Q&A with Patricia López Aufranc of Marval, O’Farrell & Mairal

Patricia López Aufranc has been a partner at Marval, O’Farrell & Mairal, the largest law firm in Argentina, since 1987. Her practice focuses on international financial and commercial transactions, mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, anti-dumping investigations and a wide range of business contracts.

Q. You have been involved in local initiatives in Argentina that seek to strengthen the role of women in the legal profession as well as to promote and develop women lawyers. What prompted you to become involved?

In the 1990s, Argentina had an economic boom and there was a wave of privatizations, M&As and international financings. I was in my mid-40s and heavily involved in many of the leading cases. Women in senior positions in the local Argentine law firms were scarce, but there were women in banks and in the corporate world. While men were networking continuously, women were not networking at all. We didn’t even know each other! Together with a few other women in senior positions, we created the Argentine Forum of Executive Women (FAME by its acronym in Spanish) and started to bring professional women together for lunch. The organization has flourished and has been a source of mentoring and support during difficult times for its members. This year I addressed the group discussing the issue of internal barriers which raised a lot of interest.

Q. What does networking mean to you?   

I am a firm believer in women’s networks. By now there are enough women in leadership positions to foster changes that would make things easier for women, and help each other and the younger generations. I am involved in a variety of programs, actions and activities aimed at promoting and developing women lawyers worldwide.

For example, I sit on the Steering Committee of Women in the Profession, an initiative sponsored by the Vance Center for International Justice of the New York City Bar, which has been working for over 10 years for the promotion of women lawyers in Latin America. I am a member of Marianne, a network of senior professional women with a “French connection” and for whom I’ve spoken on women’s leadership issues, and I am a standing mentor for Vital Voices in Argentina, where I often participate in events as a speaker or as a mentor in their mentoring walks. I also sit on the board of the Harvard Law School Women’s Alliance and Harvard invited me to spend 2015 as a Fellow in the Advanced Leadership Initiative, during which year I focused my research on leadership development.

I have also been very active in connecting women worldwide. In 2006, I started bringing together women lawyers working internationally for lunch during the International Bar Association Annual Congress. I invite a major firm from the location where the Congress is held to sponsor the lunch. It has become a tradition and is now a well-attended event that has fostered the creation of a great network.

Q. What areas of professional development are you currently focused on?

I am particularly interested in the impact of stereotypes and unconscious biases. These exist both at the level of the organization and at a personal level, and raise external and internal barriers to our professional advancement. Stereotypes such as “men are better managers” and “mothers are less committed to their career” are still pervasive.

Biases arise from cultural assumptions and organizational structures, practices, and patterns of interaction that inadvertently benefit men while putting women at a disadvantage. Affinity bias (select people that resemble “us”), confirmation bias (looking for data that confirms the bias), and groupthink bias (assimilating with a group that is difficult to access to “fit in”) are some of over 100 biases that have been identified.

Examples of internal barriers are: the “confidence gap”; reluctance to self-promote, claim achievements and ask for raises; our difficulty to take negative feedback; our tendency to feel that adverse circumstances are personal; our tendency to ruminate about failures, to tone down our ideas.

Development of self-awareness and “proactive humility” are crucial to acknowledging flaws and acting upon them. I still commit some of these mistakes. As every other woman, I am reluctant to “toot my horn,” I am a much better negotiator for third parties than for myself; I ruminate about mistakes and every now and then I think that adverse circumstances “are personal.” I recommend young women lawyers identify these barriers in themselves and learn to overcome them. I firmly believe that, if we acquire increased awareness of these internal barriers, we can act upon them and enhance our chances of success, even before the external barriers completely disappear.

Q. What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?

I don’t believe in quotas, but I do believe in targets. A firm that really wants to increase the number of women partners and to enhance diversity in its ranks should establish targets for each team to be met within a reasonable period of time. In most firms, there are teams that have several women partners and other teams that do not have any. This rarely happens just by chance. Often there are different “team cultures.”

If leaders are held accountable, they will be more inclined to identify, train and promote women to reach partnership. By now, it is clear that there are no areas of law which should be closed to women.

Q. How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

I am an only child. My father is a sportsman and I was his companion hunting, fishing, sailing, flying his glider, scuba-diving. I grew up without stereotypes. My parents prioritized education. I was raised to be independent, have self-confidence and excel. Right after law school I went to Europe as a backpacker and ended up staying in Paris for three years. I did not have an EU passport, but would not take no for an answer. I found increasingly better jobs. I initially I lived on a boat on the Seine, but after a while moved to an apartment and pursued my studies. Since my French at the time was limited, it was hard at the beginning, but I soon became proficient and learned to navigate in a different culture.

Q. What has been your biggest challenge as a woman leader in your profession?

My biggest challenge has been finding the right “life partner.” It took me years! I think that the most important decision that a professional woman who wants a world class career has to make is picking a “life partner.” If your “life partner” is not your main sponsor, juggling all aspects of life will be difficult!

Q. What advice would you give to young lawyers who are working towards a successful career and want to become leaders in their field?

Be in charge of your career development: set goals, invest in yourself, work for a great boss, move out of your comfort zone as frequently as possible, seek constant feedback, seek mentors and sponsors, and network early on with people of your generation, inside and outside your organization. Identify your core values and develop a “giver” and not a “taker” reputation. If you are not constantly learning new skills, if you don’t get along with your boss, if he or she is not invested in your career development, if you are not passionate about your work, or if you don’t agree with the organization’s values as they are lived daily by the leaders, don’t linger in a position.

In the past, I recommended those who were interested in an international career to learn languages. It is still important. Looking forward, I would advise young professionals to learn how to code. Innovation in legal practice will come from analysis of big data and artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence will transform the legal profession by reshaping the way lawyers think, develop strategies and interact with clients and the judiciary.

Last, but not least, remember that “confidence” can be as important as “competence” to achieve success. Make sure you don’t suffer from a confidence-gap. If you do, identify your flaws and work on them. Ask for help when needed. Develop your emotional intelligence. Beyond a certain threshold, the importance of emotional intelligence to achieve success and happiness cannot be sufficiently underscored.