By Lori AthertonMarch 28, 2016
When Jamala S. McFadden, '01, decided to start her own business, she wasn't looking to take on a partner. But that's exactly what she found in her friend Chandra C. Davis, '02, with whom she opened The Employment Law Solution (ELS), a boutique employment law firm in Atlanta, in 2013.
Though McFadden had been contemplating leaving her job as counsel at the law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP in Atlanta after nine years, Davis was happily working as a trial attorney with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) but knew that she did not want to work with the EEOC forever. She was intrigued when she learned of McFadden's desire to open her own law firm. "We started talking about it, and when it came down to it, we knew we wanted to start a firm together," says Davis.
ELS—the only woman- and minority-owned firm in the Atlanta area that specializes in employment law defense—offers employment law services that include advice and counseling, representation in litigation and agency matters, management and staff trainings, workplace investigations, drafting and review of employment policies and agreements, facilitating employee transitions, and subject-matter expertise in transactional matters. McFadden and Davis employ four other attorneys, and because they are a small team, they are able to provide personal service to clients at more competitive rates than big law firms. In addition, their employment law expertise and the fact that they are a woman- and minority-owned firm makes them "uniquely positioned to partner with other law firms that may not have as strong of an employment law bench," says McFadden, "or may have a need to respond to clients who want diversity in the legal team that works on their matters."
Starting a business isn't for the "faint of heart," McFadden and Davis admit, but they have no regrets about branching out on their own, even though it wasn't a lifelong aspiration for either of them and was —and still is—a scary endeavor. "It was daunting, but I was blessed to have been trained to be a good lawyer by the federal judges I clerked for, including Judge Roger Gregory, '78, and by my mentor, Curtis Mack, LLM '73, and then at the EEOC," says Davis. "I also had the support of my family and, most importantly, Jamala, so I didn't think I could fail. But it was definitely scary, and it's still scary." For McFadden, it was her faith that played a large role in pushing her to make the leap from Sutherland to her own firm. "Once I made the commitment to be obedient and walk in faith, the carpet was laid out for me and things just fell into place, including having Chandra as a partner," she says.
While conventional wisdom advises that going into business with friends might not be a good idea, Davis and McFadden are proving that a strong friendship based on shared values can forge a successful business partnership. They credit their Michigan Law connection and the principles of teamwork and collegiality that were instilled in them as law students with helping their partnership thrive. Davis, for instance, recalls how the classmates in her section shared a sink-or-swim-together ethos during law school, which she has carried with her throughout her career.
"When Jamala and I started working together, we said, 'we're in this together.' If you have a great month, we have a great month. If I have a bad month, we both have a bad month," says Davis. "We have a similar work ethic and similar thoughts about what a partnership means and about doing the right things as small business owners, and those principles are very strong in us."
"We also were very involved with the Black Law Students Association," adds McFadden, "and BLSA was very much a family. We looked out for each other in a similar way that Chandra and I look out for each other now. We have each other's backs. That's who we are as people, and it's something that was enriched at Michigan."
While McFadden, who has a grown son, and Davis, who has two children ages 5 and 8, strive to maintain a work-life balance as much as possible, Davis concedes they work harder and worry more about business now than when they working for other firms, "but we also enjoy it more, because it's for us and for our clients."
Their efforts haven't gone unnoticed by their peers, which is proof for McFadden and Davis that they are doing something right. "Firms have approached us about partnering with us in some way," notes McFadden, "and I think it's validation that we're on the right track, doing something with value."
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