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WER Spring 2019 Feature 5
Volume LXIX, Issue IV

In This Issue:
"Career Sustainability for Women Lawyers"

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Three Colleagues on What Makes A Sustainable Legal Career

By: Debbie Ellingboe, Gina Kastel, and Maureen Maly

Debbie Ellingboe and Maureen Maly serve respectively as practice group leader for the business litigation and employee benefits and executive compensation groups at Faegre Baker Daniels. Gina Kastel is the firm’s vice chair and chief operating partner.

             Debbie Ellingboe
                  Gina Kastel
                  Maureen Maly

When we sat down to write this article, we realized that together we have 70 years of experience in the legal profession. We have the good fortune to practice law together at Faegre Baker Daniels and the privilege of serving in firm leadership. We enjoy our jobs, and we are happy to share our perspectives  on what has made our journeys fun and sustainable. We hope you’ll find these thoughts helpful as you navigate your own success.

Debbie Ellingboe: Do good work with good people. 
I attended a retirement party this year for one of our senior partners, someone who had practiced with the firm for 40 years. The party was everything it should have been for someone who had given so much to our firm, our lawyers, and our clients—lawyers across all levels of seniority showed up to hear colleagues, former colleagues, and clients talk about this lawyer’s career, how he had made our associates better lawyers, how he had guided clients, and how he still managed to value family above all. Then the man-of-honor got up to speak. I later wished I had thought to record his comments because he expressed exactly how to make the legal profession satisfying and sustaining across a full career. What he said was this:  Do good work for good clients with good people. This message sounds simple. It sounds easy. It is, in fact, a challenge to live these words. The profession can be hard, and combative, and trying. It is in those moments that focusing on doing good work with good people is essential.

I remember the only time I ever considered leaving the firm, when I was a mid-level associate. I was working on several cases that were in the middle of discovery, and we were having discovery fights in all of them. I came into work each morning to a new nasty letter from opposing counsel. I would give draft letters with measured responses to the partners I was working with, and some would insist that I ratchet up the rhetoric, which did nothing other than guarantee I would receive an even more sharply worded response. I finally asked one of our then-junior partners for his advice. He said that when he gets an ugly communication from opposing counsel, he aims to kill them with kindness in return. He also gave me permission to do the same, and said that I could steer any of the partners instructing me to do otherwise to him. This was huge for me. It helped me de-escalate the discovery fights that were going on, so that we could actually focus on the issues that mattered. It brought my stress levels back to normal. And it steered me toward a way of practicing law that I could sustain.-

Gina Katel: Embrace your opportunities.
Although it was not obvious when I was a law student, I now appreciate that law degrees are powerful, flexible career accelerators. Some choices were obvious from the start: private practitioner, in-house counsel, prosecutor, public defender, judge. Today I realize that people who can think logically, write well, and advocate effectively are well-positioned for a much broader array of jobs. As the profession changes, lawyers have new opportunities in legal operations, alternative staffing, privacy, data analytics, technology, and consulting. More broadly, lawyers can make outstanding leaders in business, nonprofits, education, and government. I am grateful our firm has let me try new things–whether overseeing recruiting, leading the health care practice, or helping to lead the firm. Tackling new challenges has kept me engaged and helped me recognize that one way to sustain yourself in our profession is to think broadly and try different things throughout your career.

Maureen Maly: Your career is a long game – pace yourself and enjoy the journey.
I’ve been practicing law now for almost 27 years. I’m certain I wouldn’t still be practicing if I hadn’t found a balance, between work and life – between being a lawyer, and being Mom to my two kids. A law career – especially one at a large, Amlaw 100 law firm—is certainly demanding, but it was important to me to find a way to have both a rewarding legal career and an equally rewarding home life. When my children were born, I was fortunate to work at firms that allowed me to take several months of parental leave, and FaegreBD also allowed me to work four days a week for nine years after my second child was born. At the time, I worried how the leaves and the part-time schedule would affect my ability to do my work, as well as my advancement at the firm. The answer is it allowed me to continue working with minimal guilt and had no measurable impact on my advancement to partnership and leadership at FaegreBD. My kids are now 18 and 22 and, with the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t change a thing. The leaves and the reduced time schedule allowed me to be a better lawyer and a better mom because I had a balance of time for both. As for perception at my firm, most people don’t even remember that I ever worked part-time (for 9 years)! One additional benefit I had not anticipated was that having less time at the office encouraged me to build a strong team of colleagues that backs each other up whenever one team member has a conflict with life events.

Lastly, keep your balance. Throughout my career, I’ve also tried to maintain a balance of personal interests – volunteering, running, participating in a book club, and playing flute in a local concert band. When work is busy, I don’t run as much, don’t always read the book club books, and don’t practice my flute as much as I should. However, maintaining these passions as much as I can helps me to be a more interesting person, to challenge my body and brain in different ways, and to give back to the community. By doing so, I come back to the practice of law each day with fun things to talk about with my clients and colleagues and a refreshed, de-stressed outlook.

None of us can predict how long our journey will be or exactly where it will take us—but finding a balance can help us enjoy each moment along the way. 


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