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| 13 minutes read

CMO Series REPRESENTS - In the Spotlight: Danielle Smith on Baker Donelson's Women’s Initiative

The pursuit of an equitable and inclusive workplace is high on the agenda for most firms. Today, we shine a spotlight on Baker Donelson, a firm committed to redefining industry standards with its Women’s Initiative program.

Yasmin Zand has the honor of welcoming Danielle Smith, the Women's Initiative Manager at Baker Donelson, to the series to share her personal experiences that have fueled her commitment to fostering diversity and inclusion.

Join us as we take a deep dive into the innovative programs and progressive family policies implemented by Baker Donelson, exploring how they are breaking new ground and setting a powerful example for the legal profession.


Yasmin: Welcome everybody to the CMO Series REPRESENTS Podcast today. I have Danielle Smith, the Women's Initiative manager here at Baker Donelson. Hi, Danielle, how are you?

Danielle: I'm great. How about you?

Yasmin: Yeah, not bad. Thank you. Thank you for joining. So we have brought Danielle on because creating an equitable and inclusive workplace is not just a goal but a necessity. Law firms play a pivotal role in ensuring that all employees can thrive, which means doubling down on actionable programs to support underrepresented communities. Danielle is joining us to share her personal experiences that have led to this role and will be taking a deep dive into the firm's programs and progressive family policies that are fostering growth and creating a more equitable environment for everybody. So, yeah, again, welcome, Danielle. Very excited to have you on. I think we can just jump right into our questions if you're happy to do that, Danielle, does that sound good?

Danielle: Great. Let's do it.

Yasmin: So tell us a little bit about your current role as the Women's Initiative Manager at Baker Donaldson and what the women's initiative is set out to do. 

Danielle: Yeah. So Baker Donelson created what is now called the Women's Initiative in 2005. And so, I mean, naturally that mission has evolved over time, but really what we're focused on now is sort of helping our women and families at the fir thrive no matter what career path they choose. And so our current Women's Initiative, Chair Christy Crider has actually been in her role nearly 10 years now and we actually just celebrated her tenure by hosting an in-person leadership retreat in DC. So 40 plus attorneys firm, executives, professionals got together and strategized over two days to see where we could go over the next 10 years. And so thinking through that evolution, in 2020 Baker Donelson created this wonderful role that I'm in the Women's Initiative Manager. And at that point, the women's initiative had really gotten so big thanks to Christy and the firm's marketing and business development team that they really needed someone to focus on this full time. And so I was brought in in fall of 2020. So I'm coming up on three years officially and this is, this is sort of an odd comparison, but I like to talk about my job as a spider. So I have many arms and legs and many departments at the firm. So I've got an arm in recruiting where I work with summer associates and work with the firm on lateral candidates and promoting the firm through recruiting presentations. I've also got a foot in HR where I work with them on creating policies and evaluating resources. I work closely with our chief of staff on internal processes. I work with the professional development department on resources and programming and then, of course, work very closely with the marketing and business development team on those resources as well. So I've kind of, I'm in it a little of everything here where I sit at the firm. And so really my job is sort of a mesh of all the firm's resources and departments sort of coming together to help our women and families here at the firm.

Yasmin: Danielle, you sound really invigorated by your work, which is something that I love. You're very enthusiastic.

Danielle: It’s that or the caffeine this morning.

Yasmin:  I think a healthy combination of the both is really driving you, but it really does sound like this is something that you're very enthusiastic about what drives you personally to work in this area. Do you have any personal experiences that led you to this role that you can share with us ?

Danielle: Yeah, absolutely. So when I had first heard about the position that Baker Donelson created back in early 2020 so right before the pandemic hit, I was a director of marketing at a regional mid-size firm and had done that for almost nine years and I've gotten very involved in that firm's DEI Committee and Women's initiative projects. And I was honestly just finding my heart being pulled in that direction. I was finding myself getting more excited and enthusiastic about those projects than my other ones. And kind of once I started down that path, it really opened up a whole new creative avenue for me and also as a woman who struggled with infertility for years, balancing that mental toll with my demanding job, industry leadership roles, and nonprofit leadership roles. I mean, I remember how it was so hard to balance all of that mentally and my career-wise and really stay focused at work. And so, personally drawing from that experience, really being able to help our women and family here at Baker Donelson, be able to balance that work and home life and still be successful on the career path that they choose. You know, that's really what keeps me going to the next day, to the next week, to the next month. And for me at the end of the day, the greatest compliment that I can get is when someone says simply thank you for doing this. This really helped me or helped me and my family and that's what keeps me going. That's why I love what I do.

Yasmin: That's amazing. You must be so happy to be at a firm that's putting women and families first in that way. That must be incredibly rewarding. Baker Donelson's approach seems pretty unique. Can you tell us a little bit more about the programs that you run to support women attorneys and advisors within the firm? 

Danielle: Yeah, absolutely. So, we've got several programs that sort of help our women on different career paths. The first is our women to equity program. Proud to say it's an award winning program and really what it does is it takes a select group of women who are hoping to make equity shareholder in the next 2 to 3 years. It takes them and runs them through a year long program that has resources. They have mentors, they're paired with each other for accountability partners. It really creates a support group for these women because they're all on the same path and they're all in the same time in their career. And so we really focus on them to help them get to that equity level in the next 2 to 3 years. And then in addition to that, we also have a wonderful women to leadership program that we kicked off last year. And so what we did is we looked at our women who we think and hopefully will be leaders of the firm and in our community in the next 5 to 10 years, and we walked them through like a four part series and we got our clients involved to talk about what they've learned from their leadership roles. Our firm's CEO Tim Lupinacci also shared what he's learned from being a leader and it was really great to sort of get these women to think about. OK, if I want to be a leader in the next 5 to 10 years, what are some, maybe some soft skills that I need to work on? What are some things that I'm not even thinking about now that I wanna go ahead and line up and get in place to become that future leader.

So we have another great program which we call Removing the Mystery of Advancement. And it's really focused on creating resources and support for those looking to make shareholder for the first time in the next three years. And what it really does, it helps them first explore the different career paths and avenues there are at the firm and then says, OK, here's the shareholder track, here's what it actually looks like. Here's what the billable demands are. Here's what the non billable demands are and here's the advantages, here's the benefits of being a shareholder here at Baker Donelson as well. And so it really helps them sort of map out what maybe their next three years are gonna look like if they're on that shareholder track, looking at their numbers, looking at maybe some professional development skills that they need to brush up on. So it really takes them into those years, being more informed and educated on what being a shareholder is actually gonna look like. And then lastly, sort of one of the resources I wanted to mention is, we have a wonderful what we call a Trusted Advisor Grant program here at Baker Donaldson. And it's really for our women who let's say, run out of marketing dollars for the year, but they have this new client or new contact who's about to come a become a client and they want to, you know, go on a client visit, they got asked to speak at this industry conference, that's gonna be an amazing promotional opportunity for them. And so what they can actually do is apply for a grant and tell us all the details about how it's gonna, you know, potentially turn into business return on investment, who all is involved. And so we can sort of evaluate those and award them additional funds to be able to go on and tackle whatever project or, you know, thing that may be.

Yasmin: Wow, Danielle, those are all incredible. And hopefully a lot of women are actually taking advantage of those actual programs that you guys have in place. And it sounds like people are because it really is an incredible resource. Baker Donelson isn't only supporting women though. It sounds like families are also at the forefront. So can you talk a little bit about what kind of policies you guys are putting in place there?

Danielle: So, while we are called the Women's Initiative, what we do really supports all of our families here at Baker Donelson. And so one of those great resources that we have recently implemented is called the Family Planning and Support Leave Policy. So any employee at the firm can get two weeks pay time off if they need to have time away to deal with fertility issues, to deal with surrogacy adoption proceedings, the loss of a pregnancy, the loss of a child, really that time away to help them, you know, grieve or deal with these medical procedures. And, you know, as I've already mentioned, as someone who has gone through IVF and sort of those struggles, I mean, this is something that's really close to my heart and what I am so proud of that our firm is doing. In addition to that, we have this other great policy called the Backup Childcare Reimbursement Policy. So if you have your normal child childcare falls through and you need to still work, you have the ability to hire, you know, a sitter and then get reimbursed for the cost of that sitter um up to a certain amount. But it's sort of providing a little bit of that relief and support for those families who need to work and then we have a great Breast Milk Shipment Reimbursement Policy. If you're traveling for work and you're a nursing mom, I need to send breast milk home. The firm will reimburse me, reimburse you for those costs of shipping. And then during COVID, the firm got really creative. And so they created the Childcare Education Policy and basically what it was, it allowed attorneys to have billable credit if they had to spend time, you know, working on the virtual learning with their children during COVID. And so that was another way to sort of provide a little bit of relief to those attorneys, you know, had, of course for their billable hours for that year. And so it really helped, I think provide again that support for all families here at the firm.

Yasmin: Wow, I wish my mom was working at Baker Donelson when I was growing up because I think she could have used a lot of that. I'm sure a lot of mothers and families have benefited so much from that. That's really incredible. Are there any success stories that you can share as a result of the women's initiative efforts at Baker Donelson?

Danielle: Yeah, I mean, besides that, we definitely have several families here at the firm who have taken advantage of those policies and have been super thankful that the firm has created the that support. And then aside from our rankings and credentialing I mean, you know, just a little bit of, we're in Seramount’s top 10 best law firms for women in the vault rankings known for our diversity and inclusion for women. And then we're a Mansfield Certified Plus firm. But in terms of our success, like I am really proud that we continue to stay well above the industry average when it comes to the number of women practice, group leaders, department heads, board members, equity and income shareholder promotions. We continue to stay above that line every year and it just keeps growing and just the stories and the feedback that we hear throughout the year from our associates, you know, who might be struggling and really appreciate that the programs and the resources that we're providing through for them throughout the year. I mean, that's what, you know, again, like keeps us going to know that we're making a difference even if it is in small ways.

Yasmin: Making a difference is really, you can't help but hope that you are right, especially with the work that you're doing. Like, that's a lot of heart and soul that's going into it. So, you know, that's awesome. So what's on the horizon for the women's initiative?Are there any programs or goals for the next 12 months that you can tell us about? Are they super secret?

Danielle: They're not super secret,but I can't give too much away but I am excited because we have created this new quote balance committee as part of the Women's Initiative. And in that committee is really tasked with finding resources or creating resources and finding resources that explore the different path of success for our attorneys and really sort of help, you know, with the ever moving life scale of balance, you know, it goes either way, depending on the day or the week or the month. And so really thinking through what can we do to help our people sort of balance that home life, personal life and work and that's all about, you know, mental health resources, that's about helping our attorneys build strong teams. Because if one needs to step away to deal with a family issue or, you know, go on vacation, there's this continuity in client service because we've built such strong teams that our attorneys, you know, and professionals can take a step away to deal with personal issues. And in addition to that, I'm very excited about a program that we're gonna be doing next year that really helps our attorneys and professionals better support our women-owned businesses and women executives. So we're taking a look at, you know, how can we be a better quote, trusted advisor to those clients? And then we're also probably gonna switch up how we do mentoring next year. And so in looking at maybe a new innovative way of approaching a mentorship program in allowing our women an opportunity to connect in small groups and have mentors at multiple levels at the firm, you know, including accountability partners, those who may be at the same level as them and building those groups. So they cross offices, they cross practice groups and really helping our women expand their networks internally and get that support at every level. And then, teaser, we're actually gonna unveil a new name for our Women's Initiative coming up in the next month or two. So stay tuned. That's gonna be unveiled in our next Women's Initiative newsletter which we call Strive. So fun things coming up.

Yasmin: That's awesome. OK. Sounds like everybody has to subscribe to uh to strive so that we can find out what we're changing the name to. Well, Danielle, I mean, I feel like I've asked you a lot of questions and every single time you've come through with like a million things that Baker Donelson and yourself are doing to improve the lives of women and families all over the place, especially, of course, internally at Baker Donelson. What would it be? And I promise this is my last question. What would be your one piece of advice for professionals and firm leaders looking to advance their support for women and families?

Danielle: It's kind of, I'm gonna do a three part one piece of ice.

Yasmin: OK. I like that.

Danielle: So I think the first step is, to listen. Listen to what your people are saying because they're gonna tell you where they're struggling and where they need help. And the second piece of that is look at the data, look at what your own firm is telling you where you need to make changes and look at what the market is telling you where you need to make changes. And the third is, if you can't make a leap, that's OK. Start with incremental steps because steps of any kind are still progress, it's still proof of action. And that's when your people feel like they have been heard and that's what starts creating staying power.

Yasmin: Mic drop. That was awesome. Wow, thank you so much, Danielle for coming on and answering all of my questions and for sharing all of the wonderful work that Baker Donelson is doing and yourself, of course. It sounds like some firms really have to have to kick it up a notch to compete.

Danielle: Yeah, hopefully so.

Yasmin: Fingers crossed. Well, thank you so much for joining today. To all of our listeners. Thank you for listening in. I'm your host, Yasmin Zand. You were listening to the CMO Series REPRESENTS podcast, with our fabulous guest, Danielle Smith, Women's Initiative Manager at Baker Donelson, and looking forward to having you guys join us to listen again soon and thank you again, Danielle.

Danielle: Thank you, so much.



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