Inside Track: Trials prepare attorney for dual career
Elizabeth Rosario went from being a single mom at 14 and dropping out of high school to founding tax business and law firm.
Some people might look at Elizabeth Rosario’s life and see hard work overcoming tough luck. But Rosario likes to keep the focus on a higher power.
“I think the Lord above has blessed me in more ways than one,” she said. “I am who I am and where I am because of him.”
Rosario dropped out of high school when she was 14 years old after discovering she was pregnant. As she raised her child as a single parent, she went on to earn her GED, associate, bachelor’s and law degrees while working various full-time jobs.
At 18, she established Unico Income Tax. The business now has around 1,600 clients.
Rosario grew up knowing she wanted to be either a doctor or a lawyer, but it took some time to determine which — and some prompting to set things in motion.
“I realized I wasn’t good with seeing blood, and so I decided being a lawyer was more for me,” she said.
The twists and turns of life led her from teenage motherhood to working at Sears to becoming an office manager at a Grand Rapids-area chemical facility, now called Arkema. Rosario’s boss at the time, Deborah Magoon, showed by example that it is possible to be a strong woman in a male-dominated profession, and she nurtured Rosario’s aptitude for management.
While working for Magoon for seven years, Rosario started her tax preparation business on the side. Her passion for law came tumbling back into her life unexpectedly, as she witnessed the struggles of her clients.
“Most of my clients are Hispanic, and amongst them, I would see there was a need with criminal defense, family law, immigration issues and a plethora of other needs,” Rosario said. “I said, ‘This is what I need to get back into doing.’”
Blessed, as her mom puts it, with a talent for arguing, Rosario decided rather than hiring an attorney to help her clients, she would become their attorney.
“It’s the old cliché: I wanted to help people,” she said. “When I was faced with certain things from clients, whether it was they weren’t getting paid what they wanted to, or they were getting evicted or they were having immigration issues, I would always jump in and say, ‘That shouldn’t be going on; there’s rules that need to be followed.’
“That’s when I said, ‘I need to jump in and be the fighter.’”
In 2007, when Rosario was 26, she enrolled in law school. She graduated with her J.D. from Thomas M. Cooley Law School (now a part of Western Michigan University) in 2011, with the goal of starting a firm that would help her Unico clients.
After testing the waters via the Law Office of Elizabeth Reyes (her given name), Rosario realized she needed partners to meet the demand she was encountering. She teamed up with a couple of fellow Cooley graduates, Christopher Acklin and Daisy Benavidez Van Ittersum, to launch a bilingual law firm called Grand Rapids Law Group in 2012.
Partnership was another learning experience, Rosario said.
“I’m a believer that you can’t have success without failure. You have to fail to really know what success is about. Although I know there have been failures in my life, I try to see the positive in them. I see it as learning experiences.
“At the beginning, it was an issue of being with partners, and it was hard for all of us to get on the same page. But even then, we made it work,” she said.
By 2014, Rosario was the sole practitioner at the firm, and she now is owner-operator. She has a full-time, bilingual legal and administrative assistant who also fills the receptionist role, and a second associate who is starting at the firm this month.
The Business Journal reported in 2013 that the Grand Rapids Law Group partners began practicing family, criminal, immigration, small business, commercial, real estate and wills and estate planning law.
Now, Rosario has honed the firm’s focus to three areas: family law, immigration and criminal defense.
“With the immigration (practice), it’s a lot of removal defense,” she said. “We do a lot of family petitions. We do a lot of divorces, child support, step parent adoptions. All those are very common.
“With the immigration, there’s not always good news, unfortunately. With family law, there’s the satisfaction of knowing a child is placed with the right family, in the best interests of the children. It all boils down to helping somebody in need.
“And knowing at the end of the day that somebody had a question, they came in, and we said, ‘We’ll look into it, we’ll handle it, we’ll be with you every step of the way.’ If we can ease their concerns or help in some way, that’s what motivates me.”
Rosario said all attorneys occasionally get stuck on perplexing problems and need assistance. When that happens, she turns to two women she considers mentors: Anita Hitchcock, Grand Rapids city attorney, and Diann Landers, owner of family law practice Diann J. Landers.
“When I was in law school, I did the Public Sector Law Clinic, and (Anita) was the professor there,” Rosario said. “She was my mentor, and you can just tell she has a genuine passion for helping others.
“There are always different cases that make you scratch your head. Anita’s a mentor. But also Diann Landers. In the Young Lawyers Section of the (State) Bar, they have this program where they match newer attorneys who work with more seasoned attorneys. Whenever I feel like there’s something I’m not sure about, I can call (Diann).”
Besides her professional mentors, Rosario credits her success to the support of her husband, Andy Rosario, whom she married in 2013, and her older daughter, Iris, now 22 and in college.
She said she is glad to be her own boss so that she can have a flexible schedule to take her and her husband’s 5-year-old daughter, Gia, to school field trips and chaperone her activities.
The family has weathered the stress of opening Andy’s restaurant, Maya Mexican Bar and Grill in Wyoming, while he was working full time at another job. Rosario worked 12 hours per day, seven days per week for the first 90 days the restaurant was open, while also running her tax business and law firm.
“I said to my husband, ‘Quit your job and jump into the restaurant. We sink or swim. Take over the reins. Either that or I’ll be in Pine Rest.’”
Rosario now handles the administrative and legal needs for the restaurant as she is able, and Andy does the rest.
In late 2015, Rosario’s husband was diagnosed with cancer.
“We had to move to Ann Arbor (for treatment) for eight weeks. We took our little one and moved. … My daughter, Iris, stayed and took care of the tax office. We had an assistant for all of the law office responsibilities.
“The help poured in trying to cover hearings and everything else,” Rosario said. “We were able to make sure there was no pause in services for our clients.”
Looking back on her first five years at the law firm, Rosario said she is most proud of the trust clients have placed in her to be their attorney — and that it has allowed her to buy the firm’s current 4,500-square-foot building at 545 28th St. SW in Wyoming, which houses Unico and Grand Rapids Law Group.
“I’m huge about building trust, whether with Unico or Grand Rapids Law Group,” she said.
“You do something thinking you’re not going to change the world, but you’re going to help people. It’s allowed me to purchase this building and have both businesses under the same roof, and I’m helping people.
“You look at yourself in the mirror and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, I was able to accomplish this?’ It’s people trusting in me and believing in me.”