Lawyer Emily Morrow on her formative years

“My early memories were of my mother telling me two things: One, you can do anything you want to do professionally. Two, do not rely on a man to support you, because you never know what might happen, dear.”

For over twenty five years, Global Women member Emily Morrow was a lawyer and senior partner with a major firm in Vermont, as well as chairing the board of Vermont’s largest statewide commercial bank. Now, primarily based in Auckland, she has clients up and down New Zealand and in Vermont, working with lawyers and law firms on everything from company strategy to personnel to executive coaching. She’s passionate about helping professional women and is a frequent contributor to Law Talk and Law News.

Global Women recently got the detail on what drives Morrow:

Formative years.

Morrow’s first and foremost role model was her mother Erica Rubenstein, who got a PhD from Harvard in the 1930s when very few women were doing that. She then built a successful career teaching art history at Harvard and other universities.

“She always encouraged me,” says Morrow.

“My early memories were of her telling me two things: One, you can do anything you want to do professionally. Two, do not rely on a man to support you, because you never know what might happen, dear.

“As it turned out I’ve been happily married to the same man for 37 years, but, I certainly heard those messages. And I believe them.”

Morrow’s father was a university professor too. He taught at Vassar College, a liberal arts university which was at the time one of the Seven Sister colleges (parallel to Ivy League, but for women). That school was full of incredibly bright, high-performing women, and as a child growing up on the campus, this was really the only type of woman Morrow knew.

Career defining moment

As a 20-year-old undergrad student, Morrow once worked a summer job as low-level clerk in an office.

She was sitting at her desk one day studying for her law school entrance exams, when a senior male colleague walked by and looked at what she was reading.

He said, “Why are you reading that book? Women don’t go to law school.”

“This was in 1973, and he was just about right; women were not going to law school in big numbers then,” says Morrow.

“But I remember looking up at him – because he was standing above me – and saying to him ‘You know, not only am I going to go to law school, but someday people like you are going to be reporting to me’.

“It was kind of a defining moment for me, because it was the first time in a very direct and incisive way I spoke my peace to someone who totally backed off. He left the room. I behaved as an alpha female and he backed down.

“I thought: OK, I get it.”

To keep developing as a leader

She reads a lot. Professional development literature, psychology literature – at the moment she’s reading Altruism by Matthieu Ricard, a Zen Buddhist monk who also has a PhD in cellular genetics.

“The book’s about that fact human nature is basically altruistic rather than selfish, and the implications of that for the individual, countries, cultures, and the world at large.”

She also chooses her company carefully.

“I hang out with the brightest and best people I can find and I try to learn from them. I often find these people through work, and it’s also one of the reasons I like Global Women – for the network of incredible women.

“And I ask a lot of questions, so I’m a lifelong learner. I try to minimise hubris and maximise listening and learning from other people who have something interesting to say”.

Characteristics of a leader

Morrow believes leaders need two fundamental characteristics to succeed.

“The first is critical thinking. The ability to consistently engage in really crisp, clear, high quality critical thinking. The second is the capability to communicate exceedingly well orally and in writing.”

She says what undermines those is the reverse – blind acceptance of the status quo and poor-quality communication, driven by poor-quality, muddled thinking.

Advice

Morrow says trust your instincts, and don’t take no for an answer. “One of my philosophies of life is that ‘no’ is just the beginning of the conversation.”

Exciting happenings at the moment

Last year, Morrow was hired by Russell McVeagh to work with the firm on gender diversity issues.
After extensive interviews with partners and staff she wrote an extensive report with findings and recommendations – which, she says, the firm is now actively engaged in implementing.

“The partners completely embraced the issue and are moving the needle on the dial on the issue. The ability to work with an organisation and be a catalyst for change, both at the leadership level and at the coalface, is something I greatly enjoy. I find I’m getting an increasing number of invitations to do that type of ‘entity’ level work with law firms across the country.”

Before she studied law, she studied sociology, psychology and anthropology, which she interweaves along with law into her consulting work.

“It’s a really multi-disciplinary practice and very rewarding personally and professionally”.

“The gender diversity work is both challenging and meaningful because it has a direct impact on the experience of professional women in the workplace.”

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