Mary J. Mullany is a partner in the business and finance department of Ballard Spahr LLP in Philadelphia. She is a practice leader of the securities group and a member of the firm’s elected board. She concentrates her practice in the areas of securities disclosure, executive compensation (equity and cash-based), mergers and acquisitions, corporate financing (public and private), corporate governance, pharmaceutical and life sciences licensing and collaborations, general corporate law, business counseling, and health care law. She counsels public, private and nonprofit companies in the areas of corporate governance, executive compensation, and financing alternatives.

She also chairs the board of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, a nonprofit that provides education and job placement services to work-authorized immigrants. Before becoming an attorney, Mullany was a registered nurse with experience in critical care and risk management.

Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys’ network?

A: By working hard and ignoring the reach of the “old boys’ network.” The best way to succeed in a transactional practice is to dive in and help the client fix the problem, find the best solution for a desired outcome or to grow their business. The role of the lawyer is to help, not just to point out the risks and what cannot be done. I am also a firm believer in getting out there and meeting people — colleagues, potential clients, clients and business leaders. If a young lawyer just sits in her office and waits for work to come to her, she will miss out on some opportunities. Finally, I have found that if I become the “go to” person on a particular topic or area of the law, then the “network” needs to come to me.

Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?

A: The practice of law at the law firm level is still dominated by men. While there may be diversity of thought and cultural perspective within different partners, both men and women, as a general rule, I believe view the same situation from different perspectives. It is important for the firm to increase the number of different perspectives in leadership positions to take advantage of those differences.

If a female partner becomes tagged as the “woman partner” or as speaking only for the women, that could taint and influence the way her perspective is viewed, so I try to avoid that. I do, however, firmly believe that women should support each other and not make it harder for each other to practice in the law firm setting. Balancing these two issues is the biggest challenge that I see.

Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.

A: The most interesting example of sexism in my career was actually my interactions with a first-year associate who came to the practice of law from another career. While he was intelligent and could have been successful, he came into the firm as a first-year associate wanting to “run the deal.” At the time, I was a senior associate and I was running the deal. This gentleman would make frequent comments, mostly when we were alone but sometimes in front of others, that I was “in charge” because I was a woman and the firm needed to put women out there to “look good.” The first few times I heard this, I told him he was mistaken, and that his comments offended me. He did not stop, so I just ignored him, and then dropped him from working on any of my deals. That worked.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?

A: To borrow from Bette Davis, the practice of law, whether in a law firm or otherwise, is not for sissies. It is a challenging, demanding profession where you get to make a difference for your clients and can definitely take pride in what you can accomplish. I had a client tell me one time that in his privately held company there were not many people he could rely on to help him consider alternatives — his role as the CEO made it hard to ask employees and there was no one else. But I could serve in that capacity, and to this day, the company and that CEO remain one of my favorite clients.

It is important to recognize that you are likely to be one of the smartest people in the room, but not to abuse that. I also believe that you need to have a passion for the area of law that you practice, if it is just a job, it is a fairly stressful job. The practice of law can be flexible and can open many doors, but it is important to truly assess what you want, not what others want, and to plan for it.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?

A: A law firm looking to increase the number of partners in its ranks needs to start with nonpartner lawyers and listen to the suggestions and embrace the diversity of practices and approaches. We will not advance the number of female partners if we insist on every partner being full-time, being able to travel all the time and being like all of the other partners. I believe this applies to men as well, but because women tend to have more responsibilities in the home, it is important to be realistic.

We as partners also need to truly support and foster nonpartner female lawyers — provide mentoring and business development support, work with them to help them identify their own style and their own path to partnership. And, most importantly, explore with each woman whether she truly wants to be a partner.

Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.

A: This is an easy question to answer — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. We recently had the privilege of having her visit Ballard Spahr. Justice O’Connor is truly a woman who seems to have done it all without looking like she has focused on being a woman who has done it all. She has made her own decisions in life, including her decision to leave the U.S. Supreme Court when she did.

She was a true leader on the Supreme Court during her time on the court without needing to highlight her influence and power to the outside world. She is currently using her position and stature to develop and support a nonprofit organization she founded called iCivics. iCivics uses games and other digital approaches to teach civics to young people. If we don’t know who we are and why we are so special as a country, we cannot advance.

I admire her commitment and persistence in using her celebrity for the general good and working to advance something that she truly believes. Every person in that room knew we were in the presence of true greatness, but she was so gracious, so much fun and so real that the goose bumps went away and we really listened.

Related Area

Diversity