Piedmont Business Journal Fall 2012: 25 Women to Watch

Out and about: Attorney raises the bar on community networking

By Bill Walsh
Piedmont Business Journal staff Writer

For many folks of a certain age, fictional Sheriff Andy Taylor was a model of how parenting should be conducted, an exemplar of grace under pressure, a remarkable proponent of live and let live, a nearly perfect nephew to Aunt Bea, boss to Deputy Fife, consort to Helen and sympathetic public official to all other residents of Mayberry.
For a later generation, the late Andy Griffin’s portrayal of Ben Matlock was more formative.

Marie Washington got interested in law at an early age, a natural inclination that was honed by watching the popular weekly drama with her grandfather.

Her interest originally pointed her to law enforcement.

“Back when I graduated (from William & Mary), there were four avenues to get into FBI,” Washington recalled, one of which was a law degree.

“I thought I’d go to law school and maybe think about the FBI. But as soon as I got out and started practicing law, I loved it. Being an FBI agent would have been snazzy and juicy…and tough, but I just really enjoy practicing law.”

She had to make some important and life-shaping decisions pretty quickly when she earned her JD from Washington & Lee.

“A week after I graduated, I found out that I was going to be accepted into the FBI Academy, though it usually takes years to get through the process. My dad said, ‘we paid all that money for W&L, you better practice law for a couple of years.’ I’m glad I did,” she said.

Returning home to Fauquier, where her family has deep roots in the southern end of the county, Washington went to work for Warrenton attorney Mark Williams. His office offered familiar surroundings.

“The first summer I came home from law school, I was looking for people I could shadow,” she said. “I called probably 15 people, and Mr. Williams was the only one who called me back and gave me a shot. He had a jury trial coming up and told me that if I wanted to watch, come on by.”

Williams, she said, “was really open and didn’t mind someone shadowing him. Sometimes it’s hard when you are in the flow and you’re busy, you don’t really have time to explain to somebody else what’s going on. But he didn’t mind at all.”

After she finished in Lexington, Williams offered her a job, “and I jumped at it,” she said. “We call him Mr. D. Mr. Defense, he is the go-to person for criminal defense. Just to be able to work with him was wonderful because he was my mentor all through law school.”

Washington worked in Williams’ Culpeper Street office for eight years from 2003 until 2011, when she struck out in her own.

“I had always wanted to have my own practice, but it is really scary, especially when you are young, “Washington mused.

“When you are young, you need someone who is a little bit older, established, has a little bit of gray hair, someone to [tell clients] ‘she’s OK, she’ll take care of you.”

But after eight years, Washington felt as though she had a good foundation, and counter intuitively, that the struggling economy was working in her favor.

“I knew that rents were low,” she said. “My landlord is Brett Nelson. He said he had a space if I wanted it,” at the Lee Street office condominium directly across the street from the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office.

“I knew that he would work with me, if I were to have cash flow problems, I knew he wouldn’t kick me out. And I just felt like it was the right time,” Washington said.

“Mark [Williams] was going to have another associate come in to intern, so I knew it would be a good time for me to leave, that he would have somebody to do my case load.”

Summer is a traditionally slow time, even for attorneys, making it a good time to move – for the firm she was leaving, and for the one she was setting up.

Nelson was a help in other ways. In starting a new business, ‘you have to have a good financial adviser, “Washington said. “Do you really have the cash flow? Can you make your rent? Can you pay your malpractice insurance? Do you have the money?

“I met with Brett, and we developed a really tight budget which we felt could work.”

Washington quickly began branching out in the community, networking.

She is a member of both local chambers of commerce, and of the Southern Fauquier Business Owners Association.

“Some people have to work at it, but I love going to all these functions, talking to people,” Washington said.

She made contacts through volunteer work, too, taking a seat on the advisory board of Fauquier Faith Partners.

And she has learned the value of letting the community in on what’s she’s doing.

“If you don’t keep yourself alive, people tend to forget about you and you’re just like anybody else,” she said. “So you want to brand yourself, get out there.”

For instance, I was on the board for the mandatory legal education committee. Usually, nobody my age gets that; usually it’s people who have been practicing law for 20, 30 years. I did a press release in the Fauquier Times-Democrat to say, look, the Supreme Court nominated me to be in this committee; if you have questions, let me know.

“I was very proud of it, so I let the world know,” she said. “It’s amazing how many people actually see it. I’ll be in Harris Teeter and people congratulate me about it. It makes you feel good that your community knows what you’re doing.”

What she is doing is a general practice, split about equally between domestic work and criminal, civil and contract matters.

“I’m a general practice attorney, so I do a little bit of everything,” Washington said. Well, almost everything. “I don’t do employment law or bankruptcy or patent work.”

“It’s nice, because I can do a criminal case one week, divorce the next week, then do a will. It’s nice to have the change.”

Her modus operandi likely won’t change; she has no significant expansion plans.

“I just want it to be me,” she said of her practice. “It’s hard to manage staff, to make sure, as a business owner that everything is working. I don’t want to have to manage another attorney. I don’t want to have to look over them, or make sure that their cases are going OK. I just like being by myself.”

“My boss is cool,” Washington said with a laugh. “She’ll give me a Friday evening off every now and then.”