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A conversation with Joanna Horsnail, co-chair of Mayer Brown’s Committee on Professional Advancement.
The Committee was formed in 2006 to support the professional development of Mayer Brown's women lawyers. This interview was conducted in 2014 when Joanna Horsnail served as chair of the Committee. On July 1, 2015 Joanna stepped down from the position to become co-chair of the firm’s Committee on Professional Advancement. Bronwyn Pollock and Lisa Ferri now serve as co-chairs of the Women in Leadership Committee.

Can you tell us about the work of the Women’s Leadership Committee?
The committee’s mission is to enhance and improve the firm’s retention and advancement of women by focusing on both professional development and business development. The firm accomplishes this through training and mentoring and by creating networking and marketing opportunities both internally and externally.

What are your goals as committee chair?
The big picture goals are pretty simple: I would like to see us increase the number of women in management and leadership roles at the firm, increase the percentage of female partners and increase the retention of female lawyers at all levels. I am also working on expanding some of our existing initiatives and creating some new ones to support female lawyers at all points in their careers. I don’t think the committee should get too mired in details; I think we need to set some measurable goals and then work with the offices and practices to develop and implement strategies and programs to reach those goals.

What are the primary challenges?
Every office is quite different, and every practice can be different in terms of what things might help women succeed. We have programs to welcome new lawyers and to provide support for lawyers who are on the path to promotion. We also have mentoring groups for women and a lot of professional development and career development coaching. So we have good programs and supports in place, but we need to be more consistent across offices, while still respecting their different cultures and needs. We also need to recognize that each lawyer is different and has different strengths and challenges, so we need to develop some strategies to assist people in their careers on an individual level.

How did you become involved with the committee?
I have spent most of my career at Mayer Brown and have thought a lot about the attrition of women in large law firms as I have watched colleagues leave. I’ve done research on this topic and spoken with a lot of women, and I think there are a number of reasons why women drop out of large law firms at a much higher rate than men. Identifying the hurdles and finding ways to work around them is critical. Almost 10 years ago, I was one of the first members of the Chicago Women’s Forum, which was a foundation for our global Women’s Leadership Committee. I have seen a lot of very positive results from our initiatives. Sometimes it is simply helpful to connect with other people who have had some of the same challenges you have had and see there are a variety of paths to success. And more formal programs and support can help as well. I have been really fortunate during my career here. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve been lucky to have some great mentors and sponsors, and a lot of help with my career and flexibility, especially with some of my work/life balance challenges.

Can you explain what you mean about your work/life balance issues?
Everyone at a large law firm struggles with work/life balance. This is not only a women’s issue or a parent’s issue. I am a single parent. I have two sons, and one is quite severely disabled. As you can imagine, I have needed to take personal time for doctor’s appointments, seeing specialists and therapists with him, as well as all of the other more routine things that come with being a parent. I had my first baby when I was up for income partner. I chose to tell my group before I left for maternity leave that I wanted to come back at 70 percent. I did make partner while I was on maternity leave. Later I made equity partner, and by then the children were in school and I had a good routine and support for my younger son, so I went up to 80 percent. Recently I decided to increase to 90 percent because I feel like I’m at another level with the kids and can give even more time to my career. I am grateful that the firm gave me flexibility when I needed it in my career, and I think it is worth supporting flexibility for women (and men) as they pursue their careers in order to retain talent. I think this is a valuable business model for the firm, and is important to clients as well.

What advice would you give to other lawyers on how to find balance between your law firm life and your home life?
I think there are always going to be times when you feel overwhelmed by having too many competing demands on a particular day, and perhaps feeling like the balance is not there. What I tell myself is that you can’t let those days get you down. You have to look at your career and personal life at the big-picture level: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Doing that helps me feel OK during the weeks when one part of my life overwhelms the other. There are ebbs and flows, and you have to prioritize differently every day depending on the demands of that day. But there will be a time when you feel the balance again and appreciate how fulfilling it all is.

What do you think it takes to be a successful lawyer?
Many things of course—but I will give you one example. Each year, the Chicago Women’s Forum holds a panel discussion and reception featuring female in-house counsel. Among the questions we ask each time is why they go back to certain lawyers over and over, and why they are loyal to certain outside counsel. We have different participants each year, but the responses we typically receive are often very similar. It goes something like: “If somebody can understand the position I’m in—not just trying to give me the technical legal answer— but understanding that I have to explain this to a board of directors, or I have to do a risk-benefit analysis, that’s the kind of lawyer I want to come back to.” From a client’s perspective, I think great lawyers put themselves in their clients’ shoes and understand that not only are they worried about legal risks, they’re worried about achieving their business goals. This is something I feel we do really well at Mayer Brown—we are excellent technical lawyers, but also trusted business counselors. That is something that associates can start doing even at a fairly junior level, and it sets us apart.
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