Read profiles of all the winners here.
Law School: University of San Francisco School of Law
Favorite women in history: Mom and Cleopatra
Q: What was your first job after law school?
A: I worked at Littler Mendelson. I was the firm’s 38th attorney. It’s now a huge firm.
Q: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
A: I really wanted to be a politician. I tried participating in political groups in college and really found that it was not my cup of tea. So I decided I wanted to become a plaintiffs lawyer advocating for women. But there were no jobs in that when I graduated from law school. So I went on the defense side instead.
Q: How did your career progress after law school?
A: I was at Littler for two years, and then I went in-house at Bank of America for six years. I headed up the personnel advice section—the employment section—for the bank, which was a fabulous experience. Then I took all of Bank of America’s work and went to a small boutique firm, Schachter, Kristoff, Orenstein & Berkowitz, where I was a litigator. We were about 25 lawyers and did nothing but employment law. I headed up the litigation section there. I stayed there for six years and then went to Heller Ehrman and headed up the employment practice group there for 17 years. Then I left there and went to Orrick.
Q: Why did you create this career path?
A: I really liked being a litigator. And I liked doing employment law that wasn’t related to unions. That’s the reason I left Littler. At the bank, we did all our litigation in-house. I really thought having in-house experience would be a positive thing in terms of development as a lawyer, and it was. I would’ve stayed at Bank of America, but they were going to outsource litigation. So I decided to take the work and go to a different firm. The boutique firm was really fun, but I wanted a bigger platform so I could have a national presence. So that’s why I went to Heller.
Q: Who were your mentors as you were advancing through your legal career?
A: I’ve had many mentors along the way for different aspects of my life. There was someone who helped me figure out how to handle both work and family things. And I certainly had mentors who helped me develop as a lawyer in terms of my skills set. The person who I would put at the top of the list for helping me figure out how to become a successful lawyer in terms of rainmaking would be a guy named Vic Schachter—he’s one of the best marketers I know. I learned a lot from him.
Q: What obstacles did you encounter on your way up?
A: I’m one of those people who have been really lucky. I’ve had very few obstacles in my career. I can’t think of anything in my formative years that I’d consider an obstacle. I don’t know whether that’s because I’m not a person who focuses on those things or because there weren’t any. If something gets in my way, I just work around it. I can’t say that I really faced discrimination, or that I faced difficult people to work with, or that there were particular issues that were really hard for me. I’m just a problem solver.
Q: Tell me about the Opt-In Project you founded.
A: The whole point of the Opt-In Project was to begin to change the discussion about why women were leaving law firms.
To me, having part-time policies, flexible time and maternity leave are all symptoms of a bigger problem, and the bigger problem is the structure of law firms. So the purpose of the Opt-In Project was to go out and talk to people in other industries about what they were doing to retain women and to advance women. What we found is that our suspicion that it was the structure of law firms that was the major problem was in fact correct, and that there were a lot of other ways to think about how you could structure a law firm to increase retention.
The Opt-In Project—and I’m very proud of this—was one of the first nationwide reports ever to come out and say that what we need to do is change the way we think about how firms are structured. What that means is that you get rid of the billable hour, you measure people on competency rather than by year out of law school, you have pay that is based on merit and you recognize that nobody has a career that goes straight up.
For a year, we went around the country and had big conferences—we’ve had more than 600 or 700 people go through the Opt-In Project. We’d have a speaker, and then we’d break out and learn best practices on a particular topic, such as compensation, promotions and performance measurements. Then we took all that information and collated it in one place, the Opt-In Report, and we published it in 2007.
I then went out and spoke nationally to law firm managing partner groups to talk with them and see if they had ever thought about this. It changed the discussion from “all women care about are part-time policies and flexible work time” to “maybe we could solve some of these problems if you guys would just think about careers differently.”
It wasn’t until 2008 that that really caught on because the economic crisis hit, and everybody had to rethink the costs of running law firms. I’m proud to say that the Opt-In Project was one of the big catalysts for making a change and having a lot more firms think about measuring performance and progression differently.
Q: What other women-focused groups and initiatives are you involved in?
A: I’m on the American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession, and I’m head of the No Glass Ceiling Initiative here in San Francisco, which is a local bar association initiative.
Through the No Glass Ceiling Initiative, we decided we were going to do something positive to increase the skills sets for women attorneys so that they could progress into positions of leadership and economic empowerment in their firms. In 2010 we ran three conferences—we had about 400 people at each—geared toward particular levels of attorneys. We brought in people who could talk about the skills sets you need at that particular level of your career. In March 2011, we paired with the ABA Commission for the first time ever and ran one gigantic conference for law firm managing partners and female general counsel. It was fabulous. We had 75 general counsel and 45 law firm managing partners.
Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?
A: I’m a jury trial lawyer, so I’ve won a lot of cases—I’ve only lost three in my life. But none of that is as important to me as the success of my associates. My proudest moment comes every time I see one of my associates do an argument on his or her own, write a motion that’s fabulous or move into another position if they leave me—which I hate when it happens, but it happens—where they’re successful. A number of my associates now have very important influential positions in corporations. That, to me, is what it’s all about. I’ve had the honor to work with some incredibly smart, wonderful young men and women.
Q: How do you manage work-life balance?
A: I have two kids—one is 26 and one is 30, so I don’t have to manage it too much anymore. Although a mother’s work is never done.
I’m good at compartmentalizing my life. I can be at work and be at work—it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about my kids, but I can be at work knowing that I’m going to have time with them later. When I’m at home, I’m at home, and work doesn’t interfere with my ability to be with my kids. I decided early on what was important to me, which was to make sure that I had dinner with my kids and participated with their schools in some way and have the weekends to do stuff together. Those were my priorities, and I just made that happen. I would leave work every day at 6 p.m., come home and cook dinner every night because I love to cook, and be with my kids until they went to bed at about 9 p.m., and then I would work in the evening. I was on the board of trustees for both my kids’ schools. I found a way to make the things that were important to me for my family work. Those are going to be different for everybody.
I also have a husband who’s extremely supportive. There are no gender issues between the two of us. He does the laundry—my kids think it’s normal for the father to do the laundry. If we’re having a party, he’s setting the table while I’m in the kitchen cooking. I have a fully participating husband, and that’s made a big difference.
Q: What advice would you give to a young woman lawyer wanting a successful career?
A: It’s harder these days because the profession has become more intense than it was when I was coming through. We didn’t have such a thing as a billable hour requirement, which I hate. You have to recognize that being a lawyer is a really hard job. You also have to really want to do this. Those two things must be the foundation. Once you recognize that, you have to decide what your path is going to be and know that that path is not going to be straight up. You’re going to define your own success.
Women lawyers get wrapped up in what I call the “should”—“I should do this,” “I should be at this point in my career,” “I should be a partner”—instead of focusing on what they want. If you want to be a partner in a law firm for reasons of your own, not because of what other people think you should be, then there’s a certain path you have to take to do that. If you don’t want to do that—if your goal, for example, is to go into government service or be an in-house person—then there’s a different path. If you think maybe you don’t want to be a lawyer, then there’s a different path. It’s understanding the task you’re taking on and then defining what success is going to be for you.
Q: What is your personal motto?
A: Nothing’s impossible.
Q: Who is your favorite woman in history?
A: My favorite person in history is my mom. She overcame unbelievable obstacles that would’ve stopped the lesser person. She was just the greatest woman I know for so many reasons. She was California Teacher of the Year, raised four wonderful children and faced all kinds of adversity in her life, with both of her husbands dying too young. It was a tough life for her, and yet she was always a positive person who I believe is who made me successful.
But it I had to pick a more public figure, I would say Cleopatra. This woman gets no credit, but I recently read a book about her, and she was a remarkable woman. People think of her as this woman who was seducing men and was very sexual, but in truth, she was incredibly powerful and strategic. She used what she had in her means at the time to get what she wanted, which was power for herself and her country.
Q: What other things would you like to do to help advance the careers of other women lawyers?
A: I want to get women to think about institutional power and economic power. Women don’t think enough about it. I’m giving a talk right now that’s sort of a continuation of the Opt-In Project, but it’s more focused on getting women into positions of institutional leadership and economic power, meaning rainmaking. My goal is to change the discussion and have women thinking about this from day one in their careers—“How do I advance myself or another person into a leadership position?” Because if we’re in the leadership positions and have a book of business, then we can make change in law firms. That’s how change is made. It’s not made by whining, it’s not made by women’s initiatives—none of that works. You have to be in the room. My goal is to get women in the room.