Joy Fuhr, partner with McGuireWoods, discusses her role in strengthening women’s leadership and opportunities at the firm, as well as the ways those lessons can be applied to help everyone be more successful – as lawyers and in life. 

CCBJ: You’ve been with McGuireWoods for more than 25 years and currently serve as a partner with the firm’s national litigation practice. You are also the national chair of the McGuireWoods Women Lawyers Network. Can you tell us about that group and its role within the organization?

Joy Fuhr: We have about 1,000 lawyers at McGuireWoods, including about 400 or more women attorneys. Those women are spread out among our 21 offices, and so the Women Lawyers Network really does a couple of things to help them.

First, we provide marketing and professional development opportunities. If somebody wants to attend a program or do a client event, we provide support. We focus on senior associates, so that they get the opportunity to do client events and enrich their individual networks by developing their contacts with our important clients.

The second thing that we do is try to identify, develop and retain our top female talent across the 21 McGuireWoods offices. The signature program that I developed and started in 2015 is the Women’s Leadership Development Forum, which is a leadership program for senior women associates who are two to four years away from the non-equity partnership decision. It’s a once-a-year program for about 12 women from throughout the firm who’ve been selected for their superior work and high potential to become a partner at the firm.

We also have another signature program, which is a family liaison program. When a parent is going out for maternity leave, or coming back, we support them and make sure they understand the different options they have within the firm. We help them understand what their responsibilities are for handing off work – and we also make sure that they understand the benefits the firm offers. A feature that I think is fairly unique is that when they come back, there is an on-ramp period during which they have a reduced billable hours requirement, to help them integrate back into the practice.

You are also a former member of the firm’s Board of Partners. What can you tell our readers about your role within the board and how it has shaped your perspective on the role of leadership?

The Board of Partners is a group of equity partners that is selected from throughout the firm, and our role is to provide counsel and advice to the Executive Committee and learn what their goals for the firm are, and then relay that to the rest of the partnership. Being on the board, you learn a lot about firm management, and you are also able to inform the Executive Committee about what the rank and file folks are thinking. I was on the Associates Committee at the time, so I knew what the associates’ concerns were – and also, being part of the Women Lawyers Network, I knew what their biggest challenges were too.

Those connections really put me in a position to make sure those points of view were included in planning, as well as to better understand where the firm was coming from, so that I could help develop programs for women that would be relevant to them and help them advance and meet the firm’s expectations. The firm is always evolving, so it’s important to make sure that what we’re doing is in line with that, so that these women are prepared when the partnership decision comes up. The goal is to help ensure that they have done all of the things that matter to the firm’s top management.

The other thing that’s happened is that now about 40 percent of our department chairs are women. So having women in those roles, as well as on the Board of Partners, and having a large percentage of women participating in the firm’s other committees and subcommittees, our voices are definitely being heard.

One of the key drivers of success for any women’s program is having the buy-in and support of firm management. And around this same period of time that I was on the Board of Partners, the Diversity Action Council was developed. Tracy Walker, our managing partner, leads that group. So senior management holds the firm accountable for the goals it sets.

So there’s really been a number of things that have come together to increase women’s leadership roles within the firm, as well as to ensure that our pipeline remains strong and that we have a bunch of strong young women who are joining the partnership ranks. All those things together have allowed the firm to do well and increase its numbers of women in the partnership ranks, as well as in firm management.

Who or what has influenced you, and how has that helped you further your success?

My overall mindset comes from my background as a former professional tennis player. I was ranked number one in the country when I was 14. I played in college at Princeton, and I played professionally for a couple years before going to law school. With that background, one of the things that you learn – and I think LeBron James is the most recent example of this – is that if you’re going to have peak performance, you have to have peak recovery. And so with all of these programs that we have, I think we have encouraged people to take on that mindset – that they’ve got to prioritize their recovery period, and when they get elevated to a new role or a new responsibility, they have to constantly be pruning and shedding the things that no longer serve them.

So, for instance, you go from being an excellent associate to making it as a partner, and now you have a team that you’re leading, so you have to be able to learn to delegate. And so part of the program that we’ve developed is helping the high-potential associates learn how to maximize not only their performance but also their recovery, so that they can stay in the game and avoid burnout. That’s been especially important during this time of more remote activities, since you might feel like you have to be on 24/7. But you have to take the necessary time to rest and recover and maintain some perspective. I think that has allowed me to do what I’ve done in the firm, including coming up with programs that have resonated with women who may feel especially stressed with home life, family and other responsibilities.

McGuireWoods has invested significant resources and mindfulness in its quest to elevate women into leadership roles. What’s your advice to others, both men and women, who are looking to do the same?

You’ve got to take every person’s strengths and weaknesses into account. Find out the things that people are really good at. That’s another thing that comes from having an athletic background – you play to your strengths, and when you’re looking at someone else, you also identify what they do well individually, as well as what the firm can do to increase that person’s chances of success. How can we maximize people’s strengths? Most recently, for example, we had a woman on my team go on maternity leave, and when she came back, she realized that she really needed to be closer to her home town to make everything work. Well, we have 21 offices, and we wanted to make it work, so she is now in an office in her home town.

And that’s something that I think is an example of that individualized approach that I’m talking about. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation. Everybody has needs, and we try to identify them and have that person be candid about what they need. And I think we retain a lot more people that way.

That’s actually one of the advantages of the increase in Zoom and remote capabilities. As a practical matter, we’ve got a lot of teams that work across different offices, so face-to-face is no longer an everyday occurrence for many of our teams. But recognizing that people can be productive with a flexible schedule and within different offices is probably the number one thing that we’ve learned, which can actually help people succeed at a law firm. In many ways, the pandemic has strengthened relationships internally and with clients. Having a broad view into at-home circumstances, and being able to observe the level of commitment team members have, that seems to have demonstrated that working from home can be productive.

What can be done to strengthen these opportunities to create or preserve flexibility in the workplace?

At McGuireWoods, we returned to working in the offices on more of a full-time basis on October 4. But we’re doing a hybrid approach, certainly to begin with, and we recognize, as I just said, that many people were very, very productive while working remotely, and they were able to maintain their client relationships while working remotely. This is important for women especially, I think, who often are having to manage a lot of different competing interests.

That said, I do also think that, especially for junior lawyers, it’s important that they do come into the office and have those face-to-face opportunities. So what I think will work best, based on what I know now, is a hybrid approach. People have the flexibility to come in and learn, but also the flexibility when it’s not necessary to come in to be able to work at home efficiently.

To that end, having a dual office situation is ideal, where you maintain a great home office as well as all the materials you need at the firm, so you can seamlessly go between the two. I think that will set most people up for success, and I think our firm has demonstrated they’re willing to support that as we all try to adapt to the new normal.

More broadly, what is your hope for the future of the legal profession?

I’ve seen a lot of changes over the last 30 years, and I think that most of them have been positive. Our law firms especially have demonstrated that they are becoming more and more flexible, and I think that gives them a competitive advantage with professionals of all kinds. I think a lot of men want the same sort of flexibility that women do – that ability to be active with their families and pursue their own personal goals. So I think that increased flexibility and individualized attention and not having a cookie-cutter approach to leadership or individual advancement, that really that benefits lawyers from all backgrounds. It will make them better lawyers and also happier individuals.