Lois Carter Schlissel is managing attorney of Meyer Suozzi English & Klein PC in Garden City, New York, and chairs the firm’s management committee. She also heads the firm’s employment law practice and is an active member of the litigation and dispute resolution department. She counsels clients with respect to federal and state employment laws, compliance issues, and personnel matters and litigates claims arising under Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the Family Medical Leave Act.
Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys’ network?
A: From the very beginning of my career I have been privileged to work with some amazing women and men attorneys. My first job was a two-year clerkship with the New York State Court of Appeals, where every judge and every clerk was motivated by a strong love of the law. Even though there were no women on the court at that time and very few women clerks, the atmosphere was one of inclusion and collegiality. The focus was on discussing and resolving legal questions. Gender was simply not an issue. (Although, as I recall, the only ladies’ room was the public restroom located several floors down in the lobby of the courthouse!) My time at the court was a privileged and joyful introduction to the practice of law and one that provided me with the confidence to practice comfortably in a male-dominated profession.
Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?
A: Certainly time management is a challenge. There are so many competing demands on our time and attention. A dogged pursuit of the perfect work-life balance is guaranteed to result in frustration: The balance that works well on Tuesday, very likely will not work on Thursday. My personal solution is to manage one day at a time. I try to be 100 percent in the moment. When I am with clients and colleagues, they have my absolute and undivided attention. And, when I am with my family they have my full attention.
From the “woman at a senior level” management perspective, I think leadership is not so much about being feminine or masculine — not about being nice or tough — but about credibility and integrity. My approach tends to be one of consensus building, forging solutions without alienating anyone on a personal level.
Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.
A: When I was a very young associate at a New York City law firm, I traveled with a senior partner to a Midwestern town where we worked with local counsel on a litigation matter. After a particularly good day in court, one of our local colleagues invited us to his club for dinner. To his embarrassment, and mine, we were informed at the entrance that I would not be permitted to enter through the front door. At that, the entire legal team — all men except for me — walked to the rear of the building, entered through the kitchen and ate in an area away from the main dining room. Perhaps it was not the perfect solution, but I appreciated the good-hearted attitude of my colleagues, and I doubt any of us has forgotten the incident.
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?
A: My advice is to make life decisions that are right for you, and don’t be troubled when other women make different choices.
Also, while diligence and hard work are hallmarks of our profession, be sure to step away from your desk to build relationships with colleagues. Professional friendships are among the great treasures of practicing law and provide lasting personal and career benefits. Today, several firms, including Meyer Suozzi, and professional organizations offer programs to help women attorneys connect with each other and provide great networking opportunities.
Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?
A: A law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks should provide opportunities for women associates to shine. Good work assignments, client exposure and introductions to community and professional leaders will provide the grist for meaningful contributions to the firm and help position them for partnership status. This approach works well at Meyer Suozzi where six of our 17 practice chairs are women.
Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.
A: The success of women in our profession is a testament to the generations of women lawyers who came before us. One extraordinary example is Judith Kaye who famously said, “I take my gender with me wherever I go.”
In 1993, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo nominated Kaye to become the first woman chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals. Her leadership in that position and her continuing service to the bar are inspiring and energizing.