Local Lawyers: An Interview with Audrey Cromwell

Audrey Cromwell is the founder of Cromwell Law PLLC, a small law firm in Bozeman, MT, which provides affordable legal services in family law, estate, and business planning. Audrey and her husband, Charlie, also provide legal services to MSU students through ASMSU.

After graduating from UM Law in 2009, Audrey moved to Washington, D.C. to serve on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. In 2010, she came back to Montana and worked as a public defender in Billings, eventually earning an appointment to represent clients in the 13th Judicial District Felony Drug Court in Billings.

Audrey is married to Charlie Cromwell, a practicing attorney and fellow 2009 graduate of UM Law. Charlie is a JAG officer in the Montana Army National Guard and a partner at Cromwell Law.

  1. charlie-audrey145What made you decide to start your own firm?

In 2011, my husband and I decided to move to Bozeman after several years of working in D.C. and Billings. Learning from my prior work experiences, I realized that I preferred to choose my clients, manage my own caseload, directly address inefficiencies in the workplace, and give myself the flexibility to be creative in the law. In addition, I have always enjoyed entrepreneurship, organizing and managing staff, and shouldering the responsibility of building a successful business. The natural next step was to start my own law firm.

  1. What are the pros and cons of owning and starting your own firm?

Overall, I love the flexibility of owning my own firm. For the most part, I am able to create my own schedule and focus on areas of law that most interest me. This is immensely helpful as I try to balance my work time and free time.

I also enjoy the amount of control I have over my business. I love being able to manage the direction of my business, which allows me to focus on special projects or novel areas of the law, such as the practice of Collaborative Law, the ASMSU Legal Services program, and serving as a pro tem judge in Justice Court. As a result, I am proud of my work and energized by it.

Of course, I suppose some of these pros could turn into cons. Running a successful firm requires much more than just winning in court. A practitioner must be extremely self-motivated to perform solid legal work and address the administrative headaches that come with running a business. Sound business practices and choices are just as important as effective and error-free legal work. Anything less and your reputation will suffer, which could obviously reduce client referrals and revenue streams.

Good practitioners also avoid the trap of working hard for a client without getting paid. This is where strict, principled billing practices and effective client management can save the practitioner from a lot of heartache. Along those same lines, many business tasks are necessary but unbillable – the monetary reasons for doing them cannot be realized directly.

Other cons include variable income and finding good mentors, which can lead to some trepidation and even feelings of isolation.

  1. Why did you decide to focus your practice on family law after a career in oil & gas and criminal law?

I attempted to gain as much experience as possible in many different legal fields prior to settling on one career path. My transactional work with Crowley Fleck and my litigation experience with the Public Defender’s Office gave me the confidence to start my own law firm.

While working at the Public Defender’s office, I noticed many of my clients faced collateral family law issues but could not find legal assistance. During the first year of Cromwell Law, I developed a program that offers limited scope representation on an as-needed basis for lower to moderate income Montanans in the area of family law.  Relying heavily on limited scope forms and templates I created, I am able to offer affordable flat-fee legal services to clients while simultaneously earning income for the firm.

Once I became well-versed in family law, I became frustrated with the extremely adversarial approach many attorneys took when working on cases. I witnessed some attorneys unnecessarily ruin the few remaining strands of a good co-parenting relationship between the mother and father over a few dollars or an inanimate object.  I searched for a more holistic approach to family law cases and discovered Collaborative Law. Collaborative law is a complex legal negotiation process that bypasses adversarial litigation to use productive, interest-based problem solving in divorce settlements.

In 2013, I was trained and certified in Collaborative Law by the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP). In 2015, I worked with a groundbreaking team of Montana attorneys to successfully pass the Uniform Collaborative Law Act. This state legislation protects the collaborative process, the attorneys, team members, and clients who choose the collaborative process as an alternative to standard litigation.

My current practice, in addition to providing legal services to MSU students, overwhelmingly consists of collaborative family law and mediation. Owning my own law firm absolutely gave me the flexibility to evolve my practice into its current model.

  1. You also provide legal services for students at MSU. What’s that like?

Our ASMSU Legal Services program operates similarly to UM’s ASUM program.  For $10, an MSU student can make an appointment with ASMSU Legal Services to seek resolution of their legal issue. Ma

ny issues can be resolved during their initial legal advice and counseling session, but in about 40% of cases we provide some type of follow-on legal care. For example, typically we will assist students on a limited scope basis, which can include drafting letters to landlords, representing misdemeanor criminal defendants in court, drafting family law settlements and parenting plans, drafting estate planning documents, attending mediations, or referring students to another community resource or attorney.

 

This spring, we are extremely excited have a UM law student joining ASMSU Legal Services as part of an approved Independent External Clinic. We have formalized an agreement with the MSU Vice President of Student Success and the Dean of Students for the program’s clinical law student to meet with, advise and advocate for students accused of Title IX violations in the student disciplinary process. We also started an undergraduate legal services internship program last year. Consequently, we’re confident that ASMSU Legal Services will be able advise, educate, and empower an even larger number of MSU students than we have in the past.

Through our growing programs, we hope to strengthen the ASMSU Legal Services program and foster a closer relationship between MSU and the Alexander Blewett III School of Law.

  1. If you could give one piece of advice to law students, what would it be and why?

I have two pieces of advice. The first is that your legal career begins the first day of law school. The decisions you make in law school will affect your relationships with your colleagues – both positively and negatively. This can have long-lasting effects on your practice throughout your career. Much of our client business continues to stem from colleague referrals.

Second, try not to limit yourself to one avenue in law school. Many of my colleagues and I continue to surprise ourselves with our career choices after graduation. A prospective student’s reason for attending law school does not incorporate the myriad of career options and opportunities available after graduation. Keep an open mind about new opportunities when they present themselves.

  1. What did you think you wanted to do when you graduated law school?

I initially imagined myself working in policy as a public servant, which led me to a clerkship with the Senate Finance Committee in D.C. However, as someone who relishes efficiency and quick results, I felt frustrated with the laborious pace of bureaucracy.  I have been able to effectuate immediate change through my work in the private sector and through program and policy development through my firm’s work on MSU’s campus.

  1. What do you think are the most effective ways for law students and lawyers to connect with their communities?

I have connected with our community by volunteering to sit on local community Boards of Directors. Additionally, I have plugged into the MSU campus through our ASMSU program. Since MSU is such a large part of the Bozeman community, our connection to Bozeman has deepened as we work with fellow professionals, community leaders, and students. Growing a good network takes time and those relationships must be nurtured on a regular basis.

  1. How do you balance the heavy time commitment of law with other important aspects of your life?

The law competes for all of my time, including free time. In order to feel balanced, I have learned to set strict work-life boundaries. I schedule time to exercise, spend time with my family, and to simply unplug.  I also set boundaries with my clients and set reasonable expectations for response times, office hours, and delegation of work to my staff.

By Chelsea Bissell

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