May 16, 2022

How I Made Partner: 'My Drive and Enthusiasm for a Challenge Were Key,' Says Elspeth Hansen of Mayer Brown


Elspeth Hansen, 34, Mayer Brown, Palo Alto & San Francisco.

Practice area: Litigation.

Law school and year of graduation: Harvard Law School, Class of 2013.

How long have you been at the firm?
I was a summer associate at Mayer Brown in 2012, then returned to the firm after completing my clerkship in 2014. My promotion to partner was announced in November 2021 and effective Jan. 1, 2022.

What criteria did you use when deciding to join your current firm? As a law student, I did not know a great deal about the differences between large law firms before I began the summer associate interview process. I wanted the opportunities of a large, sophisticated firm, like high-stakes and intellectually-challenging cases, but also sought the advantages of a smaller office, such as the chance to really get to know my co-workers and, hopefully, develop strong mentoring relationships.

I had a wonderful experience interviewing at Mayer Brown. I put a lot of stock in a workplace that values and respects everyone, and the friendliness and demeanor of the staff, and the way people in the office spoke to and about each other stood out. My interviewers were particularly sharp and engaging, and I left the callback interviews feeling like working at Mayer Brown’s Palo Alto office would give me a terrific opportunity to learn directly from talented litigators who would make me a better lawyer.

Working at Mayer Brown lived up to those expectations. I was happy to return to the firm as an associate after completing my clerkship and stayed because of my stimulating practice and strong relationships. I was thrilled to recently be welcomed into the partnership by so many people I respect.

What’s the biggest surprise you experienced in becoming partner? I have been delighted by the collaborative and creative energy of the partnership. My fellow partners are brimming with ideas and enthusiasm, and many people have been quick to include me in business development and welcome my perspective. I find the focus on diversity, equity and inclusion particularly heartening, with many partners sharing thoughtful ideas that reflect that they have seriously considered how to translate values into real progress. I have always appreciated Mayer Brown’s collegiality and tendency to embrace challenges, but it has been energizing to see how those aspects of the firm’s culture impact the day-to-day experience of being a partner.

What do you think was the deciding point for the firm in making you partner? I demonstrated that I was a valuable asset to the firm and was ready to be part of its strong future. I was the first homegrown litigation associate to make partner in our growing Northern California offices, with experience in high-stakes complex litigation, including cases involving cutting-edge technology, antitrust issues and sophisticated and technical expert testimony.

I believe that my drive and enthusiasm for a challenge were key to putting myself in a strong position for promotion. Over the years, I worked hard to prove that I could be counted on to perform at a high level, not only in doing high-stakes substantive legal work, but also in managing a team, working with clients and embracing the firm’s commitment to values like diversity, inclusion, and respect for others.

What’s the key to successful business development in your opinion, and how do you grow professionally while everyone is navigating a hybrid work system? For business development, there are two pieces of advice that have stuck with me. First, try different things and find out what you like to do. You are usually going to be most effective when you are engaged and enjoying yourself. Second, don’t let “business development” intimidate you. Years ago, a fantastic female partner told a group of female associates that if we did not want to be partners, that was fine, but that we should not give up because we did not think we could do it.

As for professional development in a hybrid working environment, I am fortunate enough to collaborate extensively with my colleagues in other offices, as well as with clients and experts from around the country. In a lot of ways, the leap forward in the use of videoconferencing has been a fantastic opportunity, as I now get to see people I used to just talk to on the phone. As we shift to a hybrid model, I am focused on figuring out when it best serves us to be together in one place, especially when it helps fulfill our obligation to pass on knowledge and give junior lawyers a chance to be “in the room” when it counts most.

I am also excited about taking advantage of hybrid work habits outside of the office. As part of the leadership of the Bay Area chapter of the Alumnae-i Network of Harvard Women, I appreciate the ability to use videoconferencing to make it easy for new members to join us and make connections, but am eager to hold more in-person events.

Who had the greatest influence in your career that helped propel you to partner? I wanted to become a partner at Mayer Brown, and was able to reach that goal, in no small part because of the people I get to work with. I’ll highlight just two of them.

Ward Johnson, our managing partner in Northern California, started investing in my professional growth almost as soon as I walked in the door. With his signature positive energy, he has encouraged me to speak my mind, involved me in strategy and taught me a great deal about the business of law. As I became more senior, he helped me to find opportunities to show that I was ready to be a partner and hone my case for promotion.

Chris Kelly, another partner in Palo Alto, has been a tremendous mentor. In addition to introducing me to the fascinating world of antitrust law, he has provided years of invaluable encouragement and detailed, constructive feedback. It makes all the difference to have someone hold you to a high standard and invest significant effort into helping you to become a better lawyer. I also aspire to his uncanny ability to make thorny problems feel manageable.

What advice could you give an associate who wants to make partner? Years before you think you will be up for consideration, start thinking seriously about what kind of practice you want to have and why your firm should want to make you a partner. When you have reflected honestly about what you want, talk frankly with people who can tell you if your plan is realistic and help you to make adjustments. You need to take ownership of your career and steer it in the direction you want to go, but have to be flexible enough to update your plan to deal with changing circumstances and unexpected opportunities.

As you get closer to actually going through the promotion process, I would particularly encourage talking to colleagues who have recently been promoted to better understand what to expect and how they made their case. In my case, it was especially helpful to talk to other litigators and other people in my home office.

When it comes to career planning and navigating inside a law firm, in your opinion, what’s the most common mistake you see other attorneys making? I think it is easy for smart, busy people to let career planning slide. For most people I know, getting the career that they want instead of the career they end up with requires thinking deliberately about what they want and how to accomplish that, then (especially if they are associates interested in partnership) having the conversations needed to make that happen. It may require some boldness, but I believe that creating a practice that interests you and challenges you is vital to building resilience and succeeding in a demanding industry.

Knowing what you know now about your career path, what advice would you give to your younger self? Be happy and interesting! I perform best and forge the strongest relationships when I am enjoying myself, and many people, including clients and co-workers, respond well to genuine enthusiasm. I also try to be someone that I would want to strike up a conversation with. If someone asks what you have been up to, you should have an honest answer that can spark a good conversation.

What impact would you like to have on the legal industry as a whole? I would love to be a part of making our industry more diverse and inclusive, particularly when it comes to supporting associates so that staying in a large firm and working for promotion seems feasible and desirable.

What lessons, if any, did you learn in 2020/2021 (the COVID-19 years)?
One of the most significant takeaways for me was the need to think about how people interact and how to make sure important interactions take place.

I found that most of my relationships with people that I worked with on particular projects were not hampered by remote working. For people I regularly spoke to, especially clients and colleagues in other offices, the rise in use of videoconferencing meant that I regularly spoke to them face to face and even gained new insight into their personalities. You can learn a lot about people when you hear how they talk to their family and see how they decorate their space, and sharing a few more personal details helped to build rapport.

However, I also realized that I needed to be more deliberate about building other relationships. A prime example is the difficulty of remotely doing a casual check-in with an associate that you are not currently working with on a case. The transition to a hybrid model does not make these challenges disappear, especially if people work behind closed doors while in the office. Accordingly, I, and many of my colleagues, are trying to maximize the benefits of being together in person when people are physically in the office. Little things, such as planning meetings in advance so people can show up in person if they want to and arranging for a large video screen for colleagues appearing remotely, can make a big difference.

What three key elements you would like to focus on for 2022?

Winners want the ball—This line from a favorite TV show has stuck with me. I am focused on taking on challenges and embracing opportunities to tackle difficult problems.

Novelty—One of my favorite things about being a lawyer, especially in the Bay Area, is that I am constantly learning about new industries and new ideas. Learning makes me happy, and I think being happy makes you a better lawyer.

Pay it forward— I feel very fortunate to have had the benefit of guidance and support from co-workers, family and friends as I worked toward promotion. That experience has reinforced my desire to lend a hand to others when I can.


Reprinted with permission from the May 16, 2022 edition of © 2022 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

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