An Interview with Sandra Swirski: Lawyer, Lobbyist, and a Juggling Success Story
By Ms. JD • October 27, 2010•Politics and Government
Sandra Swirski co-founded two public policy/government affairs companies, advised 2 senior U.S. Senators, was an executive at a Fortune 10 company and advised multinational clients at one of the largest professional services companies. At Urban Swirski & Associates, LLC, a public policy and government affairs firm in Washington, D.C., Ms. Swirski's practice focuses on advising Fortune 500 executives and leaders of non-profit organizations about public policy and government affairs issues. Other private sector experience includes running the Washington government affairs office for Mobil Corporation, and advising multinational clients on economic and tax issues while at Ernst & Young. Ms. Swirski’s government experience includes serving as a senior staff member for two U.S. Senators -- Senator Jack Danforth (R-MO) and Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) – both of whom served on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. She also was chief counsel for the Senate’s Social Security Subcommittee.
Who was your most instrumental mentor and why? My most instrumental mentor was my boss at Mobil Corporation who taught me that politics is just as important inside a corporation as it is in Washington, D.C. Paying close attention to the personalities can sometimes be as important as getting to the right answer. We’ve all seen highly talented people fail because they ignored the importance of making a consistently good impression on colleagues and supervisors as they elbowed their way up the food chain. That may work in the short-term but never in the long-term.
That said, my experience with mentors has likely been different from the norm. I’ve had a variety of different work environments that have required different skill sets over my career. So, what I’ve relied on, and learned from, has been a network of peers from the specific workplace. I identified peers a year or two ahead of me who were doing really well and I relied on them for guidance.
That's probably a little contrarian from traditional mentoring from an elder statesman-sort. The best of all worlds would be to blend the two – a wise confidante coupled with a peer network.
You say your mentorship experiences have been non-traditional because your career path has been so varied. Can you share your trajectory? My career has been more varied than most lawyers. I started off very traditionally, working as a transactional tax lawyer in a large tax practice. Five years later I was offered the opportunity to work for a U.S. Senator as his tax counsel for the final year of his elected term. Even though it was a risk to leave a comfortable position for a one-year stint, I was assured by friends that “once on the Hill, you’ll be able to move around easily”. And they were right. I was then hired by another U.S. Senator as his tax counsel and stayed there for two years, until he retired. I then moved back into the private sector (Mobil Corporation) to run their Washington government affairs practice. Three very different experiences in the first 10 years of my career.
At each place the skills I gained were relevant to the next position, but in a completely different environment. In each place it was critical when I made the jump that I quickly learned how to survive and excel. And I relied on my peers in each position to help me hit the ground running.
One thing we talk about at M s. JD is the difference between mentorship and sponsorship, essentially the importance of having not just someone who can give good advice when you ask for it, but someone who proactively promotes you. Each jump I’ve made in my career has been because of a sponsor. My trajectory was absolutely a reflection of good sponsors that wanted to see me succeed.
Tell me about your work at your lobbying firm; what's a typical day? Owning a small business, you get involved in a lot of different jobs: developing business, servicing clients, and managing staff are all in a day's work. Any given day I'm juggling all three. Identifying potential business, connecting clients with key policy makers, running up to the Hill to talk to Members of Congress about issues of importance to my clients, working with staff developing briefing books for client board meetings, it really runs the gamut. Being an opportunist and able to switch gears is critical in my business. It's not just "it's nice to meet you;" it's assessing new contacts as a potential client, ally, or employee.
Being an employer is a whole other side of my work beyond the substance of government relations and policy craft. Delegation is critical. I need my staff to grow and mature so I’ m able to delegate increasingly sophisticated work assignments.
What made you decide to be an attorney? Were your expectations accurate? Are the reasons you joined the profession the reasons you stayed in it? My generation of women went to law school because that’ s what smart women who weren’ t particularly good in science or math did. And they went to medical school if they liked science and they went to business school if they liked math. Nowadays, the decision-making process is much more sophisticated and it has to be because graduate school is very expensive and the prospects for a good job to pay back loans isn’t terrific.
As for expectations, I was a political science research assistant while at Emory University. I enjoyed digging around for information and I thought law school would be about that. Not really. There was a lot of research, but it was more detailed and nuanced than I enjoyed. And that's probably why I'm not practicing in the traditional sense now.
Part of going through these experiences is determining what you're going to succeed at and what's going to be satisfying. I’ m more interested, and therefore better at, thinking through how to change law to either incentivize or disincentivize an economic or social behavior. Nowadays, I work at the front end of the law – helping Congress new legislation, or tinker with existing laws, to affect behavior -- as opposed to the back end of the law -- interpretation and implementation of existing laws.
We have seen statistics that even though both men and women are interested in politics and policy when they decide to go to law school, women are far less likely to pursue that work. Generally, public policy lawyering is not the mainstay of legal practices. Getting into it requires taking a risk – making a jump sometimes. Plenty of studies show that women tend to be more risk averse. The traditional channel of joining a law firm has a certainty attached to it. Other women may choose the law firm environment because they wrongly believe that Capitol Hill is a male-driven work environment and unfriendly to women. The open secret in Washington is that the Hill is bursting with women in senior positions and, in my experience, very much a meritocracy. Other women may choose a more traditional career path because their law school didn’t offer any other pathways for job placement.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a similar career to yours? To position yourself to work in public policy, I recommend you consider three actions:
- Move to Washington, DC or a state capitol -- that’ s where the jobs are.
- Offer to work for an elected official for free for the summer, however low level the position may be – snag an internship with your representative or with a non-profit in public policy, or a think tank. Start networking -- asking your parents, their friends, professors, former teachers and coaches for any elected officials they may know.
- Get some legal experience under your belt in a substantive area -- Lawyers are far better at policy once they have some substantive background. Then they are so much more marketable to policymakers. The legislature turns to lawyers as technical experts. But you're not necessarily technically adept coming out of law school. So getting some experience under your belt and then moving into policy is a natural trajectory.
Is balance something that you personally work on? If you do, how do you balance the demands of your personal and professional life? With so many competing concerns – clients, 3 children (HS, JHS and elementary), a husband who’ s a partner at a major law firm, volunteering – I’m rebalancing every day.
From the 50,000 foot perspective, negative energy in one part of your life will zap balance from every part of your life. Avoid negative energy, whether that’ s awful clients or unhealthy eating or bad relationships. At one point in my career I worked for a large public affairs firm with clients it the gaming industry – not exactly in line with my values. My heart wasn’t in it and the clients weren’t well-served. I went home irritable and depressed.
I realized that if I was going to spend so much time at work, it needed it to be on issues and clients I really cared about. When I had the opportunity to go out on my own I went for it. My experience is that if you feel generally good about everything, then balance comes naturally.
It's not about work/life balance - it's about adding positively to your life. One negative will infect everything else. Whether it's kids, volunteering, or clients, it's making sure you're in a good place in each aspect of life. You will be unbalanced until it rights itself.
Any final words of advice? And find a good husband/partner.
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VictoriaSA May 03, 2012
I like that her final advice is so simple, and yet can be one of the hardest things to find. If I had the chance, I would love to sit down and have coffee with her. She must have a tonne of advice that she can give, given her wealth of experience in multiple firms in different industries.