Sheli Rosenberg Shares Wisdom with Next Generation of Women Lawyers

Sheli Z. Rosenberg, an accomplished lawyer with extensive board-level corporate experience, visited the Law School for a lively talk about the challenges women face in law and business, and a lot of practical tips for overcoming them.

She implored the young women in the audience: Don’t be a shrinking violet. Take your seat at the table. Own your ideas and your talent.

Rosenberg now serves in the Real Estate Group of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and was previously President, CEO, and Vice Chairman of Equity Group Investments, LLC, where she worked for Sam Zell. Before that, she was a managing partner at Schiff Hardin, where she was the first woman to be named a partner. She co-founded the Center for Executive Women at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, her alma mater.

And none of that – which is just a partial list of her career accomplishments – came easy for a woman who started in the legal world when it was almost exclusively a male domain. Sexism was present from the start, Rosenberg said; shortly before her 1966 Northwestern Law graduation, a professor scolded her for taking a spot in the class that could’ve been given to “some guy dying in Vietnam.” Then, when she started as a law firm associate, she could “go weeks without seeing another woman.”

Much has changed, Rosenberg said, but a lot hasn’t. The business and legal worlds are still largely governed by men, she said.

To counter that, she said women must be more willing to take charge, and to adopt typically “male” habits. Men urge their colleagues to “follow me” with confidence when they have a bold new idea; women are more hesitant to take charge, even when their ideas are spectacular. Men are not shy about networking and calling in favors; women don’t want to appear to be taking advantage.

That won’t work for women who want to excel, Rosenberg said. They must be assertive. That means speaking up, not apologizing for their ideas, not fretting about being liked, and taking credit when it’s due.

“You are in that conference room. Take a damn seat. Part of being successful is sending the message of being there because you intend to be there and you are entitled to be there,” Rosenberg said.

She was, above all, quotable, especially when warning against getting emotional in the office. Business is not personal, she said, so if your feelings are hurt, be discreet. “Go home, grab some Scotch, sit in the corner, and cry. But don’t do it in the office!”

Despite these tips, Rosenberg was clear that the onus for changing the business and legal environments  is not solely on women. Professionals of both sexes should be comfortable having personal lives, saying “no” to nonstop work, and taking adequate leave when they have children.

One student asked Rosenberg how she has dealt with so-called “subtle sexism” during her career. Rosenberg said she has used humor. She recalled a time when a male client asked her to fetch a cup of coffee.

“I said, ‘given my hourly rate, I’d love to get you a cup of coffee. It’s going to cost you 270 bucks,’” she said, to big laughs from the students.  

And when a male colleague took credit for her idea in a meeting, mere moments after she said the same thing to no one’s notice? “Joe, that’s great. You said it just a little better than I said it a couple of minutes ago.”

Julia Schwartz, ’14, said she appreciated Rosenberg’s candor.

“She gave incredible advice for women in the workplace and skills to think about developing as we move forward,” Schwartz said. “Things like being willing to ask questions, being more assertive, taking on difficult projects – those are all important messages.”

Rosenberg’s talk was part of the Law School’s Keystone Professionalism and Leadership Program, and it was sponsored by the Law’s Women’s Caucus and the Women’s Mentoring Program.