Law firm Tong Tejani is unusual not just because it’s launching in such uncertain times, but because its owners are both women and minorities, setting them apart as members of two groups traditionally deprived of firm leadership roles.
Former Silicon Valley lawyers Zohra Tejani and Joyce Tong Oelrich each have decades of experience in the government contracting and compliance field, at major companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and VMware, and at law firms. They say they’re tapping their deep backgrounds in technology to shape a law firm that is lean and nimble.
“Our tech backgrounds mean we think differently. We are accustomed to Silicon Valley’s ways of working remotely and that has prepared us to be flexible and adapt to the client’s needs,” said Tong Oelrich, who oversaw Facebook’s government contract sales for more than two years.
Minority female-owned firms are rare as women and minorities are both are underrepresented in the law.
In the decade since 2009, the number of women in the legal profession grew to 36%, a roughly 5% increase, according to an American Bar Association report, while the number of racial and ethnic minorities remained nearly flat, growing by less than 1%.
The National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms says it has about 200 law firm members, which are about evenly split between woman-owned firms and minority women-owned firms.
Joel Stern, the association’s CEO, said it is still early to know how the turbulent economy will affect these firms, each of which has at least three lawyers and do some sort of commercial work.
“We are getting the same amount of inquiries from companies who are asking about finding diverse firms for their legal work,” he said. “Our member firms know to work remotely, and they are very flexible.”
That nimbleness will help them survive in troubled economic times, Stern said.
Advocates for more minorities in the legal field worry the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic problems could halt progress in building diversity in the profession just as the Great Recession did a dozen years ago. Women and minorities were disproportionately affected by law firm layoffs and cuts following the 2008 crisis.
And female minorities are still underrepresented. Only 3% of equity partners at law firms last year were minority women, according to the National Association of Women Lawyers.
A ‘Govtech’ Firm
Tejani and Tong Oelrich said they began planning their “govtech” firm last year before the economy began tanking. Last fall, they began testing ideas for how to organize their law firm and develop a base of clients in government contracting, a field that is historically dominated by male lawyers.
“We are leveraging our experience as in-house counsel at Microsoft, VMware, and Facebook to do things differently,” said Tejani. She served as an assistant general counsel in VMware’s government education healthcare business.
Previously she’d been at Microsoft, where for four years she was senior attorney for the company’s worldwide public sector, working on special projects related to government policies on adopting cloud services. She also worked at what’s now Womble Bond Dickinson.
Tejani said the challenge was to build an innovative law firm. “Instead of billing by the hour, we are offering a subscription service, volume discounts, and fixed fees, for example,” she said.
The new firm, she said, wants to remain agile so it’s not hiring staff and attorneys but, instead, “bringing on contract staff and counsel, partnering with legal service providers and solos as needed.”
That model underscores the firm’s flexibility, said Tong Oelrich, who also worked as an attorney for Microsoft, overseeing its worldwide public sector procurement compliance program.
“We have a virtual office, and we’re prepared to scale up space and the number of lawyers when need,” she added.
That includes hiring out office or conference space, depending on the client need, said Tong Oelrich, who had worked earlier at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and before that at Sullivan & Worcester.
“We can handle a bid protest, counsel an engineering team on cybersecurity requirements, and negotiate government contracts for cloud services and other technology products and services,” she said.
It hasn’t been easy to start a firm, Tong Oelrich said. “It’s been like building a plane and flying it too.”
Starting a woman-owned firm is difficult in the best of times, noted Alexandra Walsh, who helped found female-owned litigation boutique Wilkinson Walsh in early 2016. The firm is representing federal judge Emmet Sullivan regarding questions about his handling of the high-profile criminal case against former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Walsh noted that she and name partner Beth Wilkinson “left Big Law to create a model that shows you could have women running a firm and doing it well. Regardless of the area of practice, there is a real appetite for diversity that extends across the legal market whether it’s negotiating across a table, or working on changing regulations,” she said.
“It’s not always easy, but you have so much more control over your destiny,” Walsh said.
Tejani and Tong Oelrich said the time they invested upfront hammering out how they work as a team is coming to fruition as they hit the ground advising clients like a global technology company which is negotiating a contract for cloud services with a government entity.
“We began working … as everyone else is now … remotely and generally from home,” Tong Oelrich said. “We did not expect a global pandemic overnight. But now that we are dealing with the new realities, we know that gave us a head start.”