Case Study: Reno & Cavanaugh Redefines the Law Firm Work Culture

by Mark Harbeke - Date: 2007-01-03 - Word Count: 803 Share This!

When most people think of a law firm, they do not think of a workplace with a great deal of flexibility built in for its attorneys, paralegals and support staff. In fact, most people, including those in the industry, picture a work/life balance that tips heavily toward the "work" side, with billable hours being the primary goal.

Yet, most law firms are not Reno & Cavanaugh, PLLC. In recent years the 30-year-old Washington, DC-based firm, which focuses on housing and community development law, has worked to translate the concept of flexible scheduling from a conceivable practice to a readily used, highly visible one. For instance, Paralegal Barbara Walder, who will celebrate her eleventh anniversary with the firm next month, is able to determine what time she arrives and leaves each day as long as her allocated hours are completed. "Where I live, we don't have a true bus schedule," she says. "So during daylight savings time I'm able to change my hours to suit my bus schedule in order for me to get home at a reasonable hour."

Managing Member Megan Glasheen, named a 2006 Best Boss by Winning Workplaces, deserves much of the credit for Reno & Cavanaugh's transition to a flexible work culture. Seven years ago, when her daughter, Simone, was born, Glasheen experienced firsthand the challenge of balancing work and personal life. Realizing that her struggle was not unique, she worked with her partners and staff to increase flexibility without sacrificing quality. "There's a real effort for everybody to be treated equally, to be listened to and respected and to be engaged in the office, and that makes a big difference," says Jaime Lee, a four-year veteran of the firm who became a partner this month.

Glasheen is excited about Lee's promotion, both in terms of how it will affect Lee's career and how it helps the firm retain good talent - a danger area right now in the practice of law. "People are leaving law firms in droves," Glasheen says. "I think the takeaway from what we're doing is that you can have a good work environment and still be a profitable business, and that it makes sense for the bottom line because it retains people."

What else is the firm doing to help its workers succeed? For one, it features a changing roster of operational decision-making committees which are each staffed with employees at all levels, from administrative support staff to senior partners. Martin Walsh, an associate and three-year veteran of Reno & Cavanaugh, is on the steering committee this year and was on several committees last year. "I think it's valuable to have the committees in place to allow ideas to flow freely between staff, attorneys and partners, and to then allow the decision makers to make the most well-informed decision," he says.

Reno & Cavanaugh also uses upward feedback surveys - an uncommon measure, especially among law firms. As is the case with many best practices, top-down support was necessary for these surveys to be effective. In other words, the firm's partners needed to be able to accept feedback from the staff that supports them. Luckily, Glasheen says, that wasn't a problem. "I'm blessed with incredible partners, and we're all on the same page in terms of having an inclusive workplace and recognizing that we all collectively have things that we need to work on," she says.

Lee finds the surveys, which include a personalized annual goals document, somewhat time consuming but ultimately useful, especially in terms of seeing why goals are unmet or dropped over the course of a year and evaluating their feasibility in moving forward. She also thinks upward feedback surveys can become more helpful the longer an employee is with the firm. "When you've been at a place for a while, you can lose sight of how your decisions trickle down to everyone else, so it's good to have that check in place," she says.

Beyond the measures that Reno & Cavanaugh has in place to foster happy, productive employees, Leighton believes that the firm's mission to choose to practice types of law that other firms might shy away from - including community development block grants, low-income housing tax credit programs and moving-to-work issues - ensures that the right people get on board with the right focus. "It's funny - unlike other law firms, where they might be asking, 'How can we squeeze more dollars out of this particular contract?' we sit around talking about how we can save the client money," he says.

Lee, the firm's newest partner, wouldn't have it any other way. As part of a group of employees that Reno & Cavanaugh hired just before it underwent a growth spurt, she said she and her colleagues have enjoyed watching it grow while the leadership has found new ways to respect workers' needs. "I get lots of calls from recruiters, but I've never thought of leaving," she says.

Related Tags: management, associate, law, practice, partner, flexibility, paralegal, law firm, washington dc, work culture


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