August 01, 2008

August 2008: Michael Baillif, Esq.

Blind lawyer finds success in choosing the right path.

The decision as to when and what type of law to practice varies from lawyer to lawyer. For some law school is sought as early as high school; others do not choose their career path until after they take a state’s bar exam. Some lawyers even change their areas of practice in the middle of their professional lives. Yet, no matter when a career path is chosen, the decision itself, especially for lawyers with disabilities, is of great importance, according to Michael Baillif, Esq., Associate General Counsel for the accounting firm of Ernst & Young LLP.

As a Yale Law School graduate, Michael began his journey as a law clerk in the United States Tax Court. After practicing tax law as an associate at two law firms, he joined Ernst & Young’s National Tax Department and was involved for several years in the provision of tax services directly to large corporate clients. In 2006 he became an Associate General Counsel for Ernst & Young, one of the world’s largest accounting firms. He was also a Watson Fellow and received an L.L.M. in Taxation from Georgetown University Law Center. For about 25 years, Michael has been totally blind. As accommodations for his disability, Michael is provided with a full time reader and a screen reader for his computer by Ernst & Young, which Michael describes as a very supportive and highly inclusive employer.

As in-house counsel, Michael oversees a myriad of legal issues that come before the accounting firm. One of the issues he handles is professional services malpractice claims involving the firm’s accountants. His position involves a mix of legal analysis, personal interaction, and dispute resolution strategy. With a background in tax law, Michael welcomed the counsel position. “Tax is a fascinating but relatively narrow area of the law, and I wanted to expand,” he said, “now, as an Associate General Counsel, I am able to use an additional skill set in representing our firm.”

One of these skills is the art of dispute resolution, or the pre-litigation process of mediating and negotiating in order to reach a common resolution suitable to both parties. Part of that process, said Bailiff, is developing the proper strategy for working with the other party: “When dealing with a plaintiff who claims accounting malpractice, both proper planning and interpersonal skills are important. Most of the relatively few plaintiffs who assert claims against Ernst and Young truly believe that they have been harmed, and it is important to take these allegations seriously and to respect the legitimacy and power of the subjective feelings involved, even if we find that we can not ultimately agree with the factual or legal positions being adopted,” Baillif said, “therefore, in order to bring both sides together, my ability to choose the proper course of action in approaching the other side is very important.”

The gravity of Michael's decisions about his legal career was not lost on him: “When choosing the direction of your career in the field of law, it is important to realize what environment you want to work in. For example, Ernst & Young is very inclusive and flexible and places a high priority on allowing people to pursue a satisfying work/life balance. This positive environment has been a huge contributor to my professional success and happiness.” According to Michael, this consideration is important for everyone, but can not be over estimated in the case of lawyers with disabilities. Just as Michael chose Ernst & Young as an alternative to the law firm lifestyle, he recommends that everyone consider the whole range of employment options: “Law firms are great, but other possibilities such as in-house and government positions also offer excellent opportunities and sometimes can be friendlier in terms of disability accommodations and overall quality of life.”