The leaves were not all that was changing in the crisp Autumn air at Harvard in the fall of 1979.
The Harvard Crimson was in the midst of a takeover, and Alexandra Korry was becoming its second female managing editor. Alongside her were two other women, Celia Dugger and Susan Chira, comprising a new day feminists were ushering in.
It was a thrilling time, and one that portended open skies for women to achieve all their dreams.
Korry’s outspoken ways and ideals came to her naturally. Her father had been a journalist covering international affairs and then an Ambassador to Ethiopia and Chile. Born in London, she remembers well her privileged childhood and the shocking disparity in wealth in the countries where her family lived. After Harvard, she went to work at the Washington Post for its fabled reporter Bob Woodward, who had brought down a presidency less than a decade before. She continued her reporting for Newsweek in London, while pursuing a masters at the London School of Economics.
At some point, however, she decided she wanted to be an actor in her own life, rather than an observer of others and went to Duke Law School. Women were making inroads throughout society, and it seemed more than time for women to have a bigger voice in the legal profession. She joined Sullivan & Cromwell, where she gravitated to M&A and became one of the first handful of women partners – and a trailblazer in parenting while dealmaking.
She is the first to say she can be outspoken, but there’s something more than refreshing about that. “You lean in, but you can get your head chopped off too,” she says. She’s led global deals across dozens of countries, and watched the “problematic progress” of women in law.
“I was born with chutzpah, maybe sometimes to my detriment,” Korry says. “I have never failed to stand up when I think I need to. And as we well know, and 2016 proved true (and maybe 2020 will too), strong women are not necessarily liked. Period.” Her philosophy extends to chairing the New York State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which helped end solitary confinement of juvenile inmates at Rikers Island jail and is now pursuing educational equity.
That’s the point, and what she’s sought to teach her daughters and the women she’s mentored. To be a top dealmaker – and to contribute as a person – you need to speak up, take risks and never look back.
Lawdragon: It seems to me you've been breaking barriers throughout your career, even going back to your journalism.
Alexandra D. Korry: I have sought to break barriers, however concrete they might be. In the law, at any rate, I think it’s relatively easier today than it was when I started out, because there are more women. It's still a horribly low number in terms of equity partners, but when I started, almost every meeting I went to was entirely male except for me. Now that is no longer the case.
LD: What was it like when you were interviewing?
ADK: Well, my job interview at Sullivan & Cromwell included four or five people. Like any institution you may interview at, you don't meet everybody, and you sort of have to make a snap judgment based on what you see. You may have gotten the 5 percent of the firm that's cool or the 5 percent that's not cool. One of the partners I met was a man with long hair and a ponytail. He had novels all over his office, stacked everywhere. And I said, “If this place is tolerating him, they're going to tolerate me.” It’s supposed to be white-shoe. But I wasn't white-shoe, and I didn't want to be white-shoe. I figured if the place could let this guy exist and celebrate him, then I was going to be OK.
LD: That’s really insightful. It sounds like you had gotten comfortable taking initiative and saying what you thought by the time you got to Sullivan & Cromwell. What kind of advice would you offer to other women who want to become accomplished dealmakers and attorneys? What are some of the key steps?
ADK: Well, there are a few things. I say this to young associates and to students in the class I teach at Columbia Law. You’ve got to choose what you want to do because you’ve got to enjoy what you're doing. It's the number one thing. If you're not enjoying what you're doing, then there's no point in doing it. It's your life. You've got to take the initiative to figure out how you want to structure it. You're not a victim here. You are more in control of your future than you realize. The practice of law is symbiotic; enthusiasm and creativity from young people are a necessary component to the success of the enterprise.
For women, unfortunately still in 2019, I think there is additional advice – I think you have to figure out how to be assertive without being overly assertive. I can't say I've found that line, but I think it's something that everybody looks for. As a male, you can sit there quietly and then make one pronouncement and everybody goes, “Wow.” But I think as a woman, you can't just do that. It's just not possible to sit there quietly and then make that one pronouncement, because nobody will listen to you. So you need to figure out a way for people to say, “OK, she gets it. I can put my trust in that person.”
Another piece of advice I give is that you have to dare to be an adviser. Many people think, “Oh, the client said this, we’ve got to do it.” And I always say, “Well, wait. Maybe the client's wrong or hasn’t understood all the factors. Maybe you have to explain to the client why their approach may be problematic. Or why that's not in their best interest.” I think you have to be creative, and you need to speak up. Not scream, but speak up. There are a lot of smart women who just do not want to say something for fear that they're going to be knocked down. And I think you just have to be willing to be knocked down if you are going to succeed.
LD: Right. And you have to get knocked down a few times to learn to get up.
ADK: Exactly. It’s a lesson that really applies to all of your life.
It’s still extremely hard in our society to be a strong woman. From my early days, if I saw something that was wrong I'd stand up. I had a very innate sense of right and wrong and injustice, and, as I said, often to my detriment, I would stand up and say something. There are things that I just will not tolerate or I will just say no to, when I probably should have said yes, if I were looking at it from a what's-best-for-me perspective. Or I should have stayed silent. But it's just not me. I'm just sort of a rebel within any institution
LD: And yet you've done extremely well at Sullivan & Cromwell.
ADK: That's a compliment, in effect, to Sullivan & Cromwell.
LD: You wouldn't be you if you didn’t speak up.
ADK: True. I've never been afraid to say pretty much what I think. At some point after the collapse of energy giant Enron, a client’s accountants wanted to do a transaction involving a number of special purpose entities. And I thought the transaction was dubious at best. And the accountants were really pushing it, and I told the client, "We cannot do this transaction for you."
LD: What did the client say?
ADK: The client went elsewhere but I don’t think they ended up doing the transaction. And I felt very good about it.
LD: And were there repercussions in the firm? Did they ask what you were thinking? Or did they accept that you made a judgment call?
ADK: No, they understood and were behind me 100%. This is a firm that allows and expects its partners to do that. I've never felt like I've done anything uncomfortable. This firm cares about integrity. I'm always very straight with a client about what I think they should do. I think the world has a view that corporate America is this bastion of bad people. But, in fact, there are a lot of good people throughout the business world who actually do care about their employees and other societally important values besides just being profitable.
LD: Do you have one or two deals of which you’re particularly proud?
ADK: Pride is a weird thing. I mean, I'm proud of my children. I feel like I have made substantial contributions to many deals and have accomplished a lot for my clients so I’m proud of the work that I have done. But I don't feel like I'm particularly proud of a deal. I understand that a deal is a transaction. And I don't really get my self-worth from transactions per se, whether the size of the transaction or the notoriety of the transaction. I've always tried to just do a really good job and try to add value and to be a net positive influence.
I like solving complexity and was involved for nearly three years with Adelphia's bankruptcy when the new team came in and ended up selling everything to TimeWarner and Comcast. That transaction was really interesting on a whole bunch of levels. It introduced me to the inefficiencies of our bankruptcy system, where there are often insufficient incentives for reorganizations to be done in a short time period. And, it also was a very fun, interactive process, with daily meetings for a couple of years. I also like deals that expose me to new businesses or new cultures. I worked on a transaction a few years ago involving a company in Germany that was collecting cow dung, to convert the methane into usable energy in the German energy pipeline. It was a sustainable energy deal and it was interesting to learn how that process worked and how the German system prioritized sustainability.
I’ve also enjoyed working on a number of Chinese deals. For example, I represented three different clients when they took a piece of Alibaba, including China Investment Corporation. It's interesting to participate in transactions that involve a number of different cultures, whether nation-based or just corporate-based. I also represented UBS in a number of worldwide deals that involved multiple locations and many jurisdictional issues.
I also have enjoyed working in the tech sector, like the sale of Ruckus Wireless to Brocade a few years ago, in which the S&C team was entirely women and the Company’s CEO was also a woman. It was a first for me and we all had a good time doing it.
LD: Any idea where you got your sense of justice from?
ADK: I was raised by a British nanny, Emily Stanbury, and so it may have been from her. She was always my champion and she set the bar high for me. I didn't spend very much time with my parents, although they raised us to be completely unprejudiced, and I've always thanked them for that. My dad was a journalist who started his career with United Press and was sent to Yugoslavia when President Josip Tito broke with Soviet premier Josef Stalin in the late 1940s. He worked for UPI in Berlin for many years and then in Paris, and then became European editor of “Look” magazine. He did a whole series of articles in 1959 on the liberation movements in Africa. And John F. Kennedy’s transition team asked him if he wanted to be an ambassador.
It was a political appointment, but he'd never given any money to any party. He didn't have the money to give. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, kept him on. We were there four-and-a-half years, which is where all my first memories are, basically, because I was 4 when we went there.
LD: Through your father's work I imagine you saw a lot of justice and injustice.
ADK: Especially the huge advantages of being American, the tremendous wealth differences. In Ethiopia, we were living extremely well relative to the vast majority of the people. You'd see lepers in the streets. It was extreme poverty. I came to very much appreciate all the choices that many of us, not all of us, have in the U.S., relative to many people around the world. I currently feel like there's tremendous injustice in this society. There is ridiculous inequality between the rich and everybody else. And we all have an obligation to do something about it. If you're a middle-class person today, you pretty much have to have a two-income family if you want to live the way somebody lived in the '50s with a one-income family.
LD: Right. And at the same time, people are working harder and harder to put food on the table. And then we see these super-rich people and billionaires.
ADK: In corporate dealmaking, synergies are an important driver. There are cost synergies and revenue synergies, and one of the cost synergies is getting rid of people. I have thought for some time that maybe part of the cost synergies shouldn't be such an easy cost synergy. Maybe, as a society, we need to figure out how to shift the cost of retooling employees back to the acquiror who is evaluating cost synergies.
LD: Cool idea. Can we also talk about your civil rights work, and other things that you’ve been involved in? Your role with ending solitary confinement of juveniles is huge.
ADK: I'm definitely proud of that. We weren't the only people who were involved in this effort, but I think we contributed to ending solitary confinement for juveniles in New York City. Solitary confinement is abhorrent. I think it's cruel and unusual punishment and it's unconstitutional, period. And solitary confinement of children who have not yet been convicted of a crime is just absurd. There's still a lot of work to be done. Since they're closing Rikers, the kids are going to get shipped upstate to another facility where they aren't protected from solitary confinement. Many of these kids are basically picked up for pick-pocketing or stealing something, and they can't make cash bail, and they end up at Rikers. And then they're angry, because they're 16-, 17-year-old kids, and they end up in solitary. It’s a horrible process. The end of cash bail requirements for nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors will go a long way to alleviating the problem.
Our next project, what we’re doing this year, is tackling educational funding inequity as a civil rights issue.
LD: Can you tell me a little bit about that?
ADK: In my view, our society sort of pretends that we have equality of opportunity. And we've built a whole bunch of structures around this notion of equality of opportunity, when in fact we really don't have equality of opportunity. Because what opportunities you get, in very large part, are determined by your ZIP code. And a lot of that has to do with the educational system that you go through, and how many dollars are spent on it. Unfortunately, the federal government only funds 5 percent of the educational budget in New York state. The rest comes from New York state and local communities. We’re still in the early days on this, but this is going to be one of the things that we talk about, how the lack of funding obviously affects poorer districts, and those poorer districts are comprised of a high percentage of people of color. It’s hard to see how you have equality of opportunity when some districts get $40,000 per pupil and some exist on $11,000 per pupil.
About the Author: Katrina Dewey (email@example.com) is the founder and CEO of Lawdragon, which she and her partners created as the new media company for the world’s lawyers. She has written about lawyers and legal affairs for 30 years, and is a noted legal editor, creator of numerous lawyer recognition guides and expert on lawyer branding. She is based in Venice, Calif., and New York. She is also the founder of Lawdragon Campus, which covers law students and law schools.