Me, last year: “I need to let Claire know about this business decision I’ve made.”
Me, now: “I wonder what Claire thinks about _____ business dilemma?”
I started Dunlap Law in 2015. By 2017, a small team had come together but I was the decider. I solved all the problems. I drove strategy. I told them what we were going to do. In 2020, Dunlap Law hired attorney Brandy Brown, its first full-time employee. But Brandy had just graduated from law school and was new to practicing law.
I continued being the decider and problem solver.
In 2021, I decided to hire two additional full-time employees, a second attorney and a paralegal. In 2022, I decided to hire two admins, Peri Pardo and Christine Suders. I was (and still am) learning how to be a CEO. Which, if you’re not aware, is a fundamentally different way of seeing the world. The “CEO mindset” is a real thing.
Also in 2022, I asked Claire Guthrie Gastañaga if she’d join us as a partner. If you don’t know who Claire is, you should. She’s the kind of person that the Virginia General Assembly passes a resolution about, honoring her life’s work. Yes, that actually happened in February of 2023. Next year, we’ll celebrate her Golden Jubilee as we mark her 50th year of practicing law. She’s a badass force of nature. I have admired her since 2008 when we first met.
When I reflect on 2022, I’m still a little shocked that Claire said “yes.” She had just retired from her post as executive director of the ACLU of Virginia where she had overseen a multi-million-dollar budget and 28 employees. We are a tiny firm, still in start-up mode, led by a baby-CEO.
Anyway, Claire joined us in September of 2022, and we started a weekly call routine. During our calls, I’d tell Claire what I had decided. Most of the time, she challenged me. Somehow, she did it in a way that always made me pause and think. She made good points and then dropped it, usually saying some version of “Well, that’s just something for you to think about.” She was patient as I wobbled on my baby-CEO legs. Sometimes I had to stifle my annoyance. Solving problems is really hard and I’ve spent most of the last two years in constant problem-solving mode. I’d solve a problem and tell her about my solution only to get challenged. Seriously? Yes, seriously.
Recently, during our regular Monday meeting, I informed my team about a decision I’d made. To me, it was routine, and I did what I always do – tell them what we’re going to start doing as a new “best practice.” Claire wasn’t on that call, and I didn’t notice the dead silence that followed my decree. I moved on to the next thing. The next day, Claire messaged me in
Teams. “Hey, I hear we’re going to start a new “best practice.” I’d like to talk about that when you have a minute.”
What followed permanently changed my thinking.
Apparently, several members of our team were really concerned about this new “best practice.” No, I’m not going to tell you what it is because we’re still debating it and some topics are private. During the meeting, no one had pushed back because I’m the boss and I failed to make space for them to tell me their concerns. But Claire will never shrink from a hard discussion, and she let me know that she was not alone in her concerns over the thing I had decreed would be a “best practice” for Dunlap Law.
That’s the moment when I learned that I’m not alone anymore. I don’t have to be the decider. I don’t have to be the problem-solver. I don’t have to know all the things and always get it right. Wow, what a relief!
I am surrounded by a team of highly intelligent people who know their work and are dedicated to being excellent. We can solve problems together. We can decide together. Together, we know so much more than I can ever know all by myself.
On August 22nd, for the first time, we held a day-long strategy session with everyone’s voice in the chorus. Seven of us created together. We worked through ideas to crystallize what we are collectively passionate about: breaking the law firm mold. We decided to dedicate ourselves to being best-in-the-world at client-centered service. We made policy decisions together.
It was fantastic.
I’m writing this blog on Friday morning, and I need to wrap it up because my weekly call with Claire is happening any minute now.
WE have some decisions to make. I wonder what she thinks?
Photo by Joshua Olsen on Unsplash