Leigh Isaacs, Director, Records & Information Governance, White & Case
Note: Select content from this interview is reprinted from STEM Cells: Leigh Isaacs, published in Law Technology News, December 10, 2013
Q: What was your first paid job?
A: I was a cashier/stock clerk at a retail toy store when I was 16. Dealing professionally and patiently with crazed mothers and ill-behaved children taught me skills that would prove valuable in my career! My first legal job was basically as a girl Friday for a solo practitioner. I did everything from making coffee; generating letters and documents; filings and operations—to picking up broken pieces of whatever the attorney’s spouse threw during very heated (and very frequent) arguments. My sense to not ask questions and to duck when necessary proved crucial.
Q: What is your educational background?
A: I began working full time immediately after high school and consider myself a lifelong student. While much of my education has been learning by doing, I am still in pursuit of an “official” degree. I’ve obtained several certifications: 1) AIIM: Certified information professional, electronic records management practitioner, electronic content management practitioner and SharePoint practitioner. 2) ARMA International: Information governance professional. 3) I am pursuing my certified records manager credential, with one part remaining.
Q: Do you ever wish you had received a formal college education?
A: I like to live my life with no regrets, as one can’t get to 48 years old without having some unpleasant experiences. I’m happy with who I’ve become and where I am, and wouldn’t even want to undo unpleasant experiences I’ve had because they have helped me grow. That said, if I could push the rewind button, I would have pursued more formal education much earlier on. I grew up in a blue-collar family where my father worked and my mother stayed at home. Expectations were set early on that I would go straight to work rather than college. My high school teachers were definitely disappointed that I did not develop my talents in college, but I’ve been fortunate to have people believe in me and elevate me into new roles throughout my career. That said, I am a perpetual student and continuing to pick away at education while I work and take care of my family.
Q: What was your first big career break and how did it change your career path?
A: My break into records management was as the firmwide records manager for Heller Ehrman. While I’d spent my entire career in legal, I fell into records management by happenstance. I transitioned from performing secretarial/office management functions to records as an experiment. I was asked to lead the records/docket/library and new business functions for Heller’s D.C. office. I had no clue what I was doing, but jumped in with both feet. Within a year, my role was expanded to regional, and within another year I was officially crowned firmwide records manager.
Q: Who was your most important mentor, and why?
A: I don’t know that I can narrow this to just one person. There have been so many people who have been wonderful mentors in both my personal and professional life. I have learned much from people who were not “officially” my mentor. That said, I would say that Robert Meadows (my boss at Heller, now CIO and marketing officer at Bingham McCutchen) had a tremendous impact on my professional development. I credit him for seeing potential in me that I didn’t know that I had. He offered leadership and guidance, while at the same time providing a level of autonomy and trust. Had he not taken a chance on me to lead in a discipline that was completely out of my area of expertise, I would not be where I am today.
Q: What is your most recent accomplishment?
A: Two come to mind. First, with the support of many talented people, guiding the transition of a team of skilled professionals from records management to information governance professionals—and expanding our services to holistically govern our information, regardless of media. Second, serving as a steering committee member for the Law Firm Information Governance Symposium and expanding the efforts to populate IG within law firms.
Q: What is currently your biggest challenge?
A: Challenges are plentiful in law firms! I would say that continuing the charge to educate major stakeholders on IG—what it is, what is required and why they should care—while at the same time developing an IG support team that requires stepping out of comfort zones and managing all the expectations in between.
Q: What’s your 5-year career plan, i.e. where would you like to be in 2020?
A: As I just started at White & Case, my 5-year plan is to do amazing things here by building a great Information Governance program. In the long term, I’d like to occupy a Chief Information Governance Officer role, either at White & Case or another organization. And even further down the line, I may change courses entirely and try to devote myself to a community-oriented endeavor.
Q: Do you currently have a “board of advisors” to help make career choices? What kinds of advisors are on
A: Before joining WomenToKnow, I never viewed people in my professional network as a board of advisors, but now that I think about it there are definitely people in my life who play those roles. These range from mentors to professional coaches, to even people who know me as a person and help remind me that I can either be my own best friend or my own worst enemy.
Q: What career advice would you give to women just beginning their careers?
A: My children will tell you that I am always harping on them to put their best foot forward and to recognize that they are not entitled to anything. Advancing yourself often requires that you take on tasks that might not be in your job description and no job is too big or too small. They’ll also tell you that they are tired of me preaching to them the importance of social media etiquette, to take advantage of the privacy settings and to remember that they shouldn’t say anything they wouldn’t want shared with the world—because that’s basically what they’re doing!
Q: What insights would you share on managing up within an organization?
A: Focus on the goals and objectives and do whatever you can to help ensure success. Be professional, objective, knowledgeable, dependable and reliable so that your perspectives have merit. Take the time to get to know your boss. Communicate frequently and effectively, and in a manner that resonates. Over the years I have worked for people in a variety of roles with a variety of personalities. Managing up cannot be effective if you assume that it is a “one size fits all” effort.
Q: What is the secret to your success?
A: I wish I knew! Seriously, there is no one easy answer. First and foremost, I’d say that my own code of ethics that I live by both on the job and off plays a significant role. To name a few: 1) Treat everyone with respect. 2) Lead by example. 3) Take the time to develop relationships. 4) Be curious, ask questions and learn new things. 5) Don’t be satisfied with average or mediocre. 6) Push yourself out of your comfort zone. 7) Approach projects with a true spirit of collaboration and empathy. 8) Recognize the strengths of others. 9) Having a mentor and being a mentor. 10) Have a sense of humor. First obstacle and how you overcame it: Can’t recall what my first obstacle might have been as there are many. My general approach to overcome obstacles is to envision what would be necessary to transform them to opportunities.
Q: What book changed your career or life?
A: Most recently, Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying, by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. My mother recently passed away after a yearlong battle with cancer. My childhood best friend gave me the book with the hope that it would bring comfort. It did, and I would recommend it as a worthwhile read to everyone. There is much to glean that can be applied to everyday perspectives of the living as well.
Q: What is your favorite quote?
A: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson