Meet This Month's LAWYER OF ATLANTIC COUNTY #LOAC
Modeled after the infamous HUMANS OF NEW YORK (#HONY) Site, the ACBA Young Lawyers Division has started LAWYERS OF ATLANTIC COUNTY (#LOAC) to foster a deeper, more personal connection among members of the Atlantic County Bar. Each month, ACBA Young Lawyers Division chooses a different attorney to be featured here as that month's Lawyer of Atlantic County. Attorneys are nominated by members of the ACBA and YLD.; any attorney who is nominated by not chosen for a given month will automatically be put back into the running for each subsequent month until chosen. Interview questions focus on the attorney's professional and life experiences.
Donna Michael-Ziereis, Esquire
Vice President & General Counsel at AtlantiCare
Atlantic County Bar Association, Member and Former President 2013-2014 April 4, 2016
By: Brittney Cafero, Esquire, Public Relations Director
On March 31, 2016, I had the opportunity to interview Donna Michael-Ziereis, Esquire, about her legal career and advice for young lawyers. I met with Donna at her office at AtlantiCare located in Egg Harbor Township. Thank you , Donna, for taking the time to open up with the YLD!
Are you from Atlantic County?
Yes, I was born and raised in Atlantic County. I attended Mainland Regional High School. I went to Douglass College, which is part of Rutgers University, and then I attended Rutgers Law-Camden.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer?
I did. In fact, my high school epithet quoted Abraham Lincoln’s advice to a law student. I always loved to debate and to attack problems -- tearing them apart and getting to the bottom of the issues. I guess those kinds of interests aligned very well with legal training.
What was your major in undergraduate?
I double majored in Political Science and Economics.
Were there any particular individuals in your life who inspired your legal career?
There were a number of teachers who were very dear to me, including the late Dr. Jeannie Carlson and Dr. Dennis Foreman. My earliest exposure to an attorney was Judge Anthony Gibson. I grew up with his daughter, Karen, and my father held him in such high esteem. I was also inspired by Judge Steven Perskie. I grew up monitoring his career from the bench to politics. I was always interested in what he was doing. I always thought that he was a particularly brilliant man. In college, I just continued to solidify that law was the path I was interested in pursuing. I was in a program at Rutgers, the Douglass Scholars Program, which was a four-year academic scholarship program and it gave me the opportunity to work one on one with professors. I absolutely loved studying history and political science and had so many inspirational professors.
Have you ever thought about teaching law courses?
I was an adjunct professor for Rutgers for about ten years in their Business School, teaching business and hospitality law, ethics and organizational development. I regularly conduct seminars on various legal topics for AtlantiCare. I really enjoy teaching and hope at some point my schedule permits me to join a university faculty again.
I was in private practice for about seven years and then I went in-house at Tropicana. It was at that time that I started teaching for Rutgers – they were developing a hospitality management major in their business school at the time.
At what point in your legal career were you teaching at Rutgers?
"I really enjoyed working in a law firm setting, but it was no surprise that I found my way to being in-house counsel. It’s very different from being in a law firm. You have constant contact with your client and you are constantly blending legal and business counseling."
How do you like being general counsel for AtlantiCare? Is that a position that you saw yourself doing in your legal career?
I love working for AtlantiCare. It is a company with a great mission and values, superb people and high energy. I worked while attending law school at a large corporation – regularly interacting with their sizable law department -- and always thought that I would want to be in-house counsel following law school. I really enjoyed working in a law firm setting, but it was no surprise that I found my way to being in-house counsel. It’s very different from being in a law firm. You have constant contact with your client and you are constantly blending legal and business counseling. In-house, you work on interesting projects and help shape policy and different business initiatives.
In both of my in-house counsel roles I worked for companies that are 24/7 operations. There is never a dull moment in these businesses. You need to have a wide spectrum of experience because one moment you have an employment litigation matter, the next moment there’s a regulator at your front desk, the next moment someone is asking you for advice on a family law matter, and the next moment you are grappling with a patient end of life issue. The scope of issues, particularly in a health system, is dizzying. The fun thing about being in-house is building an effective team to service your client on a 24/7 basis. My focus is on building and supporting an excellent team to provide the best service I can to my client.
And I saw that you started your legal career in private practice.
Bressler, Amery, and Ross was my first firm in North Jersey. I handled insurance regulatory law and I also did commercial litigation there. I transferred to Horn, Goldberg/Fox Rothschild after several years.
Is that the area of law that you wanted to practice? Is that what attracted you to that firm?
I worked while I attended law school at Prudential. I worked through the management ranks in underwriting and product development, and flirted with doing actuarial work for a while. I really enjoyed the insurance industry. After law school my plan was to get a few years under my belt doing insurance regulatory work and then come back to Prudential. Once at Bressler, though, I found I really loved litigation and began doing more and more of it. After having a child and giving up my extensive commute to North Jersey, I transferred to Horn Goldberg/Fox Rothschild, and focused on litigation work there.
"There are so many things you can do with a law degree. In your first job you will learn at a pace that makes law school seem like a blur. It’s just really important to take every opportunity in your first few years and you will find what you have an aptitude for and where your passion is – it will come naturally."
So following your experience, do you think in giving advice to young attorneys and law clerks starting their career, that something for them to keep in mind is that although they may have an interest in a particular area of law right now, it’s really when they start to practice and gain experience that they will find an area of law that they like?
I absolutely agree that is the case. I’ve mentored young attorneys over the years and I really enjoy it. I also feel it’s my duty to mentor to pay it forward -- I was so fortunate to have the General Counsel at Prudential serve as my mentor and help me get my first position. There are so many things you can do with a law degree. In your first job you will learn at a pace that makes law school seem like a blur. It’s just really important to take every opportunity in your first few years and you will find what you have an aptitude for and where your passion is – it will come naturally. I think it’s very important to stay open to it. Don’t limit your practice area in your early years because if you do you will prevent yourself from exploring things that you may really enjoy.
"I can’t say that I ever had a position that I didn’t like. I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors and to keep striving to learn and develop myself both professionally and personally. Serving as general counsel at AtlantiCare is awesome. It is a fabulous organization with a wonderful, service-based mission."
Has your legal career fulfilled all of your expectations so far?
Absolutely. It really has. I can’t say that I ever had a position that I didn’t like. I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors and to keep striving to learn and develop myself both professionally and personally. Serving as general counsel at AtlantiCare is awesome. It is a fabulous organization with a wonderful, service-based mission. It’s the kind of company constantly looking to innovate and raise the bar. That kind of a climate is challenging, but it is also really fun.
"My advice for young lawyers is to find an experienced lawyer with whom you can connect and ask them to serve as a mentor to you. Establishing those relationships are really key."
Thank you so much, Donna, for taking the time to speak with me today. Is there anything else you would like to say to young lawyers out there?
My advice for young lawyers is to find an experienced lawyer with whom you can connect and ask them to serve as a mentor to you. Establishing those relationships are really key. I also think it’s really important for young attorneys to jump in with two feet in the local bar association, get involved, and establish yourself as a hard worker among your peers. I also think that right out of the gate it’s important to identify a charitable organization you are passionate about and start working with that organization. It has the benefit of allowing you an outlet away from the law and to use some of your talents and resources. It is also a way to give back and start building your reputation in the community.
Want to nominate a local attorney for the next edition of #LOAC?
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Lawyers of Atlantic County
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