Susan L. Lees, EVP and GC, Allstate Insurance Co.
Susie Lees didn’t follow a straight path to heading the legal department of the country’s largest publicly held personal lines property and casualty insurer. A career in business came before law school, and so did some part-time work while raising a family.
Now executive vice president and general counsel of Allstate Insurance Co. and a member of Allstate’s senior leadership team, Lees is also president of the board of directors for the Riverside Foundation, a nonprofit organization offering life enrichment opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities. Lees serves on the boards of the Rand Institute for Civil Justice, Institute for Legal Reform and the Association of Life Insurance Counsel.
WIPL spoke recently with Lees about how she originally didn’t want to be a lawyer, staying true to one’s self and why women still need to be less judgmental of each other.
What first drew you to a career in the law?
After college, I was actually working in business. I worked at a law firm during the summer, which was my only real exposure to the law. I worked with M&A lawyers at a time when M&A was booming, and the lawyers were working around the clock. My parting words to the lawyers were that I would never do what they did.
But when I was working in Houston after college in a business position, the ability to move forward was limited. I saw people in meetings in suits who had interesting things to say, and they were business lawyers. It turns out, I liked law just not operations of the law that I’d seen.
During law school, I was very focused on not working for a law firm. I wanted to work in business and have work-family balance, although I didn’t know that the term existed at the time. I would have ended up at a law firm, except I moved and I refocused my search on companies.
What is the most important issue facing your company and industry and the legal profession now?
In the legal profession, law firms have to get the economics figured out. The system is just not working and needs huge changes. The industry will have to come to terms with some long-sacred cows, like the hourly bill.
The insurance industry and our company are facing a couple of major issues. One is the regulatory environment, which has changed a lot in Washington and the states ever since Dodd-Frank. Technology is also huge, especially for those in the automotive insurance space around areas like driverless cars and connectivity with customers.
What has been the biggest change you have seen in the legal field since you began practicing law?
It’s really a 24/7 experience now. There is no end to how quickly the demand is to turn everything around. It used to be that you could put a package in the mail with the latest changes to a document and it wouldn’t get delivered for three days. So you could go work on something else. Today, the demand and pressure on lawyers is incredible. That really forces you to think on the spot sometimes and you have to channel a lot of information more quickly than ever before. You never have the luxury of time to reflect.
What professional accomplishment has made you most proud?
It couldn’t be better than becoming a GC. I still pinch myself on occasion when I’m being introduced as that. I started here part-time, and the GC told me then that if I needed a full time job I should maybe go somewhere else.
We have an initiative within the law department that will allow us to better structure to meet the needs of the business partners, develop talent and install new software system.
What advice would you give to women looking to advance in their legal departments?
You have to know who you are, what you are good at and what your priorities are. When you try to be something other people want you to be, you aren’t happy and you are not necessarily good at it. You have to be in touch with yourself so you know what you do well, and what’s important to you.
For me, it was somewhat decided in advance. I had two of my three kids while in law school, and expectations were also different then. Women were also expected to be wives and mothers then. So it wasn’t hard for me to turn down really good offers because I knew what I wanted. Today, young women often struggle with the expectations society has imposed. I’ve always been realistic, but I also didn’t have as much coming at me from TV or social media.
Were there specific people or opportunities that helped you throughout your career?
From an opportunity standpoint, working on big transactions gave me exposure to senior leaders at Allstate.
In terms of people, Michele Mayes was GC here before I was. In a conversation early on with her, she asked about my external networks. I thought at the time that my external networks were all about carpooling. That truly made me uncomfortable, so I realized I really needed to get out there. I distinctly remember that meeting, and I don’t remember a lot of meetings. I spent a lot of time in the following years getting involved with industry associations. It made me better prepared for this position, and it made me a better leader.
Do you see a difference in how women network with and mentor other women, compared to working with men?
Men are very good at networking in business. You see them having lunch together in the cafeteria. They aren’t running errands during lunch, like a lot of women. I think women are getting better at it, though.
I also think women continue to be mean and judgmental to other women, although women are getting better at that too. But women still need to be more supportive of other women, particularly through sponsorship. Women aren’t competing against each other, we’re all competing against everyone now.