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Q&A: Vicki O’Meara, Pamela L. Carter Award

The executive vice president and president of Pitney Bowes Services Solutions reflects on her career

Read profiles of all the winners here.

Age: 55

Law school: Northwestern University Law School

Favorite women in history: Margaret Thatcher and Mother Theresa

 

Q: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

A: As a child, I had a strong interest in the criminal-justice system. My dad was a police officer. It really just grew out of that family beginning.

 

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

A: I went into the Army. I had an ROTC scholarship through college and then took a delay from my military commitment for law school. After law school I went into the Army, and I went in to work in the Army general counsel’s office in the Pentagon. My career was very much shaped by the tremendous experience that I had in that job. The role I had was to represent the portions of the Army Secretariat that affected the civil works, meaning the corps of engineers, as well as the logistics group which included, at that time, a lot of the environmental problems, which included the superfund sites.

I was interested in environmental law, and it turned out to be just a wonderful opportunity. I met so many people in the government as well as the environmental law community, and that helped position me for what was the first half of my career as an environmental lawyer.

 

Q: How did you end up at Pitney Bowes?

A: It’s been a very jagged path. I have been a lot of places. After the Army, I stayed in government. I became a White House Fellow and went to work in the White House, and from there I went to work as deputy general counsel of the Environmental Protection Agency for a short assignment. Then I went to private practice in Chicago with Jones Day, and then interrupted my time at Jones Day to come back to work in Washington at the Justice Department, where I was acting assistant attorney general of the environment and natural resources division. Then I went back to Jones Day, where I was a partner leading the environmental practice for the firm, when I was recruited to become general counsel of Ryder, the big transportation company in Miami. So that was my departure from environmental law at that moment, and I went into a public company as general counsel.

I worked in Ryder as a general counsel and increasingly went into the business side and ended up running one of the two operating divisions of that company, and from there was recruited into Pitney Bowes, again as general counsel. I really liked the Pitney Bowes opportunity because it got me back into the government side of the world, which I really didn’t have as much at Ryder. And the same track has occurred with Pitney Bowes—I’ve moved also from the general counsel role into running part of the business.

 

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

A: A lot. I had a few key mentors who were very helpful, either those who were directly my bosses or those who were senior leaders that I had exposure to just through different work. I still keep up with a couple of them to this day.

[I learned] how to approach situations, how to handle a whole array of things, and, importantly, how to have confidence in myself.

 

Q: Did you encounter any obstacles on your way up?

A: Mostly self-inflicted. I just had a lot to learn. I had a few bumps and a few crashes, but fortunately recovered.

Q: Now that you are in a good position in your career, what have you done to help younger women with their law careers?

A: I’ve done that all along. Since I’ve been helped so much by colleagues I’ve always made extra time to, formally and informally, either through groups that I’ve been a part of or informal networks, I’m able to help in any way I can. It’s been everything from referrals of job openings and opportunities to people, either pushing them or encouraging them to do something, or giving their names to people and they ended up being picked. Helping women in all my places of work, I’ve kind of participated in forming or leading networking groups for women to support each other, and I’ve done that all along and still do that.

 

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

A: It’s exciting, it’s wonderful—trust in yourself. Take risks. Seek mentors. Mostly, don’t be afraid of making mistakes—just don’t make them twice.

 

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

A: I don’t know. I just say in general, my kids are my proudest moment. Being able to be a lawyer while being a mom.

 

Q: How do you handle work-life balance?

A: There’s not one way for anybody. It’s really a logistical puzzle for every woman, and I doubt there are two who do it the same. A key element is to find a way to have flexibility in your work by asking for and setting the expectations upfront. I remember before my first son was born, I was working long hours at my law firm in Chicago. I worked from home a portion of my maternity leave—just staying plugged in, staying connected. I’d been working on some projects, even during my maternity leave. But I took a decent maternity leave—I took four months—and that’s why I worked from home, because it was so important for me to bond with my son. I did the same thing with both my sons.

When I got back to work, it was interesting. Since I had kept a pretty ridiculous schedule before my son was born, I did not want to keep that same schedule. I was about to call a recruiter and look for a different job, because I just assumed that I had to work in the same way, and so, literally, as I was picking up the phone to call a recruiter, I thought, well, before I leave this place that I really love, why don’t I see if I can make it work for me? So I went in and talked to my adviser at that time, because I had not been keeping the same schedule, I’d been really more in the office from 9 to 5 instead of from 8 to 9, I’m embarrassed to say. And I kept up with things, but I just did it more remotely and more flexibly. I just kind of worked agile without asking permission. So I went in and said, “Well, how do you think it’s going?” He had no idea what I was talking about. He panicked and thought I was unhappy. He said, “What do you mean? What’s wrong?” I said, “You’ve not noticed anything different?” He goes, “No, are you okay?” I said, “Never mind.”

I just realized the power to change my schedule was in my hands. I just went ahead and did it. I stopped worrying about face time, I stopped caring about how many hours people saw me any particular place and I just defined my work. I learned to delegate ruthlessly, and at one point in my career I even went and asked to leave the partnership because it was becoming too brutal. Hilariously, I came back from Cleveland, having asked to leave the partnership and just become a staff lawyer, with the job as head of my whole section. The partner said, “No, we really like you. How can we make this work for you? Let’s reduce your personal hours, but we don’t want you to leave the partnership—we actually want you to lead.” It was hilarious. I came back to Chicago and told the story, and several of my partners started saying, jokingly, “I quit, hear me? I quit!” thinking that was the way to get ahead.

Obviously it’s not a path anyone can replicate; it just was my experience. The only lesson one can take from it is don’t let the work regimen define you. Try to decide how you want to work and then make it work. You’ll be surprised. Sometimes it can work for you. People will adapt and adjust if they view you as a contributor.

 

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

A: Not necessarily only lawyers. I’m participating in a group now in Connecticut where I’m trying to see how I can assist women veterans. That’s my focus right now. Women lawyers, obviously there are tremendous opportunities, and I stay connected through different folks I know, and I’ll keep doing that. But my instant focus that I’m looking forward to helping is in the area of women veterans. They’re a group that isn’t attended to and is sometimes overlooked in support and can suffer in many cases.

Contributing Author

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