They Believed They Could, So They Did

Top women in claims and litigation share their stories of success and perseverance

March 07, 2023 Photo

The celebration of women’s history began not as a month, but a week, when Congress requested President Reagan to proclaim March 7-14, 1982 as “Women’s History Week.” It wasn’t until 1987 that the recognition was extended to include the entire month of March, and proclamations from sitting presidents began shortly after to highlight women’s impact on America and its history.

In our March issue, we wanted to hear the stories and experiences of women within claims and litigation, so we reached out to top female leaders from insurance carriers and law firms who are part of CLM. Survey questions included asking them about the keys to their successes, obstacles they overcame, and advice they would offer to young women entering claims and litigation today. Their responses made us feel like one month is still not nearly long enough. Here’s what they had to say.

Keys to Success

Finding success in traditionally male-dominated industries did not come easy for most survey respondents, but many senior claims professionals offered tips for what worked best for them as they climbed the ladder.

“My key to success was demonstrating my willingness to learn and ask questions,” says Mary Haefer, chief claims officer, property and casualty, at CapSpecialty (a Berkshire Hathaway Company). “I also was a willing volunteer to take on additional projects/duties outside my various job descriptions and to not be afraid to think outside the box.”

“I always asked to do more so that I could learn and grow into a well-rounded insurance professional,” says Kerry Berry, chief claims officer at GoAuto Insurance Co. “Asking to learn and following guidance from management or mentors resulted in doors opening with opportunities that I chose to walk through. I believe the key was a strong work ethic and the ambition to want more for myself.”

Women attorneys expressed similar reasons for their successes, adding the impact that self-confidence and family support had on their ability to succeed.

“One of the keys to my success as a woman in a heavily male-dominated industry was to be hardworking, prepared, and resilient, along with a combination of technical know-how and great communication skills,” says Lisa Rolle, partner at Traub Lieberman Straus & Shrewsberry, LLP. “I believed that my performance, skills, and professional demeanor could make up for any shortcomings my gender may have presented.”

“The keys to my success the past 21 years as a litigation attorney in New York can be linked back to my foundation growing up and being taught that I could do anything,” says Clare Cunningham, partner at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, LLP. “In addition, I am forever grateful to my mentors, both women and men, who have guided me, cheered for me, and, most importantly, did not question whether I could succeed.”

Obstacles to Overcome

One of the most-mentioned obstacles by survey respondents was the challenges they faced in starting and maintaining a family. Nearly every woman said it was something they had to address at some point while rising to the top.

“Early in my career, I was told that women have a choice to make: Be a good mom, or be a good attorney—you cannot be both,” says Courtney Winzeler, who is now partner at Lorber, Greenfield & Polito, LLP. “When I became pregnant, I was told that my pregnancy was a factor to consider when discussing my opportunity to become an equity partner, as the firm didn’t know if I would be returning to work after having a baby despite the years of dedication to the firm and book of business I had accumulated. This motivated me not only to find new employment, but also to advocate and educate others about the challenges women face in the workplace.”

“Earlier in my career, I was very clear that my number one priority was my children, and that it was my choice to have them,” says Krista Glenn, executive vice president and chief claims officer at Westfield Specialty. “There were times when others progressed faster than I did because they did not have to deal with daycare pickups or staying at home with sick kids. I did not resent the people who were moving up the ladder or feel that my company should ignore the time I was missing. Rather, I worked very hard, created a good reputation for myself, and I caught up and passed people later.”

“My biggest struggle was when my son was younger and I had to balance work with being a mother,” says Angela Cirina Kopet, partner at Copeland, Stair, Valz & Lovell. “This was especially true when I had to deal with attorneys, judges, and clients who wanted certain deadlines met and did not understand or care that I had other responsibilities to handle.”

“I am a single mother of a daughter who is now an adult. I faced more challenges than I can elaborate here as a female litigator, including age, gender, and marital status bias—the vast majority of which was delivered by opposing counsel,” says Kimberly Davis, member and co-managing partner at SpyratosDavis, LLC. “I was blessed with employers who appreciated my tenacity, quick wit, and success, and I became the first female partner and equity owner of my [then] longstanding law firm.”

“My biggest obstacle was managing a law practice while, at the same time, trying not to miss one play performance, soccer game, or parent-teacher conference,” says Rondiene Novitz, managing partner (New York) at Cruser Mitchell Novitz Sanchez Gaston & Zimet. “I owe my success in doing so, to my partners, associates, and staff, who were always there to cover anything I needed.”

“My number one obstacle was crushing student loan debt, but it was also a great motivator,” says Julie Bittner, equity partner at MWH Law Group, LLP. “I had a 25-year post-law school six-figure loan and was entirely debt free 13 years out. I lived within my means, and I prioritized paying down that debt all while paying for full-time childcare and before and after care once my two children were in grade school. It can be done; you just need to find your tribe and communicate with them when you need a lifeline.”

Other respondents noted the challenges of being the only woman in the room, and the balancing act required when making their voices heard while also advocating for equal treatment amidst a culture of sexism.

“There were so many obstacles along the way—women sabotaging women, less qualified/experienced males getting roles they were not suited for, criticism for being a ‘perfectionist’ and a ‘tough manager,’ judgments based on appearance, being told to soften my edges and ‘act more like a poodle and less like a pit bull,’ and feeling like I had to work harder to get the same recognition and promotions bestowed on male counterparts,” says Dana Applegate, senior vice president, claims, at Coaction Specialty Insurance.

“Many times, whether in private practice or in the insurance industry, I was the only woman at the table,” says Haefer. “I had to be willing to be an active listener and know when to intervene in the conversation. I think a key to overcoming the obstacle many women feel—balancing aggressiveness among our male peers and what persona that gives off—is not trying too hard to make yourself heard. Instead, prepare and contribute at key times with a valid point or piece of information.”

“Obstacles for me included lack of DEI appreciation; feedback that I needed to ‘behave’ in unauthentic ways to be more like what males thought females should be like; a lack of women peers pulling together to promote other females; and a basic lack of understanding on my part earlier in my career that it takes a village and diversity of thought and experience to get the best outcomes,” says Debbie Riley, general counsel at QPWB.

Several respondents on both the carrier and firm sides mentioned aspects of inequality they experienced from a pay perspective.

“For me, the sexism was mostly covert,” says Susan J. Levy, attorney at Levy, Pruett, Cullen. “For example, several times I was told by adjusters that my male colleagues were getting approval for higher rates than I was because I was a woman. Had I not been told, I would not have known.”

“Being a woman in the insurance industry has always meant unequal pay,” says Ann Joslin, vice president, claims, at Energy Insurance Mutual. “We are improving, but not there yet. I believe that men were given more opportunities in the insurance industry because [men in management] believed every woman was on a mommy track or would be unable to handle family life and still be an asset to the company. As more women advance, a lot of those old beliefs are eroding.”

Some simply decided to change the rules of the game for which they were presented.

“The key to my success was taking my own path and not apologizing for it,” says Kathryn Whitlock, partner at Wood Smith Henning & Berman, LLP.      “Especially when I started, there was only one path to success and that did not work for me. So I found another.”

Advice to the Next Generation

Given all they have achieved and overcome, what guidance did our respondents offer those who are just now joining their ranks?

“I tell my daughters (and son), no matter what job you pick, make sure it is something you love doing and it’s with people you like,” says Novitz. “You need to bring your passion, energy, and creativity into what you do every day. Most importantly, you need to believe in yourself and make the right connections to ensure those around you believe in you, too.”

“Understand who you are and who you want to be,” says Applegate. “Be committed to observing and learning; construct goals that stretch you personally and professionally; and hold yourself accountable. Also, do not compare yourself to others and their paths or titles. Growth and movement does not have to be linear and upward only. Lastly, give yourself grace and patience—you have a long time to work and the longer/harder path just might be the most rewarding one.”

Many of our respondents mentioned advocating and promoting themselves.

“Be visible!” says Winzeler. “I would encourage young attorneys to attend and speak at conferences, events, or webinars; write an article or blog; and join organizations and internal committees at your companies that are committed to allyship and DEI. Advocate for and promote yourself internally and on social media platforms like LinkedIn. Most importantly, request to attend client meetings, because clients want to see themselves in those representing them.”    

“Don’t be shy about asking questions and admitting upfront when you need to educate yourself about a topic or issue,” says Haefer. “Admitting when you need to learn and grow enhances your credibility.”                   

“Be a subject matter expert that others can rely on, and always work to learn more about the business,” says Glenn. “And remember that hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” 

“Being a woman litigator has its challenges and is not for the faint of heart,” says Ivette Kincaid, partner at Kahana Feld. “Be open to the opportunities that present themselves and find a mentor (female or male) who can guide you and assist in your growth.”     

“Networking is one of the critical keys to career growth,” says Riley. “I used to view networking as an impediment to getting my work done instead of embracing it as career development and translating it into business acumen and opportunities.”    

Finally, and most importantly, our respondents said to stay true to oneself and identify what works best for you—and ignore the rest.

“Don’t be afraid to do what is right for you at a particular point in time, and don’t apologize for it,” says Whitlock. “I was a partner, then a partner-mom, then a mom, and now again a partner (with the kids-growing-up part of motherhood over). That worked for my family, me, and my law firms.”  

“If you intend on having a family (or already have a family), you need to look at the various options for keeping your career on track before you begin with that firm,” says Laura Paris Paton, partner at CSVL. “Make sure that everyone is on board with a written plan outlining work expectations, compensation, and leadership opportunities.”   

“Create the boundaries you need in order to live your best life as much as you can,” says Lisa Wilson, partner at Wilson Elser, LLP. “For me, having the time and finances to afford to travel were important. For others, it is family. Regardless of what makes you happy, no one is going to have as strong of an interest in setting boundaries that allow you to do the things you love. Work is just one piece of your life, so do not let it consume you unless that is what makes you happy.” 

“Your reputation is your biggest asset, so protect it fiercely,” says Kathleen Olear, assistant vice president, claims counsel, at Sompo International. “And lift other women up. Always.” 

About The Authors
Eric Gilkey

Eric Gilkey is vice president of content at the CLM, and serves as executive editor of CLM magazine, the flagship publication of the CLM.

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