Leaving Big Law to Forge a New Path

A panel discussion, in question and answer format, intended to highlight some of the reasons women leave law firms and start their own practice, as well as actions law firms can take to retain women lawyers.

Jennifer D. Sawyer, Mary E. Vandenack, and Beth A. Wood
Leaving Big Law to Forge a New Path

Leaving Big Law to Forge a New Path

The Futures Task Force of the ABA Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate Law has been considering issues that impact the future of the legal profession. One of the issues that has come to the attention of the Task Force is that big law firms are still struggling to retain women lawyers. Women continue to leave. Some found their own law firms. The following panel discussion, in question and answer format, is intended to highlight some of the reasons this trend continues as well as actions law firms can take to retain women lawyers.

Responses are provided by three women who left large law firms to start their own. Jennifer D. Sawyer (JS) is founding and managing member of Sawyer Law Group, LLC in Savannah, Georgia. Mary E. Vandenack (MV) is founding and managing member of Vandenack Weaver LLC in Omaha, Nebraska. Beth A. Wood (BW) is founding and managing member of The Law Offices of Beth A. Wood PLLC in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Q. Why did you join a large law firm?

MV: I originally turned down opportunities to join a big law firm and joined my father’s small family firm located in the middle of a farm field instead. I practiced with my dad and two brothers. My dad passed away five years after I joined the firm. During his illness, one of my brothers and another lawyer decided to pursue different careers. When my dad died, my brother Joe and I were left with a very busy practice and only two lawyers. We had both built our own client base by the time my father died, and my father’s clients were willing to give us a chance. Thus, we had a busy practice that had been getting served by five lawyers and now only had two lawyers. I joined a big law firm in hopes of finding the support I needed to take care of the client base that I had developed.

BW: After practicing at a midsized firm in Charlotte for a year, a headhunter reached out to me about a position at one of the most prestigious firms in town. The head of big law’s estate planning practice was nationally known, and I was thrilled with the opportunity to join such a sophisticated practice and to learn from one of the best.

JS: I started my legal career at a boutique commercial real estate law firm in Columbia, South Carolina, comprising three older attorneys, where I came in as the youngest lawyer and the only female lawyer. My experience with this boutique firm was wonderful, but due to a combination of needing to move cities for my husband’s career and not finding the quality of transactions that interested me and the compensation I wanted at a small firm in the new location, I took an associate position with a midsized firm. I struggled to find happiness for many reasons with this midsized firm but couldn’t leave because of the lack of choices in my geographic area and because I wanted to be a partner before I had children (for a female attorney to have children while still an associate typically delays becoming a partner by several years). After trying to make it work at the midsized firm for more than 10 years (and that is with exceptionally strong profitability numbers—billable hours, receipts, realization, etc.—every year before and after making partner), I then moved to a larger South Carolina firm for just shy of two years in hopes of finding a better platform.

Q. What were positives of being part of a big law firm?

MV: I had the opportunity to be around some very skilled lawyers and learned a lot about the substantive aspects of practice. I bounced through three law firms trying to find a culture and structure that worked for me. While that was very painful, I got to see three different cultures and three different financial structures. It was also very helpful to have full-time IT staff.

BW: Due to the ever-changing nature of tax and trusts and estates, my big law firm was committed to ongoing (and expensive) CLE and educational opportunities. We were always on top of cutting-edge transactions. We had high net-worth clients who needed sophisticated tax and estate planning. In-house marketing, IT, accounting, HR, etc. made practicing law seem seamless. Access to attorneys in other practice areas of the firm provided opportunities for cross-marketing and sources for knowledge of other practice areas. After becoming an income partner in 2005, I was permitted to work from home one day a week. The firm was well respected, and time spent speaking, writing, and otherwise credentialing oneself was encouraged.

JS: I find this very hard to answer. I did enjoy working with many of the people I met at the midsized and larger firms. I did gain valuable management experience as a practice group leader. I was able to continue working on the types of transactions that appeal to me.

Q. What were the primary reasons that you left a big law firm?

MV: I left the big law firm environment for many reasons. The primary one is that I was seeking efficiency and team play—I thought I would find that at a big firm, but that was not the case at the firms where I worked. Additionally, I am committed to incorporating more technology into the practice of law and found myself frustrated with the lack of technology utilized at large law firms at the time I was part of a big law firm. In joining a large law firm, I had hoped to have the opportunity to be a part of efficiencies of scale. I also struggled with being told I was a “one-year wonder”—when in fact, I had repeated my performance year after year. I wanted more control over how I structured billing and compensation. My hope in starting my own firm was to beat the realization rates at large law firms. I wanted to create a culture that supported being successful and being a parent at the same time. I wanted a true team environment, and we structured our compensation in a manner consistent with rewarding true teamwork.

BW: I was successful at marketing to new clients and wanted more control over my compensation. The firm’s Uptown office location was 20 miles from my home and inconvenient to many of my clients—the resulting daily commute of 30 minutes to two hours affected my quality of life. There were very few women in leadership at the firm, and none who offered any kind of mentoring. I felt less and less connected with the culture of the firm over the years. After almost 20 years, I was burned out and could not imagine staying through retirement.

JS: I never could align myself with the fundamental structure that mid-sized and larger firms function under. There seemed to exist a prevailing want to preserve the structure of a bygone era, a structure within which the 50-, 60-, and 70-year-old attorneys had paid their dues (read in to that—worked long hours and were paid less than they felt they should have been paid) and were now expecting to experience the upside of that structure where they could reap the benefits of the young labor in the firm. Thus, in my mind compensation was never fair, recognition of ambitious young attorneys was carefully measured and controlled to keep people in line, and most disappointing of all, the older attorneys were and are staying longer and longer and not transitioning clients (this was and is partially a function of older attorneys having lost significant amounts of their retirement savings in the recession and the fact that many firms were and are just starting to force retirement at certain ages). You must make the most of today—so, why would I work unbelievably long hours, at high stress levels, in a system that is designed to dole out just enough reward (compensation, recognition, etc.) to prevent me from leaving, but not enough to make me want to stay? Why would I settle for that work life when it comes at the cost of delaying starting a family and/or spending meaningful time with my family? It certainly was not resulting in a fulfilling and balanced life.

Q. What have been the challenges of starting your own practice?

MV: The biggest challenge when we started was that neither I nor my partner had any experience in leadership. We were good lawyers and good at implementing technology, but we struggled to retain lawyers and support staff. We created a culture of technology (we have been paperless since 2005) and have never had a secretary and had minimal support staff. Bringing in lawyers who were used to paper and a lot of staff was a real challenge.

BW: Technology has never been a strength of mine, so I pay a consultant to handle technology and security for me. Signing a five-year lease was scary, and the fear of business drying up one day is always in the back of my mind. Non-billable time takes a chunk out of each week. Staying current on changing laws is an ongoing challenge. I miss being able to walk down the hall to discuss legal questions with other knowledgeable partners on team.

JS: Believing in my own identity and that I could do it. Pushing aside the constant dialogue I had heard over the prior 15 years from attorneys in larger firms that if you are not in a large firm you must not be a good lawyer, or that small firms just cannot handle the more complicated matters. There is a good bit of effort spent building the large firm identity, and many lawyers relish and find security in the fabricated identity—I am a partner at you-name-it big firm, therefore I am smart, I am the best, etc. I needed to step back, look at my work product, my reputation, and my successes, and know that I earned the respect of my clients and my peers, not anyone else. All the rest—technology, accounting, payroll, etc.—I just figure it out and get help from advisors when I need help.

Q. What are the primary benefits of founding your own practice?

MV: I was so unhappy at a big law firm that I had planned to leave the practice of law and open a yoga and Pilates studio. Once I started my own law firm, I fell in love with the practice of law again. In founding my own law firm, I got to create the culture that made sense to me. We created a set of core values (PEOPLE ∙ EXCELLENCE ∙ SERVICE ∙ COMMUNITY ∙ INNOVATION ∙ WELLNESS ∙ ACCOUNTABILITY ∙ INDUSTRY FOREFRONT ∙ DIVERSITY∙ INTEGRITY), and we make every decision with those core values in front of us. In my own law firm, I have freedom and choices. I had planned to work less but actually have ended up working more. I have never minded as the practice became enjoyable again. I choose who I will represent, what practice areas I will work in, and I decide my schedule. When I want to work less (which I do now and then), I simply quit taking on new clients unless I have someone else who can support those clients.

BW: The enormous sense of empowerment that I feel from leaving big law and opening my own firm has changed every facet of my life. Even though I am working just as many hours (if not more), stress levels have dropped significantly, and I enjoy more time with my family. The love for the practice of law that I had lost over the years has returned with vigor. I feel that my new firm is an authentic representation of me, and I am personally invested in its success. I work with clients whom I enjoy and who I feel respect me for the expertise that I offer. I have had amazing support and encouragement from both old and new clients and client referral sources. I have been recognized for my entrepreneurial spirit in new networking opportunities with professionals from multiple disciplines.

JS: It is a personal accomplishment that I take pride in, but what I find most rewarding is how much better a life I have been able to create for myself, my family, and those who work with me, without having to compromise on the quality of our engagement or the legal work we provide. We are a boutique firm of four lawyers, a paralegal, an office manager, and a part-time legal secretary. We balance our personal lives with our demands at work, and our work lives with our demands at home. We have a structure amongst the attorneys that easily (and at no additional cost to the client) allows all of us to move in and out of files and cover demands so that we can leave for a sick child or take a vacation without guilt or stress. We keep track of our time as we bill hourly, but I do not measure anyone’s performance/compensation based on billable hours or realization rates. I pay attention to each person’s performance, and I focus on client satisfaction. Client satisfaction is the toughest indicator of all—if your clients are happy, it means you are balancing many key requirements of a successful practice.

Q. What steps do you think big law firms could take to do a better job of retaining women?

MV: In working on the RPTE Futures Task Force over the past two years and the ABA Commission on the Future of the Profession before that, I have heard endless disheartening stories about how women continue to struggle in big law firms. By outside appearances, many of these lawyers seem to be those who have “made it,” yet often they express significant frustration. I think the challenge for law firms is not only about retaining women lawyers but retaining good lawyers generally. Law firms need to find a way for lawyers at different career stages and with different skill sets to feel valued. Many law firms create cultures that value two things: working endless hours and making rain. Such an environment can be very unhealthy for those who have differing skills or a desire for a personal life that is not completely encompassed by one’s work life. Law firms should provide mentors who are sincere in helping other lawyers succeed, support women in rain-making efforts to the same degree that men are supported, and create cultures where bias is consistently addressed and those exhibiting gender bias are held accountable.

BW: There is a Chinese proverb that says “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” My advice for big firms is to have deliberate mentoring for women that follows a clear path for becoming a leader and an equity partner in the firm. There is a very high learning curve involved in a complex estate planning practice, and being committed to education and CLE is important. Involvement in client development from a very early stage is imperative. Watching someone else develop business relationships is great, but the goal should be teaching young female attorneys how to develop their own client relationships.

JS: Find a way to bring up young lawyers (women and men) under realistic expectations. Look at your measurements of success and ask yourselves if you are setting your lawyers up to feel like failures. Support your lawyers (of all ages)—be flexible and don’t make the lawyers choose between career or family. Do not allow them to feel like they are failing your benchmarks because they want to have children and be actively involved in raising their children, because they have an aging parent who needs their love and attention, or because they are showing signs of being burned out and need an extended vacation. Find another way of measuring success other than hours billed. Support all of your lawyers so that they feel recognized and appreciated—and this is more than just compensation. We get one chance to live our lives to the fullest extent. Your employees are highly intelligent. Help them find a way to balance fulfilling personal lives and work lives, and you will find that they will naturally do what they have been wired to do from the outset—be great lawyers.

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