Karen McAndrew, Director and Shareholder, Dinse, Knapp & McAndrew
How long have you been working for your current company?
Since 1971, with the exception of 1978-84.
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
Following law school, I clerked for a federal judge in Vermont. I then took a job with this firm. I left the firm in 1978 to take a position as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Vermont, took a year off when my first child was born in 1981, and then returned to work part time with another firm in Burlington. In 1984, the senior partner in this firm asked me to assist with a litigation matter he was handling, so for a brief period I worked part time at this firm and the other firm. I accepted an invitation to the partnership in 1986, and have been working here full time since then.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
Becoming a respected trial attorney involved with significant litigation, and being named a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. In my observation, there are still only a handful of women who survive in the trial practice, at least among the civil defense bar.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
It is always a challenge to project sufficient competence and tenacity to inspire confidence in clients and juries in a still largely male-dominated sector of the profession, without displaying the kind of aggressiveness that is accepted in male litigators, but can come across as “bitchy” in a woman.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
Work/life balance is always a challenge, particularly with young children. My sons are (mostly) grown now, but my basic premise has always been that they come first. We sat down to dinner as a family every night, and we read to them every night before bed. That meant that in those years, there was very little space for a separate adult life outside of work. I remember filling out a questionnaire in advance of a regular check-up at my doctor’s office, and responding to a question about “what do you do in your spare time?” with “Fold laundry.”
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?
I did not have any women role models, and didn’t know any male lawyers well growing up. I went to law school in part because I had no idea what lawyers did, and thought there was no better way to find out. I had some very supportive professors in law school, an assistant dean who made it a point to recruit and support women law students, and the judge I clerked for was incredibly supportive. When I began at the firm, the two senior partners – both excellent trial lawyers – were excellent role models.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
Vermont is an unusual place in that there is very limited ethnic or racial diversity, so it’s hard to comment on this from a personal perspective. This firm, however, is unique in the balance between male and female attorneys. We have hired without regard to gender, and as a result, we have more women partners than any comparable firm in the state. We were “early adopters” of flexible work schedules and part-time partnership tracks, allowing attorneys with young children the opportunity to stay on track professionally while making allowances for family obligations.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
When I first started practicing, I sometimes thought judges and juries looked at me kindly, as it was something of a novelty to have a woman taking a lead in the courtroom. It’s obviously less of a novelty now. There have definitely been times, however, when I have felt that men – even some of those with whom I have worked most closely and of whom I am very fond – tend to dominate the conversation, talk over the female voices, and discount the opinions of women, albeit unconsciously. It’s always a challenge for a woman to maintain and convey the same level of self-confidence as her male peers.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
I’m not sure I can identify changes occurring in the most recent five years. It has been more gradual than that, and there’s still a long way to go, at least in the sector in which I practice. I see many young women who look like promising trial lawyers drop out along the way, taking jobs outside the profession, becoming judges, or developing more traditionally-female specialties, such as family and/or employment law. Certainly, though, the number of women lawyers coming out of law school is now equal to or greater than the number of men.