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Tips from the Top: Sheryl Willert

Sheryl Willert is managing director of Williams Kastner, and a member in the firm's Seattle office. Ms. Willert represents clients in complex commercial litigation, employment law and counseling, investigations and alternative dispute resolution. A national speaker and author on such topics as sexual harassment, age discrimination, and race discrimination, Ms. Willert has successfully represented individuals and corporations in such matters. Additionally, Ms. Willert has represented clients in matters involving professional negligence, product liability, personal injury, contracts, and civil rights.

Ms. Willert is a past president of DRI-The Voice of the Defense Bar, the nation’s largest association of civil defense attorneys with more than 22,000 members. She has the distinction of being both the first female and the first African-American to serve as an officer of the DRI.

Ms. Willert is also a member of the American Bar Association, the National Bar Association, the American College of Trial Lawyers and the Litigation Counsel of America. She serves on the advisory board for the National Employment Law Institute (NELI) and is on the board of directors of the USLAW Network.

Ms. Willert has been named to Super Lawyers by Washington Law & Politics magazine every year since the publication began its annual review of Washington's top lawyers in 1998. In 2003, Seattle Magazine named Ms. Willert a "Top Lawyer" in Labor Law. Ms. Willert has also been listed in The Best Lawyers in America for more than 15 years. She has also been recognized by the Seattle Met magazine as a “Top Lawyer” in Labor and Employment for 2010, a designation based upon Martindale-Hubbell's ranking of those practitioners in King County who have been judged by their peers to be “AV Preeminent”—the highest peer-review rating available.

Ms. Willert was named as one of Puget Sound Business Journal's 2007 Women of Influence. Now in its eighth year, the award program shines the spotlight on twenty local businesswomen, community leaders and philanthropists who are "a force in the Seattle community." In 2009, DRI renamed its Pioneer Diversity Award after Sheryl J. Willert. The award, now known as the Sheryl J. Willert Pioneer Diversity Award, recognizes an individual attorney for his or her demonstrated commitment to diversity in the legal profession. In 2010, Ms. Willert was honored as one of the Women of Power in Law at the Women of Color Empowered event hosted by the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation. In 2011, Ms. Willert received the Loren Miller Bar Association’s Pioneering Woman Award, presented to African-American female attorneys who are trailblazers in the legal profession.

In the past, you were the President of the Defense Research Institute. Did you plan to rise to the highest leadership position within that organization or was it something that just evolved over time?  

My path at DRI was really quite an interesting one.  Many years ago, I was contacted by the then-incoming President of DRI, Claude Smart, and asked to become the chair of the Employment Law Group so that it could be more invigorated. This assignment was a challenge but a welcomed one.  After several years of serving in this position, I was elected to the DRI Board of Directors.  Toward the end of that time frame, it became clear to me that I was interested in continuing to serve in the leadership position within the organization.  So, I ran for the position of 2nd Vice President which is the position that leads to the presidency.  I was lucky enough to win.

How do you balance your professional life and personal life?  

It is always a challenge to balance one's personal life and professional life.  However, I believe that I have achieved the balance because if you don't, you really burn out quickly.  One of the things that I find most enjoyable in life is cooking.  So, I try to cook dinner every evening.  That way, I'm relaxing while at the same time doing something that is healthy and necessary.

How did you overcome your fear/uncertainty in navigating in unchartered water? 

One of the most important things that you can do to overcome fear is to plan, study, make a decision and then accept that at times in life, you are going to make mistakes. Making mistakes does not make you bad or a failure.  In fact, you can learn many valuable lessons from mistakes.

How do you measure that you are continuing to grow?  

If you don't learn something new on a frequent basis - then, you have probably stopped growing.  

How do you determine your value?

I'm not sure that I am the one who actually determines my value.  I believe that the value of my contributions in life is measured by others - how they react to my input, whether they seek my advice, whether they believe that I am pulling my weight or generally doing the right thing.  

 How do you cultivate positive relationships at work?  

I try very hard to be a positive person - I say hello and thank you.  I try to give to others instead of being a "taker" or a "user" of people for my own benefit or self-aggrandizement.   I understand that regardless of one’s station in life, every person has something of value to contribute to the betterment of the whole.  If you keep those things in mind, you will cultivate good relationships. Not all relationships can be positive ones and that is something that we have to accept as true. However, I try very hard to build positive relationships…

How do you build these strategic relationships when you are very busy at work? 

I don't think that you can ever be too busy to have time to build relationships.  

How do you create opportunities for yourself?

It is important to me that I make positive contributions to society and the legal profession.  So, when I see something that will make a positive contribution.  If there is an opportunity to make positive contributions, I raise my hand and say that I am interested.  Then I follow through.

Catalyst posted an article on-line regarding the disparity in the advancement of men versus women in the high level positions. How do women obtain parity with men in terms of advancement?  

Women can obtain parity - it is simply a matter of working and demonstrating their worth and then being unwilling to accept second best.  However, as a caution, like everyone else - women should always pick their battles and fight the one that are worth it.

What are your thoughts in terms of how to recognize an organization’s true commitment to diversity?

An organization's true commitment to diversity can only be measured by deeds, not words.   So, despite the fact that there are entities that tout their commitment to diversity, it is more important that there be substantial steps toward increasing its diversity footprint. 

What are five tips you can provide for women who are aspiring to succeed in the profession or in a non-legal career?

1)  Have integrity and don't sacrifice it;

2)  Work hard;

3)  Be focused;

4)  Laugh a lot; and

5) Know when to say no.

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