Why did you initially choose to study law?
Deborah Stanley: I chose law because I believed it was a rich area of study that shaped much of the issues of the times, and women were just breaking into the field in small but growing numbers.
Robin Smith: I was planning to be an actress, so I double-majored in Theatre and Psychology at Wesleyan University, but I spent time working for my mother’s management consulting firm in between undergrad and law school.
During that year, I was going on auditions (including Yale Drama School), performing, and doing commercials. A friend who had just started at American Law School told me about intellectual property (IP) law, and how she thought I would like that because of my connection to the arts.
Taking the LSAT was not fun, but I got into five law schools. I chose Syracuse because well-known IP expert Professor Laura Lape and because one of my close friends from undergrad had decided to go to the Maxwell School at the same time.
Jessica Robertson: This career path chose me. My family has operated a successful real estate auction company for more than 40 years. I noticed that my father turned away spectacular listings on a regular basis because the seller or the property fell outside of the stringent criteria for his program.
Allison Williams: I wish I could say it was for more altruistic reasons, but I chose to study law because I wanted money and power! I grew up feeling voiceless, and I wanted to have a voice and to wrap myself in the prestige of a law degree.
Kimberly Lau: I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from age 12! I liked to argue! I went on to join my high school debate team and eventually became captain. I found I had particular strengths in writing and oral advocacy.
How has your legal training at Syracuse benefitted your career?
DS: My legal training has been an enormous benefit to me in the highly regulated, greatly nuanced, culturally and politically sensitive, and rapidly adjusting environment of public higher education. It also reinforces a fair-minded approach to deliberations. The way I define, analyze, and consider issues are clear markers of legal training.
RS: I received excellent training at Syracuse in all the basics that then helped me get a position as an Associate at Day, Berry & Howard in Hartford, CT (now Day, Pitney LLP). That was where I learned more about companies, our clients, and their legal needs, which allowed me to transition into an in-house position effectively.
JR: Oceanfront International Group is pioneering a strong presence for Douglas Elliman Real Estate in the Caribbean and Central America. Consequently, we often create partnerships with local brokerages to ensure complete compliance with local laws and the partnership agreements that outline the terms of our co-listing and co-marketing arrangements. Having a law degree has been a valuable asset to this area of our business.
AW: Syracuse was a wonderful experience. We were taught to challenge every assertion—what we believe we know and even what we think we know—dissecting arguments and challenging premises. Now, that is something I do intuitively. Syracuse was great for that. What I learned made me a better lawyer, a better business woman, and frankly a better person.
KL: Syracuse provided invaluable work experience opportunities. While I was a law student, I did a year-long internship at a US Attorney's office, where I learned practical skills, discovered what kind of lawyer I wanted to be, and found influential role models. Having that challenge helped me to hone my skills. I also noticed how much Syracuse law alums give back to the College of Law, which left a lasting impression on me. Today, I host externs at my office, I’ve been back to speak to the incoming 1L class, and I am on the SULAA Board.
What transition in your career have you found most pivotal and how did you navigate that transition?
DS: After I served a decade in the professoriate here at SUNY Oswego, the new president sought me out to serve as Executive Assistant to the President. He also offered to serve as my mentor in learning the responsibilities of the position. So my first experience as an administrator was at the highest level of the organization working for and with a person who took an interest in helping me grow my capacities and understandings around leading a public higher education institution.
RS: I was doing mostly IP work my first eight years at LEGO Group, as well as helping out with other general matters in a small legal office. When our General Counsel for the Americas retired, he recommended me as his replacement. I was extremely honored, but it was hard for me to transition out of IP work, which I loved. I consulted with friends who had taken on GC roles, to know their struggles and successes. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
JR: By earning my real estate license, I ensured that I was able to offer clients another option for selling luxury properties. Now that I have teamed with some of the most experienced brokers and developers in South Florida, we can offer our clients a full range of unique competencies.
AW: The most pivotal moment of my career was when I was fired from my dream job during the recession in 2009. Even though I had a substantial book of business and made my law firm profitable, I was fired because I was a poor subordinate. I'm a natural leader, and I stepped on a more profitable ego. That experience taught me that no one is irreplaceable; the only true security is in the self. So, I decided then that no matter what, I would turn myself into an uber success, create my own livelihood, and eventually start my own business.
KL: I was a senior associate at my last law firm, developing a niche Title IX practice. The practice was growing rapidly, and even though I built the practice, the older, male partner was receiving all the credit. So I sought advice from older female practitioners, who told me to take a chance on myself. I ended up taking the leap and was hired as a contract partner at Warshaw Burstein LLP where my practice has grown exponentially. Taking a chance on myself paid off as I'm now the first female and first minority equity partner at Warshaw Burstein LLP.
How has your field and its business culture, in particular for women, has evolved since you first stepped into it?
DS: Older white males overwhelmingly populated college presidencies when I first became president more than 20 years ago. Now there are many programs offered through the largest and most impactful national higher education associations to nurture leaders from the ranks of women and underrepresented minorities. I participate in mentoring individuals who are preparing for senior leadership positions around the country and support many leadership development programs for rising leaders within SUNY Oswego. We also include presidential faculty fellows in our leadership team.
The current environment for higher education, especially public higher education, is more highly regulated, underfunded, and stressed with issues of diversity and inclusion. Yet it is also rising to the challenges of guaranteeing access for new—often first generation—populations, folding in rapidly developing technology, and growing curriculum in artificial intelligence and virtual reality.
RS: It is so great to see so many women in senior legal positions in law firms and in corporations now, compared to when I first started practicing law. But there could still be more, given the number of women who graduate from law school.
JR: Real estate lends itself to leadership roles for both men and women. By just Googling the top sales agents and highest sales in California, New York, and Florida, you'll see that gender is as relevant as shoe color. What matters in this business is motivation, dedication, maintaining connections, experience, and the ability to communicate effectively with clients. These skills are bountiful in today's female agents and brokers. I am inspired by these colleagues on a daily basis.
AW: I would say that the business of law has evolved since I first stepped into it. Family law has always attracted women attorneys, but now women attorneys are freely creating their own hours, finding time to do other things, and being fulfilled. It used to be that lawyers who flexed or did part-time hours might be considered mediocre with fewer resources, but new technology is facilitating lawyering and you don't have to do it 90 hours per week. Now there are fewer women dropping out.
KL: The field of law has been evolving since I started practicing. I see more young female attorneys in the courtroom now and more making oral arguments at the federal appellate level. I also see more women going out on their own and setting up their own practices. And I guess the fact that I'm the first female equity partner at my firm is a signal of that change.
Is there a "female leadership" style? If so, how would you characterize it?
DS: I believe that leaders bring to the table all the experiences of their lives often in different balances. Women, LGBTQ+ members, and underrepresented minorities experience life differently than majority males in many respects. Therefore, it makes sense that their leadership might look and feel different.
RS: Yes. I believe it is based on emotional intelligence and intuition. While that might sound cliché, since there are some male leaders who also have these skills, over the years, I have noticed the difference. I feel more time is spent by female leaders getting to know team members and their needs, before pushing an agenda, and also knowing when something is not working, even if it means having a difficult conversation with someone about their “soft skills.”
I remember hearing it said that collaboration is not just being in a room with other people and getting things done but having the mindset to “know” the room, to remove obstacles, get to true understanding, and to work toward a common goal. I think many female leaders excel at this. I know I strive to do so.
JR: My partners often ask me to be the direct communicator with our clients because I am sensitive to their feelings and needs in a way that only a mother could be. This is not a skill, but rather a genuine sense of compassion. When we stage properties, I know what women want to see. When we schedule open houses, I can offer practical organizational strategies to sellers with families. When we sell a property, I feel our sellers' pride and excitement for the future in that way that, well, only a woman and mother can.
AW: I would say there are masculine and feminine leadership archetypes. On the good side, women are more likely to collaborate and bring people into decision-making. But, women also are more likely to question themselves, seek validation, and try not to ruffle any feathers. A business owner has to act for the good of the company, despite not pleasing others. Many women struggle with that.
KL: I believe female leadership style includes being team-oriented, showing compassion, and giving credit where it's due. For example, I demand the best from the people in my department, and there's very little room for error because I know that as a female partner, I am scrutinized more closely than my male counterparts. At the same time, I show compassion, admit mistakes, and realize that my staff members are people, sometimes with sick children to take care of, among other things. I don't think I'd be the same kind of leader if I was a male attorney in a male-dominated field.
What challenges remain for women in business and top leadership positions today?
DS: It is important that women have a critical mass of other women and genuine allies in their work environment so that there is already a point of reference when “women’s issues” are discussed and policy in the workplace is being determined. That tends to somewhat level the field for understanding and progress. Having more women in leadership also changes social norms around who has leadership qualities.
RS: If I were to focus on one, it would be the way that some women perceive themselves, based on the messages that are sent to younger generations. There are so many seminars out there that tell women they do not know how to speak up in meetings, or be assertive, or that they will never achieve anything without a mentor.
I believe this talk creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, we should put successful women on the stage who can talk about how they achieved what they achieved and the myriad different ways they achieved it.
Everyone is different, on different paths, with different abilities. I have always been able to speak up, but at certain times, I felt I was being told not to. That is another matter entirely. A Strengths Finder course, on the other hand, focuses on strengths, not on what people think you lack. You will be able to find your own path to success. Don’t give up.
JR: The success story of Dottie Herman, President and CEO of Douglas Elliman, proves that women have no ceiling in real estate. Forbes called her "the richest self-made woman in real estate." Working as an independent contractor for a company that already celebrates and rewards women with the highest level of leadership roles gives me great confidence that the sky is everyone's limit.
AW: A critical problem that women face in business is owning the fact that we want to make money. Women may not feel entitled to ask for more financially, and they may continue to do something they don't want to do and not pursue areas that will make them successful to avoid saying they want to make money.
KL: As advanced as the legal field has become, gender stereotypes still prevail. I think it's difficult for women in leadership positions to assert themselves without being perceived as "nagging" or dismissed as being "angry" or a "b***h".
What guidance has been particularly helpful as you have advanced in your career?
DS: I often advise women and others to establish a long-term professional relationship with a mentor. Also build teams of diverse, bright, and dedicated people around you that are driven by mission and committed to mutuality of respect and support. For me, the journey is more rewarding and fun if I can be among people working together to accomplish a goal.
• Be yourself—this might sound cliché, but if you cannot continue to be yourself in a law firm or company, get out. You will not be happy with who you turn out to be, and you will not do your best work feeling and acting like someone you are not.
• Read anything and everything that interests you, whether legal or not—reading will help you be more well-rounded in your thinking, help improve your issue-spotting skills, and give you interesting topics of conversation to raise when trying to develop a client base.
• Use active listening—get off your phone or computer and really listen to what clients are saying/trying to tell you. Ask a lot of questions. This keeps you from drafting the answer to their question in your head, while they are still talking to you, which means you are not really listening to them. Many times, while clients talk, they will answer the question themselves. But no matter what, they will feel that you are engaged, interested, and caring. This is how you also build the trust that is essential for a successful career.
• A sense of humor and a reality-based perspective is essential—your clients will be panicked about things, but you need to be the calm, confident advisor who shows maturity, reason, and logic and who can clearly guide them through challenges that might not really be as bad as they initially seem.
• Become expert in one area of the law, but don’t shy away from other legal issues that interest you—you never know where it will lead: rewarding pro bono work, a different career path, writing a best-selling novel, opportunities to show your big-picture thinking, getting new clients, or obtain speaking opportunities.
• Build trust—read Speed of Trust, if you have not done so already. This book will be essential to success. If you do not know an answer, admit it and say that you will figure it out. Support to your colleagues, even if it means you do not get credit for the work. Try to help others succeed.
• Take breaks and have fun—if you cannot have fun at work, you are missing out on learning through play, which stimulates creativity. Even taking a walk can help you to be more creative. Try to get out of your reflexive brain that answers emails all day and devote some time to your reflective brain, which, when given some space to breathe, generates great ideas (like the ones you have in the shower or at 3 o’clock in the morning!)
• Say what you need to say, but put some feeling and emotion into it—no one likes a robot, and I have found that people want to know how their leader feels about various topics and issues, not just what the facts are. We need to connect.
JR: As I have advanced in luxury marketing and sales, I have reflected on my father's business and his commitment to transparency. He taught me early that integrity is the foundation of success, and my mother taught me that without trust, there may be a strong and beautiful bird, but it will never fly.
I apply these principles to each and every showing, CMA, and marketing campaign I manage. Even if we lose the opportunity to gain a significant listing, we know that we can sleep soundly in our track record of transparency. We are finding, after clients run their courses with unkept promises, they come back to us for our integrity and expertise.
AW: When I started my own law firm in 2013, 43 clients came with me, so I knew how to generate clients and practice law. Of course, I did not know how to manage it all while running a practice. One night, after six or so 90-hour weeks, with no staff, I fell asleep driving and nearly crashed into a guardrail. I thought to myself that I have to get a hold of this business before it kills me … literally. So I started working with business coaches, and I learned about myself too. I became a multi-million-dollar business owner in a matter of a few years because I was willing to look for help, take advice, and implement it. But I had to get a hold of myself first. Having someone to critically guide you is invaluable.
KL: I sought advice from other female attorneys when making my transition. One, for instance, had started her own practice, and she saw what was happening to me at my previous firm. So she said, take a chance on yourself—what's the worst that could happen?! You will figure it out. She gleefully stated, "I fly without a safety net every day! It's so much better than feeling trapped in a bad situation." So I took the leap and took a chance on myself.
What advice do you want to pass along to the next generation of female leaders studying at the College of Law?
DS: Prepare for the unexpected and develop resiliency. I also remind individuals to “let it steep” before taking action when a quick decision is not required.
RS: Learn all you can about artificial intelligence, big data, and emerging technologies in the legal field. Learn all the tools on your laptop, such as One Note. A lot of basic legal work will soon be done electronically, and you will need to understand technology and implement the right tools in order to help your teams. We are well beyond basic contract management programs at this point. However, despite a fairly paperless office where I work, I still carry a pad around with me. This is important when giving your clients your full attention.
JR: Be versatile. Find two or three passions from which you can draw your own powers, and look for opportunities to shine with those strengths. Because I love art and photography as well as law, I find myself in a career that ties my deepest loves together. I do these things with babies in my lap—all the better!
AW: One piece of advice comes from my own experience. Believe that negative experiences are benefitting you and happening for your own good. They are not happening "to" you. We tend to internalize negativity, saying "I'm not good enough." Or we externalize it and name and shame other people. But negative experiences are happening in order to get you to the next place on your journey. If you don't change your perspective, you might find yourself simply a cog in the machine or you might step out of the workforce altogether.
KL: Take risks and take a chance. Don't give up when a judge doubts you. After all, you know the client's case the best, so hold your head up high, demonstrate poise, and kill them with confidence in your knowledge of the law.