What women leaders can learn from Hailyn Chen

We can only imagine the behind-the-scenes details of how Hailyn Chen was chosen as the new co-managing partner of Munger, Tolles & Olson to serve alongside Malcolm Heinicke, but reading Viva Chen’s engaging interview in The American Lawyer sheds some light on Hailyn Chen’s path. As the second Asian American woman ever chosen to lead a firm, inquiring minds will want to know how she positioned herself for that opportunity and whether her identity as a race and gender minority within law has influenced her leadership style.

It certainly sounds like strategic leadership roles helped build the case that she was ready to lead the firm. Chen was the founder of the women’s initiative and notes in this piece that the group “took a systemic look at how women are promoted.” She was also the co-chair of associate retention and served on the business development and compensation committees. Each of these groups is in some way focused on the future of Big Law and making that future more inclusive of lawyers who are not coming up through typical white male networks.

When asked how it is possible that she was developing business for the firm even as an associate, Chen says she is “fearless about asking.” In her experience fundraising for political campaigns, Chen “gave a lot of thought to self-promotion and firm promotion.” Reading between the lines, it sounds like Chen’s strategic vision includes not just providing excellent client service but also understanding how to talk about what you are doing, how an individual attorney and a firm can build its profile through smart communications.

Finally, it’s clear that Chen embraces what makes her different from most firm leaders. She does not lead or practice law in the same way a white man might, and that is okay. Better than okay—it’s valuable and might just be the secret to her success. Chen sees herself as more of a listener and had to learn to speak up and be heard, but even now she “projects a different kind of authority.” Her childhood as an immigrant, learning English as a second language, gave her an acute sense of what it feels like to be outside the traditional power structures. But this taught her to code switch, to be comfortable in many different settings, including the biggest office in her firm.

Congratulations, Hailyn Chen, on forging your own path and showing other women how they might forge theirs.



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