Therese Franzén has delved into nearly every corner of the law—working as a prosecutor, a partner at a firm, a general counsel, and cofounder of a firm and also a company, a mortgage quality control and compliance company. She’s also found time to do pro bono work in Mexico, Haiti, and her hometown of Peachtree Corners, Georgia. Throughout, the ABA has been critical to her legal career. “The people whom I know through the ABA are really the movers and shakers in their field,” she says. “It’s great to be able to learn from people who are so well-respected.”
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What inspired you to become a lawyer?
It was probably my mother. She was a forensic chemist, one of the few mothers who was a working mom when I was growing up. She investigated crimes and then testified around the world for the U.S. Armed Services.
Did she talk about her work with you?
She did, to a certain extent. There were a few cases that were fairly well publicized, so we heard about those. She also traveled quite a bit for her job, and so because of that, if she was going to testify in a particular case, she would tell us a little bit about it. Of course when I was in law school I thought I would be a criminal defense lawyer. Instead I became a consumer financial services attorney.
You’ve worked as a government lawyer. How was that experience?
When I first graduated from law school, I got a job as a prosecutor, where I stayed for two years. I prosecuted misdemeanors. The biggest cases we had in the misdemeanor realm had to do with domestic violence. So I put together a protocol with the police, the hospital, and the battered women’s shelter, so women would be encouraged to go through with the prosecutions. As you may know, it’s a cycle, that’s the best way to put it. The woman is beaten, the man goes to jail, Monday morning comes around, and oh gosh, he’s sorry, he won’t ever do it again. So one thing I did was have the women talk with me, without the man being there. I’d give them information that hopefully would help them in the future, so they would know whom to call if they had a problem in the future. It worked out pretty well.
What did you enjoy about this?
It was so fun. It was exciting; I tried a lot of cases, which I really enjoyed. It was different every day. We worked really hard, because the case you were prepared to try always plead out, so then you had to pick up another case, which you had glanced at, and you tried that one instead. I worked with some really great people and great investigators. The judges were really good. I felt lucky to have that experience right out of law school.
Did it help prepare you to be a litigator, because you were in court so often?
It did. Even though I went into private practice and I did civil litigation, I had a lot more trial experience than other people in the firm.
After working at a law firm, you served as general counsel at Fleet Finance. I wanted you to list some of the difference between working as a general counsel versus a lawyer at a law firm.
The biggest difference is that being an in-house lawyer, you’re much more integrally involved in your clients’ decisions. I was very involved, not just in giving legal advice, but in the decision-making process itself. My experience has been that no matter how closely you work with a client as an outside lawyer, it’s just not the same depth of a relationship and depth of involvement in those business decisions that you have as an in-house lawyer.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes, that’s one of the things I missed when I started my firm. I had been with a law firm and was a litigator for several years prior to going in-house. I was in court or depositions all the time. When I went in-house, I was sitting there at my desk, and I went to my boss, the general counsel, and I said, “OK, I’ve got to get out of this office. Can I just at least go to the law library?” So I would go to the Emory Law Library and hang out there for a while. But after a while, I got more involved at the company with meetings. Then when I went back to being outside counsel, I missed the business end of things.
What did you enjoy about managing the commercial litigation department at a law firm? And what didn’t you enjoy?
The reason I decided to go in-house was because I stupidly thought I would not work the same number of hours per week. For a while, I would say that was true. At my firm, I’d been working pretty much seven days a week. I’d had a second child, and that was when I decided I just can’t do this any longer. I can’t have two little kids and work seven days a week, and have the kind of life that I really wanted to have. I had friends who were in-house, and they had much more regular hours. I started looking for an in-house counsel position and really lucked into it. They happened to be looking, and I was looking, and I had limited my search to a certain geographical area in Atlanta.
In 1997 you cofounded your firm, Franzén and Salzano. What made you want to launch your own firm?
The immediate motivation was that our company was being shut down in Atlanta, so I had a choice. I could either move to the northeast, where there was an office that was part of Fleet Financial Group. But my husband was a judge, and he was not moving to the northeast. So I started looking for another job as an in-house lawyer. I had an interview at a large television station in the Atlanta area, which another really large conglomerate had just announced it was purchasing. At the interview, I looked at the guy who was interviewing me, and I said, “Well, how do you know you all are still going to even have a legal department in Atlanta? What if they move everybody to New York?” He looked at me and it was apparent he had never considered that the acquiring company might shut down this legal department in Atlanta. I said, “You know why I’m looking for a job? Because they’re shutting me down in Atlanta.”
I went back to the office and found my friend, Loretta, who worked at the company with me. I said, “I’m going to open a law firm, do you want to do it?” She said, “Sure.” So that’s how we started.
What are the challenges of having your own firm?
We’ve just been really lucky. When the economy took a downturn, we were worried about that, but we always had a balance in our firm between litigation, enforcement work, and compliance work. It always seemed when one area was down a little bit, the other area would be up. I would recommend and have told other people, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Even though we have a very niche practice, we have a balance.
What are the benefits?
The biggest benefit is independence. You pretty much do what you want to do. It’s the ability to control your own destiny. If you see that you need to make some changes, then you’re able to do that. We’ve always been pretty small, which allows us to be nimble, to be very responsive to the clients.
If you could change one thing about your legal career, what would it be?
I’m a person who says I don’t want to have regrets about things. That said, we represent banks, mortgage companies, but it probably would have suited me better have a more people-oriented practice. When I was looking for jobs out of law school, I was really interested in working for legal aid. Helping others is a personal need, which I’ve been able to fulfill in other areas of my life.
In 2008 you cofounded ComplyShare LLC, a mortgage quality control and compliance company. What inspired you to form this company?
We were inspired by our clients, who kept asking us to do it. If you’re a mortgage company, there’s a requirement for quality control review on 10 percent of your loan originations. There are companies out there who do that. Our clients kept saying, “Why don’t you all do this?” So, after some persuasion, we agreed. From there, we started to do more intensive file reviews, such as fair lending reviews, where we review the clients’ policies and procedures, as well as files, and make recommendations. Five years ago, we sold the quality control piece to another company and kept the more intensive analysis piece.
You do a lot of pro bono work. What do you do, and why is it important to you?
As a firm, we have traditionally represented nonprofits that provide transitional housing services to homeless families. I also represent my church pro bono.
Has that fulfilled your desire for a more people-oriented practice?
It has, because I feel that those entities are trying to help people. I also do volunteer work, such as building houses in Juarez, Mexico. I started doing that in 2001. Then, when things got bad in Juarez, I started going to Haiti. I’ve been going to Haiti now for ten years, and we have a school there, through my church. Then we started medical, dental, and eye clinics, which last year we spun off into a non-profit. I’m the board chair of that non-profit. In the states, I volunteer at a women’s prison and serve on the advisory board of a refugee resettlement non-profit, and these also have been extremely fulfilling.
I hear you are planning to retire, at least from the law firm. Is that right?
I am mostly retired now and trying to finish up a few lingering matters
What are your plans for retirement?
My husband was retiring, so that was the immediate nudge. I always told him I was not going to be going to work every day if he was staying home. He did fully retire, except now he’s a senior judge and still hears cases. But for me, because of the kind of practice that I had, I can’t just cut if off, so I’ve got a few things still active. We want to travel, we love to travel. We just got back from Israel and Jordan on Saturday night. We have trips planned to Kenya and Tanzania in the summer and Europe in the fall, with some shorter U.S. trips in the interim. And, I will make two trips to Haiti this year, and one to Cuba for my non-profit and church work.
You’re also very active with the ABA in addition to everything else you’re doing. What’s been the value of the ABA to you?
I originally got involved because of the CLE. In Georgia, there are very few CLE opportunities that are relevant to my practice. I’ve been a member of the ABA ever since law school, but got actively involved when I went in-house and needed to be able to talk with other people who did the same kind of work that I did. But the reason I continue is the relationships that I’ve built over the years with people. It’s just a great networking opportunity. The people whom I know through the ABA are really the movers and shakers in their field, and it’s great to be able to learn from those people who are so well-respected. They’re deep thinkers in their particular area of the law, and are very willing to share that with other people.
You were involved with producing the In the Know webinars for the ABA. Can you tell us about that?
It’s a free CLE webinar, which is produced monthly. In the Know is really geared to an intermediate to an advanced level practitioner. About a year ago, we started another series called Business Law Basics. It’s also a free webinar with CLE credit as a member benefit, but it’s geared to newer practitioners, either younger lawyers or practitioners who are new to that particular area of the law.
What do you do for fun?
I like to read, I’m in a book club, that’s very fun. We’re in the middle of selling our house, that’s not that fun. We’ve lived in this house for 22 years, so we have a lot of stuff to get rid of. We have a mountain house and we’re moving there. I like to work out, and I’ve been able to work out more since I’ve been mostly retired, so that’s really nice.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I encourage people who are ABA members to bring along a colleague, a friend, and introduce other people to the ABA, so that others can see the benefits of getting involved.
You really get the benefits when you become involved. If more people became involved, by going to meetings, or participating in the free webinars, and availing themselves of the benefits that the ABA offers, they would more than benefit from that themselves. They’d meet a lot of nice people, and maybe enjoy their own practice more.
Thank you so much!