Leveraging Education and Cultivation Concepts in the Practice of Law

Sigalle Barness | August 31, 2022

In this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews D. Margeaux Thomas, Founder of Thomas Law, PLLC, a law firm representing individuals and small businesses throughout Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. Margeaux discusses how staying educated has played a huge part in the cultivation of her legal team, her family’s nutrition, and the creation of the nonprofit, Vegetable Forward. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.

 

On Her Gratitude for the Day

Breakfast with Her Kids and Appreciation from Her Mentor

 

So in true lawyer fashion, it's probably twofold. In my personal life, just being able to have breakfast with my kids and get them off to their camps and start their day on a good foot. Nutrition is like a huge part of our lifestyle here. So just having a good breakfast helps you attack your day and helps them be able to think through whatever's going on at camp and have fun and just function well.

The other part, I just had a call before this and I have a mentor who I met just randomly through a friend when I started this firm six years ago. And every question I had, he has referred someone and helped me open a door, pushed me in the right direction. He referred me to a social media marketing person who I just got off the phone with. The guy said to me, your mentor has spoken the world of you, and I just wanna help you in any way that I can get to the next level and accomplish the goals that you're set out for. I didn't even know that he had spoken to the social media person before I got on the call today. He had just given me his name. Hearing that and being a small business and having other small business owners who just help you out and everything, it's just like an amazing feeling.

 

On How She Met Her Mentor

“He’s Always Made Time”

 

Just through a friend, he was like, you should call him. He's been a great resource and he just said reach out to him. And over the years I just kept in touch and followed up and he's always been there and always taken my call and always found time. His firm, you know, is huge at this point and he's probably doing very little practice of law, but he's always made time. And I really appreciate that.

 

On Her Lawyer Origin Story

Her Father’s Encouragement Led Her to a Field She Loves

 

I didn't know what I wanted to do, but my dad was a teacher and education was a huge part of our childhood. I was a child that went to summer school every year. He was like summer break, everybody forgets everything. You won't be that child. So, um, he was the first person in his family to go to college and he was definitely like, you're gonna be a lawyer or doctor; just choose one, because those are the two things that he thought were the definition of success.

So I was talking to him and I was like, I wanna go to the Peace Corps and he was just like, get an advanced degree and then make a decision about that. But he definitely pushed me in one of those directions. And I felt like the law field was a lot more obtainable given my lack of math skills.

So, it kind of was something I was pushed towards, but it was something I really grew to love and still love.

 

On the Shift in Her Legal Path After Law School

From Criminal Law to Business Litigation

 

I really wanted to do criminal law. I wanted to try cases. I wanted to be in court. That's like the most common lawyer that we see on TV. I had a really influential criminal law teacher and I did really well and I really liked it. I got a few opportunities to apply to prosecutor offices. And I got a few job offers at the end of law school to do that, and I happened to get another job offer doing business litigation at a bigger firm. I went that direction and thought maybe one day I'll come back to criminal law. I had a ton of loans and it was more money than I had ever considered. So I was like, I just can't turn this down. It's a great opportunity. It's a prestigious firm and I never look back. I really like business litigation, but it certainly wasn't what I went to law school to do.

 

On Her Love for Business Litigation

Taking a Problem and Framing It to Help the Client and Educate the Court

 

I like the array of issues that small businesses face in disputes. And just the depth of those issues. There are so many issues of first impression, and I just love learning and writing about those issues and educating the court about the issues. I was just surrounded by so many lawyers that were exceptional writers and really good advocates for their client. I just love the idea that somebody could come to us with a problem and we could frame it better than that person going through the problem could themself. That kind of always stuck with me. I like the idea of being able to take whatever facts that seem just all over the place and people come in with all of these miscellaneous things, most of it is not even relevant to the real legal issue, and being able to help that person and frame their issue and make it persuasive to someone else.

 

On How She Frames Her Cases

The Trial is Like a Play

 

So I'm usually on the defense end. And when I was working at bigger law firms, we were representing banks and mortgage companies, and we were defending them against various consumer claims. So my background comes from defense.

And I always thought about it as a play and the plaintiff was putting on the actors and setting up the stage for this performance. And then the defense attorney is like the critic. Like we're sitting there critiquing the performance. Like "these actors don't work well together" and "that doesn't even seem believable" and "why would that be there on the set, that doesn't look like what a real beach would look like". My role as an attorney, like I get this complaint that somebody has sent to this small business owner, usually out of the blue, that they are blindsided with, and I'm looking at the play that this other person has put together. And they're trying to convince somebody that this is what happened and I'm poking holes in that theory.

 

On Her Father’s Influence

“Education is a Huge Part of Preparation”

 

He was a huge influence on my life and my practice, for sure. He was a big sports fanatic. He played sports his whole life. We played sports our whole life, me and my brother. So just the whole preparation for sports is very similar to that educational component. I think that I'm always in a position where we wanna know all the facts. We don't wanna walk in there and something surprise us. If there's a case that came out yesterday, we wanna know about it. Just staying up on the legal trends is important. Education is a huge part of preparation. So a lot of that is being prepared and educating yourself about any potential way that this could go and just playing out different scenarios.

 

On Overcoming Adversity and Starting Her Own Firm

Trying Times Gave Her the Opportunity to Plan for Her Future

 

I changed firms. I was at the first firm that I went to for about six years, and I had an opportunity to go to a firm where one of the managing partners who had hired me at the first firm I went to had went across the street to the other firm. So I decided to leave. And it was huge because I felt like I had reached a level of comfort and I had proven myself in some respect and I was starting all anew, it was a very anxiety producing decision. But I thought it was like the next step.

And in that year, like my whole life changed. My dad passed away that July, right before I took the offer and started the job. And then we were moving houses. So we were in this limbo of not having a house and living in temporary housing. And then I got pregnant with twins and I had a really difficult pregnancy and was in the hospital when I found out I was pregnant with twins and stayed there for a significant amount of time. And then when I was released, I went on bedrest and it was crazy because I had just started working at this firm. They didn't know me at all. They'd only heard about me and I think I worked there maybe a month and then the rest of it was dealing with this really high risk pregnancy. And that experience, and my dad passing away and moving and all of that just had me. I had a lot of time being on bedrest to think about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to practice. And the experience just really shaped a lot of my decisions going forward.

So I just think that anybody who goes through a traumatic experience, you start thinking about how much time do I have left? My dad died at 64. Which, the older I get, the younger that seems. And I just definitely was like I want to leave here having done something I really love to do and doing it the way that I want to do it.

So I knew that I loved working in the legal field. I loved being a lawyer, but I just definitely felt like I had reached a point of comfort. And I knew that there was something else out there. I really had always played around with the idea of starting my own firm, but I was always scared because I didn't have a book of business and everybody would say how are you gonna do that? And I never had time to develop a book of business, especially after I had twins. And all I thought about was meeting billable hours.

So that experience just had me thinking maybe if I just jump out there, it will all come into place and it'll figure itself out. And I'll just have some faith that this will work out. Just going through that experience with my dad and moving and the firm that really believed in me. You know, I was out for months and had barely done any work and they paid me and never questioned when I was coming back or never put any pressure on me. And just knew that once I got through this difficult experience, that I would be who they hired, who they had invested in. And that happened. I worked there for many years. I met a lot of great people, but at some point I always had this voice that I couldn't quiet, that was like you need to start something on your own and you need to step out there on your own and these pieces will come together.

My husband was a huge factor in pushing me to do that. And one of my clients left with me, but also continued to work with the firm because I was so involved in their case for so long. And that made my entire first year, and I had no idea that they were gonna leave. I didn't even ask them to leave. That was not my business plan. I was like, I'm somehow gonna call everybody I know and get some new cases, but that gave me like a soft landing into starting my own firm. So I was working at my living room table with two-year-old twins and it just kind of all came together.

 

On the Support She Received From Her Firm

Being Mindful of People’s Lives Outside of Work

 

I try to implement that now in my own firm, because people go through things and people have a lot going on outside of work that influences their ability to work productively. And I just try to be mindful of that and open to that and give people the spaces they need to deal with those issues and problems as they arise. So they definitely taught me a lot about that. And I think I was putting more pressure on myself than they were. I definitely was like, they're gonna fire me and I don't know what's gonna happen. But they sent flowers and cookies and balloons and said, take as much time as you need. And it ended up working out really well.

 

On the Client Who Gave Her Firm Its Start

When She Left the Firm, Client Insisted She Stay on Their Case

 

They knew that I knew more about their case than anybody else that worked at the firm. And they wanted the big firm name and the resources, but they knew that if the case was gonna go to trial, that I should be there trying the case. And I appreciated that because I felt that way, but I wasn't sure that they would. And they could have replaced me and they were planning to replace me until the client said, no, I don't want a replacement.

And the big firm I left had a lot of resources. They definitely could have eaten the cost of bringing somebody up to speed. And, you know, the client really had the power in that situation. And the client was a small business owner themself and they had become very successful. But I think that they could see a lot of themself in me. It was a family owned business and I still keep in touch with them. I mean they were a huge part of the success of my firm. I'm very grateful to them for that decision.

 

On Nurturing Client Relationships

Listening, Providing Quality Representation, and Valuing Their Time

 

A lot of listening. Understanding people's motivations and a lot of what's going on in the background. Just digging deeper into people's motivations is a lot of it. Asking a lot of questions, being present. People always say that the number one complaint that they have about lawyers is that they can't get in touch with them and they're not accessible.

So that was one of the things that I really wanted to make a priority. When I started my own firm it was we have to take less cases or cap this at some point to make sure that we can provide the type of quality representation to the clients that we have. We can't be a shop that just takes everybody and is so overwhelmed that we can't manage this.

So we're very strategic about the clients that we work with and how many there are, and making sure that we are present and know what's going on and engaged with those clients. Because I think about it in my own life, we're hiring people that we wanna give money to and they treat us so badly, service professionals and I'm just always in awe, like, how is it that I'm paying you to do your strength or whatever, small business you started and you treat the customers as if they're bothering you. I just, I didn't want to have our clients experience that.

Just feeling valued. Like they care. That's it. You know, I don't need to be your only client. I know I'm not your only client, but if you could just give me a little bit of sense that you care about the fact that I'm paying you for this service, it makes me feel better. To have somebody I can communicate who knows something about my case or whatever it is I hired you to do versus somebody who's just answering the phone and is just a body. It just makes me feel good at the end of the day. So that is the experience that I'm trying to emulate for our clients.

 

On Building Her Team

Communication and Empathy

 

So I'm sad to say, I have a paralegal who just left for law school and she wrote me the most tearjerker resignation letter that talked about how this experience had shaped her desire to go to law school and be a lawyer. She has left such big shoes to fill, but I'm so proud of all of her accomplishments and all that she's going to do.

We have a new team member and I think she's just gonna be amazing as well. We put a lot of time into filling these shoes, because there's a lot of traits that I'm looking for. Not so much experience, but, you know, just being a good communicator and having empathy and being able to, like I said, value our clients and communicate that to them.

Another attorney that I worked with who was the managing attorney at one of the first firms I worked at, I work with him now, when I started my own firm, he was the first person I called and he has been a great supporter of everything that I've been trying to do. So it's great to be able to reconnect and practice together again.

I have a law clerk who is writing a book about women's suffrage, which is gonna be amazing. We're just trying to grow the team and bring on new people that share the same values.

 

On Hiring a Recruiter

Learning How to Hire Based on Her Firm’s Core Values

 

So I actually hired a recruiter. I felt like nobody taught me this. I didn't go to business school. They don't teach this in law school. I was a terrible interviewer. You know, somebody would say something that I connected with and I would just throw everything to the wind and be like, come on in. And then I'd be like, this isn't the same person. Like it just was a terrible way of going. They say that though, people hire people that they like, but that's not always the best way to hire people. So I hired a recruiter who really taught me the process of hiring and the questions to ask and what to listen for and cues and red flags.

And I just watched her work. She was really good at what she did. I just watched her screen people and interview people and check references and all of that. And I can't say I probably do it a quarter as great as she does, but just learning the process really helped me because I had never owned a business. I'd never had to hire somebody when I was working for a firm. I never had to fire anybody. These are all skills that I don't think law school even touches on and they're really crucial to being able to run a successful business because your team is really your support network. A lot of times I have more communications with the client than you do. So having someone you can really rely upon and finding those people is just super difficult. I struggled at the beginning and I made a lot of bad hires that didn't work out and it cost me a lot of money and time and training and was very defeating.

So just learning from someone who is in that world has been really helpful.

Most recruiters, they just take a percentage. They find you someone, you hire them, they replace 'em if it doesn't work out. But this particular recruiter works on an hourly basis. And helps you throughout whatever step of the process you need. And I assume she does this with everyone, but she definitely was like giving me pointers and suggestions and saying, look, I'll hold your hand. I'll help you. Whatever capacity you need my help I'll provide it. And that was more helpful than me just giving it to a third party and saying, bring me somebody. I think she had a really good understanding of what I was looking for and was able to help me identify that, which I think was a huge component.

 

On What Leadership in Law Means

Quiet Leadership

 

So I'm learning the principles of quiet leadership and I'm really at the beginning of that process, but giving people the space to solve problems, communicate their creative process and come up with solutions versus telling people the answer.

I certainly started out as one like this is the way that I would like it done. And converting to just listening and having some restraint when people come to you with questions and letting them work through the process comes up with solutions that I never would've come up with that I think are very valuable. So just the principles of being quiet and giving people space and allowing them to come to conclusions.

I have a list of questions that I taped to my monitor so that I'm prepared when they come with a question and the number one, the one that I like the most is on a scale of one to 10. How confident are you that you have all the information you need to act on this? And a lot of the time, the answer is I have the information, I just wanna talk it out or they can come to the conclusion, they have everything that they need. That's one of them. Another one is what are your main insights about this issue and what do you think success looks like? Just lots of questions to get them to explore whatever the issue is deeper and try to come up with a solution.

I think it's good to ask permission, and say, look, I just wanna dig deeper into that. I have a few questions. Are you open to answering some questions about that?

It requires restraint and being quiet and letting the other person talk, becoming a good listener versus providing all the solutions.

 

On What She Would Change About the Legal Industry

Diversity, Inclusion, and Unconscious Bias Training for CLE Requirements in All States

 

I would definitely, hands down, without a doubt, add some type of diversity inclusion or unconscious bias training to the CLE requirements for every lawyer every year. I mean we have an ethics requirement in Virginia, but ethics is such a broad category. I mean, it could be just the model rules and has nothing to do with these issues, which I think play a part in every relationship that we have. Specifically lawyers and dealing with other lawyers and dealing with our clients and dealing with the court. There's unconscious bias that we all have that we don't think about and don't learn about, there's no class in law school about it.

And then we're just given a law degree and go out into the world. And I think that I personally have been in a lot of situations where people have made comments, microaggressions, not intentional, and have been excluded from things, not intentionally. And I just think that having better training on those issues should be a requirement for every lawyer who practices law.

 

On Something People Seem to Misunderstand About the Work She Does

Business Litigators Rarely Go to Trial

 

I think that a lot of my colleagues call ourselves trial lawyers. And a lot of our job is outside of trial. A majority of it is. I think that's a misperception just in the name itself. I attend way more mediations. I do way more consulting and developing strategies and brief writing and motions hearings than I ever do trials for my specific area of law, which is business litigation.

And I think that's true for a lot of business litigators. A lot of businesses don't want to go to trial if it can be avoided. I think there's a small minority of cases that actually do go to trial. Yet most of the business litigator's websites say trial lawyer in the first, you know, that's the description of them. But I think that we're a lot more than that. And I think that's a really small part of what we do.

I don't think a lot of people want to go to trial. So it's like I'm hiring this person to do something that I really don't wanna do anyway. A lot of my clients want the outcome that they want. But if it could be done quietly and it's not on the front page news and there's a confidentiality clause and they can go their separate ways, that's usually what they're looking for. Not some public forum to air their grievances.

I mean they may start out like that, but once they're in the legal process, they realize that this takes a lot of time and energy away from running their business and most of them wanna reach a resolution as efficiently, cost effectively as possible.

 

On A Piece Of Practical Advice To Leaders In Law

“Follow That Inner Voice”

 

I think that's a great question. I would say just follow that inner voice. I definitely tried to quiet that voice for many, many years. And I allowed other people around me to define what success in the law looked like. And at the time being at a law firm and becoming a partner was like prestigious and you made good money and you could support your family and that's what people pushed lawyers to do. But the law degree has so many different avenues and I've heard so many people on your podcast talk about different roads and uncharted territories that I think that it's important to listen to that and not let other people define what that looks like for you.

 

On Who Has Had the Largest Impact on Her Life

Her Father Inspired Her to Be the Best Person and Parent She Can Be

 

I think it all goes back to my father again. He was definitely the person that was there for me when I didn't know what to do and had sound advice and was very encouraging, and was always in my corner. And it's crazy because at his funeral, there were so many people. There was a standing room only of people who had the same experience that I did. I didn't even know that he had touched so many. I mean, he was an educator to thousands of children over his career. But to hear other people tell the same story that I had and not even knowing them is just, it was really moving to me. So he definitely was that person for me. And hopefully I'll be able to instill some of those traits in my own children and be there for them the way he was for me.

 

On Self-Care

Gardening with Her Kids

 

So when the pandemic happened, I realized I didn't have very many hobbies or anything that I was doing for self care. And I got into gardening, a lot. I never had time for it before, or at least I thought I'd never had time for, it requires a lot of being out there and watering, but I happened to be at home and my kids were at home and it was something that we could do together.

So, starting a garden and tending to it just kind of fed into my kids' nutrition, which is something that I was always interested in. Being out in my garden gives me time to not think about work. Like I only think about the task at hand, which frees me because most of my day, like I wake up and I'm thinking about work, I'm in the shower thinking about work. And just finding something that allows you to not think about what's going on in work has been really beneficial to me.

 

On Founding Vegetable Forward

The Importance of Childhood Nutrition

 

We just started. It's very new and it all tied into the concept of childhood nutrition. I had been given a lot of seminars on that to different organizations I was a part of. And then when my kids became school age and my daughter's were in preschool they wanted to start gardens at the schools and teach the kids to garden. And I was like that's a great cause. How can I support that?

So I just created a company to assist with that, whether it's educating kids about growing things and cooking the food and how to start the process and getting schools to, you know, they're just kind of overwhelmed with all the resources and where to start and what to get and what they need and where they get it from. And there's just a lot of organizations that give seeds to schools and will help you with that. So I just try to be the intermediary and help the schools develop that program because I think it is super important for kids to know where their food comes from. It plays a part in them becoming better eaters and having good nutrition values.

I became a vegetarian when I was eight. I guess when I was a kid, I was like why are we eating all these animals? And I just felt very strongly about that at a young age. And my parents supported me in that even though they're huge meat eaters. My husband eats meat. My kids do. I don't force that on anybody else, but I don't know. It's always been something that I was interested in, what we're putting in our body, the chemicals that they put in the food that we eat and how that affects our ability to function has just always been something I was interested in even at a young age.

 

Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.

Subscribe or follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Audible, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. You can also follow @lawyerswholead on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. Let's celebrate and continue to build a community of leaders in law together.

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.

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