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Top investment lawyer presents ‘a new mindset’ on women and leadership

September 13, 2018
portrait of Diane Ambler

Diane Ambler ’71. (LRG Portraits photo)

At one point Diane Ambler ’71 started writing a book, a memoir of sorts. Every chapter began with a quotation of something that somebody had said to her.

But there was a hitch. Some of it was outright unprintable, all of it inappropriate, often demeaning. Ambler, who had graduated from Rochester in 1971, was trying to prove herself as a young lawyer in financial and investment law, a male bastion in the early 1980s when she first arrived on the scene.

“It was an outlet for my anger,” she admits. Eventually, she abandoned the book idea. “I guess I became less angry,” Ambler says. “Once I started writing it all down I realized it wasn’t the focus of what I was trying to achieve. In one’s career one has to be strategic how one spends one’s time. And anger is a waste of time.”

Clearly, the Jersey shore native has spent her time well.

Ambler became a pioneer in mutual funds governance. Today, some 40 years later, she tells her stories punctuated by hearty laughter. A highly experienced practitioner in financial institutions regulation and federal securities law, Ambler regularly makes prestigious lists of best lawyers in America and the world’s leading women in business law. In 2001, she moved her established practice to the international firm of K&L Gates, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

She’s the first to admit that she couldn’t have done it alone. That’s one of the reasons she likes being a mentor for young professionals—male and female. She is a member of the executive boards of both the Women in Law Empowerment Forum and the National Association of Women Lawyers.

As a young lawyer, Ambler says, she noticed that most of her male colleagues in securities law were preoccupied with capital formation and deal making. Ambler instead moved into the much less sexy mutual funds law. At that time a nascent field with very few experienced practitioners, it proved fertile ground for Ambler to make her mark.

A new mindset

On Monday, September 17, Diane Ambler ’17 will be on campus to speak about “Women as Leaders: A New Mindset” in the Feldman Ballroom in Douglass Commons at 3 p.m.

In her talk, part of an Arts, Science & Engineering discussion on topical challenges, Ambler will speak about historical changes and work that remains to be done in the area of women and leadership; how women see themselves as thought leaders; and how institutions are adjusting to these changes. The event is free and open to all students, faculty, and staff, and will be followed by a reception.

“Because of the complexities of these laws and the need to develop an expertise, I had a leg up having started early in this business. So, while the men were out doing deals I was learning the 40 Act [the Investment Company Act of 1940, part of the backbone of US financial regulation]. I became a leader in my field simply because of my tenure.”

At times her rise was lonely. Back then, she says, women were working in “parallel play.” They just didn’t see one another. “We simply didn’t know that there were a lot of women with the same struggles, trying to deal with the same issues.”

Needless to say, her career took hard work and dedication. But sometimes, she says, it simply took a leap of faith, even if opportunities came knocking at inopportune times. For Ambler that pivotal moment arrived in her early 40s. The American Bar Association invited her to chair their Investment Companies and Investment Advisers Subcommittee—a prestigious offer. But Ambler’s first impulse was to turn it down. She had just joined a large, international law firm to develop and lead their new 40 Act practice at a time when the mutual funds industry was beginning to explode. Ambler also was a single mom with a toddler at home.

“I have a lot on my plate. I do not have time for that,” she recalls thinking. “It’s a terrible idea!”

When she mentioned the offer to a male colleague, however, he simply assumed she’d take it. That assumption got her thinking. Are there ways to make it work?

She did. Partially it was the realization that she didn’t need to be one of the firm’s top billers in order to succeed and that many of the 75 percent of partners who fell below the top quartile of billers were highly successful within the firm. And she hired a live-in nanny.

Taking the ABA’s offer turned out to be one of her best professional decisions, she says in hindsight.

“It completely accelerated my career in a way that I never would have anticipated, because it gave me exposure to everyone in the field.” Apart from giving her leadership opportunities in all the critical, developing legal issues, heading up the committee gave her a voice to appear before the regulators. Simply put, “it gave me a platform to develop my career.”

A circuitous route into law

Like many, if not most, advanced professionals, her path was by no means linear. When she graduated from the University of Rochester in 1971, college-educated women, despite their academic credentials, were routinely asked in job interviews how fast they could type. Ambler, who had studied math and physics at Rochester, graduated with a psychology degree. Initially she lacked career focus, she admits.

After landing serendipitously in the real estate business, Ambler noticed that tricky real estate questions often ended up with lawyers. Then, in 1974, the real estate market cratered. Ambler thought long and hard about her next move.

Four years later, with a newly minted JD from Villanova under her belt, she headed to Jackson, Mississippi, where she worked as a law clerk for the Honorable Charles Clark on the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“It might just as well have been another country,” she says of her Deep South experience. The judge at one point had been told he should branch out and hire Yankee and female law clerks. Being able to work in the federal courts system proved a valuable experience throughout her career.

Her year in Mississippi and Louisiana is one reason she tells mentees to take chances and plunge right in.

“We fixed the women, now we have to look at the institutions,” she says. That entails helping men understand how to relate to professional women in the era of the #MeToo movement, while simultaneously figuring out ways to prevent women from leaving the workplace, just as their careers begin to take off. At times, Ambler wonders if the movement will be able to keep up its momentum.

She works to make sure it does. More than fifteen years ago, Ambler began building a women’s group at her law firm, which employs some 2,000 lawyers worldwide. Many of the initiatives developed by this group have since been adopted as a firm-wide vision to help their female lawyers succeed.




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