Even the most passionate lawyer will admit that law school wasn’t exactly their idea of a pleasant experience. Not so for Citizens Bank Vice President and Senior Counsel Suzette Ivanova. The Georgetown University Law Center alumna absolutely loved the challenges and opportunities that law school provided.
She found a particular passion for employment law as a summer associate, when she made a point of trying a variety of assignments from different practice groups to gain broad exposure to the legal field.
“It just so happened that employment law was the work that I enjoyed the most out of all the assignments I had that summer,” she says. “Many years later, I still very much enjoy it. The intersection of the law and the dynamics of the workplace give this practice area a certain unique complexity that initially drew me and has continued to interest me.”
This genuine passion for employment law serves Ivanova well in her role today. At Citizens Bank, which she joined in February 2015, Ivanova advises internal clients on a broad array of employment law issues. These internal clients run the gamut from human resources and employee relations personnel to executives in various business lines. She also oversees outside counsel on employment litigations and directs litigation strategy on those matters.
For Ivanova, it’s not enough to simply help her clients navigate an issue and provide legal counsel. She also wants to educate them. This educational approach is crucial to not only help clients make an informed decision about the legal matter at hand but also to better position them to proactively minimize or sidestep a potential legal risk in the future if they encounter a similar issue.
“Regardless of the client, I take a collaborative approach, meaning I make it a point to not simply give legal advice like a directive but to really walk through and explain my reasoning and the rationale behind the advice I’m giving. In that process, I actively engage my clients in those discussions, and I encourage them to ask questions and raise issues or concerns as we talk so we can sort through all of those points,” she says.
“When you’re advising a client from a legal perspective, you really have to fully understand the situation from their perspective,” she adds. “Knowing the context of clients’ situations and engaging them in the discussion is integral to providing effective legal advice.”
“I make it a point to not simply give legal advice like a directive but to really walk through and explain my reasoning and the rationale behind the advice I’m giving.”
This educational approach has an added benefit: Ivanova herself will inevitably learn more about the business in a very organic way.
“As I’m talking through issues with them, I may learn some new aspect or perspective from the vantage point of the business line that I wasn’t previously aware of, one that may inform and drive the discussion and the legal analysis,” she says.
“Suzette’s collaborative and educational approach sets her apart as a leader in employment law,” says John P. Barry, a partner in the labor and employment department at Proskauer Rose. “Her thorough understanding of her clients’ needs makes her a highly effective problem-solver and an ideal business partner.”
COVID-19 rapidly changed the workplace and forced many companies to shift to a remote operating model for the foreseeable future. These changes have made the “very dynamic and ever-evolving field of employment law more significant than ever, especially as laws and regulations roll out at the federal, state, and local levels,” Ivanova says.
“There are myriad issues and concerns to be addressed,” she says. “And it is critical, now more than ever, not just to stay on top of all the legal developments but also to take into account the real concerns and challenges that employees are facing and to meet those challenges with practical, effective solutions in real time as developments unfold.”
Ivanova praises Citizens Bank for creating an environment that has always prioritized employee welfare and safety. She says the company has shone even more brightly throughout COVID-19.
“The legal team at Citizens is of the highest caliber and, as a whole, has done such an incredible job of staying on top of legal developments. The team is constantly adapting to this new and ever-changing legal landscape to effectively address the wide range of challenges that this pandemic has brought on,” she says. “It has been a fantastic experience working here. My role, the team—all of it has been a very enriching experience. I’ve learned a great deal from the perspective of being in-house counsel, but what I have valued the most is becoming a trusted advisor to my clients and really developing those relationships.”
Ivanova’s advice to early career lawyers is to be bold and think big, particularly when charting the trajectory of their careers.
She especially cautions against falling prey to imposter syndrome. “A lot of people, throughout their careers, talk themselves out of going after opportunities because they don’t meet every single qualification or criterion listed,” she says. “They question whether they can meet the challenge and are reluctant to take the risk.
“Pushing yourself to take on those more challenging roles—and constantly reminding yourself that you are more than capable and can excel at that next level—is key,” the VP continues. “To progress and thrive in any field, you have to train yourself not to be afraid to take chances and to bet on yourself. Because if you don’t, no one else will.”