Don't Be Afraid to Hear 'No'

Eastern Bank’s Kathleen C. Henry discusses the importance of betting on yourself.

CCBJ: What inspired you to pursue a career in law?

Kathleen C. Henry: There wasn’t just one influence. I like to write and read. You have to enjoy both if you’re going to go to law school and become a lawyer. When I was growing up, there were no lawyers in my family, and I was the first in my family to go to college. But my dad used to tease me that I liked to win an argument and I should go to law school.

After undergraduate school at Boston University, where I studied journalism and benefited from a full academic scholarship, I wanted to give back. I went to work for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in a soup kitchen in New York City. I was an advocate for who­ever came through our door. My first day I received all the regulations for public assistance, housing and social safety net programs in New York City. I saw how people struggled to understand them. That changed my life. It showed me that being a lawyer could allow you to impact people’s lives and lift people up.

I then got a job with NETWORK, an economic justice lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. We lobbied Congress to save social safety net programs and avoid funding cuts for the poorest people in the United States. In this small lobbying firm, the team came together for lunch every day. We were a collaborative group, and that inspired my leadership style, as well. After working there, I went to law school at Northeastern University, intent on becoming a welfare lawyer.

What are some of your most rewarding career experiences?

Several stand out, including the relationships I formed during my 11 years working at Choate Hall & Stewart. I felt like I won the professional lottery working at the law firm – the friendships I made, the exceptional training and the mentoring by wonderfully generous people all contributed to an experience that really trained me as a lawyer. I became a litigator focusing on reinsurance law and then moved into a very nontraditional role on the management side of the firm as the hiring and pro bono partner. I led pro bono programs and was engaged in diversity, hiring and professional development issues.

Working at Eastern Bank is one of the greatest privileges of my professional life. It’s a fast-paced job. I start my days thinking they are going to look one way, and shortly after, realize that my day, my week or my month might be a little bit different. I get to work every day at a company that has at its heart doing good things for our communities, including the neighborhoods of Boston where I grew up, went to school and am raising my family.

Despite a busy career, you’ve stayed very active in pro bono and community work.

Practicing law comes with a lot of opportunities to do good. One thing that’s near and dear to my heart is a Boston organization called PAIR [Political Asylum Immigration Representation Project], where I’m on the board. It’s a nonprofit that provides pro bono legal representation to asylum seekers who have fled their home countries, often with their lives and not much else. They really need legal representation. My first two PAIR clients were child soldiers, brothers from the Congo. I represented them for a number of years. It was heartbreaking but incredibly rewarding work.

How about some of the biggest challenges?

There are different challenges at different stages of a career. When you start out there’s the challenge of the doubt in your head. Am I good enough? When you’re the most junior person on a team, everyone else is an A-gamer. The challenge at that stage is owning your role and convincing yourself that’s where you belong.

The greatest challenge for me has been juggling a family with the demands of being in a client service profession like practicing law. It was especially challenging to be litigating and traveling when I had three children under the age of three. If one of the kids didn’t sleep, I still had to get up, go to work and be sharp. I have a lot of respect for people who are trying to build their family, build their career and forge their reputation all at once. It is doable. It is hard.

What advice do you have for others looking to grow in their careers?

Take risks. Bet on yourself. Don’t be afraid to hear “no.” Women in particular need to be encouraged and inspired to take risks in their careers. That’s an issue that I’m close to. I’m on the advisory committee for the Northeastern University School of Law Women in the Law Conference. I’m also on an advisory committee for the Boston Bar Association that’s focused on advancing women in the profession.

Your career takes many turns, whether through new roles with different demands, or balancing the needs of a sick parent, small children or something else. It’s important to realize that your career is a marathon, rather than a sprint. Only you can own your career. No one is going to do it for you.

Kathleen C. Henry is Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Eastern Bank, where she oversees legal affairs, including corporate governance, risk assessment, and legal compliance. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Political Asylum Immigration Representation Project (PAIR), advises the Northeastern University School of Law’s Women in the Law Conference, and participates on the Boston Bar Association’s Advisory Committee for the Women Leadership and Advancement Forum. Reach her at [email protected].

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