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.
Sue Zabloudil started as an associate at Sidley Austin in Los Angeles before she moved to Miami. There, she found Akerman. “I chose Akerman because of Akerman’s significant footprint in Florida and the group of attorneys I met were all sophisticated partners doing great deals,” she says. “I realized they were doing really competitive work and I liked the people.” When thinking about moving back to Los Angeles, she sat down with the firm’s chair. He already knew her dedication and her strategic vision and he knew their clients’ needs, particularly the need for a Los Angeles office. She moved back to Los Angeles in 2014 to establish and lead the new Akerman office.
Who helped you the most on your career path?
I had a strong mix of mentors, all with very strong work ethics and excellent practices. They understood that when you elevate a team as a whole, you are elevating everybody. They were not afraid to make another seat at the table whenever possible. They would put me on phone calls and pitches and gave me great exposure. Clients know you aren’t alone on a transaction, and it’s important to give associates exposure, too. That exposure was what triggered my success, because they trusted me and saw my success as a vision for a team.
There was a partner who was happy to have someone with a work ethic on his team; gender didn’t matter. He always knew my path was to head toward partnership, and the path was pretty straightforward through hard work. With him, he just wanted to have the best lawyers on the team; it didn’t matter what you looked like. He was great at campaigning for you. It’s amazing how you can impact reputations by just saying that person is the go-to or that person is so smart. That registers in people’s heads and fuels itself—that positive whisper campaign.
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?
The biggest issue I had was my height. I’m under five feet tall, so for me, I always wore a suit or I would potentially be mistaken for other people in the firm. Even if it was a business casual situation, I still wore a suit. It gave me an exterior visual standpoint. I never wanted to have a question about it. I understand there are gender gaps, so you just have to be better, work hard and hold yourself to a higher standard. For me, it didn’t matter if anyone else thought that; it was on me.
Once I became a go-to person, I started being asked for everything: Can you be on this committee? Come on this pitch? Once you start getting this reputation, you begin to wonder, if you are the person going on the pitch, who is being excluded? It’s always important to pull other people in. If people are happy with your success, they won’t look outside the box. So it becomes important for you to look out for other people and provide them with opportunities and exposure.
What has been your greatest challenge as the managing partner of the L.A. office? What keeps you up at night?
As a top 100 U.S. law firm with a dominant presence in Miami and other major business centers across the country, Akerman represents clients on a national and global basis, but I still have to make sure that our reputation is acknowledged in the L.A. market. Akerman has one of the nation’s largest real estate practices. When I explain our practice to prospective clients or laterals, it’s really important to be able to convey to them that bench and tell our story to a new market. We’ve been lucky that the people who have joined us have done an amazing job and our recruiters have really helped us get our name out there. My goal has been to be at an event and say I’m at Akerman and not have to include the whole background about the firm. At two recent events, I was able to do that happily.
How important is it to your law firm to have women in leadership?
You have to be active in searching for women and diversity and be active in those conversations. I want to make sure we are actively talking about issues that impact women and discussing how we can fix it and what we need to do to get there. It’s very important to have that conversation at the leadership and board level. If women are not in leadership positions, what’s an associate supposed to think about their options? It’s very important to have role models of all backgrounds so you know it’s attainable.
How do you or your organization help women advance in the workplace and the legal profession?
Our firm has done a great job with our diversity committee and women’s initiative. We’ve done a lot to be on the forefront making sure to have innovative programs, including the OnRamp program and Women in Law Hackathon. As a result of the Women in Law Hackathon, Akerman is one of the firms piloting the Mansfield Rule, which requires a commitment that we consider 30 percent or more women and attorneys of color for significant leadership roles, equity partner promotions, lateral associate and lateral partner recruiting searches. We’re embracing other programs that are promoting the retention of women in leadership.
For me, I’m active in our women’s initiative group and work internally with the attorneys to help elevate women. I always believe in being available to people. I have a lot of mentees.
What advice would you give to young lawyers who desire to become a partner in a law firm?
Work ethic, dependability and communication all go a really long way. You are going to have trouble on your path if you are not communicating with people.
Be a good lawyer and know the trade. When the market crashed, there grew to be a real emphasis on business development. That’s important but you also have to be really good at what you do.
Be conscious of what you are saying about other people; it impacts their reputation very quickly, so make sure you are checking yourself and not just upset in the moment.
Communicate that your path is to partner, that that’s something you really want. I hear a lot about people who think they will come to a law firm, get trained and move in-house, so if you want to be a partner, express that you know this is your path because those are the people firms want to have and grow.