The reality of law department management, the myths of work/life balance

Panelists share personal accounts of making difficult choices when it comes to juggling professional and personal demands.

Suzanne Folsom, SVP, general counsel and CCO of ACADEMI and former regulatory compliance chief of AIG

If there was a common thread in the room at the “Law Department Management” session at the Women, Influence and Power in Law conference in Washington, D.C., the obvious was that all of the women are lawyers. But the bigger thread was that in the world of law department management, there is no such thing as work/life balance.

Panelists and audience members alike shared personal accounts of having to make difficult choices in life when it comes to juggling professional and personal demands and responsibilities, underscoring the need for chief legal officers and general counsel to invest in the relationships with their legal teams.

“I don’t ask anyone to stay until 2 in the morning. The problem is – we’ve been in crisis and that’s a very different situation,” said Suzanne Folsom, SVP, general counsel and chief compliance officer of ACADEMI and the former regulatory compliance chief of AIG.

She told a story of a time in the midst of the AIG crisis in which she and a coo-worker took a dinner break at 10 p.m. and was quickly called back to the office when an AIG executive called her from a bathroom asking her for advice since he was about to be arrested. Dinner – let alone time with Folsom’s family – was not on the menu that evening.

“I think it’s just about being flexible. When you do the hiring, they all have a track record. You inherit people…sometimes you inherit stars, sometimes you inherit people who have potential and need mentoring. And sometimes you inherit duds,” Folsom said. “I don’t believe there is work/life balance; I think you make choices. And they aren’t easy. At the end of the day, can you go on to be GC of a successful company working 9-5? Balance is a complete myth.”

“We have a whole life and you have one life. You have to prioritize. You fit it in,” Koplow added. “You have to have that trust in your team.”

In terms of department management, the panel, which consisted of Judith Bain, vice president, legal affairs and general counsel, of Epson America; Ellen Koplow, EVP, GC, Corp secretary of TD Ameritrade; and Kara Baysinger, partner at Dentons, revealed strategies that have worked for them over their careers.

“I shake it up every now and then and give people different assignments and make sure they are constantly learning to give them a sense of accomplishment,” Bain said. “It is effective but it takes a lot of tilling of the soil.”

For Koplow, she began to notice during her15-year tenure at Ameritrade that younger lawyers were approaching her for guidance on their career trajectories.

“As we grew, all of the sudden I had the younger lawyers coming up to me asking me ‘what is my career path?’” After a while I realized I needed to think a little broader. They are watching their peers, they have titles,” Koplow said.

Bain said that Epson’s legal team has a transparent organizational structure so everyone knows what his or her job is.

“There is no ambiguity about it. And then sometimes I will go and change it. That is very empowering for lawyers because they get to switch it up,” she said. “You want lawyers to be happy and you want them to have stability. When someone leaves it is very disruptive. It’s very hard to replicate that.” 

Folsom said in her approach, she has worked to create a team that allows everyone in the legal department to be part of decisions. 

As for work/life balance, it is not just an issue for women. GCs need to take affirmative steps to address work/life issues and be a good model – meaning, they need to be transparent when personal obligations take them away from the office.

“Unless people are honest about it, it discounts the importance of it,” Baysinger said. “If we are going to juggle the demands of life and be successful, you have to be honest about it.”

Editor in Chief

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Erin E. Harrison

Erin E. Harrison is the Editor in Chief of InsideCounsel magazine. Harrison’s professional background includes extensive expertise in both print and online media, highlighted by...

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