Women in Law - an interview with Ingrid Busson, Morgan Stanley

In an exclusive interview with Who’s Who Legal, Ingrid Busson, executive director of the legal and compliance division at Morgan Stanley and responsible for bank regulatory matters, shares her views on the challenges facing women in the legal profession.

Ingrid Busson

Ingrid Busson

“Get out of your own way,” says Ingrid Busson. “Too often women take themselves out of the game. My advice to my younger self would be to confront your own insecurities and discover what you are truly capable of as early as possible.”

It’s a characteristic often mentioned in the context of discussing the position of women in business, in particular within the legal profession. The numbers are familiar to us all: around half of law school graduates in the UK and US are female, yet women count for only 15 per cent of partners at major law firms. So why the discrepancy?

According to Busson, women standing in their own way is one of the main barriers to reaching the top of the profession. She explains, “We do ourselves a great disservice and hold back from asking for a pay rise, going for a promotion or applying for a new role.” She speaks from experience: “I sometimes still hear that voice in my head saying ‘No, you can’t’ – building obstacles before they even exist – and it’s something I have to overcome personally when seeking opportunities. I am proud to say I have asked for both promotions and more compensation with success, but it’s not easy. As women, I think we are more inclined towards security than men and where a man might go forth without hesitation, we rarely do.”

Busson’s success is a great example of what women can achieve. After studying at Vermont Law School, she went on to become an associate at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom. “Practising at a large law firm has many values and provides a good solid grounding for any legal career,” she reflects. However, when faced with the choice of whether to go for partner, Busson made a personal decision that she was not willing to make the sacrifices required and instead moved in-house, taking on a role at Crédit Agricole, one of France’s largest banks. During her eight years at the bank she rose quickly to the position of associate general counsel. “It’s no secret that many women choose to work in-house to strike a better work/life balance, and while I have found this to be true, there are significant stresses involved in whatever venue of practice you choose.” Furthermore, the role of the in-house lawyer is not for everyone. “At a law firm you are conditioned to bill hours [and] to generate revenue, yet when you go in-house, you become a cost centre,” she says. “You need to be efficient, a problem-solver, [and] to know the law but to understand the practical realities of doing business.”

Last year, she made the decision to apply for a new role at Morgan Stanley. “I knew I had reached a stage in my career where if I didn’t move, I would stop learning. I needed a new platform; fresh challenges and opportunities.”

Seven months down the line and Busson is fully immersed in her new role and as busy as ever. She has found not only the fast-paced working environment she expected, but also a culture that is deeply committed to diversity and inclusion across. She has joined the LCD diversity and inclusion committee which has a best-in-class reputation on Wall Street for its leadership in driving change to diversify the profession and is an active member of its women’s subcommittee, which conducts thought-provoking programing internally and in partnership with other professional women’s groups. She is also one of the 2014 spring meeting co-chairs for the ABA’s Section of International Law to be held in a month’s time and has just returned from a trip to Asia as part of an ABA delegation where she met with various stakeholders, including government officials in Myanmar and Cambodia. How does she find the time? “I have a very supportive husband who helps out with his share of the work and childcare for our 20-month-old daughter. Technology has also made a huge difference – there is now a recognition that one can do good work from different locations. I have found Morgan Stanley’s approach to be very advanced in this regard.”

Despite her seeming to have a great handle on balancing the competing aspects of her life, Busson admits there are issues which affect her uniquely as a woman: “Decisions as to when and how many children to have are something I, and all women, have to think about. Let’s not pretend: having children is disruptive to a career path, and while men might help with childcare they will not be pregnant for nine months. It’s important this isn’t used against women.”

So what can law firms or businesses do for females in the profession? “Women’s networks, mentoring programmes – all of these are a good start and have had some success, but what we really need is more women decision-makers at the table.” She adds, “Women need to stand together. Too often they want to make it as difficult for others as it was for them and that is not productive at all.” It’s an interesting point: do female lawyers in positions of authority like being in the minority? Do they resent others for “getting an easier ride”? Some certainly might, but as Busson says, “If we share a common interest in enhancing the role of women in the profession, then we need to help one another. That doesn’t mean we need to be best friends, but saying something constructive about a colleague’s work or recognising their skills is a practice we should adopt where possible.” Leading by example, Busson plays an active role in sponsoring younger lawyers, both male and female, through the ABA, her law school and college, as well as individuals referred to her. She is committed to empowering them to recognise their own potential and to take charge of their careers.

As a client, Busson acknowledges she has a certain ability to influence law firms and their decisions. While many businesses and institutions have committed themselves to achieving greater diversity at the board level, law firms are only just beginning to make these pledges. Busson explains how, in her former role at Crédit Agricole, she would evaluate law firms and other external consultants. “I continued to be astonished by the lack of female representation in teams – it was something that I raised with the general counsel at the bank.” However, on the subject of quotas to increase the number of women at the top of the profession, Busson is not convinced of their effectiveness. “On balance I am not in favour; while I recognise certain benefits, I can foresee the backlash they could create. The statement, ‘You wouldn’t be here but for…' would be too easily used against women”.

Have things changed since she started out in her career? “Not enough. You need only look at the promotion lists for partner appointments to see that the situation is not much better, and that is only a title, achieving pay equity continues to be a challenge.” In fact, many of her female contemporaries have also left private practice opting for roles in-house or within government, or in some instances staying within private practice but changing law firms to access opportunities. It is evident that while some inroads have been made and discussions are taking place, there is a long way to go.

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