Monica Mazzei | Crain's San Francisco

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Monica Mazzei

Background:  

Monica Mazzei, a certified family-law attorney, specializes in marriage-dissolution actions relating to financial matters, including international issues. Mazzei represents clients for Sideman & Bancroft in the Bay Area, with a concentration in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

 

The Mistake:

I made a mistake 16 years ago when I started to practice family law: I had this preconceived notion that I had to be good at everything. I thought I had to be a custody expert, an international family-law expert and a financial family-law expert. I spent a lot of my first five or six years of practice trying to be great at all those things.

But I realized I was better at some things than others. Because they came more naturally to me, I started to gravitate toward the financial and international issues, rather than the custody area.

A series of events made me think about focusing on these issues — [especially] a case in 2005 or 2006. One of the parties in a divorce was using the custody of the children for financial purposes; I thought it was really off-putting to use the kids as pawns.

The custody schedule should be based on what’s best for the kids; it shouldn’t matter in the determination of the financial settlement. But one of the parties in this particular case was willing to be more generous in the financial settlement only if they got exactly what they wanted on the custody side — which wasn’t necessarily the best schedule for the kids.shouldn’t matter in the determination of the financial settlement. But one of the parties in this particular case was willing to be more generous in the financial settlement only if they got exactly what they wanted on the custody side — which wasn’t necessarily the best schedule for the kids.

When you are passionate about something, you’re going to be really good at it.

The Lesson:

I saw that if the two issues [custody and finances] could be separated, it could be better for me — and for the family. This is because the parties couldn’t [then] tie the money and the kids together.

After that settlement conference, I decided I was going to actually put it out there that I wasn’t going to handle custody anymore. I went out on a limb.

The family lawyer usually has the whole case, from financial issues to custody. But I decided I was going to be different and just handle the financial part of the divorce. This is very rare in family law.

It was a little scary, because I didn’t know if it would work or if anyone would want to hire me [if] I didn’t handle the whole case. I wondered if I [would] get as many cases because of my specialization.

What I found was actually the opposite. Once I started to specialize, the financial issues and international issues really became my niche. They were the subject matter in family law that I was best at and could concentrate all my efforts on. And I became really great at [them]. I found that clients really appreciated this focus.

Years later, the move has worked. It’s allowed me to practice law at a bigger firm, working with clients who have complicated financial estates and complicated patent issues and intellectual-property issues.

What I learned was from this experience and what I tell the younger attorneys whom I mentor is that you have to find your niche in whatever you do, whether it’s family law, or pediatrics or online marketing. You need to become the expert at something in your field. When you are passionate about something, you’re going to be really good at it.

Follow Sideman & Bancroft on Twitter at @SidemanBancroft.

Photo courtesy of Sideman & Bancroft

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email hrichardson@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain.