Women Who Do: Litigation Partner on the Changing Future of BigLaw and How to Excel as an Associate
As a litigation partner in the country’s first national, full-service, cloud-based law firm, Donna Hoffman is on the forefront of the rapidly changing legal industry. Beyond its advanced technology, Donna’s firm is also recognized as a leader in BigLaw (and “NewLaw”) for transforming the way it does business. By removing associates, billing quotas, and providing attorneys with more control over their practice, the firm avoids traditional struggles to make partner faced by women and minorities at other BigLaw firms.
With experience as an attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, Ropes & Gray LLP, and Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP, Donna chatted with us about her diverse career path, how she views the future of BigLaw, and the advice she’d give herself as a first-year associate.
Q) You’ve had a diverse career path as an in-house counsel, freelance attorney, and in BigLaw. What advice would you give to a new attorney who’s deciding between practicing in-house, as a solo practitioner, or going the law firm route?
I suggest starting at a law firm where they can garner experience from senior associates and partners. Having colleagues and mentors is important in learning the practice of law. Corporations typically seek experienced attorneys for in-house positions and I think it would be difficult to begin as a solo practitioner-learning the practice, obtaining clients and handling the numerous aspects of successfully running a business.
Q) FisherBroyles, LLP is considered the first nationwide, full-service, cloud-based law firm in the United States. What does that mean?
The firm was launched in 2002. We presently have more than 200 attorneys across the United States. Our practice areas are many and diverse, thus we are full-service. We have eliminated fixed-cost real estate and associates which are two of the most significant costs of traditional law firms. All of our attorneys have a minimum of seven years’ experience with large firms or in-house positions. Our seasoned attorneys use technology to work more efficiently and remotely thereby allowing them to pass cost savings on to our clients. Our Law Firm 2.0® model has no billing quotas and allows attorneys to set their own billing rates.
Q) How do you foresee this law firm model growing in the BigLaw market within the next 5-10 years?
The cloud-based law firm business model, also known as NewLaw, has already matured enough to have spinoffs. I expect that the model will grow rapidly within the next 5-10 years because of advances in technology and the increased acceptance of and satisfaction with the model by major corporate clients. As for FisherBroyles, we anticipate reaching AmLaw 200 ranking in 2018 and are actively seeking international expansion. Our co-founder, Kevin Broyles, has said that our NewLaw firm has already become a nationwide BigLaw firm. I anticipate that in the future there will be less of a distinction between NewLaw and BigLaw. But that may take many years.
Q) How do you think the legal industry needs to change going forward?
The legal industry has to be flexible and innovative. It must listen and respond quickly to clients’ concerns. Billing quotas, escalating legal fees and diversity are some areas that traditional law firms must address in order to stay competitive.
Q) Female partners in large law firms are still the minority. What was the biggest challenge to becoming partner, and what is it really like being a female partner in a large international law firm?
Although I never experienced being a partner at a traditional law firm, I can say that being a partner at FisherBroyles is dramatically different. All of our attorneys are partners which means there are no associates to train or oversee. Our compensation formula is non-discretionary and transparent. Partners are compensated for client generation, client management, work performed, collaboration and recruiting new partners. We set our own rates, have no billable quota pressure and have control over our practice. Being female did not pose a challenge to partnership at FisherBroyles. As we like to say: When you remove the walls, there is no ceiling-glass or otherwise. I find the firm environment to be extremely congenial and collaborative.
Q) What advice would you give to yourself as a first-year associate working in BigLaw?
Ask questions, seek opportunities to gain hands-on experience, create and grow relationships with peers and clients, and develop good habits such as promptly responding to clients and focus attention on detail.
Q) How important has mentorship been in your professional journey?
Very. I had a wonderful mentor when I first began my legal career who helped me learn the practical aspects of being a litigator at a large firm. I urge young attorneys to seek mentors and experienced attorneys to pay it forward by becoming a mentor.
Q) What is the most difficult part of your role as a law firm partner, and what advice would you give to other women to prepare for that?
Being a partner at FisherBroyles is dramatically different than BigLaw. Honestly, I haven’t experienced any difficulties in this role at this firm. For women seeking partnership in BigLaw, I think a woman partner as mentor would be extremely helpful in preparing for that role.
Q) BigLaw is notorious for poor work-life balance and stressful hourly billing pressures. How do you manage this, and how do you see the future of BigLaw changing in this respect (if at all)?
FisherBroyles allows me to have a great work-life balance because we don’t have billing quotas, we can work remotely from wherever we choose, we set our own rates for the most part, and we keep more of the revenue than what a typical BigLaw attorney keeps. I think BigLaw will have to change billing quotas and address work-life balance issues, perhaps by adopting some of NewLaw model approaches. I’m encouraged by the fact that these issues have been raised and discussed in many recent legal industry articles.
Q) What has been the biggest obstacle in your career, and how did you overcome that?
The biggest obstacle was finding a way to practice law while having a work-life balance. FisherBroyles has been the answer for me.