From: Law360, click here to view the full article.
Q&A with New Jersey Law Firm Leader: Michael S. Stein, Managing Partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden
Here, Stein reflects on how the law firm has grown to become the firm it is today, his goals, and the importance to him of its work in the public policy arena.
The law firm celebrated its 25th anniversary in July. What path has the law firm taken during that time? Where did you start, and where are you now?
In some ways when I look back it's really extraordinary for me to imagine just how far we've traveled and the path we've taken. I started the firm with a guy named Louis Pashman, a generation older than me now retired, 25 years ago with the idea that the service that a law firm provides is as good as the individual lawyer or lawyers that are on a particular assignment. The initial goal was to figure out a way to hire the best lawyers, the best talent our region had to offer, and gradually over time build a reputation for excellence.
I got a call maybe five years into the practice from one of my closest friends who I went to law school with, Mary Beth Hogan who co-chairs the litigation group at Debevoise & Plimpton, which I've always held up as the gold standard of what a law firm can be. And she said, "Mike, the single best lawyer [Sean Mack] in my opinion to ever walk the halls of Debevoise, sadly, is going to leave. He lives on your side of the river, New Jersey, and he just had another kid and wants a different sort of balance in his life. You have to hire Sean, and I told him he has to go to your firm."
Anyway, Sean was the kind of person, just a mensch, a wonderful person, the kind of lawyer any law firm would have wanted to hire. And within a month I could see he was worth his weight in gold. He allowed us to expand our reach. A source of immense pride is not for a day has he regretted his move, and now is on our executive committee and co-chairs the litigation department of the firm.
The mantra from that day on became, we've got to find the next Sean. Where he took this extraordinary leap of faith, his very existence gave us a certain amount of credibility. This kind of caliber lawyer would come to our firm, maybe it's worth looking at the firm more closely. Over time it became easier and easier to recruit this caliber of lawyer.
The pivot happened around 10 years ago. Not that we stopped doing our best to recruit and retain the best talent that we could find. But what gradually started happening over time is the building of this firm became a big part of my professional life's work. The objective became something different, to build an institution that would endure, to build an institution of the highest moral character and integrity. To build a brand that would be the gold standard in our region for what a legal institution can be. That's what we've been aspiring to: more of a culture we can be proud of.
How can we send a message internally that our people are the most important asset that we have, how can we send a message both internally and externally that as lawyers we are uniquely situated to try to be part of the conversation around the policy issues of our day and leave an imprint on them? We've invested an awful lot in answering these questions and putting our money where our mouth is.
As you've pivoted and thought about making your culture better, what are a few of the biggest highlights of that journey so far?
We were brainstorming some years ago and were thinking we really want to have the kind of environment that embraces women in the law. How do we do that? A young lawyer who had joined us as an associate from a big international law firm said, "You know Mike, a lot of my colleagues at BigLaw sucked it up and stayed longer than they might otherwise stay because the maternity leave policy is so generous at BigLaw. So many of them will stay so they can enjoy those benefits when they have children. If you really want to send a message that this firm is determined to embrace the particular challenge women face when it comes to work-life balance, a good starting point is to have a very generous maternity and paternity leave policy." It made such sense.
The last I checked we are tied with one other law firm, probably the biggest law firm in our state, as having the most generous maternity and paternity leave policy in our state. It's five months fully paid, we have a ramp back in, with benefits not only for the primary caretaker but for the secondary caretaker, which we encourage.
It is not inexpensive. But if it's a priority, you do it. And if your priority is to maximize your income every year, well maybe you don't do it. But if your priority is to send a very strong message internally and externally that attracting women and having the kind of environment that will accommodate their desires to be a primary or co-primary caretaker, then maybe you do this.
A second example, which is an even greater investment, is we started a public policy center. It's named after my father, so it's very meaningful to me. We have an executive director, we have people who do nothing but work for the center. And we have developed a reputation as one of the most prominent law firms in our region for public policy work.
We're involved in a lawsuit right now which I think could be the most impactful piece of policy litigation in the history of our state. The lawsuit is brought on behalf of schoolchildren throughout our state, and we're seeking an order that the disgraceful segregated conditions that exist in particular in our urban school districts but throughout our state are unconstitutional, and we're demanding that it be remediated.
But, as amicus or otherwise, we are involved in almost every significant policy matter that finds its way to our New Jersey Supreme Court. Our firm and our public policy center is at the Supreme Court as much or more often than any of the big firms in our state. And a lot of that work is free of charge. Whether it's criminal justice reform, government transparency or other social justice issues, we are trying to be part of the conversation.
When I brought this to the partners several years ago there wasn't a moment of hesitation. If your objective is to maximize your profits, you maybe don't jump without hesitation at the opportunity to invest an awful lot of money that you don't get paid for. So I do think it's a tribute to the partners at the firm and for the culture that has developed over time that the firm has embraced that initiative.
What are your goals for the law firm over the next five years?
Stay the course. Don't get complacent. Continue to strengthen the bonds, the collaborative, collegial culture. Make the character of the firm stronger. I'm 58 now, I still feel like I'm 23. But I've been succession planning for 20-some years. Seeing that succession planning come into fruition is going to be a major milestone for the firm. More than anything the objective is to continue gradually to earn a reputation as an institution that those who are part of it can be proud of.