THE BLOG
12/20/2014 07:41 am ET Updated Feb 19, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Lois Liberman and Marilyn Chinitz, Blank Rome

Lois Liberman has extensive experience advising clients in all aspects of matrimonial law at Blank Rome. She is a seasoned litigator and trial attorney, and has been a frequent guest on television having appeared multiple times on "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "Good Day New York," "Extra," and "Entertainment Tonight." She is frequently consulted to comment on family law matters pertaining to famous people and appears often in the celebrity press including but not limited to publications like People magazine, The Huffington Post, eonlinenews.com, MTV.com, Businessinsider.com, NBCNews.com, FoxNews.com, The NY Post and More magazine.

Marilyn Chinitz concentrates her practice at Blank Rome almost exclusively in family law, with particular emphasis on complex divorce actions. Ms. Chinitz has 30 years of experience in handling diverse transactional matters in matrimonial law and has been involved in numerous high profile celebrity cases that have received national and international attention. She has been recognized among New York's top 50 women lawyers. Top-tier media outlets regularly call upon Ms. Chinitz for her insights related to matrimonial and family law issues. She has appeared on and been quoted in a number of outlets, including the TODAY show, Good Morning America, Inside Edition, the Catherine Crier Show, Hollywood Heat, Forbes, USA Today, CNBC, Business Insider, and U.S. News & World Report..

How has your life experience made you the leaders you are today?

Marilyn:
My upbringing has played a very significant role in making me the professional I am today. I come from an immigrant family who arrived in the US with nothing, a family that placed respect for others and hard work above everything else. My parents also believed passionately in the value of education even though they were only educated up to the 4th grade level. Their biggest ambition was to provide an education for their three daughters, and they did that.

My family also taught me that everyone is equal. They believed in treating everyone with respect and in being able to talk to and connect with people. I have carried that lesson through to my career as an attorney. In this type of law you can only succeed for your clients if you have a true sense of what they are going through. My upbringing and life experiences have made me into a person who can listen and understand people.

Lois:
I learned early on the importance of having good teachers and mentors in forging a successful career. There were two Judges who I became very close with. They each treated me like a granddaughter (when they were not yelling at me or teaching me lessons in the courtroom!) One of them, Judge Norman Feiden, may he rest in peace, learned of a well-known matrimonial attorney who was in need of a paralegal and convinced that attorney to hire me-- a young legal aid attorney who had been working for about 18 months. From there, I learned what it was like working as a matrimonial attorney in the private sector, for people who paid a lot of money per hour to have a lawyer assist them in their family law matters. Little did I know that someday I would be the Chair of one of the largest and well known matrimonial groups in New York.

How has your previous employment experience aided your positions at Blank Rome?

Lois:
I had only two other jobs before I came to Blank Rome, where I have been for over 22 years. My first job out of law school was in the Family Court division of Nassau County Legal Aid Society. Along with three of my colleagues and our supervisor, I represented people who were involved in custody disputes, who were looking for or defending against orders of protections, who were involved in neglect and abuse proceedings, or who had failed to pay child support and were in danger of going to jail. On any given day, you could be handling numerous matters and getting assigned additional ones, literally running from courtroom to courtroom. While it was a very challenging job given the high stakes that each client faced, the people who worked in the Nassau County Family Court-- from the judges, to the court officers, to the Deputy County Attorneys, (who were my adversaries) to my colleagues--were a very close knit family, who looked out for each other even in the toughest of circumstances. I learned early on to rely on my instincts and to think quickly on my feet. Also, no matter how stressful the situation, never let them see you sweat.

Marilyn:
I started out in a very small law firm, where it was very hands and there was no such thing as delegating. The role taught me to be organized and involved with every single aspect of the work. As a result, when I Joined Blank Rome I wanted to be part of everything. This hands-on approach really helped in building a culture of openness in our practice. Everyone from the bottom up on our team knows that I am in the trenches with them because I can say: "I can and have done everything you do here. I'm here with you." If the team is working late, I'm there too. Ultimately, the transition to a large firm was seamless because if you are a people person with a core openness, you are going to succeed regardless of the firm size.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Blank Rome?

Marilyn:
At Blank Rome, we have the ability to attract a certain caliber of client with sophisticated legal needs. We're also able to offer all types legal advice, not just matrimonial, to clients-- ranging from those in the entertainment industry to sports stars-- who demand the very best. The highlight for me is being able not only to help a client during a matrimonial process, but to be able to extend that service into real estate or corporate trusts and estates. It's very gratifying to have that level of expertise in- house to offer clients.

The challenge is not having enough time in the day to do everything. You have to make an investment of time to get things done well but there are only so many hours in the day. It's a constant balancing act. The challenge as an attorney is that no matter what, you just have to power on, even when you get a decision you don't like or things go wrong. This job means we are constantly in battle. You have to have thick skin and your eye on the ball the whole time.

Lois:
I think one of the biggest challenges and also one of the highlights of my career was working on the custody case between the parents of Macauley Culkin. It was a very contentious matter. I was heavily pregnant with my first child and I had a very close relationship with the client. His brother, Kieran Culkin, was working on a movie, and my client and the younger children were all there on the set with him somewhere in Montana. The father, Kit Culkin, had visitation with Kieran and all of the children, and decided not to return them to the set at the appropriate time. At the same time, I was experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions and was unsure if I was going into labor. So there I was at home, on a conference call with the adversary, the children's attorney, and the Judge--all the while experiencing contractions.

Ultimately, there was a happy ending to that saga. Kit Culkin returned the children, he ultimately gave up on the custody case and our client won custody of the children. I had a healthy baby girl who I took to meet the client. While working on a high profile case was both intimidating and exciting, what was so meaningful to me was that at a relatively young age, I was able to hold my own against a very seasoned and aggressive male adversary who - as the world is very small - turned out to be my partner several years later, and who I went from disliking to loving and having a great deal of respect for.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to be an attorney?

Lois:
The world of law is very much like the world of business nowadays. Not only do you have to become good at what you do as an attorney and be the best that you can be at your craft, but you have to learn early how to generate business. That means that you need to start networking early and always be thinking about ways to become a rainmaker. That means join and become active in bar associations, stay in touch with people from college and law school, and become part of community boards or activities. It is all about relationship building and you can never start early enough.

Marilyn:
My advice is: come spend a day at a law firm and get a sense of what it is really all about. You are not going to get that experience in law school. You have to have a passion in life and starting out as an attorney you are not necessarily going to know what passion that is. I think you should be open to experiencing things to get a taste of what you may be passionate about. Law school won't give you that. Try different things: you can donate your time at a women's shelter or donate time in Washington to help pass legislation. Whatever you do, get exposure and find out what gives you that 'wow' feeling. Just work hard. My ultimate piece of advice is to prepare yourself. No one can ever say anything bad if you are over prepared.

How are you helping women in leadership positions, and those who aspire to be leaders?

Lois:
I have always acted as a mentor to many of the women both in my group and to young women I have met over the years, who have come to me for advice on how to break into the field. There is nothing more gratifying than watching someone who you have been mentoring succeed and achieve various milestones. There is one young woman in our group, who I have mentored over the years, who is not only turning into a formidable young lawyer, but who is now serving in leadership positions for the Women's Bar Association and within the Firm on various committees. I "kvell" about her achievements like I do with my own children.

Marilyn:
I have always been involved in mentoring. I go out frequently to meet with clients and attend events and I always take an associate or junior partner with me to give them exposure to meeting and interfacing with new people. I am always trying to give the knowledge and information that I have acquired to young women who need it. As a professional woman who has achieved success, I feel you have an obligation to extend yourself to the younger generation and provide them, in the most personal way possible, knowledge on how they can develop and achieve their goals. I'm constantly thinking about what experiences I had that can help them be fruitful in shaping their paths. If you want to see that next generation experience growth, you have a responsibility to participate.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Marilyn:
I think the key is organization. As the saying goes: if you want to get something done, ask a busy woman! You have to be very organized. Every day I get a notebook and write my list of things to do. I get great satisfaction from scratching things off each time I complete a task. You have to make time for everything.

Lois:
I actually think that the whole work/life balance goal is elusive. Some days you feel like you did well as a wife or mother, other days you feel like you really kicked butt in your career. It is very rare that you have a day that you think you hit the mark in all areas of your life. The best way for me to regain my equilibrium is to spend time with female friends who are also going through the same challenges. One of my dear friends (an owner/principal in a small family business) and I go on these long walks at a local mountain; we spend half the time talking about her professional/personal life and half the time speaking about mine, and each of us provides the other with support and advice. After each and every walk I always feel like my tank has been refilled. Not only did we get some great exercise in, but each of us could really understand what the other has been going through and provide one another with support and excellent advice to help get through another week. I also love doing Pilates on the reformer because you have to be myopically focused while exercising on the machine with the pulleys--you leave your worries at the door or else you get hurt. There is something rather wonderful about having to put everything out of your mind for 55 minutes.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

Lois:
I think that one of the biggest issues for women, at least in the legal workplace, is the drop off of numbers of women partners or women in leadership positions. As in the business world, the legal realm is getting harder. It is no longer good enough for you to just be good at what you do and have proven your merit over the years. There are billing requirements and requirements to bring in business. I think that these requirements are proving to be extremely challenging to young women with children. When they see that you can make huge sacrifices along the way and not be guaranteed an equity partner spot, or see that partnership for young partners may not necessarily have substantial financial benefits, they take themselves out of the running.

Marilyn:
On August 6th 1995 I gave birth to my son and on October 5th of the same year I closed a $90 million deal for my client. There was not a lot of time in between! It's a question of learning how to juggle, and the biggest challenge for women is having the energy to juggle everything. For me, it's in the power of mind-- staying positive, staying strong and making sure nothing is neglected. My children grew up with a mother who worked a lot but I don't think they are going to be sitting on a therapist's chair complaining about it.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?

Marilyn:
I had an incredible mentor at my first job in a very large firm, while I was still in law school. After all these years he is still one of my closest friends. He is a person who is really devoted to the law. He wouldn't stop until something got done and done the right way. I loved learning from him and he really made a tremendous difference in my life. He believed in women, which was a very big deal for a woman in her 20s starting out in a primarily male profession.

Lois:
My career has been molded by several mentors, interestingly enough, all of whom were men. First, there's the judge who recommended me for my first job in the private sector and who believed in my potential. The second, who was not only a wonderful teacher and mentor but also like a father to me, is my former partner, Stanford G. Lotwin. He not only taught me how one's integrity is one of the most important items of currency as an attorney, but he also tried to teach me how having good relationships with your adversaries can help resolve matters or at least make the process less contentious. I have also been lucky to have a wonderful mentor/best friend, Norman S. Heller, who has always been able to look past the emotion of every situation, which I often get bogged down in, and focus on the strategy and end goal. He has been a fantastic resource to me and a great support.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Lois:
I admire my partner, Sheila Ginsberg Riesel. She is not only one of the most successful female matrimonial attorneys in New York City, but she has participated in the highest levels of leadership within our Firm by having been a former member of the Distribution Committee and current member of the Executive Committee of the Firm. Sheila has never been worried about speaking her mind or going after what she wanted. She expects hard work and dedication from all the lawyers that she works with and, because she requires excellence, everyone who works for her provides her with that high level of performance. I admire her high expectations and marvel at what she has been able to achieve and what she has been able to spur others to achieve, all the while being a great wife and mother of two very successful young women. She has been a wonderful role model to me.

Marilyn:
There are two women who I admire above all others. The first is Geraldine Ferraro, my former partner at Blank Rome. I adored the time I had with her. Every week we had what we called a "landscaping lunch," during which we talked about every topic you can imagine, from what to make for Sunday dinner to how to become a great mentor. She was a real trailblazer and unstoppable. I miss her very much.

The other leader was simply leader in my life: my mother. I hope everyone adores and cherishes their mother like I do mine. She was a Holocaust survivor who came here with nothing but a desire to rebuild a family and work hard. She was the one who motivated her three daughters to go out and succeed in life. That motivation has become generational and that is why I consider her a leader. Her leadership was passed down to me and on to my two children.

What do you want Blank Rome to accomplish in the next year?

Lois:
I would like the Matrimonial Group of Blank Rome to accomplish even greater success in the next year. I want to see the younger partners continue to generate business as they have been doing, and for the super stars to continue garnering the success that they so rightly deserve. I want to continue to build the practice with bright and dedicated people and want our "office family" to continue to support each other through thick and thin. I want to see 100 percent participation in pro bono work and I want everyone to find time to give back to their communities in some meaningful way, and for each of us to support one another's endeavors. I have one young attorney who is an adjunct professor, who imparts valuable knowledge to law students; several of us have served as guest lecturers. I have another who is involved in and has raised substantial monies for the Crohns and Colitis Foundation because both of her children have been afflicted with that disease. Everyone from our department attended the event that honored her for her efforts.

Marilyn:
I want Blank Rome to continue to provide the expertise that each practice in the firm is known for, and to be able to expand, not only our client base, but to be the leaders in the various department particularly in matrimonial. I want us to continue to strive to be at that top tier, to provide clients with the best representation, and to sharpen our craft. I think what makes Blank Rome stand out is the collaboration between different practice areas, and that this unique culture will allow the firm to continue to grow."