Judicious choices: Attorneys find achievement and contentment in their chosen fields

Sharon Bryan and Rebecca Schroff chose different legal specialties, but wound up peas in a pod as successful, contented lawyers, partners in the same firm, who both make their homes in Palos Verdes Estates.

Both were voted by their peers to join the ranks of “Southern California Super Lawyers,” according to results published by Los Angeles magazine. Both have earned the highest recognition possible for legal ability and ethical standards by Martindale-Hubbell, a firm that uses peer ratings to help people looking for legal help.

Bryan found her way to a partnership with Moore, Bryan Schroff of Torrance through the practice of family law, and Schroff found her way through the practice of estate planning. Both specialties require analytic ability, legal knowledge and empathy, but there are differences: Bryan routinely employs her strategies in courtrooms, while Schroff works out the puzzles given to her mostly outside the litigation arena.

Strong advocate

Bryan’s family law cases typically involve several initial court appearances, over matters such as spousal or child support.

“The more economically advantaged spouse might not believe they will have to pay that much, until they hear it from a judicial officer. And the less advantaged spouse gets realistic as well,” Bryan said.

In the end, almost all family law cases are settled outside the courtroom.

“There is an old adage that criminal attorneys see bad people at their best, and family law attorneys see good people at their worst,” she said.

“It is a people business. I really like my clients. They’re all different, and some of them are sort of difficult, but if they just trust in me we’ll reach our goal,” she said.

Clients often believe they know how their cases should be approached, and Bryan’s expertise is crucial in such cases.

“Law is a lot about strategy,” she said.

“I really like what I do,” Bryan said. “It involves people, helping them at what is really one of the worst times in their lives, like when they are on the cusp of divorce or separation,” she said.

Clients come to Bryan with fears that they won’t wind up okay financially, or they won’t be able to secure adequate time with their children.

“You take them from where they start out, in a distraught state, and you see them out the door a bit later, financially secure and with the feeling they can start over,” she said.

“People write me, sometimes they bring flowers,” Bryan said, recalling a letter from a past client marking the graduation of her children from college.

The cases might be simple ones, or they might involve complicated asset questions concerning copyrights, patents, or ranches in Australia, for instance.

“It’s a really interesting practice we have,” Bryan said.

“I think Sharon is very much an advocate for her client,” Schroff said of her law partner. “Family law is much more litigation than my area, and she is a very strong advocate for her clients, and has great knowledge of the law.”

In control

Schroff’s area is estate planning – estates, trusts, probate, that kind of thing – helping families and individuals create plans they are comfortable with, and helping them determine how to dispose of their assets after they are gone.

“I got into this area and really enjoyed it,” she said. “I’ve just been happy and there was no need to move around.”

Attention to detail is important as she works out financial puzzles, and empathy with clients is necessary as well.

“We’re dealing with families to solve their problems,” she said.

Schroff said being a woman in the law “has not been an obstacle.”

“When I was first practicing there were probably fewer women, but in some ways that could be beneficial. Clients, women usually, often say they want to deal with a woman – they believe she understands what they are going through.”

Schroff said people’s personalities emerge in interesting ways during the administration of the trust of a deceased relative.

“It’s not a boring job by any means,” she said.

Trust administration doesn’t play out like it does in the movies, which are full of suspenseful scenes in a lawyer’s office.

“People don’t say ‘When are we going to read the will?’ and then gather around a table, although I suppose you could,” she said. “We mail them a copy of the will. There’s nobody sitting around a table with surprised faces.”

Most clients’ first contact with Schroff comes when they call to say something like “My parent has just died. I need to know how to handle their assets. I think I’m in charge and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

She was asked, if we had a window on her world – seeing people handle the assets of their deceased loved ones – would we be heartened or disheartened at their general behavior?

“It would be both. Sometimes we have people who just cannot get along, and weren’t getting along before the relative died, and sometimes working with the family is easy, everyone is getting along and everyone is supportive of each other,” she said.

“You might be amazed at how well they work together, and amazed at how they don’t work together,” she said.

After a pause, she tipped the scales easily in favor of the human race.

“There are also people we don’t see very much, because they don’t need much from us,” she said. “Most people are great at a very difficult time, when someone dies who they are really close to.”

“Becky is wonderful,” Bryan said of her law partner. “She’s very knowledgeable of the law, very capable in preparing complex estate plans for people, as well as the simpler ones. It’s a good personality fit. She’s always our calm one, always in control.”

To the law

Bryan lives in PVE with her husband Lucio Prodan, who is retired. Between them they have four kids: a lawyer and a business executive who live in PVE as well, a physician in Phoenix, and another executive in Northern California.

Bryan knows of no attorneys preceding her in her family, with the apparent exception of Senator Andrew Mackay, who was born March 20, 1820 and died April 1, 1896. His mementos surround her in the family home.

“I believe he was my paternal grandmother’s great grandfather,” Bryan wrote in a follow-up email.

“I have three of his pocket watches, all inscribed to Senator Andrew Mackay with other inscriptions, and his huge picture from the 1800s hangs in my house. I also have his original desk, presumably from his senate office,” she wrote.

“My father, a bank president who loved to work with his hands, repaired the desk and inscribed on the back ‘refurbished by your great-great grandson.’ The desk is still in use,” Bryan wrote. “…He served during tumultuous times for our country and I have no idea of his perspective on the Civil War.”

Before she took up the law, Bryan worked in journalism in New York City. She edited a book written by a founding member of a law firm, edited legal briefs, and wrote a book about pioneering medical specialists.

She came out west, took post-graduate courses at UCLA, and then went to law school at USC. She launched into the law as her “second career.”

Bryan served as law clerk extern for federal Judge Consuelo B. Marshall, and clerked for a U.S. Department of Justice strike force that focuses on organized crime and racketeering.

She joined Moore, Bryan Schroff – technically an earlier incarnation before the partnership reshuffled itself – in 1989, and made partner about a decade ago.

She and her Florence, Italy-born husband cross-country ski in the Canadian back country, bicycle in Europe and motorbike in Greece.

Bryan serves on the Family Law Executive Committee of the state bar, and has served as assistant editor of the bar’s “Family Law News.”

She is active in the Los Angeles County Bar Association, having served as a delegate and held a post on the executive committees of the Los Angeles delegation and the Family Law Section.

She has served on the board of governors of the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, and as chairman and co-chair of its Family Law Section.

She has served South Bay Women Lawyers in several capacities including president.

She has served as president and as a director of the Statewide Association of Certified Family Law Specialists.

She has taught on the subjects of tax estate planning, divorce, bankruptcy, legislation affecting family law, and the niceties of cash flow for support purposes before the state bar and other organizations.

She has published articles on subjects such as law firm valuations, and “Marriage of Pearlstein: A Pearl of Wisdom or Further Mystifying the Cash Flow Riddle,” which concerned a particularly thorny asset problem she faced.

From the library

Schroff studied history as an undergrad, got a master’s degree in library science and began to work in as a librarian in law libraries. A law degree was the next logical step, and then she realized she wanted to practice.

She clerked at her current firm – its earlier incarnation that is – while she was still in school. When she graduated she hired on, in 1990, and never looked back, making partner a few years ago.

Schroff, daughter of an engineer dad and a kindergarten teaching mom, is the oldest of four kids and the family’s first lawyer. The PVE resident has lived in Southern California since she was 2 and on the hill since 1986.

Her husband Gregg Schroff is a physician.

“Living on the hill has been great for us and the family. It’s a great place to live. It has that small community feel, but it’s close to the metropolitan L.A. area.

Her oldest son is a resident in radiology at USC, another son is a fourth year medical student at George Washington University and her daughter will be a junior this fall at Connecticut College, where she was recruited to play volleyball.

“We’re empty nesters, so we’re down to two dogs now,” Schroff said. “We have a 13-year-old golden retriever, and an unknown aged – we think, American foxhound.”

The foxhound, a rescue dog, is from the son at George Washington. His life, split between long hours and school and short hours in an apartment, made PVE a ranging foxhound’s logical choice.

“I guess we’re the grandparents of this dog,” Schroff said.

Schroff serves on the Trusts and Estates Law Section Executive Committee of the state bar, and chairs the South Bay Bar Association Guardianship Volunteer Panel.

She has served as co-chair of the Probate and Estate Planning Section of the South Bay Bar Association.

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