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“It’s always worth investing in your own professional development” with Lisa Black and Chaya Weiner

It’s always worth investing in your own professional development. That is a good spend of your time, energy and resources. Widening your experience and professional network opens the door to new opportunities. You never know what will happen in life and when you need to move from plan A to plan B. Always have a […]

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It’s always worth investing in your own professional development. That is a good spend of your time, energy and resources. Widening your experience and professional network opens the door to new opportunities. You never know what will happen in life and when you need to move from plan A to plan B. Always have a plan B.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Black, one of the firm founders and partners of Black Marjieh & Sanford, a 100% women-owned law firm in Westchester, NY. As an insurance and litigation defense attorney with nearly 20 years’ experience, she handles litigation defense of property and casualty matters in both Federal and New York State courts, including trials and appeals.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I grew up in Westchester, NY, a proud product of Yonkers Public Schools. My parents were teachers in the Bronx, so I learned from an early age that putting in the extra work to succeed in school was important. My high school had a magnet program for Law and I was always interested in being a lawyer from an early age. I competed in a state-wide Mock Trial competition and was hooked. I graduated a semester early from high school and went straight to Binghamton University, graduating college in 3 ½ years.

When I was at New York Law School in Manhattan I got onto Moot Court by competing in an internal school competition where the final bench included Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. I was a competitor, and later a coach, for national Moot Court competitions while in law school. Fortunately, I was able to work at the NYC Law Department, Office of the Corporation Counsel, right out of law school where I gained exceptional experience, obtaining my first defense verdict in federal court as a first-year attorney. I also served as an Assistant Corporation Counsel in the Special Federal Litigation Division defending the NYPD, FDNY and NYC Department of Corrections against Federal Civil Rights Sec. 1983 claims.

After five years of heavy litigation and trial experience, and a move back to Westchester from the City, I went to work for a private practice firm and focused on construction law. Over the course of my private practice career, I held several leadership roles which included serving as Secretary of the USLAW Network National Construction Practice Group and Chair of the USLAW Network Women’s Connection Practice Group. I was also a co-founder of the New York Law School Moot Court Alumni Organization Support Network.

I really enjoy serving as a volunteer mentor for both of my alma maters (college and law school students) because that feeling of giving back is so important to me. In 2009, I was elected Fire Commissioner for a volunteer fire district, a position which I still hold today, and I also volunteer locally as a certified mediator.

I’m happily married to my “Captain America” for 20 years and have two amazing children. Being a working mom is a constant challenge to balance work and life, but I have incredible support from my family and in 2017, I quit my job and started my own law firm which I own and manage with two partners. Black Marjieh & Sanford LLP is a 100% women-owned firm, a rarity in our profession, and especially within the construction industry. We have grown from 10 lawyers and five support staff to 20 lawyers and 15 support staff in just two years.

We’re thrilled that our firm was recently named to Fortune’s Top 50 Small Business List in 2018, being certified as a Great Place to Work for two years in a row and recently receiving the Family Friendly Employer Award from the WWBA in 2019. We attribute our success to the true “There’s no ‘I’ in Team” culture we have created and our deep caring for people.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority about the topic of thought leadership?

Although not an authority on thought leadership, I am an avid student of it. I spend lots of time researching and following other thought leaders in my industry and am always striving to be a better leader for my firm (and my children). As far as law firm management, I’m a sponge and cannot wait to soak up every last piece of advice for running a business. I have enough experience to know what worked and what didn’t over the course of my career, and it’s really important to me to further develop the ideas that have the potential for success. This includes listening to my top people, constantly asking for ideas on how to better (and more efficiently) get things done and addressing the challenges of the exceptionally fast growth of our team.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A plaintiff (perpetrator) who was suing the police officers I was defending tried to attack me in the second deposition of my career. He attempted to throw a cup of coffee at me. He failed. I played Rugby in college with a group of incredible, tough ladies who weren’t afraid to get muddy, so I don’t scare easily. In my full suit and heels, while everyone else in the room cowered in the corner, including the court reporter, I stood right up to his face daring him to do it with my eyes but not saying a word that would be on the “record”. He backed away and eventually left the room. All the while, I never lost sight of wondering how the “record” was going to read when it was all over. Later, that same Plaintiff would lose his case in what became my first defense verdict. I tell that story to all of our younger attorneys, reminding them that no matter what happens in court or a deposition, it won’t be that bad and they will survive. This profession takes grit. If you don’t have a thick skin, you better grow one quickly.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I didn’t know anything about the process of “discovery” when I first started practicing in civil litigation and there was a document that our office obtained from an outside source that wasn’t turned over in discovery. It wasn’t a significant document to the case, but it came up on cross examination at trial. As a first-year trial attorney, I was scolded by the federal judge at trial who said “Shame on you!” to my co-counsel and myself. When you start your career in law, you never forget being “shamed” by a federal judge sitting on his bench, especially when that bench feels so much taller than you are standing. That was a hard lesson to learn, but I never made that mistake again. When in doubt, turn it over.

Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming a thought leader. Why do you think it is worthwhile to invest resources and energy into this?

It’s always worth investing in your own professional development. That is a good spend of your time, energy and resources. Widening your experience and professional network opens the door to new opportunities. You never know what will happen in life and when you need to move from plan A to plan B. Always have a plan B.

Let’s talk about business opportunities specifically. Can you share a few examples of how thought leadership can help a business grow or create lucrative opportunities?

Everyone knows the thought leaders in their respective industries. The names roll off the tip of your tongue. Those are the people to whom others look for advice and if you are thought of as someone with good advice to provide and a pay it forward mentality, business will just follow.

Ok. Now that we have that behind us, we’d love to hear your thoughts about how to eventually become a thought leader. Can you share 5 strategies that a person should implement to become known as a thought leader in their industry. Please tell us a story or example (ideally from your own experience) for each.

· Follow other thought leaders on LinkedIn and other outlets and spend a few minutes as part of your morning routine staying up to date on industry trends.

· Plan one day of the month to focus on professional networking opportunities and stick to it. (I choose the beginning of the month — less deadlines looming that will distract me).

· Connect with others in person and be present in the moment. Industry events are a great way to accomplish this if you plan far in advance and avoid scheduling conflicts so you can focus on just that.

· Offer opportunities for others. It will cost you nothing but your time but might be an enormous impact for others or your clients. This is where the “pay if forward” comes in.

· Mentor others by helping them find their path and providing ideas and guidance on how to pursue it.

In your opinion, who is an example of someone who has done a fantastic job as a thought leader? Which specific things have impressed you about that person? What lessons can we learn from this person’s approach.

My husband. He is the global head of recruiting at an international firm. For 25 years, I have read and heard the outpouring of support from his colleagues and supervisors. I have watched him present nationally, from delivering keynote speeches to running a basic conference call, doing stand up comedy for charity, and being involved as a career mentor to his subordinates. His approach is always considerate, deliberate, well thought out and delivered. He truly cares about others and will carve out time to accomplish everything he sets out to do (and that’s a long tiresome list). He is inspirational, a people magnet and exceptionally well respected in his industry.

I have seen some discussion that the term “thought leader” is trite, overused, and should be avoided. What is your feeling about this?

I don’t believe in labels. If you are a true thought leader, speak your truth and others will follow you if you have advice worth listening to.

What advice would you give to other leaders to thrive and avoid burnout?

Unplug. Put your phone down and engage with human beings at the table. We are constantly plugged in and expected to respond immediately, especially to client inquiries. That makes us excellent service providers. However, when I’m at a conference, in a meeting, or at dinner, whether it’s with clients, colleagues, family or friends, my phone is tucked away. It’s glued to me the rest of the time, but not then. I engage with others and dive deeper to really understand what makes people tick. If your face is in your phone, even if just for a glance, you are only half paying attention, and it’s rude to the person across from you. It is my biggest pet peeve. Sometimes I even catch myself doing it and remember to immediately make a conscious effort to shove it in my purse to avoid the temptation of the evil little red notification circle.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Prioritize creating an inclusive culture in the legal profession. I want to prove to people that that you can run a successful law firm, while caring about your employees, your family and your community. Our profession is adversarial by nature, but we shouldn’t be that way in the office. Having that team bond helps achieve the balance of a stressful litigation profession and being committed and open to new ways of being efficient is a key factor in that balance.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two:

1) Pay it forward. Go the extra step, even if it’s inconvenient, to do something meaningful for someone else or to make a connection for two other people that might be able to help each other. It’s my motto and I try to embody it every day. I believe in positivity as being a cornerstone of success. I’ve seen a lot of negative in my career, and I’d much rather be the glass is half full person, even when things are tough, stressful and uncertain. It keeps me motivated to succeed and ready to accept the challenge to resolve difficult issues when they arise.

2) You never get a second chance to make a first impression. In this business (and in life) you should always put your best foot forward. People will form an immediate impression of your professionalism based on things that you can easily prioritize, such as always being on time to court or a client meeting, always being the most prepared person in the room, and always presenting yourself professionally. I have seen way too many attorneys consistently late or unprepared for court (which disrespects the bench and the bar) and whom are not appropriately dressed for court. Wear a jacket to show your respect for the process and the profession. It’s hot in NYC in the summer (and in many courtrooms) but my jacket is off on the train and always on in the courtroom. Our office is casual every day because we don’t get many “drop-in’s” and we want our employees to be more comfortable, but we are always dressed for court or client meetings.

We are blessed that very prominent leaders in business and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a lunch or breakfast with? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Oprah Winfrey. Amazingly successful, powerful, influential woman who leads with positivity and generosity.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/lisajblack/
https://www.linkedin.com/company/black-marjieh-sanford-llp/

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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