Law firm appoints its first CEO - and a Latina to boot. The former HP engineer vows to deliver and be direct when it comes to leadership.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - ON THE COVER AND THIS PAGE: Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt's first CEO is Graciela Gomez Cowger, a former electrical engineer and patent attorney.  Here she is on the 19th floor of the PacWest Center, the seven-office companys headquarters.

Graciela Gomez Cowger became CEO of Northwest-based law firm Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt on Oct. 7, 2017. An intellectual property attorney with more than 20 years of experience leading law firms, Graciela was a design engineer for Hewlett-Packard, and still has several family members working for HP. Gomez Cowger is replacing two men at the top.

She was raised in Tijuana, Mexico and immigrated to the United States to attend college at San Diego State University. Her father was a Mexican Customs Agent and her mother owned and operated a convenience store in Tijuana. She was raised bilingual and developed a passion for math and science at an early age.

Latinas account for .068 percent of partners in the nation's law firms, while minority women account for 2.76 percent of the partners. We talked to her about her unique take on running a modern law firm.

Biz Trib: Why does a law firm such as Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt need a CEO, when usually senior partners lead the firm?

Graciela Gomez Cowger: Law firms have been generally slow to innovate in the way they deliver services. That's just the industry and how it works. Now we see so much change in everything, according to many, 2007 is an inflection point in which technology has taken off and the flows of data have increased. 2007 is the year that the iPhone was introduced, and the number of Internet users increased above a billion. And, in 2008, the recession happened and hit the law industry pretty severely. Lots of industries have had a hard time adapting. Here in 2017, Schwabe's being innovative and creative about redefining its delivery of services. In our leadership transition, we organized by industry groups, vertically, to give us a deeper understanding of our clients. We decided to make the leadership transition about a single strong CEO, and to try to be more like our clients. We'll push for efficiencies and be best in class in terms of delivering the legal services that we do. That's why we're organized with a CEO rather than a managing partner (looking outward to clients) and president (operations and internal), who carried on practicing law, which is more common in our history.

BT: Will you be doing something that previous leaders at SWW have not? How should services have been delivered?

GC: When I was practicing as an engineer 20 years ago, the cycle of product to market took three to four years. That now takes 18 months — 12 months sometimes. In the legal industry, we've been slow to adapt. We bill on the billable hour and have done for decades. We have all kinds of data analytics now which could help us deliver services with more predictability. It's not that we would bill for a different unit of time, but you can bill for a project, and more accurately predict the cost of the project.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt CEO Graciela Gomez Cowger in a company boardroom. As well as leading strategy and inspiring her staff she hopes she can help women speak up for themselves in the face of discrimination.

BT: What changes are coming?

GC: Some firms prefer fee agreements, from fixed fees to a do-not-exceed cap, to bill as you go, or when the matter is completed. It depends on the size of the client and the industry the client is in. Traditionally, delivery of services has largely been driven by what the client wants to do, and we're trying to change that to be more proactive to what the clients want to see.

BT: Is part of your job to make it more like a tech company?

GC: No, I've got some ideas in that regard but we're not going to develop a piece of software on our own. We're a personal service industry, we sell legal advice to clients. My job is to inspire those that are working here. These folks can go (to other firms) if they want to. My job is to provide the glue that makes them stay. My job is to wake up every morning and think how I'm going to inspire folks, get organized and implement strategy that makes this the best law firm in the west.

BT: Are other firms moving to a CEO model?

GC: I don't know of any other firms with this model, I don't know if this title is widely used. We're just trying to be more like our clients, and have the kind of urgency our clients have. Not spreading ourselves out to be an inch thick and a mile wide.

There are six groups, based on the strengths of the firm. We're two years into a five-year plan, and I'm committed to seeing that plan through.

Lawyers get to pick a major industry and a minor industry group. For example, a real estate industry lawyer in the tech group needs to learn all about their needs for office space, for collaborative spaces and that, and know about how to give advice about leases. Put that attorney in the healthcare space, their clients would have totally different needs. You would know all that, but the law you practice is real estate law.

BT: What type of work is the firm chasing?

GC: Part of our strategic plan is not just focusing on these six industry groups but focusing on growth in the Puget Sound area and in Silicon Valley, as it relates back to the Pacific Northwest. The intellectual property group is probably a third of our attorneys in our seven offices.

BT: If a young lawyer wanted to move to SWW, how should they prepare?

GC: I wouldn't say we have a tech bent, I'd say we're innovative. If you're a young lawyer, be ready to adapt quickly. The young lawyers we have here are much more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses than I was at their age. I love to see it, I'm amazed and impressed by our young attorneys. I'm always telling them 'Go. Don't wait for anyone else to lead. You lead. You tell me what you need and I'll provide it. Because you're ready.'

BT: How did being an engineer at Hewlett Packard influence on your legal thinking?

GC: I was an electrical engineer at the San Diego division, first making pen plotters and early inkjet printers, they were $1,500, now you can buy them for $150. I was an R&D design engineer, a manufacturing engineers, and a liability engineers, but you would follow a product through the cycle. Now the cycle's much shorter. You used to produce a printer for a long time, now you incrementally improve that printer and have a new one every two years, just like we have a new iPhone every year. The lesson that has been near and dear to my heart is metrics, and measuring performance and feeding that information into making the company better. And the urgency of the need to adapt. My kids are teenagers (15 and 18). It's hard for them to imagine a world where you had to find a dime to make a phone call. I lived through those changes so I can bring the urgency to the firm.

BT: Did you learn anything from former HP CEO and former U.S. presidential candidate Carly Fiorina?

GC: When she started at HP, I had just left, but my husband is a lifer, he's been at HP for almost 30 years (now in Camas, Washington).

I was a believer when she started as CEO, she had many of us in her camp, but after a while it turned out a lot of it was empty promises. She was a disappointment at the end. I hope to avoid those mistakes that I saw — empty promises delivered in a lot of fanfare. She was a marketing person to begin with, she'd star in her own commercials. Ultimately this grouping of engineers and innovators would have allowed for that type of personality, graciously, if she'd have delivered on her promises, but she didn't.

That's one lesson I take from that, I hope to not be empty words and fanfare.

The other thing about Carly, I found the market analysts quite unfair to her. She would say 'I delivered these results,' and the market analysts would be really harsh to her, and I thought that was gender driven at the time. She could say 'I met the mark on these projections,' and the analysts would say 'Yes she did, but we still don't believe it.'"

BT: Is there anything you can do as a woman at the top to stop sexism?

GC: I've always worked in industries that were predominantly male. As an engineer, there were few females and even fewer Latina females, and then I went into patent law and you apply another filter and you drop out the few women and the few Latina women that were in there. I've certainly experienced some of what's out in the media, sexism overt or otherwise, gender discrimination. I think we've done quite a bit of work but we're nowhere near where we ought to be. I hope to inspire younger women to be strong and bold and give them the ability to respond to overt act. And even when it's less than overt. Some of the most difficult things are where you think 'Did he just say that? Or did I just misunderstand?' The stuff just under the surface, where they're trying to see where your limits are, testing you. If they're perhaps trying to do something nefarious, they're trying to find out where your limits are.

When I was a young engineer, this manager two levels above me would ask me to give these reports, and he'd stand really close to me. Another time he looked at me and said 'Oh, I see you wear lipstick.' But it's weird, right? It might be completely innocent, but it wasn't in this case. I would hope that if you (the woman) say something and if it is completely innocent, then they'll (the man) be like 'Oh I didn't mean anything.' Or if he did mean something by it, that you (the woman) can express yourself and set a boundary for yourself.

Thirty years later, that would not happen today. I would not remain silent. Because I was doubting the situation, I was young. Now I would say 'Well did you really mean that? Because there's only two ways I could interpret that, so let's be clear which one you mean so we can discuss that.' And I would hope that I can help women do that and not be silent.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt CEO Graciela Gomez Cowger.

BT: Is there less sexism in law firms because everyone's really aware of the law and are more careful?

GC: No. Not really. You think law firm and you think 'They all know the law!' But it doesn't matter. I think we're more aware, and women are more aware and empowered, yet these things persist somehow. Less so than 20 years ago. But we've got a lot of work to do. I think it's going to take the decent men to step up and recognize and help with that.

With Uber, that's the myth about technology companies, you think that kind of thing doesn't happen because everybody's young and progressive and aware. But it's not true, and it still holds women back, and it still makes women not want to go into science, technology, engineering and math careers. That uber-competitiveness is not necessarily where women play better, we tend to form communities. So, if you change the environment in which those companies operate you can draw more women.

BT: And what about your ethnicity, which was mentioned prominently in the company press release?

GC: I hope for a day where it just does not matter. Where what matters is who I am how I lead and the kind of example I bring in my humanity to others. But the fact is those things persist. And the fact that we're talking about this in 2017 that it should be a great thing we're celebrating, that I'm a CEO and a Latina, is something to be thought of in the 'Wow, why did it take so long?' way. It's about making progress. It shouldn't matter but it does. But if I can break down some of those barriers...I can't tell you how many people have reached out to say, 'This is great,' in a non-patronizing way. At least I'm taking it that way!

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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