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VOL. 38 | NO. 9 | Friday, February 28, 2014

Crider finds balance while helping fellow lawyers thrive

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Life is like a stack of plates. And even the best of us drop one from time to time. That’s a truth Christy Tosh Crider wants you to know.

The stacked-plate image is one that Crider, a top health care attorney and shareholder at Baker Donelson, uses to describe the roles and responsibilities all working men and women carry as parents, employees, community members and mentors.

Crider carries a full stack. In addition to her leadership role as head of Baker Donelson’s Long Term Care Industry Service Team, Crider recently took on a new role of head of the Women’s Initiative, begun in 2006 to promote the advancement of women at the 20-office firm.

Long known for its employee-friendly policies, Baker Donelson made Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list, released in January, for the fifth consecutive year. The firm ranked 31st out of all companies and was the top-ranked law firm.

It’s also a place where female attorneys seem to thrive. Last fiscal year, an astonishing 80 percent of the firm’s top performing attorneys – those who beat their targeted collections – were women.

With women now making up a full half of all law school graduates, Crider sat down with Nashville Ledger to talk about her own career, and why a Women’s Initiative is still needed at Baker Donelson and beyond.

Q: How did you come up with the plate-balancing analogy?

A: “Well, I’ve already decided what my next article is going to be for the Women’s Initiative newsletter. I decided on it last weekend. I was sick, and my husband was out of town running a marathon for four days – he works at another law firm in town – and I have an 11-year-old and a 14-year-old.

“I didn’t get out of bed for two days, and I remember thinking, ‘The world will keep turning; everything’s going to be OK.’ And I came down the stairs at noon on Saturday and one of my children was sitting at the kitchen table in full camouflage eating Key Lime Pie and drinking sweet tea for breakfast, watching a reality TV show and holding a chicken.

“People think that because a career in law is so demanding, that when they see people who have succeeded by objective standards – making equity partner, being a profitable lawyer for the firm, making it to a leadership position – they think, ‘You’ve got it all together all the time, and the reason I can’t do what you’ve done is because I don’t have it all together all the time.’

“And part of the message that I think is really important for all of our attorneys to hear is that successful people do not have it together all the time. We’re really all one step away from plates hitting the ground. And that’s all right. You can still have plates hit the ground and things can be messy sometimes, and you can still be a fantastically successful lawyer. So that’s part of the message that I want people to get as well.

Q: What is the Women’s Initiative and how does it help women at Baker Donelson?

A: “Our four-part mission is, one, to recruit and retain women, two, to help women advance into leadership positions inside the firm in the community, three, to answer the call of a lot of our clients, which is to provide them with more diversified attorney teams, and then, finally, to improve the career development of women, and that means pretty much helping them develop their books of business.

Christy Tosh Crider

Employer: Baker Donelson

Academic background: University of Arkansas

Quote: “We have had three female senior attorneys join the Nashville office in the last six weeks. And all three of them mentioned to me that one of the factors that went into their decision to choose Baker Donelson was our promotion of women.”

“We’ve had three female senior attorneys join the Nashville office in the last six weeks. And all three of them mentioned to me that one of the factors that went into their decision to choose Baker Donelson was our promotion of women. To me, that says a lot, that people are willing to leave law firms they’ve been at for a number of years to move here, and that our Women’s Initiative played a major part in bringing that attorney here.’’

Q: Your firm is again ranked one of the nation’s top places to work. Why do you think Baker Donelson has been so progressive with its employee policies?

A: “It comes from the top down. It’s always been good. But I also can see in my 15 years here that we’ve gotten better and better every year. I think part of the reason is that our leaders are not people who believe that they already know everything and they have nothing left to learn.

“They listen to feedback. And they get reviews each year about how they can improve and they’re always open to new ideas.

“For instance, the Women’s Initiative. When someone came to them and said we have this idea and here’s how it’s going to be better for our lawyers, the answer was yes. And when I came in 15 years ago and said, ‘I think we need a formal parental leave policy, and here’s why it’s good for our people and good for the firm,’ the answer was absolutely yes. And I think that’s why we get better every year.

“Our firm has been incredibly accommodating for as long as I have been here for people who are going through a personal issue that really is deserving of more of their time and needs to be their first priority. Whether that is an aging parent, a sick child, a divorce, we frequently have people who come back after a crisis like that in their personal life and say, ‘I’m overwhelmed at how supportive Baker Donelson was during this particular event in my life.’ When you support someone through a huge personal event in their life, you build loyalty.’’

Q: What areas still need work?

A: “About 50 percent of law school classes are made up of women now. Nationally, about 45 percent of new incoming associates at law firms are women, and at Baker Donelson, approximately 54 percent are women.

“In my mind, our goal ought to be for the number of equity partners in our firm - the percentage of women who are partners in our firm – to closely resemble the percentage of women that we’re bringing on as new associates – because we want every person who starts at Baker Donaldson to have the same chance of making it to equity partner.

“Nationally, the statistic is that about 15 percent of equity partners are women. So something is happening to those 35 percent of women who start eager in law school and start new at law firms before they make equity partner. And that’s a huge part of our talent base. And I think that as leaders of the firm, both in the Women’s Initiative and the firm as a whole, that we have an obligation to figure out what can we do to keep from losing that part of the talent pool.’’

Q: You mentioned that clients are actually requiring more diverse teams of attorneys. Is this a new trend?

A: “Yes, several large companies took a big step several years ago and said, ‘We are going to demand that the law firms that work for us provide us with diversity on the teams that serve us, and that includes minorities and women on the attorney teams.’

“The benefit that they see in this is that you bring a different set of ideas to the table, and when there are new and different ideas at the table, then often there’s a better end result. They value it, and they saw the opportunity for them to be the catalyst for the change.

“When a client says, ‘Send us a proposal to do legal work and part of the criteria that we are going to make our decision on is how diversified the attorney team is going to be, law firms listen. I’m excited that those companies took that step and really forced a lot of law firms to take a harder look at how we are doing.’’

Q: How did you get into your specialty of long term care?

A: “I practiced law in Arkansas for one year before I came here. The firm I practiced with did long-term-care work, and so I got exposed to it during my first year of practicing law and I loved it. I love working with nurses, I loved working with the techs, I loved working with the administrators … these people who had chosen as their life’s work taking care of frail, elderly people who were very likely to spend the last days of their life in the facility where they were caring for them. It takes a really special kind of personality and a huge heart to do that kind of work.

“So then we moved to Nashville in ’97 and the firm (Baker Donelson) got a request for a proposal to do the legal work for a local nursing home company. I was a second-year associate and a partner sent out an email that said, ‘Does anyone have experience doing long-term-care work? I was the only person who responded. I was 25 or 26 years old and I said, ‘I absolutely know how to do long-term-care work’ with all the confidence that I could muster. And we won the RFP. And that client is still my client.

"I’ve been working with those folks there for 15 years. They would recommend me to another nursing home company and then in 2006, we started the long term care industry service team and I’m the leader of that group. That’s how I got started, and here I am 15 years later; they just call me the nursing home lawyer.

Q: Who do you serve?

A: “Hospice, home health, mental health, psych services, in-home care, independent living, assisted living facilities. The continuum of care is becoming a big concept, where people can move to one campus and go from an independent living apartment to an assisted living situation to a care situation without ever having to have their homebase disrupted. So that’s part of what we’ve also been getting into.

“It is a multi-office department. We have great transactional lawyers, great litigators, great employment lawyers in the group. It’s a multidisciplinary group with the single goal of serving the long-term-care industry. With Medicare cuts, we’ve seen several of our smaller clients, mom and pops, two- and three- and four- and five-facility companies not be able to survive those cuts financially.

“So we’ve seen consolidation in the industry with bigger players who have economies of scale and can better absorb the federal funding cuts. Our long-term-care transaction team is the best in the country, and they have been incredibly busy with the buying and selling of facilities.

Q: As you add this new plate to your stack, what plans do you have for the Women’s Initiative?

A: “I didn’t realize when I took over what a big opportunity it would be for me to get plugged-in with women outside of Baker Donelson. In the past two weeks, I’ve gotten six calls, emails or letters from women who want to sit down and talk about how to start a women’s initiative. None of them were from lawyers.

“They were all from people that are in the business community in Nashville, and when I took this job, I had really big hopes for what we could do here, but I didn’t have a broad enough perspective of how we could really affect the business community beyond Baker Donelson. And those invitations in the last two weeks have caused me to really broaden the way I’m thinking about the impact that we can have.’’

Q: One last thing. For younger women, the idea of a special group to help their careers may seem like a bit of a throwback. Has anyone asked why a Women’s Initiative is still needed in this day and age?

A: “When I decided to take over, several people actually asked me that question. And I had not backed my mind up to the point from which a lot of people were starting. Some of the people who asked me that were female associates from a different generation who look around in the Nashville office and see female leaders.

“I’m 41, and in my career I’ve never seen discrimination against women. It’s not that we’re finding any sort of discrimination where people intentionally don’t want women to thrive. It’s that, when we look at the statistics, that 15 percent of equity partners nationwide are women, we know we’ve got work to do and that the status quo is not enough.

“So what can we do beyond the status quo to keep that talent pool – that’s why the Women’s Initiative is needed, in my mind. And I hope that when I finish being chair of the Women’s Initiative, we will no longer need a Women’s Initiative. That would be my goal.’’

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