Disenchantment often pervades discussion about the legal profession — the hours, the politics, the grind. Lesley, however, is joyful about what she does. I almost didn’t believe it could be true. But as she spoke about her family, personal mission, and work as the SVP General Counsel & Secretary for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, it all made sense. Her love of the arts colors her entire career. She is enlivened by it, surrounded by it. Her job puts her at the epicenter of New York City’s cultural scene. How did she arrive at this sweet spot, this avocation as vocation? Rather than doggedly pursuing the most prestigious law firm or the highest salary, Lesley forged her own path with an uncompromising drive to get what she wants out of life. Here’s how she did it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Lesley Rosenthal: That, or a violinist. When I was about 16, I visited my elementary school orchestra director and told him I couldn’t decide whether to be a lawyer or a violinist. He said, “Well, you can always be a lawyer and play the violin on the side, but you can’t do it the other way around.”
I think it’s really interesting to be able to advocate, to put together a logical argument, and to do it with artful flair. I enjoy persuasive writing, oral advocacy and the rigor of practicing law.
I expected to end up as a public interest lawyer, although the route was more circuitous than I had imagined. I hadn’t seriously considered working at a law firm for any length of time. I watched my classmates start to dress in suits and interview with law firms on campus or at fancy hotels. It just seemed like such a strange direction, one that didn’t make sense for me at the time.
I clerked for the Honorable Shirley Wohl Kram, in the Southern District of New York, for two years. She was very wise. When I explained that I wanted to be a public interest lawyer with the public defender’s office, legal aid or maybe the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, she said, “You know, in my experience, law firms have a lot to offer a young lawyer recently coming out of school or off a clerkship. You should really consider one of those firms. You get the kind of training that you just can’t get anywhere else.” And she continued, “Besides, it’s a nice way to pay off your student loans.” She was right, and I started looking at the law firms that passed through her courtroom. One firm kept coming up over and over again, representing important commercial clients very well along with a great number of pro bono projects. I applied only to that firm, and lucky for me, I got in. That was Paul, Weiss.
I spent more time there than I expected — 13 years — but the firm was supportive of my vision, to get a great deal of formal, practical training, as well as hands-on experience. The litigation department was not specialized, so I had an opportunity to work on a wide variety of matters for different types of clients. I joined the technology group at an interesting time, when commercial and personal use of the Internet was starting to take off. And the firm allowed me to do a significant amount of pro bono work.
Some were traditional pro bono matters that the firm had as institutional clients, like Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. And I did an appellate case for the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society. Paul, Weiss was also very open-minded about bringing in my own pro bono matters. Two of them stand out as being relevant in terms of career path. My college roommate’s modern dance company invited me to be its outside pro bono general counsel, which was my first exposure to being the general counsel of a nonprofit. From there, the firm asked me to take over as the outside pro bono general counsel of one of its existing clients, Child Care Action Campaign, a larger and more sophisticated advocacy organization.
For me, it wasn’t even a choice. I felt this imperative that I couldn’t only be billing hours to clients. I wouldn’t have considered going to a firm that didn’t have a culture of pro bono work. I was fortunate to find that at Paul, Weiss, but it wasn’t by chance.
Powered by women: the legal team for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 2014.
I was very active in the commercial and federal litigation section of the New York State Bar Association, and ultimately I became the chair of the section. My activities there — networking, drafting reports, putting on CLE programs, co-leading diversity initiatives, meeting judges, meeting lawyers at other firms, finding mentors — were invaluable while I was transitioning to public interest work.
I tried to ignore it as best I could. I wanted to excel and do a great job for the firm and for all the clients, but partnership was never my life’s ambition. I had other goals and values. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be a law firm partner, but it was never for me.
The firm had a generous maternity leave policy: three months paid and the rest of one year unpaid with continued medical insurance. I was able to stay home with each of my kids for their entire first year, which was a real blessing. It’s such a pivotal year. The firm also had a flextime policy — you could choose between 60 and 100 percent of target hours. I initially picked the 60-percent level. It took a little bit of doing to make that work, and then we gradually increased my percentage.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. I was working full-steam on all of my matters until the day I went into labor. I had to be told to put the expert-witness report down. With the second pregnancy, I went into threatened preterm labor at 33 weeks. The doctor said to go to bed and stay there until the baby was full-term. So, in that case, I placed an emergency call to the assigning partner, saying “I’m terribly sorry, but I cannot come in tomorrow and not for another single day until after my leave.” The firm was more than gracious and accommodating — you can’t argue with Mother Nature.
Litigation of large, commercial matters tends to move along relatively slowly, or incrementally. When I returned after a year, some of my cases had barely inched forward. Or, if they had been at the motion to dismiss phase, they were now on the summary judgment phase. I got the same office back. I opened my drawer, and there was my pencil case with the pencils lined up exactly as I had left them. So that was eye-opening and made me really glad that I had been able to stay home for a full year. My kids certainly didn’t change incrementally — they changed radically in that first year.
When my kids were newborns and toddlers, I really went to bat for myself to do 60-percent flextime. However, you can’t clock in and out at a law firm — you can’t plan to work x number of hours, x number of days, and then go home and not think about work until your next day. But I was already six years into the firm [at that point], so they knew what to expect from me. There was a high degree of mutual trust. We still have a wonderful sitter, who’s been with us since that first maternity leave. Technology also made it easier to fulfill a flextime schedule.
I couldn’t really say — you’ll have to ask someone who is in that situation. But my ethical obligation is to take good care of my clients, and that doesn’t change whether I’m on flextime or full-time. That level of responsibility is always there. And for that matter, when I went in-house, it rose dramatically, because the legal buck really stops on my desk.
My mentor at Paul, Weiss, Mark Alcott, forwarded me an announcement that the general counsel slot at Lincoln Center was opening up, with a one-word email: “Interested?” Of course I was, given my musical background and my interest in being a public interest lawyer. I prepared as much as possible for the job interviews. I learned everything that I could about Lincoln Center, its history and its ambitious redevelopment plans. I read every case that had Lincoln Center on either side of the “v.” The president of Lincoln Center had written a book about corporate philanthropy, so I read the book. I checked my network of contacts from the New York State Bar Association and Harvard Law School, to get some insight. Fortunately, I was at my law school’s 15th reunion the previous weekend, and two or three of my former classmates were law partners of a senior member of the Board of Directors. And a federal judge I met through the bar association was a former law partner of another influential board member. So, I was able to speak with folks who were very knowledgeable about the organization. It’s a combination of what you know and who you know. I don’t want to sound cynical, but I also don’t want to sound naïve. By the time I interviewed, I had a handle on what they needed and was able to emphasize the parts of my background that would be the most pertinent.
In addition to my passion for music and the arts, my husband is a renowned jazz pianist, and my kids are musical, so it’s really part of our family culture. Having my professional energies devoted to something that we all care about helped bridge the work-family situation that a lot of lawyers struggle with. My kids knew little and cared less about the complex commercial litigations I worked on at the firm, but they’re very interested in what I’m working on at Lincoln Center. But I do think people may have this misimpression that going in-house is a cushy lifestyle move. I don’t find it to be the case. It’s every bit as intensive — maybe more packed into the workweek and less on the weekends. The level of responsibility weighs on your mind and permeates your whole waking consciousness: this institution’s legal well-being is in my hands.
They were jealous! I frequently hear that I have the best law job in New York. To be able to devote my professional energies to a mission that I care about — there’s no greater professional satisfaction.
There’s a myth out there, particularly perpetuated by headhunters, that litigators don’t go in-house. Except, when you go around the table and look at general counsels of major nonprofit organizations, particularly cultural institutions, many of us started out as litigators. I think it’s important to get out of the mindset of specific skills and really think about what means to help manage a legal practice within an institution, to be a good colleague on a senior team that includes programming, marketing, finance, fundraising, operations, strategy and human resource professionals. If you’re a litigator, maybe think of it as managing a case, setting the strategy and working it through, from soup to nuts.
Can you walk us through what your role as general counsel entails?
Read my book! [Laughs] In Good Counsel: Meeting the Legal Needs of Nonprofits, I wrote about legal issues that typically arise department by department, instead of legal subject by legal subject, because I wanted non-lawyers (as well as lawyers) to understand what the legal picture of a nonprofit organization looks like. The bread and butter are contracts of all kinds — not just related to performances and productions, but mundane things such as the elevator maintenance company’s contract. There is a smattering of litigation and regulatory matters, some governance work. There’s work in the human resources department. There are many interesting matters pertaining to the fact that our 16.3-acre complex on the Upper West Side of Manhattan has no gates. Fundraising has become more and more regulated, so we need to make sure that we’re complying with all of those rules. And this organization has incubated new lines of business, so there are also the legal aspects of working out these new types of deals.
Lincoln Center now has a global cultural- and educational-consulting practice. Since we completed a $1.2-billion renovation on time and on budget, clients with performing arts center projects of their own hire us to teach them how to construct, plan, maintain, operate, staff and program their performing arts centers. It’s fascinating to be part of a pilot team of entrepreneurs embedded within a large, stable, preexisting organization.
The sheer variety of legal matters makes it impossible for one person, or even a small team of attorneys, to know everything we need to know. Having access to a cadre of outside pro bono counsel is both fortunate and critical.
Right when I walked in the door, the president and the chair of the legal committee [charged me with bringing down] outside legal spending, either by insourcing work or by building pro bono capability. We cut outside legal spending by about 90 percent in the first year and have maintained that. For example, we’ve started six new arts-themed charter schools in the Bronx with assistance from a wonderful team of attorneys at Davis Polk. We built out a new $25-million visitor center across the street, the David Rubenstein Atrium. Every bit of legal work associated with that community amenity — from the lease (Paul, Weiss) to the zoning work (Kramer Levin) to the restaurant management contract (Gibson Dunn) was done pro bono by five different law firms, totaling a million dollars worth of work.
Absolutely. Before they’re done with our project, those lawyers will have gained significant experience. It’s a boost to the morale of the individual attorneys; it’s a professional development opportunity; it’s a PR opportunity, as you say, and the service to New York’s cultural scene and community is invaluable.
People respond so well to the Lincoln Center and its incredible reputation within the cultural sector that I don’t think anybody looked at that as a step down. But yes, if you look at the demographics of general counsels at Fortune 500 companies versus mission-driven organizations, you would find more women heading Legal in the mission-driven organizations. I can’t tell you if that’s because women are more drawn to that kind of work, or that the salary disparity matters less to them, or if other factors are at play, but the numbers are what they are.
At the moment, it’s entirely women — although that’s just by who was the best for the job, not by design.
There’s a special place in heaven for male bosses who get it about working moms!
Lincoln Center was my first full-time position after being on flextime at Paul, Weiss. My younger son had started kindergarten — I needed a little bit of transition time to get the whole family in a groove of Mom working full-time, and my boss was very accommodating. I worked from home on Fridays from time to time; as long as the work got done and I was responsive, there was no expectation of face time. And he took an interest in my kids and their development. When they would visit, he’d come and say hello to them and remember their last visit. His successor, Lincoln Center’s new president, has been very understanding of my need to be with one of my sons during his recent illness. That’s not necessarily gender. It shows the deep humanity of the person — that’s what you need to find in a boss.
It’s certainly possible, but it’s a hard to generalize. I know some women who are just as hardheaded and profit-driven, who deeply understand the imperatives of maximizing value for shareholders and live that out deep to their core, and that is admirable. It’s what makes our economy work. It’s what makes our nation great. I think that it takes women and men of all kinds in both sectors. The best idea is for people to find where their passions lie. They will excel in their work much better and their family lives will be happier. Their sense of inner peace and well-being will be better when they’re in the right place for them.