By Paula Edgar • February 20, 2010•Writers in Residence
When deciding who I would interview first for this column, I knew I wanted to speak with Sheila Boston. She is an accomplished attorney, a black woman partner at her law firm and most importantly for me – she is a fabulous person. Sheila is the type of person whose energy lifts your spirit when you are in her presence. In addition to wanting to be like her, you want to hang out with her.
From our conversation, I learned that we have much in common: a love of dancing, adoration and respect for our fathers and a need to give back. Sheila had strong points on mentoring: such as finding value in mentors both within the legal profession and externally, and not solely focusing on having mentors that look like you. Sheila also discusses her strategies to find the ever so elusive “balance”. I hope that gaining some insight into how she did it will help you figure out, redefine or just appreciate your own paths. Enjoy!
Name: Sheila Boston
Employer/Title: Kaye Scholer LLP, Partner
Practice Area: Product Liability (emphasis on pharmaceutical product liability)
Favorite Book: The Bible
Favorite NY Restaurant: Tao
Favorite NY Spa: Allure Day Spa
Favorite Legal Themed Movie: A Few Good Men
Full Bio: http://www.kayescholer.com/professionals/boston_sheila
What made you decide to become an attorney? Well, it was either that or become a political news broadcaster. Those were the two careers in which I was originally interested. At the kitchen table, my father and I mostly talked religion and politics and, of course, law is an intersection of those two. As I grew up I met different lawyers and was impressed with them. I’m not an argumentative person, but I liked to get my point across. I found many people telling me “you should be a lawyer, you should be a lawyer”, and I think that kind of just got into my head and I ended up going that route.
What was your lowest point professionally and how did you recover from it? Oh, that's a very good question. I actually think it was when I was a first year – and, I mean, because here I was just starting out. I thought I was Ms. Confident and everything was peachy keen at this brand new job at a big-time firm. I was “the woman” then our firm got struck with -- we call it the “OTS affair” where there was a problem with cash flow. I actually got switched from the litigation department to the corporate department.
That just kind of shook me at the foundation because I just knew I was going to be a litigator, period; and for the firm to say well, if you're still gonna work here you're gonna have to go corporate department. That was a very difficult time for me, but it's amazing. You know, God works things out in the end. You don't always understand what's happening and the reason I say that is I went to the corporate department for a year. Not many people know about this. I went to the corporate department for a year – and actually excelled. I liked the people there. I had some great mentors actually, senior partners who really took an interest in me. They were wonderful and it ended up being a blessing in disguise and I'll tell you why, Paula, because, one, I really learned substantively about corporate work, you know, which most litigators don't, frankly and I think that helped enhance the skills that I have today.
What has been your most victorious moment as an attorney? There’s a tie. One was a pro bono matter -- where I represented a woman in a child support case, it was mostly child support collection and, and we ended up having an issue also in custody. It was in the Bronx Family Court and I was a mid-level associate. I didn’t have much courtroom experience, and I was victorious and so it was just extremely exciting, especially because in the very beginning, my client had kind of doubted me. It was just hilarious. She was this really tall Haitian woman. And our first meeting was at the Bronx Family Court. We had to meet there for the first time. After the meeting she shared this with me. She was like, “Sheila, you walked in the door and you looked so feminine and petite”, (I don’t say short, I’m petite.) “You walked in the door and I saw this little bitty thing and all I could think was how is this child gonna help me?” And in the end I did her justice and it was just a beautiful thing and so that’s one. What tied with that experience was definitely when I was involved in an employment discrimination case at Sodexo. It involved mid-level black workers and we ended up settling the case for $80 million, but even more importantly we had an injunctive relief and that company has really turned around. They even won a diversity award not long ago. So just having that kind of impact, a positive impact mind you, is extremely gratifying to me.
You’ve excelled and advanced in your career. Why do you think that most women of color aren't advancing in the legal profession? I think that they've encountered difficulty finding influential mentors to mentor them. So in other words, I don't think that they're not as talented; I don't think that it's they don't work hard. I just think there is a political component to ascension, at least in law firms. That's my experience, so that's the only experience of which I can speak. I just feel like unless you get an influential mentor, someone who's really and truly interested in your career and will help develop you that it's not going to happen. It can't necessarily be, you know, someone who looks like you and I mean in our law firm most of them don't. Especially the influential ones – and that, that's what I think. That's just my personal belief.
Who would you say was your most instrumental mentor and why? Wow, I know you’re expecting me to give the name of an attorney or someone in the law, but frankly it’s not. If I’m totally truthful … it would be my father. He’s just truly been inspirational. He’s a Baptist preacher down in Maryland. And whenever I’m in a quandary trying to figure out what to do, or I’m heavily ladened or frustrated, I call him and he always knows how to encourage me, pick me up; and frankly I found that to be more important than any type of professional advice people are able to give to me.
Can I have his number? (Just joking). I definitely had great [attorney] mentors. One of the persons is Steven Glickstein. He’s the head of our products liability group at my firm. And he is just so extremely intelligent. He has a phenomenal work ethic. He’s taught me so much and he’s been supportive of my career, so if I had to pick a lawyer, it would be Steven.
Is balance something that you have to work on and if so, how do you balance the demands of your personal and professional life? That's a $50 million question. Are you kidding me? I’m looking for “the answer” here.
I hate the word balance quite frankly because to me balance suggests like a 50/50 and it's never 50/50 unfortunately. You know, from day to day it depends. On one day I might be giving work 80 percent of me. On another day the family will get 80 percent of me. How do I do it? I believe in “work hard, play hard”. That is Sheila's motto. I believe in quality, not quantity. That goes for work as well as personal relationships.
What do you do in your down time when you’re not lawyering? Down time ..., my absolute favorite activity ..., I mean you have to understand, I’m coming from a religious/spiritual background, and so it’s church. A lot of my down time is spent doing work in the church and I sing in the choir and I’m just very active. I’m an officer at my church, so I would say that’s a majority of my time. Other than that – it’s definitely family and friends. I love to just let my hair down and have a good time. It doesn’t have to be an academic endeavor necessarily, but I love games in particular. Anyone who comes to the Boston-Robinson household knows that we love games like Taboo and just do things like that.
What is it about practicing in New York that you think feeds your practice? You could be in California, you could be anywhere. What is it about New York? Haven’t you heard the song? “ If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere?” I really, you know, forgive my bias but I just think, you have some of the top attorneys right here in New York City. You have a larger amount than most cities, let me put it that way. Let me be gracious, because I know D.C. is a wonderful place of attorneys, and there are, you know, throughout the country, but there’s just especially I think a larger [number] in New York City than most places. Cutting edge and it’s just, it’s a metropolis.
What do you think is the most surprising personal detail about yourself that people don’t know? Ooh, you ask tough questions. Okay, you’re getting intimate here. Something that other people don’t know? Hmm, I love to dance. People wouldn't necessarily gather that, but I love to dance. If I hear music I have to move, period. Even if it's just sitting and moving my head side to side swaying, I love, love, love to dance.
What advice would you give someone who wants to have a similar career as yours or wants to be in the position that you’re in? My advice would be work extremely hard, persevere, learn from your mistakes, strive for perfection, have role models or mentors, and really pursue an area of law that you love. You have to have a passion for it if you really are going to excel.
What makes it all worth it for you at the end of the night? When I know that I've helped somebody.
Paula’s Two Cents: On Mentoring and Life/Work Balance
My subject mentioned that her preacher father was and still is an important mentor and sounding board for her. This really rang true for me because I happen to consider my father my consigliore (a "Godfather" reference for the uninformed) for all things. And like Shelia's father, he also is not a lawyer.
A mentor does not have to look like you in order to be effective. Nor does an influential mentor have to be “the boss”. But they do have to know the politics of the organization, have the ear of the boss and most importantly, they have to “have your back” when it comes to decision making in back room conversations. So remember that you can have multiple advisors/mentors who serve different purposes. This may evolve throughout your career - all toward the purpose of helping you to achieve your goals. So, when you "get there", give back! After all, where would we be without our mentors?
Also demonstrated by my conversation with Shelia, Life/Work balance is often an ongoing struggle for us all. As women, we tend to try to be all things to all people which leaves very little left for ourselves. My two cents: Do what you can, when you can and don’t forget to treat yourself well. (see spa recommendation above)
In the meantime, I'll be waiting for the number to Sheila's father.
Esquisitely Yours, Paula