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Corporate counsel: Women find career opportunities by going from law firms to businesses

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From left, Colleen Brennan, vice president and chief compliance officer, Lorna Ramdayal-Infanti, assistant general counsel, Zenola Harper, deputy general counsel and Linda Willett, general counsel, of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.
From left, Colleen Brennan, vice president and chief compliance officer, Lorna Ramdayal-Infanti, assistant general counsel, Zenola Harper, deputy general counsel and Linda Willett, general counsel, of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. - ()

Women in law increasingly are pursuing corporate counsel careers, often after getting a foundation in legal practice at law firms, and they can find that both venues demand tenacity and flexibility to integrate meaningful work into a satisfying personal life.

Female attorneys at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey talked about how they've negotiated the merger of work and family across varied careers at law firms and in the corporate world.

Horizon general counsel Linda Willett taught school, got a library science degree and was a drug industry executive, before she went to Rutgers Law School and landed her first legal job as a corporate counsel. Realizing she needed the kind of training that law firms give new lawyers, "I did a 'career-correct' — I took myself off to a law firm so I would become a better lawyer," Willett said. She joined McCarter & English, in Newark, in 1990, rose to partner, then left for Bristol-Myers Squibb in 1996. She hired attorney Zenola Harper at BMS in 2000. Willett joined Horizon in 2010, and the following year hired Harper as deputy counsel for Horizon.

Along the way, Willett has found ways to help women negotiate the demands of law and family. While at BMS, she and Harper "ended up hiring an almost all-female litigation group, and many of these women were child-bearing age. So we said, 'How are we going to do this, because we are going to have five or six or seven women (at various times) out on maternity leave? How are we going to handle the work?'"

What they did is approach the company's outside law firms.

"We said, 'We would like an associate from your firm to come and work for us,'" during a company lawyer's maternity leave. "The (law firm) associate gets an in-house opportunity and learns how to work with the client, and then we will give your associate back to you when our person comes back in." Willett said, "We did that very successfully at least six times" at BMS.

This June, a Horizon lawyer will go on maternity leave for six months and be temporarily replaced by a lawyer from one of Horizon's outside law firms. Willett said it's a win-win: "You retain the person you hired, who is a great lawyer; you show her that you are supporting her, and you also give (the outside lawyer) a client experience that they couldn't get at their law firm."

Harper said she's worked at several law firms where it was a normal practice for attorneys to work temporarily for a client, known as "secondment." She said it can take years for an attorney at a law firm to understand the corporation's needs, "but if you do a secondment, the light bulb goes off, and you understand how important it is to be able to make a decision and give information that is timely."

Attorney Barbara Ann Sellinger, who becomes president of the New Jersey chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel in January, has seen a dramatic increase in the number of women in corporate law departments over the past 20 years.

"The promotion path is more available to women," who find doors opening in sectors like manufacturing that, years ago, were less receptive to them, she said. Sellinger, who is general counsel for the Englewood arts education nonprofit Arts Horizons and has worked at Nabisco and American Standard, said the stature of in-house attorneys has risen through the years.

"You really have to have a very strong understanding of business," she said. "You need to understand the business, the personalities and the corporate mission."

Like Willett, Harper said she got invaluable training at a law firm, then decided she wanted the corporate world. "I tend to want to prevent a problem or fix a problem," she said, and she finds more opportunity to do so from within. During corporate litigation, "you are examining why you have this litigation: is there anything about the business you could improve? Making the company better is what I really enjoy as a lawyer."

Colleen D. Brennan, chief compliance officer at Horizon, also credits her five years' law firm experience for the legal practice foundation of her corporate law career, at Newark's Prudential Financial and now at Horizon. "At a law firm, there is somebody looking over your work, but when you start at a corporation, you are on your own from day one." She did corporate law at a law firm, "so I felt pretty confident that I knew about contracts, I knew about deals and I knew how to negotiate transactions — and I needed those skills before I set foot in a corporation."

Lorna Ramdayal-Infanti had a five-year career as a physician assistant, then went to law school. She practiced at law firms in New York and New Jersey, and worked for Robert Wood Johnson Medical School before joining Horizon early last year, where she negotiates contracts with health care providers.

She said her mentor, a lawyer who went to medical school, told her "you can accomplish things as an in-house corporate counsel by advising (the company executives), integrating with the business, learning the business — and you can give back your clinical knowledge if you stay within the health care field."

Ramdayal-Infanti has three children, ages 7, 4 and 1. She said unlike law firms, "corporations are not fixated on face time and billing. You're not trying to bill 10 hours a day. The emphasis is on getting the work done, rather than on the billable hours, and I think that makes a corporation attractive for women."

Willett said lawyers are mistaken if they think work/life balance will be easier at a corporation than a law firm. She said this past winter, Ramdayal-Infanti took some vacation time, but "a negotiation began to ripen," and she was called on to negotiate the deal. When something on the litigation front blows up, Harper will address that from early in the morning until late at night and on weekends.

"We all have family responsibilities," she said. "We just do whatever we need to do to make it work."

Willett said her role as a corporate executive has given her "the ability to hire other women and put women in leadership roles." When she interviews outside law firms, "We are able to say, 'When you come in to meet with us, we want to see women and people of color at the table." And she said "as more law firms bring women to the table, that also creates a great pipeline for potential in-house" corporate legal jobs.

Willett said, "Women in leadership positions are in a great place to be able to help other women along the career pathway, and maybe make some changes in (factors) that cause women to opt out" of demanding legal careers. For example, law firms need to be committed to flexible schedules, and not take women off the partnership track because they take time off for maternity: "Make it a meritocracy."

E-mail to: beth@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @bethfitzgerald8

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