Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them: Featuring Michelle Campbell of AlixPartners

Bio for this week's Superwoman JD: Michelle Campbell leads the strategic communications practice at AlixPartners, LLP, a global firm of senior business and consulting professionals that specializes in improving corporate financial and operational performance, executing corporate turnarounds and providing litigation consulting and forensic accounting services when it really matters – in urgent, high-impact situations.     

She consults with clients to strategically plan communications campaigns in investigations, restructurings, chapter 11’s, mergers and acquisitions and crisis situations.  Michelle works closely with management, corporate communications and media groups, lawyers, and financial advisors to develop and launch tailored public relations and communications programs for employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders and the media.  Michelle is effective with her PR initiatives based upon her ability to relate to diverse audiences, including the most sophisticated CEO’s down to rank and file employees who need to understand basic information about how corporate actions will affect their jobs and lives. 

Before joining AlixPartners and starting her practice, Michelle practiced restructuring law at a global law firm.  Before leaving the practice of law, Michelle was selected by Turnarounds and Workouts Magazine as one of the nation’s 14 Outstanding Young Restructuring Lawyers.  Michelle is a member of the Texas and California State Bars, and serves on the Board of Women in E-Discovery as the National Women’s Initiative Coordinator.  Michelle has even been gracious enough to provide her contact information for follow ups and questions:

1. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started practicing law?
I’m so fortunate to have had some great mentors over time who gave me a lot of advice.  I’ve built my code of conduct around the advice I’ve gotten from the very successful and effective people who gave it to me.  Some of the most important things that people taught me early on that I have passed on to others include:
• Make decisions – this is the fastest way to becoming a decision-maker
• Propose solutions; not problems
• There’s never a good time to work on building your network, so just do it and treat it like it’s part of your job
• Stand out in the hallway and stay off of your blackberry during conferences or meetings; it’s the best way to meet people
• When you’re young, try to align yourself with people who have their name in lights
• Don’t get sideways with your colleagues; everyone will be miserable
• Sink or swim
• Most people aren’t visionaries, so don’t expect a lot of company and support if you are one
• There is no replacement for elbow grease – get into the weeds and do the work
• Be the top contender, not just the top female contender

2. What do you think the legal profession can do to increase the number of senior level females?
That’s a big question, and all I can do is explain my own perspective on this based upon my own goals and personal experience.  People tend to be confused about the role a firm can and should play in professional development.  Firms provide a platform that all lawyers can leverage to help them meet their goals.  By platform I mean a strong brand, access to high profile clients, big deals and cases that involve successful people who can become part of a lawyer’s network. 

There’s no doubt that women face different obstacles and choices than men.  But as an individual, you have to figure out your end game and then leverage the platform to meet those goals.  I’ve always wanted to be a senior executive with a sustainable practice and business case, so I’ve leveraged these platforms and brands to build my network and meet the kind of people who could collaborate with me to help me build something valuable.  I was able to get great experience and meet people – both men and women – who pushed and pulled me in the direction in which I wanted to go.  I would never have met these people if I wasn’t associated with some strong brands, including the AlixPartners brand right now. 

Women should think about this and get on some sort of a track early on in their careers.  There is no “right” answer, but if you are a 6-7 year attorney who is expecting to make partner in the next few years, I believe you need to be able to show that you have created serious value around yourself, and you need to be indispensible based upon your internal network, and totally portable based upon your external network.  You can’t just wake up one day and expect that a firm will make something happen for you just because you’re smart and hard working.  Building a business case takes a serious commitment and requires big sacrifices over many years.  At the end of the day, all people have to be honest with themselves about whether they’ve really done what it takes to warrant being a stakeholder in a firm.  Do women have to work harder and be more creative to get there?  Yes.  But if you want this, focus on doing what you need to do to get there and learn how to play the game.                  

3. Being a first year attorney anywhere is tough.  How do you think young attorneys can really hone their skills in their first few years? 

Your first few years are about becoming a good lawyer, developing good habits, and positioning yourself for the freedom and options that come with having a powerful network.  Learn what it takes to be a good lawyer, and start developing those habits now.  Don’t just emulate what the senior associates and partners are doing – develop your own authentic approach to becoming a great lawyer who clients will ultimately want to call directly.  Easier said than done!  Here is my advice. 

a. Care about your clients as people and try to understand their businesses, industries and the results they are trying to achieve.  Have some skin in the game.  It’s very hard to understand the big picture when you are trying to figure out how to be a lawyer, but this is the single biggest problem clients have with young lawyers.  A few years ago, I conducted an informal survey of some of my in house friends and clients.  They said overwhelmingly that many young lawyers just don’t understand the client’s businesses, industries, and they don’t seem to take into account the client’s ultimate goal.  The next time you receive an assignment, take a moment to conduct some research about the client’s industry and business, and ask the person who is assigning the project to explain the client’s end game.  You may not be able to bill the client for this or be a decision maker on the matter, but it will make you a better lawyer and help you deliver better results. 

b. It’s hard to be a junior lawyer, and sometimes you feel like you’re getting dumped on.  But turn those situations inside out and make them work for you.  For example, if you are put on a case in which you are merely directing traffic and having to deal with tons of people inside and outside of the firm, build relationships with those people and make them part of your network. 

4. Our profession is male dominated.  How can young women balance being feminine and professional at the same time?  I meet many women that simply act like one of the boys; I do not think that is the solution.  Do you have any advice for handling social situations, outings with clients, etc.?

The two big issues here are appearance and behavior.

Wardrobe and appearance are sticky issues for a lot of people, but I’m in the camp of women who take care of themselves – it sets me up to attack any situation or challenge with confidence.  But I know the difference between being polished and pulled together and being dressed for a club.  Think about the kind of attention you’re going to attract when you get dressed every day.  If people are going to say “wow” as a result of your involvement, you want that to come after something brilliant you’ve said or done.     

When it comes to activities that involve clients, colleagues or other business contacts, I do not act like one of the boys, and I’m not someone who can “drink them under the table.”  I’ve learned to steer clear of situations that have the potential to get sticky.  I always tell people who are trying to navigate business-related social situations that there are a lot of people in the world.  Some of those people want to party or go to sporting events, and some of them like spas.  I like spas and so do many of my contacts.        

5. There is a perception that senior female attorneys think that they had it tough and so should you.  Do you think that this sentiment is true?  If so, do you think there is value in figuring things out on your own like women before you had to?
I think this is about generation as opposed to gender.  In my generation, if you wanted to get ahead, you got there before your boss and left after him or her.  You did extra work in hopes that you might be asked to attend a meeting, court or a client call.  I expect junior people to have the same mentality, but I don’t expect anything more than what I am contributing on a daily basis.  With women in particular, I might be harder on them because I see the mistakes that are made and I want them to be positioned to be the best they can or want to be, not merely the best woman they can be.       
6. What advice do you have for young female attorneys looking for a mentor?  Do you feel that there is added value in finding a female mentor?  What should they be looking for in a mentor, and what can they do to make themselves someone you would want to mentor?

I think all professionals need a number of role models, mentors and sponsors to help navigate the choppy waters of career development.  If you want to be the best you can be, you need a good playbook, and mentors can help you develop that.  I don’t see how you can develop a good playbook without forming relationships with men and women, lawyers and non-lawyers, and people inside and outside of your firm.  To exclusively rely on other women or people within your firm as mentors and role models shuts you off to critical information about the players who may influence the ultimate outcome.   

I try to get into the heads of everyone around me – clients, colleagues, adversaries, competitors, judges and anyone else who might be sitting across the table from me.  You can’t do that unless you learn from people who think like they do.  I get information and guidance from people who look and act like the people I’m trying to understand.  Now, when I’m in a room full of men over 60, I refer to that page of the playbook, a room full of non-lawyer business people, I refer to that page, and so on.  You pick up content for your playbook over many years by listening to people and watching them do what they do best in the way they feel comfortable doing it.  For example, I don’t try to control or get upset about what others may consider offensive behavior – I simply consider that valuable information for my playbook.             

My advice for any women looking for mentors is to observe those around you and look for natural connections both in and outside of your firm without regard to gender.  These relationships are often very informal.  Just start listening to people who are senior to you, and try to get into their heads.  To the question of what might make someone an attractive mentee, I’d say no venting.  It’s not about what’s in your head – it’s about what’s in theirs.  When you’re getting air time with someone senior to you, use that time wisely, and find out what they do, why they do it, and where they’re headed.  Listen to them speak about their experiences; watch how they act in meetings.  Borrow pages from their playbook.  If you want something that you think they can help you get, tell them what that is and be bold enough to ask for it.             

7. Men still get paid more and get promoted faster.  What advice do you have for young women to help them accelerate their careers?

These statistics don’t show why men would be paid more or promoted faster.  There are always exceptions, but I am convinced that promotion and higher compensation is in direct proportion to business development success or potential.  Not all people are cut out for business development, but the people who can develop business will always be the ones who make the most money.  If you want to be on the fast track, focus on building your network and positioning yourself to generate business.  Begin by building strong relationships with your colleagues who will eventually become your clients.  Here are some strategies that will set you up for a strong business case when it really matters:
a. Women who are leaving firms are going in house.  These might be your colleagues today, but they are also the people who are going on making decisions about which firms to hire tomorrow.  Build relationships with these people and show them over time that you understand their business, industry and goals, and the rest will take care of itself.
b. Understand that some of the most successful law partners are the ones who network with their fellow partners in other departments within the firm.  Those people win new business when their colleagues call them with client referrals – it’s called the “cross-serve.”  Research shows that men are doing a better job of networking with their colleagues, thereby leading to more successful cross-serve opportunities.  Learn as much as you can about your firm, what your colleagues do and how you might fit into that picture. 
c. In addition to hanging out with fellow lawyers or law students, hang out with young MBAs or MBA students, and keep track of them when they change firms.           

8. If you could go back, what would you have done differently in how you approached your legal education and career?

I certainly wouldn’t change much given where I am today.  There have been days particularly in years 1-5 when I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life by going to law school, but I’ve realized over time that it’s a marathon and it can all lead to a great place.  Young lawyers need to keep in mind that all sorts of good and bad things happen before you reach a point where you think you’ve really got a career.  It takes years of hard work and falling on your face (which I like to call “character-building experiences”) to get to a balanced and successful place.  As Winston Churchill said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” 

9. What opportunities do you feel that your legal education has afforded you? In other words, doors that have opened, fulfilling activities you are involved in, etc.
I would never have been able to forge a new career and launch a strategic communications practice at AlixPartners without the many years of legal and overall professional development training I received while practicing law.  In my current practice, I help clients communicate with their employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders during crisis periods.  I learned how to manage the client’s risk and help companies communicate with their most important audiences over many years of watching these audiences respond to crisis.  I made mental notes of the questions they would ask, and I thought about how I could make it easy for them to understand what is happening and how it is going to be resolved.  I’ve always been committed to providing clear information and access to people who might not understand complicated legal concepts, but I needed to understand those concepts before I could learn how to break it down for people who aren’t lawyers.  Most importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to envision and build this practice without my years of legal training and the involvement of the well-connected and talented people I’ve met along the way.     

A Message from the Author:   This column is a Q&A with senior level female attorneys offering advice and mentorship to young female lawyers.  The questions below were sent to the interviewees and responses have not been edited for content.  The advice, experiences, personalities, and approaches of these women are extremely diverse and more importantly very useful to future generations of female attorneys.  I hope this column will offer helpful advice, and inspire healthy discussions.  I have an exciting lineup of female leaders in the profession, but if you have someone you would like to nominate, or you yourself would like to be interviewed, feel free to email me at   I also just went on twitter and will be launching a superwomenjds blog soon. So stay tuned and please please please share your thoughts, problems, and solutions.

Bio for the author of the column:   Noha Sidhom is a proud graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law.  Before attending law school, Noha interned on Capitol Hill for the Honorable Charles Timothy Hagel and went on to campaign for Senate candidate Peter Ricketts.  During law school, she clerked at Husch Blackwell Sanders, formerly Blackwell Sanders.  She also did an internship at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Enforcement and an internship at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where she is now an attorney in the Office of General Counsel.  Noha is licensed in New York and New Jersey, and currently resides with her husband in Washington, D.C.

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