Advice From Women Partners on Achieving BigLaw Success
Published: Jun 10, 2019
Randi Lally and Rebecca Neuschatz Zelenka are partners at Fried Frank. In this Q&A, they share insights on their own career paths, what aspects of practice most fulfill them, how women lawyers can get a seat at the table, and more.
Can you share your career path?
Ms. Lally: I started as a summer associate at Fried Frank in 2006. By chance, my first assignment was working on a large M&A deal that lasted most of my summer. I was quickly drawn to the energy and excitement of the deal and the collaboration involved. I even spent a day in meetings with the client. It was an amazing experience and one that I share often. The two attorneys that I worked for on that deal 13 years ago became my mentors and friends and are now fellow partners.
I was never that young associate who knew they wanted to make partner. Rather, I said I would do this for so long as I was happy. I have since spent my career working incredibly hard with passionate and collaborative colleagues, supportive mentors, and exceptional clients. While not every day has been easy, making partner has been a really proud accomplishment, and my career at Fried Frank has been incredibly rewarding and fun.
Ms. Zelenka: I can’t say that my career path towards partnership has been overly intentional, but I can say that it has been rewarding both professionally and personally. When deciding where to summer, I was looking for a firm with a strong corporate practice in both New York and DC because I hadn’t decided where I wanted to live after I graduated. I ultimately chose to summer at Fried Frank, which was one of the few firms that could attest to a strong corporate practice in both cities. After a great summer experience, I was interested in starting in Fried Frank’s DC office and intended to begin my career splitting my practice between the corporate group and the IP group. During my first-year orientation, an opportunity opened up to step into an open mid-level associate position and I took it. The attorney who left the position had been working with a small group focused on private equity fund formation work (before we had formal groups), so I jumped into the deep end. We actually went to meet a potential client on my first official post-orientation day!
I was one of the first associates at Fried Frank dedicated to the Asset Management Practice, which is now one of the biggest groups in the firm. I am proud of what we have built and accomplished over the past 15 years, and it has been very exciting to be part of it.
One thing I often tell law students is not to be too focused on one particular type of legal practice or career path. Instead, it is better to look for opportunities along the way and to try to take advantage of them. If the work is challenging and you are part of a team of people that you like, you will have a fulfilling career.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known as a first-year associate in terms of career development?
Ms. Lally: Seek out relationships at your firm. It’s important for your colleagues to get to know you, your strengths and how you can contribute to client matters, projects, and firm initiatives. This is also a great way to learn about the different practices of law and gain a range of perspectives on how people practice and advise clients. Specifically, I think it's important to invest in mentor relationships, which can offer meaningful support and encouragement in your career.
Ms. Zelenka: I tend not to look back and think about “could have, should have, would have.” I truly believe that all the steps you take along your career serve to help you learn and develop. I do reflect on mistakes I made, decisions that I might make differently now, and actions that may not have been the smartest, but I also think about what I learned from each of them and how they make me a better lawyer and person today. One thing I have always done is focus on the marathon and not on the sprint, which I think has helped me get this far. Also, the best piece of advice I ever received was that sometimes you can be a great lawyer, sometimes you can be a great spouse, and sometimes you can be a great partner, but it is hard to be all three at the same time and on the same day—internalizing that lesson over time has allowed me to continue at this pace.
What aspect of your practice do you find particularly fulfilling? What motivates you? Is it the business challenges, the people you work with, the clients?
Ms. Lally: I always come back to collaboration. As an M&A lawyer, I find that happens at a lot of different levels. The M&A group at Fried Frank is excellent, and it’s a really collaborative and supportive team. M&A deals touch upon so many different practice areas, so I get to work with all the lawyers at Fried Frank, across many practices, and I am really proud of the “what can I do to help?” atmosphere at Fried Frank. And of course, working together with such incredible and creative clients is very exciting and makes this job so rewarding.
Ms. Zelenka: I particularly like the team aspect of my work. In the Asset Management Practice, we work internally as a team, as a team with our client, and our client is working to become a team with potential investors. I truly believe that in most situations, we are all working together to find an outcome where everyone involved in the transaction is satisfied with the result. I find this aspect of the work very gratifying. Also, it doesn’t hurt that we get to work on the biggest, most innovative, and most intense transactions in the world, so the speed and complexity of the work is always exciting.
Following up on fulfillment and motivation, is there any client relationship that you are particularly proud of developing? What made that relationship a success?
Ms. Lally: One of my mentors told me early on to think of client relationships like building partnerships. Get to know them, what is important to them, what their goals are (short-term and long-term), and what keeps them up at night. Give them honest and thoughtful advice and earn their trust. This has been great advice that I have followed—and I really value the client relationships that I have built.
In one particular instance, I started working with a client as we both began our careers, and we continued to work together for many years. I made partner around the same time that he was promoted to managing director (each of us at our original firms), and we then led a transaction together. That was a lot of fun!
Ms. Zelenka: I am proud of all my client relationships. In many cases, I consider clients to be friends, and we can talk about much more than work. I enjoy the client relationship aspect of my work as much as I enjoy the lawyer part, and I believe that it provides an important social outlet for a very intense and consuming job. Some of the strongest client relationships develop from the hardest and longest transactions. Although a particular deal may seem painful at the time, after going through it together with a client, you often emerge with shared “war” stories and a stronger relationship.
How can female associates develop the business development skills they need to be successful as partners?
Ms. Lally: Any advice I have here applies equally to men and women. I think some of business development success is skill, some of it luck, though more likely a combination of both. That being said, my best advice is to try to make genuine connections with people—I find that always works best.
Ms. Zelenka: If I had to give one piece of advice, it would be to try your best to be fearless. As a woman, you can’t be intimidated by the fact that there are a lot of men around you and most of your clients and colleagues will be men. You grow up hearing about the boys club, but at the end of the day, I think everyone is looking to make personal and professional connections regardless of gender. I don’t subscribe to the theory that you need to learn to play golf and poker in order to do business development: you should do what makes you happy so that you can be comfortable with yourself—that will be your best business development tool. By the way, while I ascribe to this advice, I certainly can’t say that I am always able to successfully implement it.
Law is a male-dominated industry. What did you do to break in and get a seat at the table? What are some strategies that can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organizations?
Ms. Lally: I have always focused on doing great work and being as knowledgeable as possible in my area of practice. This is key to being successful and getting a seat at the table.
Another thing to point out is presence. I have often seen that women maintain a soft voice in the room. That shouldn’t be the case. Women need to find their confidence to share their thoughts and opinions. Nobody knows everything. Be confident in communicating your expertise and what you know. But also have the confidence and awareness of what you don’t know and educate yourself on the best way to get that information. Your confidence, transparency and diligence is how you earn the trust of clients, colleagues, and peers.
Ms. Zelenka: You get a seat at the table by doing good work, speaking your mind courteously and professionally, and making strong personal connections. I think this is true regardless of gender. We spend a lot of time talking about client development, but to rise in your organization also requires significant investment in your internal relationships within your firm, as well as a lot of (non-billable) time devoted to firm matters. I have always viewed firm matters as an opportunity to work with colleagues from different practice groups and, in particular, to work with other women partners that I don’t normally see on client matters.
Randi Lally is a partner in Fried Frank’s Corporate Department. She earned her B.S. from Lehigh University and her J.D. from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She is licensed to practice in the State of New York.
Rebecca Neuschatz Zelenka is a partner in Fried Frank’s Corporate Department. She earned her B.S. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her J.D. from University of Chicago Law School. She is licensed to practice in the District of Columbia, the State of New York and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
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