Women in law – Table of Experts
By Albany Business Review Editors
The Albany Business Review held a panel discussion recently on the topic of women in law. Panelists included Shalini Natesan, principal partner, The Towne Law Firm, P.C.; Christina Watson Meier, founder, Meier Law Firm, PLLC; and Jami Durante Rogowski, partner, Block, Longo, LaMarca & Brzezinski, P.C. The discussion was moderated by Albany Business Review’s market president and publisher, Walter Thorne.
Why did you choose to work at the firm you currently work for and how have you grown your business there?
Shali Natesan: I came to Albany almost 20 years ago for law school. Out of law school, I did tax law for a long time and then matrimonial law and corporate law. I knew what I wanted to do and I knew what I didn’t want to do, and so when I found Towne Law they really fit my strengths and interests. I chose this place because they have great transactional and real estate practices. Towne Law has also been really great about women empowerment. There are two female partners here, including myself, in addition to Jim Towne. We’re really great about furthering women’s interests, and as a working mom this has been a really good fit for me. I can have a good work-life balance while also really growing my practice within all the diverse industries we serve.
Jami Durante Rogowski: I have been handling real estate matters for 25 years. My practice started out with me concentrating on trusts and estates, corporate, tax and some real estate. At this point in my career, I really wanted to be in a real estate-focused firm so I came over here three years ago. I’m very happy with my move because it’s all things real estate. I also have a very supportive team with my partners throughout the state, where there’s an opportunity to learn from them and brainstorm with them. My partners are always available to me. There are three female partners and three male partners, so it’s a very evenly based partnership. I feel like I’ve grown from that because I get ideas and a perspective from both sides. It’s been a wonderful experience.
Christina Meier: I decided to start my own firm shortly after being admitted to the Bar in 2005 because I wanted to be in control of my own destiny; I wanted to have the corporate work culture reflect the way I wanted to work; and to create an environment that I wanted as an employee. I began as a sole practitioner and then I partnered briefly with another attorney in Schenectady County. I formed Meier Law Firm in 2011 and have been growing ever since.
We do estate planning, estate administration. I like to think of what I do as problem solving. I’ve always been one to fight for the underdog, and so we work with very vulnerable people, people in very precarious situations, people dealing with the death of a loved one, people who are dealing with significant financial problems and don’t know where to turn. That’s what I love to do. I love to help people solve problems and alleviate concern. It’s really heavy stuff, dealing with this. It’s amazing what people go through and you could look at them and never know because they don’t let it show, but when we sit and talk and they’re looking to me for help, they pour it all out. I feel so blessed that I can help. I’ve grown my busines one client at a time. If you’re honest, provide your expertise, counsel and practical advice and treat people the way you want to be treated, from there it just builds.
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What differentiates a woman-owned law firm from competitors?
Meier: We take great care and a lot of time to get to know our clients. When you walk into my office, it’s very comfortable. It’s warm, it’s welcoming, we’ve got lounge chairs. From the moment people make an appointment, we make them feel comfortable. What we do is really take the time to listen to our clients. We have to spend the time because we have to have our clients trust us in order for them to share their vulnerabilities, which then allows us to help them more effectively. We’re excellent at it. My personality is softer than, I think, some male counterparts or attorneys that do the same thing as me.
Are there qualities that differentiate you as a female attorney?
Natesan: I think it’s just a different energy that suits some clients better in terms of the way we approach problems and solutions – maybe the type of solution might be more creative or collaborative. Our firm is made up of almost all women and for me personally as a woman, it’s just a better energy
Rogowski: I love how balanced my firm is. It’s half and half male-to-female, and I think both contribute different things. Women bring so much more empathy and different point of views that I don’t think males fully appreciate causing glass ceilings. Our perspective gives us a better overall strategy to make the workplace inviting to anybody.
How can junior lawyers foster important mentorship and sponsorship relationships with senior-level attorneys?
Rogowski: Mentoring is so critical in the area of law. I learned so much from the people that I identified early in my career as mentors. I think it’s important for experienced attorneys to really reach out to people coming up in the business. COVID posed a bit of a challenge because of people working from home because they weren’t able to come to closings or go to hearings to actually see what those proceedings entail, and I think that’s the most advantageous and best way to learn when you’re a young attorney.
I always try to let people know without being condescending that if they’re starting in a practice in the area of real estate or what I do, I welcome them to call me and ask me questions. I also think we have a responsibility to give seminars and to be a part of the continuing legal education that our associations do. Christina and I just did one for Albany County. They’re very important because it’s a circle of trust. I know it’s hard for a new attorney to ask questions because maybe they don’t want you to know what they don’t know. A great place to start is our bar associations as they have so many programs that can bring people along a little bit faster than if you just try to learn it on your own.
Meier: I kind of struggled with that because I went out on my own pretty quickly after becoming licensed to practice. I did work for a brief period of time for a firm, but they were male owners and I really didn’t have an opportunity to be mentored or to work directly with a female attorney. However, what I did was identify female attorneys that I respected. I’m going to name-drop Cris Cioffi. She was an attorney in Schenectady. I looked up to her and I watched her. I watched how she interacted with people. If I had questions about business or law, I could approach her with that.
Natesan: It’s so important to have somebody that you can bounce ideas off of, not just with specific procedural questions about what you do, but also just general questions about the law practice or being in the legal profession as a woman especially. It’s important to have a sounding board that you feel really comfortable with.
What is some advice you would give to a female attorney whose goal is a leadership or partnership role at their firm?
Natesan: One thing I’ve always tried to do is say yes to every opportunity that comes up. I have ideas about what I like to do and what I don’t, but I ended up doing some things that I might have said no to. I try to step out of my comfort zone and try something else. You never know what might click or what might be a good fit for you, so I think being open to new opportunities and always keeping open lines of communication with leadership in the firm is a good path forward in terms of, “What are you working on? What might you want to work on? Where can you get involved?” Just getting really involved with different aspects of the firm. Integrating yourself into the culture is a really good way to be part of the firm but also excel and hopefully work your way up into a partnership role.
Rogowski: Lead by doing what you love. Know your strengths and play to your strengths and know and trust in your knowledge and abilities. The hardest part for me was finding the confidence to assert myself at a table filled with experienced attorneys. So you start at the beginning, you learn the firm, you learn the culture, you learn the people. You take time to learn the people, to know the people, because an organization is only as strong and as successful as its people. That way, you set your goals, you move forward. Always say what you mean and mean what you say.
Meier: Be yourself. You have to be honest about who you are, what you want from the firm and what the firm expects of you. Be honest and say, “This might not be a good fit for me.” If you find that it is – culture-wise, opportunity-wise, respect-wise and it fits within your expectations and desires, then absolutely take every opportunity that’s given to you. Just go in it with total enthusiasm and be a sponge. It’s not just about being the best attorney, the smartest attorney or how much billable work you can get out. It’s also about how you’re going to manage people. If your people are not working with you, that’s a big problem. A leader who doesn’t have the support of his or her team is not going to work well at all.
What types of initiatives at your law firm are helping to place an emphasis on the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion?
Meier: We have an adoptive not-for-profit which we have been working on for the past several years and we do identify programs like Safe Inc. in Schenectady, my personal passion. We also support food-insecurity programs and things of that nature. I give people time off to do philanthropy. I also identify and encourage the use of vendors who are BIPOC or under-identified persons or organizations. We also have our motto of counsel without judgment, but that’s just kind of our overarching idea which I think fits in really well with our DEI initiative. Ours is definitely a work in progress. I feel like I’ve grown as a person over the years with respect to DEI and identifying and accepting the amount of racial injustice and systematic racism that’s in the world, and I’m trying to pass that along as much as possible.
Natesan: I’m the head of the DEI program, and we’re working to attract diverse talent. There’s a lot of programs through the law school and with different associations that we work with, and even mentoring in that aspect too, is really important. I talked about energy before and bringing a different energy to a firm when you come up with creative solutions. There are benefits in having a diverse workforce, and it has to go beyond just titles because I know DEI is a big buzzword lately, but it has to go beyond just saying, “We have a DEI program.” It has to be implemented and should start from a base level of mentoring the diverse talent in the law school. Helping them grow is really important in seeing DEI really put into practice.
How do you manage your work-life balance and has your firm implemented any benefits to support it?
Rogowski: You’re asking a female attorney if there’s a shot at work-life balance. It is very difficult. I want to be very honest about that. I have a very large family. I had a family business for most of my career plus my law practice, and it has been very challenging at times to manage all of it. As a woman, I never felt like anyone, or anything was getting as much attention as it should have. No matter what people told me, no matter what the goals I reached, I never felt like I was obtaining or giving my best at anything.
It gets better. You can definitely handle it. There are rough patches. Why I love my firm so much is we are very pro-individual and pro-family. If anyone needs time off for a family illness, a fundraiser, a child’s event, a baseball game, anything, our team rallies around that person and makes sure that they have the time off. My culture in my office is very much a family. We pitch in for each other, we’re there for each other and that is probably the single most valuable thing that I have obtained from this firm because no matter what I’m going through, I have people backing me up and making sure that I can give the attention to whatever matter it is and I hope they feel the same. It’s very, very, very critical for me to be able to give my employees, my team that benefit. If you ask them, it’s way more valuable than any kind of monetary compensation.
Natesan: I agree it’s a challenge, and I think as women we bear the brunt of housework and childcare. It’s getting better, but it still naturally falls to the woman. In my firm, we have something called a “basket of benefits” that allows each employee the ability to select the benefits most appealing to their personal interests and needs. We have childcare cost assistance, vet cost reimbursements, car rebates, tuition support, and even money towards a phone upgrade, plus so much more. We offer something to alleviate your stress a bit so that your life becomes a little easier.
We have a lot of working moms in the firm and sometimes kids have a day off of school unexpectedly. We have a little room where there’s a desk, chair, and couch that we call the ‘Little Litigators’ Lair.’ My kids come in and use it if they have a day off school. There’s also cribs in there too since we have some new moms in the firm; this gives them a place for their baby if there’s something they need to be in the office for. We also have these things called wellbeing days. Basically, they’re mental health days. You can’t do your best work if you’re stressed about something at home or something with your children. Another cool thing – we have a lot of auto dealer clients and if you buy a car from them, you get a stipend to purchase a car from that client. It’s monetary, but what we do goes beyond that to hopefully encompass a more holistic approach to alleviating stress.
Now more than ever before, corporate culture is more critical to an organization’s success. How do you support holistic wellbeing within your office?
Meier: We do that in a couple ways. First of all, we have frequent check-ins and the warm, comfortable, supportive atmosphere that we have all created to support one another. If somebody needs a hand, everybody pitches in. One thing that I’ll focus on is adaptability. There was big talk about remote, no remote. I’ll tell you what, nobody in my firm wanted to be remote. They want to be here. I think it’s easier for some people, all of us, to work in this environment versus working at home. However, we offer flexible schedules. Somebody wants Friday off and we figure it out. We offer generous PTO. We offer realistic expectations.
We’re very upfront when hiring and when bringing somebody on. We are not a big firm. We do not have the big firm requirements that some people are accustomed to. We’re not going to ask you to work 60, 70 hours a week. I’m not going to require you to bring in four times your salary. That’s not what we do here. I might not be able to pay as well as the large firms, but I’m going to be realistic, which allows people to have that work-life balance. Some people, of course, are interested in salary, but they’re also interested in time off.
We also have team meetings and team events. We have savings accounts. We’re kind of focused on health and wellness, so if you want to use it to buy a pair of sneakers, if you want to buy green tea, it’s there for you. We do give these little perks to people and I always welcome more ideas on how we can be more supportive to everybody on the team because they’re so valuable and I just want them to be happy and not burnt out.
Working in law can be a stressful career choice. Does your firm provide benefits to help alleviate the stress of working in law for its employees? If so, how do they do that?
Natesan: We have a partnership with an organization in Saratoga where employees can engage in therapy sessions, confidential obviously. The firm takes care of the cost because it is a stressful profession, and it really helps to talk with a professional that’s not in the legal field to give you a different perspective on things. We offer meditation sessions. Back in the Spring, every Wednesday morning, we’d come in to work a little early and a mindfulness professional would lead us through an hour of a guided meditation. We’re starting this back up again now in the Fall, as well.
The Albany County Bar Association does these yoga sessions at lunchtime once in a while, so we put that up on our big screen and we have some yoga mats at the office. We have a big common area outside my office, so we just set up some yoga mats and stretch it out and it feels good. It’s kind of nice to get away from your computer where we’re all hunched over and just take a quick mental break and then get back to it. It’s refreshing.
Are there other things that you do to help alleviate stress in the law profession for your employees?
Rogowski: Our group loves to eat lunch together and we love our events that are outside of work. The firm has amazing events that bring everybody together. We do training sessions. It’s a little bit more difficult because our firm’s across the state but we do training, and then we have a wonderful event at night where everyone can hang out together and then we follow it up with a breakfast the next day. Those are very important opportunities to get to know your coworkers and get to know them as people.
My door is always open. Everyone knows that. We spend a lot of time supporting each other in our personal lives, whether it be attending each other’s organization events or family events. It brings a sense of comfort and compassion to everyone.
Recruitment has been a significant challenge for many businesses across the country. What should employers consider when designing compensation packages in an effort to attract and retain talent?
Rogowski: Historically, it’s been about monetary compensation. People tend to look for where they’re going to get paid the best. We’re now in a time period where you have to look at the total compensation package. It’s not just your salary plus your insurance. It’s the time off that I’m going to get so I can spend time with my family. It’s, “Can I work from home if someone’s ill?” and “Do you support my organizations and will you make a donation to my organization if it’s something I believe in?” It’s the total package now. We work very hard at developing those total packages but we have been struggling to attract new paralegals.
Natesan: It has to be more than a great salary. You have to offer individuals something that they actually want to take advantage of and use. I like to take my kids to volunteer at the food bank and I volunteer with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Capital Region, so we make donations to charities that our employees are passionate about. I like a firm to be looking out for me as an individual and not just focused on how many hours I can bill in a year. It’s nice to know that they care about other things to help make my life easier and more enjoyable.
There’s a bunch of things in the “basket of benefits” I mentioned before like childcare costs, vet costs, tuition reimbursement, car rebates, birthday money and vacation money. Things like that, I hope, will attract diverse talent but also appeal to a bigger pool because everybody’s short-staffed these days.
Meier: Reputation of the organization and the corporate culture is really important when you are trying to find a good fit for your organization. Your organization has to have a good reputation. If it doesn’t have a good reputation, you’re probably not going to be getting the people that ultimately will work out well for your organization. You have to look inward to the company and figure out why you’re not getting a diverse pool and what steps can you take to fix it. Some things you can’t fix. I’m not in a position, nor do I want to grow my firm to be huge, so I’m kind of limited on the people I can continue to hire. But there are things I can do to continue the reputation of the organization so that when I am in a position to do that, I’ve laid the groundwork.
Why Albany? What makes this the place where you’ve chosen to practice law?
Rogowski: I was born in Schenectady, and I am a huge fan of the Capital District. The Capital District has been very good to me in a thousand different ways. I think it’s impossible to define the roots and the community that the Capital District is defined by. I call it Schenectiny and Smallbany because I feel very supported in this community. I feel like we have everything to offer, whether it be education or medical or business or startups or the not-for-profit organizations or our amazing, diverse restaurants. We are right in the middle of several very large cities where it’s very easy to commute to them. To me, it’s the heartbeat of the Northeast and it doesn’t get enough credit for that. If you look back at the history of Albany in the Capital District, the things that were invented here, the people that have been born here… I could gush about this all day long. My whole family moved to Florida when I was going to college. I stayed here by myself and they all came home. I think there’s just such an amazing support system. I mean, why would you move from a place that has everything?
Can we be better? Yes. We all need to work more harder, to give back more, to strengthen our communities, but this is my favorite place on the planet.
Meier: I pretty much grew up in the Capital Region. I graduated from Scotia. I built a pretty good-sized network before I went to law school. I did go to law school at Northeastern in Massachusetts, and I had considered staying out there but then I met my future husband who transplanted from Delaware to Albany/Latham. He ended up to be my husband and here I am. We live in Latham. I’m just used to this area and I have family here, my connections here, my husband’s here. Where else would I go?
Natesan: I’m from Toronto originally but I came to Albany for law school almost 20 years ago. Albany Law gave me a scholarship and I feel such gratitude towards this school. Once I graduated, I lived in Boston for a few years for work, but I came back and I started my family here. It’s just a great community. There’s so much opportunity here and it’s not as small as you might think it is. There’s so much industry, you meet all sorts of different people on a daily basis. It’s a good community for family but also it’s a great city for work. I’ve met so many different people. It’s just a great city. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.