Partners: Rosaire Nottage & Eunice Ward
Today's Chicago Woman
by Anne Rowan
These two attorneys, who finish each other's sentences, laugh at each other's jokes, and have a reputation for toughness and team-lawyering, have built a dynamic divorce practice in less than three years.
Their partnership is like a well-oiled marriage. They finish each other's sentences, laugh at each other's jokes, and act as cheerleader or critic depending on the other's need. To the outsider, Rosaire and Eunice seem like girls who grew to womanhood together, lifelong friends. To the insider, they are attorneys, whose reputation for toughness and speed has built a dynamic new divorce practice in town — Nottage & Ward.
Given the symbiotic nature of their relationship, it seems extraordinary that the two women met less than three years ago, brought together by a mutual acquaintance who thought they were looking for the same thing. At the time, Rosaire (Nottage) was a partner in one of Chicago's largest corporate law firms, and Eunice (Ward) was in general practice in a firm that she owned with another attorney. Both found themselves taking an increasing interest in divorce law, and both wanted to expand this side of their business.
"My firm wanted to do divorce work as an accommodation to their corporate clients," explains Rosaire, "and only as an accommodation. So I started doing it, and I liked it a whole lot because, rather than sitting in a library researching arcane, limited subjects, I got to take a whole case myself and do the negotiating. For a young associate I had a lot of client contact; I was able to run the cases and make the deals. Granted, it wasn't Pennzoil and Getty, but they were deals nonetheless. It started out with small deals and small divorces, and became larger deals with larger divorces."
Within four years, Rosaire, now a partner, had so much divorce work that she could no longer handle it alone; and, since her old firm wasn't willing to expand in that direction, divorce being "considered an unsavory backwater of the law," she says, she began casting around for alternative solutions.
Meanwhile, Eunice also found she was specializing more and more. "Divorce just happened to be what I liked doing," she says. "It's an area of the law that provides a great latitude of legal-type things to do — there's research, writing, trial work, negotiation, all the myriad things one can do as a lawyer within the context of divorce work." But she, too, was feeling limited, in this case by the smallness of her firm.
"I never had the opportunity to try large cases," she explains, "with an experienced team. And I had never seen how a large law firm ran itself — I had taught myself how to run a firm so I wanted some input from a partner who had done those things."
LAUNCHING OVER LUNCHING
A lot of information was traded over the lunch table the day they met in April 1987, and some favorable impressions were formed. "I could tell she was intelligent," remembers Rosaire. "She understood the business of putting a law firm together in a way a lot of my partners at my old firm didn't. Too many women suffer from what I call a ‘cookie-jar mentality.' They'll scrape along and pay this bill or that bill; they don't see it as a business of capitalizing yourself properly, setting up a three- or four-year plan. Somehow I knew she had that business sense."
"That doesn't affect just the way we look at each other as business partners," Eunice interjects. "It affects the way we handle cases as well. Divorce is splitting up a partnership, splitting up a business in effect, and we had an underlying appreciation for each other's business ability."
During several other lunches they discovered a shared philosophy about the deeper responsibilities of being a divorce attorney. Responsibilities like honesty towards the client about their legal position; the difference between what they want and what they'll get (there's usually a big gap); and what it's likely to cost them. Responsibilities like negotiation before litigation, an unpopular approach with old guard divorce attorneys who growl that "you can all go and pick up your ‘being-a-nice-guy' medals the day you turn in your law licenses." And responsibilities like stripping away the mystique surrounding the practice of law, and teaching their clients to be informed, demanding consumers. "We literally ask them what they want," says Rosaire, "not just now, but with the next part of their life. Then we try to show them how to get it."
In July, Eunice got a phone call. "Come on, let's do it," said Rosaire, who followed up with a vacation postcard saying "I like it in Maine, we forgot to bring long-sleeved T-shirts, should we be a partnership or a corporation?" Eunice has kept the card as a souvenir of a momentous decision.
They got themselves a business advisor, a line of credit, an accountant, and a three-year business plan. In December 1987, the firm of Nottage & Ward was born, and has since thrived beyond all their carefully planned expectations.
"We have intense arguments with each other," laughs Eunice, "but we're not really mad. Some people get offended by that, Rosaire doesn't, and that's one thing I appreciate very much in my relationship with her,"
In the past two years, this marriage of colleagues has evolved into a marriage of minds. The women now practice what they call ‘team-lawyering.'
"Very early in the case," Eunice explains, "we'll have the other partner come in and meet the client, who'll talk a little bit to the other partner. Then I, say, will sketch to Rosaire what I see as the two or three big issues on the case, and Rosaire will give the client her viewpoint. Then we'll say to the client, ‘now you've had two views, and we're going to talk about them, because from these two views we might get a third way of dealing with the problem.'"
Any danger of law by consensus is avoided by both women's intellectual commitment to the purity of the law, and by the essential differences in the partners' personalities and lives — which almost dictate a different response from each of them. Eunice, for instance, is the more reticent of the two, a down-to-earth Midwesterner with the prerequisite edge of toughness. Rosaire is the office optimist, a tall, ebullient blonde from New York, who fires ideas into the conversation like a machine gun laced with a sardonic sense of humor.
Eunice is probably most helpful to women wanting to start a new life; she's done it herself several times. (Past incarnations include a fashion design business, teaching and work for the Department of Children and Family Services.) She's independent, self-sufficient, and single, "a conscious lifestyle," she says, and happily submerged in her work.
Rosaire is the family partner, happily married with two young children, Laura and Charlie, whom she openly adores. "I love being with my kids," she says, and carefully structures her work to be with them at the right times.
"Rosaire is much more organized and specific," comments Eunice, "whereas I'm more spontaneous. If I feel like doing it now, I'll do it now; or I'll do it late at night, or come in on a Saturday afternoon."
"You can set your watch by my train in the morning," admits Rosaire. "I make lists, I compartmentalize, I'm much more…"
"…rigid," finishes Eunice, laughing, too.
It's clear that the contrasts between these two women have only served to complement each other, and they have become, in Rosaire's words, "tremendous friends." They intend to be in business together for a long time, taking on, maybe, one or two more associates. "I think we've both come to the conclusion that we can't pass along the personal touch," explains Rosaire. Instead, they'll nurture their growing reputation, in the hope, they say, that one day the first phrase to the divorcing public's lips will be "Get me Nottage & Ward"!
Copyright 1990 Today's Chicago Woman
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