When Susie Lees was a young law student, she was also a young mom with two kids: Katherine, born at the end of Lees’ 1L year, and Brittany, born when she was a 2L.
After graduating, Lees was intent on launching a successful legal career, but she was also dead set on putting her family first. She started asking legal employers about the possibility of working part-time.
“At the time, I thought, ‘Well, what the heck? I’m not asking you for more money. I’m not asking to be paid as a full-time lawyer. It’s piecemeal work anyway. You pay me based on what I do, and we all win, so what’s the big deal?’” Lees said.
Lees looked for government, in-house, and law firm work, but not surprisingly, employers didn’t see things her way.
“You would’ve thought I had three heads when I would say, ‘I’m really interested in a part-time job,’” she said. “I had an older lawyer say to me, ‘A part-time lawyer is like an oxymoron.’ I didn’t understand it — I was naive enough.”
Eventually, Lees found someone to accommodate her, and she went to work part-time as an attorney with the Allstate Corporation. Almost 30 years later, Lees is still with the company. But now she’s in charge of the entire 1,300-person legal department. Part of the reason she stuck around? Loyalty. Because Allstate accommodated her as a young lawyer, Lees stayed committed to Allstate.
The question of work-life balance, Lees added, is critical to the diversity question, especially when it comes to women: It’s assumed that law firms should be 50/50 male-female, but it’s worth asking how many lawyers — of any kind — want to work long law firm hours to begin with.
One potential solution is to rethink the concept of the part-time lawyer: “What’s wrong with working part time?” Lees said. “If you’re a good lawyer and you’re good at client service, you can do that 20 hours a week.”
The Allstate Corporation is the largest publicly held provider of property and casualty insurance for individuals in America. As of year-end 2014, Allstate had $108.5 billion in total assets. The company is ranked 89th on the Fortune 500 list of largest companies in America.
A graduate of Brown University and the University of Oklahoma College of Law, Lees recently spoke with Big Law Business by phone about ever-rising law firm fees, what she values in an outside lawyer, legal diversity, and the need for more part-time lawyers.
Read Part I of the interview here .
Below is an edited transcript of the second installment of the interview.
[caption id="attachment_6064" align="alignleft” width="250"][Image “Photo Courtesy of Allstate Corporation” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Susan_Lees.jpg)]Photo Courtesy of Allstate Corporation[/caption]
Big Law Business: You’ve brought up diversity a couple of times now. What are the biggest frustrations?
Lees: I’ve been practicing law for 27 years — I graduated from law school in 1987, and the conversation is still going on. I don’t understand what the issue is. We have the same issue in-house, although I think we’ve been doing a little better with it.
I firmly believe — and this might not be the most popular answer — we need to look at different data. I think people sometimes make assumptions. Let’s just say gender is 50/50 when people graduate from law school. The assumption is that law firms should be 50/50. Everybody should be 50/50.
But one of the things I think you have to look at is whether women want to work at law firms, and if they want to work at big law firms or small law firms. You have to start examining where people go.
I think you need to figure out who exactly wants to work at a firm that is not getting the opportunity or is made to feel they’re not welcome, for whatever reason. Is it the pay system? I don’t know. I had never worked at a firm. I hear that it’s the pay system, that it’s difficult to get a sponsor, that there aren’t that many women who are partners.
We need to look at different data. The assumption is that law firms should be 50/50, but you have to look at whether women want to work at law firms.
The statistics haven’t changed. I’m on the board of the National Association of Women Lawyers. They just published their report on diversity, and it hasn’t changed in 10 years, or something like that. We’ve all been talking about it. Now, there’s a lot of pressure on general counsels to move business according to diversity. We’re watching it very closely, and obviously, we’ll take action.
But whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working. I think we all have to take a step back and say, “Is it happening when people are hired? Is that the problem?” Let’s go look at the statistics on hiring. Let’s look at it three years out, five years out, and really take a deeper dive into what’s going on.
I also firmly believe, and I’ve talked about this to people, that for those folks — whether it’s women or minorities or men — who drop out for whatever reason to raise their families, how do they get back in?
I don’t think they can. I think when you drop out, you’re out. There’s not an easy way to get back in. I would be very interested in the numbers of women who have dropped out, because the big firm lifestyle didn’t fit with their family needs — would they go back if given the chance? If someone took the time to retrain them, and offered them an opportunity, would they go back?
Those folks who drop out to raise their families — how do they get back in? I don’t think they can. When you drop out, you’re out.
I actually did work part-time. A lot of people don’t know that. Back in 1986 when I was interviewing, my third year of law school, I was very upfront with firms that I wanted to work part-time. I had two babies at the time. I had them in law school.
You would’ve thought I had three heads when I would say, “I’m really interested in a part-time job.” I had an older lawyer say to me, “A part-time lawyer is like an oxymoron.” I didn’t understand it — I was naive enough.
At the time, I thought, “Well, what the heck? I’m not asking you for more money. I’m not asking to be paid as a full-time lawyer. It’s piecemeal work anyway. You pay me based on what I do, and we all win, so what’s the big deal?”
At Allstate, I was hired part-time, and I worked four years part-time. A lot of my clients didn’t even know I was working part-time. I looked at it as a long-term play for my life. What’s wrong with that? You’re not any dumber. If you’re a good lawyer and you’re good at client service, you can do that 20 hours a week. You can do it 40 hours a week. You can do it 100 hours a week. You should be able to do what works for you.
That meant I also didn’t ask for the world either. I was very careful. I didn’t say, “At 2 o’clock, I’ve got to go, because I’ve got to pick up my kids at daycare,” or something like that. I was very careful to make sure my personal issues didn’t become their personal issues. I think, when it works, it’s a beautiful thing.
I worked four years part-time. What’s wrong with that? You’re not any dumber. If you’re a good lawyer and you’re good at client service, you can do that 20 hours a week.
Long-term, look what happened. I was able to have my career progress as my family life changed. By the time the opportunities arose — like being general counsel of the Life Company and ultimately general counsel here — I had the time and the ability to put in whatever was necessary. I’m very loyal to my employer, as well, because of that. Why can’t that work?
Big Law Business: We’ve had a couple of general counsel suggest recently that companies may actually be part of the reason law firm diversity numbers are flat, because they’re luring people away. Do you agree with that?
Lees: I think it’s two-fold. From a diversity standpoint — women, minorities — I think we’re attracting that kind of talent more than the firms are. Perhaps we’re drawing it away. I think there’s another piece to it too, which is: people like to work where there are people like them.
When I came here, I was the only person working part-time. It didn’t bother me, because it was so important to me that I be home with my kids that I didn’t really care what they asked me to do. Some people are more sensitive. They wouldn’t want to be the only person working part-time. They want to go where there are people that look like them, who have the same values they have, some place where there’s a certain comfort zone.
Big Law Business: Are in-house departments more likely to hire straight out of law school these days? Are you doing that at Allstate?
Lees: I can’t speak for other companies. Yes, for Allstate. We definitely are. I know I’ve read about HP hiring — they’re hiring them out on the west coast in droves, I guess. I’m not hiring 30 — my class can’t match the class that Debevoise hires. Yes, we have an intern program every summer.
I would say, for the last three years for sure, we’ve committed to hiring. We hire anywhere from zero to three. We’ve also been hiring people that are maybe two or three years out. A lot of times, if we have an open position, I go solicit my firms to say, “Hey, have you got anybody that wants to step away from the big firm practice and come in-house?” I try and get them that way.
I’ve reached out to a lot of the law schools in the city of Chicago to see what they’ve got from the standpoint of externships because JD/MBAs are so hot right now. They need to do externships. I’ve made it pretty clear to the law schools that I’m more than happy to provide externships to these students. I hope to attract some talent that way.
I’ve also got 70 offices all over the country. I’ve started to hire interns for them, because some law students or law school graduates want to go to court, and the law firms can’t always offer that. I can offer these guys a ticket to the courtroom pretty darn quickly.