Q&A with tla winner Janet langford Kelly
During her 30-year legal career, Janet Langford Kelly has been
in top legal and compliance positions at some of the nation’s
largest corporations: Sara Lee Corp., Kellogg Co. and Kmart
Corp. She joined ConocoPhillips Co. in 2006, where she currently is senior vice president, legal, general counsel and
At the 2012 Transformative Leadership Awards dinner, she
was honored with the Anastasia D. Kelly Award for her path-making role as a woman in the corporate legal world. In an
interview with InsideCounsel, she talked about the value of
mentoring and the challenges women in law continue to face.
“I’ve long believed that the
voice of the feminine has been
underserved in corporate
America, to its detriment.”
in the course of your career, did you have mentors who
helped you along the way?
Oh, definitely. They are my mentors today. Two senior partners
at my first law firm [Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New
York] took a deep interest in me and my career. I left the law
firm when I got married and moved to Chicago. But they stayed
in touch, continued to offer advice and continued to keep me in
mind for things. A good mentor is absolutely valuable.
what do you feel is your role as a mentor to other
women in law?
A mentor, like a good coach, is fully in your corner but demands
excellence of you. All of us have days that are less than our best
days, and for people to know that I am going to be honest about
shortcomings and offer to help them overcome those issues and
not ignore them is a big part of my role as a mentor. It’s like
the goal of being a mother: It’s not to have children; it’s to have
adults when they grow up. It’s the same being a mentor: You
want people to ultimately graduate from needing you but not
from liking you.
what are some specific ways you mentor young women
I have taken young women aside and said, “You just don’t dress
like that” because it was inappropriate and a variance from the
way they wanted to be seen. I have told people they should go
to a writing class. But I also have been amazed at the incredibly
creative and intelligent things that people do, and I am quick to
tell them that, too. Part of a mentor’s role is also putting people
forward, so when assignments are being discussed at a senior
level, their names comes up. Everyone brings their favorites into
a room in terms of who should get assignments, and a mentor
brings the people they are working with into the room.
is there still a ways to go in terms of women being
accepted in the legal world?
Oh, yes. I think it is hardest for young women. People have so
many different reactions to them that are not just about their
competence and what they can bring to the legal situation at
hand. They do and maybe will always struggle a little more to
be taken seriously at the outset.
what is needed to continue the progress women have
made in law, particularly in-house?
What needs to happen is an increase in density. There were
studies at Harvard showing that 15 percent is the tipping point.
If you have less than 15 percent women in a situation, their
distinct view as women doesn’t come up. If you get more than 15
percent, they are comfortable enough to act like women.
one of the issues for women in law is balancing family
and career. what are your thoughts on that?
I worry about how we get law firms to increase the number of
senior women because it is so tough to have order in your life
in a law firm. In a corporation, your hours may not be less, but
they are more predictable. When I went in-house [at Sara Lee],
my kids were young, and predictability of hours was something
I highly valued. It is in the best interest of corporate America
and law firm America to figure out ways to get women through
those years when their children are young because those years
don’t last very long. You have a highly trained professional who
just needs a little flexibility for a while.