Not everyone is going to understand what you are trying to do or why you’re doing it. When I left BigLaw, I received countless unsolicited comments that began over time, to take away a little bit of my joy. It frustrated me that not everyone could see the vision the way I could. But I learned that not everyone is going to love your baby the way you love your baby. So don’t let those people detract from your joy.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dara Tarkowski, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Actuate Law and Chief Innovation Strategist at quointec, llc. Dara is a lawyer, entrepreneur and mother of three. Dara spent the first eleven years of her legal career in BigLaw, until she left to found her own firm. She is the co-founder of Actuate Law LLC, a forward-thinking law firm in Chicago, Illinois, and quointec LLC, a recently launched legal technology company. Dara represents clients in a wide range of legal matters and has a passion for innovation. Dara both counsels and litigates and has specialized expertise in non-bank financial services, data privacy and data security. Dara also acts an Advisor to FinTEx Chicago, the premier fintech trade association for the Midwest. When Dara isn’t working, she is busy cherishing moments with her kids, accessorizing with cool skull jewelry and loving the city of Chicago.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s funny. My Dad was a lawyer — a litigator, actually. When I was little, I thought he had the coolest job in the world. He got paid to argue with people. It amazed me. There must be something about my family genetics, because my daughter’s favorite phrase by age 2 was “mommy, let’s make a deal.” For years, though, he tried to talk me out of becoming a lawyer, trying to convince me that the life as an attorney was a grind, mentally exhausting, and that I should do something else with my life. So, when I applied to law school, I didn’t tell him. It wasn’t until I received and then accepted my admission that I surprised him with the news. He cried. And then later became my best bar exam study partner and counselor. I don’t know if my Dad was genuinely skilled at the whole reverse psychology thing or he really meant I should do something else with my life. In the end, though, he brought me to my career path. Flashcard by flashcard.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I distinctly remember the day I was told I was not going to be elevated to partner at my first firm. I was an associate at an Amlaw 100 law firm. I had never missed my billable hour requirement; I had developed my own book of business. No one could question my dedication, my skills or my acumen. I even showed up to an appellate argument 7 weeks after delivering my preemie twin boys. I truly believed that I had done everything I was supposed to do. That’s why when I was told that I was not being promoted, I was crushed. The reasons, however, were the pills I couldn’t swallow. I am a person who is happy to rise or fall on my own merit, my work, or any other objective criteria that is put in front of me. But when I was told that the decision had nothing to do with any objective metric (since I crushed all of them), but rather how other male associates might “feel” if I were promoted before them, I knew I had to leave. I was made promises — just wait until next year, etc., but it was in that moment, the moment where I was denied the professional achievement on which I had been singularly focused, that I knew it was time to choose a new path. So, I wiped the tears away (and yes, there were tears — sad ones and angry ones) and crafted a new plan. It was a mindset I affectionately refer to as “productive rage.” Out of the disappointment and the anger, I devised a new plan to find a new platform, grow my business, prove them wrong, and prove myself right. My daughter, Mischa, was 4 and my twin boys, Evan and Aaron, were 2 at the time. My husband, Adam, was an integral part of that decision-making process. He helped me strategize, listened when I needed to talk through my challenges and had my back as I made the biggest decision of my professional career. Within 6 months, I did just that. I left that firm and helped grow a new firm in Chicago, which eventually led to my co-founding of Actuate Law. I know now, with 100% certainty, if I had been promoted that year, and stayed, I would not have my business today. I would not have Actuate or quointec. So basically, not getting promoted was what I needed to fan the flame. The fire was already lit!
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I have always been a hard worker and determined to overcome any obstacle put in front of me. As a competitive gymnast for 14 years, you learn very fast that success doesn’t come easy. You learn to focus, practice and play through the pain. There is certainly a genetic component to it. I am the grand-daughter of Holocaust survivors, who were never shy about teaching me what real difficulty and adversity meant. My grandfather, who is also my daughter Mischa’s namesake, was a particularly bold influence on that part of my personality. He literally fought and overcame; he created a new life in the United States and he did it all for his family, his daughter — my mother. I lost him when I was 15, but he is with me every day. And when things get really hard, I always ask myself what would “Big Mischa” would do. I push myself to make him proud; I push myself to make my kids proud; and I push myself to show my children that you don’t ever give up just because the challenge in front of you seems insurmountable.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
I could have let the disappointment deter me over the years. I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about quitting the legal profession at more than one point. The large institutional large law firms weren’t built for women like me. I had a hard time “playing the game” and refused to capitulate to other’s egos. Those experiences created doubts about myself that I had never experienced as a professional. So I gave myself a little bit of time “to get the boo-hoos out” (that’s a phrase I used with my kids all the time) and instead decided to create my own path, instead of following the one I was told I was supposed to follow. The next firm I worked at was a bit better. I was hired in as an income partner and given the platform I needed to grow my business. A few years in, though, BigLaw couldn’t help being BigLaw, and I began to once again feel bureaucracy and non-merit based decisions and other people’s predilections negatively impact my career. But this time, I was wiser and I was braver. And while there was still an element of “productive rage,” this time I was ready to rise and fall on my own merit in the ultimate way — leaving the predictability of security of a big firm, putting my entrepreneur hat on, and striking out of my own. People kept asking me if I was scared. I told them (probably naively) that I wasn’t. That if given the choice between betting on myself or relying on others to do right by me, I will bet on myself every time. A year later, as Actuate celebrates its one-year birthday, I know I bet right.
So, how are things going today? 🙂
In short, I am amazed and energized every day. And I feel professionally fulfilled in a way I didn’t know I could. Actuate recently celebrated its one-year anniversary and just announced the launch of quointec, our legal technology subsidiary. The firm was profitable in its first year and we are doing the projects that we set out to do. I am so incredibly proud of what my partners and I have created — an innovative, forward-thinking law firm, focused on client value, and changing the way legal services are delivered. Doug Albritton, Chuck Chejfec, Phil Tortorich, Martin Tully and I are blessed with incredibly loyal and supportive clients at Actuate. And teaming up with Randy Rivera, Jeff Sharer, and Martin Tully to bring quointec to life is beyond exciting and continues to inspire me. On a personal level, even though my work and travel schedule remain busy as ever, my kids are fascinated by the fact that “mommy is the boss at her own company” and are never shy about telling people how cool it is. They melt me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My partner, Martin, will remember this one. I was a young lawyer. Maybe the beginning of my second year. In charge of my first significant filing. I spent hours editing, organizing exhibits, and checking items off my list. I filed the documents just before midnight. The next day, as I was reviewing the filing, I realized I missed a signature page. I panicked. I got sweaty. I lost it. I ran down to Martin’s office and told him about the terrible mistake I made. He saw the fear and panic in my eyes. A long pause. And then he started laughing at me. “Go file it now, Dara. Just go fix it,” he said. It had honestly never occurred to me that I could have just gone and fixed it on my own. My expression changed. I felt real silly. Lesson learned. Not everything will be perfect all the time. And when I make a mistake, just go fix it, Dara.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Actuate Law and quointec stand out because we are breaking the mold of traditional law firms and traditional ways that legal services are delivered. We price our services differently by implementing nearly every alternative fee arrangement you could imagine. The occasional client still wants to be billed by the hour, but our structure allows us incredible fee flexibility. We embrace technology, we focus on the issues that matter most to our clients, and we develop creative and innovative solutions to problems. It’s a simple formula. Client challenges + smart lawyers + design thinking + technology = better client service. And most importantly, we love to collaborate with non-legal service providers and leverage their expertise to provide the best possible solutions for our clients. Neota Logic and Thomson Reuters are two of our incredible partners.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As much as I would like to believe that I’m superwoman; I’m not. This past year has been a serious lesson in self-care. It is so easy to get caught up in the excitement and the energy of it all. But it is easy to burn out, or worse, make yourself sick. I’ve actually landed myself in the ER. Scary lesson. But now, I try to schedule in time to balance. So, my advice, find the thing that brings you balance. I choose Soul Cycle, cooking, and squeezing in a spa visit on the tail end of every business trip I take. There is an element of retail therapy as well. What can I say? Awesome shoes make me really happy.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
This is an easy one. My dad. Even though I lost my dad relatively early in my career (I was a third-year associate, pregnant with my first child), I would not be the lawyer or human I am today without the countless lessons he taught me along the way. Sandy Chevlin’s life lessons for his oldest daughter included: (1) Don’t take shit from anyone. Stand up for yourself no matter what; (2) Keep your perspective. Problems are only really problems if you can’t ever find solutions. Problems that can be fixed with writing a check or negotiating a deal aren’t “real” in the same way as other problems — like losing someone you love or a family member falling ill; and (3) Your EQ is just as important as your IQ. People matter. There were lots of others, but these have guided my career. My answer to this question also wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention my ultimate mentor and partner, Martin Tully, who interviewed me a summer associate, taught me how to be a great lawyer, and has been literally by my side from firm to firm, and is now my co-founder at Actuate and quointec. What an amazing human. I learn from him every day. And lastly, a very special client, who has always believed in me, who wouldn’t want to be mentioned by name, but if he is reading, knows exactly who he is.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
While I worked in BigLaw, female mentorship was something incredibly important to me. It still is. I try to mentor, guide, counsel or just make myself available to as many young female professionals as possible.
(Choose) What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. You are not above any task that needs to get done. That includes moving furniture, cleaning a toilet bowl, ordering office supplies, and making sure the peanut M&Ms are always replenished in the office. Yep, I’ve done all of that.
2. Not everyone is going to understand what you are trying to do or why you’re doing it. When I left BigLaw, I received countless unsolicited comments that began over time, to take away a little bit of my joy. It frustrated me that not everyone could see the vision the way I could. But I learned that not everyone is going to love your baby the way you love your baby. So don’t let those people detract from your joy.
3. People will surprise you. In both good and bad ways. I was amazed by the things I learned about all sorts of relationships in my life. People who I thought would be huge fans had lukewarm reactions. Other people, ones who you never expected to receive a smile from, all of a sudden become super-fans and incredible sources of opportunity.
4. You don’t know what you don’t know. Its important to understand going into any new venture, that there will be countless situations you’ll confront that you don’t know how to manage, questions you won’t know how to answer, and new problems you won’t immediately know how to solve. Just know that’s going to happen going in and when those inevitable situations arise, instead of getting frustrated, know that you’re having one of those “you don’t know what you don’t know” moments.
5. You can’t plan for everything and you will stumble. Try as you might, you will never be able to predict or plan for every permutation of every decision that will affect your business. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!