A Firm of Their Own:  Sheryl L. Axelrod

Attorney:  Sheryl L. Axelrod

Firm:  The Axelrod Firm, PC

Practice Area:  Employment and Personal Injury Defense, Commercial Litigation, and Appeals

Sheryl left BigLaw to found her own law firm.  Vanessa McGrath Snyder, who clerked for a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, works with her as does her partner, Mary Ann Mullaney, who was a partner in BigLaw previously.  Christopher Stouffer is also Of Counsel to the firm and a terrific asset to them, too.  

Sheryl spoke with me about why she launched The Axelrod Firm, the platform it has given her, Mary, and Vanessa to expand equality in the profession, and her advice for women looking to found a firm of their own.

Why did you decide to leave a large firm?

Diversity, inclusion, and equality are among my core values, and BigLaw is not an inclusive environment.  Large law firms don’t evaluate or pay women or minorities equally, equally credit us for the work we bring in, give us equal networking opportunities or resources, or promote us into senior leadership positions equally.  It’s business lunacy, as the amount of money to be made by firms that better include and retain us is staggering, but I was among the overwhelming majority of women who left BigLaw.  

What are best things about owning your own firm?

Most law firm owners will mention independence first.  We manage our businesses as we please.  

That is a great benefit, but there’s a far bigger one.  I actually get to know my clients’ businesses – their policies and procedures – and I get to shape those policies and procedures in a way that makes their businesses better.  I get to ensure my clients’ workforces are as diverse and inclusive as possible.  I get to teach my clients best practices, and help them implement them.  I get to replace my clients’ complex problems with solutions.  Over time, I get the chance to become a trusted and valued advisor, someone to whom my clients will turn for an ever increasing array of issues.  That is my biggest source of pride.  

By owning your own firm, you also get to develop the talent within it.  Vanessa is a fantastic lawyer with top notch organizational and leadership skills.  I hand selected her, and with her here, I’m getting to shape someone who has a big future ahead.

With Mary, I get to run a business with one of the best minds in the business.  Mary is an exceptionally talented trial and appellate lawyer.  She is also the most strategic and innovative thinker I know.  Like Vanessa and I, Mary is also committed to helping women and minorities achieve equality. She constantly raises the firm’s ability to make a positive difference.  

Outside of our law firm, Mary and I spend countless hours mentoring and developing other women.  We co-founded a non-profit, the Fearless Women Network, to shatter glass ceilings and obliterate unequal pay.  Top notch in-house lawyers committed to the cause – women and men – joined us, and on April 24, 2014, with support from Vanessa, we put on our first event.  We held a Symposium on the pay gap in the legal profession, the monies by which women and minorities are shortchanged.  We had an incredible lineup of speakers and sponsors, and over 90 guests attended!  It was so successful, we got major sponsors for our next event which will be held on April 21, 2015 in Delaware.  Mary, Vanessa, our largest sponsor, and I are currently planning the event.

I also get to raise awareness by engaging in public speaking and submitting articles that no one in my firm seeks to vet or re-write, about the disenfranchisement of women and minorities, the unconscious bias we face, and the profitability of diversity.  Within most large law firms, these pieces would never see the light of day.  It would be career suicide to submit them for publication, as they highlight the unequal treatment of women and minorities within large firms.  Most in large law firms would not be permitted to submit such pieces.

Having my own firm has given me a platform from which to freely engage in honest, direct, and earnest public speaking and writing aimed at making a positive difference.  The reach of that platform is pretty neat.  I’ve been published by the American Bar Association (the largest Bar in the world) in the Section of Litigation Diversity and Inclusion Newsletter which has a subscriber base 40,000 lawyers strong.  In fact, one of my articles on the profitability of diversity is listed among the ABA’s top resources.  The Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA) published a piece of mine in its acclaimed Diversity & the Bar magazine, and one of my pieces was the cover story on the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s The Pennsylvania Lawyer magazine.  Your readers may have heard of Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and the author of Lean In.  My "Primer on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equality" was among the materials featured on a webcast in which she spoke to approximately a million viewers.  I retain all rights to my pieces post-publication, so you may download these and more of my works for free from my profile page on The Axelrod Firm website.  If you find what I write valuable, feel free to share the pieces and help further raise awareness about these issues.

What were some of the early challenges & how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge is building a book of business.  Over the course of my career, I built a ton of professional relationships with people who saw what I could do.  I developed my initial book of business from those relationships. 

What advice do you have for women interested in launching their own law firms?

Do everything they say – work hard, study the Rules, etc. – but get out there and build relationships. You will become successful in proportion to the amount of people who care about you, think highly of you, believe in you, and want to see you succeed, so take time to sit down and talk with other people. Invest in building relationships.

Be strategic. Think about business development from the beginning of your career, and come up with a plan to attract clients that fits your personality.

If you really want to go far, have a vision, clearly define it, and pursue it. Law firms generally do a terrible job of defining their vision. Being the best, most reputable, the brightest, etc. isn’t a vision. When have you achieved that vision? How far are your competitors from reaching it? Come up with a vision that distinguishes who you are (brand yourself) and make that vision concrete.  

Then, remember the advice you got here, refer work to other women and minority business owners, and teach other women and minorities how to launch their own firms.

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