Attorneys of the Month
Leaving Big Law for Collaboration & Diversity
By Vicki Hogue-Davies
When it comes to law firms, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Three female partners from big law recognized this and collaborated to fulfill their mutual dream of opening a woman-owned firm that practiced at the highest level while being family-friendly; encouraged women to stay in the profession; and could off er clients flexible rates. Attorneys Lu Sacks, Cindy Ricketts and Hope Case started talking about the idea of starting their own firm in March of this year and by June, their idea became a reality. Sacks, Ricketts & Case specializes in consumer and employment class actions, employment counseling and commercial litigation.
“Although the three of us were in geographically distinct offices at our prior firm, DLA Piper, we worked together on a variety of cases,” Sacks says. “Hope is our employment specialist, I am our class action guru, and Cindy is our veteran trial advocate. That is how we were segmented at DLA, but we worked together across each of those areas. So, aft er long careers of practicing at very large law firms, and most recently the largest firm in the world, we decided to break out on our own.”
“We wanted to provide superlative service to sophisticated clients by creating teams that included fabulous attorneys with whom we had worked over many years, but we wanted to achieve that in a different environment,” she continues. “We wanted a culture that was more conducive to keeping women in the profession. We planned a firm that could be nimble in responding to client needs, with attractive rate structures and fl exible staffing. We wanted to do it all better, frankly. We had seen what succeeded and what didn’t.”
In addition to their legal expertise, all the women had the extensive leadership experience that would help them be successful going out on their own. Ricketts, a longtime resident of Phoenix, co-founded DLA Piper’s office in the city in 2007 and served as the office’s pro bono coordinator and hiring partner. Sacks had headed DLA’s litigation practice in its Northern California offices and co-chaired its nationwide class action practice group. Case led DLA’s Northern California employment practice group and was the hiring partner at its Palo Alto, Calif. office.
Although the three left DLA, and several partners, associates and staff followed them, the relationship with their former firm remains strong.
“We have close personal and professional relationships with many of our former colleagues at DLA with whom we continue to work on shared client matters,” Sacks says. “We go to them for assistance when appropriate and refer engagements that are outside of our practice areas and vice versa—they also refer matters to us.”
BUILDING A FOUNDATION
To achieve the goals for their new firm, the three partners knew that focusing on diversity and collaboration would be the foundation of their success. In fact, they emphasize that “diversity is in our DNA.”
“We are each committed to diversity and in particular to keeping women in the profession. For us, the best way to achieve that shared commitment was to combine forces and focus on the collaborative aspects of our respective practices that had worked so well for the three of us while at DLA,” Sacks says. “So far it has been an incredibly successful business model.”
“At many firms, diversity may be part of the mission statement, but here, it truly is fundamental to the firm’s existence,” she continues. “Twelve of our 13 attorneys are diverse, by gender, sexual orientation or ethnic background.”
“The diversity of our attorneys and their different backgrounds and experiences allows us to provide better services to clients,” Case says. Ricketts adds that “The collaborative process—teaming together instead of working in silos—is really a driving force not only for superior client service, but also for building a more flexible environment for the training of more junior lawyers. Providing them with opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have to develop their own practice and clients in a supportive environment is very important to us.”
Ricketts points out that “Since we opened in June, some of the junior lawyers who joined us have already succeeded in developing their own clients, which they would have been constrained from doing at a big law firm. We have a very collegial environment for people to create their own visions for what they want their careers to be. We want to empower people to be as successful as they can be.”
As the Sacks, Ricketts & Case founders were approached by other attorneys who wanted to join the firm, they worked out the hours commitments and salaries for each new lawyer. With the lower overhead costs of a smaller firm, the founders believed that they could provide excellent client service without taking a cookie-cutter or lock-step approach to staffing. This approach allows attorneys with children and other family commitments more flexibility in their schedules. It also enables them to work with smaller clients whom they think can be developed into large ones.
“It is a hallmark of big law firms these days that management tells you what you should do, which clients you should work for, and at what rates you should provide your services,” Sacks says. “We want people to be much more entrepreneurial at an earlier stage. We treat professionals like adults; we don’t assume that we know best when it comes to structuring each attorney’s career.”
Supporting the firm’s attorneys are “great paralegals and administrative staff , some of whom we have worked with for decades,” Sacks says. The entire team collaborates from offices located in Phoenix, San Francisco and Palo Alto, along with a new office in San Diego. Ricketts manages the Phoenix office and Sacks oversees the California locations. Case is resident in the Palo Alto office and supervises personnel across all offices.
The founders note that even though they work across multiple offices, all major firm decisions are made jointly. Also, the varied physical locations work to the benefit of clients.
“We make sure we staff cases with the most qualified attorneys and support personnel, rather than staffing based on where people reside,” Sacks says. “We will oft en have teams on a litigation matter that consist of people from both the California and Phoenix offices. Clients will not see any charges associated with that, whether it is travel time or travel costs. From the client’s perspective, we are acting as one office of one firm and that allows us to be much more responsive and to react more quickly. And fortunately we have the technology that allows us to do it.”
In just a few months since its opening, Sacks, Ricketts & Case has a roster of more than 40 active clients. Some of them came with the attorneys when they founded their new firm, including Sony, Monster Cable, Go Daddy, Massage Envy, LifeLock and Il Fornaio. The founders credit Phoenix firm Coppersmith, Schermer & Brockelman, from whom they sublease space, with assisting in their accelerated startup.
“The lawyers at CSB were in our shoes a number of years ago and they and their staff have been incredibly supportive in helping us jump start our firm,” Ricketts notes.
About 80 percent of the cases the firm is handling are consumer and employment class action lawsuits. The firm’s other active matters include commercial litigation, data privacy and other business disputes, along with employment counseling and efforts to help clients stay out of litigation by reviewing warranties, advertising and online agreements.
“That is one of the really rewarding aspects of the business,” Case says. “We work not just with large companies, but with small ones that are learning to be employers so they don’t wind up being one of the class actions. We help them with their handbooks and having best practices in place to minimize risk, as well as counseling concerning potential terminations. If they do get into litigation or arbitration, we naturally defend them in that, aft er which we consider how the company might benefit from revising policies, better documentation or manager training. The point is, we are not there just to defend the litigation, but for the whole life cycle.”
“The level of lawyering we provide is based on what each of our clients wants because different clients have different levels of sophistication and needs,” she says. “We act as in-house counsel for some clients. Others have very sophisticated in-house counsel and we work with them. We provide whatever clients need in terms of the level of lawyering they want. We are business partners, counselors, people who are going to provide solutions for them—not just somebody who is going to tell them what the law is.”
“What you have with our firm is essentially the best aspects of a large firm and a smaller firm melded together,” Case says. “We have a very high expectation of quality of work, but our environment is extremely collegial. We all know, trust, respect and support each other. We have an environment where the team members are committed to taking care of clients and really the clients come first. The reason we are all here is to help our clients. We try not to be too corporate. And we don’t want to distract people from what they are here to do, which is to be good lawyers and good coworkers. We all click very well, I believe.”
A guiding philosophy behind the firm’s culture is transparency. “I think this is oft en lacking in large law firms,” Sacks says. “Partners are unsure and anxious about how their compensation is set in relation to their peers. They wonder where money is going in the firm, not to mention where firm revenues are coming from.”
“One of the best ways I can explain how we work is through this example,” Sacks continues. “Recently, I sat down to chat with an attorney about joining us. I literally turned my computer around on the desk and opened a spreadsheet of our revenues and projections and walked through it with him. I talked about how rates play out in our revenue stream and we discussed how to set a rate for him that would enable him to build a successful practice. We do this because we don’t think anyone should be wondering about the firm’s cash fl ow or about revenue distribution. I think that is a tremendously important attribute of our firm.”
Promoting the attributes and values of the firm and expanding its reach are never far from the minds of Sacks, Ricketts and Case. They currently have a few things in the works toward that end. They are pursuing certification as a woman-owned business with the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council. Certification validates that businesses are at least 51 percent woman-owned, controlled, operated and managed.
“The certification will allow us to be on lists for corporations that want to encourage diversity in the vendors they hire,” Ricketts says. “Being on this list also helps us to promote diversity as a firm.”
“We just recently expanded our San Francisco presence by doubling our office space to accommodate a total of 11 attorneys,” Sacks adds. “If I have my druthers, we will be close to the 20 attorney mark a year from now. And we just opened our first Southern California office in late September.”
Other areas that the three women work in related to law, but not their day-to-day jobs, include classroom teaching and speaking at seminars.
Ricketts is an adjunct professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, where she teaches a “Technology in the Courtroom” course. The course is part of a litigation experience certificate program designed to help students get more practical knowledge, she says. She also speaks periodically at professional seminars and engagements.
Sacks speaks nationally and internationally about class action and unfair competition issues. She especially enjoys discussing ethics in class actions, she says. “It is one of my favorite areas of writing and speaking.” She has presented to the International Organization of Privacy Professionals, the British Institute of International and Comparative Law and other organizations. Sacks has also chaired various law conferences and programs.
“From time to time, I have been a guest speaker at various classes,” Case says. “I’ve spoken to business law and human resources students to help them understand the intricacies of California employment law.” She also gives seminars and provides training about sexual harassment in the workplace, employer best practices and other employment law areas.
“One of my side hobbies is watching figure skating because my kids are both figure skaters,” Case continues. “I am on the U.S. Figure Skating Association grievance committee, which administers the association’s grievance and hearing processes for athletes and people in the U.S. figure skating world. One aspect is addressing discipline issues arising from violations of the rules. Remember Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding 20 years ago? It usually isn’t that dramatic, but athletes devote an incredible amount of time, effort, passion and resources to their sport and need an avenue to air issues that impact their careers.”
Ricketts is heavily involved with the American Diabetes Association in Phoenix. She chaired the organization’s leadership board for two years and its Father of the Year awards event. She is presently the chairperson for the association’s legal advocacy committee.
“The committee provides legal advice for children when schools don’t want them to participate in field trips and sports program because the schools don’t want to address the issues related to a diabetic child participating in these events,” Ricketts says. “I feel very passionate about this work because diabetes runs in my family—my dad and grandmother had it—so it is something very personal to me.”
She also serves on a committee of the nonprofit Arizona Women’s Education and Employment organization, which provides new beginnings and support particularly for women in transition, but also for men, she says. “The organization helps provide them with motivation and education for returning to or being introduced to the workforce,” she says.
Sacks is also interested in the firm helping facilitate political campaigns for strong women candidates at local, state and federal levels. “I have been an active behind-the-scenes fundraiser for various campaigns in the past, including working on the last two presidential campaigns.”
The joy and passion that the three attorneys bring to their work is testified to by their long list of accomplishments and involvements. What do they each enjoy most about the practice of law and owning their own firm? For Sacks, it is that she still feels the excitement of going to the office every day, even aft er an almost 30-year career in the profession.
“When I get up in the morning I’m really excited to go to the office,” Sacks says. “I really enjoy the people I work with and I think that is an amazing thing to say in the legal industry, and particularly the opportunity to practice with so many amazing women. You don’t see many women practicing full time in their mid-fifties. To do it with the level of satisfaction and enjoyment that I have is due in great part to our wonderful clients. And, the reason we started this firm is because the three of us realized that the times we were most enjoying our practices is when we were working together. So, I am thrilled that we were able to make it a ‘formal work together’ so to speak.”
Ricketts concurs that enjoying what she does in her career is due to the people she does it with. “I most enjoy the collaborative process of working with people whom I respect, consider my friends, and continue to learn from each and every day,” she says.
“I think that is very important and the most important thing to me.”
The three women are indeed friends outside of the office. They all like to travel and Sacks and Ricketts are golfers who are working to interest Case in the sport. “We made sure our Palo Alto office was located across the street from the driving range,” Sacks jokes.
They are also avid baseball fans and enjoy getting together to watch their respective teams battle it out against each other and have attended World Series games together. Perhaps fittingly because of their geographic locations, Ricketts is an Arizona Diamondbacks fan, Sacks follows the San Francisco Giants, and Case is an Oakland A’s supporter.
“It is not surprising that Lu is in Phoenix this week,” Ricketts laughs, alluding to Sacks scheduling a trip that coincided with a series between the Giants and the Diamondbacks.
“I sound a little like a broken record, but it is the people I work with that really leads to my enjoyment,” Case says. “I have great coworkers and great clients. What makes me so proud is the work we do and the caliber of people we work with. I take a lot of pride in my work and that of the firm. The area we are in is so vibrant … it is constantly changing and presenting new challenges, giving you the opportunity to be creative and to keep up with new ideas to help clients. I am never bored. Before in my life I would spend six months on something and then be ready to move on. In this area, I am never bored and really look forward to the next challenges.”
The firm’s name of Sacks, Ricketts & Case, which is abbreviated as SRC, stands for more than just the first initials of the cofounders’ last names. It is also the firm’s brand. “It stands for ‘smart, resourceful and committed,’” Case says. “We put that on our business cards because it so succinctly described the firm.”
“And what’s best” Sacks laughs. “We didn’t pay a consultant to conceive it—we developed our SRC brand ourselves.”