Attorney Gwendolyn Payton is a partner with the Seattle office of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, an international law firm based in Atlanta that has earned a global reputation in the intellectual-property arena. Payton has an active trial practice in both state and federal courts with a focus on complex commercial cases, including class action, antitrust and trade, and health care litigation.
She also has earned numerous accolades for her legal work, including earning recognition from Benchmark Litigation as one of the top women in litigation and also being named a Washington Super Lawyer by Super Lawyers ― which is part of Thomson Reuters. In addition, Payton last year received the John Paul Stevens Guiding Hand of Counsel Award from the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project for her pro bono work in advocating for death-penalty clients.
Payton, who has been practicing law for more than 22 years, earned an undergraduate degree in art history from the University of Chicago and her J.D. degree from the University of Michigan Law School. As part of the latest Daring Woman interview, Payton shares some insights about the barriers faced by women striving to achieve leadership roles and ways to overcome them, her views on mentors and networking, and she also shares some advice for the upcoming generation of female leaders.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated?
A good leader is a good listener, one who is willing to learn and have a deep understanding of an organization and its employees. Behind a successful organization is an engaged leader.
I have observed that good leaders all seem to have developed the ability to bring out every team member’s strength. While intelligence is a good trait, I have seen that great leaders focus on surrounding themselves with talent and sharing the success. The ultimate [form of] capital is the people who comprise your team and all the best leaders I know emphasize the development of their team members over everything else.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader?
All organizations have written and unwritten rules. I have noticed that women and minorities do not always have a champion who helps [them] maneuver the insider rules and access. Women and minorities are faced with an absence of this “insider status,” and that is often a barrier to leadership.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?
I work in a private law firm. Unfortunately, in many firms, women still lack the economic power to influence the direction of the firm. I believe that tide is turning. When more women gain more influence, it will create greater opportunities to elevate women to leadership positions. As more women achieve a level economic playing field, it will translate to more women in positions of power in more law firms.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you?
I learned that the environment really matters. Some organizations are deeply committed to the development of women and minorities; other are not. I have learned that when an organization commits to providing opportunity and values diverse voices, critical mass to support that initiative builds. We, then, see a true movement to fill leadership roles with diverse groups of people, oftentimes women and minorities, who have been left out of leadership trajectories.
I recently attended an internal business-development summit for women attorneys. I realized that after 23 years of practicing law, this was the first time I have ever had this experience. At the gathering, we were all focused on learning from each other and shared the wealth of knowledge that already exists. It was a strikingly emotional moment for me to be able to participate in this summit.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?
I strongly believe that to be a working parent, we do not have to follow the traditional “playbook” that has been in place. As a woman in a leadership role at Kilpatrick Townsend and as an active parent, I play both roles openly. I am not shy to bring my kids in the office when I need to do so.
I think it is important to normalize the expectations of being a working parent and being in leadership. I am not one or the other. I am both. I choose to be a model to other parents [to demonstrate] that working and parenthood can be both doable and enjoyable. One great piece of advice I received was to not always use the “I have a meeting” excuse when I am leaving the office. It’s OK to say, “I have to pick up my kids from ballet,” or otherwise acknowledge that I am putting parenting first.
I also learned that it’s important to project that I enjoy my life. Why would other women want to stick it out if it seems like partners at the top don’t enjoy their life? I want the generation of women who are following behind me to see that although it certainly takes hard work and sacrifice to become a partner in a law firm, we need to show that it is worth it.
I want my children to see that the work that we do together as a family and the sacrifices that they make for me is a big part of my success. I do a lot of pro bono work in the southern states representing indigents who are facing execution on death row. I try to bring my kids with me when I can. I want them to feel vested and integrated into my career and that they are active partners in my success.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
Networking is mission critical to my success. My philosophy is that in everything I do, whether it is community service, professional events or simply daily activities like buying a cup of coffee, I treat everyone as a partner, and I value these interactions.
What would you do differently in your career?
Trust my gut and intuition more. If your instincts tell you that you are in a work environment that is not ideal, you are probably right. I wish I had trusted my instincts earlier and not tried to make a subpar situation “work.”
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon?
We live in an amazing setting in Seattle. On Saturdays, I teach paddleboard yoga on Salmon Bay. I love teaching yoga on the water, it is such an amazing way to fully engage this beautiful place in which we have chosen to live.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
“I’m Not Dead Yet.”