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Heading the firm’s Real Estate practice in Germany, Cornelia Thaler’s path to partnership has been far from traditional. She talks about choices and the importance of building a business.

A D V I C E   T O   M Y   Y O U N G E R   S E L F

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photo of Cornelia Thaler

Being a lawyer wasn’t my first choice. I ended up going to law school because I wasn’t admitted to medical school – but it’s worked out well for me. I worked while I was in law school selling residential apartments, which piqued my interest in real estate, an area I ended up pursuing and later specializing in.

A good German firm offered me a place on its real estate team. I knew this was the best legal education I could get, and I was ready to work hard and work long hours. At the time, I planned to do that for a few years and then move to a role I thought was better suited to work-life balance. Then, after only one year, I became pregnant. After completing eight years of education – and now finding myself in a good place professionally – I decided to try being a lawyer and a mother.

It was a very different time back then. I was the first woman in the real estate department who got pregnant and actually returned. People were nervous about how (and whether) it would work, but I was determined, so I initially returned on a part-time basis.

What helped me upon returning were the relationships I’d built with clients before taking maternity leave. They wanted to deal with me directly, so I really had my own small business, which I then worked to expand. It is so important to have your own business and your own network. At a good firm like mine, if you do great work and can create your own business, you can expect flexibility in other areas. The firm expects flexibility from you, but it gives flexibility too.

When I’m working on a large, complex transaction, I focus on bringing it to a successful close. I like responsibility, even if it’s difficult, and I like new fields and new challenges. The first time I led on a big deal, it was because my mentor was away and there was nobody else to do it. It was a challenge, but I was very clear with myself that I had to get through it. I was very proud when my mentor got back and the deal was already signed.

One thing I have learned in my career is not to take things personally in a professional context. That took me a long time to realize. Sometimes you have to be more direct or be more aggressive. Sometimes it’s about exercising patience.

Personally, I would probably do everything the same way as I did the first time around. But if there’s just one thing that I would tell my younger self, it would be not to get too fixated on options, risks and chances. Do what you want to do, and see what comes from it. Just take one step at a time.