Voice of Experience: Sarah Lamar, Partner, HunterMaclean and President of ALFA International

January 4, 2010

By Pamela Weinsaft

For The Glass Hammer

Published January 4, 2010

“I decided to become a lawyer when I was ten. We went on a family trip to Washington, D.C. and visited the United States Supreme Court,” said Sarah Lamar, a partner at Hunter, Maclean, Exley & Dunn, P.C.. “The tour guide must have done a really good job,” Lamar joked, adding, “Although it was a simplistic idea, I just followed it.”

Lamar grew up in the suburbs of New Haven, Connecticut. After obtaining her Bachelors from Yale, Lamar says she was “done with New England weather” and headed south. She attended Emory University Law School in Georgia, and spent the summer between her second and third year of law school in the DC office of Morgan Lewis Bockius, a well-known labor and employment law firm.

That experience gave her “a really broad and interesting view on that area of the law” so when she was deciding what law path to take, she “checked off what things I did not like in the law: tax, corporate law, bankruptcy…employment law remained fascinating because it is the study of human relationships and how they can go right and wrong. Also,” Lamar said, “it is very people-oriented and I am a ‘people person.’ It gives me the chance to get to know the leadership in different industries and what makes people tick. I’ve always been interested in the social issues surrounding employment law like harassment and discrimination and civil rights.”

Upon graduation from Emory in May 1991, Lamar did a federal clerkship with U.S. District Judge Richard Kellam in Norfolk, Virginia. “I had a wonderful judge. That was probably the most phenomenal experience I’ll ever have in my career,” she said. “It was just remarkable to see how the courts worked; it opened my eyes to the operations of the courts and what influences a judge’s thinking. You had a chance to watch all the jury trials before your judge so you could see how lawyers operate in the courtroom and see their strengths and weaknesses in both civil and criminal cases. You got to know lawyers in the district, especially some of the lawyers who did criminal work. I think it’s a fabulous opportunity for anyone coming out of law school, even if they are not interested in being a litigator.”

Settling Down and Making Roots

After her clerkship, Lamar returned to practice at Morgan Lewis for a few more years before moving to Savannah where her army officer husband was stationed at Fort Stewart. “Savannah is a great town. There is a lot of ‘in and out’ in Washington. I was looking for a smaller place to settle down and make some roots.”

Her roots in Savannah now run deep. She’s been practicing employment law with Hunter, Maclean, Exley & Dunn, P.C. since 1995, and became a partner in 1998. Her partnership and involvement with the Savannah community are among her greatest achievements. “In DC, you are out there with a million people and working so many hours that it’s hard to get involved with the community in a deep and meaningful way,” she said. “Here, with HunterMaclean, I’ve been able to round out my professional career.”

That includes her involvement with ALFA International, a global legal networking organization of about 136 member law firms worldwide. In October, 2009, after a decade of rising through the ranks, Sarah Lamar became the first female to chair the organization.

“I am both excited and somewhat humbled by my role as chair,” she explained.

As she said in the press release announcing her new position, “I’m looking forward to working even more closely with the ALFA leadership and enhancing our growing network of member firms all over the world,” Lamar said. “The legal network concept ultimately benefits clients around the globe by connecting a business’s needs with legal expertise in an efficient, cost-effective manner.”

Lamar noted that “ALFA International gives those interested the opportunity to volunteer and get involved. The main barrier is there is not enough time in the day to devote all that I would like to ALFA endeavors. That said, ALFA International is a dynamic and growing organization with many different perspectives amongst its members, few of whom are shy in expressing their opinions. I think my desire to build a consensus works well within such an environment.”

Advice for Women in the Industry

As a seasoned professional, Lamar talked of the learning curve for young people entering the industry. “You need to remember that you are giving real life advice to people who are going out to implement your advice. Giving them a 20-page brief on a topic is not always helpful or cost effective. You have to balance the advice and the amount of work you put into it versus what that is going to yield. It is not just about getting the right answer. It is also dealing with all of the practical, political and relationship issues with clients as well.”

“From my own observations,” said Lamar, “I believe a main barrier [to women’s success in the profession] is the difficulty in balancing a career and motherhood. While recognizing that men are taking a larger role in childrearing than in the past, many women are still the primary caregivers for their children and make the decision to sacrifice career advancement because of family time commitments and obligations.”

Lamar is the mother of three little boys—including a set of 5-year-old twins—and said that balancing the work-life demands is “enough for [her] at the moment.” She credited her husband for helping manage those demands. “Like so many other people, it is just a constant juggling act of schedules…I speak to my husband through our outlook calendar at night. When I have to go away on trips, he takes over. I think there are some women whose husbands may not or could not do that, but mine does, so it is a big help.”

“The ‘choice’ that many women make,” Lamar continued, “is not made in a vacuum. I believe there is still a presumption among some, at least in the law firm environment, that the only approach to success (i.e., equity partnership) is to work full-time/all the time. This traditional view makes it harder for women trying to find a balance between work and family to succeed. This mindset is changing, though, for the better as law firms and other employers increasingly recognize that keeping talent may require flexibility. Alternative work arrangements are certainly more common than they used to be and are made much easier through technology.”

For her part, Lamar admitted, “I don’t have a fantastic game plan for the next five years; it is a work in progress.”

Lamar emphasized that the legal profession is a good profession in which women can and do succeed but recommends those who are taking it on heed the following: “First, learn to be a good generalist and experience as many different areas of the law as you can. Then, find a niche within the law that appeals to you and become specialized in that area. From what I have seen, specialization is the future for the legal profession.”

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