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Lawyer Limelight: Marilyn Klinger

On her second day of work, Marilyn Klinger was asked, “How would you like to be our construction expert?” Without hesitation, she answered, “I’m your man.”

One of the first and few female attorneys in the primarily male-dominated field, Klinger has nearly 40 years of construction law under her tool belt.

Earlier this year, the American Bar Association awarded Klinger the Martin J. Andrew Award for Lifetime Achievement in Fidelity and Surety Law, considered the pinnacle accomplishment for anyone practicing in those fields.

Klinger, known for her directness, toughness and sense of humor, has consistently proven herself in the courtroom and law office, where she’s been elected to increasingly prominent positions. Most recently, she was named chair of Sedgwick LLP’s Commercial Division and became the first woman to serve on of the firm’s Executive Committee.

But the partner based in Sedgwick’s Los Angeles office isn’t really interested in discussing that distinction.

Lawdragon Press: You’ve said you don’t want anyone making a big deal out of you being the first woman on Sedgwick’s Executive Committee. Why?

Marilyn Klinger: I hadn’t thought about it like that. While a female perspective can broaden the view of any governing group, that’s not why I was elected.

I have been at Sedgwick for 35 years in a number of leadership positions, including being chair of the Construction Practices Group. I see my new appointment as being a natural progression. In my entire career, I have never felt discriminated against.

LP: In nearly four decades of practicing in the traditionally male-oriented field of construction law, you’ve never had negative experiences due to your gender?

MK: From my perspective, sexual harassment is a different animal than gender discrimination. I did experience what some would consider sexual harassment earlier in my career on occasion in the office, visiting with clients, or attending outside professional events. I chose not to ignore or shrink away from those improper comments or overtures because that would be a sign of weakness. Rather, I defused it by being both tough and funny and essentially challenging the person directly and immediately. That’s probably how I got my reputation of being direct. I think most men are better behaved these days, and I applaud the young women who have fought to change the environment.

LP: By now, you’re used to being the only woman in a work situation, but did it ever feel strange?

MK: No. I walked into every meeting like I owned it. It never really dawned on me that I was a woman, let alone the only woman. I had mostly clients who were men and may not have been comfortable with a woman lawyer, but I only lost one client opportunity over all of my years of practicing who said he did not want to work with a woman.

LP: What advice would you give young women practicing law today?

MK: If you feel fearful, fake being confident. I adhere to the adage:  “Fake it Until You Make It.”  Fear is the most irrational of emotions. It has to be controlled through rational thinking.

I honestly think women are a lot more self-aware than most men. And self-awareness and mindfulness can be powerful.

I want women to feel confident and exude confidence and to know that it’s OK that you don’t know everything. Nobody does.  Believe it or not, when you show confidence, you are free to ask questions. Ask questions with confidence. It will make you a better lawyer.

LP: Take us back to when you realized you wanted to become a lawyer.

MK: I knew in high school. It says “Counselor Klinger” underneath my high school yearbook photo.

However, I grew up in a lower-middle class neighborhood, and my parents were not college-educated. In fact, I had never met a lawyer until I started working for a law firm. The only lawyer I knew about before that was Perry Mason.

LP: How did you come to lead Sedgwick’s Construction Practices Group?

MK: With the same response that got me into construction law in the first place. David Bordon, the then head of the fidelity and surety practice group and ultimate manager of the firm, said, “I’m looking for someone to run the Surety Group.” I again immediately responded, “I’m your man.”

Over the years, we built a nationwide surety group, one of the largest in the country, but changes in the surety world had us transition to representing the builders themselves and other players in the construction world, and the Surety Group was renamed the Construction Practices Group.

LP: You’ve already promoted several lawyers to lead practice groups within the Commercial Division. What are your other goals in your new role as chair?

MK: I really want to bolster the Commercial Division as a whole. And I want to focus on getting more work for everyone, including fostering lateral acquisitions, and I want to focus on accounts receivable and collections. The Commercial Division does not have as many big institutional clients who give us repeat business as the other divisions have. Indeed, we have many smaller companies, startups and family businesses. To sum it up, my slogan for the Commercial Division is: “Get work. Get paid. Get people.”

So I’ve been having “get work strategy calls” with each of the partners, asking these questions: What are you doing now to get work, who are your targets, and what do you have scheduled in the next few weeks to get more work? I avoid the term “business development.” I’m trying to inspire “get work” activity.

LP: How do you relax when you get a chance to take a break?

MK: I live in Santa Monica during the week and travel to my second home in Oakland on the weekends. My fiancé is very supportive of my working on the weekends, which is often. We like to go to the theater and museums, walk, go out to dinner. I love to read and watch movies, when I have time. But I also have a lot of fun on my work-related travels, where I get to play golf at conferences and go to networking events, often in great venues.