My Journey To Creating A Law Firm And Work Environment I Love

Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Jessica Markham to our pages. Click here if you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.

I started a small family firm in 2015 after 10 years of practice. By that I mean I secured a 600 square foot office, and I sat in it with my very part-time admin, praying to get clients. It was terrifying, thrilling, and satisfying all at once, being so autonomous. For the first few days I was redoing the bathroom and had a toilet in the waiting area, and none in the bathroom, and had to go to the bathroom in the restaurant across the street. My only goal that year was making as much money as I made the year before.

Fortunately, the phone did ring, and I wasn’t alone long. I now have seven other attorneys working at the firm, with at least one more slated to start in 2022. We’ve expanded the office space three times and won many local and regional awards for our work. I did not dream this big, yet little by little, over 6-plus years, here we are.

Right before the toilet in the waiting room, I was trying to procure a logo for the firm (to be exact, there was no firm at that point; it was just me on my couch). Logos are kind of fun and creative especially compared to the other mundane details of starting a law firm. I was about to hit send on a request for a design on a certain website, and my husband stopped me. He said, “No, no, no, you cannot get a logo until you know your brand. What makes you different?” This question, let alone the answer, had never occurred to me. I just wanted to practice law and be able to keep the lights on.

I can’t tell you how often I asked myself in the early years what made my firm different. When my new “law firm” was merely a dream and a laptop on my couch, nothing made me different. It took me many years to figure out what did. At first, the answer was, nothing made me different. What was my brand? I didn’t have one. But I plugged on anyway.

My first hire was an attorney-mom who wanted a very part-time job. My next attorney hire brought her baby to the interview, seeking something just short of full-time hours so she could pick up her kids a couple afternoons per week. The later hires were full time, but they all had something in common: they were total rock stars who loved working in the law but wanted to be happier.  They love what they do, they have a passion for the work and seek excellence in it, they want a law job that respects the sanctity of their off hours, and a happy work environment at the office. I believe my emphasis on these concepts, and a “no a**hole” hiring policy, has been the reason why potential new hires come to me primarily as opposed to me seeking out new hires.

After six years, I think I have divined what makes us different. It’s not complicated. Happiness. Not as an unintended consequence, not as a side benefit of the job, but a goal of it.

My firm requires a lower billable hour requirement than other local firms. But beyond that, we also coach our employees not to work in off hours. No evenings, no weekends. If we find we are habitually doing both, I take a long hard look in the mirror as to why. There is only one answer: I have failed.  When that happens consistently, I adjust our hiring strategy. I hire more people, because I don’t live in fear that new cases won’t come, and I don’t prioritize making money. I prioritize happiness, for myself and my employees.

Moreover, I think I have been able to deliver a happy work environment by focusing on what’s important to me. I realized early on that my law firm is no longer me, but it can be an extension of myself, as a platform to live my values. I do this intentionally because there are many firms that fail in that respect. Many firms allow toxic work environments to perpetuate as long as it continues making them money, as though basic human values of kindness and respect don’t live in law firms. We don’t yell at this firm. We don’t curse. We don’t belittle people. We work as a team. We can practice law without being jerks.

At my firm we focus on these as our values, and we articulate them clearly: client service, compassion and empathy, commitment to the community, independence, integrity, pursuit of excellence, growth, team collaboration.  Diversity and inclusion underpin these all. I promise you, these are not buzz words, and actually I can make the list even more concise. Respect for your colleagues and respect for your clients.

While the awards and accolades have been great, my barometer for success is based on whether the employees of Markham Law Firm, myself included, are happy. Do they love coming to work each day? That means we are living our values. In short, happiness flows from all the things that a law firm needs in order to succeed. I’m here to tell you, there is a business case for happiness.  Happy lawyers mean that you have happy clients. I don’t have to tell you that happy clients mean a better bottom line!

Do I have bad days and difficult clients? Sure. Is it all peaches and cream, particularly during COVID-19, managing during difficult economic times, with a remote workforce? No. However I’ve created a workplace that I love, and my 14 coworkers love it, too.

Jessica Markham is the Managing Attorney at Markham Law Firm in Bethesda, Maryland. She practices all aspects of family law in Maryland and Washington, D.C. and is the author of “Representing Federal Employees in Divorce,” published by the American Bar Association. Ms. Markham is frequently retained to prepare Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs) and has been retained as an expert witness regarding the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS). Ms. Markham has an active mediation practice and serves as a court appointed mediator and Alternative Dispute Resolution Facilitator in local jurisdictions. In 2018, 2019 and 2020 Ms. Markham was recognized by her peers for inclusion in “The Best Lawyers in America”© in the field of Family Law, for the Washington D.C. Area. The entire firm was ranked in the category of Best Family Law Firm in 2019 and 2020. Best Lawyers is a purely peer review publication. In 2019 Ms. Markham was recognized as Top Attorney in Divorce and Alternative Dispute resolution by Bethesda Magazine and Top Divorce Lawyer by Washingtonian Magazine. Ms. Markham was recently named Top Family Law Attorney and Top Alternative Dispute Resolution attorney by peer-review in Bethesda Magazine, and Markham Law Firm was awarded Top Winner in the Daily Record 2019 Reader Rankings for Best Family Law Firm. Markham Law Firm has also been named one of the top three winners in both Family Law and Mediation for 2020 in the Daily Record 2020 Reader Rankings.

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