Eminent domain is one of those areas of the law that probably sounds dry and technical — that is, until it’s your property that the government wants to take.
Melissa Sherman of Spencer Fane has worked on a lot of condemnation cases, and from her perspective most school districts, cities and other governmental entities would prefer to negotiate than file a lawsuit. But they’re not always good at explaining that.
“I think a lot of condemning authorities don’t have the right people in place to effectively negotiate with property owners,” Sherman said. “They go in and they take a strong approach, and it’s not well received by people who are upset because their property is being taken. But as a woman, I can come in and be a little more delicate about the situation, communicate to them that I wish we didn’t need to be in this position.”
That judicious approach makes sense, as it was a judge’s visit to her ninth-grade class in Bonner Springs, Kansas, that first sparked her interest in the law.
“I was struck by what he had to say,” Sherman said. “It was pretty clear to me at that time that that’s the path I needed to follow.”
Shortly after graduating from the University of Kansas School of Law in 2001, Sherman clerked at the Johnson County District Court for Judge Steve Leben, who now sits on the Kansas Court of Appeals. The experience made her appreciate how difficult a judge’s job can be, and while she said she doesn’t have any aspirations to sit on the bench herself, it taught her a valuable lesson in how to address cases.
“Take on every matter in the same way,” she said. “From the small matter to the million-dollar matter, you ought to approach it with that same care and give the client the same amount of attention.”
Following her clerkship, Sherman joined Lathrop Gage, where she was a partner until joining Spencer Fane last year. Beyond her eminent-domain work, she also serves as outside general counsel to a number of businesses. It’s an area she wants to explore more, as it enables her to help businesses solve legal issues before they arise.
“When you’re talking about a lawyer-counselor, that is some of the best counseling you can do,” she said.
Sherman has three daughters, ages 12, 10 and 7, and like many attorneys she has to navigate the tension between home and office. But it helps that her daughters “all think it is fantastic that I’m a lawyer,” she said, and she tries to make teachable moments of those times when work intrudes on home life.
She recounted a recent time when she had to work late on a project. She emailed it to the client on her way out the door, and by the time she’d returned she’d received a reply, telling her it was exactly what was needed and thanking her profusely.
“I read that part of her email to my girls when I came home so they would understand,” Sherman said. “That makes them feel so proud. That helps them understand that Mommy may not be home until 7 [p.m.], but she’s out there helping people. That’s a good lesson for them.”