Allison Brecher, Senior Litigation Counsel, Marsh & McLennanm
Q: What did you want to do when you were 10 years old?
A: I always wanted to be a reporter. I was a little obsessed with the Nancy Drew mystery series and friends used to make fun of me for always having a news magazine in my hand.
Q: What was your favorite class in high school? Why?
A: Art. I love to paint. I just wish I was better at it.
Q: What was your first paid job?
A: I was a paid intern at the Today Show in the summer of 1991. I worked for Bryant Gumbel when he was co-anchor of the show. It was Katie Couric’s first year on the show, too.
Q: What was your first big career break and how did it change your career path?
A: I sought out every single internship and low-level position I could at every news outlet I could think of, which was no easy feat at a time when the internet, social media and email didn’t exist. I made dozens, maybe hundreds, of cold calls from my college dorm room to all of the news magazines, television shows, and newspapers in New York City. With persistence and a little luck of good timing, I got an amazing summer internship at the Today Show that paved the way for entry-level positions at other television stations during college and law school. Those experiences forced me to hone my presentation and performance skills, and certainly gave me a thick skin. When I decided that a career in broadcast journalism required too much personal sacrifice, I relocated to Phoenix, Arizona to start practicing law because I knew I would get tons of practical litigation and trial experience there. My work in television news helped me grow skills that were easily transferable to the legal profession. During my first three years of practice, I handled dozens of trials, arbitrations, and depositions, practical litigation skills that led me to my current position at MMC. I still love to write, especially about work-life issues and I used my platform at MMC to become a contributor to www.Modernmom.com, a leading women’s professional and lifestyle website.
Q: How did you get your current position (internal promotion, company change, other)?
A: I was an associate at a large firm near Wall Street when I got a call from a recruiter about an in-house position at Marsh & McLennan Companies (MMC). I think my resume appealed to MMC because of my trial and practical litigation experience, which I never would have had without my journalism and trial background. Shortly after I started, my company and others in the insurance industry became involved in high-profile litigation involving the review and production of hard drives and hundreds of thousands of emails. The first Zubulake opinion had just been issued, which caught my attention and I started reading about the soon-to-be-released eDiscovery procedural rules. I created a job description for a newly created position to start and implement an eDiscovery program so that my company could be a leader in this area. My innovative, creative and forward-thinking General Counsel approved my proposal and that was the first in a series of promotions that led to a senior-level position in our global legal department. My position gives me a platform to network at industry events, which led to a position on the Advisory Board of the prestigious Georgetown University EDiscovery Institute. I also wrote a book about eDiscovery that is currently used as the course curriculum at several US law schools. I’m grateful to have some small role in helping to educate the next generation of attorneys.
Q: What do you like most about your current role?
A: Every day is different, unpredictable, and full of new challenges. I love handling internal investigations, which is a lot like being a reporter. It is very gratifying to use my legal skills to help a business colleague resolve a stressful situation with a client and to assist our business lines developing new products or new procedures to reduce certain risk areas.
Q: Who was your most important mentor, coach, advocate or role model and how did (s)he help you?
A: I’ve been blessed and lucky to have had two important and influential female managers and mentors. They both held senior-level positions at my company and always seemed to magically balance work and family. They are amazing role models for me, especially when I was a new mom trying to care for my young children while taking on bigger responsibilities at work. My youngest daughter was born with a congenital vision impairment and I am grateful for the time they took to help me ease back into work after maternity leave. They also taught me the importance of making time to listen. Sometimes a few quality minutes spent with a colleague goes a long way towards establishing meaningful relationships. They always encouraged me to follow new areas of interest and think creatively to align my career goals with my company’s broader business objectives.
Q: What is currently your biggest career challenge?
A: How to prioritize when everything is a top priority. We all lead very busy lives and even with all of our technology that enables us to work smarter and more efficiently, it is always a challenge to tackle everything on my plate. Sometimes you also have to say no, graciously.
Q: What’s your 5-year career plan, i.e. where would you like to be in 2020?
A: I truly love my current position and I aspire to do more of it. In my personal time, I hope to continue working on and growing my nonprofit, giving performing arts opportunities to more children in lower-income school districts, and writing about work-life issues for ModernMom and other platforms.
Q: Do you currently have a “board of advisors” to help make career choices? What kinds of advisors are on it?
A: don’t have one. My family is my number one advisor and I’m so lucky to have life-long best friends for backup support. I’m thrilled to be part of W2K so that I can develop and grow a network of other working mom attorneys.
Q:What do you see as the biggest roadblock to your career advancement?
A: Corporate legal departments are relatively “flat” organizations. Once you reach a certain level, there are limited ways to advance your career. That is a roadblock for some people. I prefer to view it as an opportunity to branch out in creative directions. I like to create risk mitigation projects that would be most meaningful for our business colleagues that have the side benefit of exposing me to different parts of our operating companies.
Q: What is the best career advice you’ve received?
A: Stop “should-ing” yourself to death. A friend at work told me this and I love it! I always used to think I “should have” done this, or “should not have” done that. I have an unusual career path and I used to think I had to overcompensate for not following the traditional path to a senior in-house counsel position. I now realize that my unique background gave me a skill set that makes me more valuable to my colleagues.
Q: What career advice would you give to women beginning their careers?
A: Search out new opportunities and create them for yourself. Don’t wait for someone to hand them to you. My areas of law - data privacy, eDiscovery, and healthcare reform - didn’t exist 10 years ago. I followed developing case law and regulatory developments in these areas and created a practice niche for myself, started speaking at conferences and networking, and, later, wrote a book about my area of practice. I became my company’s subject matter expert and, thankfully, my business colleagues now seek me out for advice about these and other areas.
Q: What mistakes do you see women making in their careers?
A: Women wait for others to open up doors for them. They wait for a partner, manager, or mentor to introduce them to new opportunities or for a law firm to make them partner. To advance in the corporate culture, women need to seek out and cultivate their own opportunities. Search for new networking groups, learn about developing legal areas, get to know other business leaders who you admire.
Women also underestimate the importance of giving back. I always make time for community service. I helped start a nonprofit children’s choir on Long Island two years ago when budget issues in my school district and others nearby resulted in cuts to the performing arts programs. Our nonprofit now has nearly 200 kids from all across Long Island, we sing at high profile venues and, most importantly, we sing and fundraise for other kids who are less fortunate. I never thought I’d be able to use my legal skills to give back in this way, but it’s been an amazing and rewarding experience. I know first-hand that effort put into community service is rewarded in so many ways.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you about your career?
A: I wish someone had told me to stop worrying so much during my early years of practice. I moved to Arizona and, later, back to New York City without a job or connections. I didn’t have the kind of upbringing that opened career doors for me and I worried so much about finding a satisfying job, succeeding, and being able to balance all of it with the demands of motherhood. When you surround yourself with good people and put out positive thoughts, everything always works out for the best and possibly in ways you don’t expect.
Q: What book changed your career or life?
A: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is one of my all-time favorite books. It’s a heartbreaking but uplifting story about companionship, family, and life - told from a dog’s point of view! Like the characters in the book, I have had to deal with many family crises lately, both canine and human. Even someone who is not a dog lover like me can appreciate how the old soul of a dog helps us look at the absurdities of life. Every day will bring a new crisis, but I always try to remember that almost every crisis is just a “blip” on the screen. It’s important to be present during the journey and enjoy it.