Not Your Typical Lawyer

Monica Whitten '23

Associate, Gutnicki LLP

Monica Whitten ’23 is a recent graduate who already has established a successful career. After years excelling in commercial real estate in Dallas, followed by a decade caring for her family, she came to Chicago-Kent, driven to succeed in places where others like her rarely go. She is now a star law firm associate with a bright future ahead of her.

Monica Whitten
LAW '23

Monica Whitten ’23 was not the typical Chicago-Kent College of Law student.

“I was the oldest person in my graduating class, definitely in my section by a lot of years,” she says. “Initially that was intimidating for me, but it turned out that most of my young friends were very welcoming and even keen to tap into my life experience as a resource.”

Whitten spent 11 years working her way up in the world of commercial real estate investment management, handling large real estate portfolios across the Southern region of the United States starting in 2000.

It wasn’t long before she wanted more.

“Originally I took the LSAT in 2007 or 2008, intending to go to law school then,” she says. “The primary real estate law firm that I worked with offered me a deal. They would cover my salary and law school tuition if I would agree to come work for them for a few years after.”

Life had other plans. Her eldest son fell gravely ill, and in 2011, she stepped away from the workforce to focus on supporting her family.

“I walked away from 90 hours a week, traveling constantly, to mom full time,” she says.

After a decade, her life seemed to stabilize, and she was ready to finally make her dream of going to law school a reality. She applied to the part-time program at the University of Houston Law Center and began studying for the LSATs, only for life to send her another curveball—this one in the form of a divorce during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whitten was suddenly in need of a scholarship, which the Houston Law Center doesn’t offer to part-time students. Luckily, Chicago-Kent offered her a full ride.

“I ended up in Chicago, and now I’m living the best life I can, I suppose,” she says, fully aware of how unusual her journey seems compared to her classmates.

“I’ve kind of lived my entire life in that way, sort of outside of the box of how things are supposed to go,” she adds. “In my real estate career, I was often the least educated, only woman, and youngest person sitting at the table. I got comfortable in uncomfortable places.”

All of a sudden, she was no longer the only woman in the room, or the youngest.

“Some of my classmates were younger than my oldest son, which was wild and interesting and completely wonderful,” she says. “It turns out that everyone going through this higher education journey needs support.”

“In a lot of ways I had an advantage. For example, I understood how to recognize when people are placing unrealistic expectations on you, and how to navigate that. But I have more responsibilities in my day-to-day life and less support. I’m a single mom living in a city far away from home. I had no family or friends nearby. I didn’t have the time or the flexibility that a lot of my classmates have.”

Originally, she hoped to pursue real estate law, tapping into her contacts to pick up where she left off.

But yet again, she had to pivot—but this time, it was for her.

“I took a tax clinic class, and I absolutely fell in love with tax law,” she says. “In the tax clinic you learn to read and apply tax code. It’s generally lengthy but well-written administrative law, and you have an opportunity to apply that law to real-life cases involving real people and real outcomes.”

Whitten worked in the tax clinic at Chicago-Kent for two years and didn’t want to leave.

“Everyone should have to take a clinic course to graduate from law school so that you can see what the practice of law looks like before you walk out,” she says. “Many law students haven’t ever had an office job. They haven’t ever had these sorts of demands placed on them. It’s a great time to learn with the guidance and assistance of clinical professors.”

She looked at the possibility of joining the clinic as an associate upon graduation, but ultimately decided to join the litigation team at Gutnicki LLP, where she gets to use her love of numbers and her skills in finance and real estate to litigate complex business disputes.

John Zummo is a partner at Gutnicki. He describes Whitten as his “go-to associate.”

“Monica is extremely articulate, poised, and organized—for any level attorney, but most certainly for a first year. She’s proactive and has a strong work ethic,” he says. “She has decades of experience as a businesswoman, and that comes across—she handles herself well.”

Whitten is new at the firm, but she’s already finding success.

An appellate brief she worked on lead to the New York State Appellate Division affirming a trial court decision in her client’s favor, and that’s just the beginning. She’s excited for new cases, and to use her hard-earned power for good.

“One of the things that I did at the tax clinic was handle most of the clinic’s nonprofit clients,” she says. “I’d like to continue somehow working with nonprofits that either focus on assisting women or assisting children with disabilities.”

Looking back on her career and all the sacrifices she’s had to make to get where she wants to be, her path isn’t one she would recommend young women aspire to. She thinks that women should never step fully out of the workforce, but if it can’t be helped, learn to be flexible in balancing family and financial independence.

“I gave up my highest-earning-potential years for a marriage that didn’t last,” she says. “Re-entering the workforce in commercial real estate investment management, I would have had to start out below where I left, and risk never really close that gap financially. Going back to law school helps partially fix that gap in earning potential.”

“My story is not unique: women often prioritize their families to promote their husband’s careers, and then have to pivot later in life. I do think that oftentimes women just like me find themselves in situations that weren’t planned for. In that case, going back to law school was great. I had the most fun.”

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