Maria-Leticia Ossa Daza

Partner/ Head of Latin America Practice Group, Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP

GC: Can you tell us a little about your pathway into law. What made you want to be a lawyer?

I knew I wanted to be a lawyer when I was about 12 years old. My parents are both lawyers and their passion for the profession and what they do was a big inspiration. My mother has been a strong role model to me – a hard-working, smart, and successful lawyer with a beautiful family. I knew I wanted to help others through the law and I spent time reading the Colombian Constitution and Civil Code to understand the rights we had. The Colombian Constitution went through an important reform in 1991 granting many social and economic rights to Colombians such as the fundamental right to education and health. During the summers, I worked with my father on matters that involved the defence of some of those rights. At home, we learned that privileges carry huge responsibilities to society.

GC: What do you believe are the biggest barriers to women progressing in the legal industry?

Despite efforts in the industry as a whole, I would say gender bias is still generating significant disparities for women. Women continue to face barriers in hiring, assignments, promotions, and compensation. Reports on this matter still show that women and people of colour may feel they are held to a higher standard than men.

In addition to bias and machismo in the profession and in particular in Latin America, the barriers women place on themselves adds to the challenge. For example – the guilt we feel if we want to be successful and also have a family life; the struggle in fighting bias and finding work/life balance; understanding that it is ok to be driven and successful; and the desire to make partner and yes, have a life outside work.

Surprisingly, I have come across women in law who believe that taking parental leave will negatively impact their career, even though this is changing across the profession. For example, Willkie recently promoted a female associate to partner while she was on maternity leave, which I think sends an important message to our associates and to the industry.

GC: When you speak with women in-house lawyers, do you sense they face the same challenges as women in private practice?

Yes – numbers still show that women lawyers are far outnumbered by men in the highest-ranking and highest-paying positions, both in-house and in law firms.

According to the latest report from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, only 35% of active US lawyers in 2016 were women, and they earned less than their male colleagues. Of the top lawyers for Fortune 500 companies, just 26% were women.

GC: How does the industry collectively need to change to break those barriers?

I think it will take time because it is a cultural change, a reset. We have to start with our children. Women also need to be more transparent about their personal experiences, and make more of an effort to mentor, sponsor, and guide other women. The industry and its women leaders also need to keep demanding change.

GC: What do you feel is the single biggest change that needs to happen?

We have to believe that gender equality and diversity is not only good for women, but good for business too.

GC: What challenges have you specifically faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?

I have been very fortunate to work at Willkie since I started my career, in an environment in which I had and continue to have full support and encouragement from our leaders and partners. I am grateful for the full support from the firm to lead our Latin American Practice Group, and to excel as an attorney.

For women practicing corporate law in Latin America as well as in other regions, there may be bias that women will not be ‘tough enough’ (and if they are assertive, they could be seen as too aggressive) or not fully committed, and if they have a family, that can be interpreted as an impediment.

Overcoming these challenges takes time. For me, I had to show I was hard-working, committed, and that I could handle the pressure and pace of transactional work. The M&A world is tough, but I love challenges. I’d like to see more women lawyers, bankers, CEOs, CFOs, and dealmakers in the M&A and private equity fields.

GC: How do you help to promote diversity, and do you feel a responsibility as a woman in a leadership position to help other women reach their full potential and progress in their careers?

I feel fully responsible to support and mentor other women: in my day-to-day work with our associates, through our foreign associate program, and outside Willkie through some of the non-profit organisations I support.

In my discussions with other women, I try to be open and share my honest experience, both the challenges and the successes. I regularly speak about diversity at conferences organised by law firms in Latin America, companies, and organisations such as the International Bar Association and The Legal 500.

I believe I have a responsibility to generate and be part of the initiatives and efforts on diversity. This is why I believe this Women in Law project with The Legal 500 is a great forum to share experiences, and to recognise some of the in-house lawyers who are working hard to transform the industry in the Latin American region.

Most importantly, I try to be a good role model and mentor for my daughter Valentina, to prepare her for leadership roles. I want her to be proud of having a mother who works and wants to be successful. I have learned not to feel guilty about my career and also to try to be fully present as much as possible for Valentina.

GC: How do you go about building a diverse team and leading by example?

As a woman of colour practicing corporate law, I hope that shows other women that if I can do it, they can too. We have a very talented and diverse team of women and men who respect and value each other’s opinions, each contributing a unique perspective.

GC: There is quite a divide between those who believe in quotas to address gender imbalance, and those who don’t. Do you have any specific thoughts on that?

While I respect and see the value of those who use them, I personally do not believe in quotas. But I do think we have to support talented men and women, and also give women the same opportunities to succeed as men. Associates work really hard to make partner and once they do, the merit is not in their gender or colour.

GC: Are there particular challenges that women face in the legal industry, as opposed to other industries, or is gender imbalance a more widespread cultural issue?

In my opinion, gender imbalance is just a more widespread cultural issue.

GC: If you could give advice to yourself at the start of your career, what would it be?

Be yourself. See the things (including your gender and colour) that make you different as advantages and not as obstacles, and use them to overcome the challenges you face. Find mentors, sponsors, and supporters with diverse perspectives and experiences from yours. They will help you view things differently, challenge you to improve, and ultimately help you to succeed.