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Q&A: Janet Langford Kelly, Anastasia D. Kelly Award

The senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at ConocoPhillips Co. discusses her career path

Read profiles of all the winners here.

Age: 54

Law School: Yale Law

 

Q: What was your first job out of law school?

A: I clerked on the 3rd Circuit for Judge James Hunter III. After that I went to Wachtell Lipton from 1984 through 1989.

 

Q: Who is your favorite woman in history?

A: Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was a strong woman in her own right, she was married to the King of France before she was divorced and married to King Henry II of England. She bore kings herself, and was wealthy and powerful in her own right, alluring and attractive and politically important.

 

Q: How did your career progress after law school?

A: I had taken sort of a break in my career when my kids were young teenagers, and wasn’t working full-time, and was enjoying having a little extra time with them before they became real teenagers. And somebody called me and asked me if I had recommendations for the deputy general counsel position that was open at ConocoPhillips. And eventually I just ended up saying, “Hey, put my hat in the ring. I’m interested.”

 

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

A: I got the best support in the world, the best support you could possibly get, from my superiors [at Wachtell Lipton]. They were anxious for me to succeed. They were demanding. They were supportive. Their view was: “We work really hard, and if you come to a point where you have a technical question or an ethical question or you need to get something done that you’re not able to get done at your level, that’s when you come to us and we handle it.”

 

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

A: I had two specific mentors. One was Dan Neff and one was Marty Lipton. One of the things that stands out in my mind is sitting with Dan while he was marking up contracts at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. and he would explain to me everything that he was thinking about as he would make decisions as to how to mark it up. And that was just invaluable.

 

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

A: When I was young, people were surprised that I was an attorney. In fact, I learned that if my secretary was out and I wanted to screen a call, I would just answer my phone, “Janet Langford’s office.” There was a shock factor when I was younger that has gone away.

I don’t know if it’s changed for young women, because I’m no longer one, but for young women especially, people in many instances want to get to know you as more than just a colleague. The fact that you’re a young woman never leaves the room. As you get older, that problem goes away.

I had the obstacles of people calling you “honey” or asking you to get coffee, but I considered those to be pretty minor. Really, the major obstacle continues to be work-life balance.

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

A: I mentored the woman who’s now the general counsel of Kraft. I don’t mentor just women, but I’m very happy when I find women who are capable and open to being mentored, and I try to make sure that I offer them the same high expectations and support that I was given, and to make sure that their name comes up for assignments to certain teams or a board of directors—whatever they’re ready for.

 

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

A: Work really hard when you’re young. There’s no substitute for really knowing your profession. Decide early on that you have an ethical standard that isn’t flexible, because there are lots of opportunities to be flexible, and it gets much harder once you decide to start being flexible there.

As for work-life balance, recognize that there are going to be times in your life, as you try to struggle with competing demands on your time, when you’re going to get Cs in everything. Work ain’t going to be happy, and home isn’t going to be happy. But life lasts a long time, and those phases, you’ll live through them. If you’re at the place you should be, people will help support you through those short periods.

 

Q: How do you manage work-life balance?

A: The way I managed it was to be very porous between my two lives. I had friends who, when they left at 5 p.m., or 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., they wanted to be home, and they didn’t want to be interrupted. And when they were at work, they didn’t want to be interrupted.

For me, it always worked much better to just triage. Whatever was most important at the time was what I paid attention to. So if I got a call from one of my kids in the middle of the day, people just kind of had to wait if it was important enough that I needed to deal with it. Likewise, I can remember having a long conference call at night when my son was two, stuffing him full of cookies so he’d be quiet while I was on the conference call. And then every time the phone would ring, he would point to the cookie jar. So I find being flexible is the ultimate answer.

 

Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: I just don’t think I have one. I really don’t. I’m proud every time I close a deal. I’m proud every time I convince someone that my preferred course of action is the right way to go. I’m proud every time I see younger lawyers that I work with do things well and advance. I consider it to be a journey that I’ve enjoyed as opposed to high points.

 

Q: What is your personal motto?

A: I understand that there’s some controversy over whether Winston Churchill said this or not, but I grew up believing he did. And it’s: Never, ever, ever give up.

 

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

A: I would really like to do more of the same. I’ve so enjoyed getting to know and befriend new young lawyers, and help them. Everybody I’ve ever mentored has given me as much as I’ve given them. And the bigger that family is, the happier I’ll be.

 

Contributing Author

Alanna Byrne

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