Erica Pinsky



Balance, Innovation & Success at HERITAGE LAW

 available as a PODCAST

A question I often get from clients relates to the “how” of culture building. I shared the respectful practices of Employers of Choice in Road to Respect to address that question, to provide leaders  with a blueprint to create change.


However, every business is distinct with its own unique culture. We have a better chance of success when we have a wider variety of options to consider. I am always looking for businesses that are “getting respect right,” to offer more alternatives and choices to support and assist my clients.  In this e-news I am very pleased to be sharing the story of Heritage Law, a Vancouver firm which is attracting and retaining great talent as a result  of a strategic choice to make work life balance the “fundamental underpinning” of its culture.


I heard about Heritage Law quite by accident. I met lawyer Monique Shebbeare at a networking event.  I learned that she was working in a firm focused on estates, wills and family law. Then she shared that she is the mother of an 18 month old.

Given what I know about the huge career challenges that face female lawyers with children I was immediately curious to learn more about her experience. The decision to have children, which research has consistently confirmed continues to be a “career limiting” move for women in the corporate world, is particularly true in the case of female lawyers. While women make up more than 50% of law school graduates, very few of those women ever make partner at most firms. 
I was all set to hear a story of stress, guilt, conflict and long hours when I asked her about her experience parenting as a  working lawyer.  Much to my surprise, she told me was thriving. The reason directly relates to the culture of the firm she works for:
Heritage Law.

Heritage Law broke the mould with respect  to traditional  law firm cultures. Founded by Nicole  Garton-Jones when she was pregnant with her first child, the firm was structured to support its lawyers to be successful at both the practice of law and parenting.  Six years later,
the firm is enjoying healthy growth and success.  The female employees, their families and their clients are all reaping the benefits of Ms. Garton-Jones vision.  

Given that what I was hearing sounded like a workplace culture aligned with the value of respect, one that is creatively finding new ways to embrace diversity, I was most interested in learning more about the workplace culture at Heritage Law.  

I had the opportunity to do so recently when I went over to West Vancouver to speak with Ms. Shebbeare as well as Ms.  Garton-Jones. Here are some of the highlights of what I learned.  To hear more, please listen to the entire interview.

Innovation and  Technology
Like many business innovators, Ms. Garton-Jones was looking for a solution to a problem.  Having worked in both large and small law firms, she was familiar with the challenges faced by female colleagues when they decided to start a family, challenges which result in many choosing to leave the profession, a choice she was not willing to make.

Her vision involved the creation of an alternative model, one that would effectively manage the competing demands of building a new law firm and being a new mother.  The question was how to do it.

Technology provided a large part of the solution.  “We put an IT structure in place to facilitate high level legal services that could be done on a flexible basis.”

Heritage Law is “paperless” and utilizes practice management software to centrally manage billing, time tracking, matter information, contacts, appointments, documents and document assembly.  

One of the first things I noticed when I walked into Ms. Shebbeare’s office was that she had two monitors.  That is one aspect of the paperless structure.  All of the  firm’s data and specialized software applications are stored in a remote, secure “cloud” server.  All of the information that she and her colleagues need to do their jobs can be accessed from anywhere as long as there is an internet connection.

Another piece of technology that supports the kind of flexibility working parents need is provided by the VOIP (voice over IP) phone system which allows ten staff in ten different locations to use the same phone line and system.  They use a remote answering service which answers client calls during the business day if a staff member is out of the office and routes the message to the appropriate person to deal with.

All staff have a computer, high speed internet, a VOIP phone and a scanner at their home offices.  The firm’s core philosophy, one intricately aligned with the value of respect, is to create a “caring and supportive culture that really fits each lawyer’s life needs.”

NGJ - “I focus on keeping the overhead low to provide flexibility.  It is really about finding a balance between keeping the overhead low and providing enough resources so that they can be the best lawyers that they can be. Technology allows us to make more money in less time.”

Culture Attracts Talent
Work-life balance, or work life integration as I refer to it, is largely seen as a “woman’s issue.”  Unfortunately, this tends to side line the bottom line business value of creating a workplace culture that truly respects the whole person at work.  In addition to being a critical factor in supporting employee health and promoting workplace wellness, Ms. Garton-Jones described the firm’s culture as a “significant strategic advantage in terms of attracting great talent.”

It was Heritage law’s “culture of flexibility and autonomy” that interested Ms. Shebbeare (who Ms. Garton-Jones described as a brilliant lawyer).  “Quite a few of us were at top firms, but those cultures didn’t work for us. Here we decide how we want to live our lives as lawyers.  There is a  shared understanding among the lawyers about that.”

Ms. Shebbaere shared her experience working in both the 300 person Bay Street firm as well as smaller traditional firms, with “fixed requirements of when and how you do your work as well the level of output required regardless of the business outcome of the firm.”  What appealed to her about Heritage law was that it was structured so that she could meet the same business results but do it in a way that worked with her life as a new mother. “No one is looking over my shoulder to say is Monique here, or where is Monique?  Rather the focus is on how your practice is going in terms of building your practice. Are our clients being served? What are the business results at the end of the day?  I can meet all of those objectives and still have a great deal of flexibility.”

The culture at Heritage Law is values based. At its core it is about shifting from a power based, paternalistic, command and control framework to a collaborative, partnership model based upon a foundation of trust, mutual respect and accountability.

Ms. Garton-Jones chose to combine the traditional law firm values of professionalism, commitment to client service, professional excellence, integrity, ethics and contribution to the community with other core values including innovation, collaboration, caring and nurturing to create the work-life balance that was, as she stated, “a business necessity,” as opposed to a “nice to have.” Work life balance was not an option.  It was necessary for the survival of the firm.

NGJ -  “We don’t have command and control hierarchical model which you see in most traditional firms. We don’t have the senior partner who tells everybody what to do.  It is truly more collaborative.  You can say that a lot of those values are female values, and interestingly enough we are all women.”

However, It is not just woman that are looking for a collaborative culture that offers employees  flexibility, autonomy and control.  Ms. Garton-Jones, a Gen Xer, shared an experience she had speaking with a young Gen Y man, a really talented lawyer who she would like to have join the firm.  He told her that the culture at Heritage Law would be one which would be ideal for him and others in his generation. “You really get me,” he told her.

NGJ - “We did not set this up for women.  I set this up because of necessity, and then other smart, conscientious women, interesting people contacted me.  In traditional firms a lot of connections are made on the golf course, on the squash court.  We have the female connection.  It was not that men were excluded it was just that they were not in on the conversation.  Now I am pro-actively out there to find a man.  I think it would be good for our culture to have a male lawyer. Diversity is good because having a variety of views at the table creates a better organization.   I think the firm will be improved to have a man, to have different ethnicities. That is what I want. That will only allow us to be better, stronger and have a wider variety of views at the table. Gen Y, they want autonomy.  Their view of success is a little more holistic. I think there are different values about what people expect in the workplace. It is not necessarily a male female divide. It is generational as well.”

According to Ms. Shebbeare “This is more of a horizontal model. There are business goals but how we go about meeting the business goals is more up to us. How do I like to practice as a lawyer? What is my individual personality as a lawyer?  If I need support I have people I can call but I don’t have to answer to anyone. The structure creates an emotional and psychological difference. In other places it was more that other people were in charge of my life and here I feel like I am in charge of my life, I am my own boss.”

It is well known that lack of control, particularly at work, is one of the main contributors to stress, a costly and damaging problem in today’s workplaces.  Ms. Garton-Jones shared some surprising information about the legal profession with me that I had been completely unaware of.  “Studies show that there are extremely high rates of alcoholism and depression within lawyers working in traditional structures. Lawyers have much higher suicide rates than the general population. The traditional model is not conducive to wellness. The pressures of the profession are significant. We want to make it a job, not a sprint.  We are in it for the long haul.”

Given that the firm is all women, I was curious about their experience with this kind of workplace bullying. I have worked as a consultant in many female dominated environments where disrespectful behaviour is a huge problem. What I heard confirms what I consistently hear from respectful, values based employers: it does not happen here because it is at odds with the cultural norms. 
NBJ - I have experienced that at other firms.  Bullying happens when it is a highly competitive environment where there are not many roles for women, so rather than supporting each other they start competing with each other. In this office it is not an issue because there are no barriers to advancement, there is no scarcity of opportunity. People are only bound by their vision and the amount that they want to work.  It is not part of our culture.”

Supporting Success
I describe respectful leadership as relationship based leadership.  The practices that demonstrate respectful leadership are designed to promote success, for the leader, those she/he leads and the organization as a whole.  Ongoing, respectful communication is the foundation of this leadership style.

Ms. Garton Jones described a leadership style aligned with the value of respect. “I have a vision.  I hire extremely smart, conscientious people that I respect and give them the resources they need to manifest their potential. Bureaucracy is meant to manage mediocre employees. Get great people, give them the resources they need to be successful and then get out of their way. I am not Monique’s boss.  I happen to be paying the lease but Monique is truly my colleague.  My job is to facilitate the back hand. I make sure that they have the tools that they need to be successful. I ask questions – what do you need to be successful? We communicate back and forth. I make sure that the lawyers have the resources and infrastructure in place to provide the support that they need.”

Ms. Shebbeare commented. “You own the firm and had some expectations which we talked about right at the beginning but other than that I would say to Nicole, this is the practice I envisage for myself.  It is a constant negotiation, about my needs and the needs of the firm.  It is a fluid conversation. Nicole arranged for a coach to support the lawyers, who helped me set up business plan.  We have admin support, web site and support, continuing education.  The costs of networking are paid for by the firm.  All of these factors help me at the initial stage of building a practice.”

Last month’s enews focused on values based company Ben and Jerry’s, and their triple bottom line of people, profit, planet.  I asked Ms. Garton-Jones and Ms. Shebbeare to talk to me about their vision of success;  personal, professional and organizational.  What I heard was consistent with the attitudes of other socially conscious, values based companies.  Profit, measured in strict monetary terms, is a critically important part of the equation, but it is not the only indicator of success.
Ms. Garton-Jones’s perspective was that it was about being “Successful as professionals  in serving  our clients, giving back to our communities, and making sure that we are contributing to our families.  Finance is important because without financial success none of the other things can be accomplished.  It is one piece of a larger construct.  We do have minimum requirements, some set criteria but they are not onerous. They are for financial viability. The goal is not that the lawyers are going to be a profit center.”

Success for Ms. Shebbeare is about “being recognized as a professional, as a leader in my area of practice. Being seen as an expert. Making a living. And my underlying belief is that you can do that in a way that still allows you to have a life with your family.”
No doubt the thriving practices of the lawyers as well as the business growth at Heritage Law is proof positive that she is right!


Pinsky’s writing style makes this book an easy read for managers, decision-makers, human resource professionals and business owners and anyone else interested in building a respectful workplace. She provides tangible advice interwoven with the stories of real organizations who demonstrate on a daily basis the value of promoting a respectful workplace. Pinsky ensures that readers can glean from the book information they need to take action. A respectful  workplace culture is a road “paved” over time with trust and support; and Pinsky’s book provides the tools you need to arrive at your destination.

Catherine M. Mattice
President, Civility Partners, LLC & SME on Workplace Bullying