Q&A: Christine Edwards, Mary Ann Hynes Award

The Winston & Strawn partner is a woman of many firsts

Read profiles of all the winners here.

Age: 59

Law School: University of Maryland School of Law

Favorite women in history: Nancy Kassebaum Baker

 

Q: Where did you go to college and law school?

A: I did both my undergraduate and law school at the University of Maryland. I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. One of the thoughts I had is if I went to the University of Maryland undergraduate and law school, then when I run to be the first elected woman senator from the state of Maryland, I can use as one of my running platforms that I was a product of the state school system. But Barbara Mikulski beat me to it.

 

Q: Tell me about how you’re still connected with your alma mater.

A: About a year and a half ago, I took over as the chair of the Board of Visitors for the law school. Never in my whole life did I think that I would end up with that position. That was pretty awesome. I’m the first woman and the first non-Marylander ever to take that post.

I go back to the Washington area a lot. My practice is a lot of representation of financial institutions. I’ve always been involved with financial institutions for my whole career. They’re highly regulated, and the regulators are in Washington. And my parents and brothers and sisters all still live there. So it gives me an opportunity to go do client work, visit the law school and go visit family at the same time.

 

Q: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

A: I had no one in my family who was a lawyer. It’s kind of a mosaic of reasons that I became a lawyer; it wasn’t any one thing. It was sort of a dream. And it was a perspective—lawyers are very thoughtful; they think in a very disciplined fashion.

In undergraduate school, I had a course in business law, which I really enjoyed. But what really tipped me over the edge was that when I worked for Sears [during undergraduate and law school]. In the first five years, I was promoted three times. And as I was taking on more responsible roles, I knew in that fourth year that my next job was going to be one that I really didn’t want. I really didn’t like what it was all about. So I thought, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it now. I’m going to be a lawyer.” I wanted to stay with Sears, but I wanted to do something in a different capacity. So it was a lot of luck and a lot of anecdotal things that happened to me that made me become a lawyer.

 

Q: What was your first job after law school?

A: It was the same job that I had in law school, except that I got a promotion to be recognized as an attorney once I took the bar. Let me explain.

My brother and I were the first in our family to go to college, so I worked at Sears part time to pay my tuition for undergraduate and law school. Sears recruited me into a management training program. So I had a series of progressively more responsible management positions after college. Then, about five years after graduating from undergraduate, I decided to go to law school, and I went in the evening. So I worked one night a week and went to law school four nights a week. It was a grind. But halfway through law school, Sears had an opening in their government relations group in Washington, D.C., which handled all public policy, legislation and regulatory policy work for the company. It was a group of about 25 lawyers, and there was an opening there for someone to represent them on credit and financial issues, which is the area that I was working in.

I interviewed for the position, and the guy who was the vice president at the time said, “Chris, you’ve got all the qualifications. You know the company, and you know these issues very well. You would bring a lot of credibility. The problem is that we only hire lawyers, and you’re a law student.” And I said, “That’s really not a problem because here’s what we can agree to. I’ll finish law school in two years, take the bar exam, and if for some reason I don’t pass, you can fire me.” And he just burst out laughing. But I got the job, so I guess it worked. And fortunately I did graduate in two years and pass the bar exam the first time around.

So my first job out of law school was representing Sears in the financial services businesses that they were in in Washington, D.C.

 

Q: What did you like about working in Washington, D.C.?

A: In Washington, I would say 50 percent of the professionals that I met were women. I found it to be an extraordinarily wonderful environment because women tended to work together to try to achieve things. Washington is very much a relationship city. You either make it or you don’t, based on your relationships.

The other part of Washington is that it teaches you how things work on a national and international basis. Where before I had been working for five years managing people, creating budgets, plans and strategies and reporting on metrics and everything else that’s involved with being a business manager, Washington took me out of the business world and told me all about how economics impacts the way that businesses are taxed or regulated, and how members of Congress and regulators think about different businesses. For me, it was really a career-changing time to have all of that at my disposal early on in my career.

Q: Who were your mentors as you were advancing through your legal career?

A: I’m really very, very lucky. I had a lot of mentors throughout my career. Some people tell me it was because I adopted them. But there were various people throughout my career who basically took me under their wing, taught me what I should be doing and helped me think strategically about my career.

Starting in Washington, it was this incredible experience where women who knew that they needed help to get things done and to do their jobs well would come together. They created an organization that’s still in existence—it’s called Women in Housing & Finance. About 10 years ago, it got so large that they had to admit men. It’s about 700 strong now. I was part of the second wave of members. We had about 25 members at the time, about 25 years ago. It was one-third women from the private sector, one-third women from Capitol Hill and one-third women from the administration and regulatory agencies. We knew that we all needed to know one another, and we needed to know about one another in order to do our jobs better. It was all about finance—banking issues, securities issues, housing and real estate, capital markets. It was networking, but also it was great to be able to sit around a table and say, “I don’t understand the process of mortgage securitization. Could someone tell me about that?” That was extremely powerful for me because it showed me the beauty of being able to work together to really help your career. And some of those women that I worked with 25 years ago are now heads of agencies. It was a great thing to be a part of, and it really helped me in my career.

 

Q: What kind of support did you receive from your superiors during your career?

A: All of my bosses throughout my career have been extraordinarily helpful to me. Part of it is that I would always ask for feedback. “Is that the way I should’ve handled that circumstance?” “I put together a three-year plan for the law department—is this what you expect to see out of the department?” It was things like that that created an environment where I could get feedback and really helped me both in my career as well as me as a professional and when I was in-house as a senior executive.

I had a combination of mentors who were strategic planners and who taught me the value of seeing the big picture and creating longer-term goals and strategies. And then I had some mentors who were in the moment and who taught me the necessity of recognizing issues and addressing them immediately so they didn’t get bigger.

 

Q: You were the first female general counsel on Wall Street. Tell me how this happened and what obstacles you encountered in that position.

A: The obstacles that I encountered were of my own making. It was sort of the career path that I chose. Instead of going into banking, which historically has been known to be a little bit more woman-friendly, I went to Wall Street, which is not. I just figured that it was more interesting to me.

When I took that job at Sears, six months later Sears acquired Dean Witter, which was a securities firm. It just so happened that I was assigned to follow the securities issues for them. So I just threw myself into learning the issues and representing the company on those issues. I had been an experienced manager. I knew the credit and financial issues, and I began the process of learning the business through helping to shape our company’s positions on issues that came up. It was a logical extension to then go into the law department. So after about eight years in Washington, D.C., working in government relations and ultimately heading up the office for government relations for our division of the company, I was moved out to Chicago to become the general counsel of one of the divisions.

Two years after that, the general counsel of Dean Witter turned 65 and was going to retire, and I was asked if I would take the role as general counsel. Of course I said yes. That’s how I became the first female general counsel on Wall Street. It was interesting because I had no clue at the time. It was a reporter who called me who said, “I don’t know if this is accurate, but I’ve been doing all this research, and I think you are the first female to hold the position as general counsel on Wall Street.”

In hindsight, it’s kind of cool, but it really wasn’t this monumental thing at the time. It was just a natural progression of climbing up the corporate ladder. At that point, I had been with the company for about 15 years, so it was a long process to get there, and I had a combination of experiences that sort of qualified me to do that.

 

Q: Were you intimidated being the only woman GC on Wall Street?

A: No. I never thought about it. It was just a fact. For me, it didn’t really change who I was or what I was trying to do. I enjoyed leading people and helping manage peoples’ careers. Honestly, the intimidation really came from issues that I was working with down in Washington, D.C. You walk into a meeting with a member of Congress or the head of an agency—that’s intimidating. You have to know your stuff, you have to be really prepared and you have to rely on a whole team to get you prepared.

Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A:  One would be an in-the-moment pride, and one is a retrospect pride. For the former, it’s when a woman who worked for me immediately after graduating from college in Washington, D.C., came to me for career advice, and I really encouraged her to pursue law school. My proudest moment was when she became the general counsel of a large, public financial services company. I can’t tell you how proud I was that day to know that we had known each other and worked together. She’s still very much a friend. As for retrospect pride, it is thinking about the fact that I could create a scholarship to help other women who want to pursue business law. Having people out there who can say they’re Christine A. Edwards scholars makes me proud.

 

Q: What advice would you offer to young woman lawyers who want to emulate your career?

A: If you’re thinking about going into business law, I recommend highly that you have a good sense of what it means to work in a business environment and/or an MBA. So much of what drives business law is financial and economic. Having either an MBA in finance, having a background in economics or even accounting is incredibly valuable if you’re going to be a lawyer involved in business law. It separates phenomenal lawyers who are very smart from exceptional lawyers.

 

Q: How do you manage work-life balance?

A: Work-life balance is really about organization. It’s time management. I share with young women lawyers here at the firm that they have to manage their personal lives just as closely as they manage their lives as lawyers. It sounds really contrived, but that’s what it has to be. Being a lawyer—being on call with clients all day, every day, no matter what time of the day it is—really requires you to have that space and make sure that you schedule the types of personal time that you need.

I’ve been married for 37 years to the same man. We have two grown children, and they’re both very great people, so I guess we did something right. To me, it was always very much a partnership with my husband. We always focused on those issues together.

 

Q: What is your personal motto?

A: Tempus fugit.

 

Q: Who is your favorite woman in history?

A: She happened to be one of the most influential women to me early on in my career—Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker. She was a senator from Kansas. She was the first woman senator to be elected of her own right to a full senate term. She was in the senate when I was in Washington, D.C. She had this enormous presence about her—very calm, very smart, a wonderful way with people and made everyone feel very comfortable. But she was just as smart and as engaging as any other senator that I had ever met. She was terrific and was a role model for me.

 

Q: What other things would you like to do to help advance the careers of other women?

A: One area that I’ve spent a great deal of time on for the past six years is helping women go on public company boards. I’m a member of an organization in Chicago called The Chicago Network. It’s an organization of women who are really at the top of their organizations. It’s a group of women CEOs, chief financial officers, presidents of organizations and women in politics, government and academia. About six years ago, I helped the organization focus on and then ultimately create an effort through a committee called Women on Boards to get women candidates who want to go on boards in the pipeline. In the first three years of the committee, we placed nine women on boards.

It’s a great initiative; it’s a lot of women working together on behalf of other women. We do it in a variety of ways—we have boot camps to train women about being on a public company board, how to interview, how to put together a bio, how to handle the first crisis that comes up in a boardroom and other things like that. It’s an awesome effort, and I’m really proud of the organization for doing this.

Join the Conversation

Advertisement. Closing in 15 seconds.