Aimee Fagan, Principal, McKool Smith PC
How long have you been working for your current company?
5 years, since 2008
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
Before graduating law school, I accepted a full-time position with Arter & Hadden LLP, a large international firm with a sizeable Dallas office. I practiced securities litigation and commercial litigation and was exceptionally fortunate to gain significant first and second chair trial experience during that time. Over the next few years, I was given managerial responsibility for several high profile cases while the firm was undergoing significant turmoil, further enhancing my experience. I also began to develop modest, but viable, clients. Shortly before the firm dissolved, I accepted a position with a Dallas litigation boutique. At that point in my career, I became heavily involved in local bar activities and professional networking groups. A year later, I accepted a position with Fulbright & Jaworski LLP, where I continued a securities and commercial litigation practice. Desiring to meet the significant IP litigation demands of a larger client, whose work was conflicted with that of another client at Fulbright, led me to join forces with the team at McKool Smith -- a leading patent and commercial trial firm. While at Fulbright, I increased my bar activities and was appointed Chair of the Trial Skills Section of the Dallas Bar Association. Since joining McKool Smith, we have tried to verdict and/or litigated to settlement several cases with exceptional success. I have maintained an active role in the Dallas Bar Association and other professional groups since joining McKool Smith. Most recently, I served as Chair of the Business Litigation Section of the Dallas Bar Association. Over the course of the past year, I have managed a team of more than twenty attorneys working on behalf of Halliburton on technical issues in relation to the Gulf Oil Spill litigation, have taken one patent case to arbitration, and have been preparing for trial on another patent case this summer. Life is good.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
Managing a very large group of attorneys as we handled the development of technical defenses and expert discovery on behalf of Halliburton in the Gulf Oil Spill litigation.
Our team at McKool included more than 20 attorneys, many of whom were senior Principals of the firm. Coordinating and managing such a large group, on high stakes litigation for a favorite client, under very short deadlines, was exhilarating. The work my team delivered was exceptional, particularly under the circumstances. This period has certainly been a career highlight.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
Despite progress over recent decades, the corporate world and large law firms are still largely controlled at the upper management level by senior men. It’s a simple fact, and women need to proactively address their careers within that context. Women lawyers must be aware of and address the challenges presented in occupying a partner position and/or leading a team of established male executives in the corporate world. Good work alone often does not generate the level of success needed to maintain a presence in the upper ranks. The goals of mutual respect, loyalty, and camaraderie require a conscious effort to network and socialize within your client and firm communities, to break any communication barriers that may be present. Additionally, the development of a specific expertise can lead to long-term success for many women partners. In the end, however, client development and the origination of business cannot be underemphasized in today’s competitive corporate environment.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
Work-life balance is a challenge for most attorneys, and particularly so for women with children. The role of women as the caretaker of the family cannot be under-emphasized. Working women often take on two jobs: the devoted mother and caretaker, and the career professional. This issue is something I’ve researched professionally for some time, and I’ve found successful women tackle these issues a myriad of ways. A supportive spouse is an incredible asset for a working woman, as is good domestic help. I minimize my time doing chores or errands that can be handled by someone else, so that I can spend my time on the priorities in my life. Setting personal limits on work outside of the office, and enforcing them, is also constructive. The work that we often think can’t wait, really can. Turning off work periodically is a learned skill that must be practiced. I find that I give my best work when I allow myself to step away from work periodically.
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?
Straight out of law school, I worked for one of the strongest female lawyers I’ve ever met. She commanded a large book of business and was respected, if not feared, by many of the senior male partners. Her success served as proof that it was possible to attain a senior role in a largely male-dominated law firm. Specifically, she taught me by example how best to communicate with executive men, both clients and partners. She taught me the values of frequent client communications, firm handshakes, and the portrayal of strength in one’s demeanor. Most importantly, she taught me that I had chosen a difficult career path, but that I could and would be successful if I put my passion behind it.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
Some of the most formal and well funded initiatives fail because upper management and senior executives are not encouraged and incentivized to embrace the program and its goals. Economic incentives, i.e., clients who insist on diversity in their law firms, can be highly effective. In my experience, women’s networking groups are beneficial to women, as are initiatives that specifically target and train women lawyers to develop clients and occupy managerial roles. Ultimately, however, women need to see tangible proof that diversity initiatives are working; women need to see women promoted to the upper ranks. Clients and other economic incentives are the most effective tool -- by insisting on the promotion and representation of women at the upper level.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
I’ve never had a “woe is me” moment, but the challenges women in law face cannot be denied. I’ve had allies in my career who have helped me along the way. Senior partners who took me under their wing. Female clients who supported me with business. And female judges who encouraged and supported me professionally. There are ways to work a perceived disadvantage to one’s advantage, with a little bit of thought and hard work.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
Women are continuing to gain more visibility in corporate America and abroad. Perceptions of working women are continuing to evolve as more women take leadership roles in Congress, corporations, and private enterprises. Clients are increasingly seeking firms with strong female leadership and women partners. My clients affirmatively demand to know how many women and diverse members are promoted within my law firm. Change has been slow, but as women continue to rise in the corporate world, I believe the role of women in the law will follow suit.