by Liz Daube
Melissa Turra has a lot on her plate.
As a real estate attorney with Holland &Knight, she keeps busy with a variety of development clients. She juggles the care of her two preschool children with her husband, Marco. Now, she’s adding another task to the list: executive partner of Holland & Knight’s Jacksonville office.
Turra said a naturally relaxed demeanor helps her stay calm under pressure.
“As much as I look very driven, I’m very laid back,” said Turra. “That’s a strength I have — not getting overwhelmed.”
She’s trying to use that strength in her new role. As executive partner, Turra guides office initiatives that don’t fall under the office manager’s duties. She also coordinates communication between the firm’s practice group leaders. (Holland & Knight is split into four practice groups: real estate, litigation, business and government.)
For example, Turra said she observes hiring and recruiting trends so the firm can make appropriate, local decisions.
“There’s a trend of significantly increasing associate salaries,” said Turra. “You don’t want to have litigation associates making something different than real estate and business associates.”
She also spends a lot of time trying to ensure rising, new and future employees are satisfied with the work environment. Turra said she gives a lot of guidance, feedback and opportunities to the law clerks, paralegals and associate attorneys she works with.
“You’re not going to keep someone if it’s not a good work environment,” she said. “It’s extremely important to me that people are satisfied in the workplace. There’s no money in the world that’s worth making yourself crazy.”
She often compares notes with her husband, who works at CSX, said Turra, explaining that law firms have begun operating more like businesses in recent years. Attorneys can attract more clients using marketing plans, she said, and they can recruit more talented lawyers using positive management tactics. Turra said developing, talented associate attorneys may leave a firm – or the law profession entirely – if they’re overworked and underappreciated.
“It (ageism) is completely counterproductive, not only to the associates involved,” said Turra. “If you take it from a completely selfish point of view, I can get six or seven times more done if I’ve got a good team.”
Most of the people working directly for Turra are women. She said that’s a coincidence, but recent statistics show that women sometimes outnumber men as new attorney hires. But with time, many women abandon law careers. Thus, Turra said, most law firm partners are male.
“It’s a hard business to keep women in,” she said, explaining that the work-family balance can be difficult to reach.
Turra said she sees her own quiet resilience in Marissa, her 5 year-old daughter. Marissa was born with a cleft palate. (Essentially, the roof of her mouth didn’t form.) She’s gone through two painful surgeries to try to close the gap in her mouth and make simple functions, like speech and eating, easier.
The healing and learning process – Marissa didn’t speak at all until age 3 – has been difficult for both mother and daughter. But Turra said Marissa can talk with some clarity and should be able to attend kindergarten next year.
Turra said her son, Matteo, age three, takes after Marco.
“Matteo’s kind of our in-house worrier,” said Turra. “But he’s strong. It will be interesting to see what he does in athletics. He could stand here and jump up on this table.”
The whole family plays tennis, Turra said. She and Marco met on the courts at the University of Maryland. She was on a tennis scholarship and he had come from Milan, Italy to play on the men’s team.
Turra said they still play tennis and they even placed sixth in a national husband-and-wife competition. Marco’s held on to his roots, as well — he’s trying to teach the children to speak Italian. So far, Turra said they don’t speak the language so much as understand it. But there is one word they like, and Turra said they repeat it with zeal — “Ciao!”