Interviews January 21, 2014

“Female Powerbrokers Q&A: Alston & Bird’s Nicki Carlsen” Law360, January 21, 2014.

Extracted from Law360:

Female Powerbrokers Q&A: Alston & Bird's Nicki Carlsen 

Nicki Carlsen is a partner in Alston & Bird LLP's Los Angeles office, where she co-leads the firm's environmental and land development group. Her practice focuses on land use, environmental compliance and litigation. She has over 20 years of experience with the federal, state and local regulations affecting development projects, including land use planning and subdivision laws, the California Environmental Quality Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and endangered species acts.

Her land use experience extends to all project entitlements, including general plan amendments, specific plans, development agreements, zone changes, subdivisions, conditional use permits, variances, and grading, building and encroachment permits, as well as specialized environmental permits, such as Section 404 permits and “take” permits.

She currently serves as a member of the California Building Industry Association’s board of directors and Environmental Law360's editorial advisory board.

Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys’ network?

A: It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was one of four daughters, and my parents encouraged us to be independent, to do well in school, and to pursue interests that would allow us to support ourselves. Each of us had paying jobs as teenagers and continued to work through college and, in my case, law school. My mother was primarily a stay-at-home mom, and she stressed how important it was to have options. My father, not having any sons, channeled his drive and energy into his daughters.

From a different perspective, I’ve never felt that I’m part of “an old boys’ network.” Women in law have had to change the concept of the “network” to truly be a part of it. And, my law firm and other law firms have evolved and have embraced a more inclusive concept. Of course, ongoing challenges remain as more women achieve executive management positions within the legal industry, but I do believe that the landscape has improved.

Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?

A: Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” highlighted one significant challenge facing women in leadership roles: Success is positively correlated with likeability for men, while success is negatively correlated with likeability for women, by, stunningly, both men and women. While time will hopefully change that perception, women need to recognize that it exists today. And, some might say, “Who cares if you are liked?” Easily said if you’re the one who is liked, but likeability translates into respect, business opportunities, mentoring and so many other informal, yet beneficial, rewards, that it cannot be easily dismissed. Women in executive management need to be aware they may not be liked, and they can simply accept it, or they can try and alter perceptions in their own way. I find a sense of humor helps, along with other activities which support positive and congenial relationships with colleagues.

Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.

A: Most sexism that persists today is subtle. One issue that comes up frequently enough is that women can become invisible in a larger group setting when the group consists primarily of men. For example, I have expressed an opinion or an idea in a management meeting, which engenders no comments, and then a man raises the same idea, and it is given merit, acknowledged and discussed by others in the group.

In the past, women didn’t have a seat at the table. Now that we are seated at the table, we need to be vocal, active participants in the discussions. Sometimes that translates to jockeying for position and making your voice heard in a group setting. It’s helpful to stay connected with others at senior levels throughout the firm and build strong relationships.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?

A: The same advice that I’d give to an aspiring male attorney — be a great lawyer.

However, the law is a tough business, and one issue for women attorneys at the beginning of their careers is that they are not as comfortable handling confrontational situations or aggressive behavior. When I was just starting out as a lawyer, I was exposed to opposing counsel who was very aggressive, and after a few missteps, I developed some effective responses to this type of behavior, which strengthened confidence in my ability to respond not just to him, but overall, in any stressful situation.

Women attorneys need to be prepared to deal with aggressive behavior and confrontational situations. Some people are just mean and others will use this tactic strategically, but in any case, you cannot take it personally. Of course, different situations call for different responses, aggressive opposing counsel is different than a confrontation with a senior partner, but I rarely respond with my own aggression. We have numerous, diverse skills that allow us to achieve our objectives, and we do not need to resort to bullying tactics to advance our client’s interests.

Realizing these are difficult conversations, I would encourage women to anticipate these types of situations and to practice responses, whether by yourself or with a confidant. By practicing uncomfortable behaviors — acting them out and saying them aloud — we become more comfortable with them, and thus, more likely to invoke them during stressful interactions.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?

A: Given that the percentage of women partners has not changed all that much in the past several decades, law firm management may need to understand better the reasons why women leave private practice — or, self-select out. My view is that women self-select out because they believe that the demands of private practice do not provide sufficient time for family. Perhaps that is how life works: We don’t have sufficient time for all of the things we want to do and we make difficult choices, but I believe that we can do better.

To address this work-life balance concern, law firms have developed programs, such as part-time or alternative career path programs, but they are utilized by only a small percentage of women, and fewer men. Law firms are still very structured in terms of how they view and measure success, including recognition and advancement within the firm, and perhaps management needs to be more creative and re-evaluate traditional models to partner promotion.

Those opposed to alternative career paths often point to the cost of overhead and to the so-called difficultly in managing caseloads, but with advancements in technology, both of those issues should be easier to resolve because we can work virtually anywhere. Also, as some partners distrust those who seek alternative career paths, maybe more generous benefits should be reserved for those who have already demonstrated their commitment to the law firm, helping to dispel the distrust.

This is not an easy issue, and it will take considerable effort to investigate the true causes and to develop meaningful solutions, but we need to do more than we are doing now.

Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.

A: I have great respect and admiration for Sandra Day O’Connor. After law school, she persevered after being rejected by numerous law firms to find her first law position. She was also a woman of “firsts.” Prior to her being the first woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, she served as the first female majority leader in the United States as the Republican leader in the Arizona Senate. During her tenure on the Supreme Court, and despite being the only woman on the court for years, she established her own position on important issues, and was well-respected by both liberals and conservatives. She left the Supreme Court to be with her husband during his final years, and has continued to educate the nation on legal issues. She has achieved tremendous professional success as a woman, and not as a woman trying to act like a man.
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