Aviva Will im Porträt (in Engl.)
„Women across law can help each other, e.g. by referring business.“
Aviva Will, Co-Chief Operating Officer at Burford Capital, talks about the close connection she has to her team, her hopes that the COVID-19 pandemic will create an equalizer for women in law, and the development of an initiative designed to help close the gender gap.
Dear Aviva, you are a lawyer with experience in managing large portfolios. At Burford Capital you are Co-Chief Operating Officer with overall responsibility for Burford’s global marketing, origination and underwriting activities. Could you please describe your ordinary course of the day?
Every day is a mixture of check-ins with the team on the business as well as more strategic work around the functioning and direction of the business. We have regular team calls where we catch up on our pipeline of matters we’re considering for funding as well as the progress of funded matters in our current portfolio. Our calls are always interactive: the collective team discusses and debates the merits of a litigation, how to assess the risks and appropriate pricing. I also spend time with the Marketing and Origination teams to ensure we're on message in the market and talking to the right potential clients.
Additionally, I have a daily check-in with David Perla, my Co-Chief Operating Officer. We are in constant communication to ensure that we keep each other informed of what is happening across the business and to be certain that we aren't duplicating our efforts.
What were your reasons for studying law?
I worked in a non-profit organization after college that was staffed predominantly by lawyers. I listened to what they talked about and how they talked, and I found law fascinating.
What do you like most about your job?
It’s been a real privilege to have the opportunity to build both a business in a new industry and a team to develop and do that business. And now I have the enviable role of working with a team of people that I really value and like. They are smart, curious, creative, collaborative and really a joy to be in the trenches with as we innovate and grow both our business and what is still a nascent industry. Working at a large company in my former job, change was always slow, but at Burford, we are always innovating, which keeps us learning and makes the job fun.
What changes have you noticed in your professional life since the COVID-19 pandemic?
Perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic is that it has humanized the business of law and probably other businesses as well. Working from home affords a peek into the private lives of our colleagues and clients each time we join a video with a child in the background or hear about someone with a relative suffering from Covid or a wedding postponed. There is a level of empathy that comes with those stories; we're a little more forgiving of a late comer to a call when that person had to help a child remote into school. The whole world is experiencing this together; we have the same fears and anxieties about what the future holds. People are letting that empathy for others come to the surface more.
What economic consequences do you think the pandemic will have?
The consequences will be far reaching and unknown. I'm an optimist, and I am hopeful that there will ultimately be positive economic changes. But it's hard to imagine what they will look like or how quickly they will come. I do hope that we'll be able to use the disruption to fix problems – for example to create momentum to increase equality and access to the profession among women and minorities.
In Germany, there is currently much debate that the pandemic is reinforcing traditional role models – the woman looks after the children and the man continues to work and pursue his career. Is it the same in New York?
My own experience is a little different than that. Though it's only anecdotal, I'm hearing from many of my male colleagues that they didn't recognize how much more work their wives did balancing the home, the family and a job. And now that they're both working from home, the men are seeing just how much women accomplish through the course of a day in their professional and family lives. I'm ever the optimist that this experience will change how men react to women working from home, juggling home and childcare responsibilities and still getting their work done even if they're not always as visible in the workplace.
How do you assess the impact of the pandemic on the equality of opportunity between men and women?
There remains a persistent and wide gap in access to opportunities for male and female lawyers in part due to the ability of men to do more business development outside of office hours, including travel, while women are more likely to have childcare responsibilities. The pandemic may be a great equalizer insofar as networking and business development opportunities are almost all virtual now.
There are not many women in your position. What do you think is the reason why there are so few women in leadership positions?
It's a systemic problem. The law remains a male dominated profession which lags behind so many other professions. While we are seeing more women coming up through the ranks, change is slow. Also, I was fortunate to be at the forefront of a nascent business for which there was no cultural template. That allowed me and my colleagues to build a culture that we wanted to be a part of, and that includes gender equity.
You developed and launched an initiative designed to help close the gender gap. Could you please explain the initiative and its importance?
The Equity Project was one of those "Aha" moments that came from analyzing the demographics of who was leading the cases that we were funding and who was bringing litigation opportunities to Burford in the first instance. It was mostly men! What resulted from some brilliant people putting their minds together was a ground-breaking initiative designed to help close the gender gap in law. By providing an economic incentive for change through a $50 million dollar pool of capital dedicated to financing commercial litigation and arbitration matters led by women, we're helping women generate their own business and starting conversations about rethinking the culture inside big law.
Is there something that women in your position can do to help promote each other?
Women across law can help each other by connecting colleagues and recommending and referring business. I encourage women at all stages of their careers to use initiatives like The Equity Project to help build out their networks, seek opportunities for mentoring and opportunities to lead. The Equity Project helps women generate their own business, which in turn generates revenue for the firm, which creates opportunities for leadership positions within their firms. When women lead, the culture within firms will become more hospitable to women.
You have two children. Was it always natural for you to pursue your career and have children?
Absolutely. To be honest, I can’t say I gave it much thought. I just did what felt right.
How do you organize everyday life with work and family?
Candidly, I'm not much of a planner but I do value a calm home. My husband and I are good partners in life; we tend to take the "divide and conquer" approach when it comes to sharing home and parenting responsibilities, and somehow it works.
In Germany, many highly qualified women lawyers become nowadays e.g. judges or work in a ministry given that the conditions for balancing work and family-life are much better than in other legal professions. Are there any comparable trends in New York?
Early on in my career, women lawyers tended to opt for areas of law like Trusts & Estates and Employment. That was largely because those areas of the law weren't as demanding from a timing perspective compared to transactional and litigation-focussed practices. Twenty-five years later, a lot has changed, and more women are staying In high-stakes practices like litigation, corporate, and M&A. That said, they are still a minority in those areas, and many women still leave big law for more family friendly opportunities.
How important are networks for you professionally and how did you build your network?
Early in my career, I had not developed a broad network. Instead, I maintained a few deep relationships with mentors and other colleagues who were influential to me. The world is now so much more linked up, such that having a network is critical. Deep relationships are critical as you follow your career path, but networks are more important than ever to create that path.
Did you have any female mentors in the course of your career?
I was fortunate to have several wonderful mentors throughout my early career, but none were women. When I worked in private practice and then in-house, there weren't a lot of senior women to look to as mentors. More recently, I've had the good fortune to work with a female executive mentor, and that has been a tremendous experience for which I'm truly grateful. That said, I believe it's more important to find smart and thoughtful mentors who can offer good guidance, whatever their gender or seniority.
Which women lawyer should be nominated as a role model for breaking.through? Why?
I'm delighted to nominate Nadine Herrmann, who is the Managing Partner of Quinn Emanuel's Hamburg office and Chair of the firm's EU and German Competition Law Practice. She is incredibly impressive in all respects and is leading the way for women in the law. She's also a wife and mother, and she makes it all look easy, which we women know it's not.
Thank you so much for this interview!
Munich, Germany / New York, USA 26 September 2020. Aviva Will has answered the interview questions in writing. The interview was conducted by Marina Arntzen, LL.M.
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