NEW YORK — At the third event for the Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) 2018 Rising Stars cohort, the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius recently hosted a breakfast where attendees discussed their experiences as partners and leaders in both law firms and in-house legal departments.
Thomson Reuters EVP and General Counsel Deirdre Stanley introduced the panelists for the special program, entitled Steering A New Ship: Women’s Rise to Leadership in Law Firms, who included: Cristina Carvalho, Managing Partner at Arent Fox; Michele A. Coffey, General Counsel and Partner at Morgan Lewis; and LeeAnn Black, Chief Operating Officer at Latham & Watkins.
TWLL is designed to sustain exploratory dialogue between law firm leaders and general counsel around the existing challenges – and future opportunities – for greater diversity in the legal profession. “There’s not just one way to get to the result we’re all hoping to achieve and so we have to keep trying through different avenues,” one participant noted right at the start.
To kick off the conversation, the law firm leader panelists were asked to talk about their early career starts, their respective paths to leadership, and to impart any advice for how to gain visibility among one’s clients and law firm peers.
One panelist said that a positive first impression of her law firm, where she’s been practicing most of her career, was that they viewed differences as strengths. She also recounted some words of wisdom from a partner that spurred her to build a book of business from the get-go: “Freedom comes from having your own clients,” he told her, and she invoked the visual memory of all the client memorabilia flanking his desk.
As lawyers proceed along their career paths within a firm, several attendees agreed that they need to work at continually gaining visibility by networking internally with key rainmakers and partners.
Another panelist expressed gratitude for the very strong sponsorship and mentorship that she received from the start, while sharing success tips that could apply to many types of legal practice: “It really requires you to have confidence, to keep connections with people and to be consistent when you are in front of them,” she said, crediting those who gave her the latitude to develop her own skills. Over time, she said she committed to “learning their business as if it were my own business” and to understanding “a trade inside and out.”
As lawyers proceed along their career paths within a firm, several attendees agreed that they need to work at continually gaining visibility by networking internally with key rainmakers and partners. “Your colleagues are just as important as your clients,” one attendee said.
As one conduit, several attendees spoke about the critical commitment to join firm committees, which serve as “stepping stones” to deeper involvement within a firm’s business operations. As one person explained it, these opportunities helped prepare her as a practice leader and paved the way to her candidacy for elected committee positions, which are a clear pipeline to firm leadership.
At the same time, another attendee cautioned that while extremely valuable, committee work cannot take the place of substantive expertise which can only be developed from working on matters.
Building Your Book of Business
On the topic of business development, one panelist said she encourages early-career lawyers to “pay attention to every single thing,” noting that she had learned a great deal by closely observing how rainmakers and partners treated their clients and how they cultivated those relationships. She also underscored the importance of projecting an enthusiastic attitude about one’s firm, which at one time helped her to win a very large client. “You are a walking business card for your firm — in all your interactions with people, make sure that you say positive things about your firm and your colleagues because they’re paying attention and that matters,” she explained.
Another panelist suggested that lawyers can gain a competitive advantage when they take a comprehensive view of their firm’s product offerings. “If you can at least scratch the surface of what your firm offers, you can get credit for cross-selling with current clients to other product lines,” she said.
Several attendees spoke about the critical commitment to join firm committees, which serve as “stepping stones” to deeper involvement within a firm’s business operations.
Of course, having a proverbial — and literal — seat at the table during client pitches is critical for associates and early-career partners to gain the experience required for future success. While the group generally acknowledged that pitch teams are becoming more diverse, at least one attendee referenced a troubling scenario in which a female, although present, had no speaking time during the presentation. “If you bring someone, they have to have a role in the pitch,” remarked an attendee from a corporate legal department.
While there’s likely nothing deliberately ill-meaning in such an arrangement, some pitch teams are “driven by what they think the client needs because they have an archaic way of looking at clients and needs,” the attendee said.
Another attendee recommended a potential solution wherein the partner assembling a pitch team can work to clearly define roles in advance. “[So] even if the conversation gets dominated, you have your role,” she said.
In closing, attendees shared different initiatives that their respective firms had instituted, or are experimenting with, to achieve greater retention and inclusion of its female and diverse talent. These approaches are meant to ensure, among other things, that matters are fairly assigned and that ample opportunities exist for such talent to gain visibility across the firm, spanning different practice areas and levels of seniority.
“All of these conversations are very important and we’re starting to see some big changes” said one panelist. “One of my jobs as a leader is to start making changes where I can so that women become more visible.”
Top photo (l to r): LeeAnn Black, Chief Operating Officer at Latham & Watkins; Michele A. Coffey, General Counsel and Partner at Morgan Lewis; and Cristina Carvalho, Managing Partner at Arent Fox.