Elisabeth Eljuri, Partner, Chair of the Latin American Practice, Norton Rose (Venezuela)
How long have you been working for your current company?
I joined Macleod Dixon as a partner in 1998 (14 years ago). My firm merged with Norton Rose on January 1, 2012 so we are now part of the Norton Rose Group.
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
In 1988, I started as a student and then associate at Baker & McKenzie. I worked for nearly ten years in the Caracas, New York and San Francisco offices (except for a year where I spent at Harvard Law School taking my LLM and the NY Bar). As my career evolved I was confronted with the possibility of co-founding a fairly new Caracas office – almost from scratch – for a Canadian firm, Macleod Dixon. I enjoyed the challenge it represented and have enjoyed every moment since I joined in 1998. I became head of the Corporate Department and the Energy Practice in Caracas. From 2006 to 2008 I was the Managing Partner of the Caracas office, and from 2009 I was appointed to the six-partner Executive Committee worldwide for Macleod Dixon. After the merger, I became part of the eight-partner Management Committee for Norton Rose Canada, overseeing Canada and Latin America. In parallel, I was appointed Chair of the Latin American practice of the firm.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
I would have to say it is to have co-founded a firm with four lawyers when I arrived at the relatively young age of 28, to what it is today in Venezuela. We are top-two in size in Venezuela and more importantly very well ranked in all major areas. When I got there, we had no library, no local area network, not much furniture, no internet domain. I remember donating a large portion of my grandfather’s law library to the firm and helping us find the rare books that are no longer available but are so important when researching in civil law jurisdictions. Our library also hosts the Jessup library, which is owned by the Jessup Foundation (which I preside) that helps support students competing in the moot court in Washington, D.C. every year. We have built an amazing firm during very difficult times in Venezuela, where the rule of law is challenged every week.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
The challenge is twofold: (i) in Venezuela, to continue growing and building a successful and rewarding career for our Venezuelan lawyers who find it very difficult to believe in their future there; and (ii) in Latin America, to continue to grow the Norton Rose name in a region where we started with two top-quality offices (Caracas and, more recently, Bogota) and where people are closely following every move we make. I want every Norton Rose office in this region to be equally successful and achieve similar recognition and that takes time and lots of energy, and more importantly, patience.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
It is not easy but I keep working on it every day. I work very intensely but also enjoy spending time with my kids, husband and family. I think my biggest sacrifice is sleep and not doing regular exercise. I do play golf and read many books (mainly on airplanes where I tend to spend a lot of time lately). I also invest heavily in having the right team at home to help with our kids. That has allowed me to travel for work and not be worried about my children. Skype has been wonderful in enabling me to keep in touch with them on a more personal way when I am travelling. At some point I will have to slow down a bit but I also know my kids are proud of what we do and I am setting a good example for them.
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?
I believe in leading by example. During my initial years, I worked very closely with an American lawyer who was clearly a mentor and also an example of top quality legal services. You learn different things from different people but a lot of my “legal service training” clearly came from him. I have also learned from colleagues and clients I have encountered over the years. It is an ongoing process, of course.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
Latin America is not big on diversity initiatives. I am fortunate to live in Venezuela where women have had prominent and successful careers in many areas. There have been women Supreme Court justices, ministers, president of the Central Bank, etc. I think the most significant policies are the ones adopted internally in each organization to ensure that women are treated fairly. And a good part of that is how women in leadership roles look out for the women in their own organizations. It is about being fair, unbiased but also attentive to any issues.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
I have always felt it was an advantage, and when I speak publicly on this issue, I usually tell many stories of how it has helped me as a woman lawyer. There is not enough space here to write about them all but overall I would say it is easier to be recognized and remembered if you are a woman and you bring another style to the negotiations that is helpful in a room full of men. Doing M&A work and energy (transactional as well as dispute work), I am used to being the only woman or one of the few in large boardrooms, arbitration hearings and conference panels. I am never intimidated by that nor do I forget that I am different after all. Being different is unique and has its advantages.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
Technology has served a key role in making my life easier and I am sure that applies to many women. We can be away with our kids and still be online or available. In addition, I tend to encounter more and more female in-house counsel and women in leadership positions now than 10 years ago and, sometimes, they are more understanding on scheduling and deadlines when you mention your kids.