Moving at a runners pace

December 7, 2009
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For some, life seems to move at the pace of a river rapids. For Elizabeth Welch Lykins, a labor and employment law attorney at Lykins Law Firm, this has definitely been the case.

After receiving her law degree from Ohio State University College of Law in 1995, she and her soon-to-be husband, Gerald (Jerry) Lykins, moved to Louisville, Ky., where she had been offered a job with a large law firm. Gerald had graduated from Capital University Law School in Columbus, the previous year.

“We took the (Kentucky) bar exam and got married two weeks after the bar exam. I don’t recommend it,” she said. “It was insanity.”

Lykins was born and raised in West Michigan. She said her interest in law started around her first year at East Grand Rapids High School.

“I knew I was law school bound in about eighth or ninth grade,” said Lykins. “I was very active politically and had an interest in politics, which led in the natural direction of law school.”

What sparked her interest was volunteering during the summer for Republican congressman Paul Henry. She spent many summers doing volunteer work for him.

“I’m actually now a very big Democrat, but back then I was a Republican,” she laughed. “You just kind of are what your family is, and Paul Henry was an amazingly wonderful man.”

For her undergraduate degree, Lykins attended Penn State University, the alma mater of her grandparents, majoring in history with a business minor. She graduated in 1992 and moved on to Ohio State University to study law.

“At that point, I realized that as much as I enjoyed politics, I preferred being in the background and having a career actually practicing law,” she said.

“In law school, I became more intrigued with social justice issues. I had my eyes opened to things that were unfair in the world, had more exposure to diversity and people from different backgrounds. I really realized that not only did I have an interest in politics, but also in helping others and using my career to help others.”

In 1995, when Lykins graduated from law school, the economy was not fairing well, but while working in Louisville, things started to pick up.

“In the couple years I was down there, it started turning, and I started getting headhunter phone calls. The area I was in — labor law — was booming, and (companies) were looking for lateral hires,” she said. “I got a phone call from a big law firm up here saying, ‘You should really come take a look.’”

That phone call caused Lykins to take a look at all the big firms in Grand Rapids, and after making some assessments, she settled on Miller Johnston. In 1997, she moved back to Grand Rapids, but her husband, who was working as assistant prosecuting attorney for the Jefferson County Commonwealth's attorney's office, stayed in Louisville to sell their house — which had a basement that flooded.

“He continued working down there for several months while I started working up here,” she said. “We had just gone through a horrendous flood in Louisville — our whole basement literally filled up with water. He had to work really hard to get the house redone to sell it. So when we first moved up here, we were done with homeownership. We went with a high-rise condo downtown.”

The two bought a condo at the Plaza Towers on Monroe Avenue, right after the building had reopened after an exterior renovation. The unit they bought was an “empty shell,” so Lykins and her husband designed the space themselves.

“We lived in the Plaza Towers and embraced Grand Rapids downtown living, which was a new concept at that point,” she said. “We ate out a lot, walked everywhere. I loved that I could walk to work. In the winter time, I would take the Skywalk. I think once we’re empty nesters, we’ll move back downtown again.”

After the move, Lykins and her husband dove right into very busy work schedules.

“When I came up to work at Miller Johnson, I was supposed to take three or four weeks to study for the bar. They were so slammed with work, I only had maybe 10 days off to study for the bar. Where we both went to work, they were very busy. We went right into our work schedules and jumped right in — probably a long weekend to move and that was about it.”

Lykins said she thoroughly enjoyed her six years with Miller Johnson.

“I worked for what I believe is the best big firm in the city. They were incredibly supportive. They have a reputation for being extraordinarily ethical, and their word is very good. To this day when I go into court or a meeting with another attorney, they know my background and where I was trained, and that has really boosted my career. I’m very proud that I worked there,” said Lykins.

“In the end, I decided I wanted to be a little bit more of an entrepreneur and do my own thing, but I left in really good graces.”

She left Miller Johnson in 2003 to form her own firm.

“It was hard. I had a litigation practice, which means you have a really hard time controlling your schedule,” said Lykins, who by this time had two children, ages 3 and 5.

“I also had an idea that there were small businesses that couldn’t afford the big law firms, and they needed help, too.”

Lykins was on the board of directors for the Home and Building Association of Greater Grand Rapids. It was through that participation that she realized small companies often couldn’t afford the rates of a large law firm and were either not getting legal help or were using a lawyer who wasn’t the best fit for them.

“They didn’t have anyone who specialized in labor employment law who was looking out for the little guys,” she said. “I realized that my favorite companies I worked with were small, because you usually get to work with the business owner. You become an advisor. You’re part of their team.”

Her husband had started his own law firm, The Law Firm of Gerald R. Lykins, in 1998, concentrating in criminal law. Starting her own firm was appealing, but she knew that it would not be easy.

“I knew I would mostly be starting from scratch, having to market to small businesses,” she said.

She opened her new practice at the same location as her husband’s: 40 Pearl St. NW, Suite 420, in downtown Grand Rapids.

Lykins was already well networked with local attorneys and gained her first three clients through references from other lawyers. She also joined a CEO Roundtable through the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce immediately after starting her firm.

“I cannot say enough good things about my CEO Roundtable group,” Lykins said. “I’ve been with them five years. I was this new young professional woman. For the most part, they were mostly older men, and they were just so encouraging. They have been a phenomenal support group with lots of great marketing ideas.”

It’s been about five years since she started Lykins Law Firm, and things have solidified.

“Things are going really well. My firm has been the busiest it’s ever been,” said Lykins. “People said it takes five years, and that’s exactly true. Now I’m at the point where if there’s a case that’s not really quite my fit, I can send it on to other people if I need to.”

Lykins sits on four boards and heads local political campaigns, so she doesn’t have much free time, but when she can, she likes to run — she runs the Fifth Third River Bank Run every year.

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