Ahead of Schedule

Comfort Systems USA’s Ashley Kramer graduated law school early, and now she’s applying her take-charge approach to improve the company’s safety and risk programs and prevent unnecessary litigation

Few make plans and stick to them as well as Ashley Kramer. The native Houstonian decided early on that she’d be a lawyer after reading One L, Scott Turow’s account of his time at Harvard Law. She then studied history and anthropology at Texas A&M because, she figured, subjects requiring a lot of reading and writing would pave the way for success in law school. And as she neared the end of her time at Baylor Law School, she even thought strategically about when to graduate.

“My thought process was that if I graduated in February, I could take the February bar exam and have a leg up on the people graduating at the end of April and taking the July bar exam,” she says.

Such calculated thinking has served her well in her career, too. She’s employed it not only to land a job with Comfort Systems USA, a leading provider of heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems and services, but also to expand her responsibilities there. Today she serves as the company’s senior counsel, litigation and employment, and assistant vice president of safety and risk, and her proactive approach continues to protect the company’s interests.

Kramer’s career didn’t begin at Comfort Systems, though. Out of law school, she first took an associate attorney position at Houston-based boutique litigation firm Engvall & Lopez. While there, she worked closely with Comfort Systems on its construction-defect and employment law cases. When the company’s general counsel needed someone to lead litigation in-house for the company, a partner at Engvall recommended Kramer for the job.

Initially, her role focused on litigation and insurance claims, but because of her ability to learn quickly and her legal aptitude, it quickly expanded to involve employee relations and other facets of the business. The move in-house can be difficult for some lawyers, but Kramer found it a smooth transition, given that she was already familiar with Comfort Systems’ business and understood its challenges. “I could see it from both sides,” she says.

The wide scope of responsibility means that each and every day at the office is different for Kramer—a fact she relishes. “I’ll start each day with a few main items to accomplish, but inevitably the first call or email derails that plan,” she says, laughing. She might start off expecting to spend a few hours reviewing contracts, for example, but then she might instead have to attend a cross-functional meeting regarding plans for a new whistleblower hotline, or she might focus on HR concerns at any of the organization’s thirty-six operating companies and 109 physical locations. “I jump back and forth between different areas of the law and different parts of the business, but I like variety,” she says. “Some people prefer more structured environments, but I live in organized chaos.”

Four years into her time at Comfort Systems, Kramer added further to her responsibilities when she became the assistant vice president of safety and risk. The company most commonly encounters risk when a customer alleges that a system wasn’t designed or installed correctly or that Comfort Systems’ work is off-schedule. “It then becomes my job to reach out to our operating companies and help them respond to notice letters with our formal position and help them to mitigate any risks,” Kramer says. In addition to risk, her role extends to the safety of Comfort Systems’ 8,800 employees and oversight of the company’s safety initiatives.

Since joining the risk and safety team, Kramer has seen quantitative differences in safety at the company, including a reduction in auto incidents and other claims. On the other side of her role, she has seen the amount of litigation against Comfort Systems decrease to an all-time low.

Such accomplishments are especially impressive when considering the small size of the legal team working on behalf of the nationwide company. Kramer is one of just three lawyers, including the general counsel, who contribute their expertise and work closely with other members of the leadership team. “If I ever want to talk to the CEO, I can,” Kramer says. “Having such a small team can be overwhelming, but proper prioritizing and strategizing makes the difference.”

Kramer works closely with outside counsel, too, who’ve remained impressed as she has expanded her role. “As an outside counsel, we’ve gotten to know Ashley’s talents and work ethic well,” says Lisa Black, a partner with Black Marjieh Leff & Sanford LLP. “She’s exceptionally skilled at mitigating risk and finding innovative solutions.”

Kramer has no reason to think about leaving her current role, but should she get the itch to expand her expertise even further, she notes that Comfort Systems’ fluidity and transparency would allow her to explore other interests or passions. “If I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer for the rest of my time at the company, I’m confident I’d have the ability to find something new,” she says. “I have a sign on my bookshelf that says, ‘She believed she could, so she did.’ That’s definitely my mantra.”

In the meantime, rather than micromanaging tasks or projects, Kramer has found it best to simply provide support to her team and look for the strengths within others. “I learned from our general counsel that working side by side with people, empowering others, and admitting when you don’t know something is important,” she says.

It’s the kind of sage perspective that might seem unusual for someone as young as Kramer to have, but then again, she’s always been ahead of schedule.