In October 2019, we held our first firm retreat to celebrate our upcoming 10-year anniversary and plan for the future. Gathered together, we interspersed planning and training with bonding exercises, leisure activities and bountiful refreshments. Beyond treasure hunts and glass blowing a conference room centerpiece together, we grappled with refining our mission and innovating client service.

No one imagined the tsunami that would rattle our firm, our industry, our clients and the world in the coming year. While we’ll never know whether we would have crafted a different plan had we anticipated the pandemic, in retrospect, we believe the foundation we built upon at our retreat positioned us surprisingly well. We are a little bruised, but not battered. By recognizing that we are “small, but mighty,” we share five unique qualities about our firm that enabled us to weather the COVID-19 crisis while sustaining our values, culture and business.

We are pioneers, not followers.

In January 2010, two colleagues and I launched our women-owned firm. Our goal was to create a distinctive culture where every member was able to reach their full potential however they defined it. Rather than be part of the herd mentality that pervaded many firms by raising rates and salaries compared to others and competing for a priority spot on the profits-per-partner list, we were focused on doing it our own way. We did not look over our shoulders at competitors to mimic what they are doing before moving forward. We wanted to offer personal attention at good value without sacrificing results, and we have been successful in doing so for over 10 years.

Our ability to be nimble and adapt quickly to changes in the law, with our clients and within our own team, prepared us for a crisis that is unprecedented in my nearly four-decade career. We did not wait to see what our peers were doing as we are confident in pioneering into new territory and trusting our judgment.

When we saw the pandemic’s momentum building elsewhere, we immediately put into action a remote work protocol rather than waiting for mandated closure orders to hit the locations in which we practice. When Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Florida shut down, we were not scrambling; we were continuing to serve our clients as usual. Furthermore, we did everything in our power to protect our team members and keep them employed rather than acting in the interests of our leadership team alone. To quote Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” “[we] took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

We value the group over the individual and avoid practices that pit one against another.

One of the features that distinguishes us from other firms is that we do not tolerate internal competition or bullying, and we celebrate the unique contributions each of us makes. Following this mantra manifested in the ways we were able to sustain ourselves through the widespread shutdowns and transition “back to work.”

For example, we have never used origination credit to measure performance or determine compensation. By abandoning this common practice, we avoid lawyers fighting over credit or worrying about someone “stealing their client.” Instead, we reward people for collaboration and client service.

When we work with clients in the absence of internal competition, we are better able to cross-market and assure that the work is performed by the team members best suited to provide service, value and results. With a strong team mentality, we all pitched in unselfishly when the pandemic changed the landscape. Lawyers and professional staff came up with innovative approaches to responsiveness and teamed up to co-author articles and cover emergencies. We did not have any turf wars because the turf is shared.

Diversity and inclusion are only the beginning; belonging is the goal.

Many law firms talk the talk, but how many actually walk the walk when it comes to diversity and inclusion? Although firms tout their affinity group activities and polish off their accolades for D&I programs, many of them experience high turnover among women, minority and LGBTQ+ lawyers and professional staff. Having represented many law firm partners and in-house counsel at firms and companies that showcase their initiatives, it seems too many of these efforts are surface level.

In contrast, for us, diversity and inclusion are not simply a box to check but rather the foundation of our firm and what we most pride ourselves on. Contrary to the myth, as a women-owned firm, we do hire men and are delighted to have them. Diversity means a genuine range of people not merely based on gender, race and sexual orientation, but also based on geographic, socioeconomic, political and other differences.

Further, in partnership with valuing the team over furthering individual interests, we invest considerable resources in enhancing the professional skills and stature of our members. By encouraging our team to be engaged civically and crediting them for time spent on pro bono work, speaking, writing, bar association activity and public service, we hope to have all members support the causes they care about and feel they truly belong as part of our team.

Because we do not merely pander to these principles, but live by our words, we were able to maintain our strong community during our social distancing. Despite mandatory closures, we had regularly scheduled business and optional social gatherings via Zoom to ensure that no one would feel isolated. In addition, we solicited input and suggestions for team members of all levels on how to address the pressing societal issues we faced both within our firm and the community at large.

Relationships matter more than billable hours.

We not only maintain a form of open communication with our team but extend it to our broader network as well. We increased the frequency of our monthly WelcomeLaw newsletters to a weekly occurrence, where I publicly addressed our network through a short video to our stakeholders and friends to keep them apprised of legal developments and news items of interest.

In addition to the more traditional and practical legal updates, our team members also shared their personal experiences balancing work and young children from home, taking care of elderly parents, living with a spouse who puts his life on the line as a volunteer firefighter and even managing the challenges of a DIY haircut. We care about our clients, friends of the firm, vendors and business partners, and we wanted to connect with them on a human level—not treat them as simply a source of potential new matters.

We have always been poised to work remotely.

Well before the pandemic, we praised the benefits of flexible and remote work and adopted best practices within our firm. With the goal of creating an environment where everyone could reach their full potential, we were sensitive to the demands of working parents and colleagues caring for aging parents. To assure that everyone on our team could work on the most challenging and time-sensitive matters, our remote capabilities were underway to set ourselves up to conduct business virtually.

When news of COVID-19 began to spread, but before compulsory closures began, we announced to our team, our clients and other stakeholders that we were implementing a fully remote work plan. Because we were already equipped and facile at collaboration, both face-to-face and across the country, our transition was relatively smooth. To assure that our culture remained strong, we increased the frequency of our team meetings and one-on-one checks to touch base, both professionally and personally, via Zoom. These opportunities to “see” each other and share a laugh made a very painful time a bit more tolerable.

Our values and our missions are put to the test when we face unexpected challenges, and 2020 may turn out to be the most difficult phase in our country’s recent history. Conducting business, serving clients and caring for our families and friends require skills and strength we did not know we had. At our firm, we believe the foundation on which we were launched and the values that pervade our practice have stood us in good stead, and we hope others can benefit from some of our best practices and surface stronger as well.

Reprinted with permission from the November/December 2020 issue of Law Practice Magazine. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

 

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