August 14, 2020 Article

Effective Women Leaders Can Teach Us about Managing Extreme Adversity

Perspectives from a law firm founder and a rising 3L on the qualities needed to persevere and thrive in challenging times.

By Nicole D. Galli and Kelley Bregenzer

The two authors of this article have very different life experiences. Nicole has been practicing law for almost 30 years, owns her own firm, and is married with two teenagers. Kelley is a rising 3L law student just starting out in the profession, pursuing a second career in law after nearly a decade spent working in public relations. But both of us were both struck by a report earlier this spring that observed that countries with women leaders had been faring better during the pandemic than others. The report spawned conversation, with some highlighting characteristics traditionally associated with femininity—pragmatism, empathy, altruism—as potential difference-makers. Others cautioned against relying solely on stereotypes to explain the phenomenon and examined the more-inclusive political systems of these countries. The reasons that women leaders have outperformed their male counterpoints in handling this crisis are no doubt varied and complex. But it made us think: What really sets women leaders apart? 

We believe these female leaders may be having success by relying on the same traits that nearly all of the successful women we know have been relying on to get us through this difficult time. These traits include (1) staying mission-focused despite challenges, (2) being creative and resilient in the face of adversity, and (3) being comfortable coping with uncertainty and rapid change. Although certainly both men and women may have these traits, our life experiences suggest that, as women, we have unique perspectives that enable us to more readily take advantage of these much-needed qualities during this challenging time. Despite our very different life experiences, we both felt that these kinds of qualities have been important for each of us to persevere and thrive.

1. Staying Mission-Focused Despite Challenges

Nicole: At the beginning of 2020, I was really looking forward to the coming year. We were going to be celebrating the fifth anniversary of my firm, a big milestone for any start-up. We had figured out the kinds of clients that we wanted to work with (emerging growth companies and large companies) and had broadened our practice from solely an intellectual property and commercial litigation boutique into a full-service business law firm to best serve these clients. These changes were well received by the market: In 2019 we had doubled our revenue from the prior year, and we had every expectation that we would experience similar growth coming into 2020. Finally, I was deep in talks with a potential business partner, whom I had been hoping to recruit for a long time. I started 2020 feeling very optimistic and excited about what the year would bring.

Then the world changed. Once COVID-19 hit, I didn’t know what we would face during the months ahead as several clients and prospects put discretionary projects on hold. Firms around me were reporting revenue losses of 30–70 percent, and BigLaw began cutting salaries and laying people off. If these established firms were hurting, how could we survive? I quickly investigated and applied for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds, pulled back on discretionary spending, and mentally prepared for the worst. What I didn’t do was put on the brakes. Instead, I kept working, continued to market, pivoted everything to online, and kept in close touch with my clients and friends. Most importantly, I tried to stay positive and remain confident that I would figure out this crisis as I had so many before this, including the recession of 1990 (when I was in law school); the dot.com bubble burst; my longtime mentor having to retire early due to Alzheimer’s, leaving me as a young partner in BigLaw without a significant book and two babies to boot; the Great Recession; and the list goes on. I recall at one point in the spring saying that I had felt like everything in my life had prepared me for this point, and I sincerely believe that’s true. At the end of the day, I fell back on what has always supported me—relentless determination and drive to succeed. If I could continue to believe we would make it and thrive, then it would be so.

Kelley: Ironically, the more I have accepted that my days and weeks will be filled with unexpected challenges, the more equipped I feel to handle them. As it did for most people, the pandemic upended my life. Feeling worried for my family, I packed up and went to stay with my parents. I prepared to take grueling final exams, work full time, and edit a law journal from my brother’s childhood bedroom in a tight house with four adults and a needy puppy. I stayed the course in a different environment. Not surprisingly, despite working just as hard as I had in previous semesters, my grades dropped significantly. At first, this bothered me—a signal that I hadn’t been able to weather the storm as well as I thought I could. But while that particular facet of my life slipped, others have been incredibly enriched. I finally got to spend some time with my family—a rare luxury for an overscheduled law student—and I was among the lucky ones who were able work a rewarding summer job remotely in the middle of a pandemic. Like Nicole, I realized the importance of staying focused on my goals while pivoting to take new circumstances into account. For me, that meant pivoting my outlook and embracing the uncertainty of the times. Once I stopped trying to force my current life to look exactly like my pre-pandemic life, I was able to focus my energy on my full days and let go of some of my unworkable expectations.

2. Being Creative and Resilient in the Face of Adversity

Nicole: When the crisis first began, I did as I always do: I looked around for my tribe of women entrepreneurs for support. I knew I couldn’t do this alone and needed other people with whom I could brainstorm, be creative, and get support when feeling down. (This isn’t new; it’s how Women Owned Law, the first national networking organization for women entrepreneurs in the law, came to be when I launched my own firm.) I found a lot of shell-shocked people in the various groups I visited virtually; it seemed no one knew which way to turn. They seemed stuck and, frankly, negative. And if there is one thing that I have learned in my 50-plus years, it is that I can’t be around negative people—if I am, it affects my mood and brings me down. So I needed to make sure I associated with people who were also pivoting and thriving. My instincts told me to look to the other Tory Burch Fellows—highly successful women entrepreneurs who I knew were creative, determined, and resilient, and had weathered all kinds of crises. But how to connect with them? I knew a few, but not all of them, well, and we didn’t have a lot of opportunities to connect live. So I created it. I asked the group if anyone wanted to join me for a virtual happy hour one evening—and several people said yes. Then they wanted to meet again and more people joined, and so we had another and another. At this point, we have been meeting weekly since March, and we have agreed to keep this up until at least the end of 2020! Inspired by this success, I began to think of other ways to make the most of the crisis, including reaching out to old friends and colleagues (knowing that dormant ties are some of the best ties), taking some time to give the firm a fresh look (including changing our name and redoing our website), and of course remaining engaged in all my activities and organizations, just only online.

Kelley: I’ve tried to keep flexibility and resilience in mind during this crisis. I was interviewing for fall internships when the virus erupted. The internship I had planned slipped out of reach, and I went back to square one. I spent the summer probing every connection—every friend of a friend, every LinkedIn connection, every professor who might know someone. I broadened the scope of opportunities I’d be willing to accept. I shared my struggles with Nicole, and she jumped on board to help connect me with some possible options. With the fall semester right around the corner, I’m still keeping my fingers crossed that one of the seeds I planted will turn into an opportunity. But if it doesn’t, that’s OK, too. I’m registered for a full fall course load as a backup plan in case I’m not able to spend the fall interning, and I’m prepared to fulfill my internship credit in the spring if need be. The process has been frustrating for sure, but I know I pursued every possible angle I could think of and that no matter what happens, I’ll make the most of it!

3. Coping with Uncertainty and Rapid Change

Nicole: Having given up so much of my regular day-to-day life—events, conferences, even going out for long walks—I began to really appreciate and be grateful for the little things and, of course, the big things like my family (and our pets!). I also recognized that I had many people involved in my business who were truly my partners in it even if they were not partners in name, like our Of Counsel, Scott Kislin; our fantastic admin, Pat Choplin; and our excellent law clerk and coauthor, Kelley. I avoided stewing about what I had lost because of the crisis (our revenue plateaued for a time, and my potential partner put things on hold), but instead I remained curious and open to see what was coming up ahead. That curiosity and openness to change enabled me to remain comfortable not knowing what the future would bring and caused me to consider new opportunities, such as moving to be a fully virtual firm. I was also able to reach out and ask for help and support. My coach helped me to structure the endless days, weeks, and weekends of COVID-19 in a way that has kept me sane and effective (most of the time!). The Tory Burch Fellows rallied around one evening when I shared that I had been feeling really stuck and unproductive. Several shared that they had been in the same place at times during the crisis and it would pass, but I likely needed to give myself a break, which I did and felt much better! And as the time passed, business suddenly began to pick up again, and now it feels like we are back on the same trajectory we were on when this year began (actually, better). I realize that this could stop again in an instant—but I know that if it does, we’ll get through it.

Kelley: Perhaps the most practical piece of advice I’ve ever received was a refrain frequently given to us during the first few weeks of law school: “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Starting over in a new career means enduring tons of awkward bumps along the learning curve and facing brand-new challenges every day. Trying to figure it all out during a changing, uncertain world can be downright terrifying. While trying to work my way into a new industry—especially one known for being selective and male-dominated—I’ve definitely faced my fair share of imposter syndrome (a phenomenon that affects both men and women but disproportionally affects women and minorities). These pangs of “I’m not good enough” or “I just don’t belong” feel remarkably like the ones I felt fresh out of undergraduate studies, when I embarked on my first career. But this time, I’m learning how to check and actively question my own imposter syndrome. Whenever I feel like I don’t belong or am just not good enough, I take a second to remind myself that I’ve survived every challenge I’ve faced thus far and that I am, indeed, just as worthy of being here as everyone else. Pushing these feelings of inadequacy aside forces me to stop worrying about whether I am capable of doing something and to just do it. When facing uncertainty and change, I’ve found building the confidence that I’ll be able to work through whatever comes my way to be the biggest game changer.

Conclusion

We’ve both been lucky enough to meet and work with many inspirational female leaders and colleagues. And while they are all impressive in their own individual ways, successful women do, in fact, share some commonalities. All handle uncertainty and difficulty head-on, rather than push it to the wayside for someone else to deal with later. All are nimble thinkers, quickly coming up with new plans when old ones didn’t work. All are constantly open to new methods and new ways of thinking, rather than relying on the status quo or insisting that something be done a certain way simply because that is how it has always been done. When we really think about it, it’s not all that surprising that female leaders addressed a massive, shape-shifting crisis with flexibility and dogged resilience. Women have been doing that all along. 

Nicole D. Galli is the founder and managing member of the Law Offices of N.D. Galli LLC in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and New York, New York. She is also the founder and president of Women Owned Law. Kelley Bregenzer is a rising 3L at the Drexel University Thomas Kline School of Law and a law clerk with Nicole’s firm. 


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