An interview with McGuireWoods’ Amber McGraw Walsh.
CCBJ: You spearheaded the creation of your firm’s Women in Private Equity initiative. What inspired that?
Amber McGraw Walsh: After years of being closely tied into the private equity industry – particularly for me in healthcare private equity – I observed that there were very, very few women in the field, particularly at the senior level. As I was growing into management at McGuireWoods, it occurred to me that as active as the firm has been in seeking to make positive change in supporting women at the law firm, we also had this opportunity to not just be observers, but actually help make positive change for our clients. It was especially easy to kick this off after I became confident that our clients were also seeking to make the same change and were really struggling with how to do so.
Your most recent women’s networking event was McGuireWoods’ Healthcare and Life Sciences Private Equity and Finance Conference in February. What were the takeaways from that?
This is the second year that we have had a breakfast for women attending the healthcare private equity conference, and we noticed a couple of interesting phenomena. When we hosted the first networking breakfast in 2017, we realized that it helped dramatically boost the number of women attending the conference at large. The number of breakfast attendees and conference attendees who were women also jumped between 2017 and 2018. Based on that, and based on the vibe in the room and the conversations we were having, it became evident that women felt much more comfortable and compelled to spend their valuable time attending an industry event when there was a special opportunity to connect in a more meaningful way with other women in similar positions.
You chair the firm’s healthcare department and have been recognized for your work in the healthcare and private equity arenas. What lessons from your own career path might help younger lawyers who want to follow in your footsteps?
Take ownership of, and make a strategy for, your own career very early on. For some young attorneys, this ownership can start as small as observing those in your sphere and recognizing simple things, such as “I admire this person in my firm,” or “I admire this client,” and then seeking his or her mentorship. For other young attorneys, this ownership may mean acting on realizations such as “I do not think that XYZ will lead me to the ultimate goals I’ve set for myself.” But in any event, identifying mentors to help you navigate these waters is critical.
Ultimately it is incumbent upon you to seek out such mentorship. While McGuireWoods, like many other firms, is wonderful about providing mentorship opportunities, in the end you have to own your own career and identify mentorship opportunities that help you elevate yourself. And, of course, you cannot then forget about mentoring others!
How has the Women in Private Equity initiative advanced mentoring and engagement of junior-level attorneys and their counterparts at private equity firms?
Internally within McGuireWoods, this has been one of the wonderfully unexpected benefits of this initiative. I am so thankful that some of my male colleagues suggested bringing young women lawyers into the initiative. Including those young women in the planning and implementation of the Women in Private Equity and Lending initiative has provided a forum for these talented young women to be mentored in career-impactful ways, far beyond mere doctrinal legal skills. Not only are more junior women getting mentored by senior women through this initiative, but senior women are also learning from each other because this is a cross-office, cross-practice group that is connecting in new ways.
What opportunities have been created as a result of this initiative?
The first is that it has opened up a forum to reach a new audience that we weren’t previously reaching. I believe that investors are seeing us in a new light, and it has allowed us to have conversations with those investors that transcend the legal and business discussions we had already been having, and to get deeper into discussions about their goals and challenges. It has opened doors that were previously not open to us in certain markets, and there are definitely a few investors that, through that door opening, now know us better and have or are poised to hire us.
Thought leadership is an important aspect of this project. What are you doing in this area to promote women leaders?
We have published a few pieces that were more observational in nature, about the dearth of women in private equity and lending. But we have more recently kicked off a series of profiles – called “Women in Private Equity to Know” – that is posted on our website and shared with our network. We profile women who have successful careers in private equity and have really valuable insights to share.
We had a great response to our January and February pieces. In January, we interviewed Lorine Pendleton of TIGER 21 and Portfolia Funds. In February, we featured Elizabeth Burgess, head of the U.S. Sustainable Growth Fund for Bridges Fund Management. These profiles are intended to be a source of inspiration for women who may be considering private equity as a pathway, or who may already be in a position in a private equity firm who may really be yearning for some additional support and guidance.
We’re also working on a more substantial piece about the top things we’re most excited to see developing around women in private equity. In this future piece, we’ll talk about the funds that have emerged in the past two years that are focused on investing in female-founded businesses, about initiatives to make private equity a more compelling career, about internship programs that a couple of the larger private equity funds are doing, and about other exciting developments that make us optimistic about the trajectory of women in private equity.
Amber McGraw Walsh, a partner at McGuireWoods, chairs one of the largest healthcare practices in the United States and is a leader in promoting the advancement of women in private equity and lending. Based in Chicago, Walsh led the creation of the firm’s Women in Private Equity initiative, which includes industry-focused events that provide educational and networking opportunities for women. She co-chairs the firm’s annual Healthcare and Life Sciences Private Equity and Finance Conference, one of the largest private equity events in the U.S. healthcare market. Nearly 900 registrants attended this year’s event in Chicago.
Published April 2, 2018.