Women in Law Firm Leadership is Achieved from Smart Early Investments and Adaptability

By Mary T. Hernández, Founding Equity Partner

On February 25, 2014, the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) announced the release of its annual Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms (“Report”), indicating that while women make up the majority of staff attorneys at large law firms (about 64%), the number of women equity partners in the nation’s 200 largest firms has remained static at about 17% for almost a decade. (The full report is here.)

Garcia, Hernández, Sawhney & Bermudez, LLP has slowly transformed itself to defy those statistics and offer a new reality. Garcia, Hernández, Sawhney & Bermudez, LLP is majority woman-owned, with 75% women equity partners and 60% women attorneys. In contrast, when the firm was founded in 2006, only 20% of the equity partnership was female and the firm had about 40% women attorneys at all levels.

In preparation for my participation on a Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA) panel “Women as Rainmakers,” the HNBA’s Midyear Conference this month, I sat with fellow founding equity partner, Bonifacio Bonny Garcia, to reflect on why our firm has had such phenomenal success supporting the careers of women attorneys during the same time period that most other law firms have remained static at best. As we examined the obstacles cited in numerous articles that prevent women from obtaining leadership positions in law firms, it is no mystery why women at Garcia, Hernández, Sawhney & Bermudez, LLP have soared.

Our firm’s vision and motto, created within the first month of our existence and carried on enthusiastically today, set the stage for our success. Our vision was to be a firm with “premier legal professionals, strengthened by diversity, and passionately committed to making a meaningful difference in our clients’ businesses, communities and lives.” We committed to hiring attorneys consistent with our trademark motto – “First Rate Minds and First Rate Hearts”. We recruited brilliant attorneys from great law schools who also had a passion and commitment to something bigger than themselves – to make an impact in our community. We always knew that there is no reason why people with First Rate Minds and First Rate Hearts should not be able to fulfill their potential with the right support.

The NAWL Report is critical of the lack of women attorneys’ progress, offering contrasting reasons. The Report points to the lack of equitable policies and practices for compensation, client origination credit, and advancement to equity partnership and leadership positions as key obstacles, while law firm leaders often point to women lawyers’ lack of business development as the real problem.

The NAWL Report yields an important conclusion: “Gender diversity enables law firms and clients to benefit from diverse perspectives, the ability to tap into a broader array of talent and creates a culture that maximizes the potential of all attorneys, male and female.” (pg. 3) I couldn’t agree more! As a firm, we embraced the strength and power of diversity for ourselves and our clients since our inception. Below are some practices and aspects of the unique culture that have developed as a result.

First, and most importantly, our equity partners accept the absolute necessity of developing and sharing client relationships. We strive to transfer client relationships to more junior partners and attorneys. For their part, attorneys “inheriting” clients are expected to both develop their own clients and to in turn, transition client relationships over time to more junior attorneys to help kick-start their rainmaking. Our clear attribution model, which recognizes both origination and maintenance of clients, encourages and rewards this practice. We actively look for ways to give our up and coming attorneys the opportunity for leadership positions and contact with clients. It is precisely because of this practice that I went from having a very small book of business upon joining the equity partner ranks to surpassing more than $1 million in my book of business within just over three years of becoming an equity partner. My partners put me in charge of existing clients and it put me in a position to get more clients and grow our practice, which leads to our next success factor.

My partner, Bonny, believes that the biggest mistake owners of large law firms make is waiting until women partners develop a significant book of business to invest in them. It is the difference between investing in a Microsoft or Apple when they are operating out of a garage, and not when they have already become leading forces in the international market. Reflecting on the decision Bonny made when inviting me to join him in founding the firm, he says it was one of the best investment decisions he made and is sure the firm would not be here today had he not made that decision. I am acutely aware of the fact that most other law firms would not have made the same kind of investment in my growth and potential.

Another factor in our success is that we encourage and support our attorneys in networking within their communities of interest –not just in a mercenary fashion to solicit clients. We believe that genuine, organic community involvement makes us and our clients proud and makes it so much easier and enjoyable for existing and potential clients to meet and develop relationships with our people.

We encouraged and supported Equity Partner Nitasha Sawhney in her leadership as a member of the California Commission on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs, as a member of the Board of Directors of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and as a volunteer with the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

I served as the President of the Hispanic National Bar Association and as an elected member of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Board of Education. Our youngest equity partner, Nadia Bermudez, is a mother to a toddler and a leader in her legal community. As a leader of bar associations, local and statewide, Nadia leverages her relationships to grow her network of potential clients.

Finally, many want to know if we have a flexible work environment. The answer – absolutely. Does it matter if attorneys need to work from home from time to time? If it best enables them to continue to produce high-quality work product for our clients – the answer is absolutely not. We have also developed a “flex-plan” that allows our attorneys to work part-time but also enables them to get paid at a full-time level during those periods of time when they are able to work full-time. Interestingly, although our women attorneys are thrilled that the system is already in place should they need it to spend time with their children, the “flex-plan” has been frequently tapped by male attorneys! Our perspective has allowed us to maximize the potential of all of our attorneys, male and female, and our firm is stronger for it. Our flex program also allows us to accommodate employees with changing personal needs and family obligations.

I am almost an empty-nester myself and I have worked in different environments as a working mom. I know exactly what best practices are, because I have personally experienced the best and worst. I am fortunate to have benefited from an early investment philosophy and have earned my way to a sizeable book of business. I am proud to be part of a firm that understands that flexibility makes business sense. We understand remaining nimble and being adaptive is what will keep our firm competitive in the long run.