Work it Wednesday: Law firm finds bucking industry norms leads to a more stable workforce

10:02 AM, Sep 2, 2010   |    comments
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Nilan Johnson Lewis finds success in retaining women attorneys

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. -- The practice of law is challenging.  But it can be even more so for women, who can find themselves having to choose between a family or a law career, unable to balance both.

Historically, women who take time out to have a baby suffer when they come back and find their clients have been doled out to other attorneys.  They might find they are no longer on a track for partnership, because their job commitment comes under question.

Nilan Johnson Lewis (NJL) in Minneapolis takes a long term approach.

"One of the biggest challenges that I think any professional woman faces is, when she returns from a leave of absence is, where's the work?" says Sandra Jezierski, a shareholder, or partner at the firm.

"We really have sort of informally developed this culture where we work really hard to reintegrate women who come back from a leave," says Jezierski.

It's not just women.  One of the first people to take advantage of a sabbatical program NJL offers was one of the firm's founding shareholders, a man. 

"He took several months off and did what he wanted to do and came back and it didn't affect our profitability.  It didn't affect our clients.  We've proven that's the case," says Jezierski.

NJL takes a team approach to how it does business.  If someone takes a leave, another team member can pick up that case, but the primary responsibility of the case remains with the lead attorney. 

When that person comes back from leave, Jezierski says the partner attorneys will evaluate whether it's appropriate for the original attorney to step back in, or if the case should stay with the attorney who's handling it in the interim.  Either way, the client remains with the original attorney.  No one tries to take a client away from another attorney in the firm.

Jezierski, who has two children, experienced that teamwork first hand, and she says it's unusual among law firms.

Jezierski says the culture of flexibility has other benefits as well.

"If people aren't working about their personal lives, and if they're healthy, mentally healthy, they're going to be better attorneys.  They're going to be better employees."

This approach of teamwork has had concrete benefits for NJL.  Now, 53-percent of its shareholders, or partners, are women.

"Law firms have a really hard problem, or a difficult time retaining women," says Jezierski,  "And I think by not retaining women, you're losing out on a lot of very talented attorneys."

The firm also bucks the norm in how it treats the rest of the staff.

"You don't see the shareholder (at the firm) with the big corner office, " says Jezierski.

"We don't do that here because it doesn't benefit our clients at all."

Instead, what you'll find is the furniture is functional, and similar in all the offices.  Lawyers don't get the prime real estate next to the large windows that frame downtown Minneapolis.  Those seats belong to the secretaries.  Many of the attornies have interior spaces with no outside windows.

"Realistically, our secretaries and our assistants are the ones at their desks more than our attorneys," says Jezierski.  "It's only natural they should be the ones sitting next to the windows and have that natural light.  It's healthier."

The firm also offers a mother's room for lactating moms, and baby pictures are featured prominently on the desks of both male and female attornies.

Jezierski believes these policies lead to more loyal workers and less turnover, something that's important to any company.

"I feel really lucky, and I tell people that all the time," says Jezierski.

"I've been here since 1998 and I'm one of the few people out of my law school that have the same job that they started with out of law school.  And there's a reason for that, and that is I ended up at a really good place."


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