Janet Callahan, partner at Hancock Estabrook, never intended to become a lawyer and yet became the first female managing partner at a large firm in Syracuse
Published in 2012 New York Super Lawyers — Upstate magazine
on August 21, 2012
Updated on August 22, 2012
Q: When did you decide you wanted to become a lawyer?
A: I never had a burning desire to be a lawyer and actually never thought about it at all until I was in my senior year of college. I thought I would be a special education teacher. When I was a senior and started to work in classrooms and [had] experience working for an administration, I thought perhaps this was not something I wanted to do the rest of my life. It was a professor who suggested the law to me.
Q: What have you enjoyed about it?
A: Several things. I love the intellectual challenge. I don’t want to say it’s fun because I don’t want it to sound facetious, but it’s incredibly satisfying to have somebody come in who has a problem, whether it’s a small problem or whether there’s a CEO of a company and they have a huge problem. They come to me and I can use my brain, use my experience and consult with other people here at the firm and come up with a solution that is going to send them away happy.
Q: How many years have you been at this firm?
A: I was first hired here 28 years ago. They brought me in because I had a clerkship background with strong experience doing research and writing. And they had a lot of appeals that they needed backed up, and they needed somebody to handle the appeals, which [was] still my first love.
Q: And you are now managing partner. How do you balance that role and your practice?
A: It’s a little hectic. Of course I’ve had to cut my practice down in order to take on the management responsibility, but before I was elected managing partner I was on the firm’s executive committee for about nine or 10 years, and I was also the head of the litigation department for 10 years. So it’s not like I had this sudden culture shock and was thrust into this managerial role.
Q: What has been your most memorable moment in law?
A: I would say the first successful jury verdict that I took. It’s just an incredibly stressful experience. You feel responsible for a good outcome for the client, regardless of the fact that there are many factors, including what the jury thinks, how the witnesses come across, whether pieces of evidence get in. There are a lot of factors that you can’t control. But notwithstanding many of us feel like if you lose, it’s our fault.
Q: How do you manage the losses?
A: You learn to block them out and move on. If you’re a responsible and a conscientious litigator, part of the process, every single time, whether you win or lose, do a self-debriefing and say, What could I have done better? What could I have done differently? What do I need to take away from this so that I improve next time? That’s just such an ongoing process that it just becomes part of how you handle a case.
Q: What advice do you give new attorneys?
A: You have to know yourself. You have to know what you’re comfortable doing and you have to forge your own path, starting right in law school. There’s a tendency for law professors or career-counseling officers to tell everybody, “You should do moot court; you should do law review,” but that may not be the appropriate path for everybody. People really need to know who they are as a person. Do you like working with people or would you rather have your nose in a book all day? Can you multitask? Can you handle having 10 cases going on at one time or are you the kind of person who just likes to have one case and then work it and put it aside for something else? Are you quick on your feet or are you more deliberative? Do you need to think about things? These are all traits that people need to know about themselves in order to decide what career is going to be most satisfying to them and what career they’re going to have the greatest chance of success in.
Q: And what do you know about yourself?
A: My personal preference would be to bury my nose in a book. But over the years I have developed the people skills to a greater extent than I think my natural temperament would indicate. [Laughs]
Q: How do you get more comfortable with your people skills?
A: Most of it is doing it over and over again. But even now, after 30 years of doing this, when I go to court and I have to argue an appeal—the appellate courts are in Albany or Rochester or New York—what I will do on the drive along the way is I will actually practice my argument out loud, over and over and over again to see what it sounds like, to see what parts of it I don’t like and refine those parts. The key is to spend the time to be prepared but then go in looking like you’re just delivering it off the cuff.
Q: How do you think the law has progressed in terms of opportunities for women?
A: I think there has been a significant amount of progress over the past 10 or 15 years not in terms of the number of women attorneys as much but in respect to the upward progress we’ve been able to make; and part of that is just a product of time. For example, when I graduated from law school over one-third of my class was women. In fact, the woman who graduated second in my law school class was married and was raising five children at the time. The difference is as women have risen through the ranks, we tend to be good mentors and we tend to try to share our experiences and share our advice with the women who are coming up behind them so they can achieve success a little easier. For example, right now in our firm we have 33 partners, 15 of whom are women. When I started I was the second woman partner of the firm. I became a partner in 1989. Now half of our partners are women. That’s a significant accomplishment.
Q: What’s the key to being a good managing partner?
A: Two things are key. First, you need to be a good listener. You need to listen to everyone in your firm, whether they have criticisms, suggestions for improving client service, problems they want you to solve or ideas to explore. You never know where an opportunity will come from. Second, I think it’s important to be able to act quickly. Our world moves so fast these days that any situation can turn on a dime. You have to have the ability to recognize an opportunity and seize it, before you lose it.