THE ENTREPRENEURS

Three Pittsburgh women blaze law firm trail


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There is no fallback plan for Jennifer Enciso, Darcy Dayton and Amy Kaikis.

When the three lawyers left a small North Hills real estate and title firm this year to start their own property firm -- setting their own schedules, finding their own clients, appointing their new offices in a former Bloomfield hardware store -- they did so with the knowledge that it would be hard to ever again work for a firm if they weren't in charge.

"All of us are on the same page," said Ms. Kaikis of Shadyside. "I don't know if I can go back to working for someone else after this. So I have to make this work."

They have made it work with surprising efficiency. Some entrepreneurs spend years drafting business plans, rehabbing buildings, lining up financing. But for these attorneys, the launch of their own firm happened in mere weeks.

"Things kind of lined up correctly," said Ms. Enciso of Ben Avon.

None was happy at the previous firm. And each was married (or, in Ms. Kaikis' case, about to be), so quitting their jobs wouldn't have left any of them entirely without a household income. That lessened -- but didn't eliminate -- the financial risk.

Still, it was a scary prospect. The upfront investment was significant. Paydays would be irregular. None had experience running a business.

"I am 100 percent not a risk taker," said Ms. Dayton of McCandless. "I talked to my parents about it."

And her dad asked her a pointed question -- would you rather go to work every day frustrated? Or scared, but also optimistic?

She chose the latter.

Ms. Enciso, on the other hand, was more motivated by personal timing. At 40, it was time to fish or cut bait.

"If I'm going to do this, this is the time," she said. In another 10 years, her entrepreneurial appetite may have passed, she said.

Ms. Kaikis, the youngest of the three, left the old firm first, in February. She spent daylight hours scouting locations in Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, Shadyside and elsewhere, then sent photos and descriptions to her two soon-to-be business partners in the evenings. When the former Bloomfield Hardware space came available along Liberty Avenue, the trio signed a three-year lease and Dayton Enciso PC was nearly a reality.

Each put up $30,000 to help organize and float the firm through its soft early months (except for the several hundred dollars spent at Ikea for desks and bookshelves).

Next came a series of meetings with financial and legal professionals, who helped the trio organize as a professional corporation, deal with taxes, liability insurance, and other startup business issues.

By March 1, Dayton Enciso PC was incorporated, and Ms. Enciso and Ms. Dayton left their employer the same month. While they had discussed delaying the official opening of the firm until later in the year, spring and summer are the busiest seasons for property attorneys, which is one of the reasons they organized so quickly.

In hindsight, "We could not afford to have that lag time," Ms. Enciso said. "Spring and summer is when we had to be ready to go, to do the bulk of the real estate [closings]. ... Winter is slow."

If they hung the shingle up a bit earlier than they would have liked, it helped that they had some clients to start out with. In the legal field, and as with other professional service firms, departing professionals aren't permitted to actively court clients of the old firm. They can, however, notify clients that a departure is imminent.

In the case of property attorneys, many of the "clients" are actually real estate agents who refer property buyers and sellers. The threesome was able to keep many of those attorney-agent relationships intact, they said, giving them a small book of business to start with once the doors opened.

But they needed more and they spent the summer trying to drum up business. They printed fliers. They put a color ad in a local weekly newspaper.

"Not one person came in," Ms. Kaikis said, at least not as a direct result of advertising.

Turns out, you call real estate attorneys (or family law attorneys, or estate and trust attorneys) only when you need them -- not when you receive a flier or see an advertisement in the newspaper.

Lesson learned. "We don't do that next year," Ms. Kaikis said.

Less advertising means more shoe-leather networking. They walked up and down Liberty Avenue, meeting with neighbors and businesses (their first client from the neighborhood turned out to be the owners of a pizza shop across the street, who needed help with a property transaction).

The firm members joined the board of the newly relaunched Bloomfield Development Corp. With their street-level storefront and oversized windows, they courted walk-ins, many of whom couldn't pay for legal help and some who had no intention of doing so.

One huckster walked into the office and told the attorneys that he was rehabbing some nearby buildings, and was part of the group that developed Bakery Square. He offered to put the firm on a $10,000 retainer.

"Turns out, this guy's a fraud," hoping to use the firm's good standing to make his own business proposals seem legitimate to others, Ms. Kaikis said. The trio did not lose any money as a result, just a few hours of their time.

That's another lesson learned: There will be bumps in the road, and it helps to have a sense of humor about it.

"What else are you going to do? Get mad at each other? It's not worth it," Ms. Kaikis said.

That the three are friends is helpful; that they are all women could be a professional bonus. They hope to subtlety brand themselves as one of the city's few women-owned firms. (They've printed maroon-and-pink business cards, for example.)

There are plenty of female attorneys in Pittsburgh, and some solo practices, but not many multi-partner firms owned by women, they said. Raphael, Ramsden & Behers P.C., and McCarthy McDonald Schulberg & Joy are two of the few exceptions in Pittsburgh, and both are family law firms, which tend to have higher concentrations of women.

For the same reasons that it's still rare to see women partners and rainmakers at large firms, it's still unusual -- though it's becoming less so -- for women to own and operate small firms, said Mariah L. Passarelli, an attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney and a co-president at the Women's Bar Association of Western Pennsylvania.

Women, particularly those with children, are at a disadvantage in the legal industry, and women-retention initiatives haven't been particularly successful at larger firms. Women are more likely to devote night and weekend time "to their families and not to their practice development," she said.

Ms. Passarelli said the tide could be changing, as the past generation has seen sharp increases in the number and proportion of women in law school. In 1972, less than 10 percent of J.D. enrollees were women. Today, the proportion is roughly equal.

The three Bloomfield attorneys know it won't be easy. The winter months will be slow. And running a small firm -- juggling the legal work, the office and inventory management, the business development -- isn't for everyone.

Even for firms that are ultimately successful, the first few months and years will nearly always be a grind.

"The holidays are here. You don't know how much you're going to make in December," Ms. Enciso said. "Regardless of what [stresses] we go through now, I would take it any day" over working for someone else.

Dayton Enciso will soon be known as Dayton Enciso Kaikis, or DEK Legal.

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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