Shepherding the herd
Axley’s Gibeault enjoys pinnacle role as firm’s first female leader.
Patricia Gibeault has carved a path for women in law through her successes at Axley Brynelson.
Photograph by Eric Tadsen
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From the pages of In Business magazine.
Marinette, Wis., was not only home to Patricia Gibeault, 62, managing partner at the Axley Brynelson LLP law firm in Madison, it was where she came to know Dorothy Nelson Topel, an attorney her mother worked with as a paralegal. She was just a teenager at the time, and female attorneys were few and far between, but Topel made an impact on her. “Getting to know what an attorney did in a small town gave you access to many places that not everyone had access to,” Gibeault notes. “It really interested me.”
Eventually, Gibeault would leave small town life for UW–Madison. She completed law school after just two years and went to work for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Wisconsin as Judge Robert D. Martin’s first law clerk. The experience solidified her career path. “The bankruptcy code had just been rewritten,” she recalls. “It was a brand new law, so I got in at the beginning.”
After a one-year clerkship she joined the firm now known as Axley Brynelson, where she specialized in cases involving insolvency, bankruptcy, restructuring, and foreclosures, an area that would surge in demand during the Great Recession.
Last year, after 35 years with the firm, Gibeault was named managing partner — the first female to reach that pinnacle in Axley’s 130-year history. In a recent interview, she discussed her long career.
IB: Why did you choose bankruptcy law?
Gibeault: It’s fascinating to me, like a puzzle with different pieces to consider. There are a lot of concepts unique to bankruptcy. As I began working on larger, more complicated and costly matters, nobody here at the time really did this area of the law, so I kind of became the expert. When there’s no one else who does it, people look to you.
IB: How did the Great Recession affect your job?
Gibeault: For me, it started in 2007. I worked primarily for banks and financial institutions, and the number of large, complex matters I was working on greatly increased. From 2008 to 2010, I’d be getting new, large files dropped off at my office every Friday, and I’d spend the weekends reviewing them so I could work with the clients on Monday.
IB: What stands out in your memory about those days?
Gibeault: I sometimes describe it as “meatball surgery” (coined in the TV show “M*A*S*H”). We were stretched thin. Unfortunately, many of our clients were stretched even thinner.
Some borrowers — primarily developers — got into deep financial trouble. The dollars were very large and it could get emotional for the parties involved. Prior to the recession, selling real estate could often solve problems, but when real estate plummeted many problems couldn’t be solved.
IB: How are things currently?
Gibeault: It’s a different world! I may get a new file every other month. To me, that’s a sign that a lot of bad loans have been resolved and that the economy is improving. It’s allowed me to devote about half my time to handling the administrative duties here.