Christie Del Rey-Cone, Partner,
Curley, Hessinger & Johnsrud LLP
How long have you been working for your current company?
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I was fortunate to have the perfect combination of being well-mentored and having a passion for the practice of labor and employment law. I have had the opportunity to work with some of the premier Labor & Employment groups at large law firms in NYC. I enjoy the fact that practicing employment law is about solving problems for people in a context of life that, for many, defines them – their work.
My current position at Curley, Hessinger & Johnsrud LLP, which is a national labor and employment boutique founded just over three years ago, was not one I planned for or sought out but quickly became one that I could not pass up. Mike Curley and the other partners at our firm offered me the opportunity to help build something unique in representing the highest quality of lawyering and client service. At the time I began discussions with my current partners, I was just completing a nine-month secondment at one of the premier financial services firms in the world. The opportunity to become a partner at this premier labor and employment firm at such an early phase in my career, knowing its partners, its reputation, and its vision, was one that I could not refuse.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
I do not believe I can yet isolate any one achievement as my proudest in my 10 years of practice. I have been fortunate throughout my career and continue to be grateful for my opportunities and experiences. I believe that my clerkship paved the way for my career to date, so securing that position will always be one of my proudest professional achievements. Clerking allowed me to develop my researching and writing skills in an environment that was not dominated by pressing deadlines. I also had the opportunity as a clerk to watch lawyering – both good and bad. While I did not know it at the time, securing my clerkship helped my career more than I could have hoped.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
My greatest challenge in my transition to this new role was adjusting to the absence of many of the pressures and anxieties that are inherent in a large law firm environment. Our model does not give financial or compensation credit for creating or building client relationships, since it is built on the assumption that all partners will invest in our client relationships. We believe that as to each matter the most qualified attorney on our team should handle the work, and the concept of financial credit for bringing in client work really cuts against our goal of providing premier client service. Large organizations can have machine-like aspects to them, and it was hard for me to adjust getting out of the machine and into a model where we truly are partners in every sense with the focus being only on excellence while at the same time having a collegial and collaborative work environment.
It is also sometimes challenging to convey to prospective clients the values promoted in our firm are actually put into practice. Our firm looks to take on the labor and employment matters that our clients have, whether large or small. Our client relationships are more than the numbers on a bill, and our model truly does not concern itself with profits per partner. We focus on relationship building rather than short-term goals of maximizing partner profit. Our firm has an “old school” approach to client relationships that is founded in the belief that if we are the best at what we do, loyal to our clients, and provide premium service, the business aspect of the firm will take care of itself. We have an idealism that seems almost unbelievable in this industry; but, it is real and it is what defines our firm. Conveying that idealistic reality to potential business relationships is challenging because it cuts against the premise upon which so many law firms are now based
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
Someone I respect a great deal once told me that he found the term “work-life balance” funny for two reasons: the first was that work is part of life, not separate from it; the second was because he felt no one ever achieved it. Both are interesting points, and I often think that I agree with them. Work-life balance is something that no one ever “attains”. I have been blessed with two children, a great husband, wonderful friends and a fantastic family. Now I am also blessed with a work family that believes family comes first. Finally, I have also been blessed with a career I love. Between all those blessings, there is a push and a pull. The key is knowing when to push and when to pull and knowing that there is never truly a balance. I believe that each piece of my life has its turn at being front and center, and the people in my life appreciate that I give all that I have to my family and to my work.
Did you have a mentor or role model in your career or while you were studying law? Who were they and how did they help you?
My greatest mentor as a woman in the law was Magistrate Judge Arlene Lindsay, U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Eastern District of New York. I clerked for Magistrate Judge Lindsay as my first job out of law school and became pregnant with my first child during that clerkship. As I discussed my pregnancy with Magistrate Judge Lindsay she was immensely supportive and refreshingly honest about the challenges of being a mother in the law. She pointed out that decades ago, society expected women to stay home and focus entirely on their families. Then, with the rise of feminism, many in our society expected women to work and focus entirely on their professions. Finally, she pointed out that today women are expected to do it all – work the book fair at school, prepare to depose the star witness and bake a cake…all at the same time. Since women have proven they can conquer both pieces, they are now expected to conquer them at the same time. I was terrified when I heard that wisdom. But it has been the best preparation I could ever have for my career.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
I believe that many but not all corporate diversity initiatives are effective. I do not believe in diversity initiatives just for the sake of saying the initiative exists, and I have seen many entities institute such initiatives for precisely that reason. I believe that diversity initiatives create an entrée for thoughtfulness around diversity but then they require continued strategic thoughtfulness to maintain the integrity and momentum of such programs among all populations – including those that do not necessarily fall within the targeted diverse groups.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
I do not recall feeling disadvantaged because I am female. I do notice when I am the only woman in a room of lawyers and that experience is not infrequent. Occasionally, I find myself overcompensating with confidence when I feel that uneven ratio. This is an industry where women are still breaking down barriers and advancing, but I think that the females in the law in generations before me have made that climb not quite as steep for me and my peers as it was for them.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
I believe the past five years have seen increased recognition of the strides women have made in the legal fields with awards and recognitions just like Chambers’ Women in Law Awards. I also believe we have seen a marked increase in law firms started by women and in law firms with women in leadership roles, both of which trend corporate clients toward a desire to promote the success of those women.