Be All In: A Conversation With Lisa Pensabene

This month, I was lucky enough to interview Lisa Pensabene of O’Melveny & Myers, LLP. Lisa is a partner and the Head of O’Melveny’s Life Science Litigation Group.  For the last 25 years, her practice has focused on patent litigation, particularly in the pharmaceutical, chemical, and biotechnology areas.  Her perspective on life and work has really motivated me to work even harder, and I hope it does the same for all of you.

What does it mean to be the Head of the Life Science Litigation Group?

That’s something I continue to figure out every day.  In part, it’s managing my patent litigation practice and working with others on my team.  It also requires that I work with people who have different areas of practice, also focusing on life sciences.  My role requires me to coordinate with those individuals so that we can give really seamless and terrific service to our clients.

You earned a biology degree in college.  Did you know that you wanted to practice patent law during college?

No, I had no idea! I really didn’t.  After college, I was working as a scientist, and the other scientists suggested going to law school.  I was completely surprised by that idea.  I love science, and at the time, I didn’t know anything about being a lawyer.  But they told me that I could be a patent lawyer, and how perfect that position might be for me.  Knowing how smart they were, I took their advice, and I wound up applying to law school.

Have you encountered any hurdles on your path to getting to your current position?

I think one of my hurdles was simply maintaining confidence in myself and inspiring others to have confidence in me.  I wish I had a magic solution to overcoming those hurdles, but the only thing that I found that works is working really hard and being very well-prepared.  You also have to just be “all in” with respect to the work that you’re doing.  Be excited about it.  Be passionate about it.  Show that you care.  On my team, we want everyone to make the case [they are working on] their own.

Is there anything on your path that you wish you had done differently?

I think about this question sometimes, but I always conclude that if I could change anything, I wouldn’t be here.  I am so happy with my life, my family, my work, my team, and my firm.  I guess all of the ups and downs and twists and turns have been the right path.  It hasn’t always been a straight path.  And sometimes I had no idea where I was going. But it has all turned out very well.

The one thing I certainly never regret is working or trying hard.  I think that sometimes when that hard work doesn’t lead to immediate success, it comes back to you in another way.  You might be surprised years later when some knowledge that you gained from a failed effort unexpectedly comes back to help you.

Did you have mentors throughout your career?

Absolutely.  You don’t get anywhere by yourself.  There are many people who I look to as mentors or sponsors.  They have been friends, peers, or partners, and even clients.

If a young attorney was looking for a mentor, what advice would you give her for her search?

Find someone you click with.  Find someone who embodies qualities that you would like to have or, perhaps, someone who is in a position that you would like to be in one day.  You don’t have to look for just one person.

It might be helpful for you to offer to help someone else.  Help out on a project or on an administrative matter.  The more you put yourself out there and participate, the more you’ll learn and form relationships.  That’s what mentoring is about—relationships.  The best relationships go both ways.  They are give and take.  

Do you have any advice for us in terms of maintaining that mentoring relationship after the project or initial communication is over?

I know there is a sort of awkwardness sometimes.  But I think most people are happy to hear from colleagues or friends, even if it’s been a while, so my advice is make the call. Send the email. Say “How are you? This is what I’m doing. What are you doing? I would love to talk or have coffee.”

It might also help to do a little research.  Find out what that person is working on.  Maybe you have something to offer.  If you do a little homework, that may spark a terrific basis for communication.  Almost everyone is happy to have another friend to talk to or communicate with, so you’ve got to just go for it.

Once a young lawyer decides that she is ready to add family commitments to an active legal career, do you have any suggestions for how she might balance those commitments?

Well, I’ll tell you a secret: I wake up in the morning and I think, “how am I going to fit all this in?”  Everyone feels that way.  There is so much to do.  Women have great opportunities to fill lots of different roles.  We can be the daughter, the sister, the mother, the wife, the boss, the volunteer, the lead, etc.  It’s hard to accomplish all of that in one day.  Some days you will! And some days, you’ll only be able to get one done, and that’s ok.

I have three tips that have worked for me.  The first is to just stay involved in all those aspects of your life as best you can.  Again, you have to be “all in” as a mom, as a wife, as a lawyer, and as a friend.  To whatever degree your abilities will let you, you have to give your all.

My second piece of advice is that takeout is your friend.  By that I mean, not everything is worth equal attention from you.  You have to decide what’s important.  That means for me, that my family eats a lot of takeout!  I actually love to cook, but there is not enough time every day.  I focus on the things that are truly important to me at any given moment.  That doesn’t mean forever.  One day, I may have more time to focus on cooking.  But you have to let go of some of the things that are less important to you.

The third tip is that you cannot do all of this alone.  You have to have a great life partner, family, friends, or colleagues at work that will help you.  And remember that others will need the same help from you.

Do you have any final advice for young female lawyers starting and navigating their legal careers?

I always say that I’m a better lawyer because I’m a mother, and that I’m a better mother because I’m a lawyer.  My older daughter has told me that my life has taught her that as a woman, she has unlimited potential.  She can be whatever she wants to be.  She just has to work to make that happen.  And I’m so happy about that.  She feels unlimited.  I hope my other girls feel that same way.  I hope my son also feels that women have unlimited potential and that he doesn’t see a difference between his opportunities and those of his sisters.  

I have been a better mother because I’m a lawyer.  And I definitely think I’m a better lawyer because I’m a mother.  The skills of being a mother are critical skills that can help you be a terrific lawyer.  Being a mother requires you to have tolerance and patience.  You have to stay calm in the face of a storm.  And I think I’ve become a lot more efficient, because I have to be.

So the one thing I want to tell young lawyers is don’t worry.  You can definitely do all of it.  I’m sure you can.  And as you attempt to do so, you will be better at all the other parts of your life. 

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