“You’re a woman, so be a woman. Be a breath of fresh air. Do not dress like a man. Be who you are.” I’ll never forget these words of advice from my father many years ago at the start of my career. I had just finished a summer clerkship, where I had been assigned to the firm’s first woman partner as my “partner mentor” (they called them “big brother or big sister”). During my evaluation at the end of the summer, my superior complimented me on my potential but also warned me to put up my hair, dress more plainly and stop looking so young if I wanted to make something of myself in the legal world. My always-supportive father—the hiring partner in his own very successful law firm—comforted me with his wisdom.
His words were particularly meaningful because I grew up in an era when career options for women were severely limited. More often than not, women became stewardesses, teachers, travel agents or nurses. Yet in my father’s law firm, I saw two strong women partners in powerful positions. At home, the consistent message from my parents was that I could do anything I put my mind to.
That support, along with the lessons I learned from my father and my grandfather—who built his own law firm (where my Dad was a partner) and instilled in his family the imperative to always do the right thing—have carried me through a multitude of challenges, opportunities and successes in my own career in law.
After a year as a law clerk for a federal judge and a year as an associate in a large law firm, I joined a boutique firm that specialized in family law. I began building my clientele, and within a few years, I was bringing in new cases on a fairly regular basis. Although most of the matters were smaller than those generally handled by the firm, all my clients paid their bills – their entire bill.
Four years after I became an associate at the boutique firm, my son was born. For a variety of reasons, including wanting to have more control over my life and more time with my son, I joined a sole practitioner – an older gentleman. Our deal was that I would work fewer hours, I would develop my practice and bring in new business and I would be a name partner in a year. After a few months, it became clear that my new firm was not working out as I planned. I brought in 11 new matters in the first two to three months and realized I had the ability to develop my own practice. I received offers from other firms, both large and small, yet none of them felt right for me. In an attempt to get some clarity about what I should do, I solicited guidance from people I respected and trusted. I was surprised by their resounding feedback: Start your own firm.
Any of you who have stepped from the solid ground of working in an established firm into the quicksand of a solo startup knows how I felt about that prospect: excited and terrified, energized and overwhelmed. After much consideration, I took that step and started my own boutique family law firm. I never did have more time with my son (and ultimately with my daughter as well) but I did have more control over my life. For example, I did not have a “boss” that needed to give me permission to go to my kids’ music classes in the middle of the day or volunteer in their classrooms. The “bosses” I had were my clients and the demands of fast paced litigation, especially in custody cases.
My attempts to balance the demands of my practice and my family can best be described by my showing up in court one day with orange watercolor paint on my hands. Court was in the afternoon and that morning I volunteered in my daughter’s classroom painting Thanksgiving turkeys on white paper plates. Can you imagine telling John Claude Van Damme (the opposing party) not to say one word about my “orangey” hands at any time during our hearing? I think my tone of voice made him realize that I meant business!
I have realized that the secret to feeling confident in my decision to step out on my own lay in determining what values resonated with me—not just as a lawyer, but as a person. That brought me back to the defining principle passed on to me from my father and, ultimately, my grandfather: Do the right thing.
For me, that “right thing” has taken a variety of forms. For instance, I love strategically connecting people in a way that is beneficial and synergistic for both of them. As a result, many years ago I started hosting annual end of the year holiday parties for women. Although the first year the party was a lunch for 20 women, that event morphed into a full-blown dinner with a couple of hundred bright and interesting women.
My commitment to do the right thing has also led me to take an active role in paving the way for the younger generation of female lawyers to be as successful as they can and want to be. My approach is this: If you want to be in the back room and that’s where you’re comfortable, then work to become the best you can be in that role. If you want to develop business, I can help you with a variety of approaches. If you want to write or speak, I’m there to provide resources, input, guidance and support.
I am motivated to mentor and encourage young female lawyers, in part, because I never truly had a mentor. I had a few very talented, strong and successful female attorneys, not in my family law specialty, who gave me advice, whether I asked for it or not and who opened doors for me, referred terrific clients to me and provided me with great opportunities to make a difference in our community. But make no mistake about it, it has been very difficult and demanding coming up the ranks, and being a woman has made it more difficult.
I also believe in supporting and guiding young attorneys, most of whom are women as
I believe that it is much harder to practice law these days than it was when I started. I say that for various reasons, but mostly because of that ubiquitous aspect of modern life: the Internet. You are just expected to know more, to perform at a higher level, because you supposedly have all this data and information at your fingertips.
Furthermore, the internet provides us with the bane of my existence, the email, that form of communication that keeps coming 24/7. Thus, in a world where communication is omnipresent and instantaneous, it is almost impossible to find the time to step back and thoroughly prepare your response. People want answers now, not in an hour or two. That flies in the face of two of the most important things that lawyers do; we think and we collaborate. We need time to connect the dots, and to add strength and value to our responses through the input of our partners and support team. The conflict between the expectation of receiving an instantaneous response to an email versus a response that is thoughtful and measured plagues me on a regular basis. And how can you counsel your clients, draft and revise correspondence, pleadings, documents, etc., meet with clients, experts, opposing counsel, participate in depositions, court hearings, trials, settlement conferences and mediations and prepare for all of them AND answer the 300-400 emails that come in each day? You can’t.
My message to the young female lawyers I meet is that the world in which you practice moves at a breakneck speed; the hours are very demanding, but if you truly want to succeed, you cannot give up; you must keep pushing through if you want to “have it all,” you just have to find a way to put in the time it takes to become really good at your craft—and it does take time.
You cannot expect to grow and develop and rise through the ranks just by skating through. The reality is that you have to give up something. For some, that may mean losing that precious “me time” after the kids have gone to bed. Ultimately, you are looking for a balance between your work life and your personal life. For me, balance does not mean putting all your activities on a scale and giving them equal time. It means that whatever you are doing at a given moment, you are focused on 100 percent; you are not thinking about all the other things you should be doing.
I am so fortunate to have the legacy of my father and my grandfather, who taught me to aspire to become whatever I wanted to be while keeping a firm footing in reality by always doing the right thing. Those are two very important lessons that are timeless, no matter how much the world in which we live and work changes.
Stacy D. Phillips is the founder and managing principal of Phillips Lerner, A Law Corporation. She is a Certified Family Law Specialist representing business executives, entrepreneurs, homemakers, sports, entertainment and political figures as well as high-net worth individuals.