Franci J. Blassberg, Partner, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
How long have you been working for your current company?
35 years (That is hard even for me to believe!)
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I came to Debevoise a few months after graduating from Cornell Law School in 1977. At that time, new associates were not required to choose a department. As a result, I did some litigation and some corporate work and gradually migrated to the corporate department. I was initially trained as a financing lawyer, and then started doing M&A work. I gradually started to learn private equity skills – even before we called it that.
Throughout the '80s, I did all types of corporate work that came to be the components of a private equity practice: financing, acquisition, fund formation and then IPO or exit work. I followed the life cycle of a deal. In those days lawyers didn't specialize in the same way as they do today.
I still do general M&A work that doesn't involve private equity. I sometimes think of people having majors and minors in their practices. These days, I'm a private equity lawyer with a minor in M&A. Before private equity became such a factor in the M&A marketplace, I was an M&A lawyer with a minor in private equity.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
My proudest professional achievement was helping to conceptualize and build a leading private equity practice with an exceptional group of partners, a significant number of whom are women.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
My own client work is incredibly time-consuming, but I am also involved in developing our practice and working to train and mentor the talented junior lawyers in our practice. That sometimes feels like it takes more hours than there are in a day. So, my biggest challenge is balancing the demands of the day: being available and responsive to clients, and still being accessible and helping to develop the talent of younger lawyers – women and men.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavor to do this?
Practicing law is demanding, but if you are well organized and have the right systems in place, it is possible to maintain a work-life balance – at least on most days. I think that just as lawyers need to make life easy for their clients, they need to make it easy for themselves, too. That may mean a food delivery service, a babysitter or nanny, a housekeeper, a non-working spouse or whatever makes sense for you. It may merely mean a college student who runs errands for you so your life stays organized outside of the office. I think that one of the most important things is not to feel that you have to do everything yourself. And my other advice is to spend your time doing things that you enjoy and not things that you consider drudgery – at least outside of work. One thing that helps me maintain some balance is to take some time during the week to go to the gym or to go for a run. Doing that makes me far more efficient and agreeable – both at work and at home.
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?
Bill Matteson, who eventually became our firm's Presiding Partner, was one of my most important mentors. He introduced me to clients and let me participate in developing those clients early in my career. Bill used to tell me that responding promptly to clients was an essential ingredient to success. He also taught me to trust my instincts and judgment. One of his most meaningful pieces of advice was reminding me that clients want not only good legal advice, but also good practical guidance.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
I think promoting diversity is challenging and requires a focus on creating the right culture. It takes not only thoughtful policies and programs but the unswerving commitment of an organization. In a law firm, the direct and very personal involvement of the partners is the key to creating a culture of inclusion. Diversity is not best achieved through a one-size-fits-all approach. At Debevoise, we allow a lot of flexibility in the ways in which younger lawyers are trained and work with more senior lawyers. We think that by taking the time to listen to our associates, to understand each person's unique experiences, perspectives, aspirations and concerns, we can most effectively guide and help them to make the right choices as they navigate the competing demands of life inside and outside the firm.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
That is a harder question to answer than it seems. The fact of the matter is that we really don't know. There are some traits that many women bring to the practice of law, including the ability to listen (which in a service business is very important), to read the room, to think outside the box, to bring a different sensibility to a problem, and nurture younger colleagues. While we may think of those as "more female" kinds of traits, that doesn't mean that every woman has them, and it doesn't mean that many men don't. Do these traits represent advantages? Possibly, but again, they are not unique to women.
Women also tend not to have a singular view on what they are going to do when they grow up. That can be very helpful in developing a legal practice. Many of us are not currently doing what we expected to do. I am a private equity M&A lawyer. That's a field that didn't exist when I was a young lawyer. Perhaps I was far more flexible in where my experience took me than a man would have permitted himself to be.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
The numbers are getting better, especially here at Debevoise. Over the last four years, 9 out of the 15 partners we have promoted internally have been women. This is something we are very proud of, and I think it can be attributed to the fact that women and men at Debevoise are working hard as individuals and as a firm to help women become leaders at the firm and in the profession.
"Just as lawyers need to make life easy for their clients, they need to make it easy for themselves, too. That may mean a food delivery service, a babysitter or nanny...so your life stays organized outside of the office."
Franci Blassberg is a ranked lawyer in the Chambers USA Guide.