Finding the Balance
|by Kim Epp Frenette, December 2012|
Mera Kutrovac, a smart and highly ambitious young attorney from the South Hills, received a surprising warning when she applied for a position at the regional law firm Steptoe & Johnson PLLC.
“If family is not the most important thing to you, this probably isn’t the right place for you to work.”
This is not what most companies, particularly in the highly competitive legal arena, say to new employees. It is fashionable these days to pay lip-service to work/life balance, but not all companies follow through. According to those who work there, Steptoe & Johnson has made it integral to their corporate culture and key in their ongoing growth and success.
“Family has always been important to me,” says Kutrovac, who started with S&J in 2008 shortly after graduating from law school, “and I’ve never once had to miss a family event while at the firm. Everyone I work with is always understanding…. we cover for each other when we need to get away, because for everyone else here, family also comes first.” That attitude has become even more important for Mera since she became a mom in March of this year. Now she works from home one day a week to be a closer to her young son.
For attorney Robin Levine Stoller, who like Kutrovac works out of Steptoe’s Southpointe office in Canonsburg, the climate of flexibility and teamwork was a key reason for seeking employment there in April 2012. After 22 years experience in intellectual property and energy law, Levine Stoller was not happy with the lack of flexibility at her previous firm when circumstances left her effectively a single mom of teenage daughters. Now she frequently works from home and can go into the office late or leave early when necessary to keep home life running smoothly. Says Levine Stoller of the change, “I am so much happier. They make you feel valued.”
That sense of being valued and accommodated is, according to Susan Brewer, Steptoe & Johnson’s CEO since 2009, very much part of the plan. “We’re proud of it.” On a personal level, Brewer says it is “extremely gratifying” when faced with an employee’s life issues to be able to say “We can work this out. I know we can because we have done it many times before!” Many of the employees who take advantage of the firm’s willingness to craft unique work arrangements are women with young children, but, says Brewer, not all. “Women and men need flexibility to care for family members, elderly parents, or sick spouses.” Sometimes people have had to relocate far away from any office and the firm has retained them as long distance employees.
Gratifying as it is, attention to work/life balance is not just goodness of heart. “Definitely it gives us a competitive edge,” says Brewer. “Certainly in recruiting, people come to us for that reason. It also gives us the ability to hang on to talent.” Similarly, Brewer looks at their generous maternity benefits – three months paid leave which Brewer herself has used four times – as an investment in employees. “It creates incredible loyalty. It has paid off for us in the long run. It allows women to come back rejuvenated.”
It also helps with client relations. “Clients are very complimentary,” says Brewer. “Many have to deal with the same things in their firms and their lives.” Mira Kutrovac explains the impact. “We are in the habit of getting to know each other’s families and personal lives because of the environment here, so we naturally spend time getting to know our clients, their interests, and their families as well ….we build great relationships.
It is tempting to attribute Steptoe’s flexible and progressive attitude to the presence of a female CEO, but Brewer says it is really an approach that existed in seed form when she joined the firm in 1980. Brewer took advantage of the then revolutionary technology of the portable Dictaphone to occasionally work from home. She could avoid a long commute and continue to work full time while raising four children, now ages 19 to 29. Then in the late 1980’s a male attorney wanted to work only 3 days a week. Brewer, who was on the management committee at the time recalls, “It was a radical thought, but he was so valuable and easy to work with. He made it work, we made it work, and it just worked perfectly!”
Since then, technology has made flexible work arrangements even more feasible at the same time as changing life styles and norms have made them more necessary and requested. “I don’t see it going away. I don’t think there is a mold anymore in any profession. You have to adapt or you are going to lose good people.”
Rather than fighting a trend, Steptoe & Johnson has embraced a focus on work/life balance. “We are open to discussion of any type of employment relationship. Just the fact that people are not afraid to have those conversations is what I am most proud of,” says Brewer. “Some days will definitely be unbalanced…There are crazy days and it is not perfect but, all in all, it is pretty good!”
Steptoe attorney Mera Kutrovac concurs. “Finding the right balance takes work, and the balance may change daily. The first step is working at a place that respects and advocates finding balance…while I’m still trying to figure things out, I’ve definitely found the best place that I can be!”
We interviewed Susan Brewer, Mera Kutrovac, and Robin Levine Stoller by email and phone. Below are some additional points shared by Mera.
Mera on why she likes the corporate culture:
The first thing other attorneys ask when they call me, is “How is everything going? How is your son doing?” – we genuinely care about each other’s personal lives ….but we also have a similar goal of being successful and accomplished in our careers.
On policies that make it work:
We have a “no jerk” policy, a closed compensation system, and we don’t have access to each other’s hours. Policies like this reduce competition, encourage camaraderie and a more team-based approach..
On a loyalty other companies strive for:
There is a great sense of loyalty to the firm and its members, and everyone wants to see success at the firm level. We genuinely enjoy working together…While individual successes are commended – this is not a cut-throat environment, but one where we work together to help our clients achieve the best outcomes possible.
On gender similarities:
I think men in my generation probably have similar issues with work life balance because men today typically come from households where both husband and wife work, and thus both parents equally contribute to the household and to raising children.
On gender differences:
I do think that men and women have some generalized innate differences – for instance, I think women are generally more nurturing, especially with young children – which perhaps makes women feel more pressure to strike that perfect balance without sacrificing family.
On gender neutrality:
It’s not important that our CEO is female – Susan earned the position because she is successful, respected, and is great at what she does – she is an amazing leader.
Praise for the (female) boss:
Unintentionally, because our CEO is a female attorney with 4 children of her own, Susan has become a great example to other women that a woman can be a mother, a wife, a highly successful attorney, and the CEO of a flourishing law firm – with balance, all things are possible.
Why a flexible culture is a good deal for the firm:
When you enjoy where you work and what you do, and you don’t feel like you’re sacrificing your family to be successful at it, you can do that work for a long, long time, and it drives you to want to be great at it and to exceed expectations.
Editors note: An attentive reader might notice that Steptoe & Johnson PLLC was one of the sponsors at Wise Women’s Strong for the Holidays Event. We are grateful for their generosity and their commitment to DVSSP; the decision to write this article about their life-friendly corporate culture came well before the event and is unrelated.