Women Leaders in the Law Discuss Power, Success, and Empathy

Prominent attorneys share strategies for leadership at Columbia Law School's Private Sector Career Symposium.

(Clockwise from top right)  Dean Gillian Lester, Kim Koopersmith, Kathy Surace-Smith ’84, and Ellen Kaden ’77
(Clockwise from top right) Dean Gillian Lester, Kim Koopersmith, Kathy Surace-Smith ’84, and Ellen Kaden ’77

Are leaders born or made? How do they articulate a vision? How do they build a team? These were some of the questions addressed at a recent panel, Women Leaders in the Law,” at Columbia Law School’s fifth Private Sector Career Symposium. Held on February 16, it was organized by the Office of Career Services and Professional Development.

Gillian Lester, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, moderated an enlightening discussion among three high-powered attorneys: Ellen Kaden ’77, former chief legal and public affairs officers of Campbell Soup Company and one-time member of the Law School’s faculty; Kim Koopersmith, chairperson of the firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which has 20 offices around the globe; and Kathy Surace-Smith ’84, general counsel of NanoString Technologies, a publicly traded biotech company based in Seattle.

Kim Koopersmith
Kim Koopersmith
Although the panelists had different career paths, they all eschewed a traditional, command-and-control approach. “My style of leadership is premised on being a very good listener and someone who’s not afraid to make decisions,” said Koopersmith, who has led her firm with more than 900 lawyers for the past five years. “If you make the very best decisions for your organization and execute them well, you will develop followership.”

Surace-Smith described her approach as a form of “servant leadership,” which she describes as encouraging her team members to strive to do their best. “This may strike you as surprising, but the most successful leaders tend to be empathetic people,” she said. “I try to put myself in other people’s shoes. You need to bridge different perspectives to get everyone on the same page.”

Kaden said she strives to give people “a sense of direction and a sense of enthusiasm. You need to inspire people to want to be part of a project, and then they can have the wonderful experience of success.”

Still, they said gender sometimes played a role in how they expressed leadership. Kaden explained that she had to develop a tough approach when she became general counsel at CBS 25 years ago. “There were very few women executives in entertainment—in those days, one was truly a Martian!” she said. But being tough did not mean she wasn’t concerned with her staff’s well-being. “The big surprise for people was that I wanted them to succeed. That is the empathy part. I’ve gotten enormous gratification from all the people’s careers I’ve helped advance over the years," she said.

Ellen Kaden ’77
Ellen Kaden ’77
For her part, Koopersmith said she needed encouragement to be more aggressive when her presumed ascension to the chairmanship of her firm was suddenly threatened. She had been groomed for the role but when another partner insisted on a contested election, Koopersmith adopted the attitude that she’d be fine whether she won or lost. She later realized she had internalized gender bias. “Two different male partners of mine said ‘That is an extremely unattractive platform if you want to run a law firm, and you must tell people that you want the job and that you will do the best job,’” she recalled.

Koopersmith heeded their advice and won the election. She admits she was initially uncomfortable in being the chair. Now, after five years at the helm of the firm, Koopersmith said that she relishes her power. “I like setting the tone that you get to set as a leader. I like that the organization can reflect my values,” she said.

Kathy Surace-Smith ’84
Kathy Surace-Smith ’84
Being a leader does not require being a chairman or CEO, and the three women stressed the importance of “horizontal leadership,” which emphasizes teamwork and shared goals. “You can lead wherever you land. Leadership has nothing to do with titles,” said Surace-Smith, who established the in-house legal departments at three startups. “I was hired in all three of these companies to create the legal function, to be the first general counsel, to hire the lawyers, to figure out what the company needed to understand the risk profile, to hire the outside lawyers. I was being pushed into a role where the CEO I’m reporting to directly expected me to lead, and I had to step up to that leadership role.”

The fifth biennial Private Sector Career Symposium brought together alumni, faculty and prominent lawyers from firms and corporations to speak with students about the opportunities in the ever-changing private practice landscape.The panel exemplified the Law School’s deep focus on leadership training, which includes a new spring course, Lawyer Leadership: Leading Self, Leading Others, Leading Change.

At the end of the program. Dean Lester asked each woman to offer one sentence of advice on being a leader for the scores of law students in the audience.

“Leadership, in my opinion, is about driving enlistment and earning trust, and if you can learn those skills and practice them you will be an effective leader,” said Kaden as the other panelists nodded in agreement.

“Enjoy the ride,” said Koopersmith.

“Embrace change,” said Surace-Smith.

And then Kaden turned to Dean Lester, who leads more than 1,500 students and 88 full-time faculty members, and asked her to answer the same question. “Believe in yourself, trust yourself,” said Dean Lester.


Posted on March 14, 2018