NEW YORK — The ILTA “Women Who Lead” affinity group recently held its third in a series of local workshops designed to generate dynamic conversation among female legal administrative professionals in Chicago, Philadelphia and New York City. The series stimulates dialogue around important themes of women in leadership, networking, and career decisions, and culminates in the annual ILTACON event in Las Vegas in August.
The recent New York City roundtable featured a distinguished panel of three successful women who described their career journeys highlighting key events and important steps they took along the way. The panelists included Charlotte Rushton, Managing Director of Large & Midsize Law Firms at Thomson Reuters; Catherine Monte, Chief Knowledge Officer at Fox Rothschild LLP; and Karen Levy, Director of Global Technology for Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.
The panelists kicked off by sharing glimpses into their early careers, with all pointing to some great opportunity that presented itself to them, but for which they didn’t necessarily feel prepared.
Rushton, who trained as an engineer, was initially sponsored by a large chemical company; and through the company’s rotational program, she realized she felt especially drawn to project work. As the new world of consulting came into view, she joined a boutique strategy consulting company which valued her engineering talents and rigorous operational bent. An acquisition of that firm by a large consulting organization soon followed, and while very early in her career, Rushton became a partner in the new entity. “I didn’t necessarily feel ready to be partner,” she recalled. “But I had a mentor who said, ‘Absolutely you’re ready’, and I thought, well ok, if you believe it, then I’ll believe it.”
Addressing emotional readiness for a big career move, Rushton reflected on her early partnership promotion, saying capability sometimes precedes confidence.
Levy, who has a computer science background, started as a help desk professional for a law firm during a period of industry growth, both for technology investments and international expansion. “I continually sought opportunities to increase my responsibilities and therefore my skills,” she remembered. Levy performed several roles within the firm’s IT function and ultimately became that firm’s Director of Technology.
Monte didn’t become a knowledge management executive through an entirely linear route – she credited a mentor who saw her innate skills and her dogged volunteering for projects, which led to her inheriting the firm’s Intranet and Sharepoint development. “Most of us don’t have a straightforward trajectory,” she said, adding that she encourages others to volunteer for projects where one has some familiarity with the technologies, but are still considered a “really big leap.”
Securing a Solid Footing
One attendee asked the question that was likely on the minds of many: How do you get a solid footing when in completely unchartered professional territory?
Levy spoke of “virtual mentors” — law firm partners and senior administrators whom she closely observed for how they handled presentations, decision making, conflict resolution, etc., taking note of their ability to articulate as well as body language and behavioral style. “There are many talented people around you to learn from,” Levy said. “You don’t necessarily need a formal mentoring arrangement.”
Monte said that as critical as technical skills are, relational ones are even more so. “Knowing the culture of your firm and what your organization can handle – the people part – is the most important on both the legal and the administrative side,” she said.
Addressing emotional readiness for a big career move, Rushton reflected on her early partnership promotion, saying capability sometimes precedes confidence. Even so, “I had to show that confidence to my team and my clients.”
The panel next addressed career progression, sharing insights that emerged as they moved further along their respective paths. When Rushton fulfilled her intention to assume an in-house role within a company, her strategy skills were in strong demand. She was assigned a globalization assessment for one of the company’s business divisions, which led to a re-location to Singapore and a general manager’s role, which was another of her career ambitions. “The move to go build a business was definitely intimidating, but I found it helpful to always focus on the customer, as the customer will direct you,” she said.
Forming Trusting Relationships
Throughout, the panelists imparted sage career advice lifted from their own admirable journeys. For example, Monte encouraged attendees to trust their mentors, who can sometimes see the skills one may not even recognize within themselves. As for any industry that is disproportionately tilted against women in its leadership ranks, as is the legal profession, injustices may occur. “If you feel there’s an inequity, it is important to ask,” Monte said.
Levy stressed the importance of forming external relationships for professional growth, which requires time commitments outside of the office. “Get to know IT professionals in peer firms and participate in industry organizations and events.” she said. “Relationship building is an important component to success.” Rushton cited the critical role of a sponsor, or “that person who, when you’re not in the room, will stand up and say that you’re the person for the job,” she explained. “Figure out who those people are for you, and cultivate those relationships.”