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WER June 2020 Feature 7
Volume LXX, Issue IV

Published June 11, 2020

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Leadership During Times of Change: An Interview Series

By: Breia Schleuss

Breia Schleuss currently serves as MWL President-Elect. Breia is a partner at Faegre Drinker LLP, where she is a member of the Finance & Restructuring Practice Group and a co-chair of the firm’s Food & Agribusiness Industry team. Breia has been recognized as a Top Woman in Finance by Finance & Commerce, a Rising Star in banking by Super Lawyers, and a 2019 Emerging Leader by M&A Advisors. Among other board service, Breia serves on the Business Finance Advisory Committee of WomenVenture, the Board of Directors for the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations, and the Cowles Council for the Cowles Center for the Performing Arts.

 
 Breia Schleuss

As I prepare for my presidential term, I recognize that this is and will be a very changed time for our members, families, practices, courts and communities, as well as for MWL as an organization.  But I have never felt more confident about MWL and the work that we do. For almost fifty years, we have advocated for change – specifically, for increased diversity, equity and inclusion within the profession and across society. We have sought change, embraced change, and continued to equip our members and partners with support, training and resources as we – individually and collectively, daily and over the course of decades – manage through change.

The four women lawyers interviewed here have inspired me for many years. They have remained authentic and brave as they, in their own ways, have experienced and advocated for change. In the coming months, I will interview other women lawyers and leaders in our community.  I hope that, by sharing their perspectives – as well as those throughout this edition of With Equal Right – we will continue to exchange ideas, inspire others, and broaden our community of support during these changed times.

How is your career different today? Looking back, are there any seminal moments in your careers? What allowed you manage through any moments of transition?

Theresa Dykoschak (Pro Bono Counsel, The Advocates for Human Rights): For me, seminal moments include any time you that start a new part of your career, because we don’t have just one career, we have multiple careers during our professional journeys. I think of the huge learning curve that exists any time you’re entering into any new area of law or practice. And so the excitement that you face when you’re starting off – in bankruptcy litigation, or when you’re starting off as an international human rights attorney, or when you’re working on your company’s new sustainability initiative – there’s just a huge learning curve at any time. That’s really exciting. I take a lot of energy out of those changes.

Jennifer Miernicki (Partner, Faegre Drinker): One of the most memorable moments, of course, is making partner. That feeling of being invited to join the next level of our profession, and being invited by so many people that we respected to join the ranks of partners. It’s not as if you learned something at that particular moment, but it’s a recognition of the progress we made.

Angie Snavely (Director, Corporate Counsel and Assistant Secretary, The Toro Company): There are a couple of moments that really stand out. In the six years I’ve been at Toro, we’ve completed the largest acquisitions in Toro’s history and I’ve been part of the team that has closed over a billion dollars of acquisitions for Toro. Through that, I’ve gotten to grow as a leader and work in the trenches with a really talented group of people that I admire and respect and have a lot of fun with – and they’re not all lawyers! Another stand out moment for me is having the opportunity to influence and lead Toro in starting a more intentional and focused sustainability initiative, and I’m very proud of the work this team has accomplished and excited about the future of this initiative for Toro. It’s another way of using your law degree…. Maybe this also ties into being a woman lawyer, and having empathy and the emotional leadership skills that facilitates the ability to influence across enterprise functions, because it requires working at all levels of an organization and not just within legal. I like working with colleagues from different paths to accomplish an objective, and it’s really been professionally satisfying to serve in these roles. As a woman, a lot of my passion and excitement comes across – which I think helps me to motivate and influence.

Mariam Mokri (Judge, Minnesota Department of Human Services, prior public defender for Hennepin County): I remember when I first started out as a lawyer, I was terrified of saying anything in court. I remember my first trial. I remember standing there getting sworn in, and the woman who was supposed to be training me poked her head into the court room, waved at me, gave me a thumbs up sign, and then left. I thought, I have no idea what I’m doing! I fumbled through it, but I was successful and they acquitted my client. I remember feeling so terrified every time I would get to trial, but then I would gain a little more confidence with each trial and each win. Then I remember my first loss. I still believe the guy didn’t do it. How do you feel confident when you believe you lost a case for an innocent person? I remember sobbing in the stairwell for an hour before I could leave. But you have to fail and succeed to see who you are in this medium. There’s no pattern any woman can take. Unfortunately, most of us are still the “first ones” in a lot of ways; we’re often still the only women in the room or the only women speaking in front of the judge. It’s changing, but we’re still the vestige of women who are the “firsts” in a lot of ways.

How has your confidence changed over the years?

Snavely: Embrace your intelligence and your brilliance. That’s the confidence piece. I didn’t have the ability to do that when I was a junior lawyer, because I didn’t believe it myself. Now I know, my judgment is often pretty right on, and I’ve learned that over time and how to utilize this.

Mokri: They tell you to fake it until you make it, but it’s not easy.

Snavely: In M&A, I’m often still the only woman in certain aspects of the deal. Sometimes I thought I wasn’t as good as the other deal team members because I was different and I acted differently. I’ve developed the confidence that, just because your approach or thought process might be different, doesn’t mean you’re any lesser of a lawyer. It just means you have different skills that you bring to the table and, in particular, those skills are really beneficial when you dive into leadership within an organization. I’m a way different lawyer now than when we were first starting out. You just feel more comfortable that you’re making the right calls and that your judgment is sound; from that, confidence is just the result. It’s developed over time. If you’re a good lawyer, you know it – embrace it, and just go for it!

Mokri: That doesn’t stop. As a judge, I had a case where I ruled on the record for this particular legal issue, and the lawyer kept saying, “Well, respectfully your honor…” You know what that means. I responded: “I decided. That’s my decision, I decided.” You have to be confident enough to put a period at the end of the sentence.

Are there resources, allies, sponsors or relationships that help get you through more challenging times or continue to support you in the various stages of your career?

Snavely: Other than wine?

Miernicki: Being able to communicate with your friends and support network. I think it’s really easy to forget how much a laugh with someone can diffuse anxiety. Or just a brief expression of frustration can be an outlet; it’s like shaking it off. Then you take your breath and you move on.

Mokri: For women in this business, I think having other women to talk to who are understanding of how it’s going can be so helpful.

Dykoschak: One of the things that has been really important to me that I am desperately missing right now are my regular workouts with my friend (and fellow woman lawyer). It’s good for physical health, good for mental health, good to catch up with someone and have a designated time to be focused on something else… You can’t be on your phone checking emails while you’re in the middle of a run. Just to talk one-on-one with someone and have that additional support and guidance, I’ve been really missing that. We all have our different outlets, and it’s important to have those reminders that work is not everything. You also need to take care of yourself.

Miernicki: Related to that, one thing that I think about a lot is the vision that I have about what my future might look like. Some days I wake up and it’s hard to believe that I’m a partner at an AmLaw50 firm practicing in a very specialized area and regularly closing billion dollar deals. But, I think about what really drives me and what is important to me: the freedom that I want to have to do different things in my life. That’s a really helpful grounding perspective. What I like to think about are all of the things that I want to do outside of the office, like travel, see the world, what I plan to do in retirement, what my post-legal career will look like. Sure I’m in the middle of doing this now, but this isn’t forever. And I like to have those dreams that keep me going.

For each of you, do you view yourself as a leader?

Dykoschak: When I think about my current role, I’m representing the organization and I’m also working to advance the mission of the organization through both internal and external relationships. I’m a leader in that capacity, but I have to ignore my immediate thought that a leader is someone to whom people report. It isn’t necessarily a superior/subordinate situation; it’s actually accepting a different understanding and recognition that leadership is not just that.

Snavely: It’s more of being able to motivate people to be their best, and to use their time and talents to help drive their ambition and passion as well as your organization. Having direct reports just means that you’re a manager or a boss. I think a lot of managers are not meant for “leadership.” A leader is someone I would follow because they are authentic in what they care about and what’s important. I think people can really latch on to that and be motivated and inspired by that. When you think about leadership versus management, for me, that’s a key distinction.

Miernicki: The dichotomy that [Snavely] points out between leadership and management: that tension is there every day.

Snavely: You don’t need to be at the top of an organization to be a “leader.” You don’t need to worry about not having authority; leadership is learning to influence without authority.

Dykoschak: Right now I might feel like I’m putting out a bunch of fires, solving a bunch of problems. But I’m grounded by my overarching goal to find people who are going to be engaged in human rights, and that we’re going to be able to get people access to justice. That people are going to get good representation and have an opportunity to be heard, whether it’s in an immigration court here in the United States or whether it’s advocating for change at the United Nations.

Mokri: Every day I go to work, I think to myself: listen to what people have to say and make a thoughtful decision. That’s what I think every day. I should never think to myself, oh I’m busy, I need to cut this off. Always listen to what people have to say. I think that leadership is persuasively good judgment. That’s how I think of leadership. You present good judgment in such a way that it’s persuasive to others and you are someone to follow. It’s very easy to de-humanize aspects of what we do, and we have to remember that every aspect of what we do is a person somewhere. You have to remember that it’s not just a name, someone vs. someone. That someone is a somebody.

Are these skills that can be learned or obtained?

Dykoschak: These are definitely skills that can be developed.

Snavely: A lot can be learned by watching good leaders. Some of it is natural, but a lot of it can be observed – and you need to be willing to work at it. I can think, wow, I really handled that wrong and here’s what I can do to be better.

Dykoschak: To become a good leader, you have to be able to reflect and listen… And not just being a good listener, but having the capacity to make someone feel that they’ve been heard, recognized, acknowledged and valued.

What would you would like to see from leaders in our profession right now? Do you have any predictions or hopes as to how things might change in light of the pandemic?

Miernicki: What I want to see now is what I’ve wanted to see for a long time, which seems to be challenging in this service profession: some recognition that we’re better lawyers for having rich, fulfilling, non-legal lives. That validation that [Dykoschak] talks about is also a big part of it… If you are talking to your manager or your organizational leader about an issue every year at review time or every time this certain topic comes up and no change occurs, you will end up frustrated and feel like you’re stalling out or you aren’t getting the traction you need to develop personally or professionally. Until we figure out a better way, I think we’re going to continue to have a lot of anxiety and depression across the industry. I think we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. And that includes, when it’s time for you to turn off, we should empower you to do that as you’ll only be better for it.

Dykoschak: With all of us working from home, it’s eye opening for so many of us that we can still get a ton of stuff done and have more flexibility.

Snavely : I have not felt more professional satisfaction with my work and family integration in my entire career than what I’m feeling right now. In this work from home environment, I have the flexibility to sit with my pre-school daughter during Zoom meetings with her class to see if the butterflies are (finally!) ready to come out of the cocoon while also engaging professionally and contributing in my career – and my kids get to watch me do this. Of course, the pandemic is horrible and I’m sad that this is what forced the work from home issue, but this type of being present both personally and professionally was not something that was easy to accomplish before, and I hope this type of integration continues for those who want it.

Mokri: As a judge, there are still some things we have to get a waiver for, like our in-person hearings. That’s all suspended right now. I think, longer term, certain hearings will be permitted to be held by video. But I worry that that might happen in the criminal justice system, which I don’t think is a good idea. Every person should be treated with humanity when it comes to his or her liberty. They should be able to appear and everyone should have to see this person and see their humanity in person and then decide what should happen to them. I don’t know how you do that in our current environment.

Lastly, what are one or two concrete things that someone can do to support others in the legal community?

Snavely: Invite them to the table! Provide access and be inclusive. Recognize when someone did a phenomenal job and give them visibility.

Miernicki: Promote others. Leverage your position to get to people who have the power to make change. Don’t shy away from calling out things that are unacceptable. We’re quick to give of ourselves and our time, but we aren’t always quick to ask for what might be more automatically given to others. And, frankly, we’re often shy to share information that will empower us to position ourselves in a better way.

Dykoschak: Be an advocate.

MWL can be a source of support and leadership during these changed times. We can be there for one another, support one another, connect to each other, and advocate for one another.  To join MWL or to find out more, visit https://mwlawyers.org/. 

 


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