On the day she quit Greenberg Traurig and launched her own Philadelphia law firm 3½ years ago, Francine Griesing knew what type of employer she wanted to be.

"I really wanted to create an environment where every woman or man who worked there could work without the fear you get in most traditional law firm settings," Griesing said last week during a panel discussion that was part of a daylong conference in midtown Manhattan focused on what it takes for women to succeed in the legal industry.

Griesing also knew what kind of office setting she didn’t want to create: the kind she repeatedly came up against over the course of a 32-year legal career that took her from associate stints at Sullivan & Cromwell and other firms to a position as head of litigation for the city of Philadelphia’s legal department to partner roles at various Am Law firms, including Greenberg. "At every stage," she told conference attendees, "I faced incredible obstacles that my male peers did not face."

Those obstacles included the struggles colleagues never saw, like late nights at home spent finishing legal briefs while putting in loads of laundry and preparing the next night’s dinner.

More significant were the impediments Griesing pushed into public view in December by filing a proposed $200 million gender-discrimination class action against Greenberg in New York federal court that accused the firm of paying women less than men, in part because of a "boys’ club of origination" that made it difficult for women to bring in business and bill a competitive number of hours.

EEOC finds ‘reasonable cause’

While Greenberg adamantly denied the claims, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission backed them up, finding "reasonable cause to believe" the firm discriminated against female attorneys by compensating them less than their male counterparts, according to Griesing’s December complaint.

The parties ultimately agreed to move the dispute to arbitration, and settled the matter on May 24 under undisclosed terms. Griesing declined to comment on the case last Thursday, saying "I don’t speak at all about my prior firm except to say that we concluded amicably."

In her 45-minute presentation at Women Legal 2013—the latest in a series of events organized by conference-planning firm Ark Group aimed at promoting gender diversity and equality in the legal profession—Griesing and her colleague Kate Legge discussed their decision to leave Greenberg, where Legge was a junior associate, and launch Griesing Law. The conference, attended by dozens of female lawyers from law firms and in-house legal departments, also featured sessions focused on how women can achieve flexibility in the workplace while maintaining power; the disparity in pay between men and women in the profession; and a dissection of law firm women’s initiatives.

Legge, a senior associate at seven-lawyer Griesing Law, says she took Griesing "kicking and screaming" through the process of launching her own firm. Clad in a bright blue dress suit and standing up from the speakers’ table so those in the back of the room could see her, the diminutive Griesing confirmed that sentiment, saying she was hesitant to take on the hassles of owning her own business and had other options at the time: "We were really recruited heavily throughout our time at [Greenberg] together."

Today, Griesing Law handles litigation, employment, transactional, intellectual property, and new media–related matters. One way the firm has tried to distinguish itself, the women said, is by offering their clients more than just legal advice. In office space overlooking the Philadelphia skyline, the firm throws semi-annual parties for its friends and clients—including Comcast, Avis, Shell, and many companies in the hospitality industry—that double as art shows for a rotating cast of artists.

"Our office is our brand," says Legge, adding that as a women-owned firm, they thought high-end office space would help lend the lawyers credibility. "We like to be thought of as fun."

Unlike the inflexibility they found at prior employers, Griesing Law is structured to give clients seamless service even if an attorney is called away for personal reasons. And to promote collegiality, lawyers earn no origination credit for work they bring in.

Effusive about her own firm’s inclusiveness, Griesing is less optimistic about the pace of change happening within large law firms.

"I have a 23-year-old who attended Barnard, and I would never want her to go to law school," she says. "I hope that’s not the answer when she has a daughter."

Sara Randazzo writes for The Am Law Daily, a Daily Report affiliate.