Women in Business Q&A – Meena Datta, partner, Sidley Austin LLP

February 6, 2016

Meena DattaHow has your life experience made you the leader you are today? 

My mother and father immigrated from India with their education, about thirty dollars between them, and a job opportunity for my dad.  From those humble beginnings and through hard work, they were able to build a life, become members of their community, and raise a family in the United States.  The example that my parents have set continues to guide me every day.  They taught me that leadership is earned.  You become a true leader not by mimicking those around you, but by being great at what you do and establishing your own leadership style.  Authenticity matters.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Sidley Austin LLP?

I joined Sidley immediately following graduation from the University of Chicago Law School.  Before my current position as a partner in the healthcare group, I worked several years as an associate.  During that period, I learned from several of the most experienced lawyers in the field.  All of them have taught me practical lessons in helping clients understand and manage risk.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Sidley?

This is an exciting and a challenging time to be a healthcare lawyer.  Obamacare has resulted in significant changes to how health care is delivered, and how it is paid for.  This changing climate is very challenging for our clients, and delivering innovative solutions that help our clients succeed in the market is the ultimate professional highlight.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a legal career?

I would advise women (and men) to follow their passion.  If that passion lies in the practice of law, then they should pursue that as a career.  Being a lawyer is very challenging and requires sacrifice, and it is impossible to sustain a fulfilling career without having a passion for what you do.  My other piece of advice:  get to know your clients as people.  Their perspectives and life experiences have a bearing on how they see the world, analyze legal issues, and deliver advice to their client, whether that is the Board, the c-suite, or the commercial team.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

This is a client service business.  Working seven days a week is part of the world many of us live in.  That said, I think work / life balance is possible for all of us through teamwork.  For me, that teamwork begins at home.  My husband is a prosecutor for the Department of Justice and has a full and demanding career himself.  He and I are always texting one another, communicating about travel and other commitments in our schedule so that one of us is (almost) always home in time for dinner with the kids.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace? 

Recent studies show that women have largely achieved parity in terms in college and law school attendance and graduation rates, but continue to lag significantly at the leadership levels at law firms and corporations.  To achieve true equality, women must dream big, work to achieve that dream, and have equal opportunity to succeed.  Of course, this is not just an issue for women – we all have a stake in achieving greater equality in the workplace.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? 

It is difficult – if not impossible – to succeed as a lawyer without mentors to guide the way.  When you graduate from law school, you have a basic understanding of the law, but you lack an understanding of what it means to practice as a lawyer.  I have been fortunate to receive guidance from mentors – men and women I have met through the course of my career – who have taught me as much about personal development as they have professional development.  Through the process of mentorship, my mentors have implicitly taught me the importance of paying it forward, so I try to be a good mentor myself.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

There are many women I admire and that inspire me to practice law at the very highest of levels, especially my mother.  In terms of female leaders in the law, I meet regularly with an amazing group of women General Counsels, Chief Compliance Officers and Chief Compliance Counsels, and regulatory lawyers in the life sciences.  These women operate at the most challenging levels on behalf of their companies.  Watching them in action is a true master class!  And they are all also lovely people, too, which again goes to my point that being a human being always matters.

What do you want Sidley to accomplish in the next year? 

I would love to see our life sciences practice continue to flourish, here in the U.S. and globally.  It’s a really exciting time to be at Sidley and contribute to the growth of a wonderful and rich practice dedicated to companies in the life sciences.  In particular for me, I find great satisfaction in assisting companies with their drug pricing and reporting considerations, global product launches, developing and guiding the strategy in conformance with the health care laws, and helping them provide access to important therapies and treatments.

###

Meenakshi (Meena) Datta is a partner in Sidley Austin LLP’s Chicago office. The views expressed in this article are exclusively those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sidley Austin LLP and its partners.