Smith + Malek attorneys was founded eight years ago as a force for justice in the world. We live that vision everyday, as demonstrated by the work we take on, the clients and employees we attract, and how we have intentionally designed an equitable workplace that recruits and retains brilliant minds.
Building an equitable workplace that prioritizes employees’ stability and well-being can be a challenge for any business, but there are obstacles particular to law firms including power imbalances, balancing profitability with employee well-being and building a team-based work culture wherein trust and communication are prevalent.
To introduce more equitable practices that help support all team members at Smith + Malek, we eliminated the partner track, introduced a profit-sharing model, eliminated origination bonuses, implemented benefits that support parents and actively prevent harassment and discrimination in our workplace. Here are four key areas that helped us increase equity at Smith + Malek.
1) The Trouble with a Partner Track
The traditional partnership structure in which senior lawyers are promoted to partner after a set number of years disproportionally hurts parents and female attorneys. To be awarded partnership, attorneys must meet certain revenue and billable hour goals, even if that means working late. Women, who are typically more responsible for household chores, are not able to work these long hours while men – especially men without children – often can. That’s why only 23% of equity partners in the U.S. are women and a dismal 9% are women of color. Importantly, this isn’t for a lack of interest from women to join the law profession. Women have accounted for at least 40% of law students in the U.S. for decades; in 2021, it was more than half.
We believe a partner track comes at the cost of a law firm’s stability and well-being. Placing a premium on productivity in order to achieve partnership can lead to a competitive culture of overwork, in turn making it difficult for employees to take breaks or prioritize their personal lives because they are trying to meet revenue targets. Meanwhile, support staff, the majority of whom are women, receive lower pay because they do not have access to the same level of promotions and raises.
2) Consider Introducing a Profit-Sharing Model
Instead of the partner track, Smith + Malek has opted for a profit-sharing model available to all attorneys. In this model, attorneys are encouraged to collaborate with one another to deliver efficient, yet high-quality work. In fact, when determining bonuses, one of our evaluation criteria is attorneys’ willingness to collaborate, share information and empower others.
We also eliminated origination fees, which awards attorneys for bringing in new business but also increases working hours and encourages work hoarding, often to the point of burnout and to the detriment of the client. This eliminates internal competition among attorneys and encourages collaboration. It also helps our clients receive the best possible service by matching them up with the attorneys that best fit their needs.
3) Institute Family-Friendly Benefits
Many parents, particularly women, who left a law firm in 2021 left the profession entirely. This is disappointing, but not surprising considering that 43% of highly qualified working women quit their jobs after having children. The American Bar Association cites pay disparities, not receiving proper credit and lack of flexibility as the main reasons why women leave the profession. While all three of these issues can be at least partially solved by doing away with the partner track, family-friendly benefits help fill in the gaps.
In Idaho, the minimum parental leave is eight weeks. For many parents, this isn’t enough time to celebrate their new family member and to recover before returning to work. Smith + Malek offers 16 weeks of paid parental leave for all new parents in our firm, whether they are attorneys or staff members, including parents of adopted children. Parents can also bring their children to work as needed with our flexible bring-your-baby-to-work policy, and can choose to work in-person or remotely to better accommodate their situation.
4) Take Action Against Harassment and Discrimination
Sadly, harassment and discrimination are still prevalent at many firms. One study found that 54% of women and 39% of men said they had witnessed sexual harassment in their workplace. In Idaho, half of female attorneys report being sexually harassed and 75% report being discriminated against during their career.
We believe that the partner track, which in effect causes discriminatory and disparate treatment of women and parents, is destructive and promotes toxicity in the legal field. It’s high time to create a new standard. Our team has not only instituted policies to prevent harassment and discrimination but is involved in several organizations to advance and amplify these issues in the legal field. The result of our family-friendly benefits and stance on harassment and discrimination is evident in our hallways; the majority of our practice leads are female, and many have young children.
The women and working parents on our team inspire us to continue making changes in our firm and in the legal profession as a whole. We strive to make tomorrow better for our clients, attorneys, and communities. Introducing more ethical practices in the workplace is part of that mission. You can learn more about us at https://www.smithmalek.com/.
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Peter J. Smith is a founding attorney and co-owner at Smith + Malek. He practices in the areas of business, real estate, litigation and appeals. Peter has a wide breadth of experience and has argued cases before the Idaho Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Luke Malek is a founding attorney and co-owner at Smith + Malek. He practices in the areas of business, health care and municipal law, including transactions and litigation. He strives to make the world a better place in all he does.
Tara Malek is co-owner at Smith + Malek and leads the litigation team. Her career in public service began at the Kootenai County Prosecutor’s office where she rose from a misdemeanor prosecutor to a felony drug prosecutor.