By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
“I definitely think work/life balance exists,” said Denise Diallo, Partner in White & Case‘s Banking and Capital Markets Practice at its Paris office. “It can be difficult at times, and you have to be willing to adapt –“ At this point in our conversation, Diallo started laughing.
“I’m laughing because my daughter is actually here in my office today,” she said. “My nanny wasn’t able to pick her up from school, so I did. It just illustrates that not everything goes the way you plan. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have work/life balance.”
“You just have to be adaptable,” she explained.
Building a Career from Lifelong Interests
Diallo studied American History and French at the University of Maryland College Park, and then went straight to a double degree program Columbia Law School, which enabled her to study for two years at Columbia, and then another two years at Sorbonne in Paris.
While it meant she was in school a little longer, she graduated with two degrees instead of one. “And it enabled me to have an extra summer,” she explained. She spent that extra summer in White & Case’s Paris office. And Diallo has been with the firm ever since – from 2000 to 2006 in New York and since the beginning of 2007 in Paris, where she was recently named a partner in January of this year.
“Being named partner in Paris was the culmination of everything I’d prepared for,” she said. “Fifteen years ago, studying language in college was not seen as that important. The legal market was not the global market it is today. But today it’s almost a given. The ability to combine my language and legal studies and cultural interests, and succeed in making partner has been very meaningful to me.”
Looking forward, she said, she sees herself continuing at White & Case’s Paris office helping the Banking and Capital Markets practice grow – and continuing to help the women’s initiative there grow as well, “with a Parisian flavor.”
“Internally, the most exciting thing I’m working on is the women’s initiative,” she said. “There’s a lot of work to be done here. We’re putting the right tools in place here in Paris to make sure women’s needs are met and able to progress in their careers. One of the goals is to increase the retention rate for women here in Paris.”
Changing Legal Framework in the Banking and Capital Markets
As for her work, Diallo said she is working on an exciting new leveraged buy-out deal. “It’s exciting because there have not been as many since the financial crisis,” she said. “White & Case Paris is in an atypical position. 2010 was a fairly busy year handling more than 50% of the large LBOs in Paris.”
She continued, “We thought we would have more refinancing and restructuring, but already at the beginning of the year we are working on LBOs. It’s good news.”
“The crisis impacted the French legal framework as far as how LBOs are done. We are dealing with the evolution of the market.”
She continued, “The financial crisis in the US had a devastating impact on law firms, and has emphasized the importance of the need to develop and manage firms in a manner which will insulate them from future financial crises.”
Women in Law
“Whether or not people like it, there are issues women face in the workplace, especially around family constraints. In the past, many partners in big firms were reluctant to give women high quality work for fear of long absences due to family constraints. But I think that’s changed,” she said. “In the New York office of White & Case, we immediately felt the effects of the women’s initiative”
The more sinister challenge women face in law revolves around perceived constraints. “There’s a certain fear of telling the truth and leaving things unspoken for fear of the consequences,” she explained. “When they haven’t gotten their reviews women are afraid to ask for fear they will be told they don’t have a future. Men are afraid to ask sensitive questions about maternity leave and family constraints.”
“I don’t think people should be afraid to have those discussions. Be open and frank. Again, it’s about managing expectations, and being willing to adapt to your circumstances,” she said.
Diallo said that learning to manage the expectations of the attorneys you work with is also extremely important in developing a career in law. She explained, “I tell a lot of younger associates this. When I started out I was a go-getter. I wanted to please everyone. I would never refuse work, even when I was overwhelmed. And at some point, I was not getting everything done.”
“You’re better off being up front about what’s on your plate,” she added.
Diallo advised women advancing into leadership roles to think carefully about their goals. She said, “These women are already in a well-defined position. I would advise them to stick to their goals, and continue to push their goals. Women often get lost in the shuffle. Do not be disappointed if your goals change, though.”
She said the best advice she ever received was from her mother. “She said, ‘Not everyone will like you.’ You’ll get along with some people, and not with others. But you need to be yourself, and don’t compare yourself to others.”
Women at White & Case
Last year, the Paris office launched its women’s initiative as part of the firm’s global women’s initiative and an extension to the existing initiative in the U.S. “We’re still in the goal setting stage,” Diallo explained, “working on events that address the specific needs of women attorneys in the office. It will benefit both men and women, as was the case as in New York and in the other US offices.”
She continued, “And the needs of women at the firm vary by office. In my practice group in Paris, there are not that many women. But in London, it’s the opposite. It is dominated by women.”
“Hopefully the network will help the women get to know each other better and connect with clients as well. In New York, we organized events for female clients. We recognize that women’s interests can be different than men’s,” she added.
Outside the Office
“Family is my big interest,” said Diallo. “I’m going to have another baby very soon!”
She continued, “Outside of work, my children and husband and family generally is a big interest. It takes up a lot of time. I like to travel and I like to cook – and I like to eat,” she said with a laugh. “I’m originally from Louisiana, and we talk about food all the time. And my husband is from Senegal, and it’s the same. And I live in France! It’s food non-stop,” she joked.