Carol Starkey is a partner at Conn Kavanaugh Rosenthal Peisch & Ford, LLP. Her practice concentrates in the areas of white-collar criminal defense, regulatory law, commercial litigation, and employment litigation. Prior to joining Conn Kavanaugh, Carol was Chief of the Economic Crimes Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. She is the Treasurer of Boston Bar Association and has also served as the BBA’s Secretary, a member of the Council and of the Executive Committee, Co-Chair of the Diversity & Inclusion Group Mentoring Program, and as Co-Chair of the BBA’s Criminal Law Section Steering Committee. Carol is the current Chair of the Joint Bar Committee on Judicial Appointments. She is also the Vice Chair for the White Collar Defense & Investigations Committee for the International Association of Defense Counsel.
1. In a group setting, especially one full of strong personalities, how do you assert your own voice of leadership?
I have always found that asserting one’s voice through leadership starts with hard work and preparation before, during, and after the group setting. Working with a group of talented lawyers in any environment inevitably means navigating strong personalities to obtain an organization’s goals. Asserting my voice in such an environment translates into providing a structure for the group dynamic to become successful in order to accomplish the group’s goals. In my experience, a good leader’s voice complements the other voices in the room to achieve the group’s mission. If I’m the only person at the table talking, then I am failing as a leader.
I do try to assert my voice thoughtfully at different stages of the group process. The first stage takes place before the group ever meets. I know I will not get or keep the talent at the table unless I have already crafted a vision of what may be achieved by the group working together, so knowing and understanding my own vision or agenda in advance is critical.
Second, I strive to communicate that vision to all of the group members more than once, whether it’s during the recruiting phase or at the start of a group already in process. That communication must be in a voice filled with genuine passion for the group work, optimism for what the group can and will achieve, and respect for the expertise of those volunteering their time. I think it is up to the leader to inspire participation and challenge members to contribute their best for the benefit of the group.
Third, and one of the more important ways I strive to assert my voice through leadership, is to keep people engaged. In my experience, people are less inclined to become engaged in any group setting unless they feel they will add value. Some folks need only an invitation to express their views, but others need to be encouraged more directly to contribute their value. A strong group leader provides an equal playing field for all members by moderating and moving the discussion forward and not allowing one voice to dominate the group discussion. In other words, to achieve a true consensus, you want everyone to walk away believing that they have contributed their best to whatever decisions have been made. When it comes right down to it, this is not about the leader – it is about what the group may achieve and produce through its members. Anybody with a leadership role has to be able to bring out the best in people, and when you have talented, successful people volunteering their time, it is important to let them know that you understand that.
One final note: in my experience, it’s enormously helpful when a leader can repeat and summarize what has been discussed. Leading the discussion is all well and good, but you also have to be able to summarize what has been decided and bring the group to closure.
2. What is the hardest leadership decision you ever had to make, and how did you manage it?
There have been a lot of difficult decisions I have had to make over the years, both during my years as a managing prosecutor in the public sector and as a private defense lawyer and partner involved in the management of the firm. I’ve had over two decades of experience making these kinds of decisions, and the toughest are those that no one else wants to make or can make, whether it is because they are controversial, or more commonly, you are the person charged with the authority to make the final call. Part of leadership is engaging in the decision-making exercise with confidence and integrity. That’s not to say I haven’t made mistakes, but hopefully I have learned from those mistakes and have become a better leader for it.
As lawyers, we are in the decision business. We are trained to gather all available facts, assess the risks for our clients – who are usually facing pretty grave consequences – and help those clients make the best decisions possible. As a leader, that must be done and more. A good leader must ensure the integrity of the process without losing compassion for those who may be affected, or losing sight of the ultimate goal to be achieved. At the end of day, you as a leader must defend the actions taken. I always want to feel that I have exhausted every means to come to the right decision. Therefore, even if that decision turns out to be wrong, which hopefully it won’t, the actions taken can be understood and justified under the circumstances in which they were made.
A recent example that comes to mind happened while I was chairing the Joint Bar Committee on Judicial Appointments, a 25-person Committee comprised of Bar Association leaders from all over the Commonwealth, certainly a group of immensely talented and successful lawyers – and some strong personalities! There was a series of decisions that had to be made during the course of our meetings, and as the Chair, I had to be sure that the integrity of the Committee’s process remained unquestioned, that the formal rules were followed, and that everyone left the table after rendering a difficult vote feeling that their voice was heard and respected. It was a difficult but tremendously gratifying leadership experience, demanding patience and intensive listening in order to ensure we reached a consensus.
3. When young lawyers looking for mentorship approach you, how do you effectively guide and advise them?
I know that the path to becoming a successful lawyer today looks very different than it did 20 or even 10 years ago, but what hasn’t changed over that time is the integrity of being a lawyer – of being a smart, committed individual who regardless of practice area will make an actual difference in people’s lives. I like to remind young lawyers of this, because they do not hear it often enough in my view. When I get the opportunity, I tell young lawyers that it is our job as lawyers to empower the powerless and right society’s wrongs. Much of what the rest of the world admires about this country, like civil liberties and due process, are fostered and protected by lawyers. We all have an obligation to uphold these ideals and maintain a robust legal system. When a young person is struggling, just reminding them of what a great profession they have chosen can make a huge difference in their attitude and focus. They hear the negatives all the time and lose sight of the core of what makes this one of the greatest professions there is.
Frankly, that’s why I was so excited to work with young lawyers and jumped at the opportunity to implement the BBA’s first mentoring program. Helping young lawyers discover their own voice and find their own journey towards a successful career is not only gratifying, it is essential to maintaining the standards of our profession – we are all obligated to do some form of mentoring in whatever capacity we can. That’s what I envisioned for the BBA’s mentoring program: to be a safe haven where new lawyers, struggling to cope with a challenging job market, could find support to start to make a difference. I think we achieved that in the end, especially in terms of diversity and inclusion. I recruited many of my friends and colleagues who I knew would be true mentors to these young people, and who I knew I could entrust with this job, because it really needs to be done with commitment. As I have said many times, they were the real heroes of the program.