The Legal Executive Institute Blog’s Podcast Transcript for the Interview with Renee Livingston

Topics: Diversity, Law Firms, Podcasts, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters

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Hello and welcome to the Legal Executive Institute Podcast. Today we’re concluding our series of podcasts around NAMWOLF, the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, a non-profit trade association that was founded in 2001. Today, Sharon Sayles Belton, Thomson Reuters Vice President of Governmental Affairs and Community Relations, will be interview Renee Livingston of the Livingston Law Firm in Walnut Creek, California. Renee also serves on NAMWOLF’s board of directors. Sharon.

Sharon Sayles Belton:           Renee, it’s so nice to meet you today. Thank you for joining us in today’s podcast. I’d like to begin, if you would, by telling us a little bit about your practice and what areas it specializes in.

Renee Livingston:                 Thank you, Sharon, and thank you also for inviting me to participate in this. I appreciate the opportunity. So, Livingston Law Firm is a small fixed attorney boutique trial firm. We are a women’s business enterprise. We’ve been certified by a couple of organizations. We’re located in Northern California, but our practice and our client base spans state and across the country. We serve as national trial council in product liability defense for a number of companies and as regional, and California council for a variety of others, predominantly in a general liability or a product liability practice area. I would say that our sweet spot in terms of what we do best is handling the catastrophic injury, wrongful death case and we are best in a really highly complex multi-party big exposure case where we can take our expertise and talents to help the client navigate insurance coverage, tenders, complex liability issues, experts, and ultimately damages to either to an agreeable resolution or trial if necessary.

Sharon Sayles Belton:           You know, Renee, when I was thinking your practice, and of course I spent some time reading about all the things that… services that your firm provides, I asked myself, “Why did you take this particular path?” What prompted you to get into this particular level of legal services?

Renee Livingston:     So, my path is a relatively simple one. I started in what I would consider to be a very traditional white male, older male, insurance defense law firm right out of law school. And I stayed there for 14 years, and I was a general partner for the last, I would say probably ten years of my career. And it was a great place to cut my teeth on a variety of legal issues. There was a wide practice area there. So I was there for 14 years and then at that point in my career decided I wanted to do something different.

And so, at a crazy, crazy time in my career when I had three children under the age of six, I decided to start a new business. And I would say that it really wasn’t born of that I wanted to be a woman business enterprise, or a woman law firm. It wasn’t that didn’t feel I got opportunity in the firm that I was that, or that somehow I wasn’t getting choice assignments or clients. It actually was a combination of need, that necessity to be in the East Bay, and then also to drive my career in the direction that I wanted. I have an entrepreneurial spirit, and I love running a business I have found. So, I’ve been doing that for the last 17 years.

Renee Liviingston of the Livingston Law Firm

Sharon Sayles Belton:           Well you … It’s interesting that you say that at an interesting time in your life with three children under the age of ten you decided to launch your own law firm. What were some of the primary challenges that you experienced in those early days of launching your firm? And what has been the benefits to your career?

Renee Livingston:     Yeah. So, I guess I surrounded myself with people that could help me do what I needed to do. And so I found myself just turning to people that I knew and trusted that could put me in touch with the people that could help me do this. And I had a stroke of, I call it luck. I think some of it was luck, and some of it is just the fruits of your efforts. I was fairly confident I would have a client base that would follow me in this new endeavor and take a risk on this new business. But that’s not to say there weren’t challenges. You have to have, I think, a high tolerance for risk. You have a high tolerance for financial ups and downs. I tell women … I coach women who are thinking of starting their own business, to make sure that they understand there’s going to be periods of time in the beginning when you do not have enough money to pay yourself. You will forego getting money out of your business for a while and that’s going to be your investment in your business. Your capital contribution to your business.

And for me, it was about… It took a long time. It was more than a year before we could actually start seeing the benefits of those efforts. So it’s challenging. And you should have a safety net, whether it’s a line of credit, a savings, a significant other who’s helping you through that time. Whatever it is.

Sharon Sayles Belton:           You know, you are on the board of directors of NAMWOLF, and I’m sure as a member of that organization and as a leader in that organization, you’ve probably heard a lot of representatives from law firms, or even individual lawyers talk about the challenges associated with building a successful practice. Can you share with us some of the advice and council that you provide to them or that the organization tries to emphasize to assist them in enjoying the level of success that you and so many others enjoy?

Renee Livingston:     Yeah. So, I was probably one of the first, I don’t know, 12 or 15 firms when NAMWOLF was first started back in the early 2000’s. I think it actually launched in 2001, or 2002 and I joined as a member firm in 2003, and went on the board for nine years thereafter. I’m no longer on the board, but serve in other capacities. In that time period… I mean if you think about how the dialogue has changed in those years, let’s just say 2002, 2003, to now, how the discussion of diversity and equality and inclusion has permeated the boardrooms and the legal departments. It’s a phenomenal movement in it seems like a lifetime. But it’s actually a relatively short period of time when this movement that NAMWOLF kind of created which is not just the individual woman or attorney of color, whether it’s in a big firm or a small firm.

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Sharon Sayles Belton of Thomson Reuters

But it’s the emphasis on the business ownership and, “How are going to help that effort where minority and women owned law firms are now trying to compete on a national level with the biggest companies in the world, and in the country, on equal footing with other firms?” And that’s what NAMWOLF brought to the table because I do think there were obstacles. I think there still are obstacles to what I consider the NAMWOLF member firm because for the most part, not always, we’re kind of changing this and there’s a shift that’s going on, but most of the firms are what you would consider to be on the smaller side. 30 attorneys or less.

And that can present a huge challenge for a minority or woman owned firm. In part because there may be hesitation or resistance sending significant legal work, quality legal work, to a smaller based firm. And so that has been one of the challenges that we’ve approached, but I will tell you what NAMWOLF and what the member firms are doing in a very significant way, is they’re either partnering and doing proposals. Multiple firms and in multiple states in a similar practice area may jointly respond to a request for proposal, or they are interacting with clients directly about how they can partner among themselves to be, for all intents and purposes, a national firm or a large law firm, to alleviate some of those concerns that the legal departments and the companies have.

So that’s been an amazing part of NAMWOLF is the networking, the similarity of interests… It’s unlike any organization I have ever been a part of. People truly do want to help each other. They want to get to know each other. They want to collaborate and make sure that there is success for all.

Sharon Sayles Belton:           Okay. That’s wonderful. Now when you think about … You mentioned earlier that you provide some mentoring and some council to other women who are either thinking about launching their own firm or have already launched their firm and they’re trying to work through some issues. Do you have a set of key pieces of advice that you offer a woman owned law firm or a minority owned law firm that you just found really is core to their success?

Renee Livingston:     My first piece of advice always is, if you get to the point where your new firm has at least three attorneys, you seriously need to consider NAMWOLF. Look into membership, talk to our members, see if you can get your application in and get the certification that you need because it’s a wonderful resource. So obviously I will always try to direct new firms, minority, women owned firms to NAMWOLF to take a path to get there. Because the opportunities are incredible and the networking that occurs, and those lasting relationships that we develop are invaluable.

And then beyond that, I guess I tell people, “Running a business can be all consuming.” We were discussing just before we got started today about how it’s very labor intensive. It’s, you’re running a business, you’re managing staff, and employees and then you’re trying to also be a lawyer. And all three of them, you have to like all three of those things to do this well. And so I encourage people to find their strength. If your strength is in the legal excellence or in the running of the business, make sure you find that person to help you do your HR, or whatever. But get what assistance and expertise you need so that you don’t get bogged down not pursuing what you do best and what your passion is about.

Sharon Sayles Belton:           You know, you said something a moment ago about the change that you’ve seen in the legal industry from the time that NAMWOLF started, or launched their network to today. And I’m really happy to hear that progress has been made because I think there’s some people who would argue that while there has been some, it’s just been incremental and there’s so much more that needs to be done. I’m going to assume that we all believe that more can be done, but we’ve actually made some improvements. What do we need to do next? What’s NAMWOLF doing next? What’s on the horizon for this organization that’s absolutely made a difference in the practice of so many women and minority owned law firms?

Renee Livingston:     I believe that generally speaking companies and legal departments have come around, many have come around. Others are coming around, that it makes business sense to diversify and to use diverse law firms, to use diverse vendors. I’ve seen that change. And we see it most prominently of course in companies and legal departments where it comes from the top down. It’s so important to have that – you just generally have that dialogue. The issue then become what did NAMWOLF provide, and what has NAMWOLF become, and where is NAMWOLF going in the context of that?

First of all, it is the go to resource for companies’ legal departments who are looking for highly qualified attorneys and law firms to handle their legal matters so that they can diversify themselves. They can achieve the success and the goals that they have set for themselves. So you can go to NAMWOLF firms, they’re vetted, they’re top quality, so you know you’re getting a good firm and that’s a resource. The goal is to find firms, minority firms and women owned firms, in every state in the country. And believe it or not, we have not been able to accomplish that. We’re in many, many states now but not every state has a certified NAMWOLF firm.

So that’s what we do. A lot of what we do is we reach out to the companies that we work with, and we ask them to help us identify firms in the area. And we do out reach to those firms to see, “Are you NAMWOLF qualified? Is that something that makes sense?” And then also we reach out to attorneys in those venues to see if they know of any minority or women owned firms because that’s a goal. You should have minority and women owned firms in every state. So that’s number one. Number two it’s just we’ve grown from, like I said 12 to 15 firms to over a 100. I think we were upwards, over 125 firms now. And that’s amazing growth and energy. And it spreads. It’s amazing. Our annual meetings, first timers that come to them, it’s very engaging and people come away saying, “This is really an amazing energy, and an amazing thing that’s going on.”

We have a wonderful executive director, Joel Stern, who is terrific in outreach and getting in and talking to key decision makers and companies about NAMWOLF, coming to the meetings, seeing what it’s all about, and I think you just have to continue that energy and the movement for diversity and inclusion.

Sharon Sayles Belton:           Well Renee, congratulations for the incredible work that you continue to do to help women and minority owned law firms achieve the success that they’re looking for. It’s clear there’s a vision for this how happens, and people like you are at the forefront of that. Thank you so much for taking time to be with us today.

Renee Livingston:     Thank you Sharon. It was nice speaking with you.

You’ve been listening to the Legal Executive Institute podcast. You can check out more podcasts on our website at the legalexecutiveinstitute.com.