We Are Family

Relatives who play and work well together

Published in 2007 Wisconsin Super Lawyers Magazine — December 2007

For 20 of the 28 years Sally Merrell and Ely Leichtling have been married, they’ve been partners at Quarles & Brady in Milwaukee. During that time, they’ve been careful to mingle separately at firm parties in order to be viewed as individual professionals rather than as “a married unit.”

For the most part, they’ve made it work. Sometimes, though, they’ll be on the elevator having a decidedly nonlegal conversation about home life when they’ll notice a confused look on the face of a new co-worker.

“Eyebrows are raised, or someone gets off the elevator saying, ‘Who’s that guy talking to Sally?’” Leichtling notes.

Leichtling and Merrell are just two of the Wisconsin attorneys who have chosen the potentially treacherous path of working with a family member. While many of us have trouble just getting through Thanksgiving dinner with relatives, these folks manage to both play and work well together.

Terrence M. Gherty & Mark J. Gherty

Gherty & Gherty

Five years ago, while on a summer hiking trip in the Canadian Rockies, Terrence Gherty heard a fellow hiker ask his son, Michael, then 15, the question most lawyers’ kids dread. “Are you going to be a lawyer?”

Michael has probably had more practice answering that question than most lawyers’ kids. His parents, Terry and Susan, are partners in the Hudson firm of Gherty & Gherty along with his uncle Mark, Terry’s brother.

“My kids have been asked that question since they were 3,” Terry says, “but never by either of us.”

Terry heard that question a lot, too, when he was a kid. In 1974 he answered it: he joined his father, Lawrence Gherty, in the family firm. Lawrence had been the district attorney in Hudson and served as a circuit judge. He was widely respected and well known and had the kind of practice that—at that time—was assumed would pass onto his children or be sold to another attorney.

Lawrence died suddenly in 1980, five weeks before Mark graduated from law school, but the two brothers joined forces at Gherty & Gherty.

The family firm structure (no associates) allows each Gherty to work in the area that interests him: Terry handles civil litigation while Mark deals with criminal defense. Back in the day, the office, located only a few blocks from Terry’s house, also provided a great vantage point from which to watch his kids go to and from school.

And will one of those children, Michael, join him in the family firm? Apparently not. In the Canadian Rockies that day, Michael told his fellow hiker that he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps. Asked why, Terry smiled at his son’s response.

“Mountains and mountains of paperwork every night,” Michael said.

Ely Leichtling & Sally Merrell

Quarles & Brady

Ely Leichtling proposed to Sally Merrell—a year behind him at University of Virginia Law School—the day he received an offer to become an associate in labor and employment at Quarles & Brady. Merrell said yes, moved with her husband to Milwaukee and completed her J.D. at Marquette. Which is how Leichtling, a first-year lawyer, had the pleasure of swearing in his own wife to the Wisconsin bar.

Seven years later, after working for another Milwaukee firm and developing a specialty in estate planning and probate law, Merrell, too, was hired by Quarles & Brady. But husband and wife were still light years away in terms of practice groups.

“I think I could have been at Quarles for five years before I met Ely professionally,” Merrell says. “Ely is someone that I can trust,” she adds. “If I think I have a good read on the legal issues, he can say, ‘There’s another way to look at it.’ That would have been harder if we were very new [lawyers] or if our expertise overlapped.”

Leichtling, meanwhile, has enjoyed supporting Merrell in her career the way she did for him when their kids were young. At her old firm, where she was the only married female attorney, he was the only man at an all-spouse event. More recently, at a Quarles & Brady retreat last summer, he went as “the spouse” to a party for Merrell’s practice group.

“I enjoy just going as Sally’s husband,” Leichtling says. “It gives me the opportunity to spend more time talking with the other spouses, who often have much more interesting conversations. It’s a blast.”

Lynn R. Laufenberg & Michael L. Laufenberg

Laufenberg & Hoefle

Some of Michael Laufenberg’s first memories involve visiting his father’s office at the Wisconsin Supreme Court—where Lynn Laufenberg was clerking for a justice—but the exciting setting never meant he wanted the job.

“I was a kid,” he says. “I was going to be a baseball player.”

For his part, Lynn encouraged his children to find a career they loved as much as he loved the law. It actually came as a surprise when Michael announced, in 1992, that he was going to Marquette for his law degree.

The pair didn’t work together until shortly after Lynn opened his own firm in 2000. For Michael, his five years of making a name for himself with firms in Mayville and Eau Claire made it possible for the two to become partners.

“It was really important [to practice elsewhere],” Michael says. “I needed to grow personally and professionally. My dad is well known and has a good reputation [and] it was important to get out of his shadow initially. I needed people to know me as me, and not just as his son.”

Interestingly, when Michael joined Laufenberg & Hoefle, a three-attorney plaintiff’s litigation firm, the two didn’t have that conversation—about how to deal with their personal relationship. Lynn had witnessed the artificial formality of sons calling their father “Mr.” at other firms, but he wasn’t interested in pretending that Michael wasn’t his son. (Michael calls him “Dad” at the office.) Their lack of formality, however, doesn’t mean the pair is unaware of their situation.

“We never talked about it,” Lynn says, “but I was conscious of some things. First and foremost, this is a business—a very difficult and strenuous one. There is significant risk for the practice and the client. You need to make good business decisions about the cases you take and the people you work with.”

Lynn made sure Michael understood some things that the average junior partner might not be exposed to: the relationship with the bank, the components of the firm’s financial situation and other business aspects of the practice. Both also understood that others might perceive favoritism.

“We work on a business level,” Lynn says. “Not as father and son.”

That said, both have found that working together has rewards beyond the professional. “Our relationship has matured,” Michael says. “I’m closer than I was to him when I was growing up.”

For Lynn, yes, it’s about watching Michael grow as a lawyer and making the transition from learning techniques to trusting his own judgment. But it’s also about having other lawyers, co-workers and judges tell him that his son is both a good lawyer and—more important—a good person.

“That’s been the real pleasure,” Lynn says.

E. Campion Kersten, George P. Kersten & Kenan Kersten

Kersten & McKinnon

If callers to the Kersten & McKinnon law firm in Milwaukee sometimes get confused, who can blame them? The firm’s attorneys are three 70-something Kersten brothers—E. Campion, George and Kenan—who live in the same suburb (Mequon), belong to the same country club (Ozaukee) and sound remarkably alike. “Even our mother sometimes got us momentarily confused,” Campion says.

Family has run deep at the firm since their father, Charles Kersten, and his brother-in-law Arlo McKinnon, founded it in 1931. (Kersten went on to become a three-term Republican congressmen and later adviser in the Eisenhower White House.) The two built one of the top civil litigation law firms in the state—personal injury cases were an early specialty—and they didn’t have to look far for new blood. Camp came on board in 1959, followed by George in 1962 and Kenan in 1965. Today their specialty is business litigation.

The Kerstens say they got along well as children and that amity, not fraternal rivalry, has prevailed through their professional lives.

“The whole family was very close growing up,” Camp says. “We traveled together, we sang ensemble together. We always got along extraordinarily well, and it surprises me when people remark that this is unusual. It just seems so second nature to us. I attribute that to the way we were raised. Mother and dad treated us as a group and encouraged us to do things together.”

Says Kenan, “I can’t remember a harsh word in our office. Ever.”

The three brothers are even viewed as a team within the family—not surprising since they also socialize and play golf together, even taking golfing trips to Ireland with youngest brother Kevin, 66, a Jesuit priest and Boston College communications professor.

As the eldest, Camp says he initially had “this built-in sense of responsibility for—and even superiority over—my younger brothers. But as we’ve worked together, I’ve come to appreciate their talents, which are at least the equal of and probably greater than mine in many respects.”

At least in one area, George disagrees with this assessment. “Camp is the finest legal writer I’ve ever read. I regard him as a forensic genius. He can say in a phrase or sentence what it might take me a whole paragraph to say. I seldom write a brief that I don’t have Camp edit. As for Kenan, he can see multiple sides to a case, with a strong overlay of common sense.”

If there’s any disadvantage to practicing law with brothers, Camp says, it’s the tendency to take their setbacks as his own. “You share in their joys, and you share in their sorrows.”

Among the joys they got to share was the largest civil verdict in Wisconsin history: a $220 million judgment in 2006 against the promoters of what would have been an Indian gaming casino. Camp and George represented investors who lost money in the failed enterprise. The judgment was appealed and the case eventually settled out of court for a reduced (and undisclosed) sum.

At its peak, Kersten & McKinnon had only a few attorneys besides family members. Today it’s just the fraternal threesome, who have started to wind down their practice. After all, Camp is 75, George 73 and Kenan 71, although, as George puts it, “We’re a young 75, 73 and 71.”

Michael R. Fox & Peter Fox

Fox & Fox

Talk to Michael Fox, managing partner of Fox & Fox, a six-attorney litigation firm in Monona, and his “nephew” Peter Fox, an associate in the same firm, and it’s easy to tell their connection.

Michael, the elder by 26 years, and who is actually Peter’s first cousin once removed, cracks jokes and ribs Peter, who plays straight man. What they have is beyond camaraderie, mutual respect and Irish family ties. They have chemistry.

While a student at University of Wisconsin Law School, Peter paid a visit to Michael at his Madison-area office. Before long he was clerking for him, then he moved back to Milwaukee to start his career with another firm. Two years later, as he says, “The forces of nature and family brought me back together with Mike.”

Michael considers Peter an “exceptional person,” and someone with whom his skills and personality mesh perfectly.

Case in point: When Peter joined Fox & Fox, he brought with him a case for which he’d done discovery and significant trial preparation. As the complicated case moved forward, Peter focused on gathering information and stepped aside to let Michael make the arguments and examine witnesses at trial. He did what few successful attorneys would be willing to do: cede control and let a more seasoned colleague try the case.

“Mike and I were able to fuse pretty quickly,” Peter says, “Partly because we know each other well, and maybe because we share some DNA fragments. But [that case] was pretty emblematic of the way we work together. It was ‘You do this,’ ‘I’ll do this,’ and it worked in a copacetic way.”

Adds Michael: “It was about as harmonic a convergence as you could have.”

Their chemistry allows them to be absolutely blunt with each other. In the same case, as the judge was sending instructions to the jury, Peter tugged on Michael’s sleeve from the counsel table because he was unhappy with one of the verdict questions. Michael disagreed. Peter grabbed him again, only to be rebuffed. Frustrated, Peter lodged his complaint directly with the judge, who rejected it. Finally, Peter pulled Michael toward him one last time and gave a detailed explanation of his misgivings. When Michael finally understood, he quickly persuaded the judge to change the instructions.

Though their interaction might have looked like the Keystone Cops, Michael says, “The connection between us is low impedance. It’s basically there. The information goes from one to the other and is communicated without fear. Peter wasn’t the least bit hesitant to push me on that. There’s an extraordinary amount of directness.”

This doesn’t mean they’re not competitive outside the office.

“Peter is a great athlete,” Michael says. “But I have a far better jumper from behind the three-point line … He’s pretty envious of that.”

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