Speak First: Ilse van Gasteren

Amsterdam Partner Ilse van Gasteren responds to challenges by turning them into strategies. She shares some practical tips which include taking her own advice.

I became a lawyer not at all on purpose. At university in the Netherlands, I studied law as a way to fulfill the general studies requirement before moving on to my intended focus of international organizations and politics. But I liked the law and decided to stay with it.

As a junior lawyer, the idea of approaching clients, even to make small talk, was intimidating. It helped me to start thinking of clients just as people. I started building relationships at a personal level first, which made it more comfortable to discuss business and generate work. I used to think that I had to impress the most senior person, but now I encourage my junior colleagues to make contacts among their peers; they will grow with you and become the important decision-makers in due time.

Gender equality issues are very important to me. One thing I would say to women in particular is to make sure your voice is heard. It’s stereotypical, but I struggled with this for years. During meetings, I would “wait my turn” and invariably regret it because someone else would speak up first and make my point. I learned strategies during leadership training, such as how to present myself effectively, and picked up some nice tips, such as agreeing with the partner in advance of a meeting that I would take a certain slot.

I love my work, but the absolute positive in my career is the combination of being a lawyer and being part of my firm. I joined in 2001, based partly on the recommendation of a friend who was already working here. I wasn’t out as an LGBT+ lawyer at the time, and I worried that it might become a problem if, as it happened, I decided to come out later on. Then I learned that there were a number of openly gay partners in our Amsterdam office. That’s honestly the reason I chose my firm.

I have gotten a lot of support from the senior partners in my group. As a counsel, I worked part-time for about five years. By then, my wife and I were sharing the responsibility of taking care of our young children. I had to be very strict about my arrangements with the firm, which wasn’t easy, but I was also very lucky to be working with a partner who really got it. He understood that Mondays were my day off and fully supported me in pushing assignments to Tuesdays, wherever possible.

Like so many women in our profession, I struggled with the decision to leave my comfort zone and take the next step to partnership. I also remember telling my daughter, who by then was six years old, that anything is possible if you want it – that you just need to grab opportunities because it’s not a problem if you fail. It was a real eye-opener to discover that I was not following my own advice!

So here’s my advice, nothing new but very important: dare to take risks.