At Her All-Women Firm, Jessica Markham Strikes the Right Balance

By Jeffery Leon

March 26, 2018

Jessica Markham

Jessica Markham is the founder of Markham Law Firm, a Bethesda, Maryland-based family law practice that is unique in that all its attorneys are women. The firm recognizes the needs of working women and provides an accommodating atmosphere that emphasizes healthy work–life balance. The D.C. Bar recently spoke with Markham about the founding of her firm and her experiences as a woman in the law.

How did you get into family law?

I originally applied to my prior firm’s workers’ compensation [practice] . . . I went to the interview and told them I was interested in doing workers’ comp, but the need at that time was for an associate in family law, which was the main practice area of the firm. I was candid that I didn’t have much interest in family law or any knowledge about it, but they continued to talk to me anyway. So I sat there and thought, Okay, maybe I'm not getting this job.

The firm called me a couple of weeks later to offer me a job, telling me, “We know you don’t know anything about family law, but we think you’d be really good at it.” I took the job.

What do you enjoy most about family law practice? 

I love family law. I like how [it] interacts with other types of law. You need to know about real estate, disability law, tax law, etc., and there’s always more to learn. I enjoy the tax pieces, the psychological aspects, and dispute resolution. I love helping people, problem solving, and being in the courtroom. You’ve got to have a lot of different skills to be successful at family law.

What prompted you to start your own firm?

I was previously at a wonderful firm and I was there for 10 years. I could've been there close to forever since I loved the firm and the people there. I remember thinking that as long as I was learning something, I’d stay there, but then I realized that I'll always be learning. Every year I set goals, and one thing I really wanted to do was to own my own business.

Two events motivated me. One was seeing a “For Sale” sign for a commercial office space that caught my eye. I checked it out and thought the space was cute and unique. By the time I looked up the availability, it was taken, but a friend let me know about another space, which we went to go see. I thought, I could see myself here, but didn’t have the firm idea set.

The second was a friend who wanted to move here from Florida. She had a child and was running a successful firm, but balancing both was too much. She decided to come to D.C., and I said to her, Wouldn’t it be crazy if we started a firm together? Our husbands joked and said if we were in the same city together we’d take over the world.

What was the experience like starting your firm?

When starting my firm, I was asked several times, mostly by men, if I was going to work on my own because I wanted more time with my family. It was interesting because I spoke to a man who was in a similar situation and he said people assume he’s doing it because he wants to make more money, but for me it was because I wanted to be with my children more. The answer can be both. I wanted to create a firm where we embrace work–life balance and have happy employees, including myself. We all have families and home lives and we don’t live to work; we work to live.

Though the practice of law is changing, there are still a myriad of issues for attorneys around work–life balance, job satisfaction, stress, alcoholism, and drug abuse. I decided that if I wanted to start a firm, I wanted to try and make it different, not just do things the way everyone else does it. If you say, “That’s not the way we do things,” then you’re never going to grow, change, and find a better way.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced so far?

The biggest challenge is making sure the business is there. I don't do any advertising, so it's been mostly attorney or client referrals.

I've had to learn to manage a team of people and [the] workflow, and I think that's something most attorneys haven't had experience with. I have an amazing team. They’re self-starters, trustworthy, and work hard. We’ve developed a reputation in the community for good work. I want to ensure that everyone is growing and learning and meeting their personal goals, and to give them what they need to succeed. Also, ensuring that we grow the business in a responsible way that still allows us to do our best is a challenge as well.

What’s the atmosphere like in your office?

I spend more time at my office than I do at home. I wanted it to be comfortable and a place that I enjoy going. I specifically wanted my office to be an extension of me and as far away from a traditional law office as I could get. Other than the office chairs, I bought absolutely no “office furniture.” We are primarily paperless. I think banker’s boxes and unrelenting stacks of paper and files contribute to chaos and stress in law offices. It’s largely unnecessary with technology. We try and stay clean and minimalist, uncluttered. One mediation client recently called it reminiscent of South Beach. Another called it “pristine.” There’s no dress code, and there is an office dog.

How is the dynamic between everyone at the firm?

Everyone is very supportive and aware of the other attorneys’ upcoming deadlines and workload. When trials are approaching, the office gets very quiet. There is a strong team dynamic. No one is an island. We look out for one another, even if it just means picking up lunch for a colleague who is in a deposition or trying to make it to court on time.

Any advice to young women entering the law?

Find the best mentors you can and take every opportunity you can to educate yourself. For years I went to every CLE I could that was remotely in my practice area, both in Montgomery County [Maryland] and D.C., to learn everything that I could.

Always challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone. There’s nothing to fear…you just have to keep trying.

Read more about the women attorneys at Markham Law Firm, including Chanel Dolinsky and Jillian Morris, and how they juggled motherhood and career.