Editor’s note: This is part of a series of Q&As with leading women in the legal profession, in honor of National Women’s History Month. They were conducted and written by the legal recruiting firm Major, Lindsey & Africa.
Lisa Mayhew, managing partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner, is an employment lawyer by background and was a partner in two other law firms (Hogan Lovells and Jones Day) prior to joining Berwin Leighton Paisner. She was elected by the BLP partnership to join the firm’s board in 2012. At that time, she also headed up BLP’s employment pensions and incentives practice group. She sat on the board for three years as an independent partner member.
“Having contributed and been involved in lots of issues that impacted the firm as a whole, when the firm’s long-standing managing partner decided in 2014 not to stand for another term, I was encouraged to put myself forward for the managing partner role,” she says. “It was a contested election, so it wasn’t a predetermined outcome. Frankly, I never had a long-standing ambition to become managing partner, which is probably what helped me approach the process with a certain lightness of heart. If I hadn’t become appointed, then I had at least given it my best shot and demonstrated that you can approach these opportunities from different paths and a different profile.”
She was elected into the role and assumed the position on May 1, 2015.
Who helped you the most on your career path?
There were partners, both male and female, who had a positive influence on my career. Some I admired for their technical and client relationship skills and I learned a great deal from them as a labor and employment lawyer, and then there have been others who have supported me more broadly. When I was at Lovells, Lesley MacDonagh was the managing partner. It was even more unusual then to have a female managing partner at a firm of such a size.
Were there any moments early in your career that surprised you in terms of how you were treated? What struggles did you encounter and how did you overcome those roadblocks in your career?
I started in 1992 and, like lots of women, had experiences that I remember, such as attending a client meeting with a male trainee and the client making the assumption that he was the qualified lawyer. I also remember another occasion when I was the only woman in the room, attending an all-parties meeting and being asked to pour the drinks for everyone, when I was in fact one of the more senior people in the room. But overall, there honestly haven’t been any roadblocks in my career. L&E, in particular, is an area of law in which a lot of women practice, both in law firms and on the client side.
What has been your greatest challenge as managing partner? What keeps you up at night?
It’s a very different job than being a practicing lawyer. As a practicing lawyer, there’s a beginning, middle and end to the task you have even if it’s a long-running matter. As managing partner, part of the transition is to understand and accept that the job is never complete. There is no beginning, middle or end to it.
How important is it to your law firm to have women in leadership?
It is very important that we have diversity in leadership. Like many firms, we’re not as diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and social background as we should be. As an employment lawyer, I spent many years advising clients on this. As well as being the right thing to do, we all know that it is good for business. To have diversity of thought improves the quality of our decision-making. There is also, of course, the fact that our clients are diverse, and it is very important that we resemble them. It has to be a long-term commitment, however, because you can’t move the needle overnight. It also requires genuine buy-in and leadership from the top to cascade throughout the organization.
How do you or your organization help women advance in the workplace and the legal profession?
We have a gender target for our partnership (30 percent female representation by the end of 2018), which distills into individual departments and office-specific targets. For example, our real estate group already has more than 30 percent female partners in it, but we’ve still given them a more stretching target to continue our progressive development.
For partners in leadership roles, we include specific objectives in their appraisals, which go to our compensation committee. For our partnership, we’ve introduced partner principles, which are essentially a code of behavior. There are 16 principles in total in four categories and our partners’ performances are assessed against all of these principles and that’s tied to their compensation. One of those principles relates specifically to the issue we are talking about.
On a personal level, I participate in WILEF (Women in Law Empowerment Forum) and other women’s networks, particularly within our client base.
What advice would you give to young lawyers who desire to become a partner in a law firm or legal leader in a corporation?
Deliver to the best of your ability to your clients. You’re nothing without your client relationships as a lawyer.
Understand there will be periods in your life where you experience personal change and you may not be able to give as much of yourself to your job. Don’t make lasting decisions in those moments because life can change again. There are also so many routes to partnership now; it may happen at different times for different people.
Also, grab whatever opportunities come your way. If an opportunity naturally arises that you could potentially make a success of, then go for it. But be prepared to fail; you’ll be a better informed individual for trying and won’t lose yourself in the process.
Lastly, there is enough pressure in this job, so don’t add to that by pretending to be someone completely different. Trust your judgment on these things.