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February 18, 2021 Article

From the Ground Up: Building a Successful Employer-Employee Relationship

How two women connected and built a working relationship, during a global pandemic, without having ever met in person.

By Nicole Galli and Denisse García Genta

We were two women with very different backgrounds, at very different points in our careers, with seemingly only two things in common: a passion for intellectual property (IP) law and a network of Philadelphia lawyers. Although we later figured out that our paths had crossed briefly, we did not truly know each other. Yet, we were able to connect and start working together during the pandemic, thanks to a wonderful network of women invested in supporting each other. We learned many lessons while building our remote relationship from the ground up.

Surveying: Talent and Job Searching Remotely During a Pandemic

Nicole: I typically seek to work with people I know. When I started my firm in 2015, it was just me, and I handled only IP and commercial litigation. Within days of sending out my announcement, however, a dear friend from one of my old firms reached out and offered her help as a legal assistant. Because she was one of the best I’d known (and we’d worked together for over 10 years), I immediately said yes. About a year later, I needed litigation help and brought on a resource that was readily available—my husband, a seasoned federal court litigator and my law school classmate, who joined as of counsel. By 2019, our practice had grown and begun to transition to that of a full-service business law firm, handling not only litigation but also trademark and copyright prosecution and related IP transactional matters; however, it became clear very quickly that we needed a corporate attorney in the mix. I again reached out to my network of old friends, and in the fall of 2019, a college friend (and former client) who was a seasoned corporate attorney, joined us as of counsel. If you can hire people you already know, it’s great—there are no surprises, you get to work with people you like and trust, and because they care about you, they also care about your business. It’s the entrepreneur’s dream team!

But make sure to be open to possibilities and seize opportunities when they are presented to you. Fast-forward to the early fall of 2020. It’s the middle of the pandemic and, against all odds, my business was exploding. We had all kinds of work (litigation, IP, transactional) and not enough people to handle it. My administrative assistant was also drowning in work. I knew we needed more help. But where to find it in the middle of COVID-19? I once again reached out to my network, this time to my friend and client who owned the legal staffing firm JuriSolutions. The JuriSolutions team quickly got to work and found several team members who had the IP litigation skills we needed, but the IP and transactional skill set was proving a harder role to fill. But, I find, if you just put out to the world that you need something, it will find its way to you, sometimes through an unexpected source. The friend who referred Denisse to me didn’t know I was looking; she just took a chance that I might be.

Denisse: It’s no secret that job searching can be a very grueling, disheartening, and emotionally draining process. But when you throw in the feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, and isolation that have characterized the global pandemic, you have a recipe for disaster. That’s exactly where I was when I was introduced to Nicole last year. Having obtained my green card, I was very excited to be able to get back to work in the United States when, just as I was getting started with my job search, the pandemic hit. Suddenly, every job board seemed to have been wiped, almost every recruiter I was working with went radio silent, and media outlets had only terrible news about layoffs in the legal profession and a grim outlook for the near future. The world went into a standstill, but having been out of work for a few months, I was more than eager to go back to doing what I love.

The things I found most helpful during my search process are nothing new: perfecting my résumé, maintaining a routine, keeping track of applications, practicing my virtual interviewing skills, being proactive and flexible, and networking. What was most important, however, was learning to be kind to myself. Searching for a job is a very daunting process that will inevitably force you to ask a lot of hard questions about yourself and your career. It can feel very lonely, and you will most likely face rejection over and over before finding your dream job. Throw in the added financial uncertainty of being unemployed during an economic recession and it would have been easy for me to feel overwhelmed. Once I allowed myself to let go of a lot of things outside of my control and learned to embrace the uncertainty I was going to be living in for the foreseeable future, it was easier to stop being so hard on myself. Giving myself permission to take time for me and practice things other than the law allowed me to recharge, change my mind-set, and approach my seemingly never-ending job search with a renewed sense of purpose.

Designing for Success: The Importance of Your Network

Nicole: As you can tell, I rely heavily on my network. Sometimes that means help comes directly from my network, such as in the case of my administrative assistant and both my of counsel. Other times, it is indirect, such as the help JuriSolutions provided. Similarly, when I needed additional bookkeeping support, I reached out to a few sources, including my accountant, who has referred us to an excellent bookkeeper/certified public accountant. My friend Sheryl Axelrod of The Axelrod Firm, who connected me with Denisse didn’t know her, but she trusted her friend Karyn Polak, who had passed Denisse’s résumé along.

But it is also important to take chances and help others. My friend who connected me with Denisse didn’t know her, but she trusted her friend who had passed Denisse’s résumé along. She knew the kind of work I did and also my commitment to mentoring and diversity, which she shared, and figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. She helped because she believes in helping. In the process, she earned my gratitude for solving a problem she didn’t even know I had, Denisse’s gratitude for finding a position, and the gratitude of Denisse’s mentor for helping her mentee. You can believe that all three of us will look for ways not only to pay it forward to others but to help out our friend if and when the time is right. This is what networking is all about.

Denisse: After I moved to the United States five years ago on my own, growing my network has been one of my top priorities since day one, but being an introvert from a reserved culture, it wasn’t long until I realized that my networking abilities would need some work. Since I was busy with law school and felt deeply uncomfortable in very formal social settings, the first few years of my career I focused on cultivating a few meaningful and authentic relationships with professionals I looked up to and who took an interest in helping me succeed. When the pandemic started and everyone began networking online, I took the opportunity to grow my network across the world. I connected with practitioners who were generous with their time and advice and offered words of encouragement when I most needed them, and I touched base with my law school mentors. Connecting with people helped me feel less isolated, and I began to slowly feel more comfortable each time I spoke with someone for the first time.

To my surprise, it was the selfless generosity of a network of Philadelphia women lawyers that allowed me to meet Nicole, who just so happened to be looking for an attorney with my background and experience. As Nicole mentioned, my good friend and mentor Karyn was kind enough to pass my résumé to one of her friendsSheryl, who trusted her and sent it to Nicole, without knowing she was looking to hire someone. It took two women less than two days to introduce me to the right person and teach me the importance of having a team of mentors and peers cheering you along the way. They also proved that in spite of the cancellation of in-person events and the shift of all networking activities to online channels, it is still possible to nurture and grow personal and professional relationships. I think the key is approaching them as genuine human connections, continuing to invest in them long term by regularly following up and making time to catch up, and thinking of the relationship as a two-way street that is a goal in itself, and not just a transaction. As Nicole said, our story is nothing but a testament to the importance of helping other people out. Since I began my legal career in Uruguay, and especially through law school in the United States, I have been fortunate to meet a lot of very generous people who have helped me advance in the profession. Not only am I  forever grateful to each one of them, but I also strive to pay it forward in every way I can, helping hold open the doors that others opened for me.

Strong Foundations: Growing a Remote Relationship Able to Weather the Storms

Nicole: Once hired, Denisse dove right in and got off to a great start, but it quickly became clear that we needed to develop a more formal communication process, especially given my hectic schedule. Over the years, I have found that it was always helpful to set aside a specific time for team members I am working with to check in and ask questions. People are not always comfortable speaking up (e.g., they don’t want to “bother” you) and also may feel like “Big Brother is watching” if you are checking up on them. Thus, scheduling a regular meeting time is essential to provide a forum for both people to check in, ask questions, and work collaboratively on projects. This was, as Denisse notes, especially true in the pandemic, which eliminated the possibility of casual office interactions. Denisse and I chose to speak daily for quite a while, until we both got comfortable with working with one another. In other situations, I’ve scheduled weekly calls with people as that seemed sufficient. The frequency depends on the people and work involved.

Having these regular real-time interactions also helped us develop a true working relationship. I greatly enjoy working with Denisse, and as I’ve gotten to know her, I’ve become comfortable starting to mentor her as well. I’ve started to look for opportunities (such as this article) where we can collaborate on more than just client projects and where she can start to develop her own professional identity. That I am ready to do that in the space of really a few weeks is as much a testament to Denisse as to the work we both put in to develop a connection and relationship remotely.

Denisse: It took me only a few minutes reading about Nicole’s career to realize how eager I was to meet her and later to start working with her. She has an impressive career as a litigator and has spent a good part of it making sure she paves the way for other women in the profession. I immediately knew this would be an amazing opportunity to collaborate with and learn from her, but I was not oblivious to the unique challenges that doing so in a remote environment would entail. One thing we quickly learned once we started working together was the importance of having open channels of communication, so Nicole suggested that we have daily calls to discuss anything I am working on. Not being in an office took away the many casual encounters we would normally have with our colleagues and superiors, as well as the chance to randomly show up in someone’s office to ask a clarifying question while we work on an assignment together, so it was important for us to create those opportunities. It also helped to set our expectations early on and let each other know what we need to work on a particular project.

Moving In: Working and Managing in a Long-Term Virtual Environment

Nicole: In many ways, I’ve worked remotely, at least in part, for my entire career. Even before the pandemic, I had a home office where I spent most of my working hours. The pandemic has certainly caused a shift with no more face-to-face networking, in-person client meetings, or travel. But for me, it has been an easy adjustment. I’ve had a lot of experience working with remote teams, too, although it has been different to build new relationships 100 percent remotely. Historically, I’ve either been working remotely with people I already knew well, or I made a special effort to visit new team members in person periodically.

As Denisse points out, one of the hardest things about remote work is developing boundaries between home and work life. Because I work with my husband (who also has been working from home since long before the pandemic), clear boundaries really don’t exist for me. But there still needs to be an opportunity to shut down from work at least for a short time every day. As a supervisor, however, you need to be respectful of people’s boundaries and especially of some of the unusual challenges they may be facing during the pandemic (such as homeschooling kids). I gave my entire team a lot of flexibility to structure their work schedule. I would do that anyway, but it is especially important now.

Denisse: I had never worked remotely before, so this has been a huge learning experience in more ways than I thought it would. It took me a few weeks before I could feel comfortable in my new home office environment, and I am still working on delineating the limits between work and my home, now that the two of them have blended. Sticking to a schedule and disconnecting at the end of the day have been crucial steps toward that goal.

Looking Ahead

So where do we go from here? No one has a crystal ball. But for now, we keep working, connecting and networking virtually, and looking forward to a day when we can see people in person again—most especially each other for the very first time. 

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Nicole D. Galli is the founder and managing member of ND Galli Law LLC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York, New York. She is also the founder and president of Women Owned Law. Denisse García Genta is a contract intellectual property attorney with ND Galli Law LLC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

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