Female Disruptors: Kelly Rittenberry Culhane has shaken up the way to run a law firm without compromising life balance

“Subtract, don’t add.”Although I have always prided myself on my ability to ‘multitask,’ I think we all know that really means doing many things just “OK.” I was recently asked to serve as chair of a board that is near and dear to my heart. I ran the idea by my dear friend and co-founder, […]

“Subtract, don’t add.”Although I have always prided myself on my ability to ‘multitask,’ I think we all know that really means doing many things just “OK.” I was recently asked to serve as chair of a board that is near and dear to my heart. I ran the idea by my dear friend and co-founder, Jim Meadows, who, knowing that I already was way overcapacity, reminded me to: “Subtract, don’t add.” Sometimes you have to let an opportunity go to maintain control of your life and to keep your eye on the prize. When I get to a place where I’m overwhelmed or taking on too much, I simply say (out loud) “Subtract, don’t add.”

I had the pleasure to interview Kelly Rittenberry Culhane. ([email protected]) Kelly is a Founding Partner in Culhane Meadows , the largest, women-owned, national full service law firm in the United States.

Thank you so much for joining us! What is your backstory?

I grew up all over the country. My dad was working his way up from a mechanic to running line maintenance for a major airline — so you took every promotion or the next one didn’t come. It was like being a military brat — except there was no group of kids on base who formed your instant friend network. But, I was blessed with the greatest parents and an older brother — I had a great childhood! No doubt all the moving made me more resilient. We were transferred 8 times in 12 years, so my education was really disrupted; and, as an athlete, moving was more challenging than simply making new friends. With every move, I had to prove myself on the field, which became a bit tricky in high school. One of my three high schools didn’t even have a girls’ soccer team, so I tried out for (and made) the boys’ team. I vividly recall the coaches winking and saying ‘sure you can try out for the boys’ team.’ They were kind, but it was clear they were just humoring me. Their skepticism only drove me to play harder, and you can only imagine how popular I was with the boys who didn’t make the varsity soccer team that year. Within just a few practices, my teammates became some of my closest friends — such a great learning experience for me. When it was time for college, no NCAA college team came looking for me. So, I decided to walk-on at the University of Oklahoma. I was fortunate to play all four years. I think having to prove myself repeatedly (in the face of skepticism/rejection) is what drives me to always persist.

College was all about fun — graduate school is where the rubber met the road. I graduated from Marquette University Law School on a Friday and on Monday I started my legal career at a national law firm in Dallas. I had one goal in mind — working at a prestigious, national firm and making partner. By 32, I was almost there, but the year I was up for partner I became pregnant and I knew that I wanted to be like my mom (Eileen Culhane, aka ‘June Cleaver’ to all my friends) and raise my family. At the time, I was in the litigation department at Akin Gump — a great firm, but one at which you were either working 80–100hrs/week or you were on the mommy track. Many weekends I saw little kids running around the firm while their parents (i.e., my colleagues) tried to crank out work. There was no ‘virtual office’ or working from home. There was simply no way (as far as I could see) to maintain the demanding, sophisticated practice I had built, while being at home with my kids. Though I hoped that I’d once again get to practice at the highest level, I decided to embrace motherhood and turn the decision of ‘when’ to restart my career over to God. I was blessed with three kids in four years (my eldest son was sick and passed away), so returning to the practice of law was simply going to have to wait.

Why did you found your firm?

Once my kids started elementary school, I was asked to serve as the COO of a cloud-based law firm, and to build an office (for that firm) in a new market. Also, I was representing one of my former clients who called me about a year into my ‘retirement’ asking me to serve as their outside general counsel. The client work was part-time, and the COO/new market demands manageable, so, as long as I didn’t value a lot of sleep, this new career of mine was something I could handle while being at home with my kids. Law firm management was not in my original plan, but I found that I really enjoyed helping my partners build their books while working with the firm owners to grow the firm. I was happily married to my college sweetheart, raising our kids, and had a fulfilling career. Life was good …. until it wasn’t and I got hit with another ‘curve ball.’ In the space of one week, I found myself going through a divorce, trying to save a family business that was heading towards bankruptcy, and marginalized at a law firm where I had planned to stay for the rest of my years. I was told that if I thought I had a better way to run a firm, I should leave and open my own. So I did.

So, there I was, a soon-to-be-divorced single mother (on a part-time salary) who also just learned that my current law firm was in the rear-view mirror. I will forever be indebted to Culhane Meadows’ three other co-founders, Heather Haughian, Jim Meadows, and Grant Walsh, for their friendship, wisdom, and for believing that together we could start a new law firm and, in fact, build a better mousetrap!

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive

What is disruptive about the work we are doing at Culhane Meadows is the opportunity delivered to exceptionally talented attorneys seeking a level playing field that fairly — and transparently — compensates them andenables them to maintain a sophisticated book while enjoying a healthy work/life balance. I‘ve seen firsthand so many brilliant people, especially women, pushed aside or held back in their careers simply because they wanted to be present in their kids’ lives. All too often, the opportunity to attend an event at their kids’ school or take a full weekend off are ‘luxuries’ that lawyers with sophisticated practices simply don’t enjoy. I knew there was a large pool of talented attorneys who chose to leave Big Law — not because they weren’t great lawyers, but because they didn’t fit within the confines of conventional Big Law partnership culture. I also knew there were partners at Big Law who were ready for a life change. They’d spent their careers building prestigious books while compromising life balance. We, at Culhane Meadows, wanted to tap into this pool of talented lawyers to create a national law firm that truly disrupted the legal marketplace, professionally and personally, while changing the way legal services are provided. And we wanted to do it without forcing partners to sacrifice work/life balance. A win/win for clients and attorneys!

Our Core Values are collaboration, integrity, innovation, and transparency, and from the very beginning, we built Culhane Meadows from the human perspective. It is what we wanted for ourselves and what attracted each of our partners. We are committed to recruiting and retaining, regardless of gender, race, or creed, the best lawyers in the country. And our formula seems to be working. After only six years, we are the largest national, women-owned, full-service law firm in the U.S. We are a member of NAMWOLF and certified as a Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE). In a very short time, we have grown to more than 60 partners. 40% of our attorneys and 60% of our equity partners are women (more than three times the national average — a scary statistic given the fact that women make up almost half of all law school graduates). In 2017, Culhane Meadows’ top earner was a woman, as were four of the top ten earners. I’d say that what we are doing is pretty disruptive.

At Culhane Meadows, we‘ve proven that you don’t have to choose between being with your family/having a personal life and having a sophisticated law practice at a prestigious national firm. Our tagline? “Culhane Meadows, Big Law for the New Economy!”

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?

My mom and dad are my heroes. I always wanted to be as successful as my dad professionally, while emulating the way my mom was at home with us each day. My dad went from being a skinny kid, fresh out of Vietnam with no high school diploma or college education, to helping run a major airline. Lots of hard work and sacrifice! I watched as both my parents put their marriage and kids first, while supporting my dad’s career. I knew it could be done! My father somehow managed to be home for dinner while coaching us in sports, and my mom (who also coached me in soccer) held everything together through all of the moves and had dinner on the table every night. I have not reached their level of success, but I’ll keep trying!

In my career, I was very fortunate to work with many great lawyers, many of whom served as my role models. However, I would not be where I am today without the mentoring I received from David R. McAtee, Sr. Without a doubt, David (and his wife, Kay) helped raise me in my 20s, while I was pretty much living at the law firm, learning how to be a lawyer. At the beginning of my career, though serving as head of the litigation section, David patiently spent hours each day (literally hours) ‘grading’ my papers, teaching me how to practice law. His mentoring never stopped. Rather, as I acquired more and more experience, he transitioned into showing me how to grow a sophisticated practice. He gave me the opportunity to manage very high-level clients and a ‘bird’s eye view’ of him serving in management at a top, national firm. You learn a lot as a fly on the wall! I will always be indebted to him for the time and energy he put into my professional development.

How are you going to shake things up next?

We will continue to expand into new, strategic markets, and bring on partners in key jurisdictions who share our vision for a better way to practice law. Every day, we are approached by lawyers who have heard our story and are drawn to Culhane Meadows’ simplicity, flexibility, and transparency, as well as our generous compensation formula. However, since our founding, we have rejected growth just for growth’s sake (otherwise, we’d easily have twice as many lawyers on our roster in 10+ markets). Instead, our leadership team believes in smart and intentional growth and expansion when the right opportunity presents itself.

The market is recognizing what we’re doing and how we are shaking things up. Indeed, the world is changing — whether traditional brick and mortar firms are ready or not. Clients want high quality legal service providers at a fair price, they don’t want to pay high fees to subsidize their lawyer’s rent. We are incredibly proud of how far we’ve already come in just over five years of operations, and to be recognized as one of the Top 7 most innovative law firms in 2017 by

Can you share three of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1) “Subtract, don’t add.”Although I have always prided myself on my ability to ‘multitask,’ I think we all know that really means doing many things just “OK.” I was recently asked to serve as chair of a board that is near and dear to my heart. I ran the idea by my dear friend and co-founder, Jim Meadows, who, knowing that I already was way overcapacity, reminded me to: “Subtract, don’t add.” Sometimes you have to let an opportunity go to maintain control of your life and to keep your eye on the prize. When I get to a place where I’m overwhelmed or taking on too much, I simply say (out loud) “Subtract, don’t add.”

2) “When one door closes, maybe a window isn’t going to open ….so you need to kick the door back open.” I have had the door closed on a lot of my dreams, but I always kept on going and figured out a new way of getting through that closed door. The takeaway: Don’t sit around waiting for the window to open.

3) “No just means not yet.” My mom always says that when I wanted something, I never heard ‘no’ as a kid. I just heard ‘not yet.’ Still do!

What book/podcast/talk has had a deep effect on your thinking? Share a story with us.

I read books for fun and as a mind release. I don’t do podcasts and sadly I find no enjoyment in self-help/coaching books — but I love travel blogs! I’m passionate about traveling — when my kids are with their father, I go to the airport, look up at the departures board, and pick a place and just go. I am fortunate to have flight privileges that permit me to be spontaneous and I can work from anywhere. If you haven’t worked inside an American Express Centurion Lounge in between flights, you are missing out big time! For me, travel isn’t about drinks on the beach at sunset (although that’s nice too!), but the chance to meet people, hear their stories, speak their language (or at least try), and experience new things. Duolingo has become my BFF!

Some of the biggest names in business, vc funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the us whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. : )

The Pope, because I really just want to ride in the Popemobile!

As a cradle catholic, I would like to speak with Pope Francis. How did he go from a janitor, to a bouncer, to Pope (yes, there were a few stops in between)? I’d also like to ask him how he plans to fix the Church — for good this time. Though he has faced much scrutiny over the sins of the Catholic Church, it doesn’t take away from the fact that he has worked tirelessly to change the lives of those living in permanent poverty, while negotiating peace talks and pioneering interfaith dialogue. Personally, I appreciate his commitment to admitting divorced and remarried Catholics back to the faith. He chose to live in a guest house and not the Papal palace — that alone could be the topic of an entire lunch!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

LinkedIn is my only public social media account. The rest I use to track my kids (and show pictures of my rescue animals!)

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