| Women in Business Law
Tax: Always remember the opportunity to catch that baseball
Jennifer FullerFenwick & WestMountain View
My husband and I went to a baseball game recently and he caught a ball. This was the first time either one of us had caught a ball at a baseball game, and it got me to thinking.
A woman working in the legal profession has an opportunity. She worked hard to get this opportunity, but needs to reach out to catch the opportunity and reduce it to her own possession. To achieve success, one must reach out when opportunity presents itself in order to achieve true success. The role of women in law is as important as is the need to have women appreciate and understand their role and opportunities in law.
This reaching out can involve many things. First of all, to achieve anything good in life requires hard work. A woman in the legal profession already knows that. She achieved a significant degree of success in college and law school to be working in the law firm of her choosing. However, successful lawyers understand that learning does not stop there. Learning continues not only from the practice of law, and observing others in their practice of law, but also from seeking extracurricular activities such as opportunities to meet with clients, promote the firm's and the individual's practices, and engaging in learning beyond that which takes place simply doing work for clients. Law is not a nine-to-five job if success is your goal.
The Wall Street Journal had an article about the results of an interesting study in its May 18 2012 edition. The people contacted were eighteen women who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They were asked what factors, personal or in the workplace, fuelled their careers and what myths about the advancement of women they encountered along the way. Eleven responded.
The Wall Street Journal summarized the results by stating that, to get ahead, women should focus laser-like on performance. Mentoring programs are a bad idea; everyone on the staff should be a woman's mentor. Likewise, support groups, such as women's employee groups, they seem to agree, can be likened to "victim's units," which the best women tend to avoid. Also, the women surveyed were not being na´ve when asked about work-life balance: they stated that there is no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices that have consequences that you need to accept. In addition, to get ahead, seek out tough, risky assignments. In an interesting summary, one CEO stated that "the most important factor in determining whether you will succeed isn't your gender, it's you. Be open to opportunity and take risks."
While these women were successful in a corporate business environment, much of their advice applies equally in law. "In order to lead an organization, you have to be incredibly comfortable in your own skin and the only way to do that is to be confident in who you are," stated another CEO.
Mentors were key in the careers of several of the CEOs who participated in the study. They endorse the idea of mentorship. As one CEO stated, she regularly picked the brains of a range of senior executives. "I had many mentors, and they didn't know it." Another said she "had a very strong work ethic and was willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. There is simply no substitute for hard work when it comes to achieving success." But "unless you are delivering value, there is no right to move forward." One CEO stated that men selectively listen but that women have to take responsibility for that dynamic around them. "You can't just say 'woe is me.'"
In my early years as a young, developing lawyer, I adopted many of these beliefs on my own. I urge that other female lawyers do the same thing. I was willing to take on any assignment (as long as it didn't result in a steady stream of low learning-curve projects--speak up if you see that happening).
I got into tax litigation as a young attorney, even serving early as second chair in a case in Chicago. The case involved my client. I was going to be second chair and participate in the trial. I wouldn't have missed that opportunity for the world. It was important to me. I had a young child at home at the time but I was sure that participating in the trial would serve me well in my future practice as a tax lawyer.
In one case, even as a young partner, I did my own cite checking because no associates were available that evening to help, and the brief had to be filed that evening with the Fifth Circuit Federal Appeals Court in New Orleans. The case involved many hundreds of millions of dollars.
I have participated in some wonderfully interesting corporate acquisition transactions, some involving billions of dollars. I found these transactions very interesting, and, especially early on, was willing to do a lot of the difficult work just to keep my learning curve growing. As I grew in seniority, of course, I got to participate in these transactions at higher professional levels. All of that early work really paid off. My most recent M&A transaction involved nearly US$30 billion.
I have had mentors over the years, but never a female mentor. Some of these mentors may have thought of themselves as helpful in their mentoring, and I appreciate that. However, as in the CEO survey, some of these mentors might not realize that I viewed them as mentors.
Always remember the opportunity to catch that baseball. The opportunity is there. Your hand might get dirty, and your hand might hurt a bit. Sometimes legal-field opportunities are not as obvious as a baseball coming in your direction. But the opportunities are there. You can't wait for them; you have to reach out for them.