- Show up Authentically, Use Your Emotional Intelligence, and Distribute Power.
- Do What You Love. Choose Your Work with Intention.
- Be Clear About What You Need and Do Not Hesitate to Ask for It.
- Be Curious and Keep Learning.
- Network to Give Away, Not receive.
- Trust Yourself.
I was asked to give a presentation about leadership. I immediately thought to myself, who am I to tell anyone how to be a leader? What do I know about it? Why do I believe my Firm is big enough and bad enough that folks ought to follow my principles?
Here is why I pushed beyond my fear to speak to you today. I believe with all my heart that running a dominance-based, hyper-competitive, emotionally repressed company that only focuses on the bottom line is doomed to fail. The pandemic has taught us that many people genuinely hate their work and their work culture. We are having a “quitting” crisis in America, causing companies to scramble for talent. More people, particularly young people, choose less income rather than working in a dysfunctional environment. Young people will walk away because they have better options.
I want to share what I’ve learned along my journey in hopes that it will be helpful to you and perhaps inspire you to think about organizing your companies outside of the traditional paradigm.
It was not part of my plan to start a law firm and grow it to become the state’s largest plaintiffs’ employment firm. Had someone told me that in 2008, I would have laughed hysterically with you.
In 2001, I left the workplace to be a stay-at-home mom with my three small children. In 2008, when the youngest started school, I ventured back out into the legal field by sitting for the North Carolina Bar. Even though I was admitted to New York and Washington D.C. bars, I had been out of the game too long to waive into North Carolina.
I went to the Bar preparation classes and diligently spent my evenings studying after the kids went to bed. I passed and became a fully licensed attorney again. Now what?
I began job hunting in earnest, but I only had a vague plan of what I wanted to do. I envisioned working part-time as a contract attorney (meaning I would do legal research and writing projects for law firms that were overflowing with work.) Or I might join a Firm or a nonprofit in a small, supportive role.
I revised my resume, got my power dresses from the dry cleaners, and launched my campaign to find a job. After several months of getting doors slammed in my face, I realized that I was unemployable by traditional law firm standards. My seven-year absence from the workplace meant that I was technologically illiterate. I had no real legal specialty, having bounced around from prosecutor to civil litigation to nonprofit advocacy. I graduated from a good state law school but nowhere near prestigious enough to open doors. I hit a dead end.
I decided that if no one was going to pay me to do anything, I might as well do something I liked. I liked being a lawyer, so I took an unabashed look at which areas of the law spoke to me. I wanted to be an expert in a subject that I cared passionately about. I enjoy all aspects of being a lawyer, advising, advocating, and trying cases. But I don’t enjoy it in a vacuum. I had to care about the legal theory, and tax or corporate law was not going to get me out of bed in the morning. I chose employment law. Unlike many lawyers, I did not “fall” into this field. It didn’t become my area of expertise because it was my first job out of law school. I didn’t do it because I thought it would help me pay off my law school debt. I chose it because I knew that I wanted to represent people who were mistreated at work. I wanted to help women who were sexually harassed. I wanted to help people of color who were discriminated against. Hence, I landed on my first leadership principle – Do What You Love and Choose it with Intention.
I found a woman who was (and still is) regarded as one of the state’s finest plaintiff’s employment lawyers. She kindly agreed to meet me, and during that first meeting, I told her that I would like to work for her. She told me that she wasn’t hiring. I showed up at her office anyway. Thankfully, she let me stay (she has a great sense of humor), and I spent the next year sitting at a table outside her office learning about employment law. She graciously allowed me to shadow her during all aspects of her cases, and, eventually, I began to get my clients. I moved into a tiny office next to hers, which had a door! I was thrilled.
I started to get overwhelmed with clients and realized that I needed help. I placed an ad in Craig’s List, of all places, and shockingly found a brilliant and highly knowledgeable employment law attorney who was looking for part-time work. He was like a gift that fell from the sky, and I could not believe that I was that fortunate. And yet, I was clear and intentional about what I needed at that moment, and I did not stop seeking it. I landed on my second principle – Be Clear About What You Need and Do Not Hesitate to Ask For It.
Things began to snowball after my partner joined me. I grew out of a small office and into a larger one with room for a receptionist and paralegal. I knew nothing about management and leadership, so I sought help from another wise woman who ran a law practice consulting business. I literally sat at her dining room table or on her living room floor, absorbing her knowledge gained from 30 years in the business. Out of this experience grew my third principle – Be Curious and Keep Learning.
With her expert help, I wrote my first business plan that year and held my first Firm-wide meeting. I started formalizing the business by drafting an employment manual and job descriptions. I engaged a marketing company to help create a logo and messaging. I said yes to any opportunity to meet people, share my knowledge, and assist where I could. I created a sizable and robust referral network by giving away my time and whatever knowledge I had. I had my fourth principle – Network to Give Away, Not to Receive.
From these experiences, and based on my loosely thought-out leadership principles, I had a small and relatively successful firm. I decided that to grow; I needed someone with more financial and business acumen than I. I decided on some level that I wasn’t good enough to do this alone. I bought into the notion that I needed a “real” businessperson, someone with an MBA! I hired a man who looked great on paper and met all my criteria. This turned out to be a huge and costly mistake. And, like all spectacular fails, it taught me great lessons. I realized that I needed to Trust Myself.
I learned that following the advice of the Wall Street MBA guy was inconsistent with my vision of the Firm. We constantly clashed about strategy, personnel, and financial decisions. The result was a workplace that was awkward and tense. No one at the Firm was happy. Sure, we were making money, but we were losing people, and it wasn’t fun anymore. I needed the Firm to be a place of joy again, or it wasn’t going to survive. At least not with me at the helm.
I began the transformational work of showing up authentically, speaking vulnerably about my challenges, and distributing power within the Firm. This has become my most treasured principle. I did not do this lesson alone. I had the benefit of an extraordinary Executive Coach who helped me realize that leading my way, a more relational female way, was not only OK but powerful and effective.
It was (and still can be) exceedingly frightening to discuss leading from a relational viewfinder. Today, our Firm does not look or operate like a traditional law firm. The traditional law firm model is organized along clearly defined hierarchies, with power and financial success held by an elite few. Competition and long work hours are encouraged, and few have a say in how the Firm functions.
- We created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee that is run by non-attorneys. They develop programs for the Firm to facilitate discussions about race, gender, and oppressive systems of power to transform those discussions into action. We have collectively read books and done firm-wide workshops. These are not easy conversations to have, and they can be particularly challenging for attorneys who are not used to being challenged by non-attorneys.
- We created a Leadership Council made up of paralegals, non-attorneys, and attorneys. They are my trusted counsel on all Firm matters, including the Firm’s finances, business development plans, and long-term strategic objectives. They have a seat at the table and a voice that is valued.
- We started a mindfulness practice. We meet twice a week to engage in mindfulness meditation and then discuss our experiences. The mindfulness practice is a firm-wide program and not led by attorneys.
- We have Town Hall meetings every other month where the entire Firm comes together. The Leadership Council sets the Town Hall agenda and selects the speakers. At these gatherings, I share information about the Firm’s values, mission, and goals, but I do not spend the entire time talking “at” the group. Other Firm members also speak about agenda items that we have agreed upon. We have had some phenomenal breakthroughs at these events – laughter and tears in equal measure.
A significant part of my job is to attract and keep good people. My goal is to harness the energy and talent of our workforce. I start by coming from a place of authenticity. Of curiousness. Of distributive power. Here are some things that I say at almost every Firm meeting:
- I don’t have all the answers
- I value your honest input.
- I appreciate that you keep me accountable.
- I want you to be happy with what you do.
- I listen when you tell me your needs.
- I’m flexible about what this job is and how/where/when it can be done.
Why do I think this approach has been successful? We were able to adapt to remote practice during Covid quickly. We never stopped seeing clients, and we never laid-off employees. We have created new positions in the Firm (Law Practice Manager, Case Manager, Director of Litigation Practices) based entirely on maximizing the strengths of each of the extraordinary people in these positions. All three equity partners have been named as “Super Lawyers” in their field. The media regularly calls us to appear on TV as “experts” in employment law. We have a diverse workforce. We’ve moved into two other states and are actively recruiting more attorneys in more jurisdictions.
Is it a perfect Utopia where we hold hands and sing, and money effortlessly rains down on our heads? Not yet. But I believe that we have an engaged, creative, compassionate, trustworthy, highly functioning, and competent workforce because we have a more authentic, relational, and emotionally Intelligent workplace than most law firms. This environment, in turn, makes me a better lawyer, leader, and person, and I’m profoundly grateful for that. In sum, my advice is, show up authentically, be emotionally present and available, distribute power, and you will be the beneficiary of profound gifts in your work and life.