Case Study: Pursley Friese Torgrimson

Atlanta, Georgia
16 Employees
Three out of six nonequity partners and two out of three equity partners are women; both managing partners are women.
An Inclusive Culture
Objective Hiring, Performance Reviews, and Promotion
Flexibility & Family Leave

Creating an inclusive culture has been cited in the WLI research as a top priority in creating environments where more women will advance. What does an inclusive culture look like? How do leaders create an inclusive culture? Why is it important?

One example of how to create an inclusive culture is provided by Pursley Friese Torgrimson (PFT) in Atlanta. PFT is a law firm where women are in visible, senior roles, with two female managing partners—Stephanie Friese and Christian Torgrimson. In addition, 50 percent of all partners are women.

“First and foremost, we deliver high-quality legal work,” says Friese. U.S. News and World Report agrees, giving the firm a Tier 1 ranking among the nation’s “best law firms” in 2015 for eminent domain and condemnation law. Atlanta Woman magazine recognized Friese among Atlanta’s 25 “power movers and shakers” and Torgrimson as a “leader in law,” and the firm was recognized in 2014 as one of Atlanta’s best and brightest companies to work for by

PFT puts a premium on high-quality legal work for clients while fostering a culture of shared goals, open communication, and a familial atmosphere. It is a firm where all are invited to step into and stay connected to work and family.

“In general, our focus is on empowerment so we can make choices—deliver quality work in an entrepreneurial environment, work with great people, and have different dimensions to shape a full life,” Friese says.

Like other women in the WLI study, the leaders of PFT have created an environment where they can thrive. Friese started a predecessor law firm, Friese Legal, as an independent practice immediately after graduating from law school and managed it for 13 years as one of the first woman-owned, woman-managed law firms certified by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. Torgrimson and partner Charles Pursley joined Friese to create the current firm in 2013.

“The traditional law firm model has not kept pace with the increasing number of women graduating from law schools or with the growing demand for a more collaborative or entrepreneurial environment. At a certain point in their careers, many women face inequitable circumstances that make it difficult to thrive and have control over the direction of their careers. More and more women are leaving the traditional law firm structure to create their own success, either as solos or in smaller practices.” says Torgrimson. “As both a young associate and a young partner, I hit the wall of old-school mentality at more traditional firms that I was not going to be able to break through or get around. Instead of trying to change the old model, I found a new one.”

Shared Goals

Stereotypically, law firms are known for having silos, with each partner running his or her fiefdom with minimal coordination with peers. Not so at PFT, where firmwide goals are a business imperative.

Following the aforementioned 2013 merger, the managing partners kicked off a firmwide process to reach agreement on a unified strategy. “We engaged in a transparent strategic planning process, including financial targets, business development aspirations, and other key goals. We return to these goals each month at our meetings to measure our performance,” says Torgrimson.

The approach is paying off in terms of linking day-to-day work with business goals. An associate, Elizabeth Story, explains how it has opened her eyes to the business of the firm. “I now understand how we make our revenue and incur expenses. I have my own individual strategic plan that rolls up into the one for the entire firm.”

This has encouraged Story to take on a broader range of projects. “One of my goals is to diversify my legal experience. I have taken on additional work in different practice areas with different partners to broaden my exposure to different areas of real estate law,” she explains.

Open Communication

To help make open communication the norm, the partners invested in a series of facilitated workshops that helped build awareness and skills to leverage the strengths of different communication styles.

Story found that the workshops set the stage for different communication patterns. “As an associate, I expect to receive feedback; however, this opened the door for me to also provide feedback to those who are more senior.”

In addition, “brain trust” sessions provide space to engage in open communication and are a standing agenda item for firmwide meetings. “One of us tees up a current challenge and engages the full office in problem solving, soliciting input from different areas of legal expertise. We often generate unexpected ideas that turn into solutions that save clients time and money,” Torgrimson explains. “This lateral communication and collaboration result in creative solutions for our clients.”

“Open communication about all topics—including gender—helps to create an environment where we honestly put any issue—and definitely important issues—on the table,” says Friese.

Familial Atmosphere

The familial nature of the firm is literal. Friese started her own law practice immediately after law school. “My father, Jim Friese, is my mentor,” she says. He is also a partner at the firm.

As part of a flexible workplace, a nanny cares for preschool children in a two-room nursery/play area in a corner office on the same floor as the law practice. “Having my children here has made all the difference to me,” says Christine Norstadt, an attorney for the firm. “I love being near my children while I am at work.”

The firm is also a fun place to work. “I feel like we are all open, wish the best for each other, and have a good sense of humor,” says partner Lou Papera. “I don’t feel like I am walking on eggshells. We talk openly about a number of topics, including those related to gender.”

Monthly firmwide team-building events are inclusive and varied, ranging from trips to the nearby High Museum to service projects to the more conventional cocktail and dinner events.

Connection between members of the law firm is also encouraged through an open-door policy and a monthly activity called “kudos” in which everyone at the law firm has an opportunity to recognize others who have delivered strong performances over the past month.

The firm is also one where all attorneys are supported in developing robust external networks with business leaders and key partners throughout the region.

Coaching and mentoring to build skills takes place by working closely with more senior members of the firm. “Our development model builds on how senior partner Charles Pursley mentored me—first, you carry the briefcase and shadow the first-chair attorney; second, you take a part of the case; and third, you take the lead in the case as first chair,” says Torgrimson.

PFT has clearly created an inclusive culture. To those who work there, this culture is one where the key values of shared goals, open communication, and a familial atmosphere affect how people work together on a daily basis.

PFT demonstrates that leaders need to fully own the elements of the culture they wish to encourage and leverage opportunities such as team meetings to create standard practices and rituals; the PFT brainstorming process, goal-setting process, and communication workshops are vital to their success.

At PFT, strong cultural values include a family-friendly environment.

“We see the results of our culture in our retention of employees, and that continuity helps us to retain clients,” says Friese. “Our clients want to speak to someone they know; and when they call PFT, they have a personal connection.”

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