Women's Initiative: Potter Anderson's Affinity Group Takes Action

Tuesday, March 2, 2010 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Barbara Uberti Manerchia and Kathleen Furey McDonough.

The DuPont Women's Network of Primary Law Firms (PLFs) served as an incentive when Potter Anderson & Corroon LLP recently revitalized its women's affinity group. As one of the original PLFs of the DuPont Legal Service Model, the firm has experienced firsthand how effective a networking program can become. Kathleen Furey McDonough , account manager for DuPont, has been active in the DuPont Women's Network since its inception. Barbara Uberti Manerchia was tapped to lead the firm's Women's Initiative. Both share their insights and experiences in discussing Potter Anderson's Women's Initiative.

Editor: Describe your role with regard to Potter Anderson's diversity efforts.

McDonough: As an active participant in the DuPont Women's Network for several years, I can attest to it being an ideal way to help women feel confident about making recommendations to clients and contacts who need legal services outside the areas of expertise or geographical reach of the firm. It was the success of the Women's Network that served in concept as a model for our affinity group of women attorneys. It is important to know the skills, interests and capabilities of other lawyers when determining how best to provide legal services to clients. And even in a firm the size of ours, gaining that insight is something that everyone needs to work on. I am a member of the firm's Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and as a labor and employment attorney, I bring that specific insight to the activities and actions of the committee.

Manerchia: The firm's Diversity and Inclusion Committee has responsibility for affinity groups. I was delighted with the opportunity to join the committee and to oversee what has become known as the Women's Initiative.

Editor: What are the objectives of the Women's Initiative and how does it go about meeting those objectives?

McDonough: Networking and business development are key elements in building the firm's client relationships and supporting the firm's growth. By identifying groups and building a sense of companionship and understanding among the members of the group, we feel that we can develop a more cohesive approach to any outreach efforts. You really do need to know your "product" and its strength to do a good job offering that product to clients. Our product is our ability to solve problems in the areas where we have the greatest experience and legal talent. We want each attorney to have an awareness of what all attorneys are capable of providing and not just of the attorneys within the same practice area.

Manerchia: We knew that we had to have a strong, formal program to accomplish our objectives, and that was a lesson straight from the DuPont Women's Network playbook. We designed three annual events - a spring training event, a summer team-building event and a fall client event. We steered clear of the spa days and rock climbing; we knew that we could engender an esprit de corps and develop networking skills with more substantive programming. Our spring training event took us out of our comfort zone by first teaching and then demonstrating the art of telling a joke. Interestingly, there is commonality between the skills required in telling a joke and the skills required in developing business. Both require knowing your audience, setting the framing and delivering the punch line. Both also take practice and benefit from feedback. Many of us fumbled when we were put on the spot to tell a joke to the crowd, but we all laughed and learned from each other. Let's admit that none of us will be doing stand-up in the near future, but each of us has greater confidence in approaching a prospective client.

Our summer event was designed as a team-building program with a community focus. At the suggestion of Kathleen, we approached Girls Inc., the local chapter of a national nonprofit youth organization dedicated to inspiring all girls to be strong, smart, and bold, where she had previously served on the board. Girls Inc. invited us to spend the afternoon with them planting a large garden at their new Wilmington headquarters. Picture 25 girls, aged 6 through 14, and a dozen women lawyers weeding, digging and watering together for a couple of hours on a hot afternoon. We got to know each other! After the gardening was done, we served cookies and lemonade and shared our experiences about becoming women lawyers.

Our fall event was our largest undertaking and the most dynamic. We hosted a reception for clients and friends in our offices. We wanted something outside the box, and that's what we accomplished when we had a representative from Sotheby's lead the event. She brought several art objects and antiques to the event, and our guests were asked to estimate the value of the objects while enjoying hors d'oeuvres, chocolate and wine. Following the cocktail hour, the Sotheby's representative talked about the 10 criteria for valuing an object and revealed the true price of each object.

Editor: Has your Women's Initiative been successful?

McDonough: Absolutely! I think the strongest demonstration was at the Sotheby's networking event. Prior to the event, we held a discussion for women lawyers about networking, how to work a room and their responsibilities as hosts. Attorneys applied what they learned, greeted each guest and did an outstanding job in achieving what a networking event should accomplish - meeting people and building relationships. And yes, we did get work following the event.

Manerchia: The event at Girls Inc. was inspirational to all who participated.The girls asked a lot of great questions, and we hope to have planted seeds for growth in their educational and professional endeavors.

Editor: What comes next?

Manerchia: We are already planning for the 2010 programs. We are researching presenters for a spring training event and will be doing another community outreach project in the summer.One of our greatest challenges will be to find a fall event as interesting, educational and interactive as our evening with Sotheby's. We want to provide women in the firm with the opportunity to be leaders and take charge of these events, using skills that might not be called upon when practicing law. The overarching objective of Women's Initiative at Potter Anderson & Corroon is to work together on projects that enhance our skills, improve our community and advance our firm.

McDonough: By bringing together groups with a natural commonality, we are building teams outside of traditional practice boundaries, and that's important when cross-selling services. The Diversity and Inclusion Committee will continue to support the firm's Attorneys of Color affinity group through activities it has hosted in the past and will be open to supporting additional affinity groups.

Editor: Why is diversity important to Potter Anderson?

Manerchia: We are proud of our progress in diversifying our law firm. Since 1923, when the first two women passed the Delaware Bar and one joined Potter Anderson, the firm has been committed to diversity. We hope that through the Women's Initiative we will attract lawyers of a like mind to join the firm. A recent study by California firms reported that the national average for nonpartner women attorneys is 32 percent; we have a 44 percent rate and want to continue to build a positive environment for women to practice law.

McDonough: Diversity relates closely to client service. As I mentioned previously, our product is problem resolution and by drawing upon diverse experiences, we can provide clients with strong, creative solutions.

Barbara Uberti Manerchia leads the firm's employee benefits and executive compensation practice. She has served as a member and as chair of the U.S. Department of Labor's ERISA Advisory Council and has been involved with the Wilmington Tax Group, The Fund for Women, and the Support Center for Child Advocates.

Kathleen Furey McDonough heads the firm's labor and employment practice and is a recipient of the Themis Award, the highest honor bestowed by those involved in the DuPont Women's Network, and the "Strong Smart and Bold Award" by Girls, Inc., in recognition of her contributions as a positive role model for girls and women. She serves on the board of directors of Delaware Community Foundation and Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition.

Please email the interviewees at bmanerchia@potteranderson.com and kmcdonough@potteranderson.comwith questions about this interview.