: I was dating someone who was going to Chicago; it turned out I wasn’t dating him by the time I graduated, but it was a big city and it was as good as any. I interviewed in Boston, but it was a very competitive market and they weren’t paying competitively. New York scared me because it was so big and I’d never been there. I mean, I was from another country! So Chicago seemed kind of manageable and they were paying well, and lots of firms were eager for Harvard graduates, so I went there. That’s a terrible way to pick a job.

 

Q: And then what brought you to Cincinnati?

A: I married someone from my law school class, and we decided Chicago was too big to raise a family. It wasn’t like our home cities. We wanted a place where we could live in the suburbs and drive to downtown and not be running for the train. Two people in his law firm died of a heart attack running for a train—died on the L platform—in one year. We didn’t want that kind of a lifestyle. We were from middle-size cities like Cincinnati, where you could live in a suburb and have a normal life. We actually went out and spent weekends in cities—Louisville, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati—and we decided on Cincinnati.

 

Q: How did you wind up at Kohnen & Patton?

A: They have a really nice tax practice; it’s a substantial percentage of the firm and I was looking for a firm where the tax practice would be highly valued. [Also] it had an outstanding international tax practice. It was a good fit for me with my international background, and they were looking for someone to extend into Canada. I have some connections in Toronto, and they would like to reach out there. … That’s a nice synergy for us.

 

Q: Is there a different feel in the U.S. and Canada?

A: Yes, you could talk endlessly about the differences and similarities.

 

Q: Such as? Is the Canadian personality different from that of the U.S.?

A: I’m not gonna go there. Not gonna touch that.

 

Q: You have a strong public service ethic.

A: The thing I’m currently interested in is a program called Dress for Success. It suits women who are underprivileged—maybe they’ve been incarcerated, maybe they’re impoverished—but they’re currently unemployed, and they’re referred to us for suits and interviewing skills. When they get their job, they come back and get their second suit and we give them further training on job skills, budgeting. … So they get continuing education through our program, and we have a resale shop where they can buy clothes inexpensively. I’m on the board of the resale shop. We do a fashion show with our graduates, and they tell their stories. It’s so inspiring. These women are former drug addicts; they have such stories of hardship, and [yet] they go on: They get their GEDs and sometimes [go to] college. What they can do from abusive backgrounds, incarcerations. … We get lawyers to volunteer their time to get their [criminal] backgrounds expunged. There’s a program to help refinance mortgages, so that’s something that I can help with.

 

Q: Must be rewarding to watch these women change their lives.

A: It’s wonderful. I say to myself, why can’t I do more with what I have? With everything I got on a silver platter, why can’t I do more? Everything was given to me, and these women have to struggle so hard for everything.

 

Q: Can you give an example of a case that was both rewarding and a struggle?

A: In the 1990s, in addition to my regular estate planning, I did quite a bit of elder law work, including Medicaid planning, which generally meant helping middle-class couples set aside assets so that when one spouse went to a nursing home the other spouse would not be impoverished. … In the late 1990s, in an ill-conceived effort to reduce Medicaid planning, Congress passed a law making it a crime to advise a client of all the financial options. It was called the "Granny's Lawyer Goes to Jail" law. Such a law would be similar to criminalizing advice for tax avoidance, as opposed to tax evasion. The New York State Bar Association challenged the law and won. I do not personally know of any Medicaid attorney who stopped giving advice during this period, but I am sure that the law had a chilling effect.

During this time, I was in the Cincinnati office of [a] Columbus-based firm. A partner in the Columbus office, who did not know the substance of my work but was morally opposed to it, demanded that I stop. Irate, I protested to the managing partner of my office. He simply asked that I write two paragraphs supporting my position. I angrily argued that I should not have to defend my work. He calmly repeated his request; he needed something to send to Columbus. I complied and heard nothing more of the matter.

Medicaid planning is a firmly established specialty these days. I was proud and immensely gratified that my managing partner stood up for me in the early days of Medicaid planning. I also learned a valuable lesson from him: It is not enough to shout that you are right (even when you are); you have to be willing to give the "other side" something that they need, or think they need … if only to allow them to save face.

Photo by: Ross Van Pelt

Photo by: Ross Van Pelt

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