A Chinese proverb states that a man grows most tired by standing still.
That’s true for a woman, too, said Milwaukee lawyer Mary Lee Ratzel.
Ratzel recently left her comfort zone, a partnership at a well-known boutique for medical-malpractice defense, to accept the new challenge of leading a large law firm’s health law group.
The new position at von Briesen & Roper SC has required her to decrease her trials, from about six annually to half that. Ratzel has complemented it with a new, additional emphasis on risk management.
“Some people told me, ‘I can’t believe you had the gumption to do that.’ But I think sometimes you have to try different things,” she said. “I knew this would be an expansion of my trial practice. I saw it as a tremendous opportunity, and I’m really enjoying it.”
Very early in her career, another instance of Ratzel’s gutsiness was when she approached a well-known opposing counsel, Don Peterson, after a deposition.
“Although Mary Lee was a young attorney and had no prior contact with the case, the manner in which she conducted herself and questioned my client was impressive,” he said. “So impressive, in fact, that six months later, when I was in need of an associate, I gave Mary Lee a call. For the next 30 years, it was my pleasure to work with her, both as an associate and then a law partner.”
Reflecting back on her approximately 70 trials, Ratzel said the best aspect of her work has been the opportunity to bond with clients and to demonstrate compassion.
In one particularly memorable case, mid-trial, plaintiffs rejected a settlement offer. Ratzel’s physician client, who’d denied liability, had just accepted the idea of settling, and suddenly trial was back on. The client was upset. So on a Friday night, and her own wedding anniversary, Ratzel followed the client on her drive home and spent a while there bolstering her spirits. The next morning, they got to work on renewing their vigorous defense, and ultimately prevailed.
Ratzel said the goal of equal opportunity for men and women lawyers largely has been met. In health law especially, she typically works with more women attorneys than men.
She’s worried, however, that lately there aren’t enough women in litigation. Also, in medical malpractice, she said, there simply aren’t many new lawyers of either gender coming up in the ranks.
That’s in part, she hypothesized, because trial work is so demanding, and combining it with family life is, and will continue to be, a challenge for both genders.