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Talented people look for meaning in their careers

Jennifer Selendy, Selendy & Gay’s co-managing partner, speaks with Helen Donegan about the firm’s recent successes, creating a culture of excellence, and the challenges facing women in the legal profession

In recognition of the firm’s two-year anniversary, can you start by telling us about the key successes for Selendy & Gay to date?

We set out to build something different and something that could drive excellence and a collaborative, client-centred service. So, the quality of the practice we’ve built over these past few years is one of the things I am most proud of.

We are leading some of the most interesting cases out there for important clients, and we have had a string of incredible victories in our first two years. Right alongside that success is the calibre of people we have been able to attract – associates from the top law schools and many of them having come from extraordinary clerkships. We’ve had a resoundingly positive response from the talent pool and have a phenomenal cadre of associates working with us.

Looking forward, what are your plans for the firm? You have said before that you do not plan to expand outside of New York – has this changed?

It has not. It is a core principle on which we built the firm; having a single office culture where everyone knows each other and where we can leverage relationships with each other effectively for our clients. We work all over the country so being based in New York doesn’t limit our ability to do the most interesting litigation nationally or even internationally.

Having a single office is also a main component of our quality control. It becomes hard not to compromise on quality when you are so big and far flung that you don’t know your partners and all the people you are working with. You don’t have the sense, like we do here, as to who exactly is right to represent each client. Scale can undermine the quality you bring to any client problem.

So, in addition to maintaining the single office culture and the focus on quality of service, do you have other plans?

We have developed a strategic plan that focuses on continued, disciplined growth. We can imagine being 100, 120, or maybe even 150 partners and associates. The magic number is really about that connectivity, so we are continuing to grow with demand for our services, but it will be a measured expansion and one that avoids a scale that brings anonymity.

You and your colleagues have ‘reworked operations’at Selendy & Gay and have said you focus on professionals in HR, marketing, IT and other areas. Can you expand on what you mean by this?

As we looked at the structure of law firms, we felt they were quite behind other professions in terms of innovation. Law firms, especially the large ones, can be encumbered by legacy structures and legacy approaches. We believe lawyers are best suited to lawyering, and if they were meant to be running businesses then that is probably what they would have done with their careers. Our idea was to partner with experienced business professionals and turn over more of the operational business leadership of the firm to them.

“I see subtle biases around whether or not they are truly committed to a firm, especially after they start families”

We rely on our chief operating officer, chief marketing officer, chief technology officer, and other c-suite partners to guide us, which frees up more of the managing partners’time specifically (but also the partnership in general) to focus on lawyering and client service. I don’t put a committee of lawyers on the task of managing our c-suite. We empower them to run the office and the financial and operational aspects of the law firm.

Looking more closely at your role, what are your main areas of focus as co-managing partner and how do you balance client needs with managing partner obligations?

Historically, I admit, I had often thought of co-leadership as a sign of weakness in an organisation. But David Elsberg and I as co-managing partners are aligned on the goals and values of the firm. Our focus is on creating conditions for excellence. Every firm wants to be perceived as being the highest calibre, but I find that aspiration is futile without thinking long and hard about what the conditions are in which people can deliver their best performance.

We are focused on our lawyers and the other professionals at our firm in that sense. We think about how we can foster conditions of excellence, and it is about training and empowerment within fields of expertise. It’s about setting high standards and very clear goals, and then using data-driven analytics to measure outcomes – we try to take lessons from other industries in this latter sense.

David and I tag team when one of us is going to trial, but the real key is that I can spend the vast majority of my time on client service because of the calibre of talent we have in finance, operations, marketing, technology, and HR.

Can you tell me a bit more about how you establish the desired culture within a new firm, and then maintain it?

I spent many years at Kirkland & Ellis, which is a firm that is extremely successful, and my mentor was one of the founders of its New York office. I got some really good advice from him, including that organisational culture is defined in the first three to six months, and you’ve got to focus on that.

From the get-go, David and I worked to empower people from all areas of the firm to come to us if we were not living up to our stated mission and goals, and to let us know if they felt any gaps existed between the values we articulated and what’s happening in practice.

As a mission-driven culture, we can be successful and profitable by doing the kinds of cases we want at a very high level. We can set out our aspirations and values, but you still have to be open – and open to hearing where you’re falling short. Associates report regularly to us on what they’re experiencing in terms of the delivery of services to them through operations, technology, litigation support, and right through to the kinds of work we’re taking on. We communicate with them on a regular basis and have frequent town hall meetings where we allow anonymous feedback and questions in advance. We’re trying to make it clear that we mean what we say but we’re not perfect and really want to hear feedback, especially David and I as managing partners.

How would you define the differences between Selendy & Gay and your Big Law competitors, and what has been the biggest difference for you personally?

Again, I think back to conditions of excellence where people can perform at their best. We think about the law with a lot of reverence. We take pride in our ability to take a stand on the issues we care about – whether it’s climate change or anti-competitive practices or anything else. We stand up for what we believe in in a way other big law firms cannot, in part because of their diversified practices and interests. With a focus on litigation only, we don’t have a corporate practice, for example, so we can champion cases and causes without those conflicts.

The most talented people nowadays are looking for meaning in their career and in their lives. They care about what they’re doing and the impact it has for good. The rise and influence of legal journalism has contributed, in part, to a drive for firms to have the highest profit per partner and to publish that data. The problem is not in wanting to be the most profitable – because we’re no different than any other firm in that regard – but there has been an injection of bad elements into the competition, not only for clients, but also for the profession. We don’t publish our profits. We don’t want to compete for talent that way, by letting people know that if they come to us they’re going to make the most money. We want people coming in for the right reasons. They see our commercial success and the quality of our practice, but we don’t want money to be the primary factor.

The other thing is, if you want a collaborative partnership and firm overall, you have to put client service ahead of origination credit. To compete for talent, many firms have stepped away from lockstep compensation, which can generate unnecessary competitiveness and disincentivises collaboration. For me, it has been transformative to staff matters according to who’s the best person to work on the case for the client, without regard to how it’s going to affect compensation. It’s another example of our commitment to client service.

Prior to founding Selendy & Gay, what were the biggest challenges for you as a woman in the legal profession?

I think of the women who came before me and I feel tremendously lucky that I didn’t have to deal with the same issues they experienced in terms of being hired, recognised, or promoted as a woman. I certainly acknowledge that I stood on the shoulders of wonderful, talented women who didn’t get to move into the ranks of partnership.

Nevertheless, I think there are still far more biases against women in the profession, and they come from unexpected places. I have worked at top-notch firms like Cravath, Kirkland, and Quinn Emanuel, and I don’t mean to impugn them in any way, but a lot of big firms have not managed to crack what it is that drives women out of the profession. I’ve heard a lot over the years about self-selection and women being more committed to their families. I believe that is a red herring because both men and women can and do come to the conclusion that, for very good reasons, Big Law is not the right place for them. And I think it’s a success, not a failure, if you figure out that you want to use your law degree for something else.

But, fundamentally for women, I see subtle biases around whether or not they are truly committed to a firm, especially after they start families. If they had children, the question was asked whether they were really in it for the long haul and could be trusted with the firm’s most important client relationships, and even whether they need the money. At times in my own compensation discussions people would say things like ‘you don’t need the money’. People actually said that to me despite decades of service and commitment to clients. I felt that no matter how hard I worked, how much dedication I showed, or how much success I had, only the people who were closest to me trusted my commitment to being a partner in a law firm and helping that firm to succeed over the long term.

Those are very subtle things, but they came up again and again. There were also pigeon-holing efforts, I felt, to have me focus on clients that had female heads of litigation. As if every female GC makes their selection based on gender. Very, very often they do not. I was also asked to play roles within the firm that were stereotypically female. Those were challenges and at times, they could really be demoralising. But I never lost focus on how much I love being a trial lawyer, the work, and client service. That ultimately meant I got to take advantage of practising with some of the greatest male trial attorneys and I got incredible experience. I didn’t ever have female mentors, but I did work with great trial lawyers.

Do you think things are changing now within the profession in terms of those subtle biases or is it a problem that persists?

When I was in Big Law, I felt there wasn’t enough pressure from the outside world – from the revenue sources – against that subtle discrimination against women. Even when I graduated from law school in the mid-90s my class was equally distributed between men and women. But I don’t see that there are the mechanisms for foundational changes because law firms are still almost entirely run by men. They don’t experience the subtle things that can be so dispiriting for women. Like when you know that you’re working harder or you’re making all kinds of sacrifices at home and with your family in order to be available in a demanding client service business and then it still doesn’t seem to be enough. I haven’t seen the conditions for real change in Big Law.

However, I would call out the male partners within law firms who do make a tremendous difference for the women they mentor and train. But it’s the luck of the draw. You can find the mentor who really allows you to achieve, and to get the experience and exposure you need. I don’t want to discount that, but it’s not systemic.

Looking at Selendy & Gay, what differences do you think exist as a result of having a women-owned and female majority firm?

You have to start by understanding that we never set out to have a female majority firm, only to choose the lawyers we most wanted to practice with in a new firm. We came together as a group of lawyers that wanted a new type of firm and it was a meritocratic endeavour. As it turns out, we have more than half women. The men who are part of this firm grew up working shoulder to shoulder with female lawyers as their equals. They mentor female lawyers as well as male lawyers, and that is the condition for a meritocracy.

It’s just different here. It’s the diversity lesson generally. If you look at some of the studies that have been done about boards where real diversity has been achieved, whether it’s gender diversity or otherwise, those boards perform better. And I think we all believe that to be the case when you bring in diversity and diversity of experience. When you look at things through a gender lens, through an LGBTQ+ lens, or through a minority lawyer lens, you’re going to learn something. And the way to do it is by trying to build that diversity within your practice.

For women specifically, when you are growing up, your parents tell you that you can be anything you want and that you could even be President of the United States. And when you’re a little girl in this country, and you look at all the presidents to date, you think ‘really’? So, I also place great value on having young women lawyers grow up in a firm where they have female role models. You look at all the women partners in our firm who’ve become partners in Big Law, but not by doing it the same way in terms of how we strike a work-life balance and how we develop client relationships. It’s not just that there’s one woman, there’s a group of women who did it in different ways, who made their profession a priority in their life and balanced that with other things that were also priorities.

A young woman at our firm can see multiple female role models and I think that is very empowering in keeping women in the profession. Years ago, I was involved in founding the Women’s Leadership Initiative at Kirkland and we started doing exit interviews with female associates who were leaving. I remember one associate saying there were two women partners in her entire department and she couldn’t see herself as either one, they were just so different. It was impactful to me that even when there were women leaders in the department, when there’s just one or two it still might not feel like you have a role model.

To finish, what advantages do you think working with Selendy & Gay has for clients?

If we achieve our goals of creating the conditions for consistent excellence in the delivery of client services, we’re going to keep up the trend we’ve had of securing a great number of trial wins, motion wins, and settlements. It’s about being known for getting results. That’s true for us because we can take a case all the way to trial, win on appeal, and win at summary judgment because we bring the right resources to bear for our clients regardless of whose client relationship it is.

I, for the first time in my entire career, at Selendy & Gay can say there are cases that I brought in where the client and the relationships were mine, where I did not bill more than an hour or two getting the case set up and introducing my other partners. I never have to worry about getting compensation credit for that. I can give the case to the partner who has the right experience to run it.

Clients know what they’re getting from us. We think about cases in a way that is always focused on their end game, whether they want to go to trial or not. We know what it is to get a case and see it all the way through trial. We have incredible courtroom experience and the way we move cases along maximises the chance to win on summary judgment or to get a settlement, and we put together powerful trial teams. So I think that is a big differentiator. A lot of times, litigation departments in Big Law will have one or two big name trial lawyers and not every litigator working on the case really understands how to get a case to trial, and to drive it forward towards that.

I also think our experiences on both the plaintiff’s side and the defence side gives us a lot of perspective that is valuable for our clients. They appreciate that if we are defending them, we can anticipate the moves of our adversaries because we’ve been on the plaintiff side of similar cases. On the flip side, we know how defence lawyers act and tend to think in certain circumstances.

The proof is in the pudding. We have many instances where clients have come and placed their trust in us on absolutely critical matters. We respect that tremendously, and the calibre of our practice allows us to excel in those complex cases. That is and ties back to your first question about our key success.

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