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April 2017 - Matthew Umhofer
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WLALA Profiles

Matthew Umhofer

By: Andrea Schoor

 

As part of the Sixth Annual “Law Rocks” concert, you named the WLALA Foundation as the beneficiary of your fundraising efforts.  Thank you!  What led you to choose WLALA this year?

I’ve been a huge WLALA fan for years. Some of my favorite lawyers are WLALA members, including Susan Dewitt, whom I worked with and learned so much from at the United States Attorney’s Office, and WLALA President Stacy Horth-Neubert, who ran Skadden’s pro bono efforts in LA and offered so much support for the work I did for Planned Parenthood and other nonprofits. It’s just a really well run organization that serves an incredibly important purpose.

 

How long have you been a member of WLALA and what led you to join?

I've been a WLALA member for a few years now, I believe.  I think what drove it home for me is the mentor relationships I’ve had in the law over the years, and how challenging it can be for women who practice law, in government and in the big firm. It’s an uphill battle for women far too often; there still aren’t enough women in partner or leadership positions at firms, and an organization that offers support and advice to women facing that uphill battle deserves the full support of every lawyer, regardless of gender. 

 

Tell us about your musical background, your band and where we can see you play!

Music has always held this kind of luminous, transcendent place in my life, and no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to let go of the draw to music. Some of the best moments of my life are those when I’ve just lost myself in song or a performance. My earliest memories are musical—singing with my mom while she played the piano, dancing to some 50s doo-wop tune with my dad.  I was the geek lugging around the cello for most of my childhood.  And high school for me was pretty much the television show “Glee,” but set in the late 80s—we had this amazing choir director, Gary Lamprecht, who had us traveling all over the place doing classical, jazz, pop. In college, I was the vocalist for the Notre Dame jazz band and the lead singer in a funk band.  Since then, it's been doing the music at church, a bit of busking here and there, an occasional wedding for a friend, campfire sing-alongs, and playing on the porch on Sunday afternoons. Music is just something I need in my life—I get out of sorts if I don’t play once a week. 

I don't have a band for Law Rocks. It's just me and my 12 string guitar up there. It's thrilling and terrifying all at once. But, this is my one and only gig a year.  And then, it's eternally memorialized on YouTube, for better or for worse.

 

Did you have female role models growing up, and if so, can you please tell us about them and how they had an impact on you?

Mrs. Avery, my high school English teacher, was transformative for me.  She was lit from within by this belief that we were all writers and we just needed to discover it.  I had always considered myself a good writer, until I walked into her class.  She laid bare all the flaws in my writing and rebuilt me into someone who could actually express a thought clearly on the page. She did it with firmness and kindness and good humor.  But, woven into everything she did, was a sense of obligation—you had this feeling in her presence that you had to get good at this, your survival depends on it. And, as a lawyer, that turned out to be the case. If I'm any good as a lawyer, it's because of my writing. It's where I think and it's where I learned the strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities and the challenges of every case. 

Oh, and my mom. She's a fierce, compassionate people expert who worked incredibly hard as a college professor and a mother, and taught me by example how to be a good human.

 

Do you have any advice for young women today who may be interested in studying law and/or are starting out their careers as lawyers?

Do it.  We need you.  Ignore the folks who say there are too many lawyers out there. There aren't nearly enough good ones, and the law needs good lawyers who are women now more than ever.

You hear “find a good mentor” a lot at this portion of the interview, but I don’t think that works, because it’s often something beyond your control.  I like this advice better: be self-reliant.  Wherever you are in law school or early in your career, you have the ability to become a really good lawyer through your own efforts. Want to learn how to do things better? Find out who's doing it well and learn how to imitate them. Want to get a skill you don't have yet? The resources are out there, you just have to find them. Don't wait for somebody to come along and make you into a good lawyer. Become one.

 

Do you have any advice for practicing women attorneys about how to succeed in what is still a male-dominated field (to the extent you agree with this characterization, of course)?

Just to be awesome. I'm obsessed with the musical Hamilton, and I love the contrast between Hamilton’s ambition, brashness, take-a-shot nature and Aaron Burr’s cautious, calculating, wait-for-it approach to life. The women I admire in the law are the Hamiltons—the ones who go after opportunities. 

 

What personality traits and/or skills do you believe have led you to being such a successful attorney?

For me, it's all about the diligence. You can be a good lawyer simply by outworking the other side. You don't have to be particularly smart. In fact, I sometimes think being smart is overrated in the lot. I'd much rather have an associate who works her butt off than a kid who is much smarter than I am but doesn't put in the extra hours.

 

How do you balance your successful legal career with raising a family?

The best advice I have is to set your default early in your career.  Here’s what I mean by that.  I made a conscious choice at the beginning of my legal career to get home at a reasonable hour every night. I just didn't want to be a slave to this profession. But I knew that wouldn’t be easy. So, upon graduating from law school, I promptly bought a dog to be a lifestyle enforcer. I had to get home at a reasonable hour to walk him.  And even though I had some pretty hours intensive jobs, as a prosecutor and then at Skadden, I’d arranged my life around getting home by six, and that became my default.  It made me more efficient—I was more productive during the day because I had to get home.  Of course, I’d work after I got home some nights.  And sure, I stayed late when I needed to, and sometimes did so many nights in a row.  But, my default was getting home by six, and I'd always return to that when the urgent thing was resolved.   

I can't tell you how many young lawyers I see whose default is getting home by eight or nine o'clock. That's going to make it very hard to adjust when family responsibilities arrive.  And now that I'm running my own firm, I can say without reservation that I don't care if people are here late, and frankly it makes me uncomfortable. I'd rather they get the work done during the day and go home and live their lives.

 

What is one of the professional accomplishments of which you are most proud?

I've been representing Planned Parenthood for nine years now, and I've fought very hard for them in a series of cases in which longtime opponents of Planned Parenthood have tried to use the False Claims Act as a weapon to destroy Planned Parenthood nationally.  These opponents brought cases in the name of the federal government, seeking damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The cases would have put Planned Parenthood out of business.  I took both cases up to the Ninth Circuit, and prevailed on both. 

 

What is one of the personal accomplishments of/about which you are most proud?

Creating your own law firm, and truly becoming your own boss are things I'm not sure anyone's really prepared for. My partner Jim Spertus and I have built something really special—we are both former federal prosecutors, so about half of our work is white-collar criminal defense, and the other half is some really cool civil/commercial litigation. We’re up to 11 lawyers now, so it’s growing, and I'm having more fun practicing law than I ever have. Building this firm, and being a present husband and father are probably the two things I'm most thankful for these days. 

 

Andrea Schoor is the WLALA Appointive Office Committee Co-Chair.  Ms. Schoor is a senior counsel from Allen Matkins.

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8/9/2017
Downtown Mentoring Circle Dinner