Perspectives on Building a Women-Owned Law Firm

Posted: April 29th, 2014 by

Special to the Legal

Motherhood has been instrumental to Berner Klaw & Watson’s creation and evolution. Joni Berner started the practice after having her first child while at a large firm, finding the 60-plus hours per week incompatible with being a new mother. Margaret Klaw joined Berner when each had 5- and 2-year-olds. Juggling professional and family responsibilities while coping with clients’ emotionally charged domestic situations resulted in remarkable compatibility for setting work-family priorities. As younger attorneys joined the firm, and Megan Watson, who embraced the same values and culture, became a partner, it felt natural to establish liberal family leave policies, offer flexible work schedules and accommodate new babies, nursing mothers, kindergarten plays and sick kids. One of their proudest moments was winning the Philadelphia Bar Association’s small firm Family-Friendly Award “for employment policies that indicate an understanding of the importance of family.” This article contains perspectives from each of them.

Joni Berner

I received an extraordinary education during my first eight years in practice, held to high standards by smart, hardworking lawyers at a big firm. Invited to assist a couple of partners interested in family law and instrumental in shaping the new divorce code (1980), I had early and abundant opportunities for real client contact, solo courtroom experience and presentations to the firm selection and billing committees. The combination of skills learned and confidence acquired made me feel completely ready to launch my own practice while adjusting to motherhood. With 35 years of practice behind me, I laugh when thinking about the naiveté of my plan and how clueless I was about running a business.While our firm emphasizes work-life balance today, my early days as a sole practitioner were far from relaxed. I worked round-the-clock, my Apple Iie in my rented office and my “portable” Apple Iic on my kitchen table or in my daughter’s playroom. Back then, it was still cutting edge to use computers and printers instead of typewriters, and there were no ready-made protocols. Even though I had to find my way as I went along, I was more productive and efficient than at the big firm, where I was tethered to my desktop dictation machine and secretary. The downside was that the lines of demarcation between work and home were completely blurred. To this day, my 24-year-old son says his primary recollection is that I worked all the time—probably since I did, sometimes from the bleachers at his sporting events.Yet working to grow my own business didn’t seem like work at all. I was inspired and tireless. I regret, however, lacking the perspective and priorities that evolved when the next generation of lawyers in our firm became mothers. For them, there is no embarrassment or apology for working less than full-time or having to compete with children’s demands while trying to talk business with a client or colleague. I, on the other hand, tried to pretend that nothing interfered with my ability to represent my clients. It took a long time to tune out the voice of a senior partner at my old firm who expressed sincere disappointment when he discovered I was pregnant after seven years at the firm: “Oh, Joni, I thought you were truly interested in a career in the law.”

With my children grown and gone, work-life balance has different details, but its importance is the same. I’ve abandoned contentious litigation in favor of collaborative practice and mediation. I’ve always liked to train and mentor young people interested in legal careers and now do so more formally as an adjunct professor. For as long as I remember, I’ve been a problem solver, and now apply that role to meaningful work on nonprofit boards. In short, our firm remains a springboard to personal-professional satisfaction.

Margaret Klaw

Fulfillment as both mothers and lawyers has been, and still is, central to our firm’s culture. I’m pleased we found a way to make it work when our children were small and proud that we’ve been able to offer this opportunity to many younger women lawyers who have worked for us over the years.

But as businesswomen, it’s complicated. It’s one thing to do for yourself—after all, a huge benefit of self-employment is that you can decide to make that very tangible trade-off between time and money—but it’s quite another to do so for someone else, trading your money for another person’s time.

When our first associate announced her pregnancy, we realized we needed a maternity leave policy. We wanted to balance what we thought was right with what we could afford. Given that our business model relies solely on revenue generated by attorneys billing time, we recognized that an attorney who isn’t working but is being paid would be a significant financial drain on our small firm. We came up with a policy of a minimum of three months off, with six weeks paid in addition to any accumulated paid time off. By European standards, unthinkably stingy. By U.S. standards for small businesses, quite generous. And it wasn’t a big deal until the perfect pregnancy storm occurred when three associates and Megan had babies in succession.

We had a solid year when at least one lawyer was out on maternity leave, leaving Joni and me—and Megan, when she wasn’t having a baby herself—listening to the constant sucking sound of money rushing out the door to pay attorneys who weren’t billing clients. Some nights during that Year of the Maternity Leave, I would be working late, seeing the sky grow dark and the building cleaning staff arrive, missing dinner with my family. I would think about how I was still working at 8 p. m., earning money to pay another woman so she could be at home with her baby. I want to say I felt proud of that choice, but I would be less than truthful if I didn’t admit that I often felt resentful. Payroll comes every two weeks like the tide—you can’t stop it. If you don’t have the money to meet it, you don’t pay yourself. If you still don’t have enough, you borrow it. During this period, we did both. It was personally challenging to confront the sharp edge where the values we wanted to embody in our workplace, the culture we sought so hard to create, met my inner capitalist, who was whispering, “Exactly why are you doing this? You have college tuition to pay.” It is a stark equation: To give our employees more time to spend with their families, we spend less time with ours.

Nonetheless, we remain convinced that fostering work-life balance is absolutely the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

Megan Watson

When I entered Temple University Law School in 1996, my intention was to move to Colorado and open a domestic violence shelter clinic. I didn’t give much thought to private practice, but was absolutely, positively sure I was not a big-firm lawyer. The issue was balance between career and family, and it was important to me to find my own way without compromising my values for what others expected of me or, in my mind, what the then-patriarchal large-firm partner would expect.

I accepted a summer position at Berner & Klaw as a 2L just to see how a small firm worked. I remember what I wore to my interview, because I specifically chose not to wear a suit; I didn’t want to work somewhere that required wearing a suit every day. Thankfully, Margaret wasn’t fazed by my choice of wardrobe and hired me on the spot.

Needless to say, I didn’t go to Colorado. I stayed at the firm and was named partner in 2009. During that time, I had two children, went to numerous school events, served as a room mom and now sit on my local board of education. I am convinced that none of this would have been possible without the extraordinary women who trained me as a lawyer; women who don’t see work-life balance as an oxymoron; women who are committed to being great lawyers and great moms.

As the youngest partner, it is vital to me that we continue to offer a work environment that supports our employees’ families. As family lawyers who see the importance of hands-on parenting in our cases, how can we deny the opportunity to attend a child’s parentteacher conference or school concert, even in the middle of the day? Although flexible, we still expect everyone to get their work done. If that means logging in from home during one of these never-ending snow days when the kids are off or bringing them to “Camp BKW,” that works for us. If it means staying later on Tuesday to leave earlier on Wednesday to get to the baseball game on time, no problem. We set reasonable billable goals, have a generous PTO policy and close the office between Christmas and New Year’s Day. We respect our employees and demonstrate the importance of work-life balance.

What’s the result? Well, BKW partners don’t make as much as big-firm partners. We acknowledge that work isn’t the only important thing in our lives and money isn’t the only measure of success. We measure it this way: We are happy, our employees are happy, our clients are happy and, most importantly, our families are happy.


Whether for partnership goals or the good of the firm, new business is the key to success. Without jobs, there is no need to discuss work-life balance. We find that the easiest way to generate business is by meeting new people. Serving on boards, volunteering, teaching, networking and being active within professional associations are great ways to gain referral sources. While finding this time may be daunting, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice for connections made and friendships formed.

Ultimately, achieving work-life balance requires cooperation from both sides. Firm leaders should accommodate employees who want flexible schedules, and those employees need to flex their schedules to consistently meet assignments and billable hour requirements. It does, actually, take a village—or, at least, a law firm.

Reprinted with permission from the APRIL 29, 2014 issue of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER (Women in the Profession supplement). © 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved.

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