Elizabeth (Libby) Kitslaar, Partner, Jones Day
How long have you been working for your current company?
I have spent my whole career at Jones Day, starting as a summer associate before finishing at Case Western Law School, and joining the firm after graduating in 1982.
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I spent five years working in our Cleveland, Ohio office, and moved in 1987 to help start the Chicago office and the corporate practice here. While in Cleveland, I started immediately working on transactional projects, focusing on real estate and lending, but moved quickly in my first year into mergers and acquisitions, working under a number of senior Cleveland-based partners. I was promoted to partner after moving to Chicago in 8-1/2 years.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
It would be difficult to point to any one transaction, matter or client engagement. Every deal teaches you something new, and poses issues and challenges that are novel, even in the smallest matters, things that are unique to the business, negotiating team, and industry involved. However, helping found and grow the Chicago office at Jones Day probably stands out as one of the more interesting experiences. We merged with a small, boutique patent firm in Chicago, and brought to the office a variety of practitioners, including home grown lawyers from Jones Day, lawyers from other firms in the City of Chicago, lawyers from government service (including Dan Reidy, former Assistant U.S. Attorney, and current partner-in-charge of the Chicago office), and new associates straight out of law school. Working with lawyers from separate backgrounds and legal cultures was interesting, coming from a large firm with an established culture. Watching the office start small, learning to appreciate all the little things that go into starting an office and making it successful was a real learning experience. It is also extremely gratifying to see the lawyers who worked for me as junior associates while at Jones Day progress as professionals, both within Jones Day and in careers outside the firm where they have assumed leadership roles.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
With the current recessionary environment and the focus of our clients on cost savings and “value added” by their outside law firms, we are increasingly sensitive to remaining competitive and continuing to grow our business with both existing clients, and in the markets in which we have offices. In the value added category, our clients expect that we will put forward creative, strategic solutions to issues and in deals, while focusing on potential risks at an early stage in the matter. Today it’s not enough to simply have superior technical ability. Effective deal lawyers also need to be extremely practical and have a good sense of the market which can only be gained through doing many deals and gaining an understanding of the business sensitivities associated with transactions.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavor to do this?
“Balance” is sort of a relative thing. M&A is a demanding practice with tight, sometimes arbitrary deadlines. When the deal is going strong you just have to go into “lock down” mode and grind away to complete the deal. I generally work out on a regular basis as a stress buster and to gain a little time for myself.
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?
While I didn’t have a single mentor, I learned a lot from practicing with a variety of senior lawyers in Cleveland and Chicago (including Bill Ritchie who was the first partner in charge of the Chicago office), working on deal after deal for many large, corporate clients, including a multitude of clients in the chemicals and specialty chemicals industries. The 1980’s was an extremely busy time for M&A transactions, and I was – through a series of large, complex and cross-border matters – exposed to a variety of lawyering styles, practitioners and technical and business experts. The learning curve was very steep from the 1980’s through the time I made partner, and thereafter.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
While a lot has been written on structural corporate diversity initiatives (which are essential), at the end of the day the ability of professionals to excel without regard to their race, gender or other personal attributes comes down to the culture of an organization, and treating all professionals as equal members of the team and practice, based upon their individual contributions, abilities, work ethic and service orientation. The ability to look beyond what makes us different, and focus on the common denominator of ourselves as legal service professionals with client service at the forefront of our goals, is what enables individuals to succeed, regardless of them fitting a particular “mold”. So it’s really an individual, team, firm and organizational culture issue since culture drives behavior and behavior drives results.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
I have not felt any particular disadvantages or advantages on account of my gender – either at the start of my career or as a senior lawyer at the firm. I always felt that I was rewarded for the same initiative, hard work and excellent client service performed by other lawyers at the firm, and have had the same exposure to high profile, challenging transactions as other lawyers. I don’t generally consider my gender - until I walk into a large conference room full of no one but men – where it occurs to me that I may stick out as the only female in the room. M&A is still largely a male-dominated profession, although I have had some great experiences working on a few transactions where there have been a large number of women. The acquisition by S.C. Johnson Commercial of Unilever’s worldwide industrial cleaning business comes to mind in particular. In this transaction, both the lead lawyers, including general counsel of our client, and lead investment bankers from several large investment banking firms (Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley) were women and lead the transaction.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
Certainly technology has transformed the way we all work as service professionals. For men as well as women, the ability to connect with clients and colleagues electronically, remotely and at all hours of the day and night does provide additional flexibility. For example, years ago due diligence teams would mobilize by plane and meet for weeks reviewing documents and hard copies of data room information. Today, much more can be done without that type of travel (and associated time and expense) which gives all lawyers and business professionals a bit of a break. However, as a general matter, it’s still important to put individuals in a room together to resolve some of the most difficult risks and technical issues that arise in transactions, and having this type of interpersonal interaction continues to be important for all legal professionals, not just women.