Female Powerbrokers Q&A: Fox Rothschild’s Brett Axelrod

January 7, 2014 – In The News

Reprinted with permission from Law360. (c) 2014 Portfolio Media. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Brett A. Axelrod is managing partner of Fox Rothschild LLP's Las Vegas office and a member of the firm's executive committee. She focuses her practice on the representation of Chapter 11 debtors, unsecured creditors' committees, purchasers of bankruptcy assets and secured creditors and has worked on some of the largest bankruptcy cases in the state of Nevada.

Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys' network?

A: Unfortunately it is indeed true that the law is still a mostly “old boys’ network,” although I do see women slowly chipping away at that image. However, I think there are advantages to being a woman in what is still a primarily male-dominated field.

You have an incredible opportunity as a women lawyer to make yourself memorable, to differentiate yourself in a way that leaves a distinct and indelible impression so that clients and colleagues will keep you top of mind when they have a need for the specific type of legal services you provide.

I’ve chosen to distinguish myself in several ways, and among them was to create a networking forum for the professional and executive women who work in my particular field of law: Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I noticed there was an organizational vacuum for these talented women, and thus was born “Chapter Chicks,” a women’s network of female bankruptcy professionals that meets monthly and refers work among its members to help them grow their books of business and expand their network.

I’ve now passed the torch of leadership for Chapter Chicks to another female attorney at my firm, who is a future trailblazer in bankruptcy law.

Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?

A: A National Association for Law Placement study conducted in 2012 showed that women constitute just under 20 percent of law firm partnership ranks, and that number gets even smaller at the highest levels of firm leadership. Those numbers speak for themselves, don’t they? Meaningful change in the legal industry isn’t going to come until women possess true economic and institutional authority within the profession.

Institutional authority will come when management at a law firm has female representation at its most senior level that includes women with and without children. The cold hard reality is that women with children have a different set of issues than women without children, and just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you understand both sets of issues. Equal and balanced representation at a senior level of firm administration is a benefit to all — to men, to women, to women with children and to women without children. It gives everyone the voice they deserve.

Economic authority involves more than just billing. As just one example, let’s focus on marketing funds. In the “old boys’ network,” no one would even blink at the expense of a golf outing for client entertainment. Four men on a golf course — no problem. Go for it. But let’s be real. There are women in positions of authority at organizations we want to get business from. Do those women golf? Maybe. But I’d be willing to bet they’d surely enjoy a day at the spa far more than a day on the golf course. Trying to get firm management — particularly when it’s mostly comprised of male attorneys — to approve business development funds for a day at the spa is not an easy sell though. Men often don’t understand the inherent value when women work their networks in a way that speaks to other women who have the power to make decisions about legal purchasing.

Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.

A: Unfortunately I’ve encountered quite a bit of sexism in my career. The tamest example I will offer occurred at one of my previous firms, where I was asked by a male senior executive to forgo some of my compensation because my male partners “needed an increase in pay” more than I did. In essence, I was being penalized because I had no children and some of the male partners did. I refused to comply with the request and reported the incident to another firm senior executive.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?

A: Absolutely get your own book of business! You and you alone are responsible for charting your own destiny. It is critical to have solid financial footing from your own clients at a firm and not depend on someone else to get the clients and pass the work on to you. Put another way: Don’t be just another worker bee. It can and does take time and perseverance to create your own client base, so I suggest finding and developing your own niche practice area. Become the “go-to” person for that area, and you will be surprised at how your practice will bloom into something great.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?

A: Change the origination credit system. While strides have been made, female attorneys are still frequently kept out of pitch meetings with new potential clients. Many firms foster a system where the attorney who pitches and lands the client gets all the origination credit. Let’s start splitting the credit and reward the team players, the ones who assemble a team of talented attorneys who can cross-market the firm’s services and land legal work from a client across multiple practice areas. Women often get penalized under the origination systems that reward only one attorney, because women more so than men are more likely to assemble a team to pitch the firm’s services to a prospective client. There should be a sense of “selling the team” within firms and not just selling individual attorneys.

Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.

A: I have known Eve Karasik, a senior shareholder at Stutman Treister & Glatt, since the beginning of her career. I have watched her blossom from a law clerk into a senior practitioner and top rainmaker at her firm. Not only does she possess a phenomenal knowledge of bankruptcy law, but as a working mother, she has developed a strong and practical sense of work/life balance. Eve is a terrific role model for other women in the industry.

Reprinted with permission from Law360. (c) 2014 Portfolio Media. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.