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- Connie Bertram announced Tuesday that she has left Polsinelli, where she was partner for two years, to start Bertram LLP, a boutique employment litigation firm.
- Her new firm seeks to position itself as a solution to the problem of diversity in the legal industry by hiring more women and minorities.
- Bertram made legal news headlines in 2017 when she sued Proskauer Rose, where she was partner, for gender discrimination. The suit was settled in 2018.
- The new firm will abolish the billable hours target and lockstep pay model that is integral to traditional law firms.
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Employment law veteran, Connie Bertram, has left her partner position at Polsinelli to start her own boutique firm, Bertram LLP, which launched Tuesday.
The firm, based in Washington, DC, focuses on employment litigation, whistleblower defense, internal investigations, and government contractor compliance. Bertram told Business Insider that she will be bringing with her clients she’s represented over the years, though she refrained from disclosing specific names. Polsinelli, where Bertram was a partner for two years, confirmed her departure, which the firm said was on good terms.
Bertram’s roster of clients has included big-name corporations like Southwest Airlines, Giant Food, and Pepco, according to the Washington Business Journal.
Bertram, who has over 30 years of experience as not only partner, but also head of hiring committees at white-shoe law firms like Winston & Strawn, Cooley, and Proskauer Rose, said that her decision to launch her own firm was driven by the lack of diversity she saw within Big Law.
“I overtime formed very close relationships with in-house councils at larger and mid-size companies,” she said. “I’ve seen them change and become more diverse, more different, more open to new ideas. But I haven’t seen Big Law firms do that.”
The employment lawyer made legal news headlines in 2017 when she sued Proskauer Rose, where she was partner, for $50 million for gender discrimination, as reported by NBC. The lawsuit was settled in 2018; Bertram did not offer comment on the settlement, nor did Proskauer at that time, per Bloomberg.
Bertram LLP seeks to position itself as a solution to the problem of diversity in the industry. In addition to Bertram herself, the boutique firm is starting with just two paralegals and one other attorney — all of whom are either female or ethnic minorities. Bertram LLP will be a primarily female and minority firm.
Spearheading not just diversity of people, but “diversity of thought” on how law firms operate
Bertram also said that she plans on shaking up the traditional structure of law firms: “It’s not only diversity of people, but the diversity of thought. I worry sometimes that as a legal profession, we’re a little too cookie cutter, in both how we look and how we practice law.”
One way of doing this is by abolishing the billable hours target — a lynchpin of how law firms typically operate and make money — which Bertram says isn’t a good measure of success when it comes to client needs.
“It doesn’t matter how many hours we’re working. It matters what we get done for the client and the successes that we achieve and how that success is defined, which is defined by the client. A settlement may be a success, or a win in court may be a success,” she explained.
Instead, Bertram LLP will charge clients based on a combination of an hourly rate and project-based billing, said Bertram.
Getting rid of the traditional lockstep model for associates at law firms, where salaries are based purely on seniority, is another way Bertram plans on upending the structure of law firms. She instead envisions a four-rung model similar to those in accounting or consulting firms: Rather than promote an associate each year based on their tenure, Bertram LLP will look at the experience and skills of each individual attorney and place them into one of four levels within the firm. Based on their goals, growth and capabilities, attorneys will progress at their own speed through the positions.
Some other Big Law firms, like Orrick, have also eschewed lockstep in favor of a similar model, as previously reported in Above the Law.
An “unbound” model to increase collaboration and representation to better serve clients’ needs
Now that she’s heading her own firm, Bertram plans on using her newfound flexibility to represent a greater variety of clients and to collaborate more with other firms.
Throughout her track record as an employment lawyer, Bertram represented, on the defense side, individuals who were entering or exiting companies, as well as individuals in situations “in peril,” such as in whistleblower cases or accusations of wrongdoing.
On the other side of the aisle, Bertram said that the matters in which she represented plaintiffs, typically company executives, made up a smaller portion of her work due to conflicts of interest with other clients represented by the firm. With her new firm, Bertram anticipates more work representing executives, since she’s starting out with a more or less clean slate.
Another benefit that Bertram sees in starting the boutique firm is the ability to collaborate with other firms.
“My idea as a new firm is to act as a collaborator to connect clients with others who can offer expertise, while I’m lead counsel on managing the litigation,” she explained. “It’s about getting the absolute best person in the country, without being bound to any particular firm… That’s the core value here: Unbound to serve the clients.”
And, despite the uncertainty that comes with launching a business during a global pandemic, Bertram thinks it also presents the ideal landscape for change in the legal industry.
“This is an opportunity for us to break it up, rebuild it, and try to do things differently,” she said. “I think it should be a disruptor and I think it will be. And I hope that I have a hand in that.”