Welcome to Powerful Leaders, No Apologies.
Beth and Debbie welcome Mary VandenAck, a seasoned law firm leader and chair of the Law Practice Division of the American Bar Association. Mary shares her unique journey from training thoroughbred racehorses to becoming a successful attorney, emphasizing resilience, overcoming challenges, and the importance of women supporting each other, offering insights into leadership, inspiration, and the power of a strong network.
Links from the episode:
[08:26] Finding inspiration
[19:29] Challenges and overcoming them
[28:28] Helping others find themselves
Debbie Foster (00:03):
Welcome to the Powerful Leaders. No apologies podcast, a show about women who are ready to own their power and change the world. My name is Debbie Foster.
Beth Thompson (00:12):
And I’m Beth Thompson. Our guests are fierce and fabulous women who are making a difference in their personal and professional communities. Are you ready to be inspired? If so, stay tuned and also check out our website at affinityconsulting.com slash powerful leaders. Here’s the show.
Debbie Foster (00:34):
It’s great to see you, Beth. I’m very excited to be recording another episode of our podcast.
Beth Thompson (00:41):
Me Too. I really can’t believe we’re here and it’s been literally a year now and we’re heading into a new year and a lot of new episodes and guests and we’re ending on a nice note today. Won’t give it away until you introduce, but looking forward to another amazing podcast today.
Debbie Foster (00:56):
Yeah, we have a special guest. We have someone with us who started off as a client but has become a friend and I have admired Mary for a very long time. She is an amazing law firm leader, but recently over the last few years I’ve gotten to work with Mary quite a bit with the law practice division of the American Bar Association where she is currently serving as the chair. And it’s been awesome to watch her leadership style and she has a very unique and efficient way of leading that I really, really admire. Mary is also a host of a podcast and I’m sure she’ll tell us more about that later. So Mary Vandenack, welcome to our show.
Mary Vandenack (01:41):
Thanks for having me today. I really am happy to be here.
Debbie Foster (01:44):
I would love it if you wouldn’t mind starting off with telling us a little bit about your story, about your journey, how you got to where you are today from a law firm perspective and a little bit about all of your other leadership roles because it’s more than just the Bar Association. You’ve really done a lot in your career, so if you could maybe give us your story, that would be great.
Mary Vandenack (02:04):
I thought you told me we had a time limit.
So what I do like to share is that my original career was training thoroughbred race horses, and most people when I share that are like, you did what? But that was it. Got you prepared for the seven day a week, 365 day year type of job you take on when you lead a law firm. And I was going to do anything but be a lawyer because I come from a family of tax lawyers. So I visited with a career counselor when I went back to college and said, well, the only thing I don’t want to be is a lawyer. So we met, she went over my little profile. She said, well, there’s one thing that stands out as you’d be great at and would absolutely love that. We’ll just take that right off because you said you don’t ever want to do anything that your family members are doing.
Which law, the other two were teacher and writer. So the interesting thing is I chose law at that time thinking it sounds like I could probably do better financially with a law degree than teaching or writing, but as my career’s evolved, I do all three. So I practice law, but I also do a lot of writing and presenting, so that’s writing and teaching. So I’ve managed to bring all of those careers into one role. I did initially when I graduated from law school, joined my dad’s family firm. I turned down some really amazing offers from some law firms. My background, undergraduate background is accounting, business finance. So I was heavily recruited at that time by a lot of the accounting firms. Decided not to go with any of those. My dad was 62, so I’m just going to work with my dad who had a tax trust and estate practice joined him.
And it was a great decision in a few ways because he got sick a few years later with leukemia. So he called me up on a Friday night and said, I’ve been diagnosed with leukemia given 18 months to live, and he died about 18 months from that day. And so those 18 months were extremely difficult in terms of I was working with going, wow, am I going to be able to continue to practice law? I made this choice, what am I going to do? And after he passed away, most of the clients decided to stay. It was to my two brothers and I and another gal who worked with us. Most of the clients stayed. One of my brothers left, decided he’s a wealth strategist currently. My other brother ultimately went in-house because the two of us, my father had built his office out in a farm field and it was very hard for people to believe there’s a sophisticated tax practice sitting out in a farm field somewhere in the middle of Nebraska.
So recruiting was difficult. So ultimately I joined a law firm and my brother went in-house for one of our corporate clients. I was always very driven technologically to really be on the cutting edge of technology. And as I joined law firms found out that wasn’t necessarily the case. And I also found out in law firms that I had grown up in a family firm and always had each other’s backs. I was a little naive country girl and I had a lot to learn when I started. But I did go through three law firms and none of them were great fits for me at that time, even though they’re really excellent firms that I work with today. They have good lawyers. I refer to all of those firms, but when we talk about cultural fits of businesses, that would be one of the true lessons I learned in going through those firms.
But I ended up starting my own firm and have lived happily ever after. I am in the process as we speak, becoming a partner at Doug and bir out of Chicago for a whole lot of reasons that make sense at this particular moment. But 20 years have been running the firm and we’ve remained a boutique, tried to stay kind of light and lean and it’s been tax trust in estates and you asked me to share about some of the other roles. So I am passionate. I do have my podcast, which is Legal Visionaries. I started that at the end of the pandemic and I just admit to the fact that I started the podcast because I would be one of those whose life partner and i’s relationship blew up with the pandemic and I wanted something to do. So I shifted my energy to doing the podcast and did kind of a niche structure dealing with tax trust and estates, but also covering leadership topics, wellbeing topics, law practice management topics.
Because as somebody who built a law firm and had been involved, as you mentioned, the law practice division, to me, some of those aspects of what we do are so important in terms of the leadership. I supposedly have natural leadership skills but had no leadership training in law school. So that is one of the things that I learned in the law practice division that was really helpful to me. So we cover that on legal visionaries as well. And to my surprise, legal visionaries took off and has become a fairly popular podcast. And so it’s still going on. And after I finished recording here today, I’m going to go record two episodes of that podcast. I also do a lot of writing and speaking, and it was interesting in recent discussions, somebody said, well, do you do that for business development? And that’s not the case.
I actually avoided speaking and writing and got dragged in by a friend of mine who is running a conference who said, you have to speak at my conference. And I did so and realized that after you’ve been doing something for 20 years, you can talk about almost anything you do without spending 200 hours preparing and began to really enjoy sharing my work and what I do with others. I regularly attend a group called the Heckerling Tax Institute every January in Orlando. And one of the things there is everybody gives back. It’s our way of giving back to the rest of the community. Those who have been blessed to do well in the tax trust and estate world do a lot there at that particular conference and elsewhere to try and pass it on. So speaking and writing for me is a lot about putting good information out there to help others on the path and make sure if it’s clients listening that they have the right questions to ask. If it’s other attorneys that are listening, giving them some information on the things that they need to know in particular practice areas.
Beth Thompson (08:46):
Mary, you’re obviously an inspiration to many people just listening to you speak. Of all of the things that you’re doing, where do you find your own inspiration? Obviously have your own podcast that inspires people, but are there podcasts that you listen to? Are there books that stand out that have been motivational to you? We would love to share that with our audience.
Mary Vandenack (09:07):
So I have to tell you that I wish I could give you a list of books and podcasts, but what has mostly inspired me is people that I met along the path. I love people and I love observing people. After I went, it was in Omaha and went through three law firms, I was in a position where, okay, I am just tired of going anywhere I go. I run into all my former partners and at that point in time it was just uncomfortable. I belonged to the law practice division and a couple other sections of the A BA, but I started attending their meetings and doing some things nationally. And what happens if you think about it when you start traveling around to different locations, meeting people, the sheer nature of the diversity. And one of the things I said, Hey, I grew up in Nebraska.
My sister moved to New York, married a guy from New York whose career when he told me about it, I was like, wow, in Nebraska you never even hear about careers like that. So by getting involved in the American Bar Association and some other national organizations, I’m also in Act Tech. I am an observer for the Uniform Law Commission because I want to be behind, be involved in writing good laws as opposed to do I have no interest in being in politics, but by going and meeting different people at these different events. I remember one particular inspiring, I went to an event of the A BA, I went to the business law section breakfast simply because I heard they had the best food. And at that breakfast a guy walks up to me, introduced himself, and he was a medical patent lawyer from New York City. And I mentioned that at that time my son was interested, this guy went to the trouble of sending me a book, keeping in touch and connecting with my son.
This was amazing to me. That was inspired me. At that same meeting, I met another guy who said, Mary, you’re a great writer. You should be writing for lineberg services. And two weeks later I wrote my first article for Lineberg services. He made that introduction. So it’s as I became involved in, and I think it’s can be local community or a larger community, I can tell you that in my home community, I live in Omaha, Nebraska. It’s a super philanthropic community. There are so many inspiring people here, but being around places and events organizations that draw inspiring people is where I draw my inspiration.
Debbie Foster (11:43):
Mary, I think of you as a connector and someone who loves to be connected, and I think those stories that you told and just talking about how you are inspired by people is part of the reason why you’re a great connector and why you love connecting with people. So that’s a unique source of inspiration. We have gotten some great recommendations from our guests for books and podcasts, but I think what I hear you saying is that there’s so much inspiration just around us and the people that we work with and the people that we run across. And not to lose sight of that.
Mary Vandenack (12:21):
And I agree and I’ll share it, it was a client of mine early in my career. We were at a mediation and I was trying to prove myself as a young lawyer, so I was trying to be in charge of something that really wasn’t my expertise. And the client said to me, Mary, you are really skilled at what you do. You’re really smart, but you’re not going to be everything to me. So the best thing that you can do for me is to build a network so that whenever I do need something, I can call you and know that you will be able to find the person who can help me with whatever I need. And I probably wouldn’t have done that other than I actually really do love connecting. You’re correct about that.
Debbie Foster (13:02):
Well, you love connecting and because I know you very well, you and I probably compete when it comes to number of delta sky miles and nights in a hotel are concerned because you travel a lot. And one of the things I love about your travels is that you are also a promoter of the local coffee shops. And I love how you always go seek them out and you find amazing coffee and you post about it.
Mary Vandenack (13:30):
And part of the reason I started doing that was simply because on social media, people will post things that should never be posted. If you think about the last rounds of elections, then what you had is all people who would go out and post things and they post opinions like their facts and then yell at other people that they’ve never met. And that’s not relational and it’s not persuasive and it’s not positive. It doesn’t help do any healing to a country that really needs some serious healing. It’s like sometimes they say, I wish we could find the spirit that we had in this country after nine 11, but I had a couple incidences where some people’s lives were really damaged because of what people posted on Facebook. So I started posting about coffee because one, I love coffee two, it’s kind of a way of saying, look, social media is about friends and cool things, positive events and sharing some stuff, but it’s not the place to dump your emotions or your political opinions or any of that type of thing. Let’s use it to build community rather than to hurt each other. So that’s part of it. And the other thing is that my brother, sister and I all love coffee, and so we just started this late in life tradition that when any of us travels, we find cool coffee and we bring it back for each other. And we really do like to find a local roaster in the community that we’re in and show support for the community that we’re visiting.
Debbie Foster (15:09):
I love that. I think that’s a very cool thing. I’m wondering, and this is maybe a little bit of an off the cuff question, but I love what you shared before about you can’t be everything to everyone, but you can build an amazing network. Are there any other pieces of advice that you’ve gotten along the way that have stuck with you? Like that one that come to the top of your mind?
Mary Vandenack (15:30):
Well, so I have a sign in my office that says, okay, so it says do epic shit. If you want to edit that, I’ll say do epic stuff. But my sign actually says, and it’s in really big letters, and that just says, really believe that you can really do whatever you want to do. And I have another sign that says, never ever, ever give up. So many people give up. I mean, there is a time to surrender. That’s a different issue. But so many times somebody is so you’re so close to achieving and you just give up that that’s one of the other things. But I’ll tell you that the best advice I’ve given is to always talk directly. So if I want to know what Debbie Foster thinks, I’m not going to ask Beth, I’m going to come to you and ask you. And then it’s revisited because where people are at a given moment in time changes.
And I talk about that from a leadership perspective. And I can tell you that within the law practice division of the A BA, there’s been times when I would mention, well, this person would make a really great leader, and somebody else will say, well, they said they never ever wanted to do that. And I’ll ask, well, has anybody talked to him her about that recently? And I will go talk to that person directly and ask them and they’ll say, oh, what I said was, so I’m big on, and you said that in terms of my leadership style and it’s sort of direct and efficient, if I want to know what Debbie Foster thinks, I’m going to ask you. If I want to know what Beth Thompson thinks, I’m going to ask Beth. I talk directly with the person who I’m interested. I’m not really interested in somebody else’s opinion of a person, not that isn’t sometimes important and have value, but I don’t take that as fact.
I just take that as because we all operate from what we’ve seen in life. And one of my favorite examples about perspective and why it’s so important to get to know people, one-on-one and who they are and where they come from is there was a time that I had a client who’s very wealthy, who flew me to Chicago on their private jet, picked me up in their private limo, took me downtown to stay in the private club where I didn’t know that you couldn’t have cell phones out. And so I got in trouble there. And then I did this hearing in the court of appeals and they drove me back the following day. I’m back in Nebraska and I’m driving up to northeast Nebraska and I stopped to get some water and stop at the ladies’ room and replenish my gas. And it’s a parking lot full of pickup trucks with cowboys wearing boots and hats and spitting out their chew using curse words.
And I remember thinking about that going, if you’ve only ever seen this, then this is what you know. And that’s the lens from which you see the world. And if you’ve only seen this other side, that’s what you know and that’s the lens from which you’ve seen the world. So the best thing that we could possibly do is expose ourself to different lenses or to at least realize that we are biased and limited by the lens through which we’ve seen life. And that to expand that, it’s getting to know and opening up our community, getting to know others that don’t look like us, and getting to know people who function differently from us and why I’m a person who works at a really fast paced, people who work more slowly, I drive them crazy. So part of leadership is figuring out how you make that work by getting to know who you are and getting to know who they are.
Beth Thompson (19:14):
You’ve really already organically transitioned into our segment regarding challenges. I feel like the last few minutes you’ve really talked about what likely you’ve seen as challenges and overcome them, but I’m curious if there’s any particular challenge, whether that was earlier today, yesterday, last week, 10 years ago. Is there a particular challenge that stands out for you that you overcame and you feel like there are lessons to be learned that we can share today?
Mary Vandenack (19:44):
So again, I live in Omaha, Nebraska, and I do love my home state. So don’t get me wrong when I tell you about my challenge, but this is a state that can be very conservative. I will give Omaha credit for a blue dot, but it’s, when I say conservative, it’s not really a political statement at all. It’s just a view of the world. So my dad died three years into my practice. I got divorced a year later. I became a single mom. So I joined a law firm. People would say to me, why do you work? You should be home with your child. I’d be like, well, let’s see. My ex is not paying child support, so here are my options. I can work and make a good living and be able to provide for my son and have the stress of balancing having a good living and being a single parent, or I could live on aid, have no money and have the stress of being entirely poor while raising my son.
This is not that difficult. And that was really, I got that type of thing, why are you working? I’m like, what? Really? And the other thing is I will tell you that I’ve always been blessed to be good at developing business and in a law firms origination is important, and I’ve always been fairly productive. I’m very efficient at the way I work, have used technology. I remember getting grief about how much time I spent on email before anyone else was using it. I’m like, why aren’t you using technology? But at three different law firms in this town, when it came to discussing compensation, I heard that I was a one year wonder. So that was just so difficult is, well, we’re not going to advance you financially because we think it was a fluke. Your performance was a fluke. Okay, year one, that was really difficult to hear.
Year two, are you kidding? Year three, I can’t believe I’m hearing this again. Year four, I quit and founded in my own law firm, right? I am done with this. And many years later, I am still developing business and producing at a good pace. So having to kind of overcome that, both being a single mom professional and being perceived somehow as a one year wonder were huge challenges in terms of one, persistence. Two, being able to not let that get to me and say to myself, I could have some people would’ve gone, oh my gosh, maybe I am just a one-year wonder and really not that good at what I do. Fortunately, I had the resilience to say, no, I’ve been doing this for a while and before I joined this law firm, and I love coaching because I think coaches are great. I had used various types of coaches throughout my career. I think anybody in leadership should have a coach. But coaches talking you through that going, no, that’s ridiculous. And the one firm, when they called me a one year wonder and they didn’t want this guy they hired to quit, that didn’t occur to them that I would and I did two weeks later. That’s just some of the stuff that is really tough. I hope it’s different for younger women today. I am not a hundred percent sure it is, but that’s part of my never ever give up type of thing.
Debbie Foster (23:09):
I think that we have heard from some people who have been guests, some women who have been guests on our podcasts that they feel like things are different. But we’ve also heard from some women that they’re not very different. And I think we’ve experienced that as well, going into law firms all across the country. In some places it really is different. And in other places it’s still quite an uphill battle. And I don’t know if you’ve read, I think it’s an HBR article, it’s about glass ceilings and broken rungs. And so we all know the glass ceiling story, but the broken rung story is about how women often miss out on that first or second promotion because that coincides with the time that they’re having kids and men aren’t, and they often get elevated in their positions. And so by the time women are kind of back after being out, after having kids, for those who have chosen to have kids, they’ve had that little gap in time where their male colleagues have surpassed them. And so I think we still see that unfortunately even in 2023. In 2024, we still are seeing women who are opting to have kids and be out of work for a period of time and making sure that they get treated equally. While there’s a lot more awareness about it, it’s not always easy for them to do that. So I love that you’re still talking about that.
Mary Vandenack (24:35):
And it’s not easy. And there’s actually, I’m really excited at one of the schools I attended is here in Omaha College of St. Mary, and they’re actually putting together, they have a task force. I was interviewed for that. I am into a positive psychology, not like beat up the world to fix this. Let’s figure out how to collaborate and solve because I don’t think a lot of it’s really subtle in nature and just a culture. And one of the things, I have a friend who’s a coach who says is that sometimes women are the worst enforcers of gender norms. And that’d be the first problem that we as women need to really resolve and talk about and say is how do we find women supporting others? And I can tell you that one of the law firms that I was at, I had a woman lock me into my office and threaten my life.
So that kind of soured me for a while on supporting women. But it was a woman who came along several years later and what she did, and there, there’s a group of us who have continued this and it’s really awesome. But we have a small group called Fabulous Women. And what we do is we gather in small groups of women who are women who truly support women. So I always kind of say we don’t criticize the color of somebody’s shoes. We talk about how we can support others and what we have in common. We don’t let this become a pro-life, pro-choice discussion. We talk about what we have in common and how we can support each other on the path and how we can pass that on and just try and change that one person at a time, helping women instead of defining themselves by the guy that’s on their arm, which matters. Relationships matter of that nature very, very much. But the women in my life are amazing support and it is so important. And the more that we as women aren’t getting in our own ways, I think the better we’ll do. And I think the more that others will be supportive.
Beth Thompson (26:38):
Well, we have to continue to communicate and share the fact that when we support each other, there’s nothing that we can’t do. The more that we talk about it and give examples like your fabulous women group, the more even the younger generation will recognize the value and importance of supporting each other. I think we all grew up in a time where women were less supportive. I do think there’s more support now for women as they acknowledge each other and place value on their friend groups and don’t forget their friends when they’re dating or getting married. That tends to happen. And so we’ve come a long way. There’s still work to be done, but luckily we are all talking about it. And even with what we’re doing here with this podcast, trying to pay it forward, you’re doing the same with what you’re doing out there in the world. This is a perfect transition into our last question, our favorite question we ask every guest, which is, what is your leadership superpower, Mary?
Mary Vandenack (27:34):
So my leadership superpower is that I can often see in a another person what they can’t see in themselves and help them find it. So it’s interesting how many people, and we were talking about women and a lot of times it’s women. I have a young associate who’s a female who I hired, and she’s very skilled. And one of the interesting things, we had a conversation not too long ago, I took her to a basketball game and she said, well, everybody gave me grief because I didn’t really negotiate my comp. And I told her, I almost didn’t hire you because you didn’t negotiate because I do want a woman who steps up to the plate and is willing to negotiate. Now, I will tell you that our starting package is actually non-negotiable. So you weren’t going to get any more by doing that, but that would’ve been a thing, been something that’s important.
But I then shared with her, I said, but I will tell you why I hired you anyway. This is what I saw in you and this is what I can see. And so one of the things we’ve talked about for her is leadership development, because I’m a big believer in every lawyer. Again, we don’t do it in law school. And if I were to tell you I wish I had something when I started my firm, it was more specific leadership training because that to me has made all the difference in, I just got inducted into the Hall of Fame. And I think part of that path, it came from that I developed some leadership skills, but I wasn’t doing that when I first started. My practice had a lot of turnover. A lot of people get frustrated. It really makes a difference to develop the leadership skills. So she and I talked about that. But I do know that in talking to her, I was able to identify, look, this is what I see in you. And I have seen her conducting herself differently in meetings and with people since we had that conversation. So sometimes it’s pointing out you do have this skill and here’s how you can develop it.
Debbie Foster (29:39):
I love that. That is a way to end. Mary, thank you so much for being a guest on our show today. I’ve loved having you and I’ve really loved getting to watch you lead and work closely with you as a client of Affinity and through the A, b, A. And I’ve really enjoyed our travels together and long walks in cities with big tall hills and all that fun stuff that we’ve gotten to do since we’ve gotten to know each other better. Thank you for being on the show. Thank you, Mary.
Mary Vandenack (30:07):
Thanks so much for having me, and I’ve enjoyed our coffee stops on that path.
Debbie Foster (30:11):
Absolutely. Love the coffee stops too.
Beth Thompson (30:18):
And that’s a wrap. Thanks for listening to Powerful Leaders. No apologies. Be sure and subscribe to our show and help us spread the word by sharing our show with your network.
Debbie Foster (30:28):
And check out our show notes at affinityconsulting.com slash powerful leaders for resources and ways to connect with us. See you next time.