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Longtime attorney & trailblazer snags Professionalism Award

Legal News Reporter

Published: October 30, 2015

She carved out a path for herself in the legal profession in the 1970s when prominent women lawyers were an exception to the rule, becoming the first female bankruptcy trustee to administer cases in the northern district of Ohio. Today many of Kathryn A. Belfance’s colleagues offer high praise for her handling of bankruptcy and domestic relations law cases.

Her efforts to help clients and improve the community earned Belfance the 2015 Akron Bar Association Professionalism Award.

Established by the Akron Bar Association Board of Trustees in February 1996, the award recognizes an attorney who is exceptionally dedicated to the standards of the profession and demonstrates integrity and humanitarian concern within the community.

“The Akron Bar Association is excited to honor Kay Belfance and recognize the grace, dignity and professionalism she has so honorably demonstrated throughout her career,” said C. Allen Nichols, executive director of the Akron Bar Association.

Belfance said receiving the award is a humbling experience.

“When I heard I had been chosen I immediately thought of some of my colleagues who are past recipients, including the late John A. Schwemler.

“John was a bankruptcy attorney at Brouse McDowell and early in my career he was of great assistance to me. John was the first recipient of the award and was the epitome of professionalism.

“I believe that authenticity, integrity, skill and humanity are attributes to which every attorney should aspire,” said Belfance.

Born in Monessen, Pennsylvania, Kathryn and her sister Helen Pittas grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“I am a first generation Greek American,” said Belfance.

In the ‘50s, she enrolled in Western Reserve University, where she majored in English. But she said two years into her undergraduate degree, she left school when her father passed away.

When Belfance decided to finish her bachelor’s degree at The University of Akron, she was divorced and raising her three children, Leslie, Eve and Mark, on her own.

Prior to and during law school, Belfance said she worked as a legal secretary while attending classes in the evening. At The University of Akron School of Law, she was one of the first women to serve as a law review associate editor.

Her daughter, former 9th District Court of Appeals Judge Eve Belfance, said she’s extremely proud of her mother.

“My mother went back to get her undergraduate degree when I was in grade school,” said Eve, an attorney at Belfance Legal Solutions. “The commitment and endurance that she showed during that period of our lives created resilience, independence and a strong work ethic in all of her children.

“I am incredibly grateful for the road that my mother paved for all female lawyers,” said Eve. “No matter how hard she worked, she was always there for us. She laid the moral and ethical foundation for us to make the right choices and she always gave us the room to make those choices. I feel very blessed to have a mother who is so wise, good and caring.”

When Belfance graduated in 1977, she said the legal profession was a man’s world.

“There were a few women in pretty large firms but they were usually kept in the back rooms doing research and other work,” said Belfance. “There were maybe a handful of women who were visible like the late Judge Mary Cacioppo and Barbara Mushkat.”

Mushkat, an attorney at Emershaw Mushkat & Schneier, has known Belfance for years.

“We have been on the opposite side of a few cases together over the years,” said Mushkat. “She is very good at what she does. She works hard for her clients and she knows the law. She treats everyone with respect, sticks to the facts and does not allow her emotions to become involved in a case.”

Still back in the ‘70s, Belfance said she couldn’t even land a position by offering to forego a salary.

“I remember my interview at Hershey & Browne. I told them they would not have to pay me a salary if they would hire me,” said Belfance. “All I wanted was my name on the stationery and I would give the firm a percentage of everything I earned. They told me that since I had three children I would never be able to devote the time necessary to be successful in the profession.”

At the time, her close friend Judith Nicely, a retired judge at Summit County Common Pleas Court Domestic Relations Court, said she she was in a similar boat having been told that she was not a good fit because she had five children. On the drive to their swearing in ceremony in Columbus, the two discussed opening an office and practicing law together.

“Kay and I met when I moved to the Merriman Road neighborhood in Akron,” said Nicely. “Our children were attending the King School at the time.

“We went to law school at the same time,” said Nicely. “I had applied to a few places after law school but I was never interviewed. Kay felt comfortable going into private practice because of her experience as a legal secretary and it turned out to be the right choice.”

Belfance said they initially rented space in what is now the Key Building in Akron. A few years later, former Summit County Common Pleas Judge Jane Bond joined them.

Things went better than expected, said Belfance.

“The Akron Bar Association was very helpful in referring cases. Some male judges were intrigued by the fact that two women opened an office in one of the main buildings in town so we got criminal appointments.

“Dominic Musitano Jr. was one of my major supporters,” Belfance said. “I asked him if I could write some motions for him to help pay the rent. He agreed and that was how I managed when I started out.”

Musitano, a sole practitioner in Akron, said he has a great deal of admiration for Belfance.

“She was a single mom carving out her career in a tough profession. I tried to instill in her the fact that the law was a profession,” said Musitano. “She did a hell of a job for her clients. She was always respectful and cared a great deal about everyone.”

In 1978, Belfance became the first female bankruptcy trustee to administer cases in the northern district of Ohio, after being appointed by the late U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Harold White. She continues to serve in that capacity.

After practicing under the name, Kathryn A. Belfance & Associates from 1983 to June 2008, she merged with Roderick Linton in July 2008.

Lawrence Bach, a partner at Roderick Linton Belfance, said Belfance is “an amazing woman. She has such enthusiasm for the practice of law. It’s seldom you see people who have been in the profession for years that have the same love for the law.

“She has great empathy for her clients and she strives to do everything possible to help them. She has also mentored a number of our younger associates. I only wish our firms had merged sooner.”

Belfance, an Akron resident, made it a point to give back to the community over the years, including spending time on the Summit County Children Services Board’s multidisciplinary team on child abuse and serving as a board member for the Battered Women’s Shelter.

She is a member of the American, Ohio State and Akron bar associations as well as a former Akron Bar Foundation trustee and former Akron Bar Association board member. Belfance has participated in many Akron bar sections and committees. In addition, she spent time on the Ohio Judicial Appointments Recommendation Panel, the State of Ohio Commission for Continuing Legal Education and the Federal Rules Committee among other things.

Looking back Nicely said Belfance always made “excellence” her goal.

“She is always prepared and has very high standards,” said Nicely. “I admire her spirit and motivation most of all.”

Longtime attorney Mary K. Whitmer said Belfance “handed me my first big bankruptcy case and all my professional life she has given me the best advice.

“She is a very special person,” said Whitmer, an attorney at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz.

“She graduated at a difficult time. Women were not accepted as equals in the legal profession in the ‘70s. But Kay broke out of that mold and showed everyone what she could do, making it possible for others to follow in her footsteps.”

Belfance, who has six grandchildren, has no plans to retire.

“I love my job,” she said. “Law is one of the most exciting and dynamic professions. Each day I get the chance to impact people’s lives in a positive way.

Belfance receives the Professionalism Award on Nov. 4 at the Fairlawn Country Club.