Welcome to Powerful Leaders, No Apologies.
Beth and Debbie engage in a candid conversation with Sarah Evenson, Director of Law School Programs at Barnes and Thornburg. Sarah shares her unique journey from practicing law to legal management, highlighting the pivotal moments that shaped her career. The episode explores leadership insights, challenges faced, and valuable tips for recruiting and retaining talent, emphasizing the power of authenticity and compassion in professional growth.
Links from the episode:
[07:47] Overcoming challenges and lessons learned
[16:19] Consistency and authenticity in leadership
[25:23] Compassion as a superpower
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 email@example.com slash powerful leaders. Here’s the show,
Debbie Foster (00:34):
Beth, I can’t actually remember if this is our first episode that we’re recording in 2024. Is it?
Beth Thompson (00:40):
I believe so, but I don’t know for sure, but we’ll pretend like it is.
Debbie Foster (00:45):
Happy New Year.
Beth Thompson (00:46):
Happy New Year. It’s so amazing to think we’re a year into this gig. I’m freezing in North Carolina. I’m sure you’re warmer in Florida, but not as warm as usual. What’s the situation there?
Debbie Foster (01:01):
Well, I’m in Tampa today, but I was in West Palm Beach this weekend and it was beautiful in West Palm Beach, but it was like 36 in Tampa over the weekend. And so my friends who live here were like, you’ve got to be kidding me. I think it might snow, but that’s nothing compared to where our guest is, where I feel like there’s probably like 1100 feet of snow where she comes from. But I’m super excited today to have Sarah Evenson with us. Sarah, I’ve known Sarah for a long time through the Association of Legal Administrators where she has recently taken the role of immediate past president, but Sarah has a really interesting story and I’m really excited for her to share it with our audience today. So Sarah, welcome to the podcast.
Sarah Evenson (01:49):
Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. And today it is a balmy 33, so it’s like short and flip flop weather here up in Minnesota. So we’re all great.
Debbie Foster (02:00):
Right, right, right. Sarah, we would love it if you would start off by telling us your story. Tell us how you got where you are and just give us your background.
Sarah Evenson (02:09):
Absolutely. I grew up in a family where education was emphasized and what my parents said is, go to school as long as you can afford it. I went probably about eight years past where I could afford it, but my parents said, education is something nobody can ever take away from you, so invest in it. Invest in it as much. And I did. And I went to an amazing undergraduate school and got accepted into a very prestigious management position with a large multi international corporation. And the first place that they wanted to send me on assignment was India. And I said, no, no, no, no, no, no. We talked about places like Indiana and Montana and Texas. I am not a traveler person. And I quickly pivoted and I quickly took the LSAT and I ended up doing well enough to get into my first choice Law school.
I really wanted to get my MBA, but you had to have two years of practical job experience in order to get into an MBA program. At the time, law school didn’t require two years of actual work experience, so I pivoted and went into law school. But after my first year of law school, I very quickly realized law was not my passion. I enjoyed people, I enjoyed helping people, but law was not my passion. I knew that after my first year of law school and I had one of those pivotal conversations with my grandmother and she said, you started this, you can’t quit. You don’t know if, and this will tell you how old I am. You’re the next Marsha Clark.
Beth Thompson (03:50):
Sarah Evenson (03:52):
You dunno if you’re the next Marsha Clark. I pushed through and ultimately my second year of law school I got into an MBA program, an evening MBA program at a different university. So I went to law school during the day and I got my MBA at night, finished law school again, had the opportunity to practice, didn’t want to give up the opportunity not to try practicing law. Ended up doing it for eight plus years. So I was a civil litigator, loved it, enjoyed it, but I did not have that capital P passion for it. And so I ultimately took some time away from law and I did some volunteer work, did some board work, and just took some time myself to figure out what I really wanted to do. And very surprisingly to me, I came back to law firms, so I came back to law firms, but on the administrative side, not on the practicing side.
And I think that gives me this opportunity to really be the bridge between the attorneys and understanding all the pressures that go along with that and how they go about their business and also with everyone else that is the business professionals of our law firm and really helping build that bridge and communication and understanding in a way others who haven’t practiced, can’t quite understand. Always worked in small law firms until I got my current position at Barnes and Thornburg as a office administrator and was quickly elevated my second year of being with Barnes and Thornburg to director of law school programs. So I do all of our law school recruiting here at the firm as well as manage our Minneapolis office.
Beth Thompson (05:34):
I think having had the background as a lawyer, it helps you with the recruiting now, right? I’m sure that those skills are useful to you. Tell us a bit about your a career journey.
Sarah Evenson (05:47):
Yeah, absolutely. A A has been really an important part of my career shift from being practicing attorney to legal management professional. It was the most welcoming, open, supportive group of people I could have ever been associated with. Coming from a place where you’re practicing attorney and you hoard information and you don’t share what your secret sauce is, the Association of Legal Administrators is the opposite. It’s about sharing and learning together. And just because something works for me doesn’t mean it’s going to work the same way for you. So let’s share our thoughts and ideas together. I volunteered in that organization because I was getting so much out of it, and it was amazing. Networking started at my local chapter just being on the communications network, helping write letters and emails, doing recruiting. Went and became a member of the board of directors with A-L-A-M-N, the Association, legal Administrators Minnesota.
And through that the International Association actually hosted their leadership conference in Minneapolis. And I happened to be the president at the time and I don’t know what overcame me, but I raised my hand and I volunteered to teach everybody how to speak Minnesotan at that conference. So I taught them things like OTA and we call things hot dish, and when you bump into somebody you go just silly little things like that. And that got me connected and networked in with some people that were in the international association. And ultimately that led me to getting on the board of directors for the international organization and ultimately, luckily enough got to be selected as the president of that amazing organization and now I’m in the immediate past president position.
Beth Thompson (07:38):
That’s great. I know there had to have been some challenges along the way. At some point in your career, can you think of a challenge that you had and how you overcame it and maybe what lessons you learned in the process?
Sarah Evenson (07:52):
I’ve had a lot of challenges, and I think everybody does to a certain degree because without failures and challenges, you really aren’t growing and strengthening your experience and impact. And I think the very first situation I remember being counted out on or being looked at as not yet ready to be in the position in which I was given is during that break year I ran for and got elected to a board position. And I won’t share the name of the board or what they did. Everybody will be able to find out. And I was the only female. I was the youngest by at a minimum 30 years. And I had gone through the orientation. It was a two day orientation. It was very intense orientation. And I remember before my first board meeting, the executive director, the CEO and the board president called me in to the CEO’s office and I was like, well, this is odd, this is different.
And they wanted to reinforce the obligations, the responsibility, how much work it is going to take to learn an entirely new industry in which I had never worked in making sure I really was committed to the position before I walked into that room. I remember that feeling. I remember you have no idea what you got yourself into with me being in this room because we’re going to make some amazing changes. And I just like, yep, I totally understand. You were very clear in your posting. I got elected. I’ve gone through the orientation. I am so ready to go into that boardroom and do amazing things with this company. But it started off kind of like, you don’t believe in me. You’re not quite sure about me. I’m too different than everybody else that’s in that room. And it was really hard. It was really hard to be the person raising the hand, asking the questions, probably not knowing the assumptions or the other kind of board protocols that were unwritten that I wasn’t aware of. And it was the first time, but no, certainly not the last time where I’ve walked into a room where I was the only whatever that was. And remembering and calling upon that one meeting where I said, okay, let’s go, Sarah. You’re here for a reason. You have to bring your skills and talents to this position. You were brought here for some reason. Let’s go do it.
Debbie Foster (10:32):
So interesting. I’m going to ask you a question that was not in any of the materials that we sent over, and it’s about leading leaders. So throughout your journey and being a lawyer and stepping back for a bit and doing the board work, and a lot of times when you’re on a board, you’re on a board with other leaders of other things. And so you’re no longer leading people that report to you. You’re leading alongside or you are leading other leaders. And I think that’s definitely true in the A position you might have been the leader of the board, but you were leading other leaders. And I feel like there’s a difference. And I just had that conversation with someone. I was talking to them about a leadership position and I said, always make sure you’re leading people before you’re leading people who are leaders. And it’s just a little nuance, but I think there’s a big difference in how you have to approach leading leaders and the kind of respect that you need to kind of garner from the people that you’re leading. And I’d love to hear a little bit about your experience with leading leaders.
Sarah Evenson (11:47):
The biggest difference for me with leading leaders is leaving space for conversation, not making assumptions and really leaving space for that conversation to be open to everybody participating. A lot of assumptions were made about me before I walked into that room. And I think asking the questions, getting to know each other, being present, building those relationships is key to having those leading the leader opportunities where you can’t make somebody do something. They’re not your employee, you can’t hold their job or their pay or I mean taking away anything from somebody else. We all coming back to a common purpose and why are we all giving over time and energy to this common issue platform company? It has to be your guiding light when you are doing it and valuing what everybody brings to the table is important. But you’re absolutely right. It is different. It is different because everybody is motivated to be there. They’re all smart, they’re all giving of their time, they all want to do amazing work. They all have big ideas, they all want to make an impact. And usually with board work, you have a very finite period of time in which to do that, and it’s important that everybody become part of that process.
Beth Thompson (13:19):
Sarah, where do you find inspiration? Are there books that you’ve read that you would recommend to our listeners, podcasts? Where do you find inspiration?
Sarah Evenson (13:31):
I was dreading this question a little bit because I would love to be an avid book reader. I love reading books. I just don’t at this point in my career. When you say podcasts, the thing on my podcast list is smartless. It’s for pure entertainment and fun. Honestly, if I’m following anybody, it’s like an Adam Grant, somebody who’s very good at sharing information in bite-sized pieces, something that gets me thinking in each morning about something small tidbit that I can take away. And somehow I feel like he sometimes reaches into my brain and knows what’s going on in my week and just somehow has the right tip or idea or thing that I can incorporate in that week’s issues or conversations. So I would love to tell you I’m reading all these books and I have a whole bunch of books all around me that I truly intend to read at some point, but most of where I get it is more on LinkedIn or following certain authors and just the little motivations that they give you every day to keep up the work that you’re doing.
Debbie Foster (14:38):
I would have pegged you as a big reader.
Sarah Evenson (14:41):
I am. I would love to read more. I would love to read more. And again, I am a member of a book club. I do read, but they tend to be more for fun. Yeah, that’s one thing I’ve been working really, really hard on is finding space for me just to have fun and a break from all the seriousness that we have to deal with all day, every day.
Debbie Foster (15:05):
I mentioned this to you before we started recording. About how many years were you on the A board? It feels like a lot of them.
Sarah Evenson (15:14):
This is my fifth year, I believe, sixth year.
Debbie Foster (15:18):
So one of the things that I have loved watching with you is how your temperament as a leader, you seem to me from an observer to be very consistent. You are an intent listener. When I look at you, I see you intently listening to people, except for that one time at CLI when you dressed up like a police officer and you were blowing your whistle, telling people about all the things they were doing wrong in a little comedic skit. But other than that, you seem like a very intent listener and someone who is a leader that people want to follow. So when Beth asked the question about what inspires you, I was wondering if there was someone that you had watched as a leader that you modeled your leadership style after.
Sarah Evenson (16:12):
It’s funny that you say that. There’s not just one person. Honestly, I take little bits and pieces from all the different people I interact with. Not just people in positions of leadership, but everybody I interact with. Ooh, I just saw how they answered that question, that particular way that I’m going to steal that idea or, ooh, I just saw somebody do something that I hope I never ever end up doing. So really taking little bits and pieces all the way back from the very first attorney I worked for. He cared deeply about every single one of his clients and the people that he worked for. And one of the things I learned from him is being present in the moment with the person that is in front of you. And that is something I don’t think we as leaders see enough of or are able to demonstrate because we’re being pulled in so many different directions.
Having just come off of a meeting over Zoom, you can see everybody looking in all the different directions and their screens and their phones with all the distractions that can get in the way of having the amazing conversation that’s in front of you with the people that are in front of you on the topics that are in front of you. We’re multitasking so much that we need to get more deeply invested in whatever it is that you’ve put in front of yourself for that day. And by taking away from something else, you’re devaluing what you’re spending your time actually on. And I learned that from him. He closed the door and whoever was in front of him was his number one priority and made sure that he listened and had a full conversation. And I’m very thankful that that is a lesson that I learned from him because the way it made people feel when they left, no matter if he had great information or really difficult, hard news for them to hear, it was done in a way that they felt like he truly cared about them. And that’s how I want everybody to feel when they talk to me. They may not like the answer, but they feel heard. They feel cared for, they feel understood, and they knew that I was there for them a hundred percent of while we were having that conversation. And I’m not looking at my cell phone or my Apple watch or looking to see how many more minutes until my next meeting.
Debbie Foster (18:52):
I love that. And it makes me think of, it used to be that much more frequently, we were in our client’s offices, and it was not uncommon for me to walk into like do the knock, knock and have the lawyer say, come on in. And I would come in and they would still be typing on their keyboard and they’d say, go ahead. I’m listening. And I would just want to be like, no, I’ll wait until you’re done. But I’m just the consultant, so I don’t get to tell people what to do when I’m there. So I would start talking while the typing is going on, and I’m thinking they’re not even listening to what I have to say. So that point about stop what you’re doing, turn your chair, make eye contact. It seems so simple, but it really is so powerful.
Sarah Evenson (19:35):
It is. It really truly is. The time is the one thing you can’t make more of, right? So when you give people your time and attention, you’re giving them your most valuable asset that you can’t make more of, right? So I think it is a way to very naturally build connection and rapport with people no matter if you have a working relationship or not. Just showing that level of respect that whatever it is that they’re bringing to my door, it deserves my time and attention, and however they think I can help them, that’s what we’re going to figure out during that time that we have.
Beth Thompson (20:13):
Well, and time is the one thing we all have in common. We all have this exact same amount of time. It’s how we use that time that varies.
Sarah Evenson (20:21):
Debbie Foster (20:23):
Well, Sarah, before we ask you our final question, I’m going to just throw in one more question because I feel like one of the biggest challenges in most of the firms that we go to these days is this issue of attracting and retaining talent and you being in the position that you are in. What was your title? Can you tell me it one more time?
Sarah Evenson (20:45):
Director of law school programs.
Debbie Foster (20:47):
So you’re out recruiting associates in a super competitive market. You have one tip or one piece of advice for our listeners on how to get people, get potential employees, potential lawyers, potential staff people to look at you or your firm differently.
Sarah Evenson (21:05):
Authenticity, be who you are, be proud of who you are, know who you are, and be authentic and true to that. Don’t try and be affirm that you’re not. You cannot fake it till you make it, because that only gets people in the door, but it doesn’t make ’em sticky. It doesn’t get them to stay there. You don’t want to invest all that time and energy and money in recruiting people who are just going to two years from now turn around. And I think the way to truly attract people to you is to be your authentic self. No place is perfect. Have conversation. Be open. Let people ask you some difficult questions and be prepared to provide them an authentic answer. And I would say that’s for both sides of the table. I see so many law students and associates who come into an interview answering questions the way they think.
We want them to answer the questions, and that is not going to help us or them. And when you go through, you don’t want to be just a shiny brochure. You want everybody to see and feel who you are from the first point of contact. And they’re interviewing with you. They’re networking with you. The recruiting starts before the actual interview, honestly. So just be true to who you are. Know what your core values are. Be able to give very specific examples of your demonstration of that is really, really an important part of connecting the interview to what it’s actually like working at your firm. And I think that results in, as we like to say, very sticky candidates who end up choosing you for all the reasons you want them to and not for the things that are very quickly to change.
Beth Thompson (23:00):
Sarah, we’ve come to the end of our time together and we ask all of our guests the same question. What is your leadership superpower?
Sarah Evenson (23:09):
It’s kind of funny because I’ve been excited to answer this question and to prepare for that question, I actually asked all of my teammates, what do you think my leadership superpower is? And I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but every single one of them gave me a different answer. So to me, it means I’m different leadership to different people in different ways that they need it. What I think ultimately my superpower is that makes me the leader I am, that differentiates me from other people is my compassion. I really truly care about everybody I interact with. I want to help in whatever way you think I can help you with your development, with your problem, with a difficult situation, with preparing for something else, whatever it is. I want to help and I care. And I think because I am so focused on helping other people grow and expand and continue to challenge themselves in a way that sometimes they outgrow me and my relationship, they continue to grow and expand that compassion for listening in a way that maybe others weren’t listening to them and being supportive in a way that they weren’t finding in other places in their life and helping in a way that they haven’t found help in other places, I think is ultimately my superpower.
Debbie Foster (24:48):
I love that, and I can totally see that. I really do. I mean, I have not interacted with you a ton, but in the areas where I have, I can totally see compassion in you. Thank you so much for joining us today and for being a guest on our show.
Sarah Evenson (25:03):
Thank you for having me.
Beth Thompson (25:04):
Thanks, Sarah. And that’s a wrap. Thanks for listening to Powerful Leaders Know Apologies. Be sure and subscribe to our show and help us spread the word by sharing our show with your network.
Debbie Foster (25:18):
And check out our show firstname.lastname@example.org slash powerful leaders for resources and ways to connect with us. See you next time.