Jamie Lawless, COO, Baker & McKenzie, Washington D.C. & New York
Q:What did you want to do when you were 10 years old
A: The ten year old version of myself had the big dream of starring in a Broadway musical. I ended up settling for high school performances and homemade productions staged in my parent’s living room.
Q: What was your favorite class in high school? Why?
A: French. My French teacher, Madame Nichols, was a passionate educator who inspired her students every day. Always engaging, Madame Nichols taught her students about French culture, beyond just the language. She was exciting, vivacious and entertaining. But most importantly, her students flourished. In retrospect, Madame Nichols had many qualities of a great leader.
Q: What was your first paid job?
A: I worked as a kennel associate at my father’s veterinary hospital. I was responsible for greeting patients, cleaning cages and taking out the garbage!
Q: What was your first big career break and how did it change your career path?
A: When I was a junior analyst with very little management experience, my manager at the time left the company. The organization I was working for had two options: hire a new manager or give me a shot at the role. Fortunately, they picked me. I had huge shoes to fill and skeptics to win over. This experience paved the way for how I’ve approached every opportunity thereafter: I always build relationships with stakeholders across all levels of the enterprise (especially the skeptics), look for “small wins” early on to build credibility and am never afraid of what I don’t know or haven’t done before.
Q: How did you get your current position (internal promotion, company change, other)?
A: Prior to my role at Baker & McKenzie, I served as a Vice President in a number of organizations, where I focused on streamlining operations across multiple industries, including legal, publishing, advertising, professional services, financial services and education. In these roles, I was responsible for delivering best-in-class operational solutions to clients as well as spearheading the national expansion of two organizations. My roles encompassed everything from building businesses in new strategic markets to securing new business and managing the successful execution of our services to clients.
Fortunately, Baker & McKenzie was in the market for a COO who could bring best practices around efficiencies and client service delivery to D.C. office operations. A mentor introduced me to the firm and Baker's need aligned with my leadership experience across multiple industries and geographies and my comfort in client-facing positions. I also think there was a good fit between the firm and the perspective I offered, and a shared emphasis on exceptional service. I secured the D.C. COO role in 2013 and have since taken on the additional responsibility of New York operations.
Q: What do you like most about your current role?
A: In any professional services environment, people are the most important asset. In a leadership role, it’s critical to keep your eye on your talent – what is the firm doing to attract, motivate, develop, reward and retain the best in the industry? That’s an exciting proposition for me, and one that is constantly evolving. As the workforce expands to include a greater percentage of Gen X’ers and Millennials, the leadership approach needs to flex and adjust. That constant evolution keeps me going. Exceeding the demands and expectations of the largest demographic in the workforce today is what ultimately sets a firm or organization apart from others; and it’s critical in protecting our greatest asset.
Q: Who was your most important mentor, coach, advocate or role model and how did (s)he help you?
A: Growing up, my father told me regularly that I could be anything I wanted to be. I have my parents to thank for setting a strong foundation. Since then, I have had several mentors and advocates, all of whom continue to contribute to my career. And my mentors are not limited to the workplace: the greatest source of inspiration for me is seeing someone rise above a significant challenge or achieve the unthinkable. I tend to gravitate toward those kinds of mentors as a source of inspiration.
Q: What is currently your biggest career challenge?
A: Paving the way for future leaders and setting the best example I can for them. I believe this is something that leaders need to think about, tweak and constantly adjust.
Q: What’s your 5-year career plan, i.e. where would you like to be in 2020?
A: By 2020, I would like to be in a position where my role has substantively contributed to the development, advancement and promotion of talented people, both women and men. This doesn’t necessarily translate to a different title or position, but more to the quality of time I devote to mentoring and developing people over the next five years.
Q: Do you currently have a “board of advisors” to help make career choices? What kinds of advisors are on it?
A: My board of advisors starts at home. My fiancé knows my capabilities better than anyone and often believes that I can do the job, before I can. I also count on leaders I respect (both male and female) and longtime friends who have excelled in work and in life.
Q: What do you see as the biggest roadblock to your career advancement?
A: Myself. When you stop thinking about the reasons you can’t do something, then anything becomes possible. Any time I doubt my abilities to take on a bigger role, my “board of advisors” set me straight!
Q: What is the best career advice you’ve received?
A: Never rest on your laurels. Shortly after a promotion, I sat with a female mentor to discuss my exciting new opportunity. I remember this exchange as if it were yesterday. We were situated at café on 40th street in New York and she advised me that things were about to change. She went on to describe the various challenges that would come as a result of the title. But the most memorable advice that she gave me that day was to never rest on my laurels. This advice was dispensed more than ten years ago, but I still think about it every day in work.
Q: What career advice would you give to women beginning their careers?
A: Be aggressive in finding and establishing relationships with people you admire or respect. Take them out for coffee. Ask them about their careers and how they got to where they are. Don’t be shy about letting them know that you want to learn from them. Executives are very busy and won’t always think to reach out to you, so take things into your own hands.
Q: What mistakes do you see women making in their careers?
A: I focus on the opportunities women might miss, rather than the mistakes they might make. Opportunities are missed for several reasons, the most common being a lack of conviction or confidence when taking on a new challenge. Most of the women I have managed over the years have been capable, smart and driven – yet some have been hesitant to take on a new challenge for fear of not succeeding.
Q: What do you wish someone had told you about your career?
A: When you are building a career, it can be very easy to lose a sense of work/life balance early on. It would have been nice to know that it’s truly okay to have a balance; that you can take a vacation and still meet the deadline; that you can carve out time to go to the gym in the morning and still be prepared to run a 9:00 am meeting. I spent so much time in my twenties and thirties working long hours and I didn’t make myself a priority. In hindsight, I wish I had strived for better balance. I have realized over the years, that I am actually more productive when I am in a good space, both physically and mentally.
Q: What book changed your career or life?
A: Lean In has certainly served as a more recent source of inspiration. Books that were interesting to me earlier on include Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, Who Moved My Cheese? and The Speed of Trust.
Q: What is your favorite quote?
A: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” - Milton Berle