Stellar Women co-host Mila and I had the opportunity to interview Kelly Friedman, our first-ever guest from Canada, for the podcast this month. As the national counsel of discovery services at BLG, Kelly has learned a tremendous amount about being an effective manager, taking one day at a time, and successfully juggling the balancing act of wearing many hats.
So, with her expert input, our latest Stellar Women episode dives into the intricacies of what it takes to be a successful manager—and includes some tips for first-time Toronto travelers.
National Counsel of Discovery Services
Mary Rechtoris: Hey Stellar Women in e-Discovery fans. I'm your host, Mary Rechtoris.
Mila Taylor: And I'm your cohost, Mila Taylor. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech.
MR: I want to provide an update for listeners. I think a couple episodes ago, Mila talked about our stellar colleague Liz, who was running an Iron Man. Mila said that she was working toward getting herself a certificate in personal training. And she was going to write me a robust plan so that I can be fit for the summer. I wanted to get a status update on that.
MT: Yeah, I actually I haven't passed my exam yet. Well, I haven't taken the exam. So I don't feel comfortable providing you with anything. I don’t want to lead you astray, you know?
MR: Well, I guess that's kind of hard because it's the end of summer. Now I can't really start until 2020. Right?
MT: Yeah. You have to wait till 2020. We're excited to have our guest all the way from Canada. Today we have Kelly Friedman.
MR: Hey, Kelly, thanks for joining us.
Kelly Friedman: Hey, guys. Thanks for having me.
MR: We're excited to have you here. Your nomination had a wealth of information about what you do at your firm and outside your firm. How would you summarize what you do?
KF: At my firm, I really have a role with two overriding aspects. The first one is I run the discovery services team, which is really an internal e-discovery business, inside Borden Ladner Gervais (BLG). I have 17 people—mostly technical people, most of whom are RCAs working in my group. I run that business from a profitability perspective, hiring and firing, and managing that team. The other aspect is giving legal and strategic advice on the e-discovery projects with respect to all aspects. I dive right in. I'll be in databases and be culling, giving advice on strategic searching and the use of analytics, and more broadly, with respect to discovery motions, [I give input on] discovery strategy more generally when litigation is starting or throughout [the matter].
MT: You’ve got a lot on your plate over there.
KF: It's really fantastic! When I started a year and a half ago at Borden Ladner Gervais, I'd never been on the business side. I was a litigation partner at a law firm. So, having this business aspect of working in operations has been fantastic and I've learned so much. It's been very interesting.
MT: That's great. You do have so much on your plate. How have you learned to prioritize? What is kind of the method you go through?
KF: The method? No method to the madness really. My philosophy is “one thing at a time”—really focus on getting one thing at a time right. I don't mean one thing a day, because that would be insane. Probably I do 100 things a day. But I really aim to not let myself get overwhelmed. There is, I have to say, a lot going on. I've been practicing for over 20 years as a litigator, and your focus in that role is based on billable work. In this role, I've got billable work, but I also have extremely important non-billable work. I can't do what I used to do, which is say, “Well, the client comes first.” Now, the client is also all the lawyers in the firm. I have to manage the team properly so that they can be served. It’s really a focus of one thing at a time and taking one day at a time and taking moments every week or so to really reflect on what's been accomplished and what I need to accomplish going forward. I really do take those check-in breaks with myself and spend time just thinking about the priorities for the next week or two.
MT: Yeah, I think that's really good advice.
MR: You were a litigator before your current role?
MR: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
KF: I did not. In fact, when I was a young child who was very argumentative, I had the adults always say, “Oh, you're going to be a lawyer.” I was adamant that I was not going to be a lawyer. And sure enough, I became one. What happened was, I was doing my undergraduate degree in business at McGill and was looking where to go next. I wanted to have a route out of Quebec. I wanted to move to Ontario. So, I used law school as that route to do it. I got student loans and moved to Toronto and went to law school. And, thank God I did. I almost quit law school a few times—money was really, really tight. I’m so happy I went through with it, because it's been a wonderful, exciting career and the evolution that I've had in the past couple of years has been really remarkable and keeping me really energized.
MT: Speaking of that evolution, we notice that you were nominated for “Canada’s 25 most Influential Lawyers” by Canadian Lawyer Magazine. I want to dig into that a bit. What does influential mean to you?
KF: It really gets at the ability to affect positive change. Certainly, you can influence negative change but when I think of someone who's influential, I think someone who could affect positive change and do so in a manner that doesn't overwhelm or cause stress around them. Rather, incremental change that people are comfortable with. I think that that's pretty fair of what I think influential means.
MT: That's a great, digestible response to that. I think sometimes it's just a buzzword that X person is influential, but what does that actually mean? Speaking of those digestible changes that can help you through your life, who are the most influential people in your life?
KF: I’ll talk just from the career perspective. When I was in law school, I had a friend who was a bit older and who was in the working world already. She once told me a piece of advice that I think I repeat in my head and repeat to mentees and people that work with me really often, probably at least once a month, and that's: “Under-promise and over-deliver.” I really do that. If I know I can get something for Thursday, I tell them, you can have it for Friday, and I get it for them for Thursday. It's something as simple as that. I think if you under-promise and over-deliver, you really get people's trust. Occasionally you'll have a situation where you have to go back to people and say your timing is problematic. Of course, there's situations where you need extensions on work. But, to the best of my ability, I don't tell them when I expect to be finished, but rather give myself a little leeway, and try to outperform that goal.
MR: And it's alleviating stress on yourself.
KF: It’s knowing that you've got a little more time to do something. The feeling that I'm going to get this to them and they're going to be relieved that they didn't have to wait to the last minute. Again, lawyers are very impatient. They're under a lot of stress. They've got a lot on their plate, and their schedules are really tight. When I had junior lawyers working for me and I was waiting for something, let’s say they said they'd get it to me Wednesday by end of business. If I knew that I really needed that work product, I'd already start getting antsy at four o'clock in the afternoon on Wednesday. I would be thinking “Where is it, because I absolutely need to work on it tonight?” So now, I appreciate so much when people do that for me, which is probably one of the reasons I try to do that for other people.
MR: I think it's overcommunicating. People will say “end of day,” but what is the end of day to you? Is that a 5:00 p.m. deadline or something else? You don't want to be that person that's emailing them at 5:01 saying, “Where is it?”
KF: End of day pacific time?
MT: It’s tricky!
KF: One of the key things—communication is extremely important. Everybody's got their weaknesses. What I've struggled with my whole career is emotionality. What I try to do is not to get too emotional, and let things roll off your back. If someone mistreats you, it’s probably because something is going on in their life. Always take a step back and try to take emotion out of your business decisions. It's one of those things I'll struggle with my entire life because I'm a very emotional person—very empathetic. However, it's so important in the business world to think clearly and strategically and not let emotions cloud your judgment. This means taking the time. If something happens, you have some time to react. If you get an email and you don't like the tone. Don't respond to it right away. Take some time, calm down. Think it through. When I was younger, like most young people, I was impetuous, right? I knew what I wanted to say and I'm going to say it right away because I assumed that nothing's going to change overnight. I have learned that is not the case. I handle things a lot better if there's an emotional component, if I take a step back and just take a timeout from it. So, if you can do that, it’s very important to do that, and I continue to do that to this day.
MT: Me too. I am a big believer in sleeping on it. There'll often be times where I am very passionate about something and I'll be heated in the moment and I say to myself, “Am I going to wake up tomorrow morning and feel the same way?” Often, I don't. I’ve cooled down and I maybe have the same core opinion, but my approach is completely different.
KF: Your analysis is probably going to be the same, but your approach will be different. If you're speaking to someone or writing your tone will be different. And plain and simple, you'll be more professional. This is just part of growing in a career—it’s learning how to spot your weaknesses and how to cope with them and manage them. I mean, you’re never going to get rid of that weakness, [but you can] just manage it better over time. You can also do the simpler approach of counting backwards from 10. Remind yourself as soon as you feel you're fired up or your face is getting red, count backwards from 10. You might find yourself, from just that, thinking, “Alright why was I so heated?” You’ll able to just speak more clearly.
MT: When I was little, I used to play basketball, and I loved it. I would get infuriated when people on my team wouldn't take it as seriously as me and I was crazy.
KF: I hated people like you.
MR: Yeah, me too. I liked to like mess around with my friends.
MT: I couldn't understand why people would come to the game and not be so serious about the game. It was just unfathomable to me. My mom would always tell me to tap each finger.
KF: That's another one—tap each finger. Just something that takes a little bit of time and a little bit of concentration. Not too much.
MT: I would have to stand on the court and go through with my thumb and tap every single finger. So, I would be standing there tapping, looking at my Mom, saying “It's not working!”
MR: “Mom, you're making me mad. This is a dumb exercise.” So, Kelly, you have a team of 17?
KF: I have really good people working under me and, in particular, an absolutely fabulous director. I've got a couple of directors in different capacities—one that manages operations and one that does education and development. Without my director of operations, I could not function. She's got a lot of experience. She's been at the firm much longer than I have. She knows the game and she's a real team player. I think that makes a big impact. I had never managed anyone before I started at BLG other than as a senior lawyer. I had junior lawyers, students, or assistants. But, I had never managed a team. I would walk in and expect everybody just to treat me like Kelly, and say “Hey, what's going on?” I’m going to tell you just an interesting story that made me appreciate hierarchy a little bit more and showed me that I have to be more respectful of it. When I first started and I was meeting people for the first time, I wanted to take each person out for lunch, just me and them, to get to know them. [I wanted to] ask things like “Do you have a dog?” [I wanted to]—just chat. Not have a second interview. I was told at one point by one of the managers that one of the women was petrified to have the lunch with me and didn't want to go. I was just dumbfounded. I'm thinking, “I just want to say hi.” When I chatted with someone at my office about it, who's been in the business world for a long time, she said this to me: “You’re the boss's boss's boss. You have to expect that people are going to be intimidated by that kind of hierarchy.” It really resonated with me. I hadn't thought about that at all. I just thought I was someone who works on the team and we're going to go for lunch, like pals. I knew that in my role technically I was a boss, but I really hadn't thought about that. She had a manager over her and then a director over them and then me in terms of a hierarchy. I feel like I still have a lot to learn. I've learned a ton in a year and a half, and there's been a steep learning curve in terms of how to manage people. I think that really helped focus me a bit more on remembering that there is a hierarchy. Let the people that are under you do their job and don't try to manage everybody on the team. Manage the people that are directly under me and let them manage their teams and be available as needed.
MR: What do you look for in a manager? If you want to hire a manager for a certain segment of your team, what are some core qualities that you think make for a successful manager?
KF: Subject matter expertise is important because it's really hard to get people's confidence and respect if you don't have the subject matter expertise. So subject matter expertise is up there. Probably just as important is the people skills—the ability to give (and again, this is very difficult to do) direct feedback and to be able to give criticism in a direct, professional way that will affect positive change and not be seen as just criticism for criticism’s sake. That kind of attitude toward your peers is really important. The third thing would be being really a team player—people who really feel that they're part of a team and who want the best for the team and want to improve the team. There are people who are great workers and fantastic, but they're much more individualistic. They focus on their own career growth, and there's nothing wrong with that. But in terms of a manager, I think it's really important to have someone who really thinks beyond their own career growth and really thinks of the team's growth as a whole. I think that makes them really useful as a manager, as a mentor, and to help people along. That combined with the other skills of being able to give constructive criticism and subject matter expertise.
MT: You kind of touched on it earlier. For a more junior employee maybe looking to switch roles or switch teams, what advice would you give them in terms of what is a red flag in a manager? What should they maybe scout out beforehand and say, “Hang on, maybe this isn't the right manager for me”?
KF: Well, I think micromanaging is probably a big one for me. I would think, if the manager is a micromanager and you're someone who really wants to grow in your career, it’s very hard to grow in your career with a micromanager. They simply don't let you do enough on your own and be creative enough to get the experience that you need to have. The other thing is temperament. We're talking about how they deal with people, but temperament is so important. Again, working in law firms, my whole career, litigators especially can fly off the handle really easily. When I was young, my office was beside a senior partner. Probably once every couple of weeks, a box would fly against the wall. I'd hear a big bang and it would be that he would be so pissed at something that he would kick a box in his office and it would go flying against the wall to my office. He's one of the absolute best litigators I know, and he's now a judge of the Court of Appeal. But I wouldn't really want someone with that kind of temperament to be my manager. At the same time, given especially how I was when I was younger, I wouldn't want someone who was too emotional to be my manager. So that constantly reminds me that I have to try not to be that way because I wouldn't want my manager taking things personally, getting too angry or too upset about mistakes. I would want someone more even-keeled.
MT: That's great advice—for both a manager and as a direct report—to be a bit more introspective. I think a key takeaway that I can take away from this is to take a step back and just assess the situation.
KF: Slow down! Even if your work day is going a mile a minute, it's amazing what 10 or 20 seconds of that introspection can do.
MR: My Apple Watch tells me to breathe.
KF: I was at a mindfulness session recently. I haven't looked at it in a while, but I put a list up on my bulletin board. There was something like 10 tips and one of them involved breathing: a three-minute breathing session. If you're working and having a busy day, you feel like you don't even have time to go to the bathroom. It’s one of those days. But you can take three minutes to breathe. Even on a day like that, three minutes are not going to affect your day so much, but moments like that are so important.
MR: I think people roll their eyes when they hear about yoga and mindfulness. I was one of those people for years. I started yoga a year ago and I love it. I'm on board. I've calmed down … Still working on it. Still not doing crow pose yet. But, small steps.
MT: Okay, so I'm going to ask you one final question, which is not anything related to what we've been talking about. We are going to take advantage of the fact that we have a guest from Toronto.
MT: What is something that most people don't know about Toronto?
KF: I'm originally from Montreal and I moved to Toronto. Oh, God, I can't believe how long ago it is now. 1991—a long time ago. One of the things that struck me about Toronto that I don't think people from outside Toronto know is that it's a city of villages. It's a big city, but it has a really strong Portuguese area, a really strong Greek area, and a really strong Italian neighborhood. It's really a city of neighborhoods. Even though it's a big city, you can have that kind of neighborhood vibe. For visitors, I would really recommend exploring the different neighborhoods—not the downtown core or the main tourist attractions. Go to the various neighborhoods that feel like they have different vibes because they are really multicultural. There are a lot of these different kinds of pockets of interesting neighborhoods with different foods.
MT: I'm dying to go to Canada! Well, thank you so much, Kelly for swinging by.
KF: You're so welcome. My pleasure.
MR: And for Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris.
MT: And I'm Mila Taylor.
MR & MT: Signing off.
Mary Rechtoris is a senior producer on the Brand team, Relativity’s in-house creative team, where she works closely with the multimedia team and the larger marketing department to develop and socialize new ways to tell stories.