There is a fundamental difference between working well in crisis and thriving under pressure. Many lawyers think well on their feet – it’s part of the job description. But few lawyers actively embrace the chaos like Jane Sherburne, general counsel to The Bank of New York Mellon.
“That is my sweet spot,” Sherburne told InsideCounsel in a recent interview. “I’m happiest in a big mess.”
She’s sure gotten into plenty of them. Few lawyers have as much experience in high-pressure situations. From acting as special counsel to President Clinton for three years in the middle of the administration’s greatest turmoil to serving as Wachovia’s chief legal officer until the company’s collapse, Sherburne has taken on some of the toughest jobs in the legal profession.
Now, Sherbune says, she is absolutely fearless as a result of her past. “[The time with Clinton] put me in a position where I felt like, having come through the crucible of that experience, there really wasn’t anything that could scare me again.”
However, it took hard work to get to her current point. She originally entered the world of public policy, working on Capitol Hill before attending law school. It was her later work with the law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, though, that most strongly influenced her approach to problem solving when she returned into the public sector.
“Issues that require you to address the needs and interests of several constituencies, it creates a really challenging intellectual problem,” Sherburne says. “I think my training as a litigator… was useful in that regard, thinking through strategically, ‘What is it that we need to do to solve this problem?’”
Since the turn of the century, Sherburne has spent most of her time working as in-house counsel for many major financial organizations, including Citigroup, Wachovia and most recently BNY Mellon. She says the toughest change from working in litigation or the public sector is learning to be part of the company as a whole rather than being able to focus exclusively on legal matters.
“When you go in-house, you’re a cost center,” Sherburne says. “All of a sudden, instead of being the center of the universe, you’re a necessary drain on resources. It’s a different kind of mindset that requires a broader range of skills to be an effective business partner.”
Sherburne says she doesn’t like to attribute any struggles she has had to her gender. “In the crisis world,” she says, “if somebody is in a world of hurt and they think you can help them, you could be a wildebeest and they would accept you.”
But with that said, she does concede, “It can get a little lonely. Corporate America is still pretty white and pretty male. At any of these institutions, when you look at the pipeline of women who are moving up the ladder into leadership positions, oftentimes they’re doing that in the portion of the pipeline that’s led by a woman.”
Sherburne recommends that up-and-coming female attorneys should try and work for someone who is the best at what they do; to learn by being exposed to excellence and contributing to it, similar to what she had with notable attorney Lloyd Cutler. That way, they can learn important problem-solving skills that are applicable in many situations, regardless of the sector of law that suits them the best.
Jane Sherburne has certainly found her niche. BNY Mellon may not have the crisis red flags like the Clinton administration or Wachovia, but she shows no signs of slowing down soon. For Sherburne, crisis is always calling.
Would you like to hear Jane Sherburne and others like her at this year’s Women, Influence & Power in Law Conference in Washington D.C. on Oct. 2-4? Make sure to register today!