Culhane Meadows is a cloud-based law firm and the largest national full-service women-owned law firm in the U.S. The firm offers exceptional, yet highly efficient and cost-effective, client services provided exclusively by partner-level attorneys with substantial experience from large law firms or in-house legal departments of respected corporations.
Bernie Toledano, ZERØ’s Head of Marketing, sat down with Heather Haughian and Grant Walsh, two of the firm’s co-founders and managing partners, to discuss how the firm was built, how they collaborate and foster a unified culture across a distributed workforce, and what law firms should do to attract and retain millennial talent.
ZERØ: What is the origin story of Culhane Meadows?
Heather: I would love to be able to say we came up with this genius idea of having a remote cloud-based firm, but the Culhane Meadows founding partners were actually members of a similarly modern-modeled, cloud-based, distributed firm. That said, we wanted to take things in a slightly different direction. We had missed the feeling of being part of a partnership that comes with a traditional law firm, so the idea with Culhane Meadows was to take this truly distributed law firm model and make it more of a true partnership. We sought to take a great business model that was already there and improve upon it to accommodate our vision for how we wanted to grow our practices long-term. We took the cloud-based concept and improved upon it to create an even better way to practice law—both for lawyers that are in the firm and the way they practice, as well as for the clients.
ZERØ: What are some of the firm’s core values, and how do these influence the day-to-day lives of your lawyers?
Grant: From the very beginning, when we created and founded the firm, our focus was on developing our core values: collaboration, transparency, innovation, and integrity. While a lot of firms give lip service to core values and mission statements, we really took to heart.
Starting with transparency: the reality is that financial transparency and formula-based compensation eliminate those office politics and bureaucracy that are found in a lot of traditional brick-and-mortar firms. And so we wanted to be transparent on the financial side with all of our partners.
The second piece is collaboration. As Heather mentioned earlier, collaboration is essential. It’s all about right sourcing for your clients and making sure that your clients are getting the best service team that they possibly can. This often means pulling together people from different practice areas and different regions, which we’re able to do easily and quickly with our cloud-based service. We are also consciously not a firm of a bunch of solo practitioners who share a website. We focus largely on bringing people together and working together in a collaborative environment.
Regarding innovation, the reality is that there are always ways to improve. As a firm, this is one of the areas where we frequently challenge our partners and ourselves as a leadership team. Can we do what we’re doing better? Faster? More efficiently? The answer is almost always yes. Even as a virtual firm who is way ahead of the curve technologically, we still have ways that we can continue to improve, and so we’re always looking for solutions that can help us collaborate and communicate more effectively.
Finally, with respect to integrity, what we really mean is truth and honesty in our billing practices. Often, there is an inherent conflict of interest with traditional law firms assigning billable quotas of 2,000+ hours per year, which puts the firm’s financial demands to achieve billable hour targets out of alignment with the client’s need for efficiency. This is why our firm has eliminated billable hour quotas, allowing our partners instead to manage their practices in ways that make sense for them and for their clients.
ZERØ: What are the steps that you take as a cloud-based, distributed firm to make sure that there is a sense of a unified culture?
Heather: When we’re considering hiring a new attorney, the first questions we ask are, “Are you willing to work for other people? Are you willing to have other people work on your projects? Or are you just kind of looking to have your own practice, keep your head down, and do your own thing?” Candidates are surprisingly honest in our interviews and will tell us if they’re just looking to leverage our platform. And we don’t hire those people.
In addition to our own vetting process, we also always check in with our partners to ask if they know a candidate before we bring them on board. A few years ago, we had a candidate come in with an extremely large book of business. And one of the partners said, “I used to work with that person, I would never have them be one of my partners, and I don’t think anybody would like to work with that person.” And despite the large book of business, we said no.
Having said that, the leadership team also always tries to create a collaborative culture by leading by example and giving our partners tools and different avenues to collaborate. In particular, the financial model and compensation scheme help with the culture by removing the fear that your clients will be stolen from you. The compensation structure provides our partners with an incentive to do more work for other people and have other people work with them.
But in addition to all of those things, we also take a lot of steps that are small but still meaningful. For example, on Fridays, we have something called “High Five Fridays,” where attorneys give each other accolades on an all-attorney email thread. This helps make sure other people know what’s going on the firm, which is super important in a distributed environment. Without these communications, people in different locations may not be aware of what their colleagues are working on. So even though these initiatives seem small, they can make a huge difference.
Lastly, when we’re not socially distancing, we have monthly in-person meetings in each of the cities in which we’re located, and lawyers will often fly in from other offices and visit each other. Our lawyers really look forward to this retreat—last year, we had 100% attendance—and we build in a lot of fun activities in addition to having meetings. Fostering these relationships between attorneys is crucial.
Those who dive in and work well with their peers do great at Culhane Meadows. Unfortunately, the people who don’t have a harder time adjusting and often end up leaving the firm.
ZERØ: Which technologies and channels do you leverage to instill this culture and foster collaboration?
Heather: One of the most important tools is definitely video chatting. But in addition to that, document collaboration is critical. At Culhane Meadows, we use Microsoft Teams so that we can all work together in real-time. A few months ago, for example, a group of partners from different offices were brainstorming on a call; and, using Microsoft Teams, we all opened the same document at the same time and were able to collaboratively make edits. Part of this is also having a reliable cloud-based document management system, because again, if you’re trying to get people to work on documents and deals together, everything needs to be available to everyone at any time and from anywhere.
The next piece is ensuring full mobility. Working from home isn’t enough if all that means is VPN access into a server that sits in their offices in a brick-and-mortar facility. Full mobility is when systems are device-agnostic, because we aren’t always going to be sitting in our home offices. When cities begin to open up again, we’re going to be on airplanes, and we’re going to be traveling to client sites. Mobile device management is critical to ensuring that lawyers can collaborate from all of their devices, and remote IT support has also been critical for us.
Lastly, we have technology to facilitate the fun stuff too. We use Microsoft Yammer as a virtual water cooler so our attorneys can socialize and talk about birthdays, and graduations, and all that kind of stuff.
Grant: In addition to what Heather described, we’ve done a couple of different things to help our lawyers adapt to the COVID-19 situation. For example, we have a wellness committee that focuses on attorney wellness, substance issues, and mental health. The members try to make sure that everyone is getting sunshine and staying connected with your partners. While this was happening before the current pandemic, the efforts have really been ramped up recently. For example, we have a daily lunch meeting hosted by members of the wellness committee where people can jump in, grab their food, and talk about non-work-related topics, like their kids and how hard it is to simultaneously be a stay-at-home lawyer and stay-at-home teacher.
Our tax group actually came up with a really clever idea recently and hosted a virtual movie night, featuring The Laundromat. Everyone watched the movie together, and the lawyers talked about the things that the characters were doing wrong from a legal perspective. It ended up being a really fun way to bring people together.
ZERØ: It sounds like the lawyers at your firm really like each other, which I think is something not to be taken for granted.
Grant: I think they do! We had a relatively new partner comment on this recently, noting that there are no jerks here. For us, this is part of making sure that we bring the right people in. We recognize that, as partners, we’re equals, we work together, and we need to be here to support one another. And unlike other firms, there are no people to boss around to bring coffee, which creates a different sort of camaraderie between the firm’s attorneys.
Heather: I’d also like to add that, because of our formula-based compensation, it doesn’t help you to kiss up to the management. Compensation is decided by a piece of software, and the leadership team has nothing to do with it. This means that politics have basically been eliminated, which also really changes the ways that lawyers relate to one another.
ZERØ: In addition to some of the negative attributes that we discussed, what are the affirmative traits that you’re looking for in new recruits?
Grant: The leadership team based what we’re looking for on a book called The Ideal Team Player, which is about how companies can identify ideal team players during the hiring process. When translating the lessons to a law firm environment, we came up with three main attributes: hungry, humble, and smart.
With respect to hungry, we want someone who’s on an upward trajectory of their career, not someone who’s been in the law practice and is looking to just retire at Culhane Meadows. We want people who are looking to grow their book and develop new business, using the flexibility and autonomy provided by Culhane Meadows.
Regarding the humble part, there are a few facets. One of these is our “no jerk” rule—we don’t want big egos. But the other side of humble is knowing what you don’t know. At many law firms, the compensation structures are built in such a way that lawyers are incentivized to do everything on their own. But lawyers who try to stretch themselves too thin do a real disservice to their clients at best and commit malpractice at worst. This is why we look for people that recognize what they know and what they don’t, and who know when they need to bring someone else into the conversation.
The third piece is smart. There are two types of “smart” that we look for. The first is book smart, meaning people who are intelligent lawyers, have gone to excellent law school, and have practiced law at the highest levels of sophistication. But equally important is the emotional IQ and being able to relate to both clients and colleagues on a human level. Again, it comes back to the culture discussion. We want people who can come together and be part of a team, not just practice on their own and share our website.
ZERØ: How does being a women-owned law firm distinguish you from your peers?
Heather: I worked in Big Law and saw many women be mommy-tracked or leave the practice of law entirely. Our leadership team is 65% women, and this makes a huge difference in what we do and how we do. We get different types of innovation and improvements, resulting in diversity of thoughts and new and fresh ideas.
With respect to diversity, the objective compensation model also ensures that everyone is on a level playing field. There is never a situation where one partner makes more than another because the second took a year off to take care of his or her children. Lawyers can come here and make as much or as little as they want, depending on how hungry they are. Our top ten earners change every year, and half of them are usually women. In fact, last year, our female attorneys made 4% more than our male attorneys on average. Next year, this could look completely different, because the clock resets every year.
ZERØ: It sounds like Culhane Meadows is able to leverage diversity as a competitive advantage by being able to recruit people who feel marginalized within the framework of traditional law.
Heather: Absolutely. And it certainly has its marketing advantages. For example, we’re a member of an organization called NAMWOLF, which is the National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms. They’re a large trade organization with the specific goal to connect and support minority and women-owned firms, and to connect to them from a business development standpoint with Fortune-ranked clients. This helps us attract more business from clients who value diversity, as well as truly make a difference with respect to equality in the workplace.
Grant: And I do think there’s absolutely a competitive advantage. More and more Fortune 500 companies are bringing women into the top echelons of legal departments. Law firms increasingly need to respond to this, because clients are demanding the law firms step up in this respect as well. Companies in NAMWOLF’s network are saying that they will allocate a percentage of their legal spend to minority or women-owned law firms, and there are very few firms, especially close to our size, that can check this box. Our credentials and value proposition still come first, but we also provide clients with the ability to check the diversity box.
ZERØ: You’ve described somewhat of a utopia for the right kind of lawyer. So what advice would you give to a third- or fourth-year associate who wants to work at a firm like Culhane Meadows but doesn’t have the book or the level of experience that you’re looking for?
Heather: As a young attorney at a traditional firm, it’s critical to build strong client relationships. Clients no longer hire law firms, but individual attorneys. For an associate to understand that is hugely important, but it’s often not taught. Take the time to learn more about their business and develop the relationship. Another piece is to learn about business development and how to market yourself. Don’t just go to networking events, but actually keep in touch with the people you meet.
Another critical piece is to get a mentor. There is so much to be learned from some phenomenal attorneys at traditional law firms. And if you don’t have a mentor, ask for one! If your firm doesn’t have a mentoring program, see if you can start one at your firm, because it makes such a difference. And it doesn’t have to be a big investment of time for either the mentor or the mentee.
But to turn the question on its head: what can firms do to retain younger associates who are dissatisfied with traditional law firm life? Providing flexibility is critical to retaining millennials. Never before have we need a generation that values work/life balance as much as they do, and firms need to help them find ways to do that.
But technology is also a big piece, as we discussed earlier. Millennials need true mobility. For example, a few months ago, I was interviewing a millennial through Microsoft Teams. The interview was going really well, but I had to get into the car to go into another meeting. I was able to switch seamlessly from my computer to my phone and continue the conversation from the road. He was really impressed that I was able to transition seamlessly from my computer to my phone. These are the pieces of technology that millennials and younger associates want now and are going to demand to see in the future.
The last piece is to help millennials feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves and that their contributions matter. This involves making sure that their voices are heard, soliciting feedback and then either doing something with it or explaining why you’re not doing something with it.
ZERØ: I can definitely relate to the technology piece. We have a blog series called The Lives of Lawyers, which features stories from lawyers around the world. One of our contributors, in particular, had a horrible experience with a firm that had no document management system. As a litigator, she would have to travel to and from the office to ensure that her documents and correspondence could be filed. With technology like ZERØ, she could have seamlessly filed those documents within seconds.
Heather: To this writer’s point, I think so many traditional firms are scared that remote access, cloud-based technology compromises security. But that’s simply not true. Law firms need to make the effort to understand the technology landscape and hire the right experts to manage their data security. Hopefully, what we’re experiencing now will make people realize that working remotely is possible, and it’ll be even more efficient with the right technology in place.
ZERØ: What is your vision, more broadly, for the future of law firms?
Grant: What we’re going through right now is “The Great Awakening” within the practice of law. This is a very unique moment in time for the legal professional because we’re seeing so many lawyers who thought that they needed an office now realize that they don’t, and that they can actually be more productive from home.
This forced experiment will have lasting ramifications. Mobility will be key, and this great awakening will force more workplace flexibility. Many law firms will also realize that they don’t need the trappings that they had spent so much money on. Clients will be scrutinizing their legal spend more closely and see that much of their legal spend is going towards Class A real estate that law firms don’t even need.
Many millennials are also rejecting the idea that this is the way that things have always been done. The next generation of lawyers will force some of these changes, but they’re not looking for beanbag chairs and ping pong tables. What they want is flexibility, transparency, and to feel like a part of something bigger. For us, this is where the future of law if going. And our firm is uniquely positioned to attract those millennial lawyers who haven’t found satisfaction within traditional law.
In addition, there will be a technological revolution. AI, including what ZERØ offers, will accelerate the technological advancement by a decade, because people are suddenly experiencing what it’s like to leverage technology and have real flexibility. So, in short, the ways in which we’re seeing law being practiced now is the future of law.