Preparing meals in the basement for the family catering business as a small child may not sound like the path to a successful career in employment law. How about announcing the new “Mr. and Mrs.” at hundreds of weddings in the family banquet hall?
At Sticky Lawyers, we’ve seen some winding roads to the law. And for Maria Dwyer, being raised in the food business was the perfect recipe for her exceptional employment law career that focuses on the food and beverage industry.
As the managing member of Clark Hill’s Detroit office, Maria developed her client base by merging her life-long knowledge of the restaurant industry with her problem-solving instincts. Building relationships and volunteering for board positions drive Maria’s business development efforts.
Listen in the discussion to learn about the secret sauce.
John Reed: [00:00:00] Want to know that one thing that all cultures seem to have in common? Food. Maybe not the same dishes or delicacies, of course, but food has always been the thing over which communities, groups, and families have come together. You don’t have to be a foodie or epicure to appreciate that. It’s as simple as breaking bread or having a slice of birthday cake.
[00:00:25] For many of us, food is a livelihood. Growing it, preparing it, serving it, etc. Hey, I learned some of the most valuable lessons in my life from busing tables and dishing out frozen yogurt sundaes. So, food can teach us things, too.
[00:00:42] Today’s episode is a cooking class of sorts, and our guest has the recipe for success. Take a person brought up in a family of caterers and restaurant owners. Add equal parts of personal drive and professional determination, a law degree and industry smarts. Mix all those ingredients together, then place in a hot, dynamic, national firm. What do you get? A sticky lawyer. But you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?
[00:01:10] I’m John Reed, and this is Sticky Lawyers, a podcast featuring conversations with attorneys who differentiate themselves through the relationships they cultivate with clients and influencers and the unique nature of their law practices.
[00:01:24] Today, I have the pleasure of talking with Maria Dwyer, a partner with AmLaw 200 law firm Clark Hill, and the member in charge of its main office in Detroit. She’ll tell us her story of matching the area of law she loves with an industry she knows inside and out.
[00:01:41] Maria, thank you for joining us today.
Maria Dwyer: [00:01:44] Thanks for having me.
John Reed: [00:01:45] I kind of felt like Oprah there -- “Maria!” Not to go all Freud on you, but tell me about your childhood. And I guess where I’m going with this is, what was the family business?
Maria Dwyer: [00:02:01] My family had a catering business that they started out of the basement of our home when I was about four years old.
[00:02:09] So, my first job was peeling carrots and potatoes in our basement at the age of four or five. Maybe that led me into employment law because of all the youth employment rules that are out there and the exceptions when it’s a family member.
John Reed: [00:02:27] Right. Exactly. That was your immediate family?
Maria Dwyer: [00:02:32] Right.
John Reed: [00:02:32] How about other relatives?
Maria Dwyer: [00:02:35] My grandparents immigrated from Italy with eight kids when – well, seven; one stayed in Italy. And when they arrived here in the Detroit area, my grandfather worked several jobs and on his off time, built from scratch in an empty lot, a restaurant on the east end of Dearborn that was wildly famous for many years and was passed down to his son when he was ready to retire.
[00:03:09] And a lot of us were there on the weekends, enjoying the food and learning how to cook with my grandmother.
John Reed: [00:03:17] So, at the tender age of like four or five, six, you graduated from prep cook. What other jobs did you have in the course of growing up in these family businesses?
Maria Dwyer: [00:03:30] Well, my father taught me at an early age that there isn’t any job that’s unimportant, right?
[00:03:35] Because they always gave me the small tasks. And I learned that that really built up to the bigger tasks. So, peeling the potatoes, setting the table. Greeting customers at the door because we started with the catering business and then moved into not just doing deliveries to homes, but becoming the main contractor for several banquet facilities.
[00:04:02] And then from there, when I was about 13 years old, we purchased a banquet facility, where I worked every weekend until I graduated from high school and then went off to college. So, that was my --I joke-- escape from the family business.
John Reed: [00:04:19] I’ve got my mother in my head right now because I never know on which side to place the spoons. And then you serve people from what, the right? All that stuff. That was probably ingrained in you.
Maria Dwyer: [00:04:29] Oh, I can set a mean table, John, with all the utensils, several stems of glasses, cups, you name it -- butter dish. I passed that test.
John Reed: [00:04:42] You are a great resource to have for any number of reasons, not just your legal counsel. So, you went off for your formal education. At what point did law school enter your mind?
Maria Dwyer: [00:04:55] I think I always knew I wanted to go to law school.
John Reed: [00:04:58] Really? Why is that?
Maria Dwyer: [00:04:59] One of the jobs I had working for the family business was the host. I would be the person when you had a wedding who would do the speeches. From an early age, probably 16 years old, I was giving these speeches to crowds of 250, 300 people, right at the weddings and other functions. And so, I learned to communicate in a crowd and enjoyed that and thought I would enjoy being a litigator, which is probably half of what I do as an attorney. That kind of started the path to law school for me. I really would say those early jobs.
John Reed: [00:05:45] So you can set a mean table, and you can announce Maury’s retirement. That’s awesome.
Maria Dwyer: [00:05:50] Yes, I can. “For the first time tonight, our bride and groom.”
John Reed: [00:05:58] Law entered the picture while you’re entertaining all these guests. At what point did employment law come into the picture?
Maria Dwyer: [00:06:07] I would say probably my first year out of law school. I was working at a wonderful firm that had a lot of insurance defense cases. Again, primarily focused in litigation, but I wasn’t passionate about the subject matter. Primarily products work, product defense, and personal injury defense. And my sister-in-law was working at a boutique labor and employment firm in Detroit and said that they were fantastic people and that I would probably really enjoy working with them. And I interviewed and then accepted the position and fell in love with employment law.
John Reed: [00:06:53] Why was that? What really attracted you to it?
Maria Dwyer: [00:06:56] I liked the idea of getting in before there is trouble and helping employers work through problems and establish policies and create harmony in the workplace prior to having the litigation, which I was handling before. So, it’s a way to avoid problems, which I think is part of what we do as lawyers, not just help our clients get out of trouble when they happen to find themselves in the middle of a piece of litigation. But what things can we put in place before there are problems to create harmony and avoid any type of litigation in the workplace?
John Reed: [00:07:36] That’s interesting. I’m just thinking here. Your area of practice is one of the few where you have that luxury, right? That you can take your knowledge of what happens on the front end and prevent bad things on the backend. You can also take your experience, mitigating the damages on the backend to help people not have those problems or avoid those issues on the front end.
[00:08:10] I think there’s probably very few areas of practice where you have the full spectrum of risk management.
Maria Dwyer: [00:08:11] I would agree. Funny from an early age, people thought they were clever, right? And they would say, “Oh, Maria, like from West Side Story. How do you solve a problem like Maria?” I can’t tell you how many times people thought they were original and would say that to me. And I would laugh, and with my manners say, “Oh, that’s funny.” And maybe it really sunk in. From an early age all the way through, I pride myself in trying to solve problems. Even when I get into litigation, I try and reach out to opposing counsel, make sure that there’s a good rapport, and realizing that our jobs as attorneys are to solve our client’s problems and not to create more by not being able to get along with your opposing counsel and work through issues with opposing counsel.
John Reed: [00:08:58] Yeah. It’s collaborative. It absolutely should be collaborative.
Maria Dwyer: [00:09:01] Right.
John Reed: [00:09:02] What I find so interesting is there’s so many lawyers who think horizontally about their next best client. And for employment lawyers, that’s true. It’s the idea that I want clients who have employment problems, and any client will do. And because of your focus in your industry (and we’re going to talk more about that), how did you first start to market yourself and your practice? Did you have that kind of horizontal view that any client will do, and I just want to help them however I can? How did you start out with promoting yourself?
Maria Dwyer: [00:09:37] I think as a young lawyer, right out of law school, the first thing you need to do is learn how to practice law, understand the practice of law, and then learn the area that you’re going to be practicing in. So, for me, it was employment law. I had to learn Title VII, all the civil rights statutes, family medical leave. But once you get that nice baseline, at that point, I think you feel comfortable going out to the public and selling yourself because that’s what we do as attorneys. We have to sell ourselves, right? And I felt like how can I do this? And where do I feel most confident and comfortable, and what industries do I know the best? And for me, it was easy to say it’s the food industry because I grew up in the food industry, and I understood the problems and understand the problems of food and companies in the food business. Wage and hour issues. How does that impact wait staff? Leaves of absence, and really what we struggle with, in Michigan and throughout the US because of COVID, is really getting people --good people-- working for our businesses. Locating talent. But there’s a quick turnover, right? Sometimes they’re summer jobs or jobs that folks do as they’re working through college. So, there is a turnover in restaurants and banquet facilities and grocery chains, and you’re constantly looking for good people. And how do you do that? With creative policies.
John Reed: [00:11:12] Your work also takes you up to the C-suite, too. I mean, you’re not focusing only on hourly worker compensation issues. You’re also dealing with the decision-makers, the executives, the business owners on their compensation, on their deferred benefits, their employment workplace issues.
Maria Dwyer: [00:11:31] Absolutely. And it is working with the C-suite folks that you develop these plans on how to have a successful workforce. And how do we keep the C-suite level folks happy, as well? It is establishing bonus programs, high-level employment agreements, [00:12:00] really working with HR to develop strategies for workforce planning. And then, of course, everything was blown out of the water last year when COVID hit.
John Reed: [00:12:01] That changed the whole landscape. So, you joined this boutique labor and employment firm. Is that when the “aha” moment hit you; this idea of taking what you know, the environment in which you grew up in the food and hospitality industry. Is that when the light bulb went on, that you should focus on that?
Maria Dwyer: [00:12:19] No. Really, it wasn’t until I started here at Clark Hill after about four years of practicing law that I was able to kind of transition my focus to developing business. As I said, the first couple of years that you’re out, you’re trying to learn the practice of law, right? Billing and meeting clients and picking up the phone and answering questions. Those are things that we don’t necessarily learn in law school. That’s kind of the baseline, right? Your first couple of years out. When I started here at Clark Hill, Clark Hill is a very entrepreneurial firm. Right out of the gate, associates are encouraged to take people out to lunch and join boards and get involved in the community, and start working on developing business. When I started here, my focus shifted to that entrepreneurial mindset. And that’s when I started thinking, “What workforce is easy for me to connect with? How can I best relate to companies?” And that’s when the food industry kind of --that light bulb went off at that point.
John Reed: [00:13:35] And then what? What was your jumping-off point? Where did you start?
Maria Dwyer: [00:13:53] I started with the Michigan Food and Beverage Association, and that was one of my first clients. And I became fast friends with Jennifer Kluge, who’s the CEO of Michigan Food and Beverage, and Michigan Business and Professional Association, and Corp! Magazine. That introduced me to a number of individuals in the business community and started my focus in that area. I began doing speaking engagements and attending events that were hosted by MBPA. And that really, I think, got my name out there and helped me in developing a relationship within the food industry.
John Reed: [00:14:26] So, let’s step back for a second. You set your sights on the industry association, at least in the state of Michigan, which is great. Did you call Jennifer first?
Maria Dwyer: [00:14:35] Jennifer was-- we were introduced by a former colleague, and we kind of hit it off, and she had all this wonderful programming that she was doing.
And I’m not a golfer. So, I never was one to take clients out for an afternoon of golf, and I thought, “Gosh, how am I going to start developing a book of business when I can’t golf? I don’t play tennis. What can I do?” So, it seemed like attending some of these events was a good fit in a way to get myself out there. And I joined a couple of her boards and met some folks that way. And that was really how it got started. (At) one of my first board meetings on a women’s board that she asked me to sit on, I sat next to a woman who is now a dear friend of mine and working in HR, and we hit it off. Board work for me became an easy way to meet people and focus on things that I enjoy and am passionate about.
John Reed: [00:15:33] But I’ve got to step back with you here, Maria, for a minute, because you’re kind of nonchalant about, “Yeah. I joined some boards. I got on these committees.” Now, it’s one thing if you’re a lawyer going to a bar association and you’re volunteering amongst other lawyers to join a committee, to get into a leadership role. But I’m going to go on a limb here and say that there are probably very few lawyers as members or lawyers who were involved --number one-- in that industry association --and two-- who were even participating at the level that you eventually achieved. Is that a fair statement?
Maria Dwyer: [00:16:10] It is. Yeah. And I would suggest that if you’re going to join a board, join it and get active. Joining a board and just being a board member that attends a quarterly or a monthly meeting is not going to be a path to developing deep relationships. I think if you join committees on the board or ask to be in one of the leadership roles, right? The chair of the board or a treasurer or secretary. That gives you the visibility. It gives you the opportunity to speak at the meetings and get to know folks on a deeper level.
John Reed: [00:16:49] So, you didn’t just join the board. It’s not like you showed up one day and declared yourself, “I’m on the board.” How did that happen?
Maria Dwyer: [00:16:56] Well, again, getting into a deep relationship with Jennifer and establishing a friendship there, getting to know her business and understanding what she was doing. And then finding a way where I could help her, and we could create some synergy where she’s helping me, and I’m helping her. And that’s -- she enjoyed working with me. She thought I would be a good add for some of these boards. And she said, “These are all the things I’m doing.” And I looked at them all and said, “Here’s where I would be interested in helping you out.” For example, Corp! Magazine. We partnered Clark Hill with Corp! Magazine, and we started (here at Clark Hill) a foodie webinar series. When I initiated that series, I said to Jennifer, “How about I offer them to you, and you can post them on your website, and then your members can benefit from hearing our free webinars?” That gives me exposure. And it gives her members some free education for their membership. So, we looked at ways where we could partner and we could help each other’s businesses.
John Reed: [00:18:12] There’s a couple of really, really important lessons there. And the first is, if you are helpful to other people in ways that they need help, that’s relationship glue. You just weren’t selling Jennifer on yourself over that time, or particularly early on. You were saying, “How can I add value? How can I bring value? You need educational content for your membership. We can do these webinars.” And yeah, absolutely, you got the exposure to it. But you were trying to solve her needs and not just her legal needs. And I think that’s so important. I think lawyers want to jump right into the sales conversation, and you have to prove yourself in other ways first, don’t you think?
Maria Dwyer: [00:18:55] Absolutely. I think that the attorney-client relationship is based on trust and establishing a friendship; respecting one another. And that takes some time. But I respected Jennifer and the business that she was doing and running, and she respected me. And we thought that we were both doing great work. How can we work together to make it even better and help one another? And once you have that great platform with a client, I think that you can create these synergies and work together to get referrals, for example. So, clients, once they trust you, they get calls from other friends who are leading other companies, and they’ll refer that business over to you based on the good experiences that they’ve had with you. It’s all about establishing good, trustworthy relationships with your clients, understanding their business, and understanding how you can work together and help each other.
John Reed: [00:19:58] The other takeaway is being on a board isn’t that daunting. You sit down with a lot of younger attorneys in particular and you talk about, “How can you get involved? How can you become more visible?” And you say, “Seek out a leadership position.” And they say, “Well, how do I do that? How do I get to a board?” And what you’ve proven is sometimes you just befriend the right people. You identify who the decision-makers and the influencers are, and they may bring you onto the board. It’s not so much you lobbying as somebody else seeing your talents and recognizing that and understanding the pivotal role you can play in a leadership capacity.
Maria Dwyer: [00:20:37] And I really have found it’s just as simple as asking, John. If you find a board that you think that you could add value to and you’re passionate about whatever it is that that organization is doing, just approach the chair or the director of that organization and say, “Hey, I have some time and I’d love a seat on your board.” And as lawyers, I would say every board, every nonprofit board loves having a lawyer at the table. You’re able to give some free advice, right? Because when you’re on a nonprofit board, the expectation is that you’re going to not only bring some dollars to the table but what is it that you can contribute to that board? For me, it’s easy. I’m an attorney and I can offer up some free legal advice as part of my volunteer efforts on that board. So just ask.
John Reed: [00:22:33] I want to circle back to something here. Due to your great relationship, you are assigned to this advisory committee. What was the rest of the committee’s first reaction to you -- the new lawyer on the committee, somebody who wasn’t necessarily in the business?
Maria Dwyer: [00:22:48] They were very welcoming. There weren’t a ton of lawyers that I can recall. I may have been the only one. I don’t recall whether that’s a hundred percent accurate. If I wasn’t the only one, perhaps there was one other lawyer on the board. But they were very welcoming and excited to get some insight on what I was seeing in the industry and things that I could do to help. In our labor and employment group here at Clark Hill, we do regular webinars. I offered to provide those webinars if anyone wanted these educational tools to share with their team. I served as a conduit for those webinars to this board or sample documents, things that I could do to help. They were very welcoming and excited to hear my perspective.
John Reed: [00:22:36] You mentioned Corp! Magazine, which is a publication here in the Metro Detroit area. And you had the opportunity to do some writing on behalf of the association. Can you tell me a little bit about how that started and how it grew?
Maria Dwyer: [00:23:49] Again, it was as simple as asking Jennifer, “How can I help your publication? What kinds of things do you think your readers would be interested in hearing about?” And I offered to author some articles around those topics. So, working together to solve her problem and then get my name out there again, based on our long-standing relationship. An easy example is in the last year with COVID. The laws were coming out so fast and furious. And because we had that relationship, I was able to also participate in a number of their Zoom webinars. Because we were no longer gathering in large groups to hold these educational conferences in person, it made it easier to jump on and get a couple hundred folks on a Zoom call and do a presentation on the new leave laws. Or the ever-changing landscape of our Michigan executive orders. Just being the point of contact for different organizations and offering to speak and offering to help educate their membership I think is a good way to get your name out there. I probably do one or two speaking engagements every month.
John Reed: [00:25:17] Is that just part of your personal marketing regimen? I’m curious.
Maria Dwyer: [00:25:21] It is. And you know, the more you do it, the more folks will reach out to you and ask you to participate. Once you start doing it, I think it becomes easier and easier to keep doing it. And then if I have a conflict, I’m always happy to reach out to one of my colleagues and offer that opportunity up. Or, if it’s an area that’s not my specialty, I’ll contact one of my colleagues and connect the organization with one of my colleagues.
John Reed: [00:25:47] You’re very active with charitable organizations, which is great. And I’m sure you feel good personally about helping worthy causes, but do you use your participation also as a business development and marketing tool? Something you do with your clients?
Maria Dwyer: [00:26:03] Sometimes. For example, if a nonprofit board that I’m sitting on the board as either an advisory board member or as an executive board member, if they’re hosting events, I will support that organization and purchase tickets and then bring clients to the event. An easy example is the Dearborn Education Foundation. They host a Mardi Gras event every year. I’ll purchase a number of those tickets and I’ll invite some clients and we’ll go, and we’ll have a great time together. And I’m supporting the organization and I’m also marketing and having a good time with clients.
John Reed: [00:26:43] Every lawyer has a different definition of success. What’s your definition of success?
Maria Dwyer: [00:26:50] That’s an ever-moving target, I think for me. It depends on the year, and in the last year, it was just trying to get through and help as many companies as I could manage through all these very difficult times. It’s giving good advice and helping avoid problems that helps me or makes me feel successful when I can --at the end of the day-- help my clients. It’s not about a position held or an award received for me. It’s about really meaningfully helping companies avoid risk. Then I feel like I’ve had a successful day.
John Reed: [00:27:26] You are so humble about acknowledging the people that have helped you throughout your career. As a partner in a large law firm and the leader of its flagship office, as well as an expert in the field, how do you pay it forward? How do you help the next generations of female and male lawyers?
Maria Dwyer: [00:27:46] Giving them opportunities to speak at engagements, doing what I do, but bringing them along with me. Because again, if they can see how I’m passionate about something, I want them to have that same passion and explaining to them that that’s really the path to success: doing what you love. And, if people see that you enjoy the work that you’re doing, then they’re inspired by you, and they want to work with you. Just being a good steward of the firm. Teaching younger lawyers that, as I mentioned earlier, just because someone is on the opposite end of the case that you’re on doesn’t mean that they’re your enemy. Establishing those relationships, being professional, teaching them how to get the job done in a collegial fashion, and showing them the right way to practice law.
John Reed: [00:28:38] One last question I’m going to ask you. You serve in a lot of organizations, on teams and boards, and such as life that not everybody in those groups is easy to get along with. And I’ve heard you talk about kind of a personal philosophy you have for getting to know those people that may not be so easy to get to know. Maybe you could talk to us about that.
Maria Dwyer: [00:28:58] The year before I was about to make partner, I was working with a marketing coach, and I was sharing with that individual that I was part of this group. And there was one person in the group that always seemed to just bug me and say the one thing that would irritate me that day or upset me that day. And that coach said to me, “That’s the person that you should focus on developing a relationship with. Bust through that wall and figure out a way to get along with that individual and get to a place where you can find some common ground.” And so, I’ve taken that advice and try to apply it every time I’m in a new situation or with a new group of folks. Rather than doing the easy thing, and that is sitting down with folks who are like-minded and I could have easy conversation with, I try and strike up a conversation with a person who may say something that I disagree with or may have kind of rubbed me the wrong way in order to broaden my experience and give me additional diversity of thought and diversity of relationships.
John Reed: [00:30:15] Outside of the practice of law, we should all take that advice.
[00:30:18] There are so many takeaways from Maria’s story. Take an inventory of yourself and your world and what you know, so you can focus your practice. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Sit on a board to be of service to somebody else. Don’t worry that you don’t play golf; support the causes that are important to you and your clients, as long as they match your values. Be selfless. And, of course, leaders help by helping others grow and achieving their potential. I think Maria epitomizes all of these things. And of course, if you need to, work with a marketing coach.
[00:30:57] Thank you for listening. To hear this episode again or download other Sticky Lawyers episodes, visit stickylawyers.com. There you’ll be able to view episode transcripts and behind-the-scenes notes and recommend a standout lawyer you know who might be a future guest. And please don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast. Everyone at Rain BDM who works so hard to produce this podcast would greatly appreciate it. Until next time, I’m John Reed, and you’ve been listening to Sticky Lawyers.
Member, Clark Hill PLC
Maria Dwyer litigates employment and business cases and advises senior management in employment and business considerations. She also conducts workplace investigations and investigates and serves as a certified Hearing Officer in Title IX claims and counsels educational organizations in Title IX issues. Maria is the Member-In-Charge of Clark Hill’s Detroit Office, and is the Co-Practice Leader of the Food, Beverage and Hospitality Team. She is also a Co-Chair of Clark Hill BOLD – Detroit, the firm’s strategy to promote women within the firm, the legal profession, and the business community.