Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Kim Verska. Kim graduated from Harvard Law School in 1995 and practices in Atlanta in the area of technology and privacy law. She is one of the five managing partners and owners of Culhane Meadows, PLLC, the largest full-service women-owned law firm in the US.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Inlaw school and during my training as a lawyer, I never envisioned myself as part of the management team of a large law firm, much less as a part of one on the leading edge of a wave of disruption in the legal services industry. But after I had my second child the large firm that I worked for indicated that my part-time arrangement had gone on longer than their policy permitted, giving me a choice of returning to a full-time schedule or leaving. I wound up joining forces with someone from law school who had formed an “ultra-low overhead” firm, and together we grew that firm from 4 attorneys to well over 50. It turned out that I loved the challenges of managing a rapid-growth, disruptive firm and was good at selling our services. Almost 15 years later, I’m thrilled to still be on this path.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
While I’ve been at Culhane Meadows since its inception in 2013, I think the most interesting time was around the end of 2015, when there was an initiative afoot for us to become a women-owned law firm. As anyone who has been through the minority-owned contractor certification process knows, it is something that is taken very seriously by the certification authorities. In our case, since I wasn’t part of the founding group, which was half women already, I faced the question of whether to buy into the equity of the firm, which had appreciated substantially since the firm’s founding. For me, writing such a substantial check was more a testament to my desiring to remain in law practice for the foreseeable future, since there is no question that if I want to practice law, I want to stay at Culhane Meadows. We’ve since become the only full-service, nationwide women-owned law firm.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I originally struggled with confidence issues in selling my credentials and experience to clients. Shortly after leaving the large law firm I worked for, for a more innovative “new model” law firm, I networked and got a lunch with the general counsel of a major auto manufacturer’s North America group. Hoping to bolster my chances, I brought along another partner, a man who had no issues with confidence (to put it mildly). At the end of the lunch, the general counsel wound up saying in front of all assembled that she was happy to give us the business — as long as she worked with me and not him. Lesson learned: bring a wingman for substance if you want, but I do just fine selling my abilities on my own!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The primary way our company stands out in the legal services market is by providing services equivalent in quality for a much better value than the “white shoe” law firms that we commonly are up against.
For example, one of my clients was replacing their CEO, and they turned to us for the employment work on their side. My client was also responsible for the personal legal fees for the new CEO, who had hired a large traditional firm. My team wound up doing most of the drafting, yet our bill was 1/5 of the traditional law firm’s bill. My client, the company’s general counsel, laughed with me saying, “Their bill looks like they dragged this project up and down the hallway, letting everyone in their employment group have a shot at it.”
It’s these stories about traditional law firms — and almost every client has one — that makes it so easy to get a meeting once you explain that you have a different value proposition with equivalent quality.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We’re currently working to expand into some new markets. We have attorneys in six major cities now and are adding a seventh (Boston). I realize it may sound like the usual PR hype, but I really believe that bringing this legal practice model to more people makes the world a better place. It can be brutal balancing the demands of a sophisticated law practice with family life and other commitments, and because our model eliminates the vast majority of the overhead of traditional law firms, our attorneys are able to take home far more money for the time they work. We pass the savings along to the lawyer and the client, resulting in greater satisfaction for both. What’s lost? Class A office space, marble lobbies, and oil paintings on the wall! Sounds like a good trade.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
This question doesn’t ask how to help the female leader herself thrive, but I’ll provide advice that applies in both cases. I’m a big fan of Shaunti Feldhahn’s book The Male Factor about men and women in the workplace, which was based on a large survey of working professionals. She found that some women sought to assume a different persona (more aggressive and/or outspoken) once placed in a leadership role, but this usually struck others — both men and women — as off-putting and fake. Feldhahn says that the better approach is to “be yourself” as you navigate your leadership role and bring your native skills to bear on reaching your goals.
Of course, the best leaders also listen to their team members and seek out ways to help the team members reach their own goals. It’s amazing how few bosses I’ve had who devote effort to this, but if you make it a priority, you’ll foster a team willing to go the extra mile for the company.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
There are a few things that I think keep everyone on track. The best way to start is to establish collaborative goals from the outset. If that isn’t possible, the leader should strive to make clear the advantages or disadvantages (collective and/or individual) that will flow from the project’s success or failure. I even had one manager who kept a printout listing these outcomes handy at meetings in case she heard anyone question the goals of the project!
Beyond that, not only establishing, but calendaring (with group calendar invites!) timelines for the accomplishment of various tasks goes a long way towards disincentivizing slacking off.
Lastly, the team should include a wide array of skill sets and personality types appropriate to the task at hand. I’ve found that team members function best when they’re allowed to volunteer for specific tasks instead of having them assigned in micro-managing fashion. This allows the team to function more like a natural ecosystem as it works towards achieving goals and timelines established at the outset.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m thankful to one of my former bosses at the large law firm, Johan Droogmans. Johan died tragically in a car accident before I left the firm, but he was a tremendous manager who saw the potential in each one of us and worked to develop it. I remember how he took me out to lunch and told me that I needed to figure out who I wanted to be at the firm, and that he would help me to accomplish that.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
There’s nothing more empowering to me than helping to realize a legal model that lets attorneys thrive in their practices and also balance other priorities in their lives; whether that’s family, charity work or anything else that’s important to them. Due to our low overhead model, we have no billable requirements and no “face time” requirements — each of us answers essentially to our clients and their needs. For me and many others, the absence of billable requirements is like shedding a tremendous weight that I’d been carrying and worrying about for so many years.
What’s more, many of our lawyers live on the beach or travel extensively, and we support these choices as long as they remain in communication with us and their clients. It’s a great feeling enabling people to live their dreams.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why.
- Intuition can be wrong.
Give me a personality test, and I will come out as a person who intuits more than reasons her way through big decisions. Yet, at least twice in my life I’ve overridden my more emotional side and found myself having made the right decision. The best example was the time when I decided to make a lateral move to another large law firm, where the practice area and personalities were very attractive, but the firm itself had a reputation as a bit of a sweatshop. I had no way of knowing which would be the more decisive factor in my life once I was there, and just had “a bad feeling” I could not justify with reason. I made the leap anyway, and once I joined, I found myself very happy and stayed for another six years. This taught me that sometimes my intuition can just be wrong, and where reason leads to a strong conclusion (after doing my homework), I can in fact trust the other side of my brain.
- Don’t dwell on the past.
This is to say, have a forgiving attitude when it comes to “shoulda woulda coulda” situations from the past, both in terms of your own actions and those of others. I’ve lived and practiced law in Atlanta for more than 20 years now, and, in my low moods, driving around town can become a tour of all the clients I could have had if I had simply followed through on this, that or another lead. However, this is not a healthy frame of mind, so I prefer to focus on the practice and firm that I’ve built and the great clients that I do have.
Similarly, it’s best not to devote emotional bandwidth to the slights of others — though it’s perfectly all right to outcompete them!
- Solve for fit on the front end.
No matter what the numbers look like, if you think a new hire at your company will result in a culture clash, do not add that person. We had the opportunity to bring in a very lucrative partner some years ago, but in preliminary discussions it emerged that he thought his country club connections should let him take credit for a new client even if someone else had done the work to sign that client. We did not add him to the firm.
- Humans like stories.
After almost fifteen years at non-traditional law firm, I’ve learned that persuasion and selling can best be done through stories. It’s probably because business people get to hear a lot of different ideas all the time, but stories stay with you.
So, for example, which one is better if I tell you that: (1) our law firm fosters an environment where attorneys are happy to pitch in to help their fellow partners even where they generally have a full workload, or (2) when one of our partners sent out an urgent request for help on a document review project, 45 of their co-workers raised their hands to volunteer, despite all of them having full work-loads?
This is a true story, and it works within our model because we look for attorneys who take a collaborative approach and, because they’re able to make the same amount of money as they would at a traditional firm for far fewer hours, they have the time to help each other.
- Have a “ledge person” who is not your spouse or work colleague.
“Help, I’m on the ledge again!” Every leader (in fact, every professional, in my opinion) should find another similarly situated person to be the one they call in times of trouble when they find themselves ‘on the ledge’. So often we cannot see the obvious because it involves our own lives, but if you have a reliable person who knows you well and understands your context, they’ll give you the real picture rather quickly.
(While I do think it’s best to have a person who is neither your spouse/partner nor a work colleague, I will say that my husband’s advice overlaps with my ledge person’s almost continually. And he’s not even a lawyer!)
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
In that case, could we collectively please dial back the sniping at some of our greatest innovators? Take Elon Musk: here is a man whose major goal is to transform the Earth’s energy usage to a more sustainable footing, and he can’t get a break in terms of the negativity of most of his press coverage. Where are the stories reporting that in the space of a year, he created a car that is currently outselling both the Germans and the Japanese in terms of the premium vehicle market? Sure, he has quirks, but the man has already disrupted the auto and space industries with products no one thought he could bring to market. Instead of constantly criticizing innovators, we should ask what lessons can be learned from people with such can-do spirit.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I think I may have more self-doubt than most people. But I may be wrong about that.” 😊
As noted in some of my answers above, “imposter syndrome” is something I’ve struggled with over my career. I still remember being a fourth year associate and having to take an urgent client request for advice when my boss wasn’t available. I stepped into the breach that day and became a lawyer in my own right, answering those tricky questions myself.
Almost 20 years later, I still sometimes wish I had a boss-figure to sweep in and be the authority when I’m in a quandary. But the more experience I get, the more I notice how often I encounter so-called authority figures who seem to have tremendous gaps of knowledge in areas that I have a background in. When that happens I remind myself that I’ve got this, do my homework and keep on rolling.
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