Q&A with Guest Editor Courtney VanLonkhuyzen

Courtney VanLonkhuyzen is an accomplished attorney working for the global Fortune 500 company Lenovo. She was chosen to guest edit this issue of Modern Counsel for her unique perspective as former outside counsel and committed supporter of women’s and minority initiatives. Courtney is excited about the evolution of the in-house counsel role and women’s compatibility with it, as are we. Look for her commentary throughout the issue. And see our conversation with her about the themes we’re addressing in this edition and the state of women in the legal profession.

– Michelle Markelz, Managing Editor

Michelle Markelz: It’s been nearly 150 years since an American female attorney was admitted to a state bar for the first time. Men still outnumber them 2:1 in the legal profession. In the C-suite, the disparity is even greater: 4:1. Yet women are earning almost as many JDs as men. Where’s the disconnect?

Courtney VanLonkhuyzen: There isn’t one reason; there are multiple reasons that come together, and they’re systemic issues. The first—and probably biggest—is that we need to overcome the role of unconscious bias. The bottom line is, we’re humans. With every interaction, we come to the table with biases. That’s OK. That’s normal. That’s what makes us diverse in thought. But if that’s what’s stopping people from moving up, then we need to become aware of it and change it. For females, unconscious bias labels ambitious women who speak up as “overly assertive,” “bossy,” and “aggressive;” whereas, the same type of man is seen as “a leader” and “motivated.” It really infiltrates every aspect of women’s lives. To me, the only way to stop it is to continue to bring transparency and awareness to it, because most of the time, I don’t think people are being biased intentionally; it’s because they have a blind spot.

MM: What are the ramifications of that bias? What is it about being “bossy” that impacts women’s ability to advance?

CV: Promotions are made around a collective decision of the people above you, which takes into account all of the formal and informal channels from which they receive feedback about you. If people are unfairly viewing a female as bossy or overly ambitious, then it does affect her pay and promotions. But what I think is equally damaging is that it quiets an important, diverse voice in decision-making for a company. If women know they’re viewed that way, they’re not going to speak up, or they’re going to change what they say so that it’s less straightforward and, therefore, less helpful for the company to make a better decision.
The role of the lawyer has evolved from staying in a box giving legal advice to being a strong, trusted strategic advisor and businessperson. My belief is that women are very well-suited to fit that role.

MM: What other challenges do women face in the legal profession today?

CV: Another issue is the huge pool of women who are highly educated, who’ve had careers in law and business and then in the home, whom we haven’t figured out how to reincorporate into the workforce. It’s an incredible talent pool that’s gone out of the workforce for a period to raise their children, and we’re not tapping into them. And there are challenges to that, especially in law firms, because the partnership track is all about the billable hours you produce and the amount of money you bring into the firm—some of which coincides with being there over a period of time to demonstrate those metrics. The standard objection is that it’s hard to say that women who come back should make partner when their male peers never left to have children. I think women have realized there’s a big glass ceiling, and they can march through it or go around it. Many are happier going around it, and I think that’s what successful women are starting to do by starting their own businesses and finding more flexible careers.

MM: Like many corporate counselors, you began your legal career in private practice. There’s been talk of an “exodus” of women from private practice because of the glass ceiling. Does the corporate environment have more to offer a female attorney?

CV: I would say no. Perhaps in the past the in-house world looked like that, but now it’s equally as competitive as private practice. I don’t think it’s always about the workplace you’re in with respect to private practice or a corporation; it’s more about what you want as a professional. If you’re interested in moving up, and you want a leadership role, in my opinion, you’re going to work just as hard in both environments. I also think the main driver of the intensity of a company’s environment is the type of industry it operates in. If the industry itself is fast-moving or heavily regulated, it will likely result in a more demanding schedule for corporate counsel.

MM: In her feature, Karen Leetzow of NASCAR talks about making compromises between work and life. Do you think the compromises are the same for men and women who want to advance in the legal field?

CV: I do. I think being a professional in today’s world and wanting to advance require a lot of sacrifices. If we think of it as a daily balance or a weekly balance, it doesn’t work, because we’ll pretty much fail at all the hats that we wear. We need to figure out how to juggle those priorities over a period of time and find the right fit for our families, our companies, and ourselves. Everyone will make different choices at different times. But I see less of a difference between men and women with respect to that—and maybe even some bias against men who make the decision to prioritize family. I do think women are seeking out more flexible options like consulting and small businesses. They can’t necessarily have a perfect balance, but they want the flexibility to manage it themselves.

MM: Catherine Smith, GC of Brightstar, says in this issue that “diversity of thought” was a critical criterion in hiring a new CEO. If women are leaving private practice, is diversity of thought decreasing, and is that affecting the value of outside counsel?

CV: It’s a long-standing challenge for outside firms to figure out how they can truly relate to the businesses they serve. It’s probably exacerbated by the exodus of women.

MM: We’ve reached a point in which diversity is an understood necessity in business, but how would you describe the value a woman brings to the corporate counsel role?

CV: There is no one answer. It can be diversity of almost anything that helps vet out a different perspective, such as past work experience, schooling, cultural background and ties, technical skills, gender, sexual orientation, and regional experiences. As humans, we have blind spots. We have things we just do not see and tendencies and biases we don’t know we have. Getting others to vet those blind spots helps reduce them and leads to better decisions more often. If we can identify those, we can lead to a meritocracy—a place where the best path is what we execute on.

MM: We spoke with the GC of the LEGO Group, Robin Smith, who participated in a reverse-mentoring program with CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. How can both men and women have honest, no-holds-barred conversations about unconscious bias and its impact?

CV: One of the biggest challenges for a company is creating a great culture with transparency, diversity, and inclusion so that the environment is a trusted place for employees to flourish and drive the company to success. Our parent company, Lenovo, has an incredible chief diversity officer, Yolanda Conyers. She’s measuring the senior leaders and holding our entire company to a very high standard. And our president, Rick Osterloh, has reprioritized diversity and inclusion for us. I think it definitely has to be people like Rick and Yolanda who set the standard at the highest level. You also need grassroots employee support for a positive culture. I’ve seen firsthand, despite Motorola’s many changes in the last few years, employees who feel extremely proud to work at Motorola and live Motorola values internally and externally each day. But you also can’t create an eggshell environment in your company. You don’t want people so nervous about stepping on toes that you can’t get anything done. I think we have to have a little sense of humor about the fact that, as humans, we misstep, we miscommunicate, and we have to give each other a break. If your leadership team and your employees are committed to creating a culture, the company will achieve and maintain it, even when there are a few bumps in the road.

MM: What are you most excited about for the future of women in corporate law?

CV: The most exciting thing for me, hands down, is that the role of the lawyer has evolved from staying in a box giving legal advice to being a strong, trusted strategic advisor and businessperson. My belief is that women are very well-suited to fit that role. We tend to have strong emotional intelligence; we have good listening skills; we have the ability to think flexibly; we can multitask well; and we are able to build consensus and collaborate well. You’re not working with a few big clients (as in a big law firm); you’re working with 20 or 30 clients, all with competing priorities. I think women tend to handle that very well. And I think the solutions that we come up with tend to be less linear. We come up with very creative solutions, and in the in-house environment, that is key to accommodating the business objectives and adding value for the company.