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Voice of Experience: Sarah McLean, Partner, Shearman & Sterling

Sarah McLeanAsking questions is one of the best ways to grow both personally and professionally, finds Shearman & Sterling’s Sarah McLean.

“I wish I had known when I was first starting out that most people don’t mind when you ask them questions about their work or request feedback on your work — and the more direct the question, the better,” she notes. “Specific questions lead to better discussion and ultimately lead to better information for you.”

An Early Pivot Leads to a Rewarding Career

With an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, Sarah assumed she would become a research scientist or go to medical school. But in her last year of college she took a business law class that intrigued her with how problems and solutions are presented so differently than in science. That, coupled with the three years of research she had been doing on the pea aphid genome, led her to decide to pursue law school rather than research.

Her first job out of law school was with a Texas-based firm where she initially practiced health law — at the time still considering medical school—but ultimately didn’t find it challenging and switched to oil and gas private equity. She practiced with the same firm for almost 20 years, in both Houston and Austin, along the way closing more mergers and acquisitions deals than any other lawyer in Texas in 2017, according to the records of The Texas Lawbook. She then started thinking about making a change, to find a new challenge that would energize and excite her. She moved to Shearman & Sterling in April 2018, where she currently practices private equity and oil and gas upstream and midstream mergers and acquisitions.

Building the Business One Relationship at a Time

While Sarah is currently working on a number of complicated, interesting deals and transactions, what she’s most excited about is her role in business development—going out to see clients and contacts and introducing them to Shearman & Sterling. “We’ve put together an impressive team of oil and gas deal lawyers in Austin and Houston, and it has been great to get out of the office and talk to people,” she says.

She’s built an impressive array of contacts over the years, primarily because she figured out soon after starting her career that every person you meet is a potential future business contact. “I realized that reaching out to people you’ve met through business deals is a great way to grow your network of contacts, and the newer associates working on your early deals will be decision makers in 10 years,” Sarah says. “Developing long-standing relationships helps tremendously when you are asking for referrals and work.”

She often tells young women that an important trait to help build fulfilling relationships is getting over any shyness. “I was always hesitant to reach out to contacts for lunch or coffee because I thought they would be too busy or they wouldn’t really want to get together with me or a hundred other excuses. But ultimately I’ve learned that most people do want to form relationships and do have time for a quick check-in meeting,” she says. And, furthermore, even if they don’t have time or want to meet, they won’t be rude about it. “They just don’t respond, and someone not responding is not tragic or embarrassing at all,” she points out.

Taking Charge of Your Own Career

Sarah advises her peers of the value of sticking together and supporting one other, along with taking the time to nurture as many younger women as possible. She urges those in a position of authority or power in an organization to use it to dispel stereotypes and promote diversity.

While she recommends young women find good mentors and sponsors, she makes clear that often you have to make your own opportunities, rather than relying on them coming to you. “This means getting out of your office, meeting people and looking for ways to make yourself more valuable to your firm or company,” she says.

Women especially need to spearhead their own careers, because in her experience big law firms, along with the specialties of private equity and oil and gas, are male-dominated industries, which can offer some barriers.

One barrier in big law firms is what she terms “compassionate discrimination,” which manifests itself like, “I know Sarah is busy so I’m not going to include her on this pitch for new work because she has kids, and I don’t want her to have too much on her plate.” She found that this happened on a number of occasions, including client pitches where the client specifically asked for her. “I felt that men were making decisions about my career, my availability and my workload without even asking me, and this would not have been the case if I were a man.”

Despite this devotion to her career, Sarah seeks a balance with her personal life. As a mother of four children, ages 5 to 15, she spends much of her time participating in their activities or just hanging out with them. One thing she is especially proud of is all the volunteer work they do together. Sarah and her family are active with Generation Serve, an Austin-based family volunteering organization whose goal is to develop kids into community-minded leaders. This past April, they received the Wally Pilcher Family Volunteering Award for their work with the organization. She and her daughters are part of the National Charity League, and they also work directly with Austin Pets Alive.