Voice of Experience: Tay C. Via, Partner, Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP

Tay__Via_1_.jpgby Anna T. Collins, Esquire (Portland, Maine)

Tay C. Via, partner at Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP in San Francisco, entered the legal profession in part due to advice from one of her professors at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her undergraduate degree in Political Science and Economics in 1987. Peter T. Jones, a lawyer who specialized in international trade, encouraged her to pursue graduate education “in anything,” regardless of whether she was clear on her ultimate career path. Professor Jones was not the first mentor to emphasize the importance of higher education to Via. Her grandfather, a blue collar worker, also believed that higher education was vital to success. He taught her to not be “in awe of anyone,” since anyone can succeed with education and hard work.

Via followed the advice of these two mentors, gaining not only a higher education, but an impressive work ethic. After receiving her law degree from University of California, Boalt Hall School of Law in 1991, Via got her start at Morrison & Foerster, where she gained expertise in real estate development and land use law while working on the San Francisco International Airport Expansion Project. Over time, Via aimed to focus on large public/private projects in and around San Francisco, which led her to Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP in 1994.

For Via, the highlights of her work have been projects that are vital to community development, such as the 300+ acre Mission Bay redevelopment, San Francisco Giants (AT&T) ballpark, Westfield San Francisco Centre, and the California Academy of Sciences new LEED platinum-certified building in Golden Gate Park. “It is wonderful to go to the ballpark with friends or take my son to the California Academy of Sciences,” she explains “and to appreciate everything that went into making the experience possible.”

Via credits her firm, which she describes as “incredible,” for her ability to achieve success. “Policies are important,” she says “but nothing beats results.” The results at Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP are impressive — 40% of the partners are women, and women are in the highest leadership positions. “We just promoted an all-women class,” Via shares “this speaks for itself, and encourages the next generation of women.”

The unique nature of Via’s own work arrangement is indicative of her firm’s innovative approach. Via has remained actively involved in firm management and business development while working reduced hours. She generally works from home Mondays and Fridays, and packs the rest into the middle of the week and evenings. “I am very proud of the firm for accommodating this,” Via says “it demonstrates the firm’s flexible thinking and provides another model that I hope is encouraging for other women who are assessing their options.

At the same time, Via acknowledges that the onus is on her to be flexible and responsive to her clients and colleagues, including altering her preferred work arrangement and schedule. “A “fixed” schedule is a challenge in the professional services industry, and it just wouldn’t work for me or my clients.” Via acknowledges that the firm’s approach requires dedication and hard work. “I don’t think that any of this is easy,” she explains “the other partners have to be willing to say that the accommodation is for the greater good, and that is a hard thing to do when people are working really hard. To remain competitive, you can’t be shortsighted about economics, and you have to be thinking in terms of investment.” Yet, Via strongly believes that flexible work policies are “good business and the right thing to do.”

The firm’s leadership seems to agree with her. In contrast to other firms, Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP has continued its formal sabbatical program, which permits partners to take extended time off every few years. Via explains the policy permits partners to “recharge and refocus,” ultimately leading to increased productively for clients and long-term retention of talented partners. The firm also accommodates reduced and flexible work schedules, including at the partner level. In fact, the firm established a satellite office in the East Bay that allows two of the women partners to continue to work and meet their family obligations. Furthermore, the firm enjoys being “the first” when it comes to diversity, as illustrated by the fact that one of the partners, Pamela S. Duffy, was the first woman to achieve the status of name partner at a major San Francisco law firm.

Via attributes to Pam Duffy the one piece of career advice that has proved most valuable to her – “Our job is to make the client’s life easier.” Via strongly believes women must get educated about the industries in which their clients operate. “We are hired for legal advice,” Via explains “but we need to understand the business context.” The more women understand about their client’s business, the better equipped they are to address the client’s legal needs. Women must also look for opportunities, Via believes, to get involved in firm management and understand how the firm operates as a business.

In addition to her busy practice, Via serves as the firm’s Marketing Partner, is a member of the Management and Compensation Committees, and chairs a new practice group. One of the main challenges Via feels women have is “getting exposed to a business development mentality at the outset.” Via explains that “women are often team players, and most of us were not socialized to view our personal contacts as business opportunities. Women need to appreciate the power in their own networks and learn how to get comfortable leveraging it.”

Via recognizes that business pressures make it difficult for women to achieve what some call “work-life balance,” especially if they want to start a family. The term “work-life balance” does not resonate with Via, who says “I think of it as work-life management.” She approaches such management in a systematic manner, but with an awareness that stress is inevitable. “You come up with a plan, establish goals and boundaries,” she explains “but recognize that you will go through periods of absolute chaos, and just accept that.” Ultimately, she urges women to keep trying, “circling back to your goals.”

Via is resolute that women must remain responsive to clients and colleagues, but should aim to meet their personal life goals as much as possible. For her, the key components are “having flexible childcare [for her 1 year old son], delegating effectively at home and at work, and working late at night.” She also calendars her personal time to remain conscious of where she is making compromises and to motivate herself to be strategic with her time. “Successful attorneys, and especially women,” Via shares “get tapped for many responsibilities. You need to decide what interests you, is the best match with your skills, and will advance your career objectives. Limit the number of leadership positions that you accept, and make sure you are clear on the level and nature of commitments.”

When asked about the path she has traveled to gain such wisdom, Via recalls how she learned to trust her own perspective. Very early on in her career, she was given responsibility for implementing someone else’s aggressive strategy in negotiating with a public agency on a client’s behalf. Her intuition was that this was the wrong approach, and that the first step should have been to reach a settlement, but she was hesitant to speak up. The experienced taught her that “even if you are just starting out, you bring your own judgment and experience to the table, and it is important to have confidence and express your views.”

Via also believes that women should choose an environment where they can be themselves, and where their individuality is an asset. “If you feel that you take on a different persona in order to perform your job, or if you are compromising your core values,” Via says “then you need to make some changes.” Via also believes it is important to work for people who share and support one’s values, including the desire to have a life and a career. “There are times when we all work harder than we would wish,” Via explains, “but you can’t put off life for months or years at a time and expect that it won’t take a toll on you and your relationships and health.” Via learned this the hard way, when she put her own life on hold early on in her career. Since that time, she has come to realize that clients appreciate attorneys who are balanced and capable of connecting with their clients on a personal basis.

Via aims to cultivate her hobbies, such as modern art and travel, to develop her own sense of individuality. She believes that with increased self-awareness, women are able to achieve more in their careers and to avoid self-limiting beliefs. “For me, the most valuable business books, such as The Four Agreements, are about communication and self-awareness,” Via shares “and they are not always in the business section.” In light of Via’s intuitive recognition that one must understand and develop one’s individuality to succeed in one’s life, it is not surprising she has accomplished so much in her legal career.