Ulmer & Berne partner Patricia A. Shlonsky, Chair of the firm’s Employee Benefits Practice and Tax Practice Group, was featured in Law360’s Female Powerbrokers Q&A published on January 2, 2014.
Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys’ network?
A: I have never really considered breaking into the old boys’ network as part of my career trajectory. At the start of my career I decided to do everything I needed to do to become an expert in my area of practice (Employee Retirement Income Security Act). I learned early on that I could cross boundaries if I was knowledgeable and able to communicate my knowledge and opinions in a coherent and low-key style. I have mostly male mentors at work and female mentors and role models outside of work, and that combination has worked well for me. Although I do not view those boundaries as exclusively gender-based, I have always been aware that women must do it all smarter, better and faster to end up in the same place as their male counterparts.
Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?
A: There are two major challenges. The first is to teach my male counterparts to respect and consider a differing perspective and communication style. Men tend to speak loudly and often; me, not so much. I was taught and live the adage of “don’t speak unless you have something to say,” and sometimes it is hard to be heard. The second challenge is convincing men — particularly men who are older than you — that you have the ability and right to lead, and to take you seriously. Time and consistency seem to get that point across.
Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.
A: There have been many examples, most of which are external, and I admit that with the benefit of hindsight, I have not always handled them as well as I might have. Women are at a disadvantage when it comes to networking with men, and business development. I learned this early on when I was working with an insurance agent and asked him out to lunch. In response he asked me whether I was married and when I said I was he asked me why he would want to have lunch with me. I withdrew the invitation and hung up. I learned from this that it is a little more difficult for women to develop external relationships with male referral sources, and that it takes a little longer to develop those relationships. I also learned that patience and chemistry are rewarded in the long run.
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?
A: Be yourself, work hard, become an expert in your field, network and enjoy yourself. Take responsibility for yourself and do not allow your future to be dependent on someone else. Get involved in your community — in causes you feel passionate about — and you will be rewarded personally and professionally.
Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?
A: I believe that firms need to proactively commit to increasing the number of women partners. This includes ensuring that younger women have direct access to client contact, are included in marketing activities, and are given good substantive client work that will enable them to become experts. I also think that firms need to involve women in administrative activities that put them in front of the partnership on issues that are of importance to partners. Finally, I think that firms should provide the same networking opportunities to women that are provided to men. In order for any of these ideas to work, the firm has to have procedures in place to monitor and enforce the commitment.
Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.
A: I admire Judge Janet R. Burnside, who is a judge in the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Court of Common Pleas. Judge Burnside commands the respect of a wide variety of attorneys and nonattorneys in the community through her warmth, strength and clear communication style. She is an effective and decisive judge, treats people fairly and always has time to provide thoughtful and effective guidance.