Two Generations of Lawyers Learning From Each Other

Melanie Fry Deborah Williamson
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Attorney at Law Magazine Publisher Dale Lane sat down with Dykema attorneys Melanie Fry and Deborah Williamson to discuss their firm Dykema, gender disparity, and the future.

AALM: What first drew you to Dykema?

MF: Deborah and I are both what they call “lifers”—we started our career at the firm. A decade later, what first drew me here is what keeps me here, it’s the people. I’m from Houston, I always thought I’d return to Houston, and I interviewed all over Houston. I decided to interview at Cox Smith (now Dykema) and quickly realized it was the people in the interviews, callbacks, and those I worked with during my summer internship that stood out and made it an easy choice for me. They were people I wanted to emulate. Members were extremely successful but knew success was about more than just making money or personal advancement, it was about being a well-rounded person. It was about taking care of their families, investing in their community, and doing top-notch work for clients. The people drew me to the firm and it’s the people that I still think are our greatest asset.

DW: I grew up in San Antonio. My husband and I spent a decade bouncing around Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina when he was in the army and I was then in law school. With family in San Antonio, we knew we wanted to come back. I interviewed with most of the firms in San Antonio. I didn’t have a history of lawyers in my family and I was not well-connected around town. I was attracted to the firm because they saw more in me and didn’t view my background as a hindrance or something I needed to overcome.

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AALM: What do you most hope to accomplish in  the future?

MF: As a person who has always wanted to be a lawyer, my mind immediately goes to the professional goals on my list. But for me, what I most hope to accomplish is simple; I want to be somebody like Deborah, Donna (McElroy), or many other women who have families as their priority, who love and invest in their children, and are incredibly successful lawyers. It will be my greatest accomplishment if years from now, I can look back and say that I loved and invested in my children, family, and community, that I had a great career serving clients, but ultimately kept priorities where they needed to be.

DW: As someone who’s closer to retirement than beginning their career, I hope to show there’s an opportunity to not only be an outstanding lawyer, but also to stand back and say, “I need to go to a soccer game.” Soccer games are not my favorite pastime, but I’ve learned being there is important to my family. It’s finding your own path or finding a way to carve out a path that may not have even existed. When I started practicing, the firm didn’t do business bankruptcy, but I didn’t let that stop me. I strongly believe if you are willing to put in the time and effort, for the things you are passionate about, you can carve the path that works for you and be successful.

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AALM: Working with senior partners what is a trait they have that you would like to carry through to the next generation of lawyers? In return, what is a trait that senior partners can adopt from the newer generation that they can adopt into their practice?

MF: I would like younger lawyers to adopt a commitment, partnership, and investment in clients. Understanding the client’s business, and then not just looking at it from, “How can I help you with your legal problem,” but, “How can I help your business flourish?” On the flip side, I think more senior lawyers could learn a willingness to embrace technology through trial and error from younger lawyers. Maybe the technology won’t work, but having an open mind and willingness to try and implement it to create efficiencies could benefit them.

DW: What I’ve seen and hope to emulate to the next generation is the trait of embracing commitment to your firm and to paying it forward. Over the years, I was privileged to see partners who were building something not for themselves, but for the next generation and the community. In today’s world of immediacy, there is always another opportunity around the corner. I’m proud that I’ve made a big investment in my firm and others. In return, I hope the younger generation will realize the investment made for and in them and continue to pay it forward.

AALM: Gender disparity in law firms is a hot conversation. In relation to the conversation, what are you seeing in your firm? How has it changed over the years? What are you or your firm doing about it?

DW: There’s situations in my life where I think I was treated differently than if I were a man. However, it’s been an exception at Dykema. My colleague, Dan Webster, never cared what my sex was. He pushed me to pursue opportunities. With client expectations, big changes are coming. Yet, I still see way too many hearings in the courtroom and boardroom meetings where women aren’t taking a lead role. I think we recognize these things more, but need to keep pushing to afford more opportunities.

At Dykema we’re looking for opportunities so our attorneys can spend the rest of their career with us. Part of that is taking a long-term view of what our lawyers need— from work locations and hours, to maternity or paternity leave. No longer are attorneys sitting in the office late at night or on weekends because others are. If you come in, it’s because you need to and it fits your schedule.

MF: The industry is changing in a good way, and the conversation around it is swelling. I office next to a female attorney who has been practicing for 40+ years. She recollects on being the first woman in her law office decades ago and her colleagues not knowing what to do with her, especially when she needed to pump breast milk, which is not my experience at all. My graduating class from law school was more than 50% women, my associate class was more than 50% women, and even now there are more than 50% women attorneys on my floor at Dykema.

As Deborah mentioned, the commitment and investment to female attorneys continues to grow in the industry and our firm. I was honored to take part in the maternity/ paternity review at Dykema last year. While our policy and recommendations for advancements were competitive, the firm wanted to do more. Dykema now offers 16 weeks of paid leave to a parent, regardless of delivery process, which allows them the time to heal both physically and mentally. They get to experience an important time with their child, and also just become human again. Having had three maternity leaves and coming back into a full-blown litigation practice after each, I can tell you the difference it made for me, my family, and my colleagues. There are so many more steps to be made, but I believe we will continue to make strides and hope others will follow.

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