Grace Hanson, Vice President, Claims and Litigation Counsel, Homesite Group of Insurance Companies
How long have you been working for your current company?
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
After graduating from Tulane Law School, I worked in two smaller boutique firms in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I specialized in commercial litigation and insurance coverage. I became a partner in each one. In 2001, I left private practice to move to Bermuda and work with AIG as an executive in their Bermuda claims and legal departments. In 2004, I transferred to Allied World Assurance Company where I assumed the position of Senior Vice President, Chief Claims Officer. In 2008, I returned to the United States and relocated to Boston where I joined Homesite.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
My proudest achievement was making partner in my first firm where I had been told when I first started in 1987 that women did not make good lawyers by one of the partners.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
The corporate world is extremely competitive and that becomes even more so when one is a woman of color as the ranks of female executives in the insurance industry remain very small. To remain competitive, one must always have a sense of urgency about all responsibilities and constantly be producing at the highest quality as well as demonstrate a high degree of political acumen. There is no point at which one can relax.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
I still struggle with attaining a balance although it is a bit easier now that my child is almost 12. Luckily I do not face the demands of a private practice so I am able to leave at a regular hour and I try and schedule things around that. I also have a laptop and work at home when necessary to keep up to date. I think it’s easier now than it was 10 years ago as with a BlackBerry, laptop, fax and email, one can engage in personal activities and still be connected as opposed to being forced to spend time physically in the office.
Did you have a mentor or role model in your career or while you were studying law? Who were they and how did they help you?
Over the years I have had many mentors but two stand out. A male executive at Chubb encouraged me to become active in the ABA TIPS Committee where I eventually assumed various leadership positions and met many capable people who encouraged me. He has always been there for advice and counsel, and still is to this day. There was also a female attorney, Kirsten Christophe, who worked as an executive at AON, who took me under her wing and constantly provided moral and practical support. Unfortunately she tragically died in the World Trade Center.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
I have very mixed feelings about corporate diversity initiatives as I was never the beneficiary of any of them. I think to the extent that corporate diversity initiatives raise awareness about the need to look for diverse candidates as outside counsel, or internally as candidates for hire, or promotion, they can be very valuable as they compel at least some thought before hiring a white male candidate. However, to the extent they separate out diverse individuals though separate networking, separate parties, etc, I think they become counterproductive as they perpetuate the symptoms of exclusion.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
Absolutely. Most of the time I felt at a disadvantage as the legal and corporate world remains skewed towards a white male model and women continue to have to demonstrate exceptional skills and talent to overcome that. I have found, however, that being female has allowed me to deliver certain messages in a way that perhaps a male could not and to be an effective rainmaker through the building of relationships.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
The biggest change I have seen has been simply the increased presence of women in the profession and in more senior roles. While we are still significantly under-represented, when I started in 1987, there were very few senior women figures. I believe I was the only woman of color in New Orleans who was a partner in a predominantly white firm at the time, and there were no firms headed up by women. That has changed everywhere and in New Orleans recently, a firm founded by a woman, Judy Barasso, won several regional awards for their litigation skills.