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Melissa A. Bailey is a member in Ogletree Deakins Nash Smoak & Stewart PC's Washington, D.C., office. She serves on the firm's board of directors and practices in the workplace safety practice group. Prior to her election to the board, she served as the managing shareholder of the firm’s Washington, D.C., office. Her practice includes litigating contested Occupational Safety and Health Administration citations in a range of industries, as well as providing compliance advice and performing privileged and confidential investigations and audits. Bailey also regularly represents clients before OSHA in connection with rulemaking and policy formation. She is also a member of Ogletree Government Affairs. She began her career on Capitol Hill as the labor and employment counsel to the Senate Committee on Small Business. OGA represents employers before Congress and regulatory agencies, and analyzes the potential impact of legislative and regulatory initiatives.
Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys’ network? A: The short answer is simple, and there isn’t much magic to it: hard work. Another key is helping people. You learn so much about a firm by mentoring and helping people advance up the ladder, and that experience gives you the background you need to evaluate firmwide initiatives and issues, including how to retain and motivate good attorneys. Successful firms like Ogletree Deakins actively seek out leaders with different experiences and perspectives because those qualities yield the best decisions on the direction of the firm as a whole. In my opinion, the keys to breaking into the proverbial old boys’ network are being constructive and willing to ask questions about the direction the firm is taking. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind — the firm wouldn’t put you in a leadership position if your opinion wasn’t valued. Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm? A: At Ogletree Deakins, I do not think there are challenges related solely to being female. The leadership challenges are similar for everyone — finding the time to serve on the board while continuing to provide top-notch client service. Those challenges may be magnified for working parents. The unfortunate reality is that society often holds mothers to a higher standard when it comes to parenting, so it is important that women realize that they will likely never be perfect. It took some time for me to get over the fact that I couldn’t find the time to go on the client development trip and bake 200 cupcakes for the PTA fundraiser, but you learn how to prioritize: Is the trip a good use of your time given the potential payoff? Could you just buy 200 doughnuts instead of baking? (Trust me because I speak from experience — you can, and they will sell!). Finally, having work best friends (or “WBFs” as I call them) is critical. I typically don’t make a major career decision without consulting my WBFs because they help me weigh the pros and cons and provide me with important perspectives. (They know who they are, and I thank them!). Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it. A: I can’t think of too many, but here are two: (1) A senior shareholder graciously offered to go with me to pitch an existing client for more work. The client’s general counsel is an older gentleman, and shortly after the meeting started, the general counsel suggested that I go meet with my contacts in the corporate safety department so that he and the senior shareholder could “really talk.” How did I deal with it? I let it happen. You are never going to change someone like that in the course of a single meeting, and I knew it was the best chance for us to get the work (and we did). (2) When I was a senior associate at a different firm, a partner did not send me to investigate a workplace accident because he said the predominantly male workforce would not feel comfortable talking to me. Although it bothered me, I didn’t do anything about it. In hindsight, I wish I had, but I didn’t feel like I had anyone to go to, and was wary about rocking the boat. I would like to think that if something like that happened at Ogletree Deakins (and I don’t think it would), that female associate or shareholder would feel free to reach out to me or someone else for advice on how to handle it. I still have some clients who call me “gal,” and I did overhear a union official refer to me as “that blonde girl” just a few months ago, but issues like that don’t really bother me too much. A few years back, opposing counsel called me “young lady” in a condescending way during a deposition. After I got over my initial shock, I kind of enjoyed the whole thing because it allowed me to chastise him a bit on the record. I don’t think he raised a single objection during the rest of the deposition! Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney? A: Take risks! The hardest thing for me to learn was how to ask potential clients to give me their work. That reluctance is long gone. Get to know the client and what they want and need, understand the resources your firm has, put your best foot forward in terms of what you and the firm can offer that client, and then just ask. The worst they can say is “no.” I have absolutely had that happen, and I learned something from it every time. The same advice applies to other attorneys within the firm — understand who their clients are and what they need, and then pitch yourself to do that work. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from others. Reach out to a mentor — female or otherwise — and strategize with that person on how to make an effective internal or external pitch for work. One of our mantras at Ogletree Deakins is: “Treat other firm attorneys like your most valued client.” In other words, when you get a call from an attorney in another office or different department, be responsive and efficient, and give them the best possible client service. That advice works at any firm, and junior attorneys rising through the ranks should take it to heart — becoming the “go-to” attorney in a particular area or for a firm rainmaker can be an important career step. Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks? A: You have to provide the tools for women — and all attorneys — to succeed. I started at Ogletree Deakins as a part-time of counsel in 2007. The fact that I was able to work my way up from that position speaks volumes about the firm’s values and the recognition that retaining female attorneys by providing the right tools is often a “win-win” situation. Professional development and marketing opportunities are also critical. Marketing dollars are always limited, but successful firms are capable of recognizing a good idea and working to make it happen. One of the best ways to advance women to the partnership ranks is to make sure their voices are heard with regard to marketing initiatives. Along those same lines, marketing mentors are important because marketing is a skill not taught in law school, and female attorneys need to learn it to advance to partnership. Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why. A: Tough question because there are many. The Office of the Solicitor (which litigates on behalf of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has some excellent attorneys — Ann Rosenthal, Diane Sherman, Myrna Butkowitz, Madeleine Le — who know their stuff, are tough when they have to be, and advocate well for their client. Also (and he may be surprised to read this because we don’t talk that often these days), Jim Lastowka at McDermott Will & Emery comes to mind. He was one of my first bosses, and taught me so much in terms of client service, dealing with government investigators, litigating effectively, and having fun while doing it. He gave me tremendous opportunities and I will always be grateful to him. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
This article has been republished in full and is courtesy of Law360.
Join Melisa for a complimentary webinar about Preventing & Addressing Violence in the Workplace, scheduled Thursday, November 13 at 2 p.m. This webinar is sponsored by LexisNexis and is a CLE-accredited webinar, with 1.5 CLE credits are available.
Date: Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014
Time: 2 P.M. ET (11 A.M. PT) Register now >>