Tell Us About Yourself (Name, City, Occupation, Etc.)
Sarah Fergusson Chambless, Los Angeles, Partner Attorney at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP
What do you love about your job?
I love working with start-ups because it is generally such a positive experience. Entrepreneurs tend to be highly motivated, big-thinking creatives, and I can come alongside them and help them operationalize their vision and organize their companies in order to best avoid problems and pitfalls. It is very rewarding.
What does work/life balance mean to you, and how do you achieve it?
Work-life balance is a moving target because it means different things to us at different phases of our lives. Early in my legal career I was hungry for as much work as I could get because I craved the learning experience and was so afraid of becoming a victim of the economic downturn that was impacting my industry so hard at the time. I would work until I felt completely burned out and exhausted. Over time I have learned to view my career as a marathon and not a sprint, and now I aim for 7.5-8 hours of sleep every night (no exceptions!) because that ensures that I deliver my best work to my clients and serve them to my best ability.
Now that I’m expecting my first child, I’m also thinking a lot about how to set a good example for my daughter of a high-achieving, professional woman, while also making sure that I sit down and eat dinner with my family every night. In this regard, I am very lucky to have a spouse who is family-oriented and willing to dial back right now to support my career development and our growing family’s well-being. The dirty little secret behind the success of every high-achieving professional is that there is usually someone playing that supporting role – in most cases the women dial back, in a few cases both spouses manage to dial back just a little bit, but in my case, at least right now, my husband is supporting my growth. I’m incredibly thankful for that.
What are your tips for our readers working in male-dominated industries?
Four-inch heels! (Kidding…sort of.) We all want to be appreciated for our intellectual contributions and work product, but the reality is, men are (in my experience) so much more gossipy than ladies around the water cooler! I hate to say it, but something as superficial as how you dress can make a huge impact on the initial impressions your male colleagues have of you and, unfortunately, your work product and prospects for success. It is important to dress professionally and tastefully for your industry, but with a personal sense of style that helps you to stand out (whether it’s bright colors, a bright lipstick, some signature jewelry or fun shoes).
Beyond the superficial, how we speak is so incredibly important to how we are perceived in a male-dominated setting. Make it a point to speak up! Prepare, ask questions and when appropriate, critique and give feedback. Our voices matter, but it is up to us to use them. Then, pay attention to how you use language, and work consciously to eliminate some of the more “feminine” ways in which you may speak (saying words like “um,” “like” and other words of “hesitation”, phrasing statements as questions, etc.). This can greatly impact the extent to which what we say is heard. Finally, develop strategies to deal with interrupting men!! There is a great deal of academic research going back to the 1970’s that shows that men interrupt women more in meetings. I have a dozen ways in which I let every man I talk to, from opposing counsel to the senior partner on my transaction, know that I’m not finished talking and they should listen to what I have to say.
What’s your ideal workwear uniform?
I love classically tailored clothing, bright colors and yes, high heels. “Less is more” is my mantra – I only shop and wear about 4-5 brands because (1) I know they fit (which makes online shopping a breeze), and (2) everything a brand makes tends to look good together (so I can reach into the closet in the dark and put on whatever I pull out). With my busy schedule I can’t afford to get decision fatigue while getting dressed in the morning!
Because I play a client-facing role but work with startups and entrepreneurs, it is important for me to look professional and put together, but not stuffy and traditional. If I’m meeting with clients in an entrepreneurial co-working facility (such as WeWork) or at a client’s offices, I tend to pair bright silk blouses with tailored jeans, high heels and a funky blazer for a more downplayed professional look. I have found that entrepreneurs distrust a lawyer in a suit. When I am meeting clients in my office, I tend toward tailored wool blend separates paired with bright blouses, bright shoes and sometimes bright jewelry. Being able to go seamlessly from day to night is also a must because I’m constantly going to startup networking events – a good jumpsuit, blazer and pair of pumps makes that easy!
What did you want to be when you “grew up”? How has that changed?
When I was little I wanted to be just like my mom. She raised me as a single mother, but unlike a lot of other moms in the 1980’s, my mom had a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. She worked two jobs to keep us going – a professional day job at an engineering firm and a night job as an aerobics instructor. She was the smartest and most hard working lady I knew. She went back to school at the same time I went to college and actually walked across the stage at Emory’s Goizueta Business School with her MBA on the same day that I crossed the stage at Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences with my undergraduate degree! For a long time I thought I wanted to be an engineer just like her, but after a series of disappointing grades in AP Chemistry and Calculus, I realized that I could be as successful as her in my own way. I hope to set just as good an example for my daughter as my mom set for me.
What do you do when you’re not working?
Before I became pregnant I was an avid marathon runner and cyclist. My husband and I both love the outdoors and would go hiking every chance we got. Now that I am pregnant, I spend a lot of spare time reading books about childbirth and parenting, doing work on my circa-1937 home (it always needs something!), and generally preparing to be a parent!
What was the hardest event you had to overcome in your career to get you where you are now?
I started working as a corporate attorney at Manatt one month to the day after Lehman Brothers collapsed. The financial crisis affected the legal industry in unprecedented ways, and as a result, the vast majority of my law school graduate colleagues’ jobs were put on hold or their job offers rescinded. I was lucky to have a job at Manatt to start – but that was just the beginning. After I started working I watched so many colleagues and friends struggle with layoffs. It always felt random, like a firing squad, and was incredibly destabilizing on a personal and professional level.
The thing is, I learned some of the most valuable lessons that I carry with me in my career today during that time. For one thing, as lawyers we must always be able to “feed ourselves.” For this reason, I started developing my area of expertise and client base when I was just 3 years into the practice of law. I also learned that trust is earned, and sometimes as service providers we need to “get naked” with our clients (figuratively, of course!) by showing them that we can add value before they are ever ready or able to pay for it. Giving away your most valuable asset (in my case, my expertise) for free can be the best way to build that trust. Lastly, I learned the importance of good fiscal management at the highest levels of a company, and how impactful that can be for those just getting their start. I was incredibly lucky to work at a firm with fiscally conservative management that was able to effectively weather the storm of the financial downturn. So many law firms didn’t make it, and many of the lawyers that started their careers at those firms didn’t land on their feet, through no fault of their own.
Have you ever failed? How? And what did you do to overcome?
HAHAHAHA!! Of course! Before I went to law school I taught elementary school in Compton for 3 years through the Teach for America program. I had to get really, REALLY comfortable with failure when I was teaching in Compton. Sometimes I felt like Atlas, holding up the entire world for my 35 students. Every year I had at least one fifth grade student who could not read sight words (is, am, are, etc.). You do everything you can for that one student – refer him for testing, pull him out for additional instruction, give him tailored work – and at the end of the year he still can’t read on grade level…and yet, his parents will make sure he is passed onto middle school regardless. It is disheartening and can infect your entire life if you let it. I can’t say that I overcame failure in all cases, but I did learn to cope with the disappointment of it. Sometimes, after you have taken responsibility for everything that you can control, the best thing you can do is forgive yourself for the things that you can’t.
How do you view hardships to make them manageable?
When I feel overwhelmed, I try not to look too hard at the whole picture. Rather, I just focus on one little piece at a time. This is the same mentality that I use to attack a marathon. If you start thinking around mile 16 that you still have 10.6 miles to run, it only makes your feet hurt that much more and you will want to stop and walk – but you can’t start walking with 10.6 miles to go! Instead, if you just focus on getting to the top of the next hill, you can continue to put one foot in front of the other at your race pace.
Do you have any mentors? How did you meet them?
I have a couple mentors at my firm. I have a mentor within my practice group, whom I look at as the model for “what I want to be in 15 years”. I also have a female mentor in another practice group who helps me navigate some of the trickier issues of being a woman in a male-dominated field, but who isn’t involved in my day-to-day workload. I didn’t specifically ask these people to be my mentors but I did proactively pursue the relationships and in each case it developed over time. I also mentor another young woman in my group to try to “pay it forward.”
What advice do you have for other women who are going places?
Mentor other women who are coming behind you and open doors for them. We are each stronger with a critical mass of other successful women allies around us. Your mentees today will be your allies tomorrow.
1. Favorite place you’ve ever traveled? Tanzania
2. Mission-critical apps? I am a news junkie, so NPR.org, Apple News and Techcrunch
3. How do you recharge? Exercise, meditation, self-hypnosis and SLEEP!
4. Best new restaurant discovery? I take every chance I can get to hype Post & Beam, a hidden gem in my neighborhood of
Leimert Park (Los Angeles). Elevated soul food and weekend live jazz!
5. Go-to libation? Woodford + rock. (Although I’m abstaining these days, obviously.)
Sarah is wearing the Single Button Blazer ($295), Draped Tank ($105), and Stretch Trousers ($190).