By Kathy Maeglin
IBJ Special Projects Editor
It may be unjust, but barristers are often likened to barracudas. Marti Starkey, however, doesn’t seem to fit that stereotype at all. Her 16-year-old daughter, Paige, put it best: “She’s like the total opposite of your typical lawyer. She’s caring." At age 46, Starkey (whose first name is actually Martha) runs one of the few woman-owned law firms in town. Her orig*inal career plans offer some insight into why she’s a different breed of lawyer.
"I was actually planning to go into the ministry," Starkey said. “I was hoping to go on staff with an organization called Young Life that worked with adolescents.” When she learned that Young Life really needed lawyers, she decided to take that path.
After getting a bachelor’s in communications from the University of Evansville, the Evansville native worked her way through the Indiana University School of Law-Indi*anapolis, primarily as a law clerk. Starkey spent her first year out of law school work*ing as a law clerk for a bankruptcy court judge, and then she joined the firm of Cohen & Malad, where she had clerked during law school.
“New associates had to do anything and everything.” Starkey recalled of her early days with Cohen & Malad. “I was thrown into a lot of areas of law in which I had no experience. But I liked the probate and estate planning work the most, because you work directly with people who are at a dif*ficult time in their lives and you can minis*ter to their needs, in effect, and take care of their legal issues, but also help them through an emotionally difficult time."
Starkey’s plans to join Young Life fell by the wayside as she got married and had a child. “By then I was seeing that my work in this area of the law (probate) was a min*istry itself and I got that feedback from my clients all the time, that I had helped them through a time that was probably one of the most difficult times in their lives." she said. “I felt that as ironic as life can be, I really was doing as much or more in the practice of law as I would have done otherwise if I had gone into full-time ministry.”
When Starkey was ready to return to practicing law in 1985 after having her daughter, she told her colleagues at Cohen & Malad that she would come back if she could focus her practice solely on probate and estate planning. They agreed, and they let her work part time, which in those days was almost unheard of.
She took every probate case the firm got, as well as cases another lawyer in town would pass on to her if they weren’t going to be as profitable as he wanted. He would say, "Marti, you won’t make much money on this case, but you’ll learn a lot about probate law" she recalled. "And he was right." Over the next eight years, she built the firm’s probate and estate-planning practice to the point where she made partner, and another firm, Johnson Smith Densborn Wright & Heath, took notice. “They said they had been looking all over the country for someone to head their probate and estate planning area, and they asked if I would come and bring my clients and my staff.” So she did.
Three years later, another firm, Tabbert Hahn Earnest, lured her away and made her a named partner. (Starkey was the only female partner in all the firms she worked with.)
Major Probate Case
It was during this time that Starkey was embroiled in the most high-profile case of her career. She was asked to serve as co-counsel for Nancy Irsay, wife of deceased Indianapolis Colts owner Robert Irsay. "The case involved almost every estate, trust or probate question I could ever imagine,” Starkey said. “At first it was intimidat*ing, because we were litigating against some of the largest firms in the world. It felt very much like David and Goliath.”
Starkey explained that for the most part, the case became an action between Nancy Irsay and the five trustees who had authority over the assets in a trust that Robert Irsay had set up a trust that included the Colts. "There were a lot of maneuvers going on that might have prevented her from getting what she should have gotten, what Robert wanted her to have in the event of his incapacity or his death,” Starkey said.
The case was settled in late 1997. Set*tlement terms were not disclosed, but son Jim Irsay got 100 percent of the Colts and Nancy got the Sweet Charity horse farm in Hamilton County.
It was in 1999 that Starkey decided it was time to strike out on her own. By the fall of 2000, her firm was incorporated as Starkey Law Group, PC sm. Since her staff and clients had stuck with her through all the moves, her practice was already well-estab*lished. The firm has four lawyers (including Starkey), two paralegals and a director of strategic planning.
Starkey said that by opening her own firm, she could more easily follow what she believed were the important principles in a law practice: “putting the client first, returning every client phone call as quickly as possible, spending time with widows who just needed to talk and not worrying about how much billable time that would produce."
She said that because of her sympathetic personality, she doesn't think she would be successful in any other area of the law.
Don Densborn, a partner with Bose McKinney & Evans who worked with Starkey years ago, said she is both passionate about the law and very compassionate with her clients. "She really cares about her clients, and they are very quick to pick up on that," he said. "She goes way out of her way to help them. She's just totally selfless."
In addition to being a wife and mother of three, Starkey owns a bed-and-breakfast in Evansville, which her parents now run. She bought it during the height of the Irsay case as a way to "relax." "You know how sometimes if you're [involved in something] really intense, something else intense will help you," she explained.
Starkey said she certainly has encoun*tered gender bias in her career, and it’s a very nasty thing. “I try not to think very much about it because I think it only gives it more power if you do that,” she said.
"I think that it’s important to look reality straight in the face and recognize that it’s there and do your best not to contribute to it, but to discuss it any further than that just gives it more power.”
Another piece of advice she has for others is to stay encouraged about what you know you can achieve. “Be tenacious about it."
"Tenacity is such a great word because it’s so much more than endurance,” Starkey said. “It’s endurance combined with the knowledge that your goal can absolutely be accomplished. If I’ve been called anything by my clients in the probate litigation area, it’s been tenacious, and I always thought that was a high compliment."