de minimis per se: Kathleen Pence

Kathleen Pence graduated from the University of Tulsa College of Law in the spring of 2011, and started working in a small firm in downtown Tulsa, Okla. Kathleen worked at this firm for a year and a half, doing largely insurance defense. Among the ten lawyers in the firm, half were female. 

“Thirty years of experience is valuable.”

Kathleen wanted to work in a firm after graduation for the learning opportunity it would afford. The backbone of the firm was comprised of attorneys with many years of experience in their field. Kathleen left because the firm could not give her the flexibility in her schedule she needed to spend time with her family.

“One of my co-workers left after she had a baby.”

The firm requires one hundred and sixty hours a month from attorneys, without allotted vacation and sick days. Taking hours off meant making those hours up on late night and weekends. The majority of the partners at the firm were male.

“They [men] didn’t understand why a woman might want or need flexibility. They did not accept the one associate’s offer of a pay cut for fewer hours, so that she could be with her family.”

When Kathleen was interviewing for jobs after law school, she did so under the tutelage of a mentor.

“He said that I needed to make it clear that I did not want to stay home. … The men that interview are coming from a generation of stay-at-home moms, and there is a perception that they will lose their investment in you after you have a baby.”

Kathleen started her own firm in December of 2012 with another lawyer, Sarah Reddy. Coming from a firm, with support staff, running a firm as a business was a new experience for Kathleen. Law school does not focus on firm management.

“There is this huge lack of knowledge of how to run a law firm. Its a business too and both need attention.”

“Half of my time is [taking care of] administrative duties. I thought it might be twenty or thirty percent of my time.”

A year of running a firm with another lawyer has provided insight on what it means to run a firm, as a woman, in a mid-sized city.

She goes over every aspect of the fee agreement with every client. She explains every paragraph.

“We go over every aspect in painful detail; every single one.”

And running a small firm has given her a new appreciation for scope of service, and price of an hour.

“I can’t charge lawyer hours to file something in my case. If I want to get paid what I bill, I have to only bill lawyer time.”

Going away from the billable hour to flat fee rates is a hot topic in law firm billing. Kathleen has signed up a few clients on a flat fee basis. Most of these clients signing a flat fee are contracting for representation for a preliminary hearing in a criminal case.

“I think that we always lose money on flat fee.”

Being the boss and the attorney charging the hours flavors a lawyer-client relationship in a different way. Kathleen starts talking about billing from the beginning.

“When its a small firm, you have to have that uncomfortable conversation with your client, not [the] billing [department].”

Being a woman lawyer, and a younger lawyer, has affected Kathleen’s interactions with other attorneys. When Kathleen starting practicing, she noticed that men treated her differently than the men lawyers that she worked with at the firm.

“I don’t think that a man would call another man ‘sweetheart’ on the phone.”

“Girls coming into this field have to impress an entire different generation. You can’t come in with your short skirts and heels and expect to be taken seriously. You will not be taken seriously.”

Kathleen Pence is an attorney at Pence & Reddy PC. She is expecting her second child this month. She expects to work the same number of hours, but different hours.

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