The Doyenne of Dorsey
Dorsey & Whitney’s Marianne Short on what it’s like to manage one of the state’s largest firms, her role as a leading female pioneer, and lessons learned from a certain vice president
Published in 2011 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine on July 12, 2011
Q: You just started your second stint as managing partner.
A: Yes, I’m half into it.
Q: I imagine the hours you keep are difficult. Do you still find the law as enjoyable as ever?
A: Oh, I love the law. You have to have a passion for it or you wouldn’t put up with some of the other things that go along with it. It’s just fascinating; it’s how we all live together in a crowded world. You have to love it, it has to energize, and then you have to really respect it because it takes so much time and energy.
Q: You come from a family of lawyers. Was the law always something you were drawn to?
A: Yes, there are seven kids in our family, and five of us are lawyers. My father was a lawyer, although he practiced for a short time in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. attorney’s office, and then here in Minnesota; and then went into business.
Q: And you loved it from your law school days?
A: You know, I loved it even in high school. I worked over at Dayton’s in summers in high school, and would go over at lunchtime and watch at the courthouse lawyers do arguments and cases. So I don’t know if it was Nancy Drew books or Perry Mason TV shows or what it was, but I just loved the drama of the courtroom and the excitement and intellectual challenge and surprise. I think those aspects are still the ones that keep me going even today.
Q: I want to talk about gender in the Minnesota legal community. Is it a surprise to you that it still seems pretty rare for a woman to be a managing partner at a firm?
A: No, I think, just because of the age gap that we’re talking about. In my class in law school, and I went to Boston College Law School and graduated in ’76, and there were about 20 women in my class of 200. And if you go into a law school now and take a look, there are almost all half and half [men and women]. If you look [at] a law firm, you will see not a whole lot of senior women in law, either because there were other opportunities, like they are off on the bench or they’re the CEO of a company somewhere or some other great job, or they chose a different career path because of the complication of children—when we were coming up without technology to help us be able to work from home and things like that. So there isn’t the depth to draw from necessarily in the group, and I think that’s some of the reflection you see on boards right now. But I think in a blink, in two years, there will be a totally different perspective looking at boards, with women in seats of responsibility. I think you see it now in partnership ranks. Here at Dorsey, there are so many women in the fifth- to seventh-year group. They’ve all matriculated up, and our last four years, entry classes have been half and half, women and men. So it’s a huge boost compared to when I was coming [up] in the mid-’80s. When I became a managing partner here at Dorsey in the AMLAW 100, I think there were three [women] at the time—four years ago—and now I think there are 10 at least [with] equivalence of titles like managing partner. Still, I sometimes caution our younger women [to] make sure you develop your expertise in the profession first, before taking on the additional burden of leadership. Because otherwise, you’ll become the leader but not the rainmaker, and you want to be able to kind of get to both.
Q: When in your career did you feel like you were ready to add on a leadership role?
A: That’s a good question and it depends on what kind of leadership we’re talking about. I think I was a partner for a year, so that means I was an associate for five years here and then was a partner for six years. I had been at the attorney general’s office for about 18 months before I came over here, so I had a little bit of prep work there, too. When I was just a first-year partner, I was the head of the recruiting committee here. That was an appropriate level for the experience I thought I probably had and it taught me some leadership, and I did some pro bono work and was involved in some pro bono boards. So I got some leadership at a young age, and it was a great opportunity, but it was appropriate for the seniority or the experience I would have. And then I was active in bar associations, both locally and at the national level. That gives you a lot of experience and you watch others in board meetings, and you watch others in CLEs or professional speaking engagements and [you] take some tips from all that and you grow into other responsibilities. So again, you always want to reach a little, but you don’t want to be stretched so thin that you either fail at the leadership or fall back at developing your own professional track. So, you wouldn’t want to be a managing partner maybe ever [laughs], but you sure wouldn’t want to when you’re young in your career. Put yourselves in those situations to stretch.
Q: How do you have a career and a family at the same time?
A: There are lots of people who have both. Nobody just has one thing. They’re always balancing everything—I think “balance” is the wrong word. I think when we think of the word “balance,” we think in a given day, 50-50, or whatever the split might be, should be what’s happening. I try to remind everyone, including myself on a daily basis, that life is a motion picture; it’s not a still frame. So at any particular time, you can look at me and I can look hysterical and things can be going wrong in all aspects of life, but you just hope at the end of your life, you will have looked like you have achieved a lot because you have accomplished things and that’s the best you can hope for. I think back to my original advice about working as hard as you can and trying to be as organized as you can: That’s to keep you organized for chaos because chaos happens, and you can’t stop it.
Q: I imagine there are challenges to managing such a powerhouse firm with such … strong personalities?
A: You meant to say big egos?
Q: Well, yes.
A: I think the real issue, and I was talking about this recently, is a partnership compared to a corporation. I mean, you’re correct that managing any group is difficult and is probably most difficult if you really think you’re leading it in some way instead of just marshaling a consensus and moving it like an amoeba. But I think the difference, when I look at my clients who are mostly corporations, compared to a partnership, is the true herding of cats. In other words, the corporation sets their vision and sets their mission and their leaders know what they’re pulling their group along on. And they frankly have part of their compensation built up in bonuses or some other piece that goes against quotas or whatever else the measurement might be. But if you take a partnership: You have to get everyone to buy into what you’re doing or what the rules of the organization are going to be—and the same thing with a partner. I say not that I’m the managing partner—it might sound great to all of you on the outside—but the truth is, I work now for my partners. It’s an interesting challenge, but it’s not all much different than a family dynamic. You know, when the children are little, the parents might be in charge, arguably, I would say. And after that, it’s really the consensus of the family. Because if you just dictate, you’re not going to have a very cohesive group.
Q: What’s the secret to finding and retaining talent?
A: If you hire talent that really match the needs of your clients and match your strategic focus and your core values, then, at the end of the day, you should have clients that are happy. Because, of course, they’re getting good, bright talent that’s focused on what their challenges are—and you’ll have a colleague who has a common bond with where you’re going and wanting to be and you’ll be stronger because of the addition. So I think a lot of firms have strategic plans that call for growth; Dorsey’s no different. That’s one of the things that can be tough to do. You have to be very disciplined about it. That is, looking for a focus and making sure you have someone that fits it.
Q: How long have you been with the firm? 1977?
A: Hm mm.
Q: And former Vice President Mondale works here?
A: Right. He does so much for the community and continues to do, but he also does so much for the firm. And it’s not so much bringing him in on tough legal matters—and by the way he is the best on strategizing there could ever be—you know, he gives me some guidance on growth and direction of the firm. But he really loves to sit with our summer associates, the second-year law students that come in or the brand-new (we call them “baby lawyers”) and spend time talking about the law as a profession.
Q: What’s your favorite part of the job?
A: The strategic stuff; that’s the good part of being a managing partner. The personnel? The meetings? Not so much. [Laughs]
Q: What’s advice you give to young lawyers?
A: You are better than everything because of your past. You can never look back and say that was wrong. There are many paths to success in life; there is not just one. So you can’t be frozen, unable to make that same next decision because you’re looking for the right one. I learned long ago in the practice of law from Henry Halladay, a senior trial lawyer, which you really learn from those cases that you lose. You think about, of course, the ones you win. But it’s from your losses that you learn the most because you rehearse in your mind the questions you asked, what went wrong, what could have been different. And that’s true about life. I think that no matter what path we take in life, we’ll get to a place that I hope we’ll all be happy. But we’ll look back and say we were a better person or a better lawyer because of a relationship or an experience or something that even at the time seemed little. So don’t be afraid of those experiences that look less than successful. They will make you stronger in the end.