Judith Cahan Lajoie
How does Judith Lajoie find success as a real estate and financial attorney working in a white, male-dominated profession? By blending her unique combination of intellectual and creative talents.
Don’t worry though. Lajoie manages to lighten the mood by mixing in a sense of fun, as well as her favorite pastime outside of work—tap dancing.
A native New Yorker, Lajoie, who graduated from Cornell University and Cardozo School of Law, says she’s seen female attorneys around the country gain a lot of traction in the profession since her early days clerking at the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court. While some women may still feel marginalized in the field and invisible in a room full of men—especially when it comes to acquiring new clients in a law firm—she says more women than ever are serving successfully in a variety of legal roles, and that needs to be celebrated.
Lajoie recently left her high-powered job as general counsel at Denver-based CoBiz Bank, where she has worked since 2009. CoBiz, was a $4 billion business with 500 employees. It merged with BOK Financial on October 1, 2018, and the integration was completed in March of 2019. The change meant that half of the employees left, Lajoie included.
However, she says she was not afraid to switch gears and take on projects that resonate more with her abilities and lifestyle. In February, she started her own legal practice specializing in real estate and banking and serves as a commercial arbiter through the American Arbitration Association. It might even make for more time to tap dance—something she has done since the early 2000s. She is also a dedicated volunteer for various nonprofit organizations, including chairing the Cherry Creek Arts Festival’s 30th anniversary in 2020, and serving on a community advisory board for Colorado Public Radio.
“The legal profession is very much slanted toward white men who move and share clients in their circles, and they compete aggressively—that’s still out there,” Lajoie says. “But women make excellent lawyers with their organizational skills and diplomatic natures. It’s just the system that’s slow to change.”
Playing the man’s game
Part of being a real New Yorker is knowing how to stand your ground, and Lajoie is no shrinking violet.
Calmly and professionally, Lajoie’s developed her niche as a real estate lawyer in Colorado for more than three decades, working in all aspects of real estate and real estate finance—including substantial experience in construction lending, loan workouts and restructurings. She also served as in-house counsel to two different public homebuilders (MDC Holdings and the Colorado division of D.R. Horton)—who introduced her to construction defect issues and gave her experience in settlement discussions with homeowners, subcontractors and homeowner associations.
Lajoie says one way for up-and-coming female attorneys to make their mark on the profession is to be more present on boards of public companies and nonprofit organizations. Another approach is for female attorneys to find a mentor they can respect and learn from, an invaluable resource for navigating the waters of internal politics, as well as for learning the ins and outs of the profession. Many can also build leadership and organizational skills by volunteering for nonprofit organizations and joining peer advisory groups. As a result of these approaches, confident, professional women are making their way in the profession, she says.
As for the arduous process of making partner, that, too, is transforming, Lajoie says. New offerings such as “non-equity partnerships” are being developed which offer attorneys decent hourly rates, good work and clientele, so that work/life balance can be improved for everyone.
“Most importantly, people should never give up. Keep your focus and don’t get distracted,” she says. “Learn to facilitate good discussion and be a good mediator; always listen for the “why.” It is one of the most useful skills you can develop.”
From uptown to Cowtown
Having grown up in Queens, leaving the city that never sleeps and moving to Denver was a culture shock, she says.
It wasn’t long before Lajoie found her sanctuary with groups like Colorado Contemporary Dance and the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, where she currently sits on the board and serves in an executive capacity. With her love of dance, it wasn’t long before she got to strut her stuff, be it jazz, contemporary, musical theater or the delightfully retro tap dancing steps like the Buffalo and the Maxie Ford, made popular decades ago.
“Getting involved in a nonprofit organization is a valuable way to gain perspective and learn leadership. It can change your view of the workplace and your approach to problem-solving,” she says, explaining that preparing for a legal argument or for a dance performance isn’t that different. Both dance and law require focus, concentration and creativity—and having a good memory helps.
“You have to learn the moves and creatively apply the steps whether it be learning choreography or the elements of a contract or a case. The fun is figuring out the puzzle and solving the problem for your client and hopefully, achieving a win-win solution in the process,” Lajoie advises.
As for workplace equity?
That will come with time. Lajoie is confident, but there is still a lot to be done. Her professional advice? Best to keep nimble and be well-prepared and remember to smile and have some fun!
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