A small jar filled with three large rocks, a mug inscribed “Life is all about how you handle Plan B” and a miniature legion of terra cotta warriors stand guard along the front edge of Marlene A. Pontrelli’s desk. Individually, each is alluring; seeming to magnetically draw the eye and ignite curiosity. Together, they reveal more about the esteemed attorney than most biographies could depict in 500 pages. It’s all there, literally “up front” if the visitor has the capacity, imagination or wisdom to decipher. However, Pontrelli doesn’t expect or compel anyone to do so. She’s more than happy to share the story.
“My rocks” are there to remind me of what is important in life,” she explains. “Focus on the big things first and the rest takes care of itself. The mug reminds me (and my clients) that life may not always go as originally planned, but much of it is how you handle Plan B for your life. But my favorite are the terra cotta warriors, reminding me that we all have inner strength. Sometimes it may take some digging to uncover, but that strength is within all of us.”
Certified by the State Bar of Arizona as a specialist in family law and practice group co-chair at Dickinson Wright PLLC, Pontrelli is a multifaceted professional whose interests, talents and expertise extend across numerous arenas. And, while perhaps best known for her eminent legal prowess, her career highlighted with innumerable achievements both in and out of the courtroom, this is but only one dimension.
A single mother of four, one might believe Pontrelli earned dual degrees – one in law and the other in parenting. In addition to helping her children navigate the usual hills and valleys of childhood and adolescence, Pontrelli continued her support (emotional, financial and otherwise) through college and then law school. All this, while sustaining a thriving law practice, lecturing and conducting various workshops and, oh yeah … authoring several, highly acclaimed books.
As a volunteer adjunct professor teaching a class in family law at the Sandra Day O’Connor school of law since 2011, “giving back to our community” is another dimension of her career.
“Teaching and writing are ways to hopefully leave this profession a little better than we found it,” she says. “Our law students, our summer clerks, and our associates, are the future of the profession and it’s our job to do whatever we can do to help teach and mentor them to become highly qualified lawyers.” Maybe it’s this philosophy that helped to influence all her children to go to law school.
Pontrelli’s three sons Matthew, Max and Michael Maerowitz are already skillfully swimming the sea of subpoenas and depositions. Max is with a large Boston firm, Michael is building his practice locally at Gammage & Burnham, and Matthew opened his own firm. Megan, Pontrelli’s daughter, is a recent graduate of the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law and working for a large insurance agency. Ironically, none of the four opted for the field of family law.
“I think parenting may be one of the hardest job skills we undertake, and we do so with very little training,” says Pontrelli. “However, I am proud of all of my children and not just their professional success. I like the adults they’ve become. My hope for them is that they find practicing law as gratifying as I have found over the years regardless of their area of expertise.”
A MEASURE OF SUCCESS
Each profession has its own tools of measurement. A carpenter might present a catalog of beautifully crafted furniture, a surgeon references a list of patients and/or successful procedures. And so, it is for attorneys who cite their roster of “wins” in the courtroom. This, however is not the gauge Pontrelli favors.
It’s not false modesty that compels this dedicated counselor to abstain from listing or otherwise drawing attention to her numerous courtroom triumphs. Rather, Pontrelli’s priorities and how she defines success – both professionally and personally are her measurements of success.
“Naturally, it’s important to have a string of big wins under your belt,” she says, “After all, essentially this is your CV, documented proof for potential clients indicating that you know what you’re doing and have been successful. But, it’s more than just knowing the rules of law because many people can recite the rules. It’s knowing how to analyze, apply and, most importantly, accurately evaluate each client’s unique situation and then, ascribe these laws to effectively address/accomplish that person’s needs and goals.
“I want to be that person that walks the journey with them; understands them and has a personal sense of who they are and what they need. An attorney in whom my clients can place their trust and confidently depend on me to resolve the situation or reach their goal. That’s how I see the role of an attorney, particularly a family law attorney.”
A GOOD READ ON DIVORCE
This same philosophy of “walking the journey” with her clients is evident in Pontrelli’s books as well. These volumes were born out of her sincere desire to ease the pain, anxiety and confusion.
“Too many people get erroneous information,” she says. “The unknown is always frightening, but not having the facts only exacerbates an already volatile emotional situation.”
While books such as “Focus on Family Law” and “Fundamentals of Litigation for Paralegals” (written with Professor Thomas A. Mauet) are textbooks, Pontrelli’s “Divorce in Arizona,” (co-authored with Robert Schwartz) and “Daily Meditations for Healing from Divorce” were specifically written to help the layman through the complexities of divorce.
“Often there are two roads that a person travels when going through a divorce or legal separation,” says Pontrelli. “Certainly, there is the legal path. But there is also an emotional path that can be overwhelming. It is difficult to talk to a client about dividing parenting time or selling the family home when they may still be adjusting to the fact that they are going through a divorce and life is about to change in a very significant way. That’s why as practitioners we also have to address the emotional side of divorce. Only by ensuring that clients are at an emotionally secure place is it possible to start addressing the legal aspects.”
A FOUNDATION OF ROCKS
It seems to be no accident that the first thing a client sees upon entering Pontrelli’s office are the aforementioned items that form an interesting (if not arresting) vignette across the front of her desk. Representing some very solid “truths” by which she charts her life course, each has a significant meaning and influential impact.
However, if you were to distill all this down to one essential item, it seems it would be her jar of rocks.
“What we choose in life to focus upon and what we consider important ultimately shapes our lives I think,” says Pontrelli. “Just like my jar of rocks, there’s only so much room in each day so you have to make sure to put those people or things that are most important to you first.
“For me, that’s always been my faith,” she finishes, “which is part of who I am, my family, and my work. I call them ‘my big rocks.’”