Former president of the State Bar of Michigan Julie Fershtman continues to be a trailblazer for the advancement and success of women in law.
Photography by Derrick Martinez
Julie Fershtman, former president of the State Bar of Michigan and equity shareholder and vice president at Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC, has been a trailblazer in law, particularly for the advancement of women. It’s been her personal mission to help women lawyers succeed, both in and out of the workplace.
“When my career began in the 1980s, there were promising signs of women’s advancement in the profession,” she says.
She was a member of Emory Law School’s first-ever entering class with 50 percent women, most who received job offers. Despite this initial promise, she says progress for women in the law has surprisingly slowed over the years, despite the greater influx of female law school graduates.
Fershtman works with a nationwide clientele on a broad range of legal matters, primarily business and insurance litigation. She’s written more than 400 articles and published three books, one by the American Bar Association (ABA), and a fourth, with a focus on horse-related law, to be published by the ABA later this year. She has spoken on legal issues in 29 states. Still, she is deeply committed to empowering other women in the profession.
“In 2011, I was only the fifth woman in 77 years to be elected president of the 45,000-member State Bar of Michigan,” she says. “Although I’m an equity shareholder in my firm and managing shareholder of its southeastern Michigan office, the percentage of female equity shareholders in firms nationwide has stagnated for decades at about 20 percent.”
She has mentored women lawyers and law students and strives to help women lawyers with the unique challenges they face balancing career with family. Recognizing that women tend to be caregivers for their children and aging relatives, she asked a State Bar committee during her presidency to study and report on workplace policies and best practices to facilitate alternative or flexible work schedules.
Her career in law was inspired by her father, the late Sidney Fershtman, who became a lawyer after serving in World War II and later practiced in the Detroit and Downriver areas.
“Watching him work as I grew up might have turned me away from becoming a lawyer; he sometimes worked very long hours,” Fershtman says. “But I couldn’t help but notice that people sought his advice at some of the most personal and important moments in their lives — a dying woman with months to live needing a will, people facing prison sentences, people locked out of their homes by angry spouses. His clients were from all backgrounds, religions and colors.
“It didn’t take long for me to recognize the importance of a lawyer’s work, the compassion and empathy required to be an effective lawyer, and the ability to use the law to help others. This drew me to the profession.”
She credits her husband’s support for her successful career in the law. “My husband has been extraordinarily supportive. He has never questioned or criticized my late hours, travel and meetings. Nothing I’ve accomplished would have been possible without him,” she says.
In 1984, while she was in law school, her father was tragically killed in his office, a case that remains unsolved to this day.
“What shook me to the core was that it happened and that a killer was never brought to justice for it,” she says.
Although she says she’s not religious, Fershtman and her husband, Robert Bick, a corporate law practitioner in Birmingham, wanted their daughter, Katie, to learn about Judaism. They were members of Temple Israel, where Katie became a bat mitzvah, for a few years. The family also joined a Federation family mission to Israel, where Katie read from the Torah in Jerusalem.
Fershtman co-launched a networking program at her firm for women in the law where women could share concerns, provide mutual support, and promote advancement in the legal profession and the firm through occasional firm-wide meetings and one-on-one mentoring.
“Also, since women seemed under-represented in lawyer rating systems, such as Michigan Super Lawyers, I developed a program providing suggestions for women lawyers to improve their online business presence, which I presented around the state,” Fershtman says.
Fershtman likes to use her influence in the industry to recognize and promote other women lawyers. At last month’s Michigan Lawyers Weekly’s “Women in the Law” awards luncheon, honoring lawyers and judges statewide, 10 percent of the award recipients were Fershtman’s nominees.