by Allison Walsh | Contributor
Maurie Lawrence is a partner in a prominent law firm and mother to two elementary-age children, yet still finds time to be heavily involved in a number of causes about which she feels passionate. She is inspired by the legacy of her firm’s founder, Tommy Wyche, and the visionary leadership he brought to bear in Greenville.
At Wyche, in addition to her law practice, Lawrence is responsible for internal development and training – a role she takes seriously and through which she has worked to make the mentoring and professional development process more accessible. Lawrence founded the first South Carolina chapter of CREW (Commercial Real Estate Women), with the goal of advancing the success of women in real estate, a traditionally male-dominated field. She also serves as chairwoman for the Children’s Garden of the Cancer Survivor’s Park, which combines her love for real estate and the built environment with her passion for helping children and families facing cancer.
What are you currently working on that you are the most excited about?
I get most excited when I’m working on a diversity of projects. Working on the development of downtown Greenville, which is an ongoing project. I and our real estate team have a number of projects off and on Main Street. Also working with manufacturing companies, not just in South Carolina, but across the country – that’s exciting to me because you see job growth. I also need the diversity to have some conservation projects, so I’m working on some substantive projects to save large tracts of land, and that balances out the development with conservation.
What is the biggest topic of concern or excitement in your industry right now?
If I defined my industry as real estate in the Upstate of South Carolina, we’re concerned with how to develop responsibly. Because population growth is continuing, our needs are expanding, which is wonderful, but infrastructure is a huge issue. How do we match a growing and strong infrastructure with the needs of the population, and also how do we grow in a responsible way so you can maintain the charm of Greenville and the Upstate? There are a lot of questions and it’s going to require a lot of smart people working together to solve.
An honest answer is, I know things can change in an instant. My daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and I have this perpetual knowledge that you never know what’s going to change, whether in your workplace, the community, or your family. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how to spend time wisely, and how to be effective, both as a leader and a person. But that takes a constant thinking about a lot of issues, and it can wake you up at night, just worrying or wondering what’s next, because ultimately we don’t know the answer to that.
What was a game-changing moment in your career?
Coming to Wyche. It’s a unique law firm; it has a unique proposition in that it brings people from all over the country together in a very small law firm with the notion that we could do sophisticated work – as friends – and still be actively involved in the community. I would say a lot of that really derives from the vision of Tommy Wyche, and it’s a game-changer to have known him and then to be able to work in his legacy.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I really want to be a part of this community. I ultimately believe our actions make a difference. You, or me, or any one of us can impact today and tomorrow, both in the Upstate, and actually globally. One non-business but important project going on – that I hope in five years we’re all walking through – is the expansion of parks in the Upstate. There are these incredible plans for increased parks, and if you see how much Falls Park transformed how we experience downtown. … I think the Cancer Survivors Park, as well as many others, can have that same sort of transformative [effect].
What do you have yet to learn about your business?
Everything, because no assumptions can be taken as certain. Real estate and business continues to change. I went to a conference recently and they talked about how the density will change everything, as well as technology. We’re becoming more and more condensed … we’re using space differently, we’re experiencing space differently.
One small example: When [my generation was] in college, we may have had lots of books and music that you needed space to house, but current generations have all of it on their phone. There are no concrete assumptions, so I am constantly open to the ideas that knowledge is always changing and growing. How do you apply it in the legal market and for your clients? You need a flexibility, creativity and willingness to grow to be able to do that well.
Who do you rely on as a mentor?
I take mentorship and the idea of mentoring very seriously. I think it’s a crucial concept, both to realize that you’re constantly being mentored and that you have a need to be mentoring others. I don’t have one mentor, I have a board of mentors that help me in all different areas.
What inspired you to enter the real estate field?
I came into real estate because it’s collaborative, it affects the community. It’s tangible, you can see it. I like to be able to walk by something that I worked on and point it out. Most importantly, it resonated with me in terms of how it gets done, in that it’s not combative, it’s not “one person wins, one person loses,” and it makes a difference.
It’s hard for me to work in legal work where I can’t always measure why we’re doing it or why it matters, but in real estate I know why the building matters, or why the creation of jobs matters, or why we’re spending time talking about LEED certification, or why the impact of the building’s sustainability and efficiency matters. That was a natural draw towards real estate.
What’s your idea of work-life balance?
There is no such thing. It’s hard. I think people aren’t telling the truth if it’s not hard. It’s rewarding, but it’s frustrating. My idea of work-life balance is to do the best I can and be willing to change. On some days I feel like I got the life part right: I ran, I saw my children, I had a good meeting with a friend. On other days I got the work part right: I worked long hours but we closed a big deal, our clients are happy, or something positive happened in the community. Some days I didn’t get either part right, but I pushed the ball forward in most areas, and that was good for that day.
You just have to be constantly doing your best, and it requires a tremendous amount of flexibility and not getting lost in one short-term effort. I’ve done a lot of good for the business community, and I’m doing a lot of good for my family.
What are some common assumptions or misconceptions people make about you or your line of work?
I think there is a wide-held notion that lawyers practice one type of law, or they’re one type of personality. I’m teaching right now in a graduate program, and sometimes even the students have said, “You’re nice, are you nice as a lawyer?” or “You seem collaborative, are you collaborative?” or “What’s it like in a courtroom?” The truth is I never go in the courtroom, and I think I am nice, generally, and collaborative. There is this classical view that a lawyer goes to a courtroom and doesn’t bend and always has a poker face, and I’d say in some ways those classical definitions still are things that we face.
While less prevalent, there’s definitely still [people who say] “Will you get me some coffee… oh, you’re the lawyer.” Yes, your lawyer can be the female in the room. Those things still happen. There’s a need to talk about them. Not as much, but definitely there are stereotypes about who is the lawyer.
What is difference between the future you saw for yourself five or 10 years ago and the life you are living and work you are doing today?
I really saw myself working for the government – whether it was local, state, national, or a global organization. I have an urban policy degree. I am most surprised that I am in private practice. I still sort of pinch myself that I am a private-practice attorney and like it.
Also, I would not be telling the truth if I didn’t say having children is unpredictable. What I pictured in terms of being a mother cannot be described in terms of what it’s actually like. That has to be one of the biggest differences.
What is the Upstate’s most underutilized asset?
Our people. It actually doesn’t matter where you are, I think you can better utilize people. But the Upstate has tremendous diversity in every area. We have a tremendous opportunity to engage, from a classical workforce development standpoint, so we can attract better jobs. But there’s also the concept of a think tank – if we’re able to tap into a more diverse view of ideas, we’re going to better solve problems in a unique way. But the way to do that is to bring more people into the tent so that they’re helping us come up with solutions.
We need to be appreciative of the people that are here and utilize them, because we live in a competitive environment. Other communities that are better able to utilize their people will have a competitive advantage over the Upstate. Our people are our greatest underutilized asset, but they are also our greatest opportunity.