Angela Crawford and Lila Acharya, partners at Crawford & Acharya pllc, discuss what makes their law firm unique, from the diversity of their own backgrounds and career experiences to the care they put into building close relationships with their clients.
Crawford & Acharya is described as a “a boutique law firm founded by women of color.” Can you tell us why you chose to launch this firm, and how you came to be partners?
Angela Crawford: We both essentially had reached a point in our careers where we no longer wanted to ask for a seat at the table – or try to change an existing table. We wanted to design and build our own table. Starting this law firm was an outgrowth of that desire.
We both enjoy the investigations and compliance space. On the compliance side, we get a chance to help clients develop and enhance their corporate cultures, and to do so in a way that is more ethical and allows them to operate their businesses with more integrity. We also help clients better comply with their internal policies and procedures, as well as external expectations – whether those are the expectations of global regulators or other stakeholders. On the investigations side, we have an opportunity to work closely with our clients to address allegations of wrongdoing or problems they may have internally in the workplace. We help them find ways to remediate these issues in ways that are practical and actually able to be implemented – solutions that will help enable the business, as opposed to hamstring it.
I’m also entrepreneurial, so building something that really solves the kinds of problems that we knew a lot of companies were having was just a fantastic opportunity. It gives us a chance to not only dig deeper into the legal issues around ethics, compliance and investigations, but also to build that broader perspective about business that comes with entrepreneurship.
As far as how we became business partners, Lila and I worked together on a matter in Dubai and then on a matter in Prague. I was outside counsel at the time, and she was in-house counsel. It gave us a great opportunity to get to know each other. When you handle global compliance and investigations, you often develop close relationships with your clients, because you’re spending a lot of time in a foreign country, working closely together for long hours – often in a high-pressure, contentious situation. It really gives you an opportunity to develop a unique and special relationship, and in this case, it led to Lila and me developing a close friendship and discussing our career plans over the course of some years. It reached a point where we started thinking, “Is this something we could do together – start our own firm?” And that evolved into, “How could we not do this?”
Lila Acharya: Over the last couple of years, Angela has been such a great resource for me professionally – a very accomplished woman, in a very senior role at a law firm, who I could go to for advice about so many things. But it really became a two-way street, the way we spoke to each other about our professional development. And when we started talking about opening our own firm, I couldn’t think of anyone else in the world I would rather do something like that with, because I just respect her so much. I know that I will continue to learn from her and develop because of our partnership.
Being a boutique firm run by two women of color is particularly meaningful to us. You hear all the time that there are not enough women in leadership roles at law firms, or even just that we’re not seeing enough diversity out there in general. As Angela said, sometimes you just have to create your own table. You have to take the risk and be the ones who go out there and set it up and show that this is a model that will work.
“We have had really diverse work experiences, and we look at problems from multiple angles based on the tool kit of skills that we’ve assembled over the years.” –Lila Acharya
Your primary focus is on compliance and investigations. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Acharya: Right, our two areas of focus are corporate compliance and internal investigations. On the corporate compliance side, we work closely with clients to improve their compliance programs. We conduct risk assessments for companies, assist them with drafting new policies or enhancing their existing ones, and conduct internal trainings for their employees or external trainings for their third parties. We also work on due diligence site visits and things along those lines.
On the investigations side, Angela and I both have significant experience conducting internal investigations. This includes policy violations, fraud, potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or the UK Bribery Act, other instances of bribery and corruption, legal violations, sexual harassment, and any other kinds of allegations that come in through a whistleblower hotline, including employee complaints or third-party complaints. The issues that our clients face really run the gamut.
Crawford: And these different compliance matters and different investigations often require different approaches. We always advise clients and provide our services in the way that is most effective and efficient for that particular client and their specific needs. For example, if the client is a large multinational company, what should be done in one market may not work in another market. Part of what we bring to the table is an understanding of that. We understand that different companies have different needs and that their business partners have different expectations. And the legal departments may have different expectations about how those needs are going to be met.
Lila and I have both spent quite a lot of time working with people outside of the legal department as well – working with our clients’ human resources, finance, internal audit, marketing, sales and regulatory departments. We understand how important it is to bring all of those different experiences and insights to bear for investigations and compliance matters – to really help clients think through how they want to approach and implement solutions for their particular business.
Your tagline is “depth of experience, diversity of perspective.” Can you elaborate that a bit?
Crawford: We understand that significant depth of experience is critically important to our clients. They want their outside counsel to not just be great lawyers but also to really understand their business, industry, company and brand. We bring that to the table. I was a partner at DLA Piper for 10 years and have interviewed hundreds of witnesses and handled numerous significant compliance matters and investigations. I also have substantial experience assisting clients with enhancing their corporate compliance programs. And Lila brings the experience of being in-house counsel at multiple companies, as well as being an associate at Ropes & Gray in Boston and London. We bring to the table both the in-house and outside counsel experience. We have handled matters for clients on the ground around the world – throughout the U.S., and also in Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
In terms of diversity of perspective, when Lila and I say “diversity,” it is not just something we talk about. It’s who we are. I’m an African-American woman. Lila is biracial, Indian and white. I think that the gender and cultural perspectives we bring are critically important, especially when you consider that we are working and practicing in a global space. Our experiences as women of color add a layer of richness and insight to what we do. And it goes beyond gender and race. It’s also the perspectives we bring based on our diverse legal experiences. It’s what I refer to as multifaceted diversity.
Acharya: Exactly. We have had really diverse work experiences, and we look at problems from multiple angles based on the tool kit of skills that we’ve assembled over the years. We’ve also worked in very diverse markets. I spent five and a half years practicing law in Europe and becoming qualified as a solicitor in England and Wales as well along the way. Angela and I have traveled the globe and handled manners in more than 30 countries – and usually that means having to actually go and be on the ground. So we’ve really developed a global perspective over the course of our careers. And I think that’s meaningful when we talk about both our experience and our perspective.
“Our experiences as women of color add a layer of richness and insight to what we do. And it goes beyond gender and race. It’s also the perspectives we bring based on our diverse legal experiences.” –Angela Crawford
Is there anything we missed that you’d like to touch on?
Acharya: One of our focuses in terms of creating our own boutique firm is really listening closely to the clients we’ve worked with over the years. Having been in-house, I have a great understanding of the budget pressures that our clients face, of the staffing shortages or recruitment challenges that they might have. We understand the kinds of frustrations they have, and we’re able to work with them on flexible-fee arrangements or project-based pricing, as opposed to always using the traditional billable hours model.
We want this to be a new and innovative approach, and we hope to continue to come up with new and exciting ways to provide services to our clients. Both from a pricing perspective and from a service perspective, we want to help them to achieve what they need to achieve in a pragmatic way. That includes making sure that we have those close relationships where clients feel like they can call us and know we’re not going to bill them for six minutes just because they had quick question - our focus is on being a trusted advisor.
Crawford: I have been humbled and excited by the outpouring of support we’ve received from other lawyers who have taken a similar path – others who have left large law firms or their positions as in-house counsel to develop their own boutique firms. That group has been very supportive and willing to share information and ideas. And they’ve been very candid about their challenges. The message that I would like to share with readers is that there are alternative ways to approach a career in law. It really is the dawning of a new day when it comes to the caliber of boutique law firms out there that are able to provide top-notch, exceptional legal services to corporate clients. This community has been inspiring, and I’m excited to be a part of it.
Published March 19, 2020.