Jenifer L. Mercer-Klimowski, Senior Vice President, Corporate Counsel and Secretary, EMC National Life Company
How long have you been working for your current company?
I began working for the EMC Insurance Companies on the property-casualty side in June 1981. I moved over to EMC National Life Company in the fall of 2003.
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I graduated from Wellesley College in 1976 with a BA in History. I graduated from Drake University School of Law in 1979. I spent a year continuing as a law clerk with a sole practitioner who’d hired me during my freshman year at Drake, then another year bouncing around looking for work, primarily taking court appointments for juvenile and mental health cases.
I soon realised trial practice and I were not a good fit. In 1981, companies were only just beginning to bring the legal functions in-house, so I decided to look for employment in the corporate world. I grew up with the EMC Insurance Companies, where my father had been a career Claims Manager, so went there first, and was hired as a claims adjuster. While working as an adjuster, I obtained professional designations as a Chartered Property and Casualty Underwriter (CPCU) and Associate in Claims (AIC). In late 1989, I was offered a position in the Home Office Legal Department assisting the General Counsel.
One of my first assignments was a problem for Employers Modern Life (as it was then known), an affiliated company. In 2003, EML merged with National Travellers Life Company and changed to its current name. NTL had its own General Counsel, who left shortly after the merger, and I was offered the job.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
Getting where I am today. I spent 13 years in a lower-level legal position, but there wasn’t exactly a glass ceiling situation – the position above me was filled by a career and generational contemporary, so there really was nowhere for me to go within the same company. Since I’d been doing legal work for the life company for those 13 years through the P/C Legal Department, and knew the life company and its culture extremely well - it was probably a logical and natural move for them to offer me the position. On the other hand, my company could have chosen to promote another member of the Home Office Legal staff, or even bring someone in from the outside; they didn’t have to offer me the job. I even remember hoping, when I knew my predecessor was leaving, that they might offer me the job, then thinking “Nah, things like that don’t happen to me,” so it was a pleasant surprise when that’s exactly what happened – validation of my years of hard work!
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
I wish I could come up with all sorts of exciting things to tell you. EMCNL is a small company (only 79 employees at the moment, with only four senior officers) and the bulk of my work is more operational than legal, although it does generally carry a legal component or flavour. My days ebb and flow a lot, some are extremely busy and exciting, some terribly slow and boring. Some days I feel like I’m out looking for work to do, others I can barely get through the pile.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
It’s not as bad as it used to be and even then it wasn’t too bad. My son, an only child, is currently a freshman at college in another state. But the overall EMC organization has always been a family friendly company and I never had trouble getting the time I needed for family affairs, school events, leaving at a decent hour (unless there was a special project that demanded extra time). I don’t think I had any more or less problems with balancing work and domesticity than other woman who holds down a paying job outside the home – being legal counsel hasn’t made any difference.
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?
Sadly, no. My father gave me some support – he was an attorney as well – but I don’t think he ever adjusted to the idea of his daughter (I was also an only child) being a career woman, though he lived to see me reach my current position and was always proud of where I am. My mother was my greatest supporter in everything I did, but she passed away in 1985 when I was still a claims adjuster.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
It’s hard for me to say. Out here in Iowa, we’re pretty white-bread as a community. I’m not involved in hiring decisions and, as I said, ours is a fairly small company and has a stable base of long-term employees. I don’t think we actively search for “diverse” employees, but we do give fair consideration to any applicant for open positions, regardless of any characteristics of race or national origin, gender, marital status, handicaps, etc. Our parent company, which is much larger and has 16 branch offices, has a more diverse employee population simply by virtue of its size and being geographically spread over the entire country, though with a Midwest concentration.
I should add that we use independent agents – not employees – as our sales force, with almost 10,000 agents representing our company nationwide. We actively recruit new producers all the time and are open to accepting anyone who is appropriately licensed and who we feel can sell our products.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
Yes – when I first graduated from law school and looking for work, I was often told, “Sorry, we’re not hiring anyone right now,” by law firms where I’d sent résumés. Then I’d hear they’d hired one of my male classmates, often someone lower in class rank than me and not one of their former clerks either. I had to conclude it was the gender that made the difference. I always figured it was the firms’ loss - I was meant for bigger and better things, and kept looking for other opportunities.
When I began working for the insurance company, I learned that outside or field adjusters were all men and all at a higher job classification and better pay grade. The company had an unwritten policy of not letting women go out into the field, ostensibly for their safety, but also had a policy of only having one level of claim professional working in–house and that was at the lowest classification and pay grade. I had to threaten to find a job at another company before I got a promotion. Fortunately, the company got with the times and that is no longer the case.
The funny thing is that the three times in my career I started the process of looking for advancement outside my company, a new and better opportunity came to me within it.
I’m not sure being female has ever been a professional advantage to me! On the other hand, when I announced I was pregnant I was given a raise and my boss told me it was to encourage me to come back from maternity leave. Not sure if that counts.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
As you can tell from my graduation dates and my choice of undergraduate school, I would probably have been considered to be at the leading edge of the “Women’s Liberation” movement. Notwithstanding the world around me in 1972, when I was graduated from high school, I never felt there was anything I couldn’t do if I just put my mind to it, squared my shoulders and dove in. Looking back, I have no doubt that my gender was a disadvantage. But at the same time I was paying my dues, as were other women of my generation, men were coming up alongside us. Those men are the ones making some of the hiring decisions now for the generation that came behind me. I don’t think they, as a group, have the same attitude of patriarchal negativity toward women in management and in higher executive positions, as my parents' generation did.
To put it briefly, I think we have more opportunities than before because we are no longer thought of as being somehow “less” than the men simply because we’re women. We have undergone a cultural change that has opened more doors to us and we aren’t afraid of going in and taking over if we get the chance.