Many of the firms we know appear to be “traditional” brick-and-mortar law firms with offices, other attorneys, and a range of clients from the largest companies to individuals. Examples of women starting and running these kinds of firms include several of our mentors, Peggy McCausland of McCausland & McCausland, Fran Griesing of Griesing Law, and Sheryl Axelrod of the Axelrod Firm. Even within these more traditional models, differences in approach from conventional firms arise. For example, Peggy has spoken about her careful curation of clients whose philosophy and approach to business are consistent with hers; Fran is known for her efforts to create a larger firm with a culture of teamwork and collaboration that overflows to compensation and results in an emphasis on outstanding client service; and Sheryl has devoted significant time outside her legal practice to her work as a nationally recognized “Diversity Champion,” seeking to improve the experience of all diverse individuals in the law and to help clients connect with these individuals on a more robust and consistent basis.
Other women law firm owners, such as Nancy Lanard of Lanard & Associates or Gabrielle Sellei of Sellei Law, operate virtually, which allows them to pass along the significant cost savings of that model to their clients in terms of lower hourly rates. Even the largest certified women-owned law firm, Culhane Meadows PLLC, operates as a virtual firm. At the other end of the spectrum, some women lawyers have left legal practice entirely and have started legal services businesses such as novel forms of staffing agencies, like Hire an Esquire (founded by Julia Shapiro), or legal technology businesses, such as Doxly (founded by Haley Altman). Of personal interest to us are women lawyers, such as ourselves, who have started law firms or legal services businesses, or both, that blend the traditional practice of law with alternative solutions to clients’ legal problems. We discuss our experiences here, as well as those of four other women lawyers in our network, each of whom illustrates a unique approach to legal practice.
First, Jordan Fischer, co-founder and managing partner of XPAN Law Group, LLC, started her cybersecurity and data privacy law firm in June 2017. A “recovering litigator,” Jordan combines her litigation experience with her deep knowledge of technology, cybersecurity, and data privacy to re-envision the way in which her law firm practices law and delivers client services. A core aspect of XPAN is its inclusion of technology, to maximize and streamline its operations. Jordan consistently seeks to improve the firm’s work flows, integrating new solutions not only to improve the services provided to clients but also to create a more effective workplace for its employees. The use of technology goes hand in hand with how XPAN counsels clients: Jordan explains that “[t]echnology and cybersecurity need to work organically with a company’s work flow and its risk profile. At XPAN, we believe in creating a ‘culture’ of security. And technology is inherently part of that discussion.”
Thinking outside the traditional legal “box” allows XPAN to establish creative relationships with its clients, strategic partners, and other lawyers to provide more robust, valuable services. The benefit of sitting at the convergence of technology, law, and security is the ability to be a part of legal innovation from the ground floor: Working with technology companies brings a unique perspective on how to operate, in both an efficient and secure manner. And, by combining their technology knowledge with an international perspective, Jordan and the XPAN team are uniquely positioned to provide a global approach to the evolving cyber and technology landscape, giving clients a unique experience with a law firm that thinks across borders and embraces technology.
Second, Nicole Galli started her law firm in 2015 after more than two decades in “Big Law” and a few more years practicing what she calls “entrepreneur light,” running the local offices of two firms headquartered in other cities. Nicole started her firm because she was interested in running a business and “wanted to practice law in an environment where being innovative, creative and efficient in solving clients’ problems was rewarded,” which she found difficult in law firms following the traditional model. From the beginning, Nicole’s practice has included contingency-fee patent litigation, traditional hourly intellectual property (IP) and commercial litigation, and flat-fee IP counseling, especially in the trade secrets area. Nicole often works with litigation funders and has assisted several clients in finding an appropriate funding partner for their litigation matters. “This mix of fee structures and use of litigation funding arrangements allows me not only to maintain a sophisticated practice but also provide clients with ‘right size’ solutions to their legal problems,” says Nicole.
Nicole also offers a unique suite of services and associated tools to clients interested in enhancing their trade secrets management and protection. Nicole uses new, “best practice” approaches to trade secrets management that combine business experience drawn from her litigation work with many clients in technical and IP matters for over 25 years and her legal expertise in trade secrets and IP protection to create systems that integrate seamlessly into clients’ work flow and to provide clients with meaningful tools to better protect their trade secrets and lower the cost of trade secret enforcement litigation, should it arise. Among other tools, Nicole is developing a software platform to assist clients, especially those who need to share their trade secrets with joint venture partners or others in their supply chain, better manage and track the flow of information and provide admissible, readily available records for potential enforcement litigation. As part of her work in this area, Nicole is contributing to the Licensing Executive Society’s development of new ANSI standards for IP management, including trade secrets, and will be part of the new Sedona Conference Trade Secrets Working Group, expected to launch this year. Nicole’s firm and Jordan’s firm, XPAN, are also collaborating on services that bring together their experience in cybersecurity protection and trade secret management into one package for clients.
The Experience of Others
Third, Patricia Block operates two separate companies, Block Law, LLC, and Agile Strategies, LLC. Patricia started her first company, Block Law, in 2007 after she saw an opportunity to create her own law firm with her long-term client base. Block Law has grown organically over the past 10 years and now focuses on the areas of general corporate, technology licensing, media and entertainment, and international law. In 2015, Patricia started her second company, Agile Strategies, a consulting firm that uses proprietary project forensics to get derailed professional services engagements back on track. With Agile Strategies, Patricia has been methodically pursuing meaningful partnerships to gain brand recognition and build varied revenue streams.
Her two companies are intricately tied: Patricia’s large law firm training and niche experience in technology licensing directly impact and relate to Agile Strategies’ proprietary technology services that are offered via a unique business model. Further, her clients receive a direct benefit from the ties between the two companies: Block Law provides experienced legal services in an efficient and competitive manner, while Agile Strategies provides services to clients that allow them to save money and achieve project completion via recoupment of fees, project reset, continued project oversight, and assessments from lessons learned. Patricia is also exposed to new technologies (sometimes before they hit the marketplace) and is able to engage in unique challenges and solutions to meet her clients’ needs.
Fourth, Jessica Reddick began in the nonprofit world, working with an organization that was tasked with handling the foreclosure crisis in Chicago. Having entered into law school with the plan to create her own path, she opened Knight, Morris, & Reddick Law Group (KMR Law Group) with two other African American women in 2012 and shifted her practice from real estate to corporate and entertainment law. At KMR Law Group, the focus is on cultivating unique legal specialties that allow Jessica and her partners to work with clients that inspire them daily. KMR Law Group uses technology to connect with its clients in a more meaningful way and to educate clients so they are able to maneuver their business dealings with confidence. Part of the solution offered by KMR Law Group is a legal staffing agency that serves to permanently and temporarily match attorneys and other legal support staff to law firms and corporations nationwide.
Drawing on her entrepreneurial spirit, Jessica works with her clients to educate and empower them to grow their businesses. In line with that spirit, Jessica and her partners are able to provide great legal counsel because they view the world through an entrepreneur’s lens too. Jessica strives to create an environment that is a reflection of herself by working on fulfilling projects that enable clients to materialize and protect their dreams. Jessica explained that “the inspiration and excitement about these projects we receive from our clients only encourages us to work harder for them. That’s the best thing you could ask for in a career.”
Fifth, Emily Wessel Farr practiced law for years in small litigation firms throughout North Carolina but later pursued an opportunity in a business role in a start-up for two years. Two years ago, she shifted her focus back to her legal career because she longed for the “scholarly pursuits of a lawyer” and the opportunity to counsel clients. She explained, “I thought opening my own firm would provide me with the entrepreneurial challenge I had hoped to find, along with the privilege of practicing law.” Since starting her firm, Ardent Law, in 2015, she has narrowed her focus to the practice areas she enjoys (employment and business law) and has watched her client book grow as former clients refer new clients to her. Emily “skipped on-campus interview season in favor of a DIY, knock-on-doors job search” when she first graduated because she wanted “a small firm with substantive work” and “a truly balanced view of work.” She still uses some of the skills she learned while working with small firms, including the importance of transparent billing, efficient work, and alternative fee arrangements, and now her firm reflects her personal motto, “thoughtful, efficient counsel.” Emily is passionate about her career and said, “I pinch myself every day for the privilege it is to be a lawyer. I love helping people find cost-effective ways to protect and defend their business. I feel lucky that my career encourages and demands lifelong learning.”
Finally, Cindy Towers has always been passionate about helping others and worked as a nurse before entering the legal field. After working as a litigator for six years, Cindy decided she wanted to return to work she felt was more innovative and impactful, and she shifted her focus to improving the cost of efficient, high-quality legal services for clients. She examined and reexamined the legal field until inspiration struck when she talked with a client about the law firm’s limited bandwidth. Cindy offered the client the option to use a temporary paralegal, the client accepted the proposal, and the project was a great success. Cindy expanded this approach to temporary attorneys and founded JURISolutions (JSL) with a colleague on September 19, 1997, with the goal of creating a portfolio of temporary attorney offerings that could be routinely leveraged by both corporations and law firms to help them accomplish more while saving money. She has since expanded the legal services firm’s offerings to include full-service legal staff augmentation, end-to-end litigation support and document review, government support services, and executive legal searches. JSL, while not a law firm, is now one of the largest women-owned legal services firms in the country and employs more than three times the number of female attorneys and more than five times the number of ethnically diverse attorneys than that of Big Law. Customers and employees alike are pleased with the firm’s success, as evidenced by the 97 percent retention rate of employees. Cindy attributes the firm’s success to its commitment to diversity and believes that it “yields a true competitive advantage born out of different perspectives and a broader spectrum of ideas, creativity, and innovation.”
The women we have highlighted above are only a small sampling of the many incredible women across the country—and the world—who embrace new ways to practice law and offer services in the legal market. Clients are certainly benefiting from these unique approaches, but are these approaches unique because the firms providing the services are women owned? That is hard to say. We believe that women lawyers are situated to respond differently to clients’ problems because they face documented, competing professional and personal demands on their time and generally take a collaborative approach to problem solving. Among other things, women lawyers often excel at efficiency and creativity in a way that reduces the time—and cost—to solve a legal problem. We do not mean to imply, of course, that women-owned law firms are simply the lower cost provider—that’s a simplistic view of the situation and not always the case, depending on the matter involved. But when creative and efficient solutions are provided, client value is undoubtedly enhanced, regardless of total cost. Indeed, diversity research supports this notion. For example, in January 2018, global management consulting firm McKinsey and Company published a report titled Delivering Through Diversity, in which it outlined the findings of its study of the beneficial financial impact of diversity in over 1,000 companies located in 12 countries. At a time when large, traditional law firms remain heavily male-dominated and have difficulty pivoting in the face of modern client demands due to their size and complexity, women-owned law and legal services firms provide a natural resource to clients interested in creative and efficient—as well as effective—solutions to their legal problems.
And, for women-owned law firms, what is their experience? Universally, the women we know who own firms are happier and believe they have greater control over their destinies. Like all entrepreneurs, many firm owners are working harder than ever, due to the demands of business ownership on top of legal practice. Others have found that firm ownership is a way to scale back their practice and make it a better fit with their lives. But, overall, few would give it up and go back to work for someone else. The power to be more creative and collaborative with clients and strategic partners is worth any of the extra administrative requirements—and in the end, clients are responding positively to these diverse, innovative firms.
Nicole D. Galli is managing partner at the Law Offices of N.D. Galli, LLC, and founder and president of Women Owned Law in Philadelphia.
Jordan L. Fischer is cofounder and managing partner of XPAN Law Group, LLC, and board member and communications chair of Women Owned Law in Philadelphia.
The authors thank Drexel University Kline School of Law student Kristie Butler for her contributions to this article.