Judith Lawrence — Judi to her friends, Judith to her clients (until they become her friends) — knows that her mother would hate this. Her father, too.
They wouldn’t have been able to stand the recklessness of it, the trapeze-without-a-net act that their daughter embraced, and with such enthusiasm. Lawrence — who said, “I don’t do age for anything or anyone” — can only imagine the fit they would have thrown about her later-in-life career change, the result of a surprise layoff from a job she loved. But Lawrence can’t blame them; they were “Depression people,” as she said.
In the meantime, the opportunity that Lawrence was given by losing her job, which resulted in her owning a successful notary business called Center City Notary, has been a dream.
“I knew, as soon as I started, that this was for me, that I had never done anything so exciting or so challenging,” Lawrence said.
Those aren’t sentiments typically ascribed to the experience of notarizing forms for pre-nuptial agreements, adoption and making aliyah.
But Lawrence, who is a one-woman show working out of a 14th-floor office at Broad and Sansom streets, knows that she’s not just a one-stop shop for rubber stamps. She’s been given a shot to do something she’d never thought she’d do — run her own outfit — and it’s working. Not bad for the lady who didn’t know what she was doing when she got started, as Lawrence said.
Born in Camden, New Jersey, Lawrence spent a year in college before beginning to work as a legal secretary in Philadelphia. She was a sponge, and learned as much as she could in the halls of powerful law firms.
She started with Zarwin Baum, and then worked for a lawyer named Alan Fellheimer, by Lawrence’s account a tough guy to work for who nonetheless taught her how to be successful in business and law. She spent time at Ballard Spahr LLP, WolfBlock and Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, a period of her life that she describes as her matriculation at the College of Law Firms.
That she was single and without children worked to her advantage, and she moved up, taking on greater responsibilities, making connections at other big firms and sitting on firm-wide committees where her opinion was sought, and valued. It was a time when working hard and working longer hours, she believed, meant that they’d keep on moving you up. She felt safe in her job.
Linda Mitchell, who worked with Lawrence as a paralegal, found her to be kind, generous and spirited; she was a hard worker that their office superiors turned to frequently, and she was fun, too.
“She would always go the extra mile,” Mitchell recalls.
On a beautiful May day, Lawrence was let go from her job at Montgomery McCracken. It was a total shock, especially for someone with such a stable employment history. The summer that followed was a dark, miserable time.
Still emerging from the fog, Lawrence called a notary for a personal matter, whom she paid $100. Lawrence watched $100 walk out the door. Why couldn’t she do that? She’d done it for the law firms she’d worked at; why couldn’t she do that again, but on her own?
She drew up a business card that day. Two weeks later, she made $150 for a mortgage signing. After a brief interregnum running a small firm called NotaryService100, a friend told Lawrence she should talk a man who owned an outfit called Center City Notary.
When Lawrence arrived that day, Center City Notary saw that records were scattered, and little had been digitized, probably because there wasn’t a computer in the office. Soon after hiring her, the 84-year-old owner told Lawrence that he wanted her to buy the business, and make it her own. She was nervous, but agreed and, in 2015, Lawrence took over Center City Notary, peering out over the city from her office in the Land Title building.
After bringing the office into the new millennium, Lawrence got to work expanding the range of services.
Sally Mitlas, entertainer and owner of Mitlas Productions, got to know Lawrence through Center City Notary a few years ago, and was impressed with her drive and her personal story.
“She’s a people person,” Mitlas said. “This kind of job is perfect for her. She loves interacting with people and she loves helping people.”
Once she realized her personal reinvention had been a success, she wanted to share the message that making a life change could be an incredible experience. She co-wrote a book in 2013 about how to start a notary business, and started the Lawrence Institute for Notaries, where she and lawyer Art Werner provide educational services to would-be notaries.
It was important for her to give back in other areas of her life — she’s a supporter of Alex’s Lemonade Stand, the American Cancer Society and other charitable groups as well.
Lawrence has adjusted to the pandemic, putting up plexiglass in the office and offering as many virtual services as she can. Shaken from normalcy, she’s responded exactly how you’d expect.
“This is the year when people really found out what they’re made of,” Lawrence said. “Including myself.”
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