No Such Thing as a Typical Day Nor Straight Career Path to the Top: Tips and Tales from Four General Counsels and Partners
What do a paralegal, an MTV production assistant, a frustrated actress and a dancer have in common?
They are now highly successful lawyers working as partners in white shoe law firms or serving as general counsels to government agencies and companies.
Like their divergent backgrounds, their typical days are all different but they all share a love of the law and a respect for the career paths that led them to their jobs.
On the recent Women in Law Section webinar, “A Day In The Life: Personal Perspectives From General Counsels And Partners,” panelists Laurie Bigman, Tamala Boyd, Emily Johnson and Lois Liberman shared their perspectives on what it takes to excel, the paths one can follow and the challenges they have overcome.
Tamala Boyd, deputy assistant director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, started her career in video production working for MTV and VH1.
She worked as a paralegal for several years before going to law school in her early thirties. After six years at Simpson Thacher Bartlett, she ended up at the Appellate Division, First Department, as a principal court attorney.
“It taught me a lot more just about writing and research than I ever thought I needed to know,” she said.
From there, she joined the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection as its associate general counsel, handling mostly appeals. She later became its deputy general counsel and its general counsel. “And I have to say I loved it,” said Boyd. “It was not something that I planned, but it was something that I’m really glad happened. It was a great job.”
Even as a toddler, family and friends of Laurie Bigman, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary at CardWorks, expected to her become a lawyer. Like Boyd, she started as a paralegal, where she learned that “work of the highest quality is what is expected and that I was capable of it.”
It inspired her to reach for more, so she enrolled in Brooklyn Law School. After graduating, she worked at the New York Stock Exchange’s Securities and Exchange Commission. The variety of roles prepared her “to be brave, be ambitious and be willing to take challenges along the way.”
She continued working in hybrid legal and compliance roles in financial services organizations but kept moving on to advance her career. She acknowledged that friends could not understand why she would sometimes sacrifice great pay, easy work and a short commute for other roles that she saw as more challenging.
She eventually moved into a job as chief compliance officer, which prepared her for her ultimate dream job: general counsel.
“And I love it. I am a general counsel in the true sense of those two words. I cover everything from employment, litigation, corporate, tax, insurance, technology, operations, I mean whatever anybody needs, that’s what I do.”
When a career on the stage didn’t work out, Lois Liberman, partner at Blank Rome, felt that her next steps would be in the courtroom. Law school reaffirmed her love of the courtroom and she decided that she wanted to be in the New York City area. She interviewed for Legal Aid Society or prosecutor positions to get her desired courtroom experience. She clicked with the Nassau County Legal Aid Society and took a job in its Family Court Division.
“It was a significant heavy job, coming right out of law school, but I loved it and I had a group of individuals who I worked with and we were all part of a family in a way,” she said.
She got noticed and a judge recommended her to a matrimonial attorney in private practice who had just lost his paralegal and suggested he hire her as an associate. Upon the judge’s recommendation she was hired and she worked at that boutique matrimonial firm until she went to work with Stan Lotwin, a well-known matrimonial attorney at Tenzer Greenblatt, which later merged with Blank Rome in 2000. The bi-coastal matrimonial group now represents celebrities, politicians and high net worth individuals. She had found her voice in the small firm and gained momentum with the large firm. She is now part of the firm’s leadership and sits on its distribution committee..
A typical day for her involves problem-solving “all day long,” as well as being on Microsoft Teams with judges in the virtual age. She makes a daily goal of accomplishing three things, but considers it a good day when she completes one of those tasks. Even with the barrage of emails and calls, Liberman wouldn’t change it for the world. “I am a people person. This is what I do,” said Liberman. “I don’t know that I could ever be a transactional lawyer in the sense of just looking at contracts.”
An experience at a medical clinic one summer convinced Emily Johnson, partner at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, that she “didn’t really love blood.” So she had to find another career path.
Her father advised her to work with smart people. She thought lawyers were smart people. After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with degrees in women’s studies and exercise science, she danced in Prague for a year. Upon returning stateside, she took a job as a legal secretary to see what lawyers did all day. “I decided that I can definitely do this and I think I’d like to.”
She attended Duke Law School during the 2008 financial crisis, which piqued her interest in “money and power,” specifically “how does the economic system work and who has the power to step in and rescue a bank or not force that bank to merge or not.”
She knew she wanted to work in New York City and concentrate on transactional work. She zeroed in on Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, viewing it as “where the best and the brightest went to do the hardest and the biggest transactions.”
A typical day for her involves exercise and emails from sunrise to bedtime. She spends most of her time now reviewing rather than drafting work.
How they get things done
Bigman said in her current role that the goal is to bring people together to collaborate. “You really need to bring consensus so that people feel invested in the decision. Are there other people that you should bring in to get involved early that need to be part of the solution? That’s really how we execute at my company.”
However, she has worked in ruthless places and “you need to be ruthless or you will be eaten alive.”
“The important part of execution is having good people on her senior leadership team with ensuring that everyone has clear direction about where we’re going,” said Boyd.
She has a 90-person team, and they have milestones and check-in points on progress to make sure they are all on the same page and heading in the right direction, or assessing whether they need to focus on a priority or goal before they get too far in the project.
Liberman has found that writing bite-sized pieces of tasks on Post-It notes keeps her motivated when she’s overwhelmed. “If you take everything in a bite-sized piece, you can really handle anything. She also keeps a gratitude journal of three things each day that she’s grateful for. It can be as simple as “my iced coffee was fantastic” or something major like winning a case. “That little shift in focus can make a world of difference.”
Admittedly, Johnson’s work is all things contracts and how to structure deals around debt contracts but she said, “they’re complex word puzzles overlaid with relationships with people.”
She explained, “If I think about who are my clients and when they do come to me, they come to me with transformational corporate transactions that are sort of career shifting for the people who are executing them. My clients come to me when they need someone they trust and they need to know that I’m an expert. You’ve got to be trustworthy.”
Staying connected with people is imperative for trust. “It’s hard to build a relationship off of absence. You have to be present for your paralegals that you want to raise up and build a relationship with, your assistants, your office staff. It is important to check in and see how people are doing.”
She has enjoyed hosting virtual happy hours to meet associates that she cannot see in the office during the pandemic. “I get as much out of that, I think, as they do.” She created a Women’s Workout Club where law firm staff can network and take care of themselves. It has continued through Zoom.
Lessons from leaders to leaders
Boyd recalled a time when she was frustrated supervising a team of paralegals. She went to her boss hoping that he would fix the problem. After listening to her vent, he looked at her and said, “What do you want me to do about it?” She hadn’t thought about that.
He responded, “Don’t just come to me with a problem. Come to me with a solution. You might not get the exact situation that you want but you will more likely get something than if you just come with a problem. It doesn’t serve you and it doesn’t serve me for you to just come and complain.”
Boyd said she has taken his sage advice to every job she has held since.
For first-time leaders, Liberman said you have to be authentic. “You have to be who you are in a leadership position. You need to be able to push forward your agenda but be yourself, because that is going to be the reason why you were placed in that position in the first place. It’s cliché but I just think it works so well.”
Both Liberman and Bigman said it’s important that supervisors have the backs of their staff. “It’s our job to help each other,” said Bigman, who also recommended being very specific about your initial meeting requests.
If you send her a calendar invite that reads, “Meeting with Legal,” you are likely going to need two meetings: one to flesh out your questions and another to get the answer, because of the lack of preparedness. If you send her a request on “Meeting with Legal-The Jones Real Estate Contract,” you will likely need one meeting saving everyone valuable time, because she has had time to prepare.
Celebrating the successes of your peers can go a long way in improving morale and motivating your team, said Liberman.