Two alumni a decade apart build careers in the high-pressure world of major law firms.
by Elizabeth Callaghan and Maura Stephens
Joanne Ollman and Rob Singer
Rob Singer '83 has spent the last 15 years in the legal business. He just made the leap from executive director of one of the biggest and most prestigious law firms in the United States -- the New York City-based Weil, Gotschal, and Manges -- to become chief executive officer of DeNovo Legal, a company that provides staffing and training for major law firms. In his new job he will be expanding DeNovo Legal to major cities around the world, building a network of professional legal staff for firms like Weil. But he is not a lawyer.
Joanne Solomon Ollman '73 started as a paralegal, then moved up the ladder in the personnel side of law firms. In 2004 she was at the major law firm Cravath, Swaine, and Moore, as director of legal personnel and recruitment when Rob recruited her to Weil to be director of strategic associate programs. As such she's responsible for hiring, professional development and training, and diversity initiatives. She is not a lawyer, either.
How did two people who are not attorneys rise to such lofty positions in the legal world? "There are tremendous opportunities for non-lawyers in the legal profession," Rob points out. "The largest law firms are continuing to grow and prosper, and they especially need people with expertise in marketing, technology, and finance."
Rob double-majored in economics and management at Ithaca College, then went to Hofstra University for an M.B.A. in finance. He started his career on Wall Street, planning to become a securities analyst. He joined Weil in 1990 as a financial analyst, quickly advancing to director of financial and productivity analysis. In 1998 he moved to Cravath to be director of finance. Weil recruited him back in 2000, when he took over as associate executive director. Four years later he was named executive director, despite -- or perhaps partly because of -- his lack of a law degree.
"I didn't have any connections when I came into the industry," says Rob. He has skills that are particularly valuable for law firms. By the standards used to rate legal services -- global reach, corporate clients, quality of associates -- Weil is in the "Ivy League" of U.S. law firms; the stakes are high and the pressure stratospheric. "Rob is a risk taker," says Brad Scott, chief human capital officer at Weil. "Most attorneys are more risk averse." For example, Scott points to the fact that Rob rebuilt the entire senior management staff at Weil, assuring a good fit among the team. "Rob looked outside the firm and found people on Wall Street who ran their own business for years, and brought them to Weil. That had never been done in a major law firm."
Joanne majored in politics at IC and then studied to become a paralegal, landing a job in a New York City law firm. After taking time off to have two daughters, she began training other paralegals, eventually working with Rob at Cravath.
Her work style obviously made a favorable impression on him. As she remembers it, Rob lured her to Weil by saying she'd feel good about her job and "fit into the Weil family." She felt a little torn, but not for long. "I left a job I loved because I trusted Rob in the most profound way," she says. "I had watched him at Cravath and knew he was a very honest, forthright guy." Now, after more than a year at Weil, she knows she made the right choice. "It feels very comfortable," she says. "The people are devoted to their craft. Weil has a unique environment where the staff and lawyers put an enormous amount of effort to serve their clients as well as the community around them."
When DeNovo approached Rob for the position as its CEO, Rob, too, found himself torn. After developing a close working relationship with people at Weil, "it was a very hard decision," he says. As he was building his career, Rob says, he'd sacrificed family time with his wife, Pamela Gordon Singer '84, and their two daughters. So he has made efforts to spend "quality time" with his family, taking Heather, 16, and Brittany, 12, on occasional special trips. In February 2003 he and Heather traveled to Paris. This past January he surprised Brittany by saying, "Today is your lucky day. Go pack your bags. You and I are leaving for Disney World." She responded by giving him a hug and telling him to "leave the BlackBerry home." (BlackBerries are wireless handheld devices that enable access to e-mail, data, phone, web, calendar, and other features.) "I told her I needed it," Rob says, "because it's also a phone. Throughout the five-day trip, whenever she caught me on my BlackBerry, she told [my wife] on me."
Recognizing that his employees share the need for a family life, Rob changed the firm's policy to add vacation time and flexible working hours. That's when he recruited Joanne. "I knew she'd fit into the culture at Weil," says Rob. "She's outgoing, team-oriented, very driven."
Joanne says that her IC experiences helped to shape her leadership skills, as well as a lifelong sense of commitment to making a difference. She was involved in campus antiwar activism and became the College's first-ever female president of the student body. "I'd been involved in politics since my second year," she says. "There was a student activity fee of $25 a year that the administration kept and managed. They gave it out to various clubs. I thought that was wrong; students should control the money. Here I was in college, worrying about a student activity fee and protesting against the war. It was a turbulent time, but there was also a passion. The education was outside the classroom, not just what you were learning in classes."
In her job now, Joanne says, she really feels that she is making a difference. "I counsel a lot of lawyers at the firm about balancing their lives. We have mentoring programs here. People want time with their families. If they can work at home, they'd rather. They want to work in a positive, friendly environment where they are challenged and paid well. We have to have an environment like that or we won't get quality people."
Joanne's own wants are just like theirs. It's a juggling act, she says, "having a family and a career. When I say 'family,' I mean not just my family, but my friends. I have a consuming career. You don't want to be defined by your job." Her family includes her attorney husband, Robert Ollman, and daughters, Jennifer, 27, and Leigh, 25. For fun, Joanne says, she loves spending weekends at their 36-acre farm in Columbia County, "gardening, cooking, and puttering around."
Joanne was extremely surprised by the news that Rob had decided to leave Weil for DeNovo. Rob says he told her that she "had every reason to be angry" with him. But she says, "It is a great opportunity for him, and I'm happy for him. I do miss him. He was very inspirational and a big supporter. But just because he's gone, it doesn't mean I won't see him in the future."
Rob said he decided to accept the DeNovo position for the reason both he and Joanne cite as most important to them: family. The job, he says, "gives me more flexibility. I am taking my 16-year-old to the U.S. Open. From now on, I'll spend time with her on Fridays. She is on the tennis team at school, and I'll be able to attend every game. Last year I attended only one of her games. I can also take my younger daughter, who is an actress, on auditions."
Rob and Pamela also enjoy relaxing at their New Jersey home, complete with a playroom so imaginative that the New York Times featured it in its "Styles" section. Their basement has been converted into a 1950s-style diner including jukeboxes, pinball machines, and a laminate countertop with chrome bar stools.
Both Rob and Joanne say that it's a priority to strike a balance between their demanding careers in the legal profession and their personal lives. The challenge, says Joanne, "is to make sure you spend time with people you care about. I'm glad I have that kind of challenge."Photo: Timothy Hunter