1/11/22 - Insights
On the Right Track: From BigLaw to Boutique
Persis Dean, a partner at Houston-based boutique firm Schiffer Hicks Johnson (SHJ), joined the firm in 2015 after six years as in-house counsel for Exxon Mobil Corporation and three at Vinson & Elkins. Recently elected to the partnership, she is poised to help lead the firm through its most rapid growth period yet.
Below, Dean discusses what it’s like to be a working parent in corporate law, her approach to mentoring, and the benefits of boutique firm life.
What convinced you to join a small firm after working in-house at a multinational corporation?
Making the decision to leave Exxon was a tough one. The Gas & Power Marketing Company environment was great, and I had a supportive boss who was passionate about helping her team climb up the ladder. During my time there, I was supporting the company’s efforts to add liquefaction and export capabilities to an existing LNG import facility. At that time, flipping terminals was a hot topic—it felt like the The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times were putting out coverage every day—and I was eager to support my clients through the DOE and FERC regulatory process, the drafting of a complex suite of export agreements, and various press releases and speeches. I was lucky enough to be able to travel with the team around the world to many meetings between the shareholders working to advance the export project. Once I had my first child, however, I realized that constant international travel simply wasn’t viable anymore. I knew SHJ partners Andy Hicks and Logan Johnson from our time together at Vinson & Elkins, so I reached out. We discussed the firm’s commitment to work/life balance and my desire for professional advancement. Then they told me that a job was waiting for me if I wanted it.
Describe your experience as a working parent at your firm.
My time at SHJ has exceeded my expectations in every single way. The other partners and I have built a relationship that hinges on mutual trust and an understanding of everyone’s needs. I feel grateful that they have consistently walked the walk, starting with asking me about any concerns I had when I joined. There was no maternity policy in place when I had my second child (the firm now has one of the most generous leave policies in the industry for parents of all genders), but they gave me six months off and paid me for four. During those six months, no one emailed me or asked me to do any work, which gave me the space I needed to rest, recharge, and reenergize myself to return to the office. I have a flexible schedule where I work a four-day work week, so I don’t work Fridays unless there’s an emergency. That flexibility allows me to focus on doing my absolute best work and contributing meaningfully to SHJ as a colleague, mentor, and leader.
Do you have a particular philosophy when it comes to mentoring young lawyers, especially women?
For me, it’s always been about leading by example. When I was coming up, I had women mentors who excelled in their careers despite juggling the responsibility of child-rearing. Their successes made me hopeful that I could do the same, and now I am; I have two kids and just made partner at a highly respected firm. I’m also keen on sitting down with junior colleagues and helping them work on their writing, which is a skill I only fine-tuned because one of my mentors did the same for me. Teaching young women lawyers to be confident and assertive in their communications is important to me, too. If I could give my mentees any advice, I’d say: Think about what you want your career to ultimately look like, then assess where you currently are and if that supports your goal. If you’re talented and hard-working, you’ll be able to define your career on your own terms, which is crucial. You are your own best advocate.
What opportunities does partnership at a growing boutique firm offer?
I’m excited to have a seat at the leadership table as we decide how to accelerate the firm’s growth trajectory. The culture at SHJ is really special. We’re diligent and smart, but we also have an easygoing, friendly attitude that makes working here a pleasure. Most importantly, though, our work is on par with the best litigation firms in the country. As a partner, I can play a key role in helping the firm recruit, retain, and develop the kind of diverse talent that can handle top-tier cases and keep us moving forward.