Yvonne Winkler von Mohrenfels’s decision to pursue law while growing up in Germany may be the only part of her story that has come without geographical challenges. In fact, her initial motivation was about as close as could be. Her father is a law professor who enlisted her help in typing out briefs or opinions on her typewriter. “You could say I drank the Kool-Aid from the very beginning,” Winkler von Mohrenfels says. “I found the international private law cases he worked on to be absolutely fascinating.”
Though a short stint in banking occupied her college years, Winkler von Mohrenfels ultimately followed her father into the legal sphere, albeit one whose international focus would take on a world of different meaning for the assistant general counsel at Ashland, a global specialty materials company with offices in Bridgewater, New Jersey. The attorney has crossed borders time and time again for law, love, and the ever-widening purview of her role.
Nothing about her eventual transition to practicing as a US-based attorney has come without a challenge. Learning the law in both Germany and France eventually gave way to the young lawyer’s decision to brush up on her English, a requirement for success as a corporate counsel in her home country. She chose to study briefly in Toronto, however, not the US.
“There was a stereotype at the time that all Americans speak with chewing gum in their mouths and you can’t understand what they are saying,” Winkler von Mohrenfels remembers. “I clearly did not have a lot of real-life exposure to the US, only stereotypes.”
It was while living in Toronto that Winkler von Mohrenfels met her future husband. She and some friends from the Toronto Tall Club drove to Pittsburgh for a party weekend organized by a local chapter of Tall Club International. Their relationship complicated what Winkler von Mohrenfels had assumed would be a Eurocentric law practice for the next few decades. Her husband moved to Germany for seven years, and after marrying, the couple moved to the United States.
Maintaining Identity in Evolution
Winkler von Mohrenfels took on adapting to more US-centric interactions and laws with the same assertiveness and transparency she says is reflective of the German mind-set. In preparing for the New York bar, the AGC says that she intentionally chose law classes during her LLM studies that were most different from German law because she knew she would encounter them on the exam: constitutional, family, and criminal law.
For lawyers who may be looking to follow in her footsteps, Winkler von Mohrenfels advocates wholeheartedly for the bar exam prep company mentor she worked with who helped her refine her essay skills—another significant difference from German legal education. She passed what is widely considered to be one of the country’s toughest bar exams on her first attempt.
Navigating the legal differences in the US came easier than the small cultural differences that can mean the difference between an interaction being read as “respectful” or “potentially rude.” The AGC says the “please and thank you” niceties so common in American interaction were a new phenomenon for her.
“I clearly needed to learn how to speak differently with peers, colleagues, clients, and employees all around,” Winkler von Mohrenfels says. “Americans communicate very differently from Germans. My personality has always been assertive and open; I always speak my mind. When you combine that with the German attitude that certainly leans more this way, there are going to be issues you need to address.”
“It’s not just cultural differences; sometimes it’s just Yvonne being Yvonne. I always speak my mind, hopefully respectfully, and if there’s a question that no one else dares to ask, I usually ask it.”
These differences proved particularly challenging for Winkler von Mohrenfels to navigate when she became a manager. She found that leading and interacting with a team as a manager constituted a different skill set and role from providing legal advice as a lawyer.
“In Germany, it’s your job to do a good job,” the lawyer says, chuckling. “I learned very quickly that that wasn’t going to work here.” One major steppingstone Winkler von Mohrenfels says she benefited greatly from was a German American culture workshop offered by her US employer at the time that provided potential pitfalls to look for instead of having to correct missteps after the fact.
At Ashland, Winkler von Mohrenfels says she’s had the good fortune to work with supportive managers who have provided important feedback. Though not a “natural” at managing people, she has striven to adopt a management style modeled on that of her own manager, Ashland’s general counsel, and other positive role models. “I hope the people I work with today would say that I’m a much better listener and less ‘pushy’ in my assertiveness than I was earlier in my career,” she says.
Adapting her communication style has not come at the cost of making the lawyer feel like someone she’s not. “At some point, I had to make peace with the fact that you can only change, and should only change, so much,” the lawyer says. “It’s not just cultural differences; sometimes it’s just Yvonne being Yvonne. I always speak my mind, hopefully respectfully, and if there’s a question that no one else dares to ask, I usually ask it.”
Fifteen years into corporate practice in the US, Winkler von Mohrenfels has successfully navigated a new culture, new laws, a transition into people management, and a fairness complex she says can often be at odds with the hardball style of corporate America. But in all things, she sees the glass as half-full. “Ashland has given me the opportunity to have a career I’m not sure I could have had anywhere else,” she says. And now, leading the global commercial legal team, she gets to keep an eye on her home, even if it’s from New Jersey.