Role Models Provide Powerful Advice for Women in Law

Trailblazers Photo _FWABy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Recognizing the impact role models can have on professional development is critical to the advancement of women in law. And Last week, the Financial Women’s Association of New York and the New York County Law Association held an event honoring trailblazing women in the profession, who shared their wisdom on breaking barriers, managing office politics, handling work and life responsibilities, and more.

The panel was moderated by Susan L. Harper, Esq., Baritz & Colman, LLP, General Counsel, FWA of New York, Inc. & Co-Chair, NYCLA’s Women’s Rights Committee, and featured Judith S. Kaye, Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals (1993-2008), now Of Counsel with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Susan L. Blount, Senior Vice President and General Counsel, Law, Compliance, and Business Ethics, Prudential Financial, Inc.; Sheila K. Davidson, Executive Vice President, Chief Legal Officer and General Counsel, The New York Life Insurance Co.; and Susan Merrill, former head of enforcement at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), New York Stock Exchange, now Partner, Bingham McCutchen.

One of the most interesting aspects about the evening (besides the insightful and often humorous remarks by the panelists) is that the event was worth continuing legal education (CLE) credits – a nod to the importance of sharing career wisdom and motivation.

Harper said, “It is extremely important that our executive level bar leaders participate in professional development programs. It sends a very strong message to developing attorneys and business people when New York’s former Chief Judge, a sitting GC of a Fortune 500 company, a sitting GC of a Fortune 100 company and the former head of enforcement for our nation’s largest financial regulatory organization agree to come together to share how attendees can break through the glass ceiling.”

She continued, “The information and wisdom that these leaders imparted is critical in educating and advancing the future leaders of our profession. I applaud our panelists for being so candid in their remarks and recommendations. Women and men need to know that such success is attainable and it may be as simple as leaders providing the knowledge and the inspiration, as this program did.”

Breaking Barriers and Beating the Odds

“Go for it,” said Kaye simply. “If you have some idea in your head that seems ridiculous and impossible…why wouldn’t you do everything [to achieve it]?”

Kaye grew up in upstate New York and was educated in a one-room school house. At the start of her legal career, she was turned away from several firms who simply said their quota for women was filled. But finally Kaye got a job at Sullivan Cromwell, and eventually was named the first female chief judge in the state of New York.

She continued, “Persevere however foolishly the outside world makes the odds against something you want to do.” Kaye’s remarks were inspirational, and often humorous – but she noted that there are generational differences between herself and the other women on the panel. Many of the women reported being asked to step into a role they weren’t sure they were ready for, while she often had to break down barriers to get to where she wanted to be.

She said, “I worked so hard when people said I couldn’t do something. If people said I could do something, I don’t know that I ever would have succeeded.”

Mentors, Sponsors, and Role Models

Kaye’s remarks revealed the profound changes that have taken place in the legal profession for women over the past 50 years. That’s not to say that it’s a piece of cake for women to achieve a high level of professional success today.

Blount, for example, emphasized the importance of finding a sponsor – someone who will expend their political capital on your behalf. She was careful to note that younger lawyers should remember than sponsorship is a two way street.

She explained, “You have to go to someone and say, ‘I want to make you successful.’ And when you do it well, that person is more likely to go out on a limb for you.”

Merrill also attributed her success to having a team of allies pulling for her. She said, “I really believe that because of many I became the head of enforcement at FINRA.”

She also pointed out the importance of having male mentors. “The reality is that men still have a lot of power, and I would not be where I am without male mentors – or as we’re calling them tonight ‘non-women,’” she said, referring to an earlier reference made by Kaye.

Davidson said that she doesn’t feel like a trailblazer herself – that her mother is the trailblazer. Half of her law class were women she said. “The trails were already blazed!”

But, she said, she wouldn’t have gotten to where she is today without being pushed by those who had confidence in her. She recalled how she kept being encouraged to take on new roles, never being quite sure she was right for the position. “It’s only because I was pushed along the way to do things I was uncomfortable doing.”

She continued, “Listen to people when they say you can do something!”

Applying Spectacular Advice

Following the event, Harper said she was inspired by the fact that there were so many distinguished women on stage. She said, “I was really inspired, impacted, and excited when all four Trailblazers shared that they had two and three children each while making their career climb. This sent a very strong message that women can certainly be reproductive and productive.”

She continued, “[Women can] successfully serve as the top leaders of our nation’s judiciaries, corporate law and enforcement departments and be parents at the same time. Happily the days of choosing one over the other for women are gone.”

Harper said some of the key advice she hoped to implement included requesting feedback more often (“don’t just assume you are doing a good job”) and adopting critical feedback (“you may be blocking your own advancement if you don’t”), taking on positions with departmental oversight, management and budgeting capabilities (“it is okay to be a nervous when taking on larger responsibilities”), and making colleagues and decisions makers aware that you are interested in advancing your position.

“On a personal note,” she said, “in order to achieve balance you need to structure your life and surround yourself with supportive people who can help you get there. Finally, remember the importance of eating dinner with your family each night!”