Christine A. Edwards, partner, Corporate Practice Group, Winston & Strawn

WIPL spoke recently with Edwards about the power of appreciative clients, asking for career help with a smile and moving to the sell side

Christine A. Edwards, partner, Corporate Practice Group, Winston & Strawn

Even from a young age, Christine Edwards was never afraid to ask questions and push back. Yet a career as a lawyer came only after a stint in the financial service sector. After earning her J.D., she rose to become executive vice president and chief legal officer at Bank One Corp., a predecessor to JPMorgan Chase. There, she oversaw Bank One’s 500-person legal, compliance, government relations and regulatory management department.

Since going into private practice in 2003, Edwards has represented boards of directors, special committees, chief legal officers and financial services companies. She focuses on the regulation of the financial services industry with a particular emphasis on securities and banking industries, as well as corporate governance and public and regulatory policy issues.

WIPL spoke recently with Edwards about the power of appreciative clients, asking for career help with a smile and moving to the sell side.

What first drew you to a career in the law?

My dad used to compare me with my older brothers by saying I would always ask too many questions. And my mom used to smile and say that I would always argue about any answer I was given. So I guess I learned at an early age to enjoy critical thinking and challenging conventions.

But I didn’t start to seriously think about law school until I was out of college and working in a financial services job. I realized that aspects of what I did would be greatly facilitated by a law degree—so I decided if I was going to go to law school, I should do it before I turned 30. And that’s what I did!

What surprised you most about the transition from working in-house to working at a law firm?

At the time I joined Winston & Strawn, I had been a public company general counsel for 10 years, had already done a lot in my career and was confident in my capabilities. But I had never been on the “sell side” of practicing law; I had never developed a client base, never had a client pick me from among every other lawyer and say, “I would like to hire you to represent me.” So when, in my first year I was hired by significant clients and was engaged to do a significant investigation, I don’t think there was anyone more surprised—or more pleased—than me.         

What is the most important issue facing your clients or the legal profession now?

The amount of change occurring now in the regulatory landscape. For financial institutions, trying to keep up with new regulations—more than 400 are expected in this post Dodd-Frank era—at the same time clients are dealing with international challenges, cyber security threats and competition is a big task.

What has been the biggest change you have seen in the legal field since you began practicing law?

The nature of the economic model in the legal profession is rapidly changing. These changes are challenging the hourly fee structure, the way we hire and train associates, career paths and really fundamental aspects in the practice of law. Those changes, in turn, are having an impact on law schools. If there are fewer graduates being hired into first-year programs, then it follows that the level of law school applicants may be impacted. Students, who either have to qualify for scholarships and grants or have to borrow to pay for tuition, want to be sure they have meaningful employment opportunities at the end of their three-year process.

What professional accomplishment has made you most proud?

This will sound so simple, and for some not very significant. But I am most proud when a client takes time to thank me and thank our team for legal work well done. I realize that clients are very busy and they are paying for your advice. So a word of thanks is always very meaningful.

What advice would you give to women looking to advance in their legal careers?

I have three pieces of advice. First, whenever you get a chance to talk to lawyers in other institutions—whether in another law firm, government agency, corporate law department or non-lawyer position—ask them about their job, what they like about it, what they hate about it and where they hope to go from here. Next, have an informal short-, medium- and long-term career strategy in mind. Where do you want to end up? What experience do you need to get there? I emphasize informal career strategy because if you make your career strategy too formal, you may miss opportunistic possibilities along the way. Finally, ask for help from women and men mentors—from those who seem to take an interest in people and who might be helpful for you to talk about careers. Be open to people who say they don’t have time. They are being honest with you and that’s O. But keep asking. It’s hard. Practice. Keep after it. Always smile when you ask. And always thank the person for their help. Always.

Were there specific opportunities that helped you throughout your career?

The best opportunity in my career was the eight years I spent in Washington, D.C. working on public and regulatory policy issues in the financial services industry. First, there were a lot of very competent, qualified women in D.C. and it was great to have peers for the first time in my early career. And D.C. is a great teacher—you figure out how things work in the world, see politics up close, understand the various sides of public policy debates and get exposure to really smart, talented people. It was a meaningful time for me in my career and, as a result, I have always tried to stay involved in regulatory, legislative and public policy issues.

What has been the biggest change you have seen in the legal field since you began practicing law?

The nature of the economic model in the legal profession is rapidly changing. These changes are challenging the hourly fee structure, the way we hire and train associates, career paths and really fundamental aspects in the practice of law. Those changes, in turn, are having an impact on law schools. If there are fewer graduates being hired into first-year programs, then it follows that the level of law school applicants may be impacted. Students, who either have to qualify for scholarships and grants or have to borrow to pay for tuition, want to be sure they have meaningful employment opportunities at the end of their three-year process.

What professional accomplishment has made you most proud?

This will sound so simple, and for some not very significant. But I am most proud when a client takes time to thank me and thank our team for legal work well done. I realize that clients are very busy and they are paying for your advice. So a word of thanks is always very meaningful.

What advice would you give to women looking to advance in their legal careers?

I have three pieces of advice. First, whenever you get a chance to talk to lawyers in other institutions—whether in another law firm, government agency, corporate law department or non-lawyer position—ask them about their job, what they like about it, what they hate about it and where they hope to go from here. Next, have an informal short-, medium- and long-term career strategy in mind. Where do you want to end up? What experience do you need to get there? I emphasize informal career strategy because if you make your career strategy too formal, you may miss opportunistic possibilities along the way. Finally, ask for help from women and men mentors—from those who seem to take an interest in people and who might be helpful for you to talk about careers. Be open to people who say they don’t have time. They are being honest with you and that’s O. But keep asking. It’s hard. Practice. Keep after it. Always smile when you ask. And always thank the person for their help. Always.

Were there specific opportunities that helped you throughout your career?

The best opportunity in my career was the eight years I spent in Washington, D.C. working on public and regulatory policy issues in the financial services industry. First, there were a lot of very competent, qualified women in D.C. and it was great to have peers for the first time in my early career. And D.C. is a great teacher—you figure out how things work in the world, see politics up close, understand the various sides of public policy debates and get exposure to really smart, talented people. It was a meaningful time for me in my career and, as a result, I have always tried to stay involved in regulatory, legislative and public policy issues.

Contributing Author

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Amy I. Stickel

Amy I. Stickel has extensive experience covering the legal, financial and pharmaceutical industries as a writer and editor. A past managing editor of Corporate Legal Times and...

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