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We don’t grow simply to grow

We don’t grow simply to grow interview image

Helen Donegan, US editor (content), speaks with DLA Piper’s Ann K. Ford about the launch of a tech-focused financial regulatory practice, creating a global competitive edge, the challenges still facing female attorneys, and the firm’s Leadership Alliance for Women

On January 22, DLA Piper announced you have become the sole US chair and global co-chair of the firm’s Intellectual Property and Technology (IPT) practice. Can you tell me a bit more about your move into this role in addition to other roles you hold within the firm?

I have been in leadership roles for quite some time now and was the US chair of DLA Piper’s Trademark, Copyright and Media practice for over ten years. I also took on the role of vice chair of our Intellectual Property and Technology practice several years ago and then became the co-chair of that practice last year. These leadership roles helped me prepare to take over as the sole US chair and global co-chair of the practice this year.

I am also a member of the Executive Committee, as well as a member of DLA Piper’s firmwide Policy Committee. I am an Executive Sponsor of Iris, our LGBTQ resource group, and I am an active ally at the firm. Lastly, I am also the global co-chair of sectors, which is a very rewarding role, as I helped to build our sector platform at DLA Piper. This platform allows us to deliver services to our clients that are tailored to their industry sector, with lawyers who are steeped in experience with that sector.

My several roles here at the firm help me see the bigger picture of the entire firm to better lead our Intellectual Property and Technology practice and oversee our sector approach, while making sure both of these areas are successfully deployed to serve the clients very well.

What are your plans for the IPT Group? Do you plan to make any changes?

For the past couple of years we have been focused on growing our life science patent litigation capabilities, and that will continue. Going forward, the focus will be making the team, which is made-up of existing partners as well as new laterals, work as cohesively as if they have been together for years. This is key to the success of our group – bringing in new perspectives from the outside to mix with partners who already know how to navigate the firm to help serve the clients and grow the practice.

We have also been focused on building our disputes practice in trademark, copyright and media (including entertainment), and key practices such as privacy, cybersecurity, and telecommunications. We are always looking at finding talent in patent litigation throughout the US, and particularly in our major offices, and I will continue to focus on these areas.

“All of the travel and spending time with colleagues around the world helps support consistent client delivery no matter where the issue arises”

Fostering diversity and inclusion in our group and at all levels of the firm is a huge priority and is vital to our long-term success and to the success of our clients, and this focus will continue. Right now the chairs of our Technology, Data and Commercial group, our Patent Prosecution group, and our Trademark Copyright and Media group, as well as a vice chair of our Patent Litigation group – four out of five of our subgroups within IPT – are women. This sends a powerful signal to our lawyers throughout the group and the firm about the broad opportunities available at this firm for leadership.

Frankly, this also helps us recruit – success breeds success – and we have been extremely successful at recruiting talented women lawyers in all of our subgroups. We are also continuing to focus on recruiting lawyers of colour, and lawyers who bring diversity to the team based on a wide variety of backgrounds before joining the firm.

I am very excited to announce that we are adding a new subgroup in our practice, which will be a robust financial regulatory practice with a technology focus. This practice was born directly from the expressed needs of our clients. The work this group will focus on includes mobile payments, money transfers, blockchain, and digital assets. This key experience will complement the work we already do in commercial contracts, as well as technology transactions and strategic sourcing, and will bring these disciplines together to provide enhanced client service.

Servicing our clients is always our first priority. We don’t grow simply to grow. We continue to make sure our clients are getting the best and most responsive legal advice, work with them to get ahead of what is happening in the market, and introduce them to other professionals in their industry so they can grow and better manage their businesses.

Internally, we are making sure we align our goals with the international DLA Piper IPT practice, collaborating with key sectors. The international side of the business is obviously key to our overall strategy. It helps that I am good friends with my global co-chair of the practice, Melinda Upton, who is based in Sydney. We share a vision for growth around the world, growth that is externally client-focused and diverse.

What are the biggest challenges you face, and to what extent is balancing client work with your leadership roles one of them?

It is always a challenge to be ahead of client needs when you have a management role, but the key to this is teamwork. I have a strong team, which allows me to service our clients and also keep up with my firm leadership roles. Every individual on the team is strong in their area, and clients appreciate that there is a deep bench to serve them. I would not be able to do this all without my team!

Navigating the different time zones with my frequent travel can be a challenge at times. I was recently in Australia and had to overcome jetlag while still waking up in the middle of the night to participate in client meetings happening in the US. While this is a challenge, I also get to work with colleagues in person around the world, which I really do enjoy. And clients who are increasingly global with multi-jurisdictional issues like to work with a team whose members know one another and work well together, so we are able to know who is right for any given project and deliver it well. All of the travel and spending time with colleagues around the world helps support consistent client delivery no matter where the issue arises.

“Be mindful of the fact that unconscious bias does exist, even in the most progressive settings”

As we are doing a special feature on women in law this month, can you tell me about any challenges you have faced as a female attorney building a successful legal career?

It is amazing that we are still discussing this, but here we are. Despite the number of women coming out of law schools, the numbers at the top of any law firm do not reflect those higher entry numbers. In my case, when I was a younger lawyer before joining DLA Piper, of course there were challenges, mostly centred on opportunities and expectations. At some point I think I just powered through, but what really helped was to have a champion. This is different from a mentor who provides advice. While mentoring is very helpful to success, a champion puts themself out there, uses their clout to introduce clients and colleagues, and stands up to support a younger lawyer. In my case, my champions were mostly men, so I think it is not important whether a champion is a man or a woman.

Let’s face it, there are definitely challenges that come with being a female attorney in any law firm, and I view this firm as being incredibly open and supportive. And law firms have obstacles for both men and women. I started in a smaller firm, and it became clear early on that building relationships and client business were keys to success. Now I see companies using their power to help women succeed by insisting that women and other diverse lawyers be assigned to their matters and run their relationship with the firm. In my early career, this push from clients did not exist. This will help firms enormously to succeed in providing opportunities for women and other diverse attorneys. I think one of the key issues that we have been focused on at the firm centres around unconscious bias. What are partners signalling to their associates? Are the opportunities provided or are expectations made? Are there sufficient numbers of women with material client roles – not just internal leadership roles – so that these barriers break down? In my case, if these questions were being asked when I was a younger lawyer, I think my career trajectory would have been much simpler.

What do you think is the single most important thing law firms can do to retain and develop female talent?

Be mindful of the fact that unconscious bias does exist, even in the most progressive settings, and create and support a strong career path for women lawyers. Firms can do this by having a formal programme to help women succeed that is tied to internal statistics that are measurable, to make leaders accountable for success.

I also believe that internal groups similar to DLA Piper’s Leadership Alliance for Women (LAW) Program that focuses on opportunities and access to clients is key. This is so important to our clients as they are asking for diverse teams to match their own legal departments – so law firms really need to be focused on ways to retain and develop female talent in order to remain competitive.

Can you tell me more about DLA Piper’s LAW Program and your involvement with it?

DLA Piper’s Leadership Alliance for Women (LAW) was launched in 2006 by several of our women partners as an initiative to help retain and develop women lawyers in the firm’s global environment. LAW fosters internal networking, facilitates the flow of information, and empowers women lawyers by developing leadership skills and creating business development opportunities. LAW advances the firm’s global competitive edge by developing and promoting women attorneys to maximise their opportunities for business generation and leadership.

As part of LAW, we also have a Women Emerging Leaders programme to help junior female partners become strong business developers and firm leaders. I feel having this formal programme in place really helps women at our firm by providing trainings, developing internal networks, promoting leadership, eliminating barriers, and giving our junior lawyers insight into the business of the firm and growing a practice. This programme also gives management and client visibility to those younger partners. One thing you don’t want to be or feel in a big law firm is invisible, and these programmes help prevent that from happening.

I am an active member of LAW and help to form our firmwide LAW initiatives and programmes. I personally spend a lot of time ‘behind the scenes’mentoring and championing a lot of attorneys, including women, inside and outside of the firm. I could not have gotten to where I am today without having mentors and champions, so I feel very strongly about helping junior attorneys.

What advice would you give to young female lawyers who are looking towards partnership or leadership roles within law firms or in-house teams?

Seek out mentors and champions early in their careers. I had a mosaic of partners I modelled myself after. I wasn’t like any one of them completely, but I found my own voice and style by learning from aspects of those mentors and champions in how they conducted themselves.

I also think it is important for all lawyers, women and men, to not just rely on themselves to be successful. They need to build support and a team around them, not to ‘use’them, but to support them in their careers. By giving back, you actually gain so much in learning how to lead others.

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

I am really proud of the team I have built and the clients and friends I have helped in their careers. My team is one of the most diverse in the firm; many are racially, ethnically, or otherwise diverse including in gender and sexual orientation. They work so well together, and each of them continues to move up in their careers.

In some cases I have asked partners to move from one office or group at the firm to another where I knew there would be more opportunity and need – or asked a partner to lead a group or sector as their first foray into leadership – and it makes me so happy to see them now thriving.

I know I have built something that will last. I also like giving insights to friends and clients (or clients who become friends and friends who become clients) to help them advance in their careers. I like connecting clients and friends, and I think back to how this was done for me. It just makes life better for all of us and, frankly, more fun.

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