Our 2020 special report honors women who have demonstrated a commitment to advancing the empowerment of women in law.
A lead U.S. partner in the Construction and Engineering practice of the global law firm Mayer Brown, Joanna Horsnail has become a powerhouse in construction law and a role model for fellow women in law. In her 22 years at Mayer Brown, she has built a cutting-edge infrastructure construction practice, working on some of the most high-profile alternative delivery infrastructure projects. In 2020, Legal 500 ranked Horsnail as one of 14 “Leading Lawyers” for Construction in the United States. In recent years, she has counseled clients on more than $1 billion in infrastructure and energy construction matters throughout North and South America. Horsnail is a leader in the construction of public infrastructure projects, and also a leader in promoting diversity in the profession.
What was your route to the top?
My route to the top is not totally typical of a partner at a large law firm. When I joined Mayer Brown, I was caring for my mother with Parkinson’s disease and my father with terminal cancer. I became an income partner while on maternity leave, and worked a 70% schedule for five years to raise my two children as a single parent. One of my sons was born with a rare genetic disease called PURA syndrome. Now, I’m an equity partner specializing in construction and government relations work. My personal story sparked worldwide attention after I shared my experience during a TedX Talk. The inspirational video provides a rare degree of authenticity regarding my life challenges, has gone viral, with nearly 2,500 views.
Looking back, what do you wish you had known when you started out in the legal profession?
It’s no secret that you have to put in the time and effort and produce excellent work, but it’s important when starting out in the legal professional to be given the opportunity to speak up, offer an opinion and know that it is valued. I wish I had not been so hesitant to share my opinions as a junior lawyer, not felt like an imposter in a room full of men. It is important to step outside your comfort zone, take chances and make mistakes. More importantly, I often felt like I needed to “figure it out” for myself, and I wish I had known that it is OK to ask for mentorship, inside scoop and advice in order to short-cut the road to success.
What is the best leadership advice you’ve given or received, and why do you think it was effective?
“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” I received this advice 20 years ago from a partner/mentor as I struggled to perfect a 300-page document at midnight as a junior associate. As women, we often fall into the trap of chasing perfection to compete in the male-dominated law firm world, and succumb to the impacts of the confidence gap or imposter syndrome if we aren’t 110% confident in our decisions. As a leader, I now invoke this mantra to encourage the teams I lead to take thoughtful but decisive action to accomplish time-sensitive goals. This mantra also helps me achieve the ever-challenging balance between being the parent I want to be and being the lawyer and leader I want to be.