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August 14, 2020 Article

Composing a Life in the Law

An interview with Beth Fenton on her path to equity partnership and how COVID-19 is changing the legal workplace.

By Beth Fenton

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At the end of March 2020, just as COVID-19 shut down offices and schools, longtime Section of Litigation leader Beth Fenton, a partner at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP, spoke with Gina Rubel, founder and chief executive officer of Furia Rubel Communications, Inc., about Beth’s path to equity partnership, lessons learned along the way, and how COVID-19 might change the legal workplace. As a partner in her firm’s Wilmington, Delaware, office, Beth brings experience, judgment, and business acumen to disputes involving shareholders, contracts, and fiduciary duties. She has tried numerous cases before the Delaware Chancery Court, the nation’s foremost business court. Gina also is a lawyer by education and license; however, corporate and law firm leaders call on her for high-stakes public relations, trial publicity, crisis planning, and incident response support. Gina’s legal background complements her unparalleled intuition as a client advocate and business diplomat, allowing her to partner with professional clients to achieve their objectives. She is one of the most widely recognized experts on legal marketing and law firm public relations. Gina and Beth first met many years ago through the Philadelphia Bar Association and have worked collaboratively to promote women in the legal profession by sharing their insights on business development skills, effective communication and branding, and work-life integration. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Gina Rubel: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you is to congratulate you for making equity partner at Saul Ewing and for being one of the women making a difference in the legal industry. Congratulations to you. That is a really big accomplishment.

Beth Fenton: Thanks. I didn’t necessarily go to law school thinking I wanted to be a partner in a law firm. I had the opportunity to clerk for a couple of years for a federal judge, and then I started at a smaller firm and learned how fun, challenging, and interesting the private practice of law can be. Every step of the way, I have tried to do things that kept me interested, kept me challenged, and helped me grow as a person and a lawyer. Last year, when I made equity partner at my firm, it really was a vindication of all of that. It felt good to be able to say, “I did this.” I did it with a lot of support from a lot of people along the way, but I did it. I have two kids, I’m married, and I spend a lot of time trying to balance everything and integrate everything.

How do you find balance between being a woman lawyer, a professional, a mother, a wife, and doing all of the community service and mentoring that you do?

A big part of it is being a loyal friend and teammate. So many people have helped me at every step of the way. I always had really great partnerships with my assistants, paralegals, and the other members of the litigation teams I worked on. It was important to me to be involved in the community and to have those relationships with other lawyers and other kinds of people in the community. I am on the board of a theater, which has been a lot of fun for me as well. That is the professional side of it.

On the personal side, it is really a lot of the same. I have an incredibly supportive spouse. When I was a baby lawyer, sometimes I just couldn’t face another day; it was so hard. I really felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, and he just cheered me on. That was before I had kids. We were married for a while before we had kids. Then, when I had kids, I learned a lot more about patience and keeping things in perspective.

Being a mom has made me a better lawyer in so many ways. It was definitely hard when they were littler. But, again, I had a lot of help. As they’ve gotten older, I think they’re really proud of me. They see how hard I work, and they respect it. While there are times when I don’t get to see them as much as I want to see them or as much as they want to see me, in the end, they know that I’m there if they need me. I’m doing something that matters to them, and to the world, and that it’s enabling us to have lots of adventures. It’s really a team effort all along the way.

What were some of the things that were expected of you as an associate, for you to be able to make equity partner in a big law firm?

The biggest thing is just being willing to jump in and figure it out. Sometimes I jumped into too many things, and I got overwhelmed. I loved the new shiny objects; whenever something new would come in, I just want to be there. Partners love that, but there comes a time when there are multiple deadlines for all of these shiny new objects, and you can’t juggle them all. What I’ve learned is that while it’s important to jump in, you have to look at your calendar, look at your upcoming deadlines, and prioritize and communicate.

You also have to work hard no matter what. This is a profession that requires a lot. Do everything in your power, although you can’t always control it until you get more senior, to work with partners on the kinds of matters that are really interesting to you. I learned from painful experience that if you and a colleague do not click, you have to figure out a way to get through that project or that time period and fill up your plate somewhere else.

As a partner, a lot more of my time is spent on business development. There are only 24 hours in a day, and you still have to be good at the legal work while you also focus on the business development. For me, the transitions from law student to law clerk to practicing lawyer were really tough. I would say that the transition from associate to non-equity partner (I was a non-equity partner at a couple of law firms) was just as tough, and I really did not expect that.

As an associate, are you able to say no? If so, how do you say that, if there’s not enough time in the universe for you to successfully complete everything asked of you?

You have to be diplomatic. There are a lot of different ways you can do it. One way is to use your sponsors, your mentors, and your firm. For example, I had an instance when I was working on a case that was getting ready to go to trial, and I was asked to do a summary judgment brief. There was just not enough time in the day. I went to the partner that I was working on the trial with, and he basically smoothed it over, and somebody else ended up taking on the summary judgment brief. That’s one way to do it. Another way is to say, “I can’t do this, but I can do that.”

Ultimately, your job as an associate is to make the partner’s life easier. I didn’t appreciate that as much when I was an associate. I wish I could go back in time and say, “They are not asking you that because they want to make your life miserable. They are asking you this because they need your help, and they are not thinking about these details that seem obvious to you. They are thinking about 20 other things related to the strategy.” But it’s a tough thing. It is far worse to be in a situation where you miss a deadline or you generate substandard work product because there just is not enough time in the day. That is worse.

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What is business development to you, as a partner at Saul Ewing? What are some tips in terms of business development that you’ve learned along the way?

Business development, for me, is about developing expertise and becoming a thought leader. That phrase is overused, but it is true. About 15 years ago, I started writing about piercing the corporate veil, which was an intellectual interest of mine. I know that sounds crazy, but I started writing articles about it. The Pennsylvania Bar Institute asked me to give continuing legal education (CLE) presentations about it. Those CLEs brought lots and lots of opportunities to get out in front of people, to get work referred to me, to develop relationships with other experts in the area who have not only become friends but have become referral sources as well. One way to do it is to develop that expertise. The main thing is you’ve got to make sure that you develop your expertise in something that you like.

With respect to internal marketing, develop a relationship with the marketing department. When you have a win, let them know so they can publicize it. Develop relationships with people who will talk you up to other people. I go to a lot of our different offices as well. Let’s say I have depositions in Chicago. I will go to the Chicago office a day early, walk the halls, and talk with people.

One thing that has been really phenomenal about Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr is in the last 20 years or so, the firm has expanded its footprint. We have big offices in Baltimore, Florida, and Chicago. We’re now in Minneapolis. Every time the firm expands, I try to go to those new offices. Those people do not know that I have only been at the firm for five years. To them, I know about the institution, I can help them navigate it, and I can make introductions. Everything that you do every day should be with an eye to business development, in my opinion. You just have to do it, even as an associate. You have to be thinking not about how am I going to land this client, but about how to raise your profile, how to develop your expertise, and how to build your skills. You just cannot succeed in the modern legal profession if you are not thinking about that stuff every single day.

It is currently the end of March 2020, and we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Visiting offices in person may change with (a) having these viruses around and (b) the economy. What are some of the things you are thinking about for how associates and partners can approach what might become the next normal?

I think the way to do it is being willing to use technology. I was supposed to have an in-person meeting with a bunch of alumni from my law school earlier today, and we just had a Zoom meeting. Especially at this time, what I am finding is that people are hungry for interaction. You can start those conversations lots of different ways. I read Law360 every day, and if there’s somebody in Law360 who I know, I send them an email and I say, “I’m thinking about you. I saw this on Law360, I hope you’re doing well.” When I made equity partner, you wrote me a handwritten note. I am a big fan of handwritten notes. There are many ways to do it. You just have to think a little bit more creatively about it.

Some other things I would encourage attorneys to do is ramp up their bios on their websites and their LinkedIn, and really connect with people on LinkedIn about something. We’ve both done this for years, but a lot of lawyers in the past had been reluctant to engage in social media. We know that general counsel are on social media and are paying attention. What are your thoughts about using social media and the importance of technology?

Technology and smart social media engagement has never been easier. We moved to remote work at our firm, but I have worked remotely forever. A lot of people do once they have kids. The year before I made non-equity partner at Reed Smith, my husband took a job teaching at a college program in Rome, Italy. I wanted to keep my marriage together, so I told everybody I worked with, “I am going to be Skyping with my husband every day at three; if the door is shut, that’s why.”

I also went over to Italy a bunch of times during the school year. At the end of the year, I went over for a month. I told my firm, “I’m happy to take a leave of absence. Whatever works.” They said, “No, you’re getting your work done. You are doing what you need to do.” I had a BlackBerry. I had a laptop. It was seamless, partly because I had a good team, partly because I was not afraid of technology, and partly because of that moment in time when technology was really enabled. I have worked remotely to some degree since 2006. Just like practice development has been part of my daily practice, so has using technology. I think this is going to be a real opportunity for people, and it is going to be great, especially for lawyers who are parents, because you can get the work done. The clients do not care where you get the work done, in my experience. They just want it to be done.

Now I want to turn the tables and ask you what questions you have for me.

I know that you practiced as a litigator early in your career. What do you miss the most about being a litigator?

Nothing. I love working with law firms and corporate executives, and I love helping them to proactively solve problems. I never really enjoyed the litigation dance. While I am still immersed in the legal profession, I did not like the arguing. I am much more of a proactive communicator. In my role, I am constantly dealing with high-profile litigation, crisis communications, media relations, and marketing. I am still putting puzzles together, doing investigations and research. I simply do not miss litigation. I still get to see all the people that I loved working with, just in a different format.

I think the thing that makes our careers work for us is that we both enjoy what we do and feel challenged by it. It makes being a woman in a male-dominated profession easier, too, when you have successful women professionals supporting your work, like we have done for each other.

Beth Fenton is a partner at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP in Wilmington, Delaware.

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