Welcome to TMA Talks, a regular series of podcasts hosted by TMA Global CEO Scott Y. Stuart, Esq. Each segment features prominent TMA members, industry experts, and other special guests. These exchanges, edited transcripts of which are printed in the JCR, offer insights into key markets, forward-thinking economic outlooks, insider thoughts on industry trends, and much more. TMA Talks podcasts are available on the TMA podcast channel. Subscribe to our channel wherever you find your podcasts.
SCOTT STUART: This is TMA Talks, where we talk everything TMA. I am Scott Stuart, CEO of the Turnaround Management Association, and with me today are Erica Aisner and Julie Curley, who have recently formed, along with Dawn Kirby, the law firm of Kirby Aisner & Curley in New York, one of the very few all-women firms. On the precipice of our TMA NOW Summit, the Network of Women, in Chicago, I thought this would be a hugely opportune time to talk about women empowerment, as we did in a recent TMA Talks with Carrianne Basler of AlixPartners (June 2019, Journal of Corporate Renewal).
Today I want to talk to you about what it's like to be out there and be brave enough to start a women-only firm in New York, in a market that's so very much dominated by males, and what brought the three of you to this decision.
ERICA AISNER: I think the time was just right for us. It's something that we've toyed with for many years. For myself, being a bankruptcy attorney, I think to a certain extent I'm a little bit risk-averse, but that's a personal thing. We've worked together for 15 years. I know them professionally and personally, and there's nobody else that I would choose to take on this adventure with other than them. With these two incredible women by my side, with the three of us as a team, we're excited to take the next step in our careers. The response from our friends and from colleagues has been overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging, and it's just making us even more excited to take this leap.
SCOTT: Was it scarier to set out to form your own law firm, which is scary itself, or that you're three women who, notwithstanding how established and respected as you are, formed a firm that is a women-only firm? That is a distinguishing feature.
JULIE CURLEY: I think they're both scary concepts. As Erica said, because we're debtors’ counsels, we are— Erica said risk-averse—I think I would say “risk aware.” We know all the pitfalls, and, of course, opening any business is risky because there is a lot of unknown. You said brave before, and we are brave in doing that.
I think as far as being women, there are challenges. We sent out an announcement when we opened our doors. We had hoped that we would get support from our colleagues and other professionals, but the amount and level of support and words of encouragement really went above and beyond what we had expected. We had hoped that we'd have a lot of support from professionals—from attorneys, accountants, the judges, and the U.S. Trustee's office—but the amounts of support have just been overwhelming.
JULIE: And the fear, I think, is always going to be there. The thing that we'll continue to need, not only us as women but as any other business owner as well, is continued revenue and the phone to ring. Where is the next case coming from? That's the thing that we'll always continue to have fear about, but we're not alone in that. Any other business owner always has that fear.
SCOTT: We at TMA celebrate diversity and certainly the Network of Women is a prominent part of that. It's always wonderful to be in a room where empowered women like yourselves demonstrate in a very celebratory way that you're proud professionals first, even though you are empowered women. Do you think that you'll have to face the question more than you care to about being women forming a firm and being a women-only firm, or have we moved beyond that? There's always mixed discussion on it.
ERICA: I think that we have always had to overcome that sense of doubt, perhaps, that those in the room would have about us and about our capabilities because we're women, and I don't think that changes because we're a women-only firm. We're used to that. We've been dealing with that our whole careers. That's not going to change. I can only hope that as we continue to practice and do good work and gain the respect of the bench and the bar, that will dissipate a bit.
But the truth of it is that there are a lot of opportunities out there for women-owned businesses. It's not the reason that we chose to open our doors with just three women, but it's certainly an advantage that we intend to explore at every turn. Every small-business owner needs to take advantage of every opportunity that's out there, and we're going to continue to do that for ourselves, for our clients, and for our futures.
SCOTT: I'd like to think of the answer to this next question is no, but do you think that being a women-owned law firm exclusively will be perceived to some as an impediment? Do you think you'll face challenges as a result of that, irrelevant as it should be?
ERICA: You know what? I think that there's a lawyer for every client, and that has to do with your experience and your personality. It is really a relationship fit. That's going to be the case no matter what. We're going to be the right lawyers for certain clients, and we're not going to be the right lawyers for other clients. We're going to have to prove ourselves the way we always have and the way we will continue to. For those people who don't want to do business with us because we're women, well then maybe that's their missed opportunity.
SCOTT: That's a good way to look at it, in my opinion. So what would you tell younger women professionals who are entering this market? What advice would you have for them, given your experience both over the last 15 years and what you are about to embark on with your new law firm?
ERICA: I would say to always be aware of how you are perceived in your industry, to always strive to do great work and make a great impression, because you never know who's watching and who's paying attention. The respect that you earn, your reputation, is something that's incredibly precious. It's really hard to create that reputation. It's really easy to tarnish it. It's something that we take very seriously. We work very hard at it. You can never take your eye off that, because it's when you do that the bad things can happen.
JULIE: I think what I would add to that is to be the best professional that you can be, because when you do that, people don't view you as being a female. You really eliminate that gender stereotype. Erica, Dawn, and I have worked so hard at being the best professionals we can be over the course of our careers that now our colleagues don't see us as those female attorneys. They see us as good attorneys who know how to handle a case to get things done and the people they think of when they need to refer out work. So, don't block yourself, and as a female don't give yourself that glass ceiling. Just be the best professional you can be, and then you'll reap the benefits.
ERICA: The rest will follow.
JULIE: Yes, the rest will follow.
SCOTT: Would you consider yourselves as mentors to younger women?
ERICA: I'd like to think so. I've had such incredible mentors throughout my career. I continue to have great mentors, both male and female. There are attorneys and members of the bar and bench, yourself included, who we look to for professional advice. If I can pass that on to younger attorneys, then I would consider myself very lucky.
JULIE: I've been involved in the county bar association locally, and I do try to take an active role with the newly admitted lawyers section and help the younger attorneys on their careers—just giving them pointers and suggestions on what to do and what not to do, how to be taken seriously. It all really centers about just being a good worker, using your head, being smart, and working hard, because once you start getting sloppy, that's when it all falls through.
SCOTT: I really appreciate your time today and congratulations. The firm is Kirby Aisner & Curley LLP in Scarsdale, New York. We at TMA are proud of you, and we hope that we can help you be ever more successful.
ERICA: Thank you for interviewing us. This is such a great opportunity. I appreciate it.
JULIE: Thanks, Scott.
SCOTT: This is TMA Talks. I'm Scott Stuart. Until next time.
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