With high energy and a unique capacity for attracting clients, Julia Swain has built a strong reputation as an effective divorce lawyer in the Philadelphia region. That's notable for several reasons: The 43-year-old Swain has already in her career charged through some glass ceilings, aided in part by some hard-nosed - and proud - Russian-immigrant roots. Moreover, she's been successful in many venues: on her own, with a small suburban firm -- and now with one of the largest law firms in the U.S. Indeed, 550-lawyer Fox Rothschild LLP, based in Center City, is one of the few Top 100 Law Firms to develop a stand-alone family law department; it now has more than 30 divorce lawyers, putting it easily in the Top Ten matrimonial practices in the nation. And Swain, a partner at Fox Rothschild since 2009 and still early in her career, is one of the department's key lawyers. Thus she is something of a symbol of a new generation of women leaders in the law.
Herself married with two small children, Swain has shrugged off the have-it-all pressures and trade-offs that the profession poses for so many women in the law today. "I never thought about one choice versus another," she said. "That may have something to do with my background and the way I was raised." Julia Zeitlin arrived in the U.S. in 1974 as a 5 year old; her parents, both engineers living in Moscow, took advantage of the era's easing restrictions on Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union. Various agencies sponsored their journey, as they landed in Providence, R.I., then Baltimore and finally Philadelphia's Great Northeast. Her parents took odd jobs there until they opened a jewelry business, which placed them comfortably in the region's dynamic and diverse middle class.
With no siblings, Julia was encouraged to compete with fearlessness, something of a trademark, she says, of Eastern European immigrants who, having lived under authoritarianism, famously ignore societal roadblocks. Her high school tennis team won the league championship, and she entered and won an international "Olympics of The Mind" competition that fostered creative problem solving. At the University of Delaware she changed majors from education to journalism to communications, and worked as a "shadow journalist" at Philly's CBS television affiliate. In her second year at Widener Law School she participated in a family law clinic in which she worked with parents who couldn't afford a lawyer to enforce child support orders. It was "like prosecutors' work," she says, and she got an early and solid feel for the divorce-law landscape - the courts, the judges, especially in the City of Philadelphia. In fact, passing the bar she and a colleague launched a practice out of their house, with many referrals coming from the clinic's own professors.
In short order Swain knew her career path. She joined the firm of Freedman & Lorry which, with fixed contracts, handled the legal problems of an array of union members; "It was incredibly high volume, 99% divorce related, and I learned the court system inside and out." Even at that point, in her early 30s, Swain was getting referrals from outer counties for her expertise in the city's court system. When she jumped to the practice of renowned divorce lawyer Dave Ladov, "I was at a different level - handling more complex and higher stakes cases." When two years later Ladov joined Cozen O'Connor, Swain got a call in summer 2003 from a divorce-law partner at Fox Rothschild. "The fact was I progressing from firm to firm, each time with a growing caseload. I brought a lot of files with me" to Fox Rothschild. That business-getting momentum allowed her to charge ahead; she was made a shareholding partner in 2009, her first year of eligibility.
Today Swain, up at 5:30 every workday, maintains a high profile in the profession. (She still speaks Russian, and has even attracted Russian-speaking clients.) She is outgoing chair of the Philadelphia Bar's Family Law Section, and has served on high-profile committees. She is co-chair of the 2013 Bench-Bar Conference, a major event that attracts 500 judges and lawyers every fall. She writes frequently for the Philadelphia Bar Reporter. She serves, too, as President of her homeowners association in southern Bucks County. She and her husband, plaintiffs' lawyer Andrew Swain, have two young sons.