Koenig Dunne Divorce Law

An Interview with Angela Dunne and Susan Koenig, Partners of Koenig/Dunne Divorce Law, PC, LLO
By Kim Pham and John Schroeder, Creighton University MBA students

For over 30 years, Susan Koenig and Angela Dunne’s law firm has served the Omaha community as they have become trusted advocates for divorce in Nebraska. Based on the pillars of zealous advocacy for client rights, experience, and integrity, they have built a compassionate and supportive environment for clients with a team of experienced professionals that fully involves clients while being committed to controlling legal fees. Susan and Angela’s firm has become a vital and respected resource in the Omaha community and recently was named 2015 Better Business Bureau Integrity Award Winner. We were given the chance to sit down with Susan and Angela for a discussion on the role of positive business ethics in their firm and the Omaha business community.  

Can you tell us about your background?

Susan: “I grew up about a mile from where I live and work now in this building. After law school, when I did not have any job offers, I started this law firm and I’ve been practicing law for 35 now with Angela joining me 16 years ago. Now I have a second career, as an executive coach, which I started about 13 years ago.”

Angela: “I am not a native Omahan. My dad was in the military, so we were stationed in Texas, Germany, (and) for a lengthier time in California before he was transferred to Offutt. However, I was here by the time I started high school so we consider ourselves Nebraskans. I went to Nebraska Wesleyan for my undergraduate degree and University of Nebraska for my Law Degree. I started working with Susan in 1999 which was the second year I was in law school. At the time I was working in a domestic violence shelter; Susan came to talk to one of my night classes and (I could tell) she was who I wanted to be when I grew up so I called her and told her that and we’ve been together ever since.”

What led you to focus on Divorce Law?

Angela: “For me, it was the alliance between the work I was doing with the domestic violence shelter and seeing how vulnerable women and children were within the legal system that propelled me into Law School; that is 100% what moved me. Divorce is really a practice area that adopts the person; I could not be a lawyer if I was not regularly communicating with the people.”

Susan: “I think we also saw that we were doing divorce differently. And so we knew that we could be the best at that, so we tried to focus on what we could be excellent at. To have a law firm that’s in keeping with your values, you have to decide what you can be excellent at.”

What do you like the most about your work?

Susan:  “What I love about law is what I love about coaching, which is helping people see what’s important to them. Keeping with that, helping them to look at their values and what matters most, and then helping them to carry that out.”

Can you define ethics and tell us what ethics means to you?

Susan: “We have our code of ethics, our code of professional responsibility, for lawyers. What has changed (over time) is that we have expanded our systems for insuring that we’re living our values. We have built in a lot of practices that help us to keep a high level of ethical functioning on a day to day basis on everything from our finances to how we take care of our clients to how we litigate in the courtroom.”

On ethics & attorney/client relationships:

Susan: “We have so many ways that I think we live out our ethics and how we have relationships with our clients. One of those is the educational piece; they are empowered and we aren’t the only ones with all of the information and knowledge and they’re not (left) vulnerable. Really, they’re a partnership with us. One of the ways we did this was through a book that we wrote “Divorce in Nebraska” which answers 450 questions about divorce (2nd edition came out in 2012). But you know when we wrote that, some lawyers (could have said) why are you giving away all of this information that you could ask clients to pay for? And we said because it’s the right thing to do. Because it’s needed. It would be a contribution. So I think education and also transparency; I think one way we do divorce differently that distinguishes us from others in our field is to reveal a projected cost of the litigation in advance.”

Do you think there is a difference between ethics in general (personal) and ethics in business?

Susan: “We talk a lot in this office about the hologram of our lives. In other words, how a piece of the whole gives us information about the whole. How we are being in our personal matters; how we’re being with one another here in the law office informs how we are being with our clients and in our community. So we absolutely believe that it’s essential to have your personal ethics alive and aligned and you should be able to live them.”

Is there a formal ethics program at your firm?

Angela: “We do a lot of trainings and have a lot of measures (revolving around) “where is your integrity?”  One of the trainings we just did recently was about “above the line or below the line behavior”. I think it was Susan’s coaching training that really woke us up to how we can make this alive in a culture and how we can make it resonate and be tangible so it’s not just the code of “what are you doing in this client situation” but “how are we all being with each other”. We (also) do “courage conversations” and “above the line behavior”, there are so many measures where we just talk about it.”

More from Angela:  “Four years ago, I came to Susan and I said I’ve got this weird idea but I think this is going to be helpful. Everybody in our office comes together for about two hours per month. The first step we do is learning; any weird issues with opposing council or clients where you learned something and you wanted to share. That is building block number one, and I wanted to take that to the next level and do our “glorious failures” and “perfecting the positives”. Glorious failures, we go around, you’re going to have to say it in front of your whole team (you messed up); it could be big, small, personal, and professional, whatever it is. After that, we do “perfecting the positives”; (which is) what was some tool that really worked for you this month, what was it that was helping you, what was it that was working?  You have to balance what you messed up on and also (ask) what should we celebrate? We have yet to have a team member not whole heartily embrace that concept and that desire because what you realize is “I’m learning from the mistakes that everyone else makes.”

Talk about the ethical culture at your organization.

Susan: “We give everyone here on our team the skills to be able to support an ethical culture. One of the challenges in organizations to maintaining ethical behavior is the difficulty in talking about it. We created a very safe culture by teaching people how to have “the conversation”; teaching people how to display vulnerability and having them practice it on a regular basis in a systemic kind of way. How to have people apologize. How to have people admit their mistakes, admit their weaknesses, and ask for help. All of these are ways of displaying vulnerability and when people can do that they’re less likely to get themselves into an ethical dilemma or when they do they know they have an entire office of people there to support them and carry them through (the situation).”

The Ethical Omaha Project of the Business Ethics Alliance has identified the Omaha business core values to be accountability, community responsibility, financial vitality, integrity, and moral courage. Can you elaborate on how a couple of the above fit your organization?

Angela on accountability:  “One of the greatest lessons from coaching is accountability. We thought let’s have team members be accountable as partners. What we have found (through assigning partners) is that people mostly talk about ethical or integrity issues, and we didn’t direct that. That’s been fascinating for us and that’s the natural progression of what happens when you’re constantly talking about ethics & integrity.”

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was relatively easy to handle?

Angela:  “(Sometimes) clients want us to behave in a way that we could, as in its not unethical for us to, but I always take my clients back to the place of “what’s the intention, what are we ultimately trying to get to? What good does it do to be a jerk to your co-parent?” It’s easy for me to redirect and get them (clients) back to a place to “what are your intentions, what is the ultimate goal?”; and the clients are always relieved to get back to that place of center.”

Describe an ethical situation in business you have faced that was hard to handle?

Angela: “For example: There was an (opposing) younger attorney I worked with who was rude, aggressive, and (appeared to) not know what she was doing as she kept losing hearing after hearing in front of the judge because she was not asking for the right thing. My client loved everything about her work (aggressive behavior, etc.), but I tried to tell the client not to favor the other attorney’s behaviors. I did not want to behave the same as the other attorney. That is an easy part, but…we were going to the court and she was asking for something that I knew 100% that she would not get. I knew she was going to lose. She also wanted the hearing to be an open court which meant that the court would take testimonies of the client opposed to most of the hearings that happened at the back of the chamber with the judge and the lawyers only. I knew she would (potentially) look foolish and bad in front of clients, but I suggested that we could meet with the judge first and let’s see where it went; she ended up losing anyway. I thought that I could have supported the open record but that did not serve anybody and was not helpful even though my competitive self could have done that to the other attorney. That was the hard part because it was tempted for me to do that, but I did not.”

Why did you call the previous two situations ethical? Why not say, “It’s just business?”

Susan and Angela: “Doing the right thing is not always easy. We value our ethical standards and have a great team who support that.”

Angela: “I did not want the other attorney to lose face just for the sake of one client or one hearing. I wanted to develop a good relationship with the judge, court and other attorneys. Susan and I always keep that in mind.”

How does it feel talking with us about ethical quandaries you faced? Or talking about them in the firm? Is this something you do a lot? That is, is ethics talked about or just assumed?

Susan: “We feel very comfortable even with the hardest case we have had. We have a sense of pride to talk about these quandaries because we have been practicing for years, know our values and have committed to them. There is a price for doing the right thing. It is definitely a business cost in a short run by doing the right thing, but in a long run, it is the right decision. Occasionally, we have some family members pay the fee for a client; however, our duty and loyalty remains to the client not the person who paid the bill. There was a time that the family member found that the client whom they paid for did not have much of a case. However, we could not tell the family member about that in the beginning due to our ethical obligation to the client.”

Angela: “We are proud of winning the integrity award as the first law office to be nominated, and that is where the enthusiasm comes from. My mom did not want to me to be a lawyer but I became a lawyer anyway (not intentionally, it just happens that way) to prove to her that I can do things ethically and in a different way from my mother’s perceptions of lawyers in general. In the end, my mother repeatedly says that I have accomplished that goal. Susan and I are proud of how we run the firm and how happy our employees are. Our employees want to work with people who have good ethics.”

Are there unethical behaviors that give other companies and/or business people a competitive advantage?

Susan: “In a short term, unethical behaviors appear to draw good financial benefits. When you have a good business based on your reputation and on the quality of the team, you can track who lives up to your missions and values, but this requires lots of investment, discipline, and sacrifice.”

Angela: “For example, we have a new employee who is excellent at family laws and was making more money at an other firm, but she decided to work for us because she was upset with some of the billing processes at the other firm. She would rather get paid less at our firm than doing the (potentially) unethical billing processes. Volumes do not matter to us but the quality is what we mainly focus on.”

Have you had any ethical mentors?

Susan: “I have been learning on the job and through observations, but I am passionate about mentoring. Coaching is also giving me the language and good tools for teaching and leading at high ethical standards.”

Angela: “Susan is my mentor. She has a lot of “how not to do it”. We do not want to manipulate clients for anything.

We also like to observe and see good things that other lawyers did so that we can learn from them.”

How do your upbringing and family values play into your ethical development?

Susan: “I was raised catholic as a young girl, which shaped me to do the right thing and to be good. Everyone wants to be good and do good; I want to remind people of that through coaching. If people can remember that, they would likely act like that. I always want to remind how good people are and encourage them to keep doing the right thing.”

Angela: “Being a mother also affects how I do things. It reminds me to do the right thing so that my kids can learn from that. I want to be a role model for my kids.”

As you move up in the organization, how have ethics played a role in decision making?

Susan and Angela: “It gets more complex when you became a decision maker. The decisions and policies get more complicated over time as well. We have decided to treat everybody fairly and as the firm is gaining more employees, a decision or policy (may) need to be changed. What policy is fair for an individual employee, the whole team, and for future employees? We want to educate the team about the fairness of the policy. We have an excellent transparency of how we lead and that becomes an ethical marker for us. Overall, our employees know that we have their best interest at heart because of how we care about them and the quality that goes beyond compensation. They might be unhappy with the rules, but they know the intention of the rules is to serve everyone.”

Now having won the BBB Integrity award and been asked to be a Business Ethics Alliance Trustee why is it significant for you?

Susan: “It means a great deal to us and our employees. We are very proud of how that reward reflects how we do things. It is a long and authentic process. It has a great impact on our morale; it is an acknowledgement of who we are striving to be. Being a trustee, I never forget the day that (Dr.) Kracher asked me to be a trustee, and how honored I was; it is a powerful way for me to continue coaching and looking up to people for their values. I love sharing the message and mission of the Alliance. I am very engaged because it means so much to me.”

Angela: “The clients are very proud as well. We have also obtained more referrals from other lawyers who do not practice divorce and they felt proud that they refer their clients to us. We are proud that we are lawyers with high integrity. Because of the way we do business, we have been growing not just only due to the award but also in the way we have been practicing and to who we are. We do not deviate from our moral values and ethical lens.”

What are the biggest ethical challenges that you think face the younger business professionals today?

Angela: “Globally, the temptation of young professionals to overbill more hours even though they cannot obligate to the hours they billed. They violate personal ethics of how they supposed to be ethical to their clients. We recommend those young professionals not to cross those lines. The cultural shift is very slow in terms of how lawyers maintain integrity in the busy world of technology and challenges from obligation of both family and work. However, we feel lucky to have a team who agrees with our ethical values of how we practice law. We are creating a culture where people do not want leave the firm because we create challenges and opportunities for our employees to work on. So, they do not have to leave for other firms for those opportunities. We want to understand the needs and wants of our employees so that everyone is served at their best interests. Susan and I think that we are lucky to have each other for partnership and friendship.”