"Don’t try to conform to what you think others want you to be."
Amanda Cowell leads our Commercial Litigation practice in London. She reflects on her career and her journey from White & Case trainee to partner.
It's the people that make you stay
I started out as a White & Case trainee 16 years ago and made partner four years ago. It was a much smaller firm when I joined but the ethos of the Firm has always remained the same—it is a friendly, collegiate and dynamic Firm to work for. But what's always kept me here is the people. They're interesting, entrepreneurial, diverse and energetic—which makes it a really good team to be part of.
Don't try to conform to what you think others want you to be
When we interview potential candidates for our vacation schemes or traineeships, we don't see their education history or background information. We want to see their potential and what they're capable of, not what school they went to.
I was educated at a local state school and was the first person in my family to go to university. When I started work at White & Case, it was apparent to me that a number of my colleagues had come from different, perhaps more privileged backgrounds (in material terms certainly), but I soon realised this made absolutely no difference. As Social Mobility partner I am proud of what we are continuing to achieve.
“This Firm provides people with the freedom to be who they are, and above all else, cherishes and nurtures talent so that we can all realise our potential.”
Resilience is something you can learn
As a trainee or junior associate, I would take every bit of feedback or criticism to heart. But that didn't help me to improve or learn. Over time I observed that some of my peers were better at accepting constructive criticism and treating it as an opportunity to approach matters differently, instead of taking things too personally. That realisation was empowering for me.
There is a lot of talk about resilience in lawyers but sometimes it is difficult—especially when junior—to know how to be resilient and have the confidence to talk with someone about issues you are struggling with. It is certainly something I think is crucial to your development—to learn that nobody knows everything and questions are welcomed.
“I encourage all the juniors in my team to observe each other, to see how others react to the situations they find themselves in, and to learn from each other.”
Diversity is about culture, not programmes
You can have all the diversity programmes and initiatives in the world, but if a firm's culture does not genuinely embrace and embody diversity then it's pointless. White & Case has always been somewhere that you can be yourself—having so many different backgrounds, perspectives, views and voices amongst our lawyers creates a vibrant working environment, leads to more intelligent thinking, makes the Firm a more stimulating place to work and results in more creative solutions for clients.
You've got to have a plan
In my early days at the Firm, I didn't properly appreciate how important it is to take personal responsibility for your own career. They are so many opportunities here to shape your own professional life—working abroad, client secondments, getting involved with specific industry sectors etc.
You need to have the focus and determination to obtain the experience you want. And you need to try to develop your thinking as to where your interests lie. I always work out what I want to do, what the next step is and how to make it happen. In short, my White & Case career has been about ambition and application.
Work has changed more in 2020 than in the previous 20 years
Before the pandemic, there was a view amongst the more senior lawyers at the Firm that we were most effective and productive if everyone was physically in an office together. However, we have all had our eyes opened to the opportunities presented by different, more flexible, ways of working. Indeed, a long-term consequence of the pandemic, and technology's response to it, may be an improvement to work-life balance.
Mentorship is about chemistry
You need to trust your mentor, to feel that they won't make assumptions about you or judge. If the chemistry isn't there, it won't work. Sponsorship is vital too—you need someone to champion and support you to get to where you want to go. Both are crucial, but in very different ways.
Be confident in yourself
I have two young sons, one of whom was born before I made partner. I often talk to younger associates about how I manage to balance my work and family life. The key is communication and confidence. Be clear about when you are available and when you are not. Don't let yourself burn out and always look for balance, even if some days you don't find it. It is important to have the reserves to enjoy the journey.