Leadership, Careers, and Women in Law Roundtable

Law firms have taken important steps in recent years to increase gender equality and provide senior-level support to advance women into the top echelons of leadership. The ambitious efforts are paying off. What is it like at the top, and how can women interested in a law firm management career successfully make the climb?

In this roundtable discussion, seven women in prominent law firm positions explore the opportunities and challenges facing women in legal careers today, and how they drive the positive cultural shift within their firms. They discuss why authenticity and creativity are important to creating a sustainable environment for future leaders.

Our Moderator

Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco and a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at ngaffney@zumado.com or on Twitter @nickgaffney.



Our Panelists

Valentine Austriaco & Bueschel, P.C. (VAB) is a certified WBE firm in Chicago. The firm represents business clients in commercial litigation, internal investigations, employment law matters, and real estate transactions. The firm’s three shareholders—Susan Valentine, Aurora Austriaco, and Lydia Bueschel—are all deeply involved in the community and share a common goal of championing and promoting women and minority attorneys and business leaders.
Kelly Rittenberry Culhane (KRC) is a founding partner at Culhane Meadows, the largest woman-owned, national law firm in the country. Her practice encompasses complex commercial transactions, risk management, technology, and corporate law with clients that include Fortune 1000 companies in a variety of industries.
Luise A. Barrack (LB) is the managing member of Rosenberg & Estis, P.C. and head of the firm’s Litigation Department. Luise’s practice concentrates on representing developers, lenders, commercial owners, hoteliers, nonprofit corporations, and educational institutions.
Patricia Brown Holmes (PBH) is a managing partner at Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP and the first African-American woman to lead and have her name on the door of a major law firm that is not women- or minority-owned. She has practiced law on both sides of the bench in courtrooms at every level. Judge Holmes has represented a wide range of public and private corporate clients in complex commercial, regulatory, and class action litigation as well as in internal investigations.
Cristina Carvalho (CC) is a managing partner at Arent Fox, where she oversees an international practice that encompasses commercial transactions, intellectual property, licensing, and technology for leading US and foreign companies. She regularly counsels clients concerning the selection and adoption of trademarks, how to build and enhance rights in brands, and international enforcement strategies.
Kristina Lawson (KL) is San Francisco-based Hanson Bridgett’s managing partner, where she specializes in complex entitlement, land use, environmental, and municipal matters. She represents clients in local, state, and federal administrative and judicial proceedings throughout California and often advises clients on public policy and government relations strategy.


NG: When did you become managing partner at your firm, and how did it come about? Was it a goal you’d set for yourself and worked diligently toward, or a less straightforward path?

KRC: My co-founders and I created Culhane Meadows in 2013, having practiced together for many years. I was in a national management position at our previous firm and was driven to make a difference, but like most women in my position, I lacked authority and autonomy. The ceiling was real… and low. I did not wake up one day and think, “I’m going to start a firm and disrupt the legal marketplace”—but this is exactly the decision I made the day I learned that my compensation was arbitrarily cut (having just met a goal set by the managing partners). I felt I had no choice and was actually told that if I had “a better way” to run a firm, I should start my own. We all heard the same message… hence our tagline, “Culhane Meadows, A Better Way.”

LB: While I officially became the managing partner of the firm in June 2010, I had been operating as such for a while before the announcement was made. I was fortunate to have a great mentor in the then managing and founding partner of the firm. He trusted me and nurtured what he saw as the qualities necessary to take over the role.

PBH: Our firm opened its doors in early 2016. Our original structure included an administrative partner role, but no one officially designated as a managing partner. In March 2018, we had our first annual partner meeting. We decided we would select our first “managing” partner. Ron Safer—my biggest champion and long-time friend—nominated me. There was a second to the nomination and a vote almost before I could react. Until that moment, it had not been a goal or even a thought. It was not in my aspirational path. But my partners said they felt I was an excellent choice, pointing out that they were proud to have my name on the door. They believed I was the right choice at the right time.

CC: I became managing partner in January 2016. Interestingly enough, my career has been a fortuitous path of pursuing something I enjoy and being in the right place. Arent Fox was a firm where anyone with talent, no matter their background, could succeed. Where differences were seen as strengths and not weaknesses. I was given opportunities to work with smart lawyers, got the support to develop my own book of business, and the visibility to demonstrate my abilities.

KL: I was elected managing partner-elect in December 2019 and am transitioning to Managing Partner throughout 2020. When the selection process to elect a new Managing Partner kicked off, I called our current managing partner, Andrew Giacomini, and asked if I should even consider throwing my hat in the ring given that I’d only been with the firm for a couple of years. His answer was, “Absolutely!” I think this really speaks to the culture of open-mindedness and opportunity at Hanson Bridgett, which are among the core values that originally drew me to join the firm.

NG: How would you describe your leadership style? Do you think the fact that you’re a woman has any impact on this or on your vision for the firm?

VAB: At VAB, we have a collaborative and supportive leadership style. The three of us make firm-level management decisions by consensus, a process that requires flexibility and movement. The final question is always, “What is best for the firm?”⁠—not what is best for one partner or one viewpoint. We work with our team the same way, encouraging different perspectives and not assuming that just because a view is from the top, it is the clearest. This approach is likely grounded in our professional experiences as women. When we have tried to shoulder things alone or followed advice to “man up,” creativity and production were stifled. When ideas and diverse perspectives are vetted in a collaborative environment, then the final product is thoughtful, creative, and crystallized, and the resulting services to the client are the best the firm has to offer.

KRC: My approach to leadership combines resilience and agility, along with grit and the ability to ascertain which risks are worth taking. I tend to pull from my previous life as a commercial litigator and mediator in times of conflict, as I saw all too often how nobody wins when there is a lack of alignment. The fact that I’m a woman absolutely has an impact on how I lead and my vision for the firm. I “retired” the day my daughter was born, and when I started my second act, I didn’t want to take a step down from the sophisticated practice I had enjoyed prior to taking time off to be a stay at home mom. I have a great deal of empathy for all professionals who choose to take time off or were held back due to a glass ceiling/discrimination, and I want to offer them an alternative.

LB: I am direct and straightforward regarding my expectations. I have always tried to be a role model and to ask that the people who work with me do as I do—not as I say. I have never asked anyone to work harder than I work. Certainly, being a woman has impacted my vision for the firm. I have worked to make the firm a place where people are collegial and enjoy working.

PBH: I am an inclusive and collaborative leader. I ask lots of questions and speak individually with my partners to get their thoughts and opinions. As a former judge, I lead our firm much like I ruled from the bench, by considering all available information and then choosing a path forward, knowing and understanding that the direction might change in small ways as we proceed. That’s fine. What matters is that we get where we are going, even if we’re not following a linear path. I believe being a woman adds a different dimension to my thinking and provides a valuable perspective in decision-making. I have a sensitivity⁠—particularly being a woman of color—to micro-inequities, hidden biases, and other unintentional behaviors that may get in the way of equal treatment of individuals. Through training and practice, we are all aware of our habits and fallbacks and work diligently to be an inclusive, collaborative, and supportive team.

CC: I am a hands-on leader, as I love visiting our offices, meeting with our lawyers and staff, and really being involved in the day-to-day management of the firm. I think that being a woman does have an impact on my vision for the firm. I hope to see more opportunities for women, minorities, and attorneys with diverse backgrounds because the development and promotion of diverse talent is what will help firms succeed. Many firms have the right programs to develop and retain talent, but management needs to ensure the participation of diverse talent in those programs.   

NG: How is having a female managing partner good for a firm’s business?

VAB: Our clients choose and remain loyal to VAB not just because of our legal skills but also because of our shared values. The supportive and engaging tone we set as women leaders permeates through the firm and then out to our clients. Clients value that we care about our team members⁠—about their professional advancement, their continued growth, and their daily work experiences. Clients are smart⁠⁠—they know when there is discordance between what a firm says in marketing pieces about its values and what the actual experience is to work at that firm. There is no disconnect between our talk and our walk⁠—our stated values of diversity and inclusion, supportive communication, and hard work are experienced and reflected at each level of our firm, and our clients can tell.

KRC: Being a woman does not make me a better managing partner, but it allows me to bring my personal experiences to the leadership table. Welcoming and learning from diverse perspectives is key to effective leadership, and I’m blessed to be part of a firm with a diverse mix of leaders⁠—male and female⁠—who bring their unique perspective to the firm’s overall business strategies. We are a minority firm with the majority of management being female. In fact, we are the largest full-service women-owned law firm in the US and, as such, our firm is able to offer the diverse perspectives and experiences that many companies, including Fortune 1000 corporations who have committed a portion of their legal spend to minority firms, a value in their legal representatives.

LB: I think having a female managing partner has made our firm stand out among other mid-size law firms as progressive and more modern. It has also assisted in attracting talented female attorneys who see that there is a demonstrated path to moving up in our firm and that hard work will be rewarded.

CC: I don’t know that having a female managing partner is necessarily better for a firm’s business than having a male managing partner, but female leaders certainly bring a different perspective to the role. I can’t stress the importance of a diverse workplace and diverse leadership enough. I believe that a more inclusive and culturally diverse environment is a more productive environment.

NG: How have you altered your firm’s business model or structure, if at all, to compete in a rapidly evolving legal landscape?

KRC: We started with the goal of disrupting the traditional law firm model, including empowering our attorneys to choose where they work, which is especially relevant now the entire world is being forced to work at home. We’ve been doing this for seven years and our infrastructure is set up to permit remote work, so our clients haven’t had any disruption in service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our compensation is completely objective and transparent, and our attorneys see a large portion of dollars collected from the work they perform. Leadership has no ability to alter a partner’s compensation, and there are no minimums, points, comp. committees, or politics. We foster a collaborative environment using the latest encrypted cloud-sharing technology that encourages our attorneys to work together, and our formula-based compensation system ensures each attorney knows exactly what he or she will earn on each matter for which they work.

PBH: We have not changed or altered our business model or structure other than having everyone working remotely during the current crisis. We began our business with the ability to work remotely. We always contemplated being available to our clients worldwide at any time. We started as a cloud-based business with Surface Pros and no individual desk telephones, using Skype, Zoom, and other web tools for meetings, and utilizing modern technology to interface and service our clients so we could communicate and work remotely at any time. Remote work has been a seamless transition that has gone unnoticed by our clients. We are ready for the next frontier when remote work is no longer required in this crisis.

CC: The legal landscape is rapidly evolving, and I think for the better. Clients are increasingly looking to have their outside counsel act more like advisors who are experts not only in a legal discipline but also in their clients’ industry and business. This expectation pushes outside counsel to be more creative, efficient, and to look at things differently. At Arent Fox, we have moved to a more industry-based focus rather than legal discipline focus, and have re-organized ourselves into multi-disciplinary industry groups. We still have the traditional practice groups for internal administration purposes, but we are putting a lot more marketing support and attention behind our industry groups.

KL: While I can’t take credit for implementing it, one important change I have supported and will continue to develop is what we call our “Dynamic Workforce Initiative.” This initiative entailed giving up some office space and not only providing attorneys the technological tools and flexibility to routinely work from home but encouraging them to do so. The goal was to help enable a greater work-life balance and enhance productivity, while also recognizing that we simply don’t need to be in our offices all the time. And while we never could have predicted that a pandemic would require a transition to a fully-remote workforce practically overnight, having all the pieces firmly in place gave us the ability to continuing meeting our clients’ needs far more seamlessly than I think might have been the case otherwise.

NG: What initiatives or other work has your firm done to attract and retain female attorneys and other underrepresented groups? Is there anything you think has been particularly successful?

VAB: VAB has created a dynamic and supportive environment that women attorneys are drawn to. Over the three and half years since we founded VAB, we have had the privilege of being approached by a number of women and minority attorneys–at every level, from firms and from in-house legal departments–seeking to join our firm after speaking with one of our attorneys or working with us on a project. It is always amazing to be reminded of how unique our environment is. We really do want our attorneys to succeed personally and professionally. We really do take the time to find out what makes them tick. And we really do help them be their best authentic selves and the best attorneys they can be. There is a huge appetite for this type of environment. It really is true–if you build it, they will come.

KRC: We did much of the work upfront. For example, one of our attorneys (a minority woman) recently gave birth to a child. She arranged for another partner to handle matters in her absence, and she continued to receive her draws under our compensation formula (which compensates attorneys who originate work even where they do not work on the matter). This permitted her to determine the length of her maternity leave without any need to seek permission from management and when she was ready, she was able to transition back into her practice at her own pace. Aside from obtaining her client’s consent, there were no obstacles or “backlash” for taking all the time she wanted to enjoy her new baby. We’re committed to attracting outstanding women and other underrepresented groups and part of that initiative is being proud and active members of NAMWOLF.

PBH: We have been and are very deliberate in our recruiting and retention of women and diverse attorneys. We do not have affinity groups, which tend to become insular and send the signal that issues of inclusion belong to that particular group alone. Instead, everyone is a member of our Engagement and Culture Committee (EC). The EC is designed to promote programs and activities that celebrate and educate our entire workforce on issues of all cultures. Every month we try to do something that brings us all together as a community and celebrates our differences and our similarities. We subscribe to the idea that we are not different from each other, instead, we are different like each other. This recognition that we all have different perspectives, based not only on identity but experience, inspires open communication. We welcome questions and curiosities from everyone. That openness helps us provide better service to our clients simply because our diverse population provides insight, information, and experience that encompasses all walks of life. The jack of all trades is better than the jack of one.

CC: Arent Fox has a culture that embraces and supports our diverse attorneys from the top down, and we have several programs in place to attract and retain diverse talent. Several years ago, we created our Associate Development Committee, which has the explicit goal of creating opportunities for comprehensive legal training, effective career mentoring, and business development training. By doing that, we are making sure that all of our attorneys get the same support and development opportunities throughout the firm. We are in the third year of our AF Fellows program, an initiative designed to help senior associates and new partners foster effective leadership skills and forge lasting relationships across the firm. A key component of this program is to identify and support women in the firm to help them advance and succeed in all aspects of their careers. Lastly, our firm also has developed GameChange, a business development program geared towards young partners and senior associates, particularly women and underrepresented groups, who receive in-person training and one-on-one follow-up coaching.

KL: I think we’ve successfully attracted women attorneys because it becomes clear early in the recruiting process that we’re committed to seeing them thrive–and we’ve retained them because they do. We continually strive to support and advance women generally and women of color specifically at all levels. Our women partners make a sincere and concerted effort to mentor women associates, and regularly organize events and outings to discuss experiences, challenges, and circumstances unique to women attorneys. Several years ago, the firm created a leadership training program and has been very deliberate about encouraging women to participate. This has reaped dividends. And we’ve taken a close look at the factors that can impede women’s advancement and have made changes accordingly. For instance, while many firms have a specific billable hour requirement for associates to be eligible for partner, we’ve found this system negatively impacts women. So we’ve leveled the playing field in this regard.

NG: You’re given the power to change one cultural or institutional aspect of the legal industry to make it a place where more women can thrive. What do you do?

VAB: We would create better pathways to business development for women. This is how women gain a voice, rise to leadership, and influence firm and business culture. This initiative can be driven externally and internally. Business clients need to rethink whether to reflexively retain Big Law. They should engage with NAMWOLF and recognize that boutique women and minority-owned firms with the right systems can provide the nimble and strategic counsel needed, especially during this unprecedented pandemic when old ideas may not be the best ideas. Law firms need to intentionally facilitate opportunities for women to successfully market, through team marketing programs, incentivized mentoring, and inclusion in client contact. If women could see a more viable path to success⁠—through owning their own firms or within majority-owned firms⁠—fewer women would be leaving the field at 10, 15, 20 years in.

KRC: Compensation structures⁠—that’s it! It all starts with rethinking how fair and balanced compensation is determined, which means rejecting the traditional “black hole” decision-making process by a compensation committee working behind closed doors. This type of secretive and subjective tradition is a direct contributor to the well-documented gender pay gap in the legal industry. At Culhane Meadows, there is absolutely no difference in the compensation formula between male and female attorneys because everything is 100% objective and transparent. We have eliminated the concept of minimum billable quotas and each attorney is empowered to determine their own billing rates. Over the past five years, about half of our top 10 highest-earners each year were women—a figure that is likely unmatched by any other national law firm in the U.S.

PBH: I provide a daycare center on-site and encourage both men and women to utilize it for childcare. It eases your mind when working to know where young children are and to be able to visit them during breaks. That one change would go a long way toward allowing women to thrive because, since they are typically the primary caregivers in their families, they would not have to feel rushed to get out the door by a time certain to pick up young children. I would follow that by having the government allow deductions for in-home childcare as a business expense as well. Once children are old enough for school, having the option of someone to assist in picking them up, helping with homework, and getting them to activities would also provide the peace of mind needed to allow working parents to focus on client matters when required. Family time could then be more productive and focused.

CC: There are many factors that create challenges for women in the workplace, but the one that I hear often has to do with gender roles in family and child-raising situations. The majority of responsibility for domestic chores and child-rearing seems to fall on women. I have been fortunate as I have a strong support system within my family and at my firm, but for others, I recognize that this can be a big challenge. If culturally we can shift these responsibilities to a more equitable distribution, I think that this would create a more even playing field for women.

NG: Do you think firms have become a better place for women to build and advance their careers in recent years?

KRC: Candidly, we hear a lot from leaders at traditional law firms about diversity and inclusion committees, as well as the appointment of minority women (and men) who lead these committees. Progress is being made, but the raw data about advancement and compensation suggests that meaningful change (a true movement of the needle) has yet to arrive. Culhane Meadows rejects the old school approach by offering every attorney the opportunity to create a unique work/life/family balance, control their schedules, make more money, and serve highly sophisticated clients (more than 25 of which are Fortune-ranked). Equally important is the fact that no one (male or female) at our firm must ever choose between partnership track or family commitments. We give both single- and two-parent families the flexibility to manage childcare, attend school events, and support aging relatives.

LB: There is no question that law firms have become much better places for women to be able to have families and advance their careers. This is, in large part, because of laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that have allowed women to take maternity leave and return to the positions that they held prior to giving birth. Law firms have, in turn, provided even more support to women who want to have both a family and a career.

CC: I think firms have made great strides in improving the workplace for women. From parent support groups to flexible time to teleworking options and flexible family leave policies, there is more support now than 20 years ago. However, we still have more that we can do, and I am grateful to be in a position that can help move the needle.

KL: I believe that some firms really have. I’m proud that Hanson Bridgett has a record-high proportion of women attorneys (40% in our partnership ranks) and there are many other firms out there who are also making significant strides, including those that aren’t large enough to be included in published diversity rankings. What I’m seeing more and more is that women who aren’t happy at a firm—because they’re not getting the important work, they’re not advancing as they believe they should be, the culture feels male-centric, they have little work-life balance—feel much more empowered these days to leave and create a new path for themselves at a firm that will allow them to flourish.

NG: What advice would you give to women coming out of law school who desire to become a partner in a law firm?

VAB: Be authentic. So much time has been wasted by women attorneys (ourselves included) overthinking what affect we are supposed to have as lawyers. Client management, networking, and business development all require fostered relationships. You need to be comfortable with yourself and let the other person know something about you; it is in this process of revealing who we are that relationships are formed. Have a genuine interest in others at your firm or business, in your professional networks, and among your client representatives. Put in the non-billable time to find out what is important to that partner, supervisor, colleague, or client. Work hard, take advice, seek mentors, study up, and show up. And then be bold! Opportunities can be rare. When they arise, women lawyers should be ready and willing and not overthink whether they are good enough. You only get better with experience, so get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

KRC: If she wants to have a sophisticated practice and make partner, I would suggest that she focus on getting trained at a large, traditional firm that truly has a focus on diversity and inclusion and when she feels she has the toolkit necessary to run her practice and manage clients, she can join a firm that offers the opportunities and business model that best meets her personal and professional needs. There are options out there for accomplished, experienced women—we know because we’re always looking to add to our pool of talented attorneys. Culhane Meadows is open to considering the candidacy of lateral partners who have built a practice and have at least eight years of experience (at a large firm or sophisticated in-house department) because we know that many women and other underrepresented groups are kept from the partner track through no fault of their own.

PBH: I would advise women on a partnership track to find a mentor who has done what they believe they want to do and accomplished the goals they have set for themselves and to follow in that mentor’s path. I tell young professionals to get a “board of directors” or group of women whose opinions they admire and then use that board’s advice along the way to success. Many women are happy to share their secrets of success, tricks of the trade, and recommendations for making life a little less stressful as a young woman climbs the ladder of success.

CC: I would remind them that internal networking is as important as external networking. I would encourage them to build as many relationships as possible with partners around the firm and let them know you are willing to learn from them and open to career advice. Get involved in firm committees, if there are any, and show you care about the firm. Also, if there are specific cases you would like to be involved in or areas you would like to learn more about, make your interest known.

NG: What are some other challenges in the legal profession that you see for the generation of women behind you?

VAB: It is difficult to think about any future challenges without considering the unprecedented pandemic we are living through. It is unclear whether there will be in-person depositions or court appearances where women new to the practice can learn from others. It will be challenging to connect professionally and foster relationships over video conferences. For women with responsibilities for caring for others, providing the additional time and emotional support needed right now will impact their capacity to engage professionally. There may be silver linings, though. As this pandemic rolls across the legal field, it has uncovered a deficit in certain leadership qualities needed most right now: flexibility, creativity, empathy, self-awareness, resilience. This is a perfect opportunity for women lawyers to step up and flex our emotional-intelligence muscles. You can help carry your firm and clients through this—and make sure you get credit for it when you do!

KRC: It is an extremely challenging market right now. Unfortunately, even pre-pandemic, for the recent generation of law students a law school degree is by no means a sure path to a satisfying legal career with an income sufficient to service the law school debt incurred to pay for today’s increasingly outrageous tuition. For example, a well-known top 25 school costs over $300,000, but only about 40% of its graduates are being hired by employers that pay top salaries. Lower ranked, but still costly, schools may have 0% of their graduates hired by top firms. My advice is to look closely at all these statistics before going to law school and only proceed if you are sure you can afford the level of debt you are taking on. In addition, once you graduate, I would avoid a practice area that can be easily outsourced to lower-cost attorneys overseas.

CC: The challenges I see are not just applicable to women but to everyone in the legal industry. One challenge is that technology is constantly evolving, and I think that it is important to keep up with technology and understand how it affects our business. Another is that being a good lawyer is no longer enough to succeed in the legal profession. Lawyers today need to be business developers, good managers, good salesmen, and marketers. And, these are not skills currently taught in law school.

NG: Which law firm leaders do you most admire, and why?

KRC: I recently spoke at a conference where I met Mary Wilson, managing partner of Dentons US, who was also speaking at Women’s Legal 2020. I was impressed with her very genuine demeanor and the way she balances her practice and what has to be demanding management responsibilities. I joked with her that I thought I’d be her one day! What I learned from that conversation and what I tell women I mentor is “define what success means to you and go after that.” Not every woman wants to rise to the very top of BigLaw or start her own law firm. Find what makes you happy and go for it!

CC: The law firm leaders I most admire are the founders of Arent Fox LLP: Albert Arent, Henry Fox, Earl Kintner, Harry Plotkin, and Edwin Kahn. They were true visionaries of their time, creating a firm with a culture of acceptance and inclusion. Arent Fox was built on the underlying principle of attracting talented lawyers regardless of their background, and I am proud that we uphold and celebrate the same values today.

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