Photo by Jeffrey Luke.
Prior to being elected chair of Perkins Coie’s 13-member Executive Committee in 2008, Laura Neebling had a busy practice representing Fortune 500 companies such as Boeing, Intel and UPS in some of their most complex redevelopment projects in the city of Seattle and the states of Washington and Oregon. These days, however, the University of Chicago Law School graduate has scaled down her practice to focus on her work as the management executive of the 950-lawyer firm. “With the exception of occasional work I do for two or three long-term clients, my leadership role is full time,” Neebling said.
Her primary objective is to ensure the firm retains its reputation as one of the best law firms to work for, especially for women. The firm, which has 19 offices, has been honored by Working Mother and Flex Time Lawyers as one of the "Best Law Firms for Women" since 2008 and has made Fortune Magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for 12 consecutive years since 2003.
Lawdragon: There are definitely more women leaders at law firms these days than at any point in time, but there’s still a perception that there are not enough. As one of those women who are in high-profile leadership roles today, what are your views in terms of how law firms can encourage more women to stay at law firms, pursue partnership track and actively engage in law firm management?
Laura Neebling: This is a broad question and touches on multiple challenges – retention of women, advancement of women to partnership, and including more women in firm management – that are related but different. Tough issues to tackle in a few sentences, but I’ll provide some general thoughts that I hope are responsive.
On the retention issue – and this is nothing new – it is hard to overstate the value of mentoring relationships. For more junior women lawyers, and sometimes even for women partners, a supportive and trusted mentor can greatly influence how well we are able to weather the inevitable challenges and hard times. Firm-sponsored mentoring programs can make a positive difference, although the most effective mentoring relationships are so often the old-fashioned kind – relationships that take root when junior lawyers proactively seek out and cultivate mentors, and when more senior lawyers take the time to thoughtfully supervise, provide regular feedback to, and otherwise oversee the progress of junior lawyers.
With respect to retention, it is also hard to overstate the value of flexibility – especially when expressed in terms of flexible work arrangements like part-time, flex-time and telecommuting. Firm policies that support women as they develop strategies for balancing the requirements of our demanding profession with the responsibilities of family can make the difference between whether someone stays or goes. Finally, support through times of transition is also very important. We are currently taking a fresh look at our maternity and parental leave policy, for example, with a focus on adding steps to better support new parents as they transition back to work following leave.
We provide alternative career paths at our firm, but most of our women continue to tell us that they are interested in eventually being promoted to partner. The ability to develop and expand business is a key distinguishing characteristic of partnership. Training programs and business development coaching can help to better position women to be promoted and enhance the business development skills they will need to be successful during the challenging early years of partnership and beyond.
With respect to how firms can encourage women to engage in management, the two basic strategies are creating a talent pipeline and placing more women in available leadership roles. At our firm we focus on the pipeline through leadership training programs and strategic assignment of key committee positions. We also consider gender and other aspects of diversity when we fill open leadership positions.
LD: How about your thoughts on how women lawyers like yourself could be doing better in terms of advancing their legal careers?
LN: First and foremost, focus on doing excellent legal work. Secondarily, figure out a way to develop business that is comfortable for you and fits your interests. And don’t forget that your legal career will last a long time. It will have many chapters, many ups and downs. Some years leaning out will make a lot more sense than leaning in, and that’s ok.
LD: Would you say there’s a difference between how men and women lead or manage?
LN: Not in my experience. Everyone brings a unique set of experiences, priorities, and habits of mind to problem solving, establishing strategy, executing, developing credibility, and inspiring others. I have not noticed that particular leadership approaches or styles tend to be employed according to gender.
LD: In terms of career path, what led you to a real estate and land use practice?
LN: My first job after graduate school was with a large architecture firm in Chicago. While working there, I became interested in urban planning and land use. I went to law school intending to become a land use lawyer. Fortunately, Perkins Coie had openings in the Real Estate and Land Use practice group when I started, and that practice area ended up being a good fit for me.
LD: You’ve represented and advised various companies across all industries in the real estate and land use area. What keeps your clients up at night these days? Is there a common challenge these companies are facing or each industry faces a unique challenge?
LN: My clients represent a variety of different industries and therefore face different challenges particular to their markets, geographies, and other factors. One challenge I think they would all agree on, however, is the need to more effectively control legal costs.
LD: In addition to your legal practice, you’re known for your pro bono efforts in reducing homelessness in Seattle and increasing affordable housing. Was your interest in this area a natural extension of your legal practice?
LN: Yes, my interest in affordable housing was a natural for me given my land use background. My work in that area coincided with the City of Seattle’s campaign to end homelessness, which was led by a former Perkins Coie lawyer, Adrienne Quinn.
LD: What do you do for fun?
LN: I love to travel, hike, cook, look at art, and spend time with my family.