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How These Women Took The Reins of Their Firms

Feb. 17, 2015, 6:52 PM

No one has talked much about it, but for the past several months, women lawyers have played leading roles in many of the most significant events in Big Law.

From the Locke Lord and Edwards Wildman merger to Morgan Lewis & Bockius ’ acquisition of 750 Bingham McCutchen lawyers to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld ’s expansion into London, Hong Kong and Frankfurt, the law firms making the news tended to have women at the helm.

There’s nothing unusual about women leaders — it’s just that they’re so underrepresented in the legal profession. The stats speak for themselves:About half of all associates are women, yet women comprise less than 20 percent of the equity partnership at a typical firm .Among the top 50 U.S. law firms, we counted only three firms chaired by a woman.

Looking around the web, we noticed some of these women have spoken about this topic:

“I think many law firms struggle with a lack of flexibility, and really this concept of kind of one size fits all, and they lose a lot of very valuable talent,” said Jennifer P. Keller , who in January became the first woman elected President and Chief Operating Officer of 650-lawyer Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz .

Keller isn’t based in a large metropolis. She lives and practices in Johnson City, Tennessee — a city of about 65,000 people positioned in the foothills in the eastern part of the state.

Keller spoke to us about her unusual path to the top, starting with her rise to chair her firm’s Labor & Employment Group, and now President and COO of her firm. Below, is an edited transcript with her career advice for young women lawyers and her advice for law firms.

Readers: Feel free to use the comments section to tell what you think is happening.

Jennifer P. Keller grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and graduated from the University of Tennesse Law School in 1996 with the highest honors. Keller has been at the same firm for her entire career. She said she was drawn to the firm by its recent namesake partner, Howard Baker — former President Reagan’s Chief of Staff and also a former U.S. Senator and Republican Majority Leader — who had a reputation as a consensus builder.

Big Law Business: How did you end up becoming a lawyer?

Keller: Around 1987, when I was 16 [growing up in Knoxville], my typing teacher’s husband was an officer manager at a law firm and he hired me to be a runner. Back in the late 1980s, there was a lot of asbestos litigation going on — I was the asbestos file clerk. We didn’t have computers to log everything so we literally filed every piece of paper in a file. It was really a life-changing opportunity. No one in my direct family was a lawyer and I really understood it to be an intellectually challenging profession.

Big Law Business: How did you decide you wanted to litigate?

Keller: I went to law school thinking I was going to be a corporate lawyer. In my very first summer, at Baker Donelson — that was when I decided I didn’t want to be a corporate lawyer and wanted to be a litigator. The firm had just decided to form a labor and employment group and it really was just perfect timing.

Big Law Business: What is your new role?

Keller: I am gong to transition out of my litigation practice. As President and COO, I’m responsible for the day-to-day activities such as alternative fee arrangements, recruiting associates, and paralegals and working closely with the chair of the firm, who handles more of the strategy. The COO has generally been the primary interface with our practice groups and looking at financials — strategy from that more micro-perspective.

Big Law Business: What do you think has helped you succeed as a lawyer and a leader at your firm?

Keller: One thing sticks out to me and I always tell it people who ask me for advice — authenticity. If people see me at various times of the day and evening, I might not always have make up on. You know you may come to work on the weekends in sweatpants and with your kid in tow. Things are not always perfect, and you may drop a ball now and again and you may need to acknowledge ‘Hey, I’ve done this and here’s what I’m going to do to set this straight.’

Big Law Business: What is the biggest obstacle to women achieving parity in the legal profession?

Keller: In my mind, there’s some internal obstacles — internal to the women attorney themselves and then some external obstacles, more firm-related or industry-related obstacles. If we look at the internal first, I think a lot of women attorneys still are fearful of seeking an alternate work arrangement, or mentioning what they want their career to look like because they won’t fit a particular mold. They just don’t feel like they can freely discuss those things. Obviously, it’s incumbent on us [in leadership] to put them in a position of comfort.

External obstacles include inertia. Traditionally, many firms have been lead by men. There’s also sometimes a lack of flexibility on issues like parental leave. Luckily, Baker Donelson is very flexible: We just expanded our parental leave for both sexes to 16 weeks. But I think that has really been difficult for some firms to embrace and they have to really see the benefits. Industry-wise, lack of flexibility has certainly been an obstacle.

Big Law Business: Do people at your firm actually take the full parental leave?

Keller: We certainly have some men who are taking parental leave. We generally don’t see the non-primary caregivers, which are generally the males taking the full 16 weeks. But we do have a culture here where the women feel free to take the full 16 weeks. We worked very hard in the expansion of that policy. You can put on paper, we’re going to expand this to 16 weeks, but if you don’t help with the on ramp and off ramp aspects of that, then you won’t find that people feel free to do it. So we’ve tried to really assist them in that process.

Big Law Business: What mistakes have you seen law firms with problems retaining women make?

Keller: It’s a pretty acknowledged problem that we need to do a better job retaining women associates. There are some people who leave you because maybe they have a child and decide they want to be a full time parent and that’s okay. That doesn’t necessarily indicate a flaw in the system. But I think many law firms struggle with a lack of flexibility, and really this concept of kind of one size fits all, and they lose a lot of very valuable talent.

Big Law Business: Do you offer young women lawyers any specific advice on how to navigate their careers?

Keller: You really do have to tell the truth when asked what you want to do. It’s very important to not just say what you think they want to hear. If you are not happy or passionate about what you’re choosing, it is going to be a really hard path. Also, don’t assume there are going to be obstacles, because if you assume that, you’re going to alter your course. You have to assume you’re going to be successful. You assume you’re going to meet your goals. I can point to very few instances in my entire career where I have felt like there was an issue related to my gender. They’re not situations every lawyer has to deal with every day.

Big Law Business: What were some of the obstacles you encountered and how did you react?

Keller: I’ve been really lucky because I did come into this career at a time after a lot of fabulous women forged the way. I’ve been in situations where lawyers called me ‘doll’ or ‘baby’ or tried to hug. Most of those times, those situations are very easily resolved. I’ve been mistaken for the court reporter many times. I really am completely fine when those things happen because I correct them and we move on. Those are relatively minor inconveniences compared to other things other women may have encountered.

Big Law Business: Did you ever feel like you had to blend in to succeed?

Keller: I can tell you, just in terms of dress in my office — I love fashion. I love shoes. I don’t dress like the men in my office. I’ve enjoyed that part of being a professional woman — dressing up every day. And my office is filled with pictures of my family and my daughter, who is almost 14. You really just have to gauge what feels appropriate and right. There are no two firms that are alike. I am sitting right now in Johnson City, Tennessee. I may have some freedoms that people in New York City do not have. I think that in the legal world it is very much acknowledged that building a team of individuals who all have different talents is really the best way to service a client.

Big Law Business: How do you balance work with raising a family?

Keller: My husband and I have been married almost 25 years. We were high school sweethearts and I’ve been married since I was 19. None of this would have happened without his support. This whole concept of balance comes up a lot — I’ve had the same nanny since before my daughter was born, who’s been a huge part of our life and I’ve also had a great support system from my extended family. It has taken a village as they say. I also don’t work late every night. I don’t work every weekend. The firm has always been very much a firm that doesn’t just talk about culture — we live it. We really do have a very family friendly culture. I know that not everyone is blessed with that same dynamic.

Big Law Business: What do people in big cities get wrong about the small cities?

Keller: There is some misperception about how hard people work. I think you would find in some smaller markets, the work expectations are very much similar. I have friends in New York firms, in Atlanta firms, and we’re very similar in many ways. I certainly park much closer to my office than they do. I have a ten-minute commute home. The differences are mostly logistical.

Big Law Business: What are some of the biggest challenges that law firms face in the current business environment?

Keller: The biggest challenge is figuring out how to react to the increasing calls for pricing flexibility, the increased use of technology. We really are endeavoring to keep both the client and the lawyers in our firm happy day to day. It’s going to require constant trial and error and then, listening. We have to just keep evolving. I absolutely think communication is the key. The lawyer really needs to understand what the client wants to achieve and what level of tolerance they have for a variance from that. And the only way to do that is to ask. For many years, we have always assumed that the client wanted to win and in many instances we’re finding the client oftentimes have other hopes and other things they’re willing to accomplish and may be completely happy with another outcome, rather than spending five times as much and taking the case to trial.

Big Law Business: If not a lawyer, then what?

Keller: If I couldn’t be a lawyer then I would want to be a Disney imagineer. I’m very much a fan of the Disney client business model. It is very much a paradigm of client satisfaction. They are constantly looking at ways to make the client experience better. Imagineers are the folks who are given a concept and they bring that concept to life. They take ideas and translate them into reality. A lot of the time is spent thinking about that customer experience.