Since 2005, I have practiced with my husband, Mike Ambroziak, at our small law firm, Ambroziak Kitto, PC. Both of us have been practicing since 1998, and have previous work experience prior to law school: Mike in post-production film and I in tax accounting.
When Mike decided to hang his own shingle in 2004, I was more than dismayed and required time to adjust, since self-employment scared the living daylights out of me. I had worked at accounting or law firms since 1992, and I was fond of a nice office, benefits, assigned work, lack of marketing duties, and what I saw as stability. Mike, however, was unfazed by the prospect, having been raised by entrepreneurial parents and having always planned on self-employment, whether through law, real estate or otherwise.
However, to my surprise, I joined him in self-employment just a year later. I am sure I am neither the first nor the last attorney to struggle with balancing large law firm practice with motherhood.
At that point, we had a 2-year-old daughter. I wanted to be present as a parent, and I was unsure that this was possible for me if I stayed at a large law firm. I also was starting to realize I could generate business—not Fortune 500 business, but local business—and I was excited at the prospect of having more control over my rates and retainers. I remembered what it was like to represent closely held companies and individuals from my days as a tax accountant, and I thought I might enjoy representing those clients a bit more than representing Fortune 500 companies. It was my hope that running my own shop would allow me the flexibility to grow our family (which definitely did grow with the birth of our twin sons in 2007!).
The main takeaway in working with a spouse for nearly a decade is what a study in contrasts we are, and how important it is to respect one another’s differences. As part of our representation of closely held businesses, we were able to see plenty of success stories in family businesses, where parents, adult children, or siblings or husbands and wives worked together successfully. However, we also handled plenty of messy “business divorces” as partners sued or parted ways. Those experiences informed how we dealt with the obvious challenges of working together.
Our practice areas are opposite, but complementary. Mike’s practice is entirely transactional (intellectual property, real estate and general business), while I had been a commercial litigator for years—to which I added probate, estate planning, and trust and estate administration. We are able to refer clients back and forth to one another or work jointly on matters.
Either we chose those practice areas because of our personalities, or practicing in our respective areas shaped us. Regardless, ten years ago, our emotional approach was quite different. Litigation is conflict-oriented, even where most cases eventually settle. Transactional and real estate deals require consensus-building, and Mike has that quality in abundance. His sense of humor informs all of his communications. My negotiation style has been improved greatly from practicing with Mike and closely observing his style.
I am a better and different type of communicator for practicing at his side.
I am also a much better litigator when I navigate real estate, IT or IP disputes, because Mike is my co-pilot on the substantive law. I am a better estate planning attorney when I have an estate that has business succession, real estate or IP assets involved because of his input.
Our small business skills also vary. Mike is far better in IT than I, and I enjoy marketing and human resources more. I have been billing in law or accounting to the six-minute increment for 22 years, and Mike was in a creative field prior to law. We both engage in marketing efforts, but we have very different approaches to it. We have learned from these differences.
Another contrast was that Mike was far better at screening his clients or firing problem clients than I was in the first few years. I wanted the business no matter what, and had a high tolerance for difficult clients, no matter how stressful. Perhaps the greatest life lesson I have learned from Mike is that it will all work out eventually, and that it is important to spend time on the people or activities I enjoy in the pursuit of business, and not force it (or let the business go) when it is not a fit.
In all honesty, in the first five years, we did have challenges in terms of learning to respect each other’s differing approach to marketing, billing or time management. I believe we have come very far in acceptance of each other’s strengths.
Our approach to a physical office space and how much time we spend together has evolved, as well.
Every time we attend a wedding and an officiant intones: “let there be spaces in your togetherness,” the phrase speaks volumes to me.
No good business partnership between a husband and wife would last without space. For a few years, we ran our law firm out of an 1883 building in the Jefferson Park neighborhood of Northwest Denver. While we loved our building and enjoyed restoring it, it was not always a fit for my clients. Mike’s real estate investor clients understood perfectly why we bought it. Mike’s IT clients rarely saw the office, as Mike provided legal services over the phone and via email. However, the location was difficult for some of my clients. More than one of my new clients came in saying things like: “Cute building on the inside, but is my car safe here?” After a couple of years in the same office, we made the decision to work in separate offices. That provided some separation that was good for us, in that we could come home from work at the end of a busy day and truly ask, “How was your day?” Now, I work in downtown Golden, four minutes from our children’s school, and feel really blessed in my office and family balance arrangement.
The other thing I do love about practicing with my spouse is the lack of politics. There is tremendous value to me in the efficiency of avoiding doing things by committee. We do not have to consult partners about staffing, marketing, budgets or other decisions. Mike and I have enough shared philosophies about the way we provide legal services, marketing, and low overhead that we do not have to consult one another anymore too much. Our partnership has allowed us to jettison a fair amount of inefficiency. Our shared philosophies enabled us to be nimble enough to survive and thrive during a historic recession, in a way that might have been very difficult had we been part of a larger law practice.
Now that we are ten-plus years into this law partnership, it is truly difficult to conceive of a different life plan. The quality of life benefits and flexibility we have had to raise our three kids as a result of our decision to practice together and control our own rates, retainers, choice of clients and hours cannot be overstated.
By Joanna (“Jo”) Kitto, who is a shareholder at Ambroziak Kitto, PC, a mother of three, and married to Mike Ambroziak. Jo is a native of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and focuses her practice in the areas of commercial litigation, dispute resolution, probate and trust administration, estate planning, family law and elder law.
In 2004, when I hung my own shingle for the first time, I did not plan on practicing with my spouse; she seemed very comfortable with large law firm employment. A year later, my wife informed me that she was my new law partner, and Ambroziak Kitto, PC was born. Practicing with Jo was fine with me; I knew that we could make our complementary practice areas work well, and that we would be on the same page to provide quality legal services, keep our overhead low, take more revenue home, and enjoy the flexibility of self-employment during our early years of parenting.
I have been fortunate to know many husband and wife business partners/teams over the years, and the most common refrain shared was the importance of giving each other space. Sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. The most successful teams often seemed to have a little of both, with the spouses working physically at different locations at times, and having different responsibilities and spheres of authority within the business.
For instance, I’ve known some husband–wife teams where one spouse focuses on sales and marketing while the other focuses more on operational issues, or physical production in the case of brick-and-mortar businesses. What works best for a given couple always seems to stem from acknowledging not only the relative strengths of each partner, but also their interests. I’ve known plenty of people who were very talented at something but they drew no satisfaction, or sustenance, from it. Once the couple switched focus to the activities that got them excited when they woke up in the morning, their world seemed to turn around for the better.
In the early days of our firm, Jo fell quite naturally into the role of Director of Marketing. She knew what needed to be done, and she immediately set about making it happen. I, on the other hand, brought some technological skills to the table and so quickly found myself as the Director of IT, maintaining all our systems by myself in the early days, and trying to find new efficiencies for the law firm as it grew. For some time I very much enjoyed that aspect of things, as sort of an enjoyable and rejuvenating mental break from the legal work. I also jumped in and tackled our real estate needs, renovating properties to use as both an office and an investment, which was also a welcome counterpoint to the legal work.
In this way, Jo and I had some space where we could utilize our respective strengths and stretch a little. On the legal side of things, being a consummate litigator for years, Jo expertly handled all of the litigation needs of my clients when she joined, and then added her own as the marketing paid off. I focused on general corporate, transactional, intellectual property and real estate matters. We were fortunate to have our individual expertise and responsibilities and it worked well in many ways. Certainly there were times when one of us dared to have an idea about how something in the other’s sphere might be done better.
Over time, we both learned that sometimes helpful suggestions aren’t so helpful, and that a little deference toward the other person’s chosen and considered approach can go a long way.
We also learned through experience that physical space can be beneficial. In the first year of the business, I had set up shop in a 600 square foot Victorian we had renovated, and it was a wonderful place to work. But once we were both in there, and trying to squeeze some space for staff, we quickly found out how many opportunities there are in any given day to armchair quarterback what you see your spouse doing. We spent some years at another building in Northwest Denver, as well. Years later, we’ve come to appreciate having offices in physically different locations, which minimizes any urges to second-guess the other. And, as Jo says, we can actually ask how each other’s day was.
The ability to share conversation is one very nice aspect to practicing with your spouse. We always have plenty to talk about, and plenty to learn from each other’s experiences as we stretch into new legal and business challenges. For instance, I’ve very much enjoyed working at Jo’s side and learning more about estate planning and probate administration as she has grown that business over the years. Just when things might start to get repetitive, one or the both of us will have some interesting matter to share, and sharing those experiences makes us better attorneys.
Ultimately, somewhere in between the physical space and the operational space, we’ve found plenty of room for learning and collaboration, and it has turned out to be a great fit for professional growth and to provide balance for our personal lives.
By Mike Ambroziak, a Chicago native with a prior career in the San Francisco media post production community. He is an avid real estate investor and is baffled as to why everyone in the U.S. hasn’t moved to Colorado.