Lawyers live by a rule book. Sure, they may bend the rules on occasion, but the profession is steeped in rituals and static practices. Business, on the other hand, is constantly evolving, and success can often depend on new ideas and flexibility.
Michelle Bomberger decided to merge the two. She's the founder of Equinox Business Law Group, and in 2012, "Puget Sound Business Journal" named her a "40 Under 40" honoree. In addition, "425" magazine readers voted her Best Lawyer in a 2009 vote.
"Lawyers tend to be very traditional. I want to get other people to recognize that there are other options. Personally, I'd like to do more new things," Michelle says.
A Panama-native, Michelle moved to the States to attend college at Notre Dame. Afterward, she spent some time at a business-consulting firm and worked on projects with small organizations. This is where her passion began to form.
"The ability to do more and have a larger effect on their group resonated with me more with a smaller organization," she says. She went back to school, to understand the business aspect better, and received her joint MBA and Law degree from Northwestern. "I wanted to be a business-centric lawyer. I thought that I could do more."
So, eight years ago this month, Michelle created her own firm, which is now five people strong.
Some things have happened along the way which have made Michelle more empathetic to her clients and have helped her understand details from a business perspective—not just a legal one.
Michelle has her own entrepreneurial experience; she and her husband owned restaurants, which they closed in 2010. "Having gone through the process of opening the restaurant with a business partner and having to work through some issues and close it, the experience for me, as far as being able to serve my clients, is really amazing," Michelle says. "Because you live through it emotionally; you live through it financially."
When clients come to her firm with very real concerns, Michelle is able to relate. "The conversations you have with clients who are starting into that process, and sort of coming out of that process is very different. It's very real. It's not just theoretical. I can very much relate to what they're experiencing."
Her background has created a desire to be an advocate for businesses, and look to their future, with a plan for how to get there, rather than always be in a reactionary state. "We address their needs from a business standpoint, not a legal standpoint. In talking to them about what they want to accomplish, we can come up with the legal options to help."
There are some business sectors that Michelle finds especially challenging and rewarding, one of which is manufacturing. Part of this is due to manufacturers' impact on the economy, with the many jobs they provide, and part is because of the educational side of the practice—going into schools and teaching kids what the business is, and how to master the countless trades associated with it.
"From a holistic business standpoint, it's a really interesting industry, and its impact on the economy I think is just so great."
Education is one of Michelle's interests, and a passion that she often carries into her firm. Her favorite pro bono work is with Seattle University's Community and Economic Development Clinic, where the school brings in businesses that need legal aid and puts a business student, a law student and a legal and business professional on a team to all work toward the solution. The professionals serve as mentors, while the students get real-life experience.
"Ultimately, the client is being helped, but at the same time, you're actually coaching the students because they're the ones directly serving the client," Michelle says. "It blends so many different elements of what we want to do."
That's why Equinox is a team of business professionals who practice law. "I want people with a breadth of business knowledge—people who have real experience in it."
With these type of individuals all working together, there's a different type of discussion that takes place, according to Michelle. "Those conversations about both the tactical and the strategic are really what I love."
Equinox operates more like a business than a typical law firm, in accordance with Michelle's original vision. The quick response time to questions, and the fixed-fee model are both standards that were non-negotiable during the building phase. "I had a vision for what I thought the firm could be; what it could do to serve clients better. I love my job," she says.
Her job isn't her whole life, though. Michelle also spends her time on the board of directors for Seattle University's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and the Center for Advanced Manufacturing Puget Sound. She's also volunteered with Help a Mother Out—working to collect diapers for the families who need them—for Westside Baby in West Seattle, Eastside Baby Corner in Issaquah and for Olive Crest, which has a focus on keeping children safe through foster care and other programs.
Michelle is also a busy mom of daughter, Kyra—age 7—and son, Daniel—age 9. Most of her current hobbies revolve around them; she's involved with her son's Boy Scouts activities, and she coaches her daughter's basketball team, which she says is a lot more about basic skills and less about strategy.
But if there's one thing Michelle has learned through building her practice, it's that you can't build without the basics.
"We still have a long way to go to get where I want the company to be," she says. "But it's about being present and having the integrity and follow-through. Success is defined differently—it's really believing in what we're doing."