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Women in Business Q&A: Kelly Tubman Hardy, Regional Head, Corporate and Finance, DLA Piper

03/04/2015 09:37 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

Kelly Tubman Hardy is the regional office head of global law firm DLA Piper's Corporate and Finance groups in both Baltimore and Mexico City. She practices corporate and securities law, specializing in mergers and acquisitions, public and private offerings of securities, corporate governance, securities compliance and general business law. Additionally, she is the Global Desk Partner for the firm's Baltimore office, where she is responsible for handling the flow of work between DLA Piper's Baltimore office and their international offices.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The first and, I think most significant, thing is that I was given a lot of independence and responsibility at a very young age. I was a latch-key kid in an age when most mothers stayed at home. My mother went back to school when I was 8 years old, leaving my younger sister and I at home after school many afternoons. I certainly don't feel like I suffered as a result. On the contrary, I believed that the world was wide open and, like my mother, I could do anything I wanted. So, when I had the opportunity to go to another country as a foreign exchange student a few years later, I went without hesitation. By the time I arrived at college I had been out of my parents' house for two years. There was no tearful drop off -- I arrived on a train with a suitcase. I think that having that level of responsibility and independence at a young age forced me to be a problem-solver and to manage situations and people. These skills have served me well in my practice, where I often have to build and lead teams to accomplish clients' goals. I like new situations and big challenges. I come up with a plan and begin gathering the resources to implement a solution.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at DLA Piper?
I have spent my entire legal career--18 years-- at DLA Piper and its predecessor firm. However, I did have some work experiences prior to law school that have been helpful. I waited tables in high school and college and still draw on many of the skills I developed in those positions. Law is, after all, a customer-service business. Wait staff, like lawyers, manage their own businesses each day, drawing on the resources of the bus boys, hostesses, and kitchen staff. Many of the lessons I learned in those positions are very relevant to what I do today. I learned the importance of developing personal and mutually supportive relationships with colleagues. I also learned that what is important is not whether the customer is right or wrong, but finding a satisfactory solution. This customer focus is central to what I do in my practice. Most of my clients are US-based or have a significant US presence. They expect US-style customer focus, and that is something I bring to the global teams that I lead. No matter where in the world my clients need advice, they know that they can expect the same responsiveness and service-oriented approach.

Between college and law school I worked for a few years for Travelers Insurance Company managing high-profile litigation for insureds. In that position, I worked with law firms around the country and with CFOs and general counsel, but found I was much more interested in the analysis of the insurance policy rather than the underlying litigation matter, which led me to believe I was destined to be a corporate lawyer rather than a litigator. But I obtained a valuable perspective on what really matters to clients--timely, concise and practical advice rather than long memos and overly detailed analyses. I was able to watch, as a client, how different lawyers approach client interactions on a broad range of matters, from case analysis to billing. I have taken that client perspective with me into private practice, and it has served me well.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at DLA Piper?
It is hard to pick just a few highlights--I love what I do and am really passionate about my work. One thing that comes immediately to mind is successfully negotiating on behalf of SEED School of Maryland -- a public boarding school for disadvantaged children an organization of which I am now a trustee -- a multi-year contract with the Maryland State Department of Education that essentially funds operations of the school. Another is successfully bringing the global legal work for one of my key clients, a NYSE-listed manufacturing company that had been using more than 100 law firms around the world, under one roof. By creating and managing a global team that serves this client, we allowed the client to coordinate its legal work, giving the client greater visibility into legal issues and predictability of legal spend. One of the most rewarding aspects of this engagement has been the partnership that I have formed with the client.

There have also been challenges. One of the most significant was the economic downturn that began in 2008. I was a young partner just building a practice, and deal work ground to a halt. I refocused, thought a lot about what kind of work I wanted to do, and made a real effort to stay close to my clients -- even if they were not doing any transactions. A lot of the work I did during that period took years to pay off, but it laid a good foundation for building the practice when the market picked back up.

What advice can you offer to women who want a legal career?
Law is a wonderful career and there are so many paths a lawyer can take. In choosing your area of focus, consider not just your interests and abilities, but also what you want outside of the office. That can be difficult to do, especially for someone in her mid-20s. But all practices are not the same when it comes to predictability and time requirements, and the type of practice you choose might affect your ability to juggle work and home commitments. I am not suggesting female lawyers who want families should shy away from certain types of law. But they should go into their areas of practice with an awareness of what will be required. The type of work that I do is very exciting, but also has many peaks and valleys and can require me to travel frequently and on short notice. I would not trade it for anything else, but I certainly could have gone into it with a better understanding of what it would mean and what kind of support I would need from my family and others.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
The most important thing is quality--not marketing, not connections or referrals, but consistently doing great work. As long as you focus on doing your best for clients every day, on providing practical advice and solutions, and on anticipating issues, the rest will follow. There are lots of distractions in practicing law --pitches, publications, client events, internal matters, but the business of law is really very simple. If you do good work, the rest will follow. And it is much easier to keep and grow the client you have today than to find a new client.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have come to realize that "balance" is not as comfortable as it sounds. It does not mean achieving some kind of equilibrium. It means that if you do one thing, something else has to give. And I have accepted that no matter how much energy I have--and I have a lot--I cannot do everything perfectly. Sometimes I can't even do it at all. My husband and I have two teenage children who are confident, independent and interesting people, and I think my work and some of the experiences and perspectives that it has provided to them is partially responsible for that. I also hope that someday, like me, they will appreciate the independence and self-reliance that comes from having two working parents. After years of struggling to do everything, I have accepted that I cannot do for my children what my stay-at-home friends do for theirs, and I can't keep up with my friends or work as many hours as my friends who do not have families. I do the best that I can and make choices daily about where best to allocate my time. It helps that my husband has a less demanding work schedule. It also helped that my children had the same caregiver for 11 years. She, my husband and I approach parenting as a partnership, and my children have benefited tremendously from having her in their lives. As my children have gotten older, in some ways it has gotten easier. But there are still trade-offs every day.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Honestly, I think it is the high expectations that women have for themselves--the feeling that they are never quite meeting expectations or being ready or qualified for a new position. There are lots of studies that show that men are much more likely to believe they are entitled to promotions, raises or recognition than similarly qualified women. I think that this feeling of not being able to meet expectations causes many young women in my profession to drop out of the work force or off of the career track, meaning there are fewer senior women to serve as role models.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been fortunate to have several mentors during my career, most of them colleagues at my firm, but that I have met doing deals or as a result of civic activities. They have been instrumental in my career. The partner I trained under gave me tremendous opportunities to manage transactions and interact with clients, took me on pitches and to client meetings and taught me how to build a practice. He also, at a certain point, told me it was time for me to develop my own clients and business. That was very difficult at the time, but helped me to build the practice I have today. Other mentors have given me client or leadership opportunities, provided advice on how to manage clients and colleagues, and pushed me to try new things.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
One of the women whose career I have followed with interest is Judith Rodin, who became president of the University of Pennsylvania shortly after I graduated. The first woman to serve as president of an Ivy League school, she guided the university through a period of tremendous growth and development. Several years ago she left Penn to become president of the Rockefeller Foundation. She continues to write and recently published a book on the resiliency of certain communities, which I bought for my 14 year old (who loves geography, sociology and history).

During her presidency at Penn, Dr. Rodin communicated confidence, competence and vision. She also worked hard to bring in members of the community surrounding the Penn campus and consider their concerns about growth and gentrification. I remember an interview in which she talked about being the only woman in the room or being referred to as the only woman president of an Ivy League school rather than a president of an Ivy League school who was doing good work. I think most women in leadership positions have felt that way. She talked about being resilient, just holding your head up, staying the course and following your moral compass. That resonated with me.

What do you want DLA Piper to accomplish in the next year?
I look forward to greater integration of the practices across geographies and institutionalization of clients. DLA Piper had a several-year head start over most firms in creating a global platform and has created a common culture and teams that work together across borders very effectively. However, there is still work to be done in integrating the various offices. The firm has identified this as one of its priorities for the coming year.