Shepherding the herd

Axley’s Gibeault enjoys pinnacle role as firm’s first female leader.

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.



IB: What does being the first female managing partner in the firm mean to you?
Gibeault: I was the first female equity partner here, which to me was a bigger deal when you work with a group of male attorneys, even though in large part they treated me the same.

But honestly, I never aspired to be managing partner. I looked at it as herding cats because law firms are owned by a large number of people. We have 32 equity partners right now, meaning 32 owners, all attorneys, and all with strong opinions on every issue. For many years, I thought it was great that people were willing to take on that role, but I thought they must be crazy!

IB: And now?
Gibeault: It’s actually much more interesting than I expected it to be and entails a lot of the same skill sets I used in trying to negotiate deals. I attend a lot more activities outside of the office because, in some ways, I’m the face of the firm. In the past I thought being out and about would be the worst part of the job. It certainly isn’t. Firing people is the worst part of the job.

IB: Do you see yourself as a role model for other women in your field?
Gibeault: As an equity partner in the firm and with the work I’ve done in the bankruptcy court and state court, I’d say yes. Women still have ceilings to go through, and in general I still think they need to work harder than their male counterparts, but it’s gotten much better than it used to be.

IB: Is there a framed portrait of you on the firm’s wall of fame?
Gibeault: We have framed pictures of many dead partners on the wall. I’m in no rush to join them!

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