Stellar Women: Juggling Work and Home Life with Ellen Blanchard

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In this episode, Mary and I were joined by Ellen Blanchard, director of e-discovery and information governance at T-Mobile. Ellen took us through her journey from sports photography to a position on the board of Mother Attorney Mentoring Association.

Kenya Parrish-Dixon

Ellen Blanchard

Director of e-Discovery and Information Governance

T-Mobile

Transcript

Through the lens of her own experience, Ellen chats about reframing the typical “networking” outing, how she is handling being remote, and offers great advice to current attorneys and beyond who are working from home—and as invested in growing their careers as ever.

Mary Rechtoris: Hey Stellar Women fans. I'm your host, Mary Rechtoris.

Mila Taylor: And I'm your co-host Mila Taylor. Stellar Women shines a light on female leaders making their mark in tech.

MR: Before bringing in today’s guest, we want to give a shout out to Cobra Legal’s Candice Corby. Candice was recently appointed as a USA Senator to the World Business Angels Investment Forum. She will be representing the USA at the Global Assembly in Istanbul, Turkey in 2021. In her role, Candice will work with other global leaders to provide access to capital and funding to women and minority businesses around the world. Go Candice! If you haven’t had a chance to listen to Stellar Women’s episode with Candice, be sure to check it out. For today's episode, we are chatting with Ellen Blanchard, the director of e-discovery and information governance at T-Mobile.

MT: Hello, Ellen.

Ellen Blanchard: Hello. Thank you for having me today.

MR: Thanks for joining us. I'm really, really excited to chat with you.

MT: So, we have a bunch of exciting questions lined up. Before we get into your role and what you do work-wise, maybe we can start with getting to know you. What are some things that you like to do outside of work these days?

EB: It seems that it's kind of whatever the kids want to do. If left to my own planning, I love photography, particularly nature photography and going hiking. I also have press credentials to cover sports in D.C. So, I miss that. I try to do as much photography as I can in my spare time.

MR: That's really cool. So, the press … you're a reporter. What were you taking photos for?

EB: So, I actually had a friend who had a sports blog and he put together the credential requirements for sports bloggers to have access to the press rooms for the NHL. He needed a photographer. He and I saw each other at a friend's house around the same time. And he's like, “Wait, you're a photographer. Do you want to try this?” And I was like, “Sure, of course, I love hockey.” And so, I spent the rest of that season taking pictures of hockey. And then I got MLS credentials, and did a couple of fun one-offs like the Dew Tour and professional bull riding. I did that until I moved from D.C. to Seattle. I did that for a couple of years.

MR: Did you ever meet Alexander Ovechkin?

EB: I never got to meet him, but I got to see him a lot. If you have credentials, you can shoot right on the ice. The glass actually has a couple of spots where they've cut circles into it so you can shoot through that so that the pictures themselves don’t get ice chips on them glass or spots on the glass and things like that. So, I used to sit right by the goalies and got to see a lot of them, but all from a distance.

MR: I'm sure you saw a lot of broken teeth and all that fun stuff that comes with hockey.

EB: Yes, exactly. A few fights.

MR: Shifting gears slightly, you are on the board of the Mother Attorney Mentoring Association. For our listeners, that provides mentoring opportunities for mother attorneys to network, which we thought was really cool. Why did you get involved in this effort and what are you doing now with the association as working mothers are constantly trying to juggle work and home?

EB: When I started with my firm many, many, many years ago, it seemed like very few equity partners were mothers. Many women attorneys left the profession when they had children or came back on a different career path than the traditional law firm career path. It just didn't seem like there were a lot of resources or support from other attorneys. The association started before I moved to Seattle. It is really designed to support the mothers here because one of the challenges that we saw in particular was related to networking. These are a critical tool for business development, building business, and climbing the ladder at traditional firms. But many of the events for that are in the evenings or on the weekends. If you're a mom, you're kind of left with this choice of, do you attend the events or do you spend time with your family? It gets a little easier as the kids get older. But, for so many women, you’re having kids about the same time that you're up for partnership. So, we have created these networking opportunities that are really family focused and family centric. There's monthly lunches and silly events that happen during the workday or over the lunch hour. Then, there's weekend events, but they're child focused. There are things like going to children's museums, nights at the local baseball park, corn mazes, and s'mores at Halloween. They’re really designed to get the families together. My kids still talk about getting to hold bunnies at one of the spring events and things like that. And then you get a chance to talk to other mother attorneys or fathers who are attorneys about business and things like that. It's a great opportunity.

MR: It's really, really cool, especially given how, right now, we're in interesting times with the pandemic and remote work. Whether it's people in the association, yourself, or people you work with, how are people faring in this work-from-home environment, especially with a lot of schools having virtual learning? How do you kind of navigate it all?

EB: I think that's a great question. I think [there are] definitely challenges that we're seeing. With what we're dealing with, it is being flexible. Every day is different, like the kids have their own meetings and my husband has his meetings. And so, it's trying to navigate who's doing what and when and making sure that you're communicating. One of the things I realized just this week is that I set up my one-on-ones with my team members on Wednesday afternoon. I just like to stack them, prepare, and sometimes I needed to get updates from one person pass to another. So, I had stacked them that way. But my son pretty much doesn't have class on Wednesdays, so he's got a couple of things in the morning and then he's got worksheets and activities and things on Wednesdays, but no actual time with his teachers after 9:30. And yesterday I realized that that is not going to work for me to do the one-on-ones Wednesday afternoon. So, I let everybody know that I was going to shift that around. It's not like it was before. How do we figure out how to make that better now?

MT: I agree, and I think something that my team specifically has been doing and we’ve been doing a pretty good job. We are a smaller team of three and we're all at different stages. Kids, not kids, pets, not pets. And we've had to be really transparent with each other and say, “These hours now, given what's going on, don't work for me. So, if it's okay with you, I'm going to log on or sign off sooner.” It’s been this really open, transparent conversation about, okay, given what's going on, this is when I can be fully attentive, and this is when I can't. And I think that's made us a really productive team.

EB: Yeah, no, I think that's a great point because we're all dealing with these things and people will get their work done. We have to trust them. If you've hired them and you've kept them on your team, then you must trust them. And so, they will get the work done. But it may not look like the nine-to-five job. I remember very early in this, like in March and April, when the kids would come in, I'd be shushing them and sending them out of the room. But the reality is, I realized that the folks on my team and the larger litigation team have their own challenges with kids. They need to know that it's okay for the kids to come in and the kids to interact and things like that because that's just the reality that we're in.

MR: There was a newscaster, and I think that he was live. So, it was a little different [in that it was before quarantine], but he was giving a presentation on the weather or something and his son came barging in. He could barely walk and was knocking stuff over. And it was kind of funny, but I think it was like … we have to be just honest about the world we're in, not be embarrassed if there's a disruption, and normalize these things, because we're all living with certain new challenges that weren't present when we were in the office every day.

EB: At one point, I was on a litigation team call. It was one of the first where we had some additional folks from Sprint on as part of the merger. My daughter's school did a really great job with keeping up with all the work that they were doing and even doing art and music projects and things like that. But one of them was to make a papier mâché mask. And I actually hate papier mâché just in general. And we had delayed doing this. Finally, it was like, you have to do this or it's not going to be done in time for you to do the other things you need to do. We both had this 45-minute window between calls one morning. So, we get all this stuff out, we start doing it, and we're almost done. But she's got a call and I've got a call. But I didn't think I was going to have to be on video; I was like, “Oh, I can just dial in and it'll be fine.” She went off to her call. I was finishing a couple of pieces. My hands are covered in papier mâché and I get a question that I have to answer and it's more involved than I really felt comfortable doing just on the phone. And so, I was like, “Okay, I'm turning my camera on—and before you ask, my hands are covered in papier mâché.” And then it was fine. You know, everybody kind of laughed and it was fine. But I think you just have to do that because this is the reality that we're in.

MT: I saw this one quote that you kind of touched on earlier. It said: You used to be able to measure how hard your team was working by how early they're coming or staying late. Now, it's: Is the work getting done? That’s the new measurement of success. Are the projects getting done, on time, to the caliber and standard that is expected? And I think that’s a cool shift in the corporate world. I never would have thought it would happen that way. I think that it took a pandemic for people to realize this. If you have to take two hours in the middle of the day to papier mâché or take a dog to the vet, as long as the end result is the same, that’s what's important. And I think this whole thing has kind of catapulted corporate world into having that open frame of mind. And I don't know how it would have got there on its own.

EB: And sometimes it's good to get those things done, right? To say, “Okay, I'm going to take my dog to the vet or I'm going to help my kid with this project.” Maybe it's even the dishes, right? It's those things that are in the back of your head that are stopping you from doing that work really well and efficiently. You can just knock them out and then you've got that clean slate to really get great work done.

MT: Exactly. You touched on how you found working from home—and maybe this hasn't changed at all—but have you found that you've had to pivot your working style at all, like how you go about working with your teammates? And what advice do you maybe have for other attorneys who are just juggling work and home in the current climate?

EB: What we have to do is be more deliberate about the contact with folks. You're not running into people in the hallways to ask them questions. We have kind of an open office plan. And so sometimes for my team, I would hear about a new case that had come in because a couple of the attorneys were talking about it near my office. And I could be like, “Oh, wait, we need a litigation hold. What about discovery? What about these things?” and stuff like that. We just need to be more deliberate about those conversations. And the reality that there’s certainly Zoom fatigue. That is happening, and I also think that there's a desire to have real conversations with people, even if that's the virtual coffee. So, I think it's just being deliberate and making sure you're reaching out, whether that's reaching out to your manager to make sure that you're touching base about work that needs to happen, or as the manager, reaching out to your team members and making sure they're doing okay and that they've got what they need and things. One of the challenges that I’ve found—and I don't have a good solution for this, I think it's a constant work in progress—is figuring out how to set up boundaries. Before they were a little bit easier, right? Yeah. You know, in the mornings, you're getting kids ready. You're getting yourself ready. Maybe you're doing a few emails or calls, but nobody really expected you to be fully working until you actually said your day started and then you would go to work. And I'd be the attorney and I'd be working for the day and get to do certain things every so often, maybe something I'd do for the kids or set up for home or the dog or whatever. But I was mostly an attorney. And then I'd go home, and I would be back to mostly Mom, mostly kind of house manager, whatever it is. I mean, at the end of the day, I'm a litigator. So, there was not as clean of boundaries around that because work is a little bit always crazy in litigation. But there were physical boundaries: I'm at work or I'm now at my house or I'm at the kids’ school. That doesn't exist now. You’re constantly playing all of the roles at the same time. I might be in a conference call, but that's when my daughter comes in because she's not able to get on to Teams. Or that's when my son comes and he's like, “I'm supposed to have this worksheet, but I don't know where it is.” I'm having to print that off or the dog needs to go out or something. You're constantly trying to play those. That is one of the things to figure out as much as you can while trying to be flexible and being able to take those couple of hours in the middle of the day. How do you mentally create these boundaries? It’s tiring to be everything all day long.

MR: Ultimately, I think that's really, really great advice, in terms of merging some of those identities versus like now saying “I'm this, now I'm this.” It's not as compartmentalized.

MR: Rounding us off here with something we've been talking about with others: During this time, how do you grow professionally? I think a lot of us feel like our careers might not be growing at the acceleration that they were before, or are a little bit stagnant. What do you think the industry can do—or companies, or managers—to make sure that we're building up emerging talent and making sure that their careers are progressing during these times?

EB: Yeah, I think a lot of this has to do with listening to what it is they need and finding the resources to make their jobs either easier, including what we were talking about before with being flexible about what their hours look like so they can manage all of these things. The days of working nine to five and going into the office and that's your job and then you go home—I don't think we're going to go back to that on any large scale. We have to figure out how to give them the resources they need. And part of that is making sure they have the contact with the people that they need to have contact with. And again, being deliberate about making sure those contacts happen, especially in a corporation. The ability to advance often relies on your visibility outside of the department that you're in and getting support from others in the organization that you might not talk to on a regular basis as part of your job. Make sure that you bring them to meetings. Even though you're not in the same space, it's sometimes easier to actually invite them to a Zoom call than it might have been to bring them to somebody else's office because there’s only two or three seats in the office. It’s just about being really deliberate and thinking about how to make sure that they get those opportunities.

MR: That's a really cool, interesting point, but it really is visibility outside of your manager’s or your team’s viewing. It's really those decision makers out there. Maybe it is as simple as bringing your mentee or whatever to a meeting or copying them in an email and saying, actually, “This was actually Mila’s work. Kudos to her.” I think that's something that really goes a long way for people when they're trying to build their careers. That's awesome advice.

MT: I agree. As I mentioned, we're not in person, so you're especially missing out on that actual face time on top of everything. Trying to make yourself as visible as you can is sometimes hard. Yeah. As Mary said, it's so helpful when, if I worked on a project and it's being passed up and up and up, someone copies me on it. That way, I'm still in the loop and I still know what's going on. I think that's great advice. Well, thank you so much. That was great. Well, thank you for joining us.

EB: Of course. This is fun.

MR: For Stellar Women, I'm Mary Rechtoris.

MT: And I’m Mila Taylor.

Both: Signing off.