Creating a Culture That Retains Attorneys [Podcast]
Courtney Puritsky has been at her firm, Grodsky & Olecki, since she graduated from law school 11 years ago—a rare occurrence in this day and age. She joined the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast to tell host Sharon Berman, Managing Principal of Berbay Marketing & Public Relations, why she’s stayed with her firm for so long, and what other firms can learn about retention from her experience. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today my guest is Courtney Puritsky, partner at Grodsky & Olecki, a business litigation firm located in Santa Monica. Courtney has more than a decade of experience litigating cases. She joined the firm in 2007 and became a partner in 2017. With recruiting and retention such a big issue today, and given Courtney's long-time tenure with her firm, I invited her to share her experience. Courtney, it’s so good to have you.
Courtney: Hi Sharon, and thank you so much for having me.
Sharon: First, tell us a little bit about your career path. When did you decide to become a lawyer? Why did you choose litigation, and why did you decide to stick with it?
Courtney: I was raised by parents who told me that I needed to get a graduate degree. My dad is an emergency room physician and I knew I wasn’t going that route, so law seemed like a great option, and I knew it would be a good education. So, my dad told me that he would support me as long as I didn’t sue doctors. I went to law school at Southwestern here in Los Angeles, and I liked law school. The higher-level learning was interesting, and for better or worse, I liked the fear that came with the typical Socratic Method in law school. I feel like when we were in law school, my classmates and I were making that decision: are you a transaction lawyer or are you a litigator? I participated in the moot court competition, and I was hooked right from the start. Being in a courtroom in front of a judge or a jury arguing on behalf of my client, that’s what motivated me, and that’s what I wanted to do in my career. During my third year of law school, I interned at Grodsky & Olecki, and the lawyers were brilliant and also just really great people. I was given assignments that I felt were challenging and rewarding. I passed the bar that fall and was given the opportunity to become a lawyer here, and here we are 11 years later.
Sharon: You’ve been with the firm a long time, and I’m sure you had opportunities to leave. When recruiters are always calling, what contributed to your staying?
Courtney: People ask me all the time, and it’s a good question because it allows me to reflect on why I’ve stayed here for so long. The trick is like any job, it hasn’t been without its challenges. There have been difficult cases, difficult clients and difficult legal issues, but I think the constant has been the ability to work through those issues with a great group of lawyers. We are a small firm. We’ve ranged from four or five on the low end to six or seven on the higher end, and there’s just this support and camaraderie that exists that makes me feel lucky to be a part of this group. We are all friends. My success is their success and vice versa. So, I would say that I was initially attracted to Grodsky & Olecki for the business they did and the clients they had and the cases they were working, all of which were wonderful, and I stayed because those things have all continued. The relationships that I have built with the other attorneys here, the trust, the support, the ability to challenge each other—and I fully recognize that it sounds totally corny, but I feel like I am a better lawyer from working around these other lawyers, and that’s why I’ve stayed.
Sharon: I just wanted to make sure I had the numbers right. You said it’s four to five on the smaller end, six or seven on the higher end?
Courtney: Yes, I think at our highest, we’ve been seven lawyers. Right now we’re at four, which is a great fit for us right now.
Sharon: Some people might say, “Well, is it just because it’s small that you feel camaraderie?” I’m sure it’s a great group of lawyers, but can that be replicated at a larger firm, do you think?
Courtney: I mean, you’ve been in a room with three other people or four other people and maybe made a connection with one or two of them; maybe you made a connection with none of them. You’re absolutely right that it is a smaller firm, and we’ve used recruiters in the past to find people who are a great fit. The four of us that are here now have been together for five or six years, so I’m sure that it’s part of it, but I would also say that friendships come and go, and the fact that this personal friendship and professional relationship has been able to sustain itself is unique. I’ve never worked at a very large firm, so I don’t know. I hear that larger firms sometimes do the team method, where you have a core group of people. So, I don’t really know; I can’t really speak to the bigger-firm lifestyle.
Sharon: Over the years, what has made you think about leaving? When recruiters have called and said, “Hey, I have an offer,” or “This is a firm you’ve got to look at,” what has made you decide to stay?
Courtney: I would say it’s a couple of things. The first thing is that I feel like a lot of people, especially people that come to interview here, leave big firms because they want more experience. They want to take the case from the initial client meeting all the way to trial, and that is something that I was given here from day one. I would never want to leave for lack of experience, because our firm structure is one partner, one associate per case, and that associate stays with that case and does everything on the case until the case is completed. Why else would I have left?
Theoretically, if I wasn’t able to have a good work/life balance here, that would have been a reason to leave. I have two young daughters, so I’m trying to do all of it. But again, this firm has always had that culture of, “I don’t care if you’re sitting in front of your desk at work or if you’re sitting in front of your desk at home. Whenever you want to get the work done, get the work done.” That freedom is also something that has worked well in my life and through my career over the last 11 years as I’ve built my family. One thing that we try not to do here is, there’s no real boundary between partners and associates. The firm has always done a great job of advocating an open-door policy, and that’s something that I think is also why I enjoy being here. I’m not scared to go next door and say, “Hey, what do you think about this?” It’s the more, the merrier kind of conversation.
Sharon: It sounds like you get the challenge and you also get the support that you need. What should other firms take from this conversation? For those who might be saying, “I’m in a larger firm and this has no relevance,” or for smaller firms that are having a challenge holding onto people, what are some of the things that they might consider emulating?
Courtney: My motto has been—and my husband laughs at me about it and my law partner laughs at me about it—that communication is everything. I think sometimes that falls by the wayside between young lawyers and partners. Asking questions is not something that comes easy to young lawyers. In fact, I’ll never forget during one of my early reviews here, the partners said to me that I needed to communicate more, that I spent too much time sitting at my desk trying to figure out an answer rather than walking down the hall and asking somebody 10 years my senior, who clearly would know the answer to the question. But like I said, asking questions isn’t something that comes easy, so fostering that communication is something that firms, big or small, and even non-law firms, should be advocating to let their younger employees know that it’s beneficial. You can learn from the people who have walked in your shoes and done it before you. A lot of times, there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Sharon: O.K., and what else?
Courtney: Now that I’m a partner here, I feel this sense of obligation to teach a little bit. I mean, let’s not be crazy. I’ve only been practicing 11 years. That’s not that long in the grand scheme of a career, but as a young lawyer, I really struggled with following my gut. By that, I mean if I had an idea, I was worried that it might be a dumb idea, or if it was a question, I was worried that it might be a dumb question. As I’ve grown up and had more success in trials before judges and juries, I’ve learned that if I’m thinking something or if I have a question about a case, chances are that someone else has the exact same question, and maybe there’s a juror sitting in front of me that has the question, too. So, while I understand that it takes time, I think it’s really important to encourage younger associates to find their voice and have the confidence to express it.
Sharon: I think that’s really important to remember, that other people are thinking the same thing. I know the feeling of when you finally do ask that question and other people are saying, “Yeah, we were thinking the same thing.”
Courtney: Yeah, like, “Phew.”
Sharon: So, that’s one of the things you do to be a role model for current or future associates. What else do you try to do to be a role model for younger lawyers?
Courtney: Along my theme of "communication is key," I try to be very responsive to communications, emails and phone calls, and that’s both inside and outside of the firm. I think that a high level of customer service is really important in our business, and listen, there are a lot of lawyers out there; there are a lot of business litigators, so we need to set ourselves apart. We have great results, just like a lot of law firms do, but being responsive, especially in today’s day and age, is something that is important. I think that associates don’t necessarily have that global customer service idea in mind, and that’s something that is important to convey, like, “Listen, we’re in the service business. We have a client that is expecting things from us, and if something is taking longer than initially thought, send them an email and let them know, ‘I know I said I would have this to you by the end of the week, but it looks like it’s going to take me a little bit longer.’” People want to be kept informed and have information. I do that by example as much as I can with the associates, just to let them know, “This is the level of customer service that we need to provide to our clients.”
Sharon: It’s a very simple thing, but something that we forget a lot. Now that you’re a partner—and congratulations—how do you see your law firm world differently? How do you see it from the other side, being in management?
Courtney: Thank you so much. It still hasn’t lost its wonderful ring when people say that. When I was an associate, I took work home with me mentally and literally. As a partner, I obviously do that too, but I have so much pride in our firm and what has been done here. The firm has been around for 15-plus years, and I find myself being protective over it. As grateful and lucky as I felt to be an associate here, I’m even more proud to be a partner at Grodsky & Olecki. My partner, Alan Grodsky, is a phenomenal attorney, and I feel lucky to be his partner. Michael Olecki, the other name partner, passed away about a year and a half ago. He was my mentor and one of the greatest attorneys and people I’ve ever known, so to be a partner now at this firm, I strive to do the best that I can. It’s a great motivating factor and, again, I know that sounds corny.
Sharon: It doesn’t. It sounds wonderful.
Courtney: It’s a fantastic group of very intelligent, creative and down-to-earth people, and we share that goal of being great lawyers and getting great results for our clients.
Sharon: It would be a different world if every partner felt that pride that you feel. It’s not something I hear that often. How has being a partner changed your focus on business development?
Courtney: A year or two before I actually became a partner, I had my eye on it, and I understood that one of the ways to make myself more valuable and attractive as a partner was to start bringing in business. So, I started networking and I very quickly got over the stigma that is associated with networking, because I really enjoy it. In my regular life, I really like meeting people and learning about their background and what motivates them and their businesses and how they got to where they are, and that’s basically what I do as a lawyer. When I’m representing a person or a company, my job is to learn everything there is to know about them or their business, what has happened, who’s on the other side and why.
I think in terms of business development, I’ve learned to ask the right questions. I once heard a woman speak at an event, and she’s now a judge. When she was on this panel, she said that every social event is a networking opportunity for her. That’s not to say that whenever I go out or talk to my friends, I’m thinking about how I can turn this into a business relationship, but it’s being aware of my network and who I’m talking to, and being sure to tell people what I do and who I may know that might help them. Maybe all of that leads to business in the future, but it’s just building a network to figure out how I can help them in their business. I think being aware of my resources and my network is something that I didn’t do as an associate. I always tell people that I think it should be a class in law school if it’s not already—I’ve been out a little while. Networking and figuring out all those things, there should be some sort of strategy to how you do it, and maybe it comes from within. I was grateful that once I started networking, I found that I enjoyed it, so I felt like I was lucky in that respect.
Sharon: I think a lot of people are interested in other people’s stories and they do have a natural interest, but I think they’re a little afraid, or like you’re saying, they haven’t been taught how to do it or taught about the importance of listening. They’re afraid that they’re going to come across as selling, when it’s really more about taking an interest in somebody, just as you’re talking about.
Courtney: That’s such a great point, because I worked with a business coach this last year, which I encourage everybody to do, and that was one of the first things she said to me: “What are your goals here?” I said, “I don’t want to feel like I’m selling myself when I tell somebody what I do or when I’m on the phone with a client and trying to ‘close the deal.’” She taught me that it’s not about me. It’s about them; it’s about learning about them; it’s about learning about their business and what their issue is. It takes the pressure off me and it allows me to do my job better. It’s not about me. It’s asking the right questions to find out how I can help them.
Sharon: It is all about them, so that was very good advice from your coach. Courtney, thank you so much. This has been really interesting, and I hope that firms and lawyers take it to heart. Right now, that wraps up another episode of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst. If you like what you heard and you’d like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or whenever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest who can help propel your firm forward. Thanks so much for listening.
Click here to listen to Courtney Puritsky’s Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast episode: Creating a Culture That Retains Attorneys.