Attorney looks back to move forward
Carol Chase credits early-career obstacles for establishing family-like atmosphere at firm.
When Carol Chase was fresh out of law school, there were firms in West Michigan that refused to hire women attorneys. Today, Chase is a partner in the firm she co-founded.
“It’s a different world from when I started,” Chase said.
She said she carries those early experiences with her, however, and they have been influential in the culture at her firm, Chase Bylenga Hulst, which she co-founded with Steve Bylenga six years ago.
Chase received two important awards this year: The first Distinguished Colleague Award from the Debtors Bar of West Michigan and the Nims-Howard Civility Award, presented in recognition of “conduct, skill and advocacy that exemplifies the tradition of civility of the bench and bar of this district,” from the Bankruptcy Section of the Federal Bar Association of the Western District of Michigan.
Chase said as kids, it was her brothers who were encouraged by their father to study law, while she was expected to pursue a teaching degree.
But Chase said she was interested in medicine and intended to go to medical school when she started classes at Hope College and majored in biology. While attending college, she said her interests shifted, and she decided environmental law was the right fit.
She was offered a job as a paralegal for an environmental lawyer between graduation and beginning law school, but the attorney she was supposed to work for left the firm, leaving her without a job.
“They said, ‘You can come work at the firm, but the only opening is helping the bankruptcy attorney,’” Chase said.
When she graduated law school, she said law firms were hiring very few women, if any, but she lucked out because her father’s friend offered her a job doing bankruptcy law with him.
“That’s how I became a bankruptcy attorney,” she said.
Chase said there were often days when she was in court and realized she was the only woman in the room.
She said all the judges were male back then and most of the attorneys were, as well.
“Most of the attorneys in the bankruptcy court treated me pretty well, but there were a few obnoxious ones,” she said.
Being a woman offered her a unique perspective on bankruptcy that her male counterparts didn’t have.
“I think I’ve been able to be empathetic with a lot of, especially single or divorced women, the financial problems they have,” she said. “And I have been able to train the younger attorneys to be empathetic about that, too.
“The kinds of issues women face when they go through major life changes of divorce, widowhood and being a single mom, it financially can be really tough.”
She said for a time, a lot of the judges didn’t understand what women’s financial situations were like, either.
“Explaining to the judges what real people’s budgets are like for child care and raising kids,” she said. “The judges probably didn’t deal with that much until they started seeing more women attorneys in court. I felt like a lot of the men I was dealing with had to learn more about a woman’s perspective and being a parent.”
Chase said over time, more women entered the legal profession and bankruptcy law, but those early years and experiences were very influential.
Chase has nearly four decades of experience in bankruptcy law, 18 of which she earned as the staff attorney for the Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee’s office in West Michigan.
During that time, she was responsible for overseeing the administration of thousands of Chapter 13 bankruptcy reorganizations and was instrumental in shaping the Chapter 13 bankruptcy practice of West Michigan.
After leaving the Bankruptcy Trustee’s office and following a short stint with a bankruptcy law firm that had opened a branch in Grand Rapids, Chase decided to start her own firm.
She formed a partnership with Bylenga, whom she met through his father, Dan Bylenga, whom she knew since law school.
She said her bankruptcy law experience coupled with Bylenga’s computer, technology and social media skills were a particularly “good match.”
While the firm launched with a focus on bankruptcy law, it has since expanded to include several other practice areas.
Chase said that is due to the addition of five attorneys who have joined the firm in the past six years.
First, April Hulst joined the firm and became its third partner. Then, Dan Bylenga and Agnes (Aggie) Kempker-Cloyd both joined the firm as Of Counsel, bringing extensive experience with them, particularly in litigation.
“The firm has diversified into doing other things with the two of them,” Chase said.
Chase noted Kempker-Cloyd was one of the few other women lawyers who started in the profession around the same time she did and had faced many of the same challenges.
“For a time in bankruptcy court, I was the only woman, or it was just me and Aggie, when she was representing the government,” Chase said.
Kempker-Cloyd worked in the U.S. attorney’s office as an assistant attorney for 36 years and represented government agencies, including the IRS.
The firm also added Mike Hanrahan and Justin Maxim.
Chase said there are a few things that are unique about Chase Bylenga Hulst, one being the age differences of its members.
“There are three of us in our 60s, and the rest are in their late 20s and 30s,” she said. “It’s kind of an interesting mix, and it’s a good family type of feeling. It’s what I always wanted to have in a law firm.”
She said having two generations working side-by-side means there isn’t the competition some firms might have, allowing for a more “symbiotic relationship.”
“The older generation is looking to mentor and bring along the younger generation,” she said.
Chase also said the younger generation brings along important technology skills.
“We have the institutional knowledge, and they have the tech knowledge,” she said.
She also said having two seasoned female members, herself and Kempker-Cloyd, provides a different perspective for the firm that she thinks remains important even today.
“Aggie and I, when we started in Grand Rapids, there were firms who didn’t hire women. We’ve gone through the experiences of antagonistic judges and older attorneys who treated you badly,” she said. “April didn’t have to go through that process, but being a mom, we’ve worked with her through two pregnancies.”
Chase said flexibility is key.
She added, “I was probably the first attorney in bankruptcy court who was pregnant, and I worked until delivery.”
Chase said the awards reflect the things she’s learned from her long career and hopes she’s been instilling those lessons learned in the many younger attorneys she has mentored along the way.
In January, when she was presented the Distinguished Colleague Award from the Debtors Bar of West Michigan, she had been nominated by fellow attorneys and recognized for her “extraordinary leadership, mentorship, and influence” over the local bankruptcy practice in the Western District of Michigan.
The Nims-Howard Civility Award, presented in July, recognized “conduct, skill and advocacy that exemplifies the tradition of civility of the bench and bar of this district,” from the Bankruptcy Section of the Federal Bar Association of the Western District of Michigan, which is comprised of debtor attorneys, creditor attorneys and bankruptcy trustees.
“Howard and Nims were the senior judges when I started,” Chase said. “The biggest thing was they treated each other with respect, despite their opposing politics.”
Chase said it’s important to bring people together and that has been a pillar of Chase Bylenga Hulst, as well.