The Human Lawyer: Erika Mielke
Erika Mielke shows that to be special—to do special things and to care for special people—you must be candid in assessing where your skills are (or would be) valued in the marketplace. Then, you must make room in your life to develop and showcase those skills, even when it means dominating a 6’5” human in a rowing competition. Erika’s story shows that just because a person looks like something, doesn’t mean the person is that thing. Often the person is so much more than her outward appearance as Erika shows when she shares her story, in her words.
How’d You Get Here?
When I was 8 years old, my mother worked as the Executive Director of a family office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For 30 years I watched her take care of a family. Certainly, she quarterbacked the legal and financial matters you’d expect from within a family office; but, it was so much more than that. She was a sounding board for the older generations and a mentor to the younger generations. Old or young, they called anytime for any reason—even if they just needed to talk. Whatever the talk pertained to, my mom seemed to solve the problem. That’s the thing—at her core, she was a problem solver.
During that time, one of the family’s lawyers took me under his wing and encouraged me to consider law school. He was a partner at Foley & Lardner and took care of the family’s estate planning. And so I went to law school.
Upon graduating, I was fortunate to work in private practice on an estate planning practice group of a large Milwaukee law firm. While I loved all things planning, I quickly realized that being a lawyer was not what I expected. I was especially frustrated by estate administrations that were far more difficult than necessary. The issue was never the documents; rather, the issue was whether the documents were updated and coordinated over time. Life changes. Tax regulations change. Families change. In the midst of inevitable change, people sometimes go back to their lawyers, but other times they don’t. Even if those people do, and even if by chance the documents are updated consistently, the administration process is complicated by asset ownership and beneficiary designations which can thwart the devising or tax planning intent of the documents.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I could be a more effective advocate for my clients and deliver greater value in a different adviser’s chair. So, in 2004, I left private practice, refocusing my career in the financial services industry. I’ve found, without the billable hour clock ticking, my clients never think twice about calling with a question or having a two-hour meeting. I have greater and more meaningful access to my clients, which means I am more likely to understand all the changes in their lives that materially impact their futures. I spend time educating my clients so they feel less intimidated when they are sitting in a lawyer’s office. I also act as a facilitator with the lawyer, so he or she has all the information he or she needs to do the best work possible.
You’re Inspired By?
I’m inspired by the moments when my clients get that “a-ha” look on their faces. It’s the moment when a retiring executive and spouse see and believe in the timeline we develop to simplify their journey to and through retirement. Or, it’s the moment when a young woman who has inherited a concentrated low basis asset understands my proposed estate and financial planning strategies to realize her long-term objectives. To see her breathe a sigh of relief knowing that there is a way to create tax efficient cash flow for her young family means everything. Or, it’s the moment when parents of a special needs child appreciate our long term plan for their family. You can see the weight—and it can be a heavy one—lifted from their shoulders because they know there is a disciplined path allowing them to provide for their child and enjoy retirement. I like to think I help my clients “have it all” as long as we reasonably define what “all” means in their life.
You’re Passionate About?
I dream about building a community where special needs adults can live and work as independently as they are able. I am a special needs parent. My oldest son is a brain tumor survivor. While the radiation and chemotherapy he received at 3 years old saved his life, he has ongoing cognitive and physical challenges. Today, he is 13 and, without question, he is the toughest and most determined person I know. My husband and I are challenged by forecasting our son’s opportunities to be independent in his adult life because we realize society has a long way to go in supporting special needs adults.
One Thing You Would Change About The Practice of Law?
Count me in the chorus of those who believe the billable hour is one of the most detrimental aspects of the practice of law and, in my opinion, largely responsible for the estate planning “messes” that were the bane of my private practice existence. A flat fee structure changes how clients interact with their lawyers, facilitating more open dialogues by freeing clients to ask questions they want to ask and share information they need to share.
Something Unique About You The World Should Know?
I love rowing. Because I’m only 5’ 2”, everyone assumed I was the coxswain, but I wasn’t. [FYI: The coxswain is typically the smallest person on a rowing team who sits at the front of the boat and doesn’t row.]
Here’s an example: A guy, who had to be 6’5'“, on an opposing rowing team saw that I would be rowing in the tallest person’s seat. He looked down at me and laughed. I got the last laugh, though. His ridicule made me so mad. I’ve never rowed so hard in my life in a race which, by the way, we won. That spirit is why my husband has been known to call me “Scrappy Doo” on occasion.