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Attorneys Across America: Featuring Elizabeth Fenton

From a tiny office in rural Alaska to a skyscraper in Manhattan, from The Sunshine State to The Prairie State, Ms. JD seeks to capture snapshots of successful women attorneys practicing law from sea to shining sea. Ms. JD had a few questions for Elizabeth Fenton, who is a Partner at Saul Ewing, LLP in Wilmington, Delaware. 

1. Where do you practice law?
I practice principally in Delaware, but I am also admitted to practice in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

2. Describe your legal market. What is the size of the market? How would you describe the culture?
Delaware is a small state with a small bar.  The culture is collegial and professional.  We see the same lawyers and judges frequently, and we take great care with our reputations.  In Delaware, judges are appointed under a bipartisan process and not elected so the dynamic is a bit different than it is in states where judges are elected.  The Delaware Court of Chancery is unique as a court of equity focused on business disputes.  Chancery Court practice is often fast-paced and sophisticated.  Upholding tradition is also a very important part of being a lawyer in Delaware.

3. What are the industries that produce work for lawyers in your area?
Delaware is the preferred state of formation for many corporations, limited liability companies, and limited partnerships.  Therefore, even if a business does not have operations or employees in Delaware, the business may need advice on Delaware law and its impact on the activities of the business such as mergers, shareholder disputes, officer and director liability, and intellectual property.  A number of businesses call Delaware home, especially in the financial services, pharmaceutical, and chemical industries.

4. Describe your practice area.
I assist companies across numerous industries, including energy, health care, and venture capital/private equity, in addressing disputes, which frequently escalate into litigation. Often these disputes concern disagreements involving the direction and control of the business, attempts to hold corporate shareholders and LLC owners personally liable for the entities’ debts and liabilities (piercing the corporate and LLC veil), and business torts.  My preference is to, when possible, intervene at an early stage of a dispute to help my clients identify resolutions that serve their business objectives and avoid litigation. However, if a disagreement over corporate governance, indemnification rights, fiduciary duties, and piercing the corporate and LLC veil cannot be resolved without involvement by a court, arbitrator or mediator, I learn the pertinent facts, apply my knowledge of the law and the court system to those facts, and adapt a litigation strategy in line with my clients' goals and desire to minimize disruptions to their operations.

5. How did you get started in this practice area?
I started my career at a litigation boutique where I handled all kinds of cases, from Section 1983/civil rights to bankruptcy to securities class actions.  After five years, I transitioned to a large international firm where I focused on financial services and pharmaceutical litigation, including appellate work.  Along the way, I became interested in corporate governance issues and, in particular, the boundaries of limited liability for shareholders.  I began speaking and publishing on piercing the corporate and LLC veils and became a thought leader.  When an opportunity arose to take the Delaware bar, I took it (and passed-phew!)  About three years ago, I left the large, international firm because I ran into conflict issues and rate issues as I was growing my own practice.  I also worked on very large cases where I did not have as much of an opportunity to go to court.  I now practice with a mid-sized regional firm with a multi-faceted Delaware office.  Our Delaware lawyers practice in real estate, government finance, bankruptcy, start-up and emerging companies, and higher education.  My practice complements my colleagues’ practices and it has been a great fit for collaboration and growth.

6. Do you think your practice is different because of where you live? If so, in what way(s)?
Having spent time in courts in a number of states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Michigan, New York and Washington), I think each state has its own unique character.   As mentioned above, the Delaware Courts have many traditions, and we guard these traditions zealously.  The Chancery Court practice is a unique one, and brings businesses from all over the world to Delaware.

7. What are good resources for women attorneys in your area?
Delaware was the last state to admit women to the bar (in 1923).  We have come a long way.  The Delaware State Bar Association Women in the Law Committee is an active group which provides mentoring, networking, and pro bono opportunities.  Our annual retreat in Rehoboth Beach is not to be missed!  A more informal group, Women in Chancery Court, also hosts networking events and serves as a resource for women practitioners in the nation’s pre-eminent forum for resolving business disputes.

8. What has been your hardest day on the job?
The hardest days are the ones where you don’t get the results you and your client wanted.  I take my client’s problems very personally (sometimes too personally, to be frank), and even when I’ve done the best job I possibly could for them, sometimes the facts or the law just don’t go the way you want.

9. What has been your best day on the job?
The best days are the ones where I can bring a business solution to what I will call a litigation problem.  For example, I represent several technology companies who operate in the health care space.  Just like any business, they have bumps in the road and sometimes need a litigator to take a stand, whether it is about intellectual property or an employment contract.  The best result is when we take that stand but can also find a creative solution that advances our client’s business.  

10. What advice do you have for women attorneys following in your footsteps?
Don’t give up, even if there is no one in your office who looks like you (or looks like what you think you want to be).  You can learn a great deal from other lawyers even if they differ in age, race, marital status, status as parents, educational background, nationality, gender, etc.  Listen and take lessons from everyone you encounter: clients, co-workers, staff, and judges.  They all have something to teach you about the practice of law and living a good life.

11. Any additional stories, anecdotes, or thoughts on practicing in your practice area or location?
I was privileged to attend the investiture of the first African-American woman appointed to the Delaware Chancery Court, Vice Chancellor Tamika Montgomery-Reeves.  It was a thrill to see a young mother who is juggling work and family just like I am become part of this historic and significant court.  When I feel things are not changing as quickly as I would like them to, I try to remember what women lawyers who came before us dealt with and how much progress we really have made.

Elizabeth Fenton is a partner at Saw Ewing, LLP. She helps established, start-up and emerging companies across numerous industries, including energy, health care and venture capital/private equity, address disputes that tend to escalate into litigation. Beth’s focus on guiding clients toward early resolution of their disputes is reinforced by her recent appointment as a judge pro tempore for the Commerce Program in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, where she assists in pre-trial dispute resolution efforts.  Her trial experience includes cases before the Delaware Chancery Court, several Pennsylvania state and federal courts, as well as alternative dispute resolution tribunals. Beth received her A.B. from Brown University, magna cum laude, in 1995, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, cum laude, in 1998.

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