Getting to know the 2011 Transformative Leadership winners

The seven TLA winners share their insights, experiences and lessons learned

Sometimes a profile just isn't enough. InsideCounsel asked each of our 2011 Transformative Leadership Award winners to talk to us about their trials and tribulations over the course of their careers.

In addition to highlighting some of their accomplishments and discussing how these seven women have come to be where they are today, we zeroed in on what it's like to be a woman in law, and how they have worked to help advance the careers of other young women in the profession.

Follow along to read what each of these extraordinary women had to say.

Ellen Bastier

Partner, Reed Smith 

Q: What have you done to help a woman or women in law?

A: I had a great mentor when I was coming up through the ranks. And, probably as a result of that experience, I really like working with younger lawyers, men and women. As part of mentoring younger lawyers, I’ve taken an interest in looking at how they can best look at managing their careers and working toward their goals. I take a very active mentoring style and approach with young lawyers, and in the course of that often the younger women lawyers will ask questions like, “How did you do it?” “How did you handle that?” “Do you see any differences in approaches this as a woman?”

Q: Do you see different challenges for women lawyers?

A: Yes, but I don’t think there are a lot. One thing I’ve noticed over the years that’s different about how young women lawyers approach their work environment has to do with just asking for work. One of the pieces of advice I give to younger ones is, if you want experience in a particular area, you have to make it known to supervisors. You have to go ask. This is a generalization—some women tend not to be so direct. The contrast is, I can be sitting in my office and the young male attorneys will come into the office and ask. It seems to be a different style of communication, and as a result, one thing I try to tell younger women lawyers is if there’s some kind of experience you want to get, be sure to make it known to people. People can’t read their minds.

Q: What other advice would you give to a young woman lawyer?

A: The other part is to know your client and know your client’s business. Really deeply immerse yourself in that. It applies whether you’re in private practice or in-house. As you’re going to deliver services to your client group, really understand their business and the metrics by which they’re going to be measured and judged. If you have that in mind, you can give advice that’s not just correct legally, but is practical and meaningful in the context of their business needs.

Q: How are things different for women lawyers today?

A: One thing that’s different is there does seem to be more of us. When I first started out, I would go to a conference room meeting at a business organization and was usually the only woman in the room—all male clients and colleagues and opposing counsel. Now I’m finding there tend to be other women lawyers across the table, and the clients also don’t seem to be as limited to men as 20 years ago. That makes it different—I won’t say it’s easier—but one factor women today don’t need to be bothered with is feeling like they’re the only one. For any of us who have practiced for 25 years or more, we went through that and it didn’t make a difference at the end of the day. It was just a fact—that, more often than not, we were the only females in the conference room (or the only litigators in the courtroom).

Nadia Dombrowski

Senior Vice President, Group Head, and Lead Region Counsel, U.S. Markets, MasterCard Worldwide

Q: How have things changed for young women lawyers today?

A: I see the percentages of women in law school are much more equitable in terms of class composition. Secondly, there are tons of women in the law department here—very remarkable, smart, contributory, hard-working, strategic-thinking women. Therefore there are more role models for younger women, more of a general prevalence of women in law that didn’t always exist when I was growing up. My daughters are 16 and 13, and just the way they interact with their male peers today is so different. It was better for me than it was for my mother, and it’s even incrementally better for them than it was for me.

What you always see is that despite 20 years of women working at firms, there still are as few women in the top partnership roles today as there were 20 years ago. So does that indicate real progress? Are there more women out there today practicing law, and doing it happily, and managing their families and personal lives and excelling? Yes, absolutely. The challenge, the real question, comes when you get to the upper echelons: Do women make it there? These are the positions where we need more women, not just in doing-all-the work-behind-the-scenes roles.

Q: What have you done to help women in law?

A: At Rogers & Wells, a couple of women came to me ready to quit—they weren’t getting on the right deals or cases, they were having a difficult time and they turned to me as a role model. I have very sanguine memories of keeping those people on the boat, and when I got to the point where I could staff my deals, that developed into picking those people to get them on deals, engaging them, making them feel included, getting them the experience they needed. I was on the employment and personnel committee at Rogers & Wells and worked at getting women more engaged, women with very different personalities and backgrounds.

At MasterCard, whenever I need to draw together a multifaceted, multifunctional team, I really try to get all the smart, contributory women in the department involved. I try to be a role model for less-developed attorneys. I’ve also tried to build camaraderie in the department. Now we have a monthly law department women’s breakfast. It’s so much fun to get to sit around the just talk to each other. We never get that opportunity—we’re always working, trying to get to our families, and marrying work and personal schedules. So I’m trying to build an esprit de corps around that and trying to be available for people who just want extra guidance.

Q: What advice would you give to a young woman lawyer?

A: Believe in yourself and be bold. Be willing to take chances. Understand that people will value you for your ideas, your thoughts and your analytical skills, and be bold about contributing and sharing those. And believe in yourself—that’s the predecessor to being bold. I don’t think you can be a successful lawyer and not believe in yourself and be bold enough to take the step, contribute and speak up.

Kelly-Ann Gibbs Cartwright

Partner, Holland & Knight

Q: What obstacles did you encounter as you advanced through the legal profession?

A: As a female attorney, I think you always encounter obstacles. I’ve had opposing counsel who were older and men say, “Hey little lady,” and things like that. The environment that [female attorneys] work in is predominantly male. But I graduated from law school at a time when 50 percent of the law students were female, so the ranks were increasing. I don’t know whether my obstacles came from being black or female.

Q: What have you done to help other women at Holland & Knight succeed?

A: I’ve helped to mentor women who’ve worked for Holland & Knight. There are several women who I mentored when they were associates who became partners in the firm. I also served when I was a first-year partner as chair of the Women’s Initiative, which is our initiative at Holland & Knight to help promote and market our female attorneys both internally and externally.

Q: What goals do you have in terms of helping to advance the careers of other women lawyers?

A: Our firm has always had a rich history of diversity, and increasing the number of women who occupy leadership positions within our firm will remain not only a firm goal, but also a personal goal.

Q: What advice would you give to a young woman lawyer wanting a successful career?

A: First, she’s going to have to get good grades. And then selecting the right place to work is key. Some people start out at the large law firm and realize that’s not what they want. Developing good relationships with people with whom you work and finding a mentor in an organization is extremely important and critical to your development as a lawyer. She must also hone her skills so she can get exposure to more than one person, because diversity brings a lot to the table in terms of who you work with and getting different views on how the practice of law works.

Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: My proudest moment as a lawyer would be standing up and having the jury read a verdict in my client’s favor. You can have successful settlements, you can win summary judgment for your client—but having a jury of your peers, so to speak, listen to your argument and listen to the way you presented a case on behalf of your client and ruling in your favor really does a lot. It’s really a good high.

Kim Koopersmith

Managing Partner, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld

Q: What advice would you give to a young woman lawyer?

A: This is a hard profession: Take a deep breath and recognize that it’s a journey. At different points in life, you will feel completely and totally immersed in your work, there will be times when you need to step back and there will be times when different career alternative will make more or less sense. You’re going to do this for likely a couple of decades, and there are some great opportunities as a lawyer. I think it’s an extremely challenging and interesting way to earn a living, but recognize that success comes in many different forms. Give yourself time to grow and figure out what you get satisfaction from. It’s not a one-time evaluation—it’s a process by which you’ll find your place.

Q: What’s the proudest moment of your career?

A: That would be the “real lawyer” stuff. Winning a case in the 2nd Circuit and knowing that a part of my oral argument was verbatim in the decision. That’s happened a few times and it feels really good.

Q: What else have you done to help advance the careers of women?

A: We just did [Akin Gump’s] women’s conference where of all the women in the whole firm came to Washington for two days. I think the event was great for networking among the women and for raising the profile for women. We had many of the firms’ practice managers and management attend to make sure that all of the women lawyers had a chance to meet the people who they wanted to meet, and who shaped the firm’s direction.

I thought it was a very successful event and would love to find ways to in which I can make sure women are successful at the firm. In my role as managing partner of a large law firm, when there are not all that many of us, I will continue to make sure that people see the value in having women in law firm leadership positions because I think that will benefit everybody.

Q: What types of obstacles have you faced in your career?

A: I grew up at a time when many of the overt issues facing women were not nearly as severe as the generation before me. There is to some degree to which you have to justify your skill set and level of responsibility. And there are moments when you realize that people aren’t all looking at you in the same way.

Carol Ann Petren

Executive Vice President and General Counsel, MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings Inc.

Q: What kind of support did you receive from your superiors in the early years of your career?

A: From the beginning I have been very fortunate to have mentors who not only taught me about the law but also encouraged me to venture outside my comfort zone. Having said that, I think everyone has a responsibility to search out someone to learn from and someone who will push them into areas they might not otherwise venture into. I made sure I looked to people who were willing to teach me and mentor me both from a law perspective and also from the perspective of the political environment in which I was operating.

Q: We often hear about the responsibility of women in senior roles to be mentors, but not often about the responsibility of younger women to seek out mentors. Please elaborate.

A: Some managers are reluctant to reach out to people who are on other teams and become mentors to them. I believe that more people would be willing to mentor if they knew there was someone who had an interest in being mentored. It’s a mutual reaching out by the mentor and the mentee.

Q: What obstacles did you encounter on your way up?

A: The obstacles were more nuanced than direct. In some people’s minds, there is an artificial limitation placed on women as trial lawyers or as totally committed professionals. There are some who doubt women were meant to be fighters in the courtroom or to have the commitment to contribute the hours needed to really advance their careers. I found you could dispel these notions by delivering results and always being willing to roll up your sleeves and contribute to the team.

Q: What advice would you give to a young woman lawyer wanting a successful career?

A: Don’t set boundaries for yourself. Always be willing to take the right risk, even if it requires trying something outside your comfort zone. That has been the key to a successful career path for me.

Q: What is your personal motto?

A: Focus on the journey, not the destination. Success is best measured by the journeys we take, the lessons we learn and the friendships we make along the way.

Teri Plummer McClure

General Counsel, Corporate Secretary and SVP of Legal, Compliance and Public Affairs — United Parcel Service 

Q: Who was your mentor as you progressed through your legal career?

A: I can’t even begin to say it was one person. It was different people at different points in time. In the firm, there were people who definitely mentored me. Early on, there were mentors focused on helping me develop my craft as a lawyer—writing skills and things of that nature. During the time that I was having children, I had mentors who were professional women who were balancing career and family. In the company, I had mentors who helped me understand the transition from a law firm environment to a business environment and understanding the culture and dynamics of UPS.

As a GC, taking on greater leadership roles within the legal department, I had several mentors in that regard, one of whom was one of our board members, Bill Brown, who was also an outside attorney who had been working with UPS and was a former chair of the EEOC. He had been a very significant mentor to me literally from day one when I joined UPS.

Q: What have you done to help support other woman lawyers?

A: I do a lot of mentoring—a lot of it informal. As I advanced in my career, I was always looking for opportunities to put people together, to identify contacts that could help young attorneys and serve as a mentor willing to meet for lunch or talk about their experiences, talk about how to capitalize on opportunities and be successful in their fields. Certainly with the numbers of minority women dropping in the law firms, I really have tried to mentor young women in law firm environments who are challenged with staying. I try to help give them some tools and guidance that might assist them in making decisions and being more productive and successful in those environments.

I’ve also been engaged with a number of organizations, including the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys and Corporate Counsel Women of Color.

Q: What advice would you give to a young woman lawyer wanting a successful career?

A: The best advice is to perfect your craft. Learn how to be a very good attorney. Focus on doing good work. In the challenging environment we’re in, women have to understand their boundaries and not try to do things the way another woman does it, but establish and define for themselves what type of lifestyle they want to live, what type of work they want to perform, and what type of environment they want to live and work in. Don’t beat yourself up if your choices are different from someone else’s. Learn how to work within your frame of what’s important to you. Realize there are times when you definitely have to take step back and focus on family, and there are times when you can push further ahead. You have to make those kinds of choices for yourself. 

Deirdre Stanley

Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Thomson Reuters

Q: What advice would you give to a young woman lawyer who wants a successful career?

A: All of our careers will evolve and change in ways we can’t anticipate because companies will evolve and change. Nobody has the pleasure, if it ever was a pleasure, of going to work at one place for 35 years and then retiring. Probably your company will be acquired, acquire somebody, restructure, or go out of business due to new technologies. All of these things are outside of our control. So in today’s environment you can’t have a direct career plan. What we can control is the ability to continuously develop new skills and to think about where they can best be utilized in our current environment and our next environment. That will be key to success going forward.

Q: What were some of the things you learned in your earlier in-house positions?

A: Knowing the business is just critical for in-house counsel. It’s almost like having street credibility. If you can’t talk about the products and services, and understand how the company makes money, you can be the smartest lawyer in the world but people will say, ‘Wait, do you really know what I’m doing?’ Law by nature is delivered in context. It’s all about risk tolerance, and the more you know about the business and the financial impact of decisions, the more you can help people decide how to allocate risk. That’s how you become more valuable—and have more fun.

Q: What are some ways you have helped advance women in the law?

A: I’ve worked with women’s organizations, including the National Association of Women Lawyers and Corporate Counsel Women of Color. And we have lots of women in our legal department (half of the 14 members of the senior legal team are women). But I don’t think I help only women—I help people generally.

Q: You have been involved in several community and civic organizations. Why is that important to you?

A: One of the great benefits we have is taking some of the stuff we learn at work and learn as a professional and using it to benefit causes we care about. Previously I was on the board of the Abyssinian Development Corp., which is involved in housing and education in Harlem. Now I am on the board of the Hospital for Special Surgery. There is no shortage of good work to do in the world. The important thing is to do something.

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