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A word with Tara Malek, owner at Smith + Malek, PLLC

Historically, a strong family life has been a liability in the demanding legal field, where billable hours are often the mark of success. Not at Smith + Malek.

The Idaho firm prioritizes work-life balance with measures like flexible schedules, a digitally focused paperless office and abundant work-from-home opportunities. Smith + Malek also eliminated the competitive “partner track” in favor of a profit sharing plan that begins almost immediately, which decreases turn- around time, eliminates internal fights over origination and invests every employee in the firm.

To Tara Malek, this approach just makes sense — for employee well-being and company success. Malek, an owner of the firm along with husband Luke T. Malek and Peter J. Smith IV, noted that the changes particularly benefit women, who too often fall behind as they juggle parenting and career.

Smith + Malek’s company culture has been a powerful recruiting tool. The firm is in growth mode with a new downtown Boise office in the U.S. Bank building, along with locations in Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene.

The Idaho Business Review recently sat down with Malek to discuss work-life balance, women in leadership and team-building strategies. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Talk about how Smith + Malek’s approach to work-life balance came about.

We wanted to do something different. We all had had our own individual experience working at other law firms. They weren’t bad experiences, but we saw a need to do things a little bit differently. Especially with a lot of colleagues who are our age, we saw the struggles they were going through with work-life balance and having families. We really wanted to focus on that and provide an environment that was supportive of that work-life balance. It is not a 50-50 balance, but there is a balance. We have focused on giving flexibility to our attorneys to do what they need to do. Peter has three kids, for instance. He is at Little League games. He should be able to do those things and not miss out on those special moments.

We have been very lucky with the caliber of attorneys we have hired on. They are great people and brilliant attorneys. We are invested in keeping them.

It is great you have that culture. In many businesses, it seems like there is a workaholic culture. It is almost a competition. People can feel punished or judged if they are not doing that.

We wanted to get away from that entirely. There is no internal competition. We are very collaborative. This morning, an attorney sent out a message and said, “I’m stuck on this really complex issue. Does anyone have ideas?” Everyone is jumping in offering solutions. It is a really supportive environment. There is a focus on helping each other succeed. At the end of the day, that helps the clients and gets them the best product.

You are also sending the message to your attorneys and employees that you can really be off when you take time off.

We don’t want to burn out our attorneys. They are great people and we want to retain them. Having unreasonable expectations that they are working 24/7 is not helpful to that. Our attorneys will send an email at night or answer a phone call, but there is no expectation that they do that.

We have also been really lucky in our clients. Our attorneys develop these relationships with them and are the go-to person. If there is an issue, they jump in and want to help. That is very different than management saying you have to respond or devote x amount of time. The focus is really on quality and turn-around.

All of this ties in to women advancing in the workplace and not being held back by family life. 

It is unfortunately a little bit of a reality still in the law. We want to really create an environment that is supportive of both men and women. We have a lot of women who work for us. It has been really nice to provide a safer space and support and support their family life and not reinforce fear or a preconceived notion that you are going to be punished if you have a family. Often, that happens at other places. We really wanted to be cognizant of it.

It sounds like you offer a lot of flexibility with working remotely.

Yes, we offer flexible schedules and have a lot of faith in our attorneys. We have not had anyone abuse that. We had an attorney the other day — her mom watches her daughter while she is at work, and her mom got sick. So two days or so she was at home with her daughter while her mom was recovering. We are a Cloud-based firm, so we don’t have any paper files, no filing cabinets in the office. Everything can be accessed from anywhere on our system. She was able to work from home and had the peace of mind that her daughter was taken care of. Clients were satisfied. There is no issue. Things like that are what we really encourage. We knew she was going to balance things the way she needed to balance them. There was no concern about things being accomplished.

In Coeur d’Alene, we have an attorney with a 5-month-old. There is the getting back to work and the anxiety that comes with that. We were talking about how do we balance that with the office and working at home. What ended up happening is there are some days where she will bring her in in a bassinet in the corner. The attorney is getting work done that she needs to get done. She was also looking for a new house and moving. For us to take that stressor off her plate really helps in the long run.

It just makes sense. I would listen to my mom about why she didn’t work. For a lot of years, she was a stay-at-home mom, which is wonderful, but to me she expressed some regret at not being able to do both things at the same time. I think there were many women in all of our lives telling us the same thing, how difficult it was and what a struggle it was to make that work. We wanted to approach it from a different angle.

You also eliminated the partner track. Talk about that decision.

We have owners and non-owners, and there are three owners. But we have a system where we do profit share with our attorneys, and that eliminates a lot of that internal competition. It is a team-based approach. We really asked the question, “What is it about partner that is so attractive? What are the benefits?” Let’s talk about that instead of the label. We heard about flexibility and bonuses. Those are things we can incorporate in a different way and get rid of those labels and work on creating a better tomorrow.

Do you feel this is a trend? Will other law firms start improving work-life balance?

I would hope so. I think by and large there is more of a recognition about these issues we are addressing. I think nationally it is on everyone’s radar. Now it is about how to address those issues and how quickly can you do it.

At IBR’s recent Breakfast Series forum on multi-generational office culture, we discussed the old-school view of work where your manager wants to see you in the office busting it out. This is a real shift to accept remote work. 

It really is, and it is a hard reset when something has been done a certain way. For us, we ask why. Let’s talk about why and if there is a better way or an alternative way to do it. The goal at the end of the day is making tomorrow better than today for our attorneys and our clients and the community. This is part of the better tomorrow, both internally and externally.

We have seen that clients don’t want attorneys who are burned out. When you are burned out, you are not being innovative. You are not thinking of creative solutions. It affects everything, including the internal culture of the firm. We want attorneys who are happy and engaged and excited to be doing this work. Providing those types of benefits or flexibility certainly doesn’t hurt us or hurt the business. Instead what we are seeing is really benefits to it. Productivity goes up. The culture of our firm, we are fiercely protective of it internally. Everyone is very collaborative, not competitive. Clients pick up on that as well.

You also prioritize leadership opportunities for women, mentorship and taking on challenges.

We want to empower our attorneys. Traditionally, in all different professions, you don’t necessarily see women empowered to take on leadership roles, and we really want them to. They are brilliant, and they are great people. We encourage our attorneys to look for opportunities to be leaders in the community, whether that is getting involved in an organization or doing outreach and going out and recruiting clients themselves. We are kind of eliminating the middle man and teaching them the skills to do that and go out and get the business. That traditionally has not been the role of females. We have seen our female attorneys go out and talk to different businesses. Often there is this trepidation and we were encouraging them to talk it through and take away that fear of the unknown. It is that confidence gap. We want to provide this safe space for mentorship for all our attorneys. There are all of those ideas that swirl around more often in women’s heads than men’s like, “I’m a phony. I’m a fraud.”

We also have a very good mentorship structure. The attorneys who have been with us for a long time, we encourage them to reach out and partner up with our younger attorneys. or newer attorneys and talk them through things. They can go in and say without judgement, “I don’t get this.” Because of that, in our weekly meetings, we see 100% participation. No one is afraid to ask a question. That’s unusual based on my experience.

Has your company culture been a good recruitment tool?

It really has. It has been very popular. We hired on four new attorneys in January. What are hearing back is that was a big selling point, this work-life balance, Cloud-based, more technology-based. That has helped us in our recruitment as well.

About Kim Burgess

Kim Burgess is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.