Jun 01, 2023
MCBA Member Profile
Profile: Valerie Gerard Kushel
Jun 01, 2023
By Morgan Daly, MCBA Board Director
1. Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in the Bay Area, near Burlingame. I went to UC Berkeley for my undergraduate degree and I attended law school in Los Angeles, at the University of Southern California. I also received a Master in Tax Law from the London School of Economics. After Law School, I moved back to the Bay Area and settled in Marin County.
2. What’s another area of law, you’d like to practice, but don’t? It would be fascinating to practice criminal law, especially in the Public Defender’s office.
3. What’s a skill– something you’re good at – that people would find surprising? I’m a certified speed reader. In college, I actually took a full day speed-reading class.
4. That’s an impressive skill to have in your back pocket. Still, you must work really hard, what is your go-to strategy to unwind? I’m a classic extrovert, so I unwind by being social. We love to host get-togethers for our children’s friends and their families and have friends over for no-cooking dinner.
5. So you’re a people person. Is that why you chose Estate Planning? Yes! I love working with people. Estate planning allows me to play a big role in helping people and families make important decisions that will impact their lives and ultimately their legacies.
6. Working so closely with people, your practice must have been affected by the COVID era, how so? During the early part of COVID, there was a sense of urgency to get new estate plans done. Also, logistically, there was a lot of creativity around signing and notarizing documents in a world where clients did not want to meet in person. Things are mostly back to pre-COVID times, though I’ve seen a 30% increase in Zoom meetings.
7. Wow. Offering people reassurance during those early months of Covid must have been especially meaningful work. What do you find most fulfilling about your practice? Helping people in a difficult period in their lives. They may be facing their own mortality through estate planning, or dealing with the loss of a loved one in a post-death administration.
8. What’s the biggest mistake people make with estate planning? Not reviewing their estate plan every 3-5 years. An estate plan is not an instant pot. You can’t set it and forget it. People should regularly review their documents and make sure that their agents are still the appropriate for those roles, and that their post-death goals are reflected in the documents.
9. What is something about estate planning that people should worry about, but aren’t? Capital gains tax. Everyone worries about estate tax. With the current gift and estate tax exemption at nearly $13M, estate tax is less of an issue for many families. However, outdated trust structures could expose families to capital gains tax.
10. You have an LLM in tax - I bet that comes in handy. It really does! There are so many tax considerations when it comes to estate planning that having a tax mindset is critical to advising my clients in the best way possible.
11. You’re also a mother of two. What skills or experiences from your personal life best enhance or inform your practice? Listening is a very important skill for an estate planning attorney. Every individual and every family has different needs, and it’s so important to listen to your clients and have a strong understanding of their goals and intuition for how best to help them. It’s also important to bring intellectual curiosity to working with clients. An estate plan is someone’s legacy and it’s important that people share, and I hear, their story.
12. You make balancing parenting and running a law practice look easy. What’s your secret? There’s a secret? Can you tell me? I don’t have much time, so I try to make the time I have impactful whether it’s at the office or with my family. This means that I go into the office during the week. When I’m at the office, I am always busy and try to be efficient. When I’m not working, I’m very guarded with my time.
13. You’ve worked at a large firm and a small firm before venturing out on your own. How did you decide to take that leap? When my oldest son was 15 months old, I opened VGK Law. I was working for a small firm at the time, and I found that I wasn’t getting the autonomy I needed as a mom and lawyer. It was very overwhelming. I decided that the only way to get that autonomy was to be my own boss.
14. I know that you became involved with the MCBA as Co-Chair of the Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Section, and you increased your involvement in 2021 when you joined the Board. What do you like most about being involved with the MCBA? I feel so lucky to be an attorney in Marin. I opened my own practice in 2018, and I feel continuously buoyed and supported by the legal community is in Marin. Though I have a solo practice, I feel a lot of collegiality in the Marin legal community. I’m lucky to have found wonderful mentors through MCBA as well as friendships.
15. We all appreciate your service. What else has been key to your success in founding your own firm? I think one key to success is to really appreciate your clients. I’m so grateful for my clients that enable me to earn a living doing work that I love. I’ve also been incredibly fortunate to have fantastic mentors. Deborah Breiner, John Grey and Wanden Treanor have been so generous with me and I’m forever grateful to them.
16. What are the challenges and benefits of having your own firm? The challenge is that it’s very difficult to turn off the work. I work nights, weekends, and holidays. If something needs to get done, I am the one to do it. The benefit is that I set my own schedule. I can schedule time in my calendar to volunteer in my oldest son’s kindergarten classroom, or go to the family Shabbat at my youngest son’s preschool. I really value the flexibility to participate in my children’s lives and I think the trade-offs are very worthwhile.
17. What advice would give to an attorney breaking into estate planning – either as a new attorney or transitioning practice? Build a base of clients and do good work for them. Your practice will grow organically. I also recommend building your community. The Marin legal community is wonderful and we’re lucky to have these kind and talented attorneys as our colleagues.