It’s always great to travel, see new places and meet new people. But little did I suspect that a lazy week end on the Atlantic coast would lead to a meeting with an inspiring woman who makes determination take on a new meaning. In this edition of “Everyday Women”, I talk to a French lawyer who decided to prove the “old grumpy men” wrong when they said she wouldn’t make it on her own.
Name Sabine Naugès
Works as Partner at McDermott, Will and Emery
I wasn’t such a good student, Sabine begins the interview. School work bored her, and she did not spend as much time poring over her books, or even in class, as her classmates did. Something that did keep her busy though, were the eight hours of gymnastics that she had scheduled every week. She trained hard, and participated in several French national championships.
Competing doesn’t bother Sabine, in fact it seems to be what motivates her the most. “When I plead in court, I plead to win”, she says. When asked whether she thinks this is because of her genes or because of the French, very competitive, educational system, she says without hesitation that it must be a result of education. At school, essays were handed down in order of grades, with the best students first, all the way down to the worst. All of them with a comment by the teacher for everyone to hear.
After successfully obtaining the French baccalauréat, Sabine proceeded to the well reputed Sorbonne law school in Paris, and continued as far as sustaining Ph.D in public law. Obtaining a place as a doctoral candidate is not easy, nor are the years that follow. Sabine describes the following four years as extremely challenging, in an environment where everyone has to literally fight alone for his/her existence, and where you are constantly denigrated by those around you.
That is why her first position in the “outside world”, at France Telecom (now Orange), took her by surprise. Suddenly she found herself in an environment where people were “super nice”, appreciated, recognised, encouraged her efforts, and worked as a team.
She quickly became a direct report to the group’s general counsel. As a manager he was extremely demanding, she says, but he was also fair and someone who awarded a job well done. The approach was very much “provided you perform, I will support you in advancing your career”.
Sabine then decided to get a double degree in law, and went for an LL.M. in Washington, passed the New York Bar exam after that, and followed up with admission to the French Bar. With double Bar Admissions, she was the perfect match for international law firms, and when the opportunity arose she joined one of them, and continued a few years later to join the Regulatory and Public Affairs Department of a top ten Law firm . After five years in another though environment, she decided to move again to an American law firm that had recently opened an office in France. This time, to set up the Regulatory Practice Group.
Herring & Crisp Bread: What has been the biggest challenge for you in terms of work/career? How did you deal with it?
Sabine Naugès: It was definitely taking the decision to leave the “golden cocoon” at the firm where I had worked five years, to go set up the Regulatory Practice Group “on my own” at a newly established international law firm. Nobody encouraged me, rather the opposite actually. Everyone told me that I would never pull it off. Finally, this ended up encouraging me even more; I wanted to show them all I was able to do it. So I left, and proved everyone had been wrong.
H&CB: What is important to you in your work, what makes you motivated, what makes you unmotivated?
SN: I am really motivated by challenges, and the will to win. When I take on a case, especially if it seems to be complicated, there is a tremendous satisfaction in digging into the details, finding good arguments, and going to court convinced that you are right. Then I plead, and I really plead to win.
H&CB: What is typical for a good manager, in your view? Can you give any examples from your experience (as a manager, or of managers you’ve had)?
SN: This is a complicated question… A good manager is honest and straight to the point. It is somebody who can tell the team members when something is not as it should, but also when things are well done. Of course, any negative feedback has to be constructive, you have to be able to suggest a solution; you can’t just say something is wrong without explaining why. If I give negative feedback to someone, it doesn’t mean I don’t want to work with the person, but it does mean that there are things to improve. If people come to see me for feedback they have to be ready for an honest answer.
The same goes in meetings. I am honest, and outspoken. It is important to speak your mind, and it is also important not to leave your seat at the table empty, she says with a wink.
H&CB: How has your outlook on work been shaped over the years, by whom, what, etc?
SN: I would say that the French educational system has left its marks in terms of my being competitive, but the encouragement I’ve had from my former boss (GC at France Telecom) has also contributed when it comes to doing an excellent job and daring to take risks.
H&CB: What tops your list of things that create a good work environment?
SN: A good work environment is one where people respect each other, where everyone can be who they are, and where there is no mould that everyone has to fit into. You have to dare express your opinion and not agree all the time (without doing this stupidly of course: you must always be able to justify your opinion).
Another important factor is the workload; it is stimulating to have work to do. It’s not good if people aren’t busy enough, it leaves room for politics, jealousy, and criticism of colleagues, especially in law firms where you count the billable hours. A good example is when a new big case has just come in and everyone joins in the effort to take it on; the team spirit at those moments is just great.
H&CB: From your experience and perspective, how do you look at the subject of women and leadership in the area of paid work? What comes to mind when you hear these words?
SN: To me, leadership in general is linked to charisma. I think you have to be charismatic to be able to lead people successfully.
H&CB: How do you think the industry you work in deals with diversity (gender and in general)?
SN: This depends very much on the individual law firm. There are clearly less women in corporate law, many work with intellectual property, family, and labour law. Corporate lawyers tend to work very long hours, and this tends to discourage women more than it does men. At one of the firms I worked at, there was only one woman partner out of twenty. If you had any personal matters to manage, it was pretty much your own problem. At McDermott, we have a team of fairly young partners (between 35/45 years old), and we are three women partners out of fourteen. Both men and women are encouraged to have an acceptable work/life balance; this really makes the work environment more agreeable for everyone. The advantage of working around billable hours is that you can take your children to the doctor and then catch up on your work later (which, by the way, is something both men and women do). There are even examples of men who systematically leave at eight pm to be with their families in the evenings. As long as the work is done, nobody really has any issues.
H&CB: How do you see your future, and how do you see the future for women in leading roles in “your” industry?
SN: As we move forward in our jobs and careers, leadership will be increasingly important. I believe that mentoring, collaboration and building relationships may benefit women in infiltrating managerial roles. Even if when it comes to others, it’s difficult to make generalisations.
More women than men pass the bar exam in France, but we are still far from a 50/50 representation at large firms, or even 1/3 female representation for that matter. Many women set up their own firms to manage their time as it suits them.
Something that I have come across often when I interview female candidates, who want to join the firm, is that many of them consider the “battle” lost before they have even started. They just seem to assume that they can’t continue at the firm once they have children, that the work-life balance won’t work out. I am of the opinion that nothing is lost before you have tried, and you can (almost) always find a solution if you try to, provided you think the balance you find is the right one for you. Of course, one important point is that you need the support from your partner. I do, and that has helped a great deal. But if all women start their career saying they’ll have to slow down at a later point in time, before they reach that point, how are we supposed to reach some type of male/female equity at work, in boardrooms, or elsewhere? It’s really a pity.