meet kristen: lawyer changing chicago workplaces

Kristen Prinz, People with Panache

On challenges in her career: “One challenge I’ve had is just starting my own firm and becoming a boss. I thought I would be a really good boss when I quit my job and started my own firm, and then after a couple years I realized, I’m probably doing a lot of things wrong.”

“We had a week-and-a-half-long jury trial. The other side had been overly cocky the entire time. I had a dream two weeks before the trial that we were going to get a $10 million jury verdict. So, because of my dream, we changed the entire strategy of what we were presenting to the jury. And then we got the $10 million jury verdict! How funny is that? It wasn’t really a dream—it was a vision.”

They say if you verbalize what you really want, it’s more likely that you’ll take the necessary steps to make it happen. Apparently dreaming works, too!

I met Kristen Prinz at Money Smart Week 2016. She was a panelist for “It’s the Money, Honey!” the equal pay event, and her passion couldn’t be more obvious. Already, I knew she had to be on the blog.

Kristen started her own law firm, The Prinz Law Group, in 2009 to specialize in employment law. Her firm works with both employees and employers—with, not against, one another. For companies, they will prepare handbooks or represent them if an employee is suing them. They only represent individuals if they haven’t also represented their company. Through improving workplaces, Kristen affects people’s day-to-day lives, and she loves it.

People with Panache: Why do you like employment law?

Kristen Prinz: A lot of lawyers hate being lawyers—but I love it. You get to help business owners create a better culture, and typically if they have a better culture, they won’t be sued by their employees as often. You get to help make sure that they’re aware of blind spots, because we all have them. Most of the discrimination that happens nowadays is not explicit; it’s much more implicit.

Also, most companies do want to have happy employees, but there are so many implicit biases. I have them, too. I took the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, and I have certain biases that I never would’ve thought I had. It’s like your mind plays tricks on you.

PWP: Like what?

KP: I would say I’m a really strong feminist, but when I took the test, it did say that I have a moderate preference toward equating men more with career and women more with family. I don’t dispute it; it probably is true because I think it tests things you don’t acknowledge about yourself.

I had my office take it because I talk a lot about how our clients don’t acknowledge their biases, and how we don’t even know our biases. We all took it so we could be more aware of how we’re interacting with people.

PWP: That’s a really interesting point, something I wish more of us would be aware of and acknowledge. I’m definitely going to take the test. I got a hint at the panel, but what are you passionate about?

KP: I’m definitely passionate about the equal pay issue. I have two young daughters, and I want to make sure they see that it’s okay to have high expectations for yourself and to have high expectations for others, too.

I’m also becoming much more passionate about implicit bias. I’m asking everyone I know to take the test. That’s how you improve—you have discussions about things; you acknowledge that this is a problem.

Kristen, The Prinz Law Firm, People with Panache

On being the boss: “If you’re the boss, you create the entire environment. You do things that you saw when you were an employee, and maybe those things worked for you. For me, I always thrived in a really challenging environment. I didn’t have a problem when bosses were overly tough. But is that the type of boss I really want to be? Is that really nurturing? Is that really going to make people better, or is that going to make people afraid?”

PWP: Yes! So true. Before you began your own practice, how did you decide to become a lawyer?

KP: I really decided to take the LSAT one weekend on a whim—I just wanted to see if I could do it. I actually didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer. I was going to go to law school and get my law license and then start a business. It’s a good education.

When I was younger, it was very easy to be absolute about everything. Everything is very black and white, and you can have very strong opinions. When you go to law school, everything is gray area. Partly because of law school and partly because of age, it’s so hard now to have an absolute perspective because you understand that there are very few things without some gray area. It’s smarter and more productive, but I sometimes miss having stronger convictions.

PWP: It seems like you have strong convictions about equal pay!

KP: Probably this year I’ve all of a sudden had stronger convictions about women and equal pay. I used to think much more like ‘Control the things you can, negotiate, and take responsibility for the problem.’ Knowing more about implicit bias, I’m realizing that we have to be asking men—and everybody really—to be more aware of their implicit biases, because negotiating is not enough. I’ve learned that for male candidates, usually the first offer starts out higher, so even if you’re a woman and you’re negotiating, you’re not going to get to that same point.

Six months after I was hired by my first legal boss, I found out they also hired a man, and he was offered a higher starting salary than me. I strongly believed that I was more qualified, or at least equally qualified, and I went to this male partner and asked him why. He said, “Men won’t take as little as women.”

PWP: WHAT?! How did you react?

KP: I’m really grateful to that guy. Most people would not be that blatantly honest.

That was a learning lesson for me; I’m not going to take less money. When clients say now, ‘Oh I’m going to work harder and show them!’ — don’t; nobody cares. You’re expected to work hard. Nobody is going to pat you on the back and give you more money.

PWP: Ha, that is true. I have friends recently who have been afraid to ask for too much in a negotiation because they’re afraid the company will take their offer back altogether.

KP: Well, women are penalized for negotiating. But I still think you have to ask for more. If you’re making fear-based decisions, if you’re already telling yourself they’re going to walk away if you ask for too much, you’re kind of setting the expectation already.

PWP: How do you ask for more in a negotiation?

KP: It’s about presenting it as a win-win to the company: ‘This is what I’m going to do; this is why I’m worth this amount. I’m going to represent your company, and I will negotiate even harder on your behalf, but I can’t come in and take a job at a pay that’s this much below market.’

The Prinz Law Firm, peoplewithpanache.com

On the effect of implicit biases and having kids: “I’m sure I’m sending some old-fashioned messages to them that I can’t even fathom. I told my older sister before I had kids, that no matter how great of a parent you are, something you do will be resented, so do the best that you can.”

PWP: Clear, honest, straight to the point—that formula sounds effective. I think it’s really important to tell people they can say those things.

KP: I definitely think women feel like it’s less okay… that it’s not polite. Even though I’m very sick of hearing about how women need to adjust their communication, I do think early on in your career you need to figure out exactly how you’re going to ask for something. You need to plan it; you need to make sure it’s not about you. I’ve heard of situations where people say, ‘Well that doesn’t cover my expenses.’ Your employer does not care. Instead say, ‘This is what I think this job is worth, I’m excited about it, and I know I’ll do a great job for you. This is what’s reasonable given the market, given the expectations of the job, given the value I’m going to be bringing to this company.’

PWP: What do you think are some of your biggest challenges?

KP: As a boss, I’ve learned that everything is really your fault. If you hired the wrong person, if you have to let that person go, you need to take responsibility. It’s not that person’s fault. The other big challenge has been having kids. You want to be there at work and you want to be there for your kids. It’s a constant give and take in terms of what you can say yes to, what you have to say no to, for both your family and your work.

PWP: I know several moms on our blog feel the same way—you’re not alone. What advice do you have for others about following their dreams?

KP: Everything is about execution. I really believe in Nike’s slogan: Just Do It. Would you rather have a life where you tried a million things and failed at a lot of them or where you tried nothing and sat back and thought, ‘I could have done this, I could have done that.’ I would much rather say I’ve tried and failed then tell people I wish I had done this or that. Be brave!

[Photos by Kate.]

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