As a species, human beings resist change. Even when things are uncomfortable, most will opt for the status quo rather than step away from the familiar. But the attorneys at Sapientia Law Group have deliberately left old customs behind in order to forge a new standard for the practice of law. Five-and-a-half years later, the citizens of this innovative legal society are thriving, and they are changing the way people – even other attorneys – think about lawyers and the business of law.
Sonia Miller-Van Oort, a highly respected trial attorney and one of the firm’s founders, said that as she and her diverse colleagues came together to form this certified Minority Business Enterprise, they set out to build upon their differences and turn the traditional law firm model on its head. “Sapientia means ‘wisdom’ in Latin. We thought about how to take our collective wisdom and move forward to advance what we want our law firm and industry to be.”
One of the key considerations was creating a workplace where everyone has the option to craft a practice that fits their lifestyle. Miller continued, “A lot of our friends are women and minorities who have left private practice because they found they could not make it work for their circumstances. We think it is wasted talent. The firm started being minority and women owned, and we continue with that as our foundation. It’s an integral part of who we are. We don’t want to sit and talk about being diverse. We want to be diverse, because it makes our services better.”
In being diverse, this firm of nine attorneys enjoys a sustainable and collaborative work environment where people like to go to work, and where they like and respect one another. These intangibles yield measurable results with clients. Sarah Oquist, a business attorney and certified executive coach who is also one of the firm’s founders, said, “Our clients feel the difference. They see that they’re not just talking to one attorney, they’re getting a team perspective. Collective wisdom is what you get with us; it’s what we have to off er.”
The work culture also influences the firm’s billing practices. Miller-Van Oort continued, “About 55 percent of our annual revenue comes from alternative fee structures. When you are no longer tied to the billable hour, the client is no longer focused on how many people are on their file. It opens a whole new door to collaboration that I think is hindered by traditional billing methods. Of course, we keep track of our time in order to know how to structure our fees, but the metric isn’t how many hours; it’s what are the results.”
Another outcome of diversity is the necessity of creating an environment where it is okay for people to speak up. “When you do that, it’s true that you get a lot of differing views, but you have to manage that,” Miller said. “It’s more of a challenge than I thought it was going to be, but as a result, we reach better decisions, and we have a more vibrant environment. We have developed the ability to bridge those differences through firm retreats, 360-degree peer evaluations and team building sessions. This is where Sarah really shines.”
While comprehensive peer reviews are fairly unheard of in the established, hierarchal firm culture, at Sapientia they have opened the way for greater transparency, understanding and cooperation. Constructive feedback is also solicited from clients, and, according to Oquist, this has proven a “useful way to show clients that we are listening to them with a goal of meeting and exceeding their expectations.”
In having the courage and wisdom to change, Miller-Van Oort said, “You can break out of the traditional law firm model and be successful. It’s important to create the environment that speaks to your values and what you want your company to stand for. You don’t have to settle for anything less than what makes you happy.