Composing a Legal Life as a Woman Law Partner with Beth Fenton
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel speaks with Beth Fenton, law partner at Saul Ewing, a full-service law firm with offices throughout the country. For more than 20 years, Beth has advocated for businesses facing their toughest legal challenges. Whether representing a Fortune 500 company or a tech startup, 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, as well as courts in other jurisdictions. Her practice also includes leading internal investigations concerning highly sensitive personnel matters for businesses. Beth commits significant time and energy to sponsoring other women lawyers and to promoting access to justice for all Americans. Beth, I am thrilled you can join me today. I am really looking forward to talking to you. It has been a while since we have been in touch. To let our listeners know, you and I have worked together in the past in business development, marketing and PR, as you were growing your book of business and career.
This interview was recorded on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in the nation’s second week on coronavirus lock-down and third week of the pandemic in the United States. We were working from home, meeting via Zoom, and trying to navigate the new normal.
Beth Fenton: Thank you, Gina. It is really my honor because you have taught me so much about how to do this and how to do it in a way that comports with your values and your priorities. Thank you for having me today.
Gina Rubel: I love hearing that. One of the reasons I wanted to interview you is that I actually want to congratulate you for making partner at Saul Ewing and for being part of the women making a difference in law, in the country. Congratulations to you. That is a really big accomplishment.
Beth Fenton: Thanks. I didn’t necessarily go to law school thinking I want 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 much 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. This last year, when I made equity partner at my firm, it really was a vindication of all of that. It felt really good to be able to say, “I did this.” I did it with a lot of support from a lot of people from along the way, but I did it. I have two kids, I’m married, I spend a lot of time trying to balance everything and integrate everything. It really felt great, and I appreciate all of your support along the way.
Whether you’re a partner or an associate, or someone other in a professional service firm, 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?
I think the big part of it, and what I really attribute getting here from where I started, is being a loyal friend and a loyal teammate. I have so many people who helped me at every step of the way. I have always had really great partnerships with my assistants, paralegal, and the other members of the litigation teams I worked on; that is sort of the work side of it. It has always been really 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, and that 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. When I would say, “I don’t want to go,” he would say his mantra for me, “eye of the tiger,” and whenever I have a bad day, he still says to me, “eye of the tiger.” That was before I had kids. We were married for a while before we had kids. Then, my kids have really made me feel like much of a better lawyer because I feel like I had a lot more patience and a lot more perspective. I think that has been really a maturing experience for me.
It’s 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, and I think 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 do lots of things– getting lots of investors that we wouldn’t otherwise. 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 firm?
I think 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, and that would usually be where my husband had to be like, “eye of the tiger.” That has been the hardest thing for me. I loved the new shiny objects; whenever something new would come in, I just want to be there. What I had to learn along the way is that’s great and partners love it, until there comes a time when there are multiple deadlines for all of these shiny new objects that you chase after, and you can’t juggle them all. What I’ve had to do is realize that yes, it’s important to jump in, but you have to really look at your calendar, look at your upcoming deadlines, and prioritize and communicate.
That was something that I had to learn as an associate, that helped me make partner. Then, I think the other thing I learned along the way is you’re going to have to work hard no matter what. This is a profession that requires a lot. Do everything in your power, but you can’t always control it as you got more senior, to work with partners on the kind of matters that are really interesting to you. I learned from painful experience that if you and a colleague do not click, you can try and try, but sometimes there’s people you’re not going to click with. You have to extricate yourself and clients too. You have to figure out a way to get through that project or that time period, and you know, fill up your plate somewhere else.
As a partner, a lot more of my time is spent on business development, and I am really good at the legal work. There’s only 24 hours in a day for me to give up the legal work to focus on the business development. You get really good at the legal work. That’s the way you make partner, but then you’ve got a whole new skill set that you have to take on. For me, the transition from law student to practicing lawyer was really tough. I would say that the transition from associate to (I was a non-equity partner at a couple of law firms) non-equity partner transition was just as tough, and I really did not expect that. I was not prepared for that.
As as associate, how do you jump in and prioritize, and 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 do those additional things?
Well, again I think you have to be a diplomatic; that’s the best word I can think of. I think there’s 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 don’t think I appreciated that as much when I was an associate, as I do now. I wish I could go back in time and say, “They’re not asking you that because they’re trying to make your life miserable. They’re asking you this because they need your help, and they’re not thinking about these details that seem obvious to you. They’re thinking about 20 other things related to the strategy.” But yeah, it’s a tough thing. It’s far worse to be in a situation where you miss a deadline, or you do substandard work product because there just isn’t enough time in the day. That is worse.
One of the things that you also mentioned is now, as a partner, you’re expected to do business development. I know that our listening audience are both attorneys and professionals, legal marketers, and people who are responsible for running the business development in their law firms.
I want to talk a little bit about what business development means. What are your expectations, as a partner, of the people who serve the firm both internally and externally? What are some tips, are in terms of business development, that you’ve learned along the way? What is business development to you, as a partner at Saul Ewing?
I think that business development, for me, is developing expertise and becoming a thought leader. That phrase is overused but it is true. I, as an associate 15 years ago, probably started writing about piercing the corporate veil, and it was an intellectual interest of mine. I know that sounds crazy, but I started writing articles about it. I got asked by the Pennsylvania Bar Institute to give talks about it. That’s 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 there is you’ve got to make sure that what you develop your expertise in, is something that you like and not just the flavor du jour.
There’s nothing wrong with the flavor du jour. I certainly have tried the flavor du jour on many occasions, especially in slow times. I’m willing to try a lot of different things. At the end of the day, if somebody asks me what to talk about to the audience, there’s like three things I’ll talk about: One, is business development, especially for women lawyers. One is piercing the corporate veil, and one is internal investigations. That’s all I’ll talk about. It goes back to staying in people’s minds. Social media makes it so much easier than it used to be, but being involved in your bar, your county bar association, or the American Bar Association has been great for me–developing those relationships and keeping in touch with former clients. I’m a litigator, so I don’t necessarily have institutional clients, for the kinds of cases I have, because usually they come to me if there is a crisis or one shareholder can’t stand the other shareholder, and they got to figure out how to deal with it. Hopefully, those kinds of disputes don’t come along too often because something is wrong If you’re having serial shareholders dispute, maybe you ought to think about being a solo practice.
I don’t necessarily have institutional clients, and lots of people in my firm have institutional clients, and that is great; that’s just not how my practice has evolved.
Tell me about if other lawyers in the firm have institutional clients. How do you get them to come to you when their clients have internal disputes? What do you? What do you need to do to develop those relationships?
I get to go into things talking to people, letting the marketing department know when you have a win; it goes on the firm’s intranet. This is stuff for people in big firms, and the stuff I did worked at a top 15, 1500-lawyer firm. Now I’m at about a 400-lawyer firm. In those kinds of cases, it’s getting the marketing department to help you and having relationships with people who will talk you up to other people. That’s the only way you’re going to make partner. The only way you’re going to get internal referrals is having a board of directors or some fans who will talk you up. Because of the nature of my practice,
I ended up going to a lot of our different offices because the business might be in Illinois, but the corporation itself is in Delaware, and it’s viewed as in Delaware. I’ll go to the Chicago office and have depositions, and I make sure to walk the hall. I come in a day early, I walk the halls, I talk with people, and that’s been a way to do it. One thing that’s been really phenomenal about where I am now, at Saul Ewing, is in the last 20-25 years, the firm has expanded its footprint. We have a big office in Baltimore. We have a big office in Florida and a big office in Chicago. We’re now in Minneapolis.
Every time the firm has grown, I’ve been able to go to those new offices. Those people don’t know that I have only been at the firm for five years. To them, I’ve been there forever, and I know lots of things. Going to those places, being willing to introduce those people to other people–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 thinking about how to raise your profile, how to develop your expertise, and how to build your skills. You just can’t succeed in the modern legal profession, if you’re not thinking about that stuff every single day.
One of the things that I want our listeners to know is, it’s currently the end of March 2020, and we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the things I found interesting that you said, is go to those offices, but what do you do if you can’t? I think that’s something that may change with a) having these viruses around and b) the economy. It may not be as easy to get out and go to these other offices. What are some of the things you might be thinking about for how associates and partners can approach what might become the new normal?
That’s a really good question. I hadn’t thought too much about it. But honestly, I think the way to do it is being willing to use technology, being willing to have a zoom meeting. I was supposed to have an in-person meeting with a bunch of alumna from my law school earlier today, and we just had a zoom meeting, and it works great. Especially at this time, what I’m finding is that people are hungry for interaction; they’re hungry to have a conversation that’s likely not about coronavirus. You can start those conversations lots of different ways. I read Law360 every single 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.” that’s an easy thing to do. When I made equity partner, you wrote me a handwritten note. I’m a big fan of handwritten notes, so there’s lots and lots of ways to do it. You just maybe have to think a little bit more creatively about it.
Some other things I would encourage listeners to do, or to encourage their attorneys to do, is ramp up their bios on their websites and their LinkedIn, and really connect with people on LinkedIn at something. I know that you’ve done this over the years, and I have certainly done this, but a lot of lawyers in the past had been reluctant to engage in social media. We know that general counselor there–we know that they’re paying attention, and there’s a lot of opportunity around that as well. As you said, I’m agreeing with you that the use of technology has never been more important.
Right? It’s never been easier, frankly. We’re moving to remote working at our firm, and 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, and I wanted to keep my marriage together. I basically told everybody I worked with, “I’m going to be on the phone or I’m going to be Skyping with my husband every day at three; if the door is shut, that’s why. Don’t interrupt me because you’re going to be much happier if I’m happy.” I went over to Italy a bunch of times, once a month, for the whole school year.
I went over for a month at the end of the year, and 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’re doing what you need to do.” I had a Blackberry. I had a laptop. This was back in Blackberry days, but I was able to do that, and 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’ve basically been working remotely to some degree or another, since 2006. Just like practice development has been part of my daily practice, so has using technology. When I say use technology, I’m talking about using technology to do anything from legal research to writing briefs, to having zoom meetings. I think this is going to be a real opportunity for people to understand that. I think it’s going to be great, especially for parent lawyers, because you can get the work done. The clients don’t care where you get the work done, in my experience. They just want it to be done.
Your optimistic nature. I’m going to ask you a tough question. What do you like least about your job?
There’s a lot of things I don’t like about it. There’s a lot of things I do like about it, but I think the part that I don’t like about it is the relentlessness of it. I’m a litigator, so the zero-sum nature of it is I’m very competitive. Part of me loved the winning, but I hate the losing. Unfortunately, you have both. What do I like least about my job? I think it’s probably the relentlessness of it. I usually can put on my lawyer costume or my litigator costume, and I can assume that posture and do what I need to do. At the end of the day, what I really like is figuring out how to make a dispute into a deal.
That’s what I like most. What I like least is when I can’t make a dispute into a deal. When I say make a dispute into a deal, I mean I’m fighting. The kind of law that I do is businesses fighting essentially over money, control and power. There’s a deal to be had in almost all of those. I find it really frustrating with either my client, the other side, or the other side’s lawyer, when that’s just not the way they do things. They like nothing more than scorched earth, and their client is going along with that. In my experience, the clients go along with it until they get the kind of goals that they get, and then they don’t like it so much. When you’re dealing with people who’re putting ego and other things above practicality and moving forward. I think that goes back to what you’re saying about how I am a pretty optimistic person and that is not a typical trait for lawyers. I certainly had my pessimistic moments, but you know, ultimately I want to find a solution and so litigation can be a great way to do it, but it’s not always the best way.
One of the things I know about you, which really impresses me, is the amount of time you spend giving to others. I know that you coach University of Pennsylvania law students. Tell me a little bit about why you invest that kind of time and what you would want younger listeners to know about what to expect in the world or not expect?
I don’t think any of us know what to expect right now. As a law student going out into the legal profession, law students are very concerned about what the job market is going to be like, and that is totally understandable. Any of us who lived through the great recession and frankly, after September 11, multiple rounds of layoffs at huge law firms, dissolution of law firms that had been institutions in the cities where they were – The only thing we can predict is that there is going to be change. Therefore, the only thing we can do is be open to that change and figure out the best way to position ourselves to take advantage of that change. I love talking to law students because I learn a lot from them. I also find it very refreshing to be around them. They have a different view of the world. I’ve been in a law firm for 20 years. I don’t remember what it’s like to be in school. I took feminist legal theory in law school; I don’t even do that anymore, and they do, so I love being around them. I’ve been telling them, “Look, I can’t tell what it’s going to be like, but I can tell you that if you are anxious and they are perceiving that, which doesn’t necessarily help them either.” I was on this Penn Law School alumna call and the Dean asked us, “What are law firms doing about summer programs and things because the students are anxious,” and that’s probably his job to do that.
The answer was, “We’re still trying to figure out how to get all of our partners doing remote work, and nobody’s really thinking that far ahead. It’s not going to necessarily be in the law students’ control that they can position themselves. For example, one of the ideas that came out was, you know, if you don’t have a job or if your job doesn’t work out, this is an election year. The campaigns, whatever side you are on, they would love to have people to help them; a law student can do research and write. Listen to those opportunities, be open to it, and realize that your plan may have to change.
Gina Rubel: It is interesting you should say that. I came out of college in ‘91 in a recession and went through 9/11; I’ve been in every one of those. The thing is, we will survive, and they will make it. We have an incredibly resilient two generations behind us in the workforce – Gen Z and the millennials, and they have so much to add to the conversation. It is like you said to me earlier, it is going to be different, but it is going to be okay. Hearing you say that even makes me feel better.
Beth Fenton: That’s another thing that I’ve learned. It’s not fake it till you make it because I do sincerely believe that. I think we all have our dark moments of the soul. I have a client right now who lives alone, who is somebody who I just have met. I called him yesterday to ask him a question, and I said you know what, it’s a new relationship, and I’m going to set a time every day or every other day. I’m going to call him and see how he’s doing because I think that is what people need right now – it is just the little things.
Gina Rubel: If it continues that way in the future, our profession and other professions are going to continue to thrive. I do want to let you know that we’ve come close to the end of the program, so I want to turn the tables and ask you what questions you have for me.
What do you miss? I know that you practiced as a litigator early in your career. What do you miss the most about being a litigator?
Gina Rubel: 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’m still immersed in legal, I didn’t like the arguing. I’m much more of a proactive communicator. That’s the one thing I don’t miss. I’m constantly dealing with high profile litigation, crisis communications, media relations and marketing. I’m still putting puzzles together, doing investigations and research. The truth is, I don’t miss any of the litigation part, and I get to see all the people that I loved working with, and it’s just in a different format.
What is the best thing and the worst thing about owning your own business?
Gina Rubel: The worst thing for me is not knowing what I don’t know, If I’m unclear about something. I tend to be a very clear thinker, and I trust my gut. When I don’t understand something, I have very little patience. When I need an answer, I’m your worst client sometimes because I’m the one who has to call my corporate counsel and say, “How do I deal with this situation?” Even with the coronavirus situation right now, there is a lot of unknowns that we are all facing, and we don’t have all the answers. So, being a sole business owner is hard. That’s hard because you are the chief cook and bottle washer all the time, and putting out fires, and doing the HR. Thank God I have a phenomenal bookkeeper, accountant, and corporate counsel, and a network of people who have really helped keep me on the right path.
It can be scary, and it can be lonely. That is as truthful as I can possibly get. On the other side of it, I have been working relatively remotely for 18 years, and we run our business out of a renovated barn, in a suburb of Philadelphia. We’ve got 4,000 square feet, and the staff can come to the office. They can also work from home. Before the pandemic hit, I made everyone go home and test their computers, make sure they could log on to the server, have remote access, and their internet was working. We haven’t really skipped a beat from the perspective of being able to serve our clients remotely. I think the biggest challenge for everyone, and I don’t have young children anymore, my children are quite independent at 17 and 19.
I think the biggest challenge for them is managing home responsibilities, becoming the teachers of your children on the remote teaching and really learning how to navigate those waters. I have always had a really good relationship with my family, where I set what the boundaries are. “For the next half hour, I’m going to be interviewing Beth Fenton from Saul Ewing, so I can’t be disturbed.” Those types of things. I love what I do. I have loved getting to know people like you, Beth, who has taught me a great deal about, I never understood really business disputes and partnership disputes.
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