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Q&A: Karen Cottle, Laura Stein Award

Adobe Systems Inc.’s senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary discusses how she helps women in law

Read profiles of all the winners here.

Age: 63

Law School: University of California—Berkeley Law School

 

Q: Who is your favorite woman in history?

A: I don’t really have a favorite woman. I guess I would say that the women I would look to are women who sort of pioneered the way, whether in law firms or law schools or as judges, or even as CEOs—kind of trailblazers that really made it possible for others. The class before me in law school may have had seven or eight women, whereas, when I graduated from [Berkeley], it was 30 percent women, and now it’s well over 50 percent.

It’s the women who were the pioneers that really opened the doors for women to be able to have choices about whether they wanted to have this type of career.

 

Q: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

A: I was a government major in college, and I always liked the political end of it. I started in public administration and decided that actually going to law school gave me a lot more flexibility with what I wanted to do.

 

Q: What was your first job after law school, and how did your career progress from there?

A: I clerked for a federal judge in San Francisco, Spencer Williams, on the Northern District of California for two years. And then I went to work at Farella, Braun & Martel as an associate doing litigation, made partner and then got divorced. I lived in Menlo Park, Calif., had two kids, ages 4 and 6. The older one was disabled, and I kind of looked at the hours in the day and said, “I need to work closer to home,” and went to work in-house at Raychem Corp. for 13 years, where I became general counsel for the last three years.

We sold the company to Tyco in 1999, and I moved over to become general counsel at a small, just-having-gone-public company, Vitria Technology Inc., in 2000 and then moved to Adobe Systems Inc. in 2002.

 

Q: What support did you receive from superiors?

A: Farella’s a fabulous firm. I went to Farella because the people were so great, so I always felt I was in a very supportive environment. They were very supportive to women, and I really liked that. Raychem was actually the same—great people, great environment to work in, so I always felt very supported.

I certainly had people that I value as mentors. At Farella, I worked with John Cooper and Bill Friedrich and really looked to them as mentors. Deborah Ballati, who was a year or two older than I was, but became a partner, I always worked with her. Bob Vizas, who was the general counsel at Raychem, I certainly learned a lot from—again, a very supportive person. Working with Bob Vizas, for example, really watching him analyze business and legal risk was particularly instructive for me.

 

Q: Did you face any obstacles on the way up?

A: Certainly balancing raising children, one of whom was disabled, and being a single parent for five years was interesting. It was busy, and so doing that was difficult, I would say. I really felt I couldn’t do a great job as a litigation partner at Farella, doing litigation work, living an hour away and raising two kids on my own.

 

Q: How do you manage your work-life balance?

A: You work at it carefully, I would say. My view is that, everyone is different, right? So you have to decide what your priorities are and what gives. My view is, you can’t have it all be perfect. So you have to let the stuff—that normally you would say, “Oh my gosh, I have to have this be perfect”—there’s some of that that falls away, and you have to figure out what the most important things are in your work and with your children and with your spouse.

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

A: I speak at a number of events. We certainly mentor women lawyers internally in the department. I join women’s legal groups, and we actually founded Dinner Among Friends.

I attended something called “DirectWomen,” which was put on by the [American Bar Association]at that time in New York right before we founded [Dinner Among Friends]. DirectWomen was a project from the ABA to try to promote women on corporate boards, and at that event I realized the power of having all these senior women in a room and being able to discuss issues and network with each other, both during the event and after.

I came back, and Mary [Doyle] and I were talking, and I said “Mary, this would be really powerful to have a group of women in the Bay Area who were GCs that we could form a group and use as a network to really mentor each other, in some ways, and to just network with.” So that’s how it started, and we had the first dinner and really shut down the restaurant because it was such a great conversation about all kinds of things related to being a general counsel, what a general counsel did and being a woman general counsel, and we realized that it was great.

So that’s continued since we founded it. We try to have dinner once a quarter—in fact, we’re meeting tomorrow night. We try to network because a lot of us control big legal budgets, to introduce people to women partners at law firms, to help them get more business. And we’ve held two events to do that where we’ve each invited people that we really respect and would call on to do major litigation and major deals for us, and introduce them to the rest of the GCs. So we’ve done two events that have networked that way.

 

Q: What advice would you give to a young women lawyer who wants to emulate your career?

A: Figure out what you really want to do. Figure out what’s important in your life and where you want to go in your career. Do you want to be a specialist in-house? Do you want to be a litigation partner in a law firm? Do you want to be an in-house specialist that does, for example, HR, and is that what you’re interested in, being a privacy specialist? Or do you want to be a bigger generalist?

I guess the biggest advice, I would say, is: It’s tough to have it all. I would say think proactively and advocate for yourself. I would argue that women don’t tend to advocate for themselves anywhere near as much as men do, and we need to teach women how to do that.

The other thing I’d say is study successful lawyers, whether they’re in-house or in law firms, and figure out what characteristics make them successful. Because you can learn a lot just by doing that. The other thing, which I’m going to sound like an HR professional, but use 360s to figure out where your strengths are and what things you need to work on. I think they’re invaluable.

And whatever you choose to do, make sure you like the people you work with and the culture of whatever organization you’re in. I would also say that your career isn’t always going to be what you think it is at the outset. You need to be open to different opportunities, changes. I mean, I started on the law firm track, then moved in-house. I certainly didn’t sit down and think at the beginning of my career that was where I’m going to go. You have to look at changes, whether in your life or externally, what opportunities present themselves.

And finally, I would say, don’t think of yourself as a female lawyer—think of yourself as a great lawyer.

 

Q: What is your personal philosophy?

A: Attitude is everything.

 

Q: What has been your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: There have been lots of them. I love it in-house, for example, when we complete a big acquisition. We did the acquisition of Macromedia, got it through all the antitrust approvals, got the deals done. Getting that deal done and getting the acquisition of Omniture done certainly was important.

I still love litigation. I love getting a satisfactory outcome in litigation. But the biggest thing for me is building a team that’s valued in an organization like Adobe is really satisfying. Because, you know, people don’t always say, “Oh, gee, I’d love to have a lawyer at my meeting.” It’s really, “I’d like to have the lawyers there because they add value.” So building a team that’s valued in an organization is very satisfying.

 

Q: Are there any other things you’d like to do to promote women in law?

A: I think it would be good for us to create some mentoring for in-house women lawyers, some sort of more formal mentoring, either through a bar association or some other organization. Because you tend to get a lot of mentoring for associates, for example, in law firms, but I don’t think there’s external organizations that mentor the in-house counsel as much.

Contributing Author

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