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Dana MacGrath

Dana MacGrath im Porträt

„There are too many women with outstanding expertise but little recognition.“

Dana MacGrath, Independent Arbitrator and President of Arbitral Women, discusses the challenges of developing a career in international arbitration, the various paths to partnership in a law firm, serving as a Board member and ultimately President of ArbitralWomen, and balancing the demands of multiple extracurricular activities.

Dana, after studying at New York University School of Law you started your career as a lawyer in a large law firm. Throughout your career, you have worked in four different large law firms. What are the necessary skills for working in a large law firm?

From my perspective, one of the crucial skills for working, and succeeding, in a large law firm is teamwork. It is essential to develop the ability to work collaboratively with colleagues at all levels. Junior lawyers who work collaboratively with the team, devote sharp attention to detail and present a positive can-do attitude can thrive. Often, it is these associates who senior lawyers invite to take on additional projects – arguably the more interesting projects. And ultimately, these associates are mentored and given the opportunity to flourish.

The law school classroom setting is not necessarily the ideal environment to learn teamwork. Rather, clinic courses and moot court competitions provide ripe opportunities outside a classroom seminar to develop experiential teamwork. It is beneficial to take up such opportunities prior to pivoting to the professional setting, because being collaborative is arguably as important as being smart and talented.

What kind of teamwork dynamics did you experience in your professional context?

In general, the team dynamic is very much defined by the team players and leader. If the team has an expectation of a hierarchal structure, largely framed by the team leader, the team leader will assign roles and run the case in a way reflective of the respective seniority of the team members. Some teams are run more egalitarian. While there is a team leader, those under the team leader may confer and distribute the various tasks within the team in a way that is equitable in terms of time demands but allows more flexibility in the roles of each lawyer. At times, a more senior associate and junior associate team up to work with the fact witnesses, another pair team up to work with the experts, and the drafting of the various parts of the submission are distributed. In the end, everyone gets relevant learning experience both by doing and observing how senior members do it.

I encourage all junior lawyers to develop the basic skillset required to be a lawyer in their respective jurisdiction, even if they plan to specialize in an area where some of those skills will not be terribly relevant. For example, for an American litigator or arbitration lawyer, learning how to take and defend depositions is a useful and relevant skillset even if you may not have depositions in a future career specializing in international arbitration. You learn important aspects of advocacy from some milestones like deposition experience and apply them, albeit differently, in your future practice. Additionally, as a junior lawyer, be open to what may seem like mundane entry-level or even clerical work, like cite-checking the submissions and preparing the tables. To ultimately be able to lead and supervise a team of lawyers, one needs to understand all the different roles a lawyer may play on a case – just as it is in any job. Moreover, it is the only way to later be able to teach the next generation how to do it. You do not want to have to learn those tasks five or more years into your career or be unfamiliar with them, so unable to supervise the work of the team working under you.

Also, I generally advise junior lawyers to accept every opportunity that you are offered – to the extent your workload allows. Every project is an opportunity to show your excellence and your commitment to the team and the firm. Management and senior associates value such energy and commitment.

You made partner at Sidley Austin LLP. What are the challenges that come with a partnership?

Fortunately, I was introduced to some of the challenges and responsibilities of being a law firm partner before I became partner. However, a lot of the challenges were new.

Being a litigation or arbitration partner in a global law firm taps similar advocacy skills and “soft people skills” that I mentioned before. It is more important than ever to work collaboratively with other partners. You will be working together with people you did not have an opportunity to get to know before. You are in the role of cross-pollinating people and other departments at the partner stage. You are networking internally at the firm with partners in the transactional group if you are a litigator and working together across practices and global offices to build client relations. Also, as partner in charge of a matter, it is of paramount importance to develop your relationship with the client. However, building a collaborative relationship of trust with the client is something you can develop as a senior associate before becoming partner. Your relationship with your clients ideally should not be limited to a single case and instead lead to future cases because the client views you as a trusted advisor to whom to go for strategic thinking and excellent advocacy in all cases.

Additionally, it is essential to continue developing your external profile, which one probably starts doing as a mid-level and senior associate. The outside world, i.e., outside the law firm and your clients, should also know your skillset, intellect, and ability to lead. You can do this by publishing articles, attending conferences, speaking at conferences, and participating in or chairing committees. If you attend a committee meeting or conference, make an effort to ask an interesting question relevant to the discussion or make a comment that contributes. That allows people to know and recognize you. If you go to a conference and say nothing and do not talk to anyone, you may learn something at that conference, but no one will learn anything about you. To promote yourself, you need people to know who you are. Your friends and peers within and external to the firm are as important to your professional profile as your partners.

Is it a prerequisite to have a network outside the law firm for becoming a partner?

This calls for a quintessential lawyerly response: it depends. Some people have strong relationships with clients and have worked mostly within the firm and with its clients and progress professionally with minimal external involvement. These people have been recognized internally at the firm for their excellence and what they have done. This path involves devoting an incredible amount of time and energy internally within the firm – mentoring, internal firm committee work, and other various roles the firm needs. Other people take a different approach that suits their personality. They may have a different kind of skillset. They are excellent substantively at what they do, but they are more externally focused. External recognition is often helpful when the firm is not focused on you individually and your career progression within the firm. It can help you progress at your current firm or create options to move to another firm or opportunity. In sum, people become partner in different ways!

In 2019, you started a new chapter of your legal career by joining Omni Bridgeway, one of the leading global litigation and arbitration finance companies.  Why did you choose to join a leading third-party funder?


I had been in private practice for about 20 years, doing arbitration counsel work and arbitrating, when I was approached with the opportunity to join Bentham IMF, now Omni Bridgeway, to expand their arbitration funding work. It sounded like an inspiring opportunity, and it came at a time when I was ready to try something new. I was excited to learn a different side of the business of law. I was intrigued by the opportunity to help make access to justice attainable for arbitration clients who otherwise could not afford arbitration. Therefore, I took the leap and left "Big Law" to enter the arbitration funding business.

Based on your experience in international arbitration and commercial litigation, would you say there are challenges for women in your profession?

I think women still face generally significant challenges in the legal field. Although progress has been made in recent years, which I celebrate, I do not wish to downplay the challenges that women still face. I applaud firms that are trying to develop programs specifically designed to support women's professional development to increase women's representation at the partnership level. However, there is still a lot of progress needed. By far, men still are the majority of partners at large law firms.

Women face multifaceted challenges due to the diverse competing demands on their time. It takes support from all different actors in the legal profession to overcome the challenges: both law firms supporting the professional development of women within the firm and external organizations promoting recognition of women. Organizations like ArbitralWomen make clients and law firms aware of the female leaders and future leaders within the field. It is crucial to support the visibility of these women and demonstrate that men do not dominate the respective field. There are too many women with outstanding expertise but little recognition.

How do you explain the female pipeline leak at law firms?

The pipeline leak in the law firm setting is due to several reasons, including individual and personal choices. Some of it has to do with the reality of trying to balance work and life or family obligations and finding that one cannot do it at all -- or feeling that they cannot do it all as well as they expect and demand of themselves. Firms should be responsive to women and help them to overcome challenges. It may be a different schedule, a different kind of staffing arrangement, or something else entirely – law firms need to make an affirmative effort to be creative if they hope to retain top female talent.

It is disappointing to see the pipeline leak: women who decide that they need to leave the legal profession or law firm setting to make their life work. Our collective effort is the only way forward to try to change that!

That being said, I also think that the legal profession is to be commended for starting to more openly recognize men as parents too! Men are increasingly respected for taking on parenting roles and saying so to their colleagues. In turn, firms increasingly offer parental or paternity leave for fathers to share in the challenging role of being parents. That is not something that I saw much when I was a junior associate, although I remember some positive incidents.

When I was a second year, I was in the office on a Sunday, meeting with the team. We had an important filing coming up. The male partner who was running the case emphasized the importance of sorting out the business at hand because (I am paraphrasing here): “I have to leave the office soon because I coach my daughter’s little league team on Sundays and that is an important commitment to me. I know we can get done what we need to get done in the time before I leave. I coach my daughter’s team every Sunday – that is part of my schedule.” I had never heard a male partner ask the team work to accommodate his commitment to his children and family life. That inspired me (and I think the entire team) to work even more collaboratively and efficiently. Men rarely share the details of their family commitments, in particular their parenting commitments. If we all knew what men were doing for their families, as well as what women were doing, it might be easier to make the transition to 50-50 gender parity at the partnership level.

ArbitralWomen, the leading non-profit organization that promotes women and diversity in dispute resolution, addresses the challenges women face in international arbitration.  How did you become involved in ArbitralWomen and ultimately be elected as its President?

I was a member of ArbitralWomen since the very early days – back in the 1990s when it was more of an informal group. As it developed, I attended ArbitralWomen events, and I became acquainted with more the ArbitralWomen members and some of the Board members.

In 2016, someone suggested that I run for the Board of ArbitralWomen. It honestly had not occurred to me to run for a Board seat. In retrospect, that was my mistake – to believe I was too junior to make a difference. Those who have the desire to commit a significant amount of their personal time after work to progress social change should not be discouraged to apply themselves to their passions, regardless of their level. In retrospect, I serve as a prime example. It is important to develop the confidence to pursue opportunities as early as possible, knowing that not every effort will succeed.

Once I was on the ArbitralWomen Board, it was an eye-opening experience. I loved being part of the leadership and governance of ArbitralWomen and brainstorming with other Board members about what ArbitralWomen can do for women, how to improve access to other parts of the world, and how to run the organization better. I invested my heart and soul much more than I ever had anticipated. By diving into it with passion and dedication, I paved the route to ultimately become President of ArbitralWomen in my second term on the Board.

What does your position as President of ArbitralWomen mean to you?

My involvement in ArbitralWomen has been incredibly rewarding. There are things you can do for women through ArbitralWomen that cannot be done, to the same extent, in law firms and other organizations, i.e., giving back to women, mentoring women, and promoting the visibility of women. I get the most joy from being able to help others.

I feel the same about my law school teaching. I am an Adjunct Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School, teaching a seminar and coaching a Vis Moot Team. Preparing our Vis teams for their oral arguments through our practices and the pre-moots is extremely rewarding. I know each Vis Moot participant comes away with a life-changing experience and so many important fundamental skills that are critical for professional success in any aspect of law or business.

The Vis Moot and ArbitralWomen offer similar, life-changing experiences: opening doors to new professional opportunities for yourself and, importantly, for others. You cannot easily open doors for others from the desk in your office, but you can through organisations like ArbitralWomen and through teaching, mentoring, and being accessible to those who seek guidance.

Dana, prior to becoming President of ArbitralWomen, you held a significant number of leadership positions at different organizations. How did you manage to balance these commitments, your professional and personal life?

I always have taken each day by day. Even when I was Chair of Y-ADR (the young group of the CPR Institute) and the New York City Bar Arbitration Committee, I was not someone who makes lists every morning of all the things that need to be done and script out my day – perhaps I should. Many people recommend and earnestly suggest it to me because I have many different commitments. I make high-level lists, but not daily to-do lists, I actually find them more stressful than just pushing through what you know you need to achieve that day. When I led the New York City Bar Arbitration Committee, I did not need a list to know what was necessary to plan for any specific monthly Committee meeting. I did outline the planned events for the course of the committee year (dates of guest speakers and topics, etc.) I enjoyed the work. It is the same with ArbitralWomen: I look forward to and enjoy the work I am doing. I have learned to balance my extracurricular activities around my full-time job. Making a daily to-do list of those extracurricular tasks takes away some of the joy. My daily to-do lists are mostly reserved for my full-time day job obligations.

Also, I do not think that the fact that I am busy detracts from my family relationships. I spend quality time with my children; for example, evening story time. I try to do memorable things with them, like hiking or going to a museum. I highly recommend that busy people plan some family time that creates a memory and fosters the relationship as opposed to just being together because it is Saturday. I think that makes a big difference. I suggest to busy people: try to do something outside the box – and take photos of the experience (that your children may not want you to take!). Obviously, one cannot do that every weekend; but try to do it for some weekends. Especially if you have such a busy schedule that family vacations are not possible (Americans are known for not taking vacations, a sad aspect of American culture).

I was raised by two very busy, full-time working parents and have distinct memories from my childhood of spending time with them. On some weekends we did great activities that I remember even today. When I think back on my family life with my parents, I think of those activities and not family dinner. I believe that our memories of the family are in the aggregate.

Many of your activities have been related to your profession, e.g., your participation in ICC Commission task force work and serving on the Council of the AAA-ICDR. How do you become interested and involved in such activities?

It is essential to think strategically about what kind of activities would help develop both a skill set and a professional profile. That could be through participating in or leading committees or working with an organization like ArbitralWomen.

I did not have a choreographed plan for my future or extracurricular activities. My leadership opportunities came ad hoc. Interestingly, when one leadership role ended, I was often invited to take a different role with another organization. I was able to take those on because the other role respectively ended. I experienced that people notice when your term is ending and approach you with a new role.

In general, I think that networking is important even in the early stages. I was invited to most of the committees and leadership positions that I have had. People reached out to me because they knew me; I had been involved in networking and attending conferences. I did not have a deliberate plan that I should probably do three committees, allowing me to cross-pollinate with enough people to have a broader network. Instead, I decided when I received each invitation and asked myself whether I can do this on top of everything else.

People need to assess realistically whether to accept an invitation because you can become overcommitted. With each opportunity, I thought through how I could make it work. What do I want to bring to this committee? How am I able to balance this with my other activities? That is very important! Take time to think through the invitation. Even if you know in your gut that you will say yes, take the time to think it through. Never accept an invitation on the spot!

How do you manage to perform fully all your commitments?

The late Chief Justice of the New York Court of Appeal Judith Kaye said (I am paraphrasing), "I give every role 80% of my time." That sort of captures how you do it. You provide a lot to each position and somehow make it work.

You can meet expectations if you enjoy what you do. Instead of doing other things, I do ArbitralWomen. I find it personally gratifying. I do not see it as a struggle to balance my time. Some days are hectic, but I enjoy what I do​.

You mentioned that there can be a risk of overcommitting. What is your advice to avoid being overwhelmed by overcommitting to extracurricular activities?

For those working in a law firm, I think it is essential to consult with your mentor or maybe your manager. One cannot accept an extracurricular leadership position without management approval because it is time-consuming. That process and discussion help you evaluate whether you have the time to take on the role.

Asking an informal mentor or friend for advice is generally a great idea. These people will have another point of reference and will bring a different perspective. I would not survey twenty people, but the view of a handful of people who you trust is invaluable. Keep in mind that there is no shame in declining an opportunity. Most times, another option comes around, and sometimes even the same opportunity comes again. Declining an opportunity is not a career-ending or jeopardizing event. In some respects, it is as respected as accepting an offer. If you accept a job but cannot do it, that benefits no one. But if you decline because you evaluated that it is not the right time for you to take on that role, people will respect your decision.

There have been some invitations that I declined because I was convinced, based on discussions with other people, that the time commitment would be incompatible with what I had to do with my family and my full-time job.

As President of ArbitralWomen, you are, inter alia, fostering the mentorship program within the organization. What does a successful mentorship relationship look like?

In my mind, mentorship takes a lot of different forms. The mentorship program through ArbitralWomen is technically an annual program matching mentee and mentor. But I think a successful mentorship relationship is one that lasts a lifetime. The one-year mentorship is the opportunity to get to know each other. From there, it is possible to develop a lifelong relationship if it is a good match. ArbitralWomen puts a lot of energy and time into trying to match people who will be compatible and ideally have a long-term relationship beyond the one-year program.

Interestingly, mentorship may change. I have had relationships where I was first the mentee, and the mentor gave me much advice. My mentors' great expertise helped me to make decisions. Twenty years later, however, I am providing mentoring advice to my former mentors (and now close friends)! I think a successful mentorship relationship evolves into a 360 degrees reciprocal mentoring exchange.

Which female lawyer would you like to nominate as a role model for breaking.through and why?

I nominate Stephanie Cohen. She is a young woman and mother who charted her own path as an independent arbitrator. She has held and continues to hold substantial leadership roles in the international arbitration community. I think she has an inspiring story to tell and she is highly respected by many. She would be someone everyone would love to hear more about.


Thank you very much for this interview!


New York / Düsseldorf, December 2020. The interview was conducted by Dr. Ilka Beimel.

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