Inspiration Central: Four Questions for Madam Chair

By Minita Shah-Mara, Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius

“The career advice I would give women is the same advice I would give any man,” says Jami McKeon, the first woman to lead Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in its 142 years. “Work hard. Be yourself. Dedicate yourself to excellence. Understand the value in building relationships and establishing personal networks early on. Be enthusiastic. And be gritty—have passion and perseverance.”

As global chair, McKeon sets the strategic direction of the firm—the largest in the US—across all 29 offices. She is a practicing trial lawyer, handling high stakes litigation and counseling Fortune 100 companies on complex legal and regulatory issues, including those related to mortgage, credit card, and trust issues for some of the world’s largest banks. We asked her to take a timeout to talk about her career.

Q: What was your career path to becoming chair?

A: “I went straight from college to law school to Morgan Lewis and have spent my entire career here. As a result, my career path was fairly straightforward. From the outset, I went into work every day committed to doing my absolute best, and that led to opportunities to do more. I became a partner in 1989, and was asked to take on some firm responsibilities. At Morgan Lewis, positions are about leadership and service, not glory. You have to be willing to put in the hard work and effort and to earn the respect of your partners. Over time, I was elected to the advisory board, and the compensation committee, and I was asked to go to San Francisco to lead the expansion and integration of our West Coast presence. While I was in San Francisco, I became head of the litigation practice. I ultimately spent eight years in San Francisco and moved back to Philadelphia a few years ago. In the fall of 2013, I was elected to be the firm’s chair, effective October 2014.”

Q: When did you first know you wanted to be a litigator?

A: “My path to becoming a lawyer was not a particularly auspicious one. There was no ‘aha’ moment. I didn’t have any grand plan. There were no lawyers in my family. I was interested in the law, politics and liberal arts, so law school seemed like a good fit. I was lucky to do well in law school and have the opportunity to interview at a number of strong firms in Philadelphia. I chose Morgan Lewis primarily because it was the place where I was most impressed by the lawyers on a personal and professional level. And it turns out I made the right decision.

“As far as choosing a practice group, I always knew I wanted to be a litigator. It may be related to the fact that I come from a family of performers—my mother and one of my sisters danced on Broadway—and we all were involved in performance in one way or another as kids.”

Q: What’s the secret to your firm’s thriving when many others are struggling since the 2008 financial collapse?

A: “Three things: 1) Culture—we have a collaborative culture where helping your colleagues is encouraged (in fact, expected) and rewarded. That also means that in tough times our colleagues stick together and do what is in the best interests of our clients and the firm rather than themselves.  2) Innovation—we are not afraid to try out new ideas in order to achieve the best results for our clients. Two examples are our eData practice group (which provides end-to-end discovery options for our clients in house) and our early adoption of alternative fee arrangements. 3) Fiscal Responsibility—we have always been fiscally responsible. We do not carry debt, which is unusual for a law firm, and we aren’t looking to pick up the next shiny new penny—we only do things when it makes sense and it is in the best interests of the firm and our clients.”

Q: What’s the best career advice you ever received?

A: “There is no such thing as paying too much attention to every interaction with every client.”

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