Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis aims to make employees feel invested in firm’s success


Managing Partner Mark Grannis makes a presentation to staffers during a”Nothing but Law” lunch. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

Mark Grannis has a simple way of screening job candidates: He pays attention to how interviewees talk about their current employer.

“If they say ‘we,’ it’s a good workplace. If they say ‘they,’ it’s a different kettle of fish,” Grannis said.

Since Grannis co-founded District-based Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, he and his partners have been working to build the boutique law firm into a “we” kind of workplace.

That starts with spending generously on benefit packages. The firm, which has 50 employees, pays 100 percent of health-care costs for its workers, as well as their spouses and children. HWG contributes 9 percent of total compensation to each employee’s 401(k), regardless of whether employees make their own contributions. The company also matches employee contributions up to 4 percent.

To make sure workers feel invested in the company’s success, HWG implemented a profit-sharing model based on a point system. Each quarter, the firm tallies its profits and doles out bonuses to staff members based on points. The number of points a employee gets is determined by position, seniority, and for certain workers, merit.

At HWG, employees don’t typically eat lunch at their desks. On most days, about half of the firm — everyone from junior legal assistants to senior partners — can be found dining together in a large conference room. Employees say this is emblematic of the firm’s broader culture.

“It’s very egalitarian,” said Danielle Piñeres, an associate. “I think law firms in particular tend to be very hierarchical, and [this] is a place where everybody’s opinion is respected.”

Employees gather twice a month for what are known as Lunch and Learn sessions, in which fellow staff members share their expertise on a particular topic. One of the monthly sessions is focused on a legal topic. The other session is on a topic that has nothing to do with law. In the past, employees have given talks on the Kentucky Derby or how to play craps.

HWG staff members come together outside the office for events such as the annual Bowling Extravaganza. The uniform is a company bowling shirt that is given to each new employee. They also venture out to a bar in Adams Morgan for semiannual karaoke nights, where the team is usually joined by spouses and HWG alumni.

“I was a brand-new associate at the first one, and I remember some very senior partners sitting up there with a very junior associate and my husband singing ‘It’s Raining Men.’ And I thought, ‘People here don’t take themselves too seriously!’ ” Amy Richardson, a partner, said.

The firm, founded in 1998 as Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis, had gone by the name Wiltshire & Grannis after co-founder Scott Blake Harris left. When Harris returned in May, the company returned to its original name.

HWG specializes in telecommunication and technology law and has significant criminal and civil litigation practices. The economic downturn created headwinds for many large firms, forcing them to lay off workers or cut pay. Grannis said HWG weathered the tough times in part because the firm largely doesn’t deal with routine legal issues. Its attorneys are deep experts on niche topics. He added that the firm’s profit-sharing model helped it ride out the storm.

“That means that when the firm is having great times, the profits get shared with everybody,” Grannis said. “But it also means that when the firm is stuck with slower times, we don’t get stuck with a lot of guaranteed minimums.”

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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