Exceptional Firm Culture Starts at the Top

Deborah Festa, partner with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, discusses the qualities that contribute to a great culture at a firm, including the crucial role of leadership. Also: Advice on what women can do to excel in traditionally male-dominated fields such as finance law.

CCBJ: You joined Akin Gump back in May, and you lead the firm’s structured finance and securitization practice. What brought you to Akin Gump, and how does the culture compare to other firms that you’ve worked for?

Deborah Festa: Joining Akin Gump was a terrific move for me, both professionally and personally. The firm’s platform is ideally suited to many aspects of my investment manager clients’ businesses, but it was actually the firm’s supportive and inclusive culture that was the deciding factor for me. So many firms throw around buzzwords and spend much of their time marketing their brands, but at Akin we are really walking the walk and keeping with the tone set by our chairperson, Kim Koopersmith. Our lawyers and staff treat each other with the utmost respect and professionalism. Communication is really a two-way street in nearly all interactions, rather than a messaging monologue like you might find at other firms. Strategy is the product of dialogue and consensus.

Diversity is celebrated both in our population and our perspectives. There are so many women here leading significant practice areas, which was a huge draw for me, and it’s very different than what you might see at many other law firms. That is a natural outcome of the culture here. I’ve always said that if you want to know whether a firm truly values diversity and supports women, look at its leadership – and not just in terms of titles, but rather who has meaningful impact and input into the firm’s allocation of resources. Look at how many women and diverse partners you find in those roles. I think you’ll find that there’s a direct correlation.

What, if any, challenges have you faced as a woman working in finance, and what advice do you have for other women looking to be successful and influential in this or other traditionally male-dominated areas?

I’ve always had good working relationships with both men and women throughout my career, and I’ve learned a lot from both. It’s undeniable, however, that there are and always have been far fewer women than men in the places I’ve worked, both in terms of the client base and in the practice of finance law itself. The dearth of female role models was a challenge earlier in my career. That said, I was always happy to learn from successful male partners with significant practices, as well as from successful male clients who had built businesses from scratch.

What I would suggest to the younger generation of women is that junior lawyers source wisdom from wherever they can find it, from the people in their orbit who are taking an interest in them personally and in their career. In doing so, focus on becoming an expert in your field, establish credibility among your target clients, and build a professional brand that is in sync with your broader organization. At the same time, build relationships in the broader community of the industry in which you are practicing, because all of these skills are universal paths to success. And in my experience, it works even in areas where you currently find fewer women in leadership positions.

What qualities does a great leader possess, in your view? What is your advice to lawyers who seek to lead in their profession, whether at their practice company or law firm or in a broader community?

It’s important to note here that a great leader might not be the one with the title or the microphone, but rather a quieter presence who has a loyal following. But with those behind-the-scenes leaders as well as those with official titles, I have noticed some common attributes over the years. Just to name a couple of them: First, effective leaders are consensus builders. That doesn’t mean you should stack your leadership ranks with yes-people who only tell you what you want to hear and create a private echo chamber – it means people who really try to understand the views and needs of the broader organization and factor that information into a plan in a meaningful way.

In order to garner a collective buy-in, you really need people to feel safe in sharing their views. That means creating a culture that encourages honesty. Another thing I would point out here is that great leaders really embrace change, when it’s clear that change will benefit the organization. We all know after dealing with COVID-19 for so long now that change can be very difficult, but it also should be seen as an opportunity to rethink and test old models and see what’s working and what could be improved. Here at Akin Gump, for example, we are actively adapting to new ways of working together remotely and considering the impact on our lawyers and staff of returning to the office in a more regular way. I’m happy to say that in all aspects of this transition, our chairperson, Kim Koopersmith, has made it clear that the safety and well-being of our personnel is paramount. Those aspects are guiding the firm’s approach, as opposed to a more rigid one that would dictate some kind of predetermined outcome. And that’s an example of great leadership.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I don’t have too many regrets on a professional level, but one thing I will recommend to younger folks out there who might be in a job that is not the right fit: Don’t hesitate too long to make a move that will be more fulfilling for you personally and professionally. I’m not advocating for rash changes, but if you have tried your best to make the positive changes you believe would improve the culture and the organization where you are, and you’ve hit a brick wall, consider whether your energy might be better spent elsewhere. In my experience, all too often, particularly women lawyers – including those in relatively senior positions – do not act on career advancement opportunities that would require a lateral move because of feelings of obligation or guilt. I would say that if you don’t feel you have the support to reach your full potential where you are, there’s probably a better place for you – and it’s worth the leap.

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