Women in Business Q&A: Jennifer Fitchen, Partner, Sidley Austin LLP

Jennifer Fitchen is a partner in Sidley Austin LLP's Palo Alto office. The views expressed in this article are exclusively those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sidley Austin LLP and its partners.
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Jennifer Fitchen is a partner in Sidley Austin LLP's Palo Alto office. The views expressed in this article are exclusively those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sidley Austin LLP and its partners.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Playing to my strengths and pursuing what I'm passionate about is the best way to summarize the path that's brought me to this point in my career, but that leaves out a critical piece of how I found that path -honesty about who I am, what I'm good at and what I love.

Whatever time I spent telling myself that I was good at something when I'm really not (patience with extended periods of legal research -- or patience at all, for that matter) or that because I was good at something (crafting compelling legal arguments from said legal research), I should want to do it, was time that sidelined me from finding and becoming expert at what I love to do. Self-defining my lack of certain strengths as weakness was self-sabotage.

Here's an honest truth about me -- I'm not a patient person, but what I lack in patience I make up for in perseverance. The key for me on that particular point was to realize that I am neither patient nor impatient, but rather action-oriented. I am motivated by, and derive a sense of achievement from, moving things forward. I am not meant to be a litigator. I am meant to be a deal-maker.

The more I recognize what motivates and fulfills me, the more satisfied I become with my life, both professionally and personally.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Sidley Austin?
Within the first few years of beginning the practice of law, I hit upon the practice that plays to my strengths and that I love - mergers and acquisitions. Everything I've been doing since then has been to broaden and deepen my expertise in that area. I've had the pleasure of working with many fine lawyers and terrific clients from all over the world on interesting and complex deals. That kind of experience fits perfectly with Sidley's focus on working with mature, global companies and our efforts to expand our M&A practice in Northern California, where so many companies that once started in a garage are now every bit as mature and global - and acquisitive - as the stalwart M&A buyers elsewhere in the country. We're poised for more great things in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, they just might look different than what we've been known for to date.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Sidley Austin?
I have so much respect for smart, strategic-thinking people in my industry, whether on the legal or business side. It's a very competitive industry and one with a steep learning curve in which you can really take your lumps. Having that community recognize me for my accomplishments and skills is a real highlight. Helping others move along the trajectory of their career is more of an opportunity (and an honor) than a challenge, but one that I'm finding both increasingly rewarding and more of a weighty responsibility than I realized when others were helping me.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a legal career?
A career in law is so challenging, you really ought to examine whether it's what you want to do for a career before undertaking the path. Note that I say "what you want to do for a career," not "what you want to do with your life."

People often consider so much at once, so many potential forks in the road, that if they are only on the first step of the path, they become overwhelmed. There's more and more evidence that women in law school are opting out of M&A because they are concerned that it's too demanding of a specialty and they aren't sure they want to devote their whole life to their career, or other reasons having to do with being a woman or wanting to someday be a mother.

I say, let's take one step at a time. Does M&A interest you? If yes, are there aspects about it that speak to your strengths? That's really what you need to be thinking about when you're just starting out. Don't be afraid of seeking the answers to your questions and doubts - rather, embrace the process of doing so.

I assure you that as you go along you will find lots of people, not just women, who find ways to make being an M&A lawyer and a parent, spouse, friend, family member and contributing member of the community work for them and even find a way to fit flying trapeze enthusiast in there too. And for what it's worth, I've been fortunate to have just as many women M&A lawyers around me as men, and often more women than men.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Like everyone else, I'm not just one thing. I'm all of what I was just talking about, all at once, all of the time. But I'm also focused on making sure that the time and focus that I'm giving to these various pieces of my life, both at a given time and in the aggregate, is consistent with how I see the overall picture of my priorities, goals, needs and wishes. Not consistent with a particular hierarchy of those things, but rather with the mosaic picture I want my life to be.

I don't reexamine what that picture looks like every day, I maybe do that every few months and assess whether everything seems to be falling into place the way I'd like it to or that it needs to. If not, I consider what could or should change and go from there.

I let (sometimes insist that) other people in my life bear their share of life's burdens and responsibilities without feeling like I should be doing it all myself or for them. Everyone in my family can cook for themselves -- a pretty critical life skill. But we have dinner together as a family almost every night. I manage my time carefully with my priorities in mind.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Unconscious bias. If you were to look around you and indentify the people you think are actually and actively biased against women, the number would likely be very small. But when the evidence keeps coming that there's a pervasive inequality for women in the workplace, in terms of compensation, advancement and general recognition for achievement, it is clear to me that bias exists to a much greater degree than is obvious. I could offer some suggestions to women on dealing with and fighting that, but frankly there's been plenty said and written on the topic and I'd rather not use my voice at this moment to suggest that it's women's problem to solve - the fact is, it's a problem we ALL have to solve.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I wouldn't be where I am today without the work of the people who've gone before me and the mentorship of those who've helped shape my career. I owe them a tremendous debt - one that seems to get higher and higher the more I realize what it takes to be a mentor. In my personal life, mentorship means something else to me - I am lucky to have many people in my life, but primarily my husband and our kids, who are both my sounding board and my board of advisors.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
It feels wrong to me to choose a well-known female leader I admire. The fact is, I admire my sister for the fight she wages against the narcolepsy afflicting her, while pursuing a career as a social worker and managing life as a wife and mother of two young children. And a friend who is like a sister for having the strength to leave her biological family as a teenager because it wasn't a healthy situation for her, who then went on to build a family made up of friends, and ultimately become not only a wonderful wife and mother, but a tremendous lawyer as well. My daughter, for managing the type-A personality and never-resting brain she inherited from me, but with so much more grace, wisdom and empathy than I had at her age. My mother, who is not a type-A, for managing to raise me. And my step-daughter, for so deftly maintaining a fierce independence of personality while embracing a blended family she never expected to have. These are all women and girls who pursue their own path in the world, serving as a role model for others and making us all better for knowing them.

What do you want Sidley Austin to accomplish in the next year?
I'm really excited about working with my colleagues to further build out our M&A practice in Northern California, starting with our already solid Northern California credentials and leveraging our global expertise in M&A and tremendous strengths in serving life sciences and technology companies. As I said, I love what I do and as an action-oriented person, am anxious to see where it takes me and Sidley next.

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