This past month, I sat down and spoke with Catherine Rossouw. The Australian native works as a Partner at the law firm, Chapman and Cutler LLP. I spoke with her about her journey from being raised in Australia to making it as a Partner at a successful law firm in New York City.
How long have you been a partner at Chapman and Cutler?
I have been a partner at Chapman and Cutler since April 1, 2018.
Have you been partners to any past firms?
No. This is the first time I’ve been a partner. I have been practicing law since 2004. Originally I practiced in Australia for 18 months and have been practicing in New York ever since then.
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
I was inspired to become a lawyer in part because I thought that it would be a good profession for me with my specific traits and interests. I didn’t know any lawyers when I was growing up. I was the only one in my family who had anything to do with the law and I’m still the only one. When I started out in Australia for my first six months I worked in a group that did insurance litigation. I didn’t want to be a litigator because people were fighting no and one wanted to talk to each other. When I moved groups I started doing mergers, acquisitions and transactional law, which is what I do now. I liked that a lot better.
What challenges have you faced in your career in achieving this position?
I think there are lots of challenges that most people face. Becoming a lawyer is really hard. One challenge was not knowing anyone in the city. Moving to America from Australia was very hard. I really had to make a conscious effort to build my network and to make and build relationships with other people who I worked with, who I thought could help me in my career. I didn’t go to law school in the city, so it was difficult because sometimes people would hear my accent and think that I was smarter and more educated than others. Other people who heard my accent thought that I didn’t know what was going on because I was obviously not from here.
What made you want to move to America?
When I was interviewing here which was in the summer of 2005, people asked me that question and I would say things like “I want to work in the premier legal market for mergers and acquisitions.” and “I want to expand my career horizon.” But the real answer was that I wanted to have an adventure and I thought New York would be a fun place to have an adventure.
Do you think you have faced greater challenges than a male could face being in legal industry in which traditionally had been a male dominated industry?
I honestly don’t know. And the reason I don’t know is because everybody who has a professional career has challenges. For the most part we don’t really know what the challenges are that other people face. I feel like I have been very lucky but also strategic in my career in that I have sought out working with people who I liked, respected and admired, and who have really helped me with my career. I don’t feel like that any of them have discriminated against me or had any sort of bias whether conscious or unconscious against me because I am a woman. I think that is in part because I have sought out people who I thought would be able to help me, and in part because, like I said, I don’t know what other challenges men might face. Society still has a lot of different expectations on men and women as we become adults. I think there is an expectation on women to have families and then they will want to spend more time with their children, which is true for many people. However, it’s certainly not true for everybody. We all do each other a disservice by making assumptions about what people want. One thing I have been very conscious about is that I’ve always been very vocal and very upfront about what I want. When I took this job and in December of 2014, I was very clear with the person who I was interviewing with that I wanted to be a partner and that I wanted him to help me achieve that goal. He promised to help me and he did. I think that’s a big reason why I’m here now as a partner because I told people what I wanted, I asked for help, and I convinced them to help me.
What do you think are some traits that a great leader possesses?
I think a great leader needs to possess empathy. It’s very important for a great leader to have a great strong ability to communicate with people, and that’s to communicate the shared purpose that you have. You can’t lead unless you convince them first that you have a shared purpose in striving for what it is that you’re striving for. Also, building that real sense of camaraderie is very important.
How do you balance being a mother and a professional both personally and professionally at each stage of your career?
I think my mindset having not grown up in America is a little bit different when it comes to my attitude towards having a family and how to balance that with having a career. Everyone in Australia took at least a year for maternity leave. When I had my first child, I was working at a law firm that had a very generous maternity leave policy and I took full advantage of that. I took about eight months out of the office when my first daughter was born. When I went back to work, I worked part time for four days a week and my husband also worked four days a week. About six months after, I went back full time. My husband stayed at home and took care of the kids during the day. With my second and third child I took the same amount of time off. It’s having support of people who I trust and who I know love my children. It’s also the mental ability when I’m at work that I don’t think about the kids and when I’m with the kids I don’t think about work.
Why do you think women still lag behind in obtaining leadership positions?
I think that unconscious bias plays a big role in it. It is like that when you have people in leadership roles and the vast majority of those people in leadership roles are white men. When men look for who they are going to see as their successor they look for people like themselves and that is a is that is a very common human trait – we look for people who remind us of ourselves to take our place. We do this because we think that’s going to continue our legacy. I also think women aren’t in power because during the formative part of their careers a lot of women choose or feel societal and family pressure to step back from the workforce. This results in not getting the same level of experience that some of their male counterparts do.
What advice do you have for aspiring female leaders?
My number one piece of advice for an aspiring female leader would be to find a leader who you like, admire and respect. Then, figure out their leadership qualities and then figure out how to make then yours.
By, Julia Whitney ’21; Staff Writer