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When it comes to Employee Benefits and ERISA Law, Sherrie Boutwell’s Clients Get the Benefits of Creativity, Expertise & a Friendly Firm

“I never guessed that my initial days as a ‘flower child’ would lead me to become a tax lawyer,” jokes Sherrie Boutwell, co-founder of Boutwell Fay LLP in Irvine. However, the Martindale-Hubbell AV Preeminent Rated attorney did have an early desire to speak up for the innocent. “During my early college days, my boyfriend-now my husband-and I were hippies of a sort, and we went through a phase of being harassed by the cops, mainly because he had long hair. So I developed a desire to defend against injustice against the innocent. I loved my tax classes in law school and now I really enjoy helping employers, especially in situations where I can be an advocate, to be able to convince a regulator to allow my client to voluntarily correct an innocent error without penalty, or to help my client evaluate and mitigate risks in an M & A transaction. It’s funny where life leads you,” she adds.

For Boutwell, life has led her to great renown in her highly specialized field of employee benefits and ERISA law. But it took a great deal of out-of-the-box thinking to get her to where she is today, and it began more than three decades ago. “I read a study once that said that the best predictor of success as an attorney is whether or not you were the first in your family to go to college. Well, I was the first child in my family to graduate from high school, the first to go to college and the only one to go to graduate school, so I think the odds were in my favor,” Boutwell jokes. All joking aside though, “It was not easy. My first year at UCLA Law School, I was raising a toddler, commuting from Orange County and working part time as a waitress in a coffee shop on the weekends. I simply would not hear of it when naysayers told me this could not be done.”
Boutwell found creative ways to juggle her responsibilities, and also found herself pleasantly surprised by how much she enjoyed her tax law courses. “I had one hour on qualified retirement plans in my corporate tax class in law school. I can still see the professor drawing the tax benefits on the chalkboard and thinking: “Who doesn’t want one of these? This is the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

Boutwell has been hooked ever since. After being admitted to the Bar in 1983, she followed her instincts and began focusing on her niche area of interest. Once again her dual role as attorney and mother required her to get creative in order to juggle the demands of both. “I started working from home long before technology made it easy and acceptable. I hired a college student to drive back and forth between my home and my office. Back then, email was still new and there was no possibility of attaching a document to an email,” she says.

The drive to achieve a better balance would ultimately inspire Boutwell to start her own boutique firm in 1998. “We were very early adopters of technology that allows attorneys to work from home, or anywhere, because at first, we were all moms with small kids and needed to innovate in order to take good care of our clients and our families.”
As such, Boutwell Fay LLP was born. “Our firm really is a boutique with a niche practice and within that niche, we each have various sub-specialties such as retirement plans, health plans, etc. My practice focuses heavily on retirement plans such as 401(k) plans, executive deferred compensation plans, 403(b) plans and assisting in M & A transactions. Our typical client is a middle market company that offers a variety of employee benefit plans,” Boutwell explains.

Those clients are the direct beneficiaries of Boutwell Fay LLP’s creativity. “We once represented a retirement plan where the owner of the company owed the plan a very large sum of money and could not pay. We were able to negotiate a settlement in which he gave his stock in the company to the plan (which was converted to an ESOP) so that in the end, the employees owned the company,” she says.
In another example, a plan sponsor was involved in an investigation for engaging in certain transactions with a plan. “In that case we were able to demonstrate that there had been no loss to the plan and were able to convince the regulators that they should allow the employer to buy back the investment with no penalties by showing that this would be in the best interests of the plan participants,” Boutwell says.

Of course, expertise is essential in order for Boutwell Fay LLP to be able to provide these creative solutions, and in this arena the firm places great emphasis. For Boutwell, the key to becoming an expert in a chosen field involves carving a narrow niche sticking to the niche, and learning all you can about that niche, so that you become the go-to person in that field.

By way of example, Boutwell recalls, “In 1999 the IRS voluntary correction program for retirement plans was just getting started. I took on the project of writing one column a month for a 401(k) newsletter, which led to an offer to write a book on the topic. It took me many, many, hours to write that book. After I finished it, I truly think I was one of the top experts in the country on the topic, which led to speaking opportunities and opportunities to write more.”
Likewise, she says “Two years ago I wrote an article for the State Bar, which led to a speaking opportunity, which led to an opportunity to update a chapter in a book on employee benefit plans in mergers and acquisitions. Each time I teach or write, I learn something new, that I then use in my practice.”

Continuing she adds, “I find that every time I invest in myself-in my knowledge and value-I’m just that much better of an attorney for my clients.” Not surprisingly, Boutwell has invested her time in belonging to organizations including the Orange County Chapter of the National Institute of Pension Administrators, where she is a board member, and the Orange County Chapter of the Western Pension and Benefits Council. She is also a member of the Development Committee for the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF). In addition, Boutwell manages the Meet the Rainmaker column for the ABA Law Practice Management Women Rainmakers group.

Boutwell continually invests in her own education in order to stay on top of developments in this rapidly changing area of law. She just returned from a high level, 2 day workshop in New York City on employee benefit plans in mergers and acquisitions from experts on the subject both internationally and nationally. Last month, she spent two days at the ABA Tax Section Meeting in Washington DC, learning from the top government regulators in the benefits arena. And she has three presentations scheduled in Las Vegas, Philadelphia for “” later this year.

Finally, Boutwell Fay LLP clients receive the benefits of the friendly attorneys at the firm’s Orange County and recently opened New York City offices. “Employee benefits attorneys are generally very nice people. It’s germane to the field, I think,” says Boutwell. “Don’t get me wrong, we are adverse to the IRS and the Department of Labor always, but we still have good relationships with them.”

Moreover, according to Boutwell, “We’re not afraid to be real and let our personalities show, whether by incorporating a reference to a favorite movie such as the Hunger Games in a 401(k) plan presentation or building a connection with an IRS agent through a joint appreciation for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. You can be yourself and be a good lawyer. We happen to be friendly, and we genuinely care about our clients.”

Sherrie Boutwell
Boutwell Fay LLP
(949) 660-0484
1 Park Plaza, Suite 600
Irvine, CA 92614

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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About the Author: Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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