Throughout all corners of the world March 8th is celebrated as International Women’s Day. The theme in 2012 is “Connecting Girls Inspiring Futures”. We decided to profile not just some of our women clients but women in the legal industry who are forging different paths for younger women. As we finish March our series of profiling legalistas will be concluded with Mary P. Watson, of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.
1. How many years have you been practicing law? Has being a female attorney gotten any easier since you began your career? What challenges have you overcome? Which ones are still relevant today, and what do you think needs to be done for women attorneys to overcome this?
Answer: I graduated from law school twenty years ago, but I took a two year leave of absence to serve as the Dean of Faculty at a secondary school in Brooklyn. Being a lawyer has gotten easier for me, but I think most things have gotten easier for me with time and age. It is a major advantage of aging, the fear factor diminishes and you become more comfortable in your own skin.I think there are numerous obstacles for women – I think they were there when I started too but I actually did not see them for a number of years and in retrospect, I think that was really lucky. I cannot speak to the profession in general, with the exception of my two years clerking I have spent my whole career in private practice at a large firm in New York City.
The obstacles are not at all insurmountable. The bad news is the numbers have not changed as we expected or hoped. When I graduated from law school 20 years ago in a law school class that was approximately 50% female, I was applying to firms where the female partnership percentages hovered around 12% and if you had asked me then where that number would be twenty years down the road, I am sure I would have guessed something in at least the 30% range – even if I were being conservative – but it has not turned out that way. Now maybe that is fantastic. Maybe that is because women will never think in the box, they will always question the norm – they are questioning hierarchical and traditional models of success and defining it for themselves giving personal happiness a much higher value. If I were convinced that those were the only reasons behind the numbers I would be dancing in the streets. I do not think they are the only reasons. On the other hand, I am not mourning on a daily basis because I think what I just said is actually a piece of the numbers picture and because I think if a woman comes into a firm and decides all I want in life is to be a partner and she commits completely to that goal, and she finds herself a good mentor who can explain how that firm works, she has same chance as a man – I don’t really worry so much about that model. It is the vast in between I worry about.
Women opt out for more subtle reasons than men. They feel they are not making it – it is not for them – when they are performing at the same level as their male peers. The same environment is not giving them the “home” they need. Why? Do they need something different? Is it as simple as the fact that they look up (in terms of seniority) and see a majority of men and see so few people that look like them (that they can imagine themselves living the life of) that they just can’t imagine this is the life for them? Or is it more nuanced? Is it ingrained in the unspoken teaching style – what I call the possibility of finding your own voice. Every lawyer needs to find his or her own voice to be effective – and they look to their seniors to model. For example, I need to learn to take a deposition. My style may be forceful, yet not belligerent. I may be a silent killer. This may be more suited, by the way, to my whole demeanor. I may be 5’ 2’” and 100 lbs and female. It may not be effective for me to intimidate people into revealing information – a much better tactic for me may be to disarm people into disclosing information. It doesn’t mean I can’t draw a line when I need to – I may do so by lowering my voice, or glowering, or walking away when necessary – but I can draw a line as effectively as someone who bangs the table. My disarming tactic may be a tactic that comes naturally for me. Yet, if they seniors I am working with are large, burly, 6’2” confident men whose style is completely opposite to that – the bang the table – look you in the eye – take no prisoners – style – who don’t think to encourage me to try something different – and I think that intimidation style is what I need to succeed – I may opt out and feel like a failure before I even get started.
In addition, women tend to be harsh self critics. They are often running their own self grading system and asking themselves is this the right place for me way too early in the process. Some of their male contemporaries are conversely, often, outwardly (not necessarily inwardly confident). My favorite hypothetical exchange is as follows. Two second year associates get identical feedback on an assignment. The partner tells both – separately and privately – “I thought your work on this matter was fine.” The woman is devastated. She immediately translates “fine” into a letter grade of C. Fine is middle of the road – it is not for her – she is not doing well here – that exchange confirms her worst nightmare. The male is ok. Fine is fine, not bad – in fact it is pretty good –“doing fine”. What did they say in orientation – no news is good news – this is not a place of praise – only worry about negative feedback. They meet in the hall shortly after. “What did he say about your work?” the woman asks tentatively, “Did you get any feedback?” “Yes,” her male counterpart says, “he liked it, no problems” and he says all this with a bright, confident smile. “What about you?” “Not so much” she immediately offers. “I’m not sure I’m really getting what they want here. Sometimes. I think I’m not cut out for this kind of place, you know.” “Oh, that’s not true, you’ll get it, he says, give it time. You know what they said. It’s not a high praise place.” “I guess,” she says. After they walk away, he actually feels more confident – he was a little on the fence about his feedback although he had the skill set to be working to make himself feel better – and his public persona was not to let his insecurities show.
In sincerely trying to make her feel better, he still left the impression that he had gotten different and better feedback. He left that impression because her summary of her feedback led him to believe his was significantly better. So in their own paraphrasing of identical feedback they enforced the slightly different original images they encountered each other with and increased the confidence delta between them that they had started with – we know where this will lead if there is no other intervention – that delta just keeps growing despite the fact that the objective feedback – unbeknownst to the two of them – was identical. Eventually the feedback, re confidence may change – and then of course the woman’s ability to trust her instincts and take the risks she needs to may lessen. Early mentoring for women and an acknowledgment that many women her feedback differently is useful. There is no harm giving men the additional feedback as well. The world where no feedback is good feedback was enough for everyone is probably an anachronism for both genders.
The good news, talented women are streaming into law firms all the time. Alternative work arrangements are proliferating and the numbers of senior women are growing, even if it is not at the rates we might have hoped. The issue is on the top on many people’s minds and thus is on the fix-it lists. Once there, there is little that can’t be fixed. Lawyers are “fix-it” people.
2. With the ever-changing digital and economic environments we live in, there’s no question that law (and many other industries) are adapting and evolving the way they operate in order to thrive. From your perspective, how can new attorneys prepare themselves for this volatile environment? What about experienced attorneys who are unsure how to adapt their businesses to the new climate?
Answer: When it comes to the digital world, I am lucky to be at a place that forces me, for the most part, to keep up, doesn’t let me get stuck in my ways because I think that is important – but yet would I have the initiative to do it myself? I guess the answer to your question is that my advice is that one should be prepared to always be changing, reacting, adapting; staying current and informed – which would probably be my answer to any number of questions – but honestly, for me adapting to new technology that has already been chosen for me by professionals I can trust is a lot easier than having to make those choices from scratch for myself. So I guess the second piece of advice I have would be know when to consult professionals when necessary and know how to choose the right professionals.
3. International Women’s Day kicks off March 8, and this year’s theme is “Connecting girls, inspiring futures.” Looking back at your early life and career, what women inspired you and your future achievements?
Answer: I grew up in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It was an age of “firsts” or at least of a feeling of “firsts”. – Being the first women to do this or that was still a big deal. Women like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, Sandra Day O’Connor, Geraldine Ferraro – all were inspiring in one way or another. They were literally trail blazers. Our elementary school history books still had women and minorities in drop-in boxes – meaning they had been added in as inserts since the last printing – they weren’t part of the original text. We would joke about it at home with my parents – and while in some ways it might have been marginalizing (that was our conversation at home – we would talk about how they had not yet made it to the text), for me it had the effect of highlighting those individuals’ importance for us. They were new, special and a break from the old. It was a very empowering time. I really think I felt like I was born in an age where, at least in the United States, there weren’t any barriers that I wouldn’t see crossed by women in my lifetime. Many all-male schools were going coed at rapid rates (my own college had been single sex until only three years before I went); the same for my sister’s high school – we both faced a number of frustrating but challenging issues with those transitions; men’s clubs were coming under fire and disappearing; and the law was being used to take down a lot of the barriers that still existed. Title IX began to really show its teeth as I headed off to college.
4. Who are some of your mentors and why?
Answer: The headmaster of my high school, who also became one of my first bosses and a lifetime friend was probably my most significant mentor. He was one of the most empowering people I have ever encountered – after talking with him, you felt you could do anything – intellectually, professionally, personally. My grandmother was also an early mentor. She worked outside the home by choice in the thirties, forties, fifties and early sixties. She would talk about her office and her secretary and she wore beautiful suits and it all sounded very glamorous at age 5 and must have made an impression. My mother, who is cynical and funny, has a masters degree, worked until I was about 4 and then stayed home to take care of me and my three younger sisters was always crystal clear that none of her daughters should stay at home. It was a mixed message (at best) about the joy we had brought her but a clear message about what she hoped for our future.
I had two college professors – one male and one female – strikingly different – yet I continually sought out their advice and admired their approaches to the world in very different ways. I am still close with one of my law school professors whom I think of as a mentor. He was a constant guide for me in law school and after. He is brilliant, yet patient and an unbelievable guide for people. I have probably consulted him about every legal professional decision I have ever made – and then there are the mentors I have gathered at Cleary, the firm where I have practiced these past 20 years. I have been extremely lucky to have had a number of really extraordinary and different mentors there. The “why” part of this question is difficult as the “why” changes depending on each person – but there is a common denominator. Each mentor has been a person whose judgment and advice I really trusted and sought in a given area. I realize now each person also had a sense of humor and with only one exception was pretty cynical. Finally, each person was also someone whom I felt understood me on a personal level – so it wasn’t abstract advice – it was personalized.
5. In terms of business development, what do you wish someone had told you when first started your career that you know now?
Answer: Trust your instincts and be yourself. Take the initiative. Women, or at least many of the women I know, have a natural instinct for business development. They often instinctively connect with people with whom they work. That connection is the essence of business development. Trust it and follow it.
6. What was the last book you read that inspired or moved you professionally?
Answer: I read fiction and am inspired by it all the time. The last book I read that inspired me – and I can draw the dotted lines for you to the “professionally” part was “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls. It is a memoir by a journalist who had a pretty tumultuous upbringing but what I found inspiring about it is that she tells her story with such humor, empathy and love for all of the characters involved. There is no “pity me” about it – even though she could have taken it in that direction. Instead she can see the world from each character’s perspective and then step back and see it from a bystander’s. (That ability to see the story from everybody’s perspective should be a litigator’s stock in trade – obviously a journalist’s and a humanist’s as well.) Finally, and as a litigator, whose job it is to always be able to tell a narrative well and in a compassionate and persuasive way, I couldn’t help but appreciate the superb writing. It is a perfectly told story from start to finish.
7. If you had an extra two hours in your workday, what would you spend it doing?
Answer: If I had two extra hours in my workday I would spend them talking with/ reaching out to people – both within the firm and outside the firm. There are so many people I mean to have lunch with, or coffee with or just stop by their office – and it is always so worthwhile when it happens – and it never happens enough. It is definitely what I would like to do with the extra time. In fact when you asked about the mentoring, it was the people who made that time for me – who stopped by my office, who became my mentors and when I try to mentor, or coach people in mentoring, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the face to face contact.
Mary thank you for being so candid about your experiences. There are so many golden nuggets in your answers I had to read it several times. Thank you. We will be profiling more clients and other kick arse legalistas in 2013.