Leading Women series starts with Microsoft VP Carolyn Frantz


By Amy Spooner

Just because you can’t see the glass ceiling doesn’t mean it is nonexistent, Carolyn Frantz told a packed room of Michigan Law students at the inaugural Leading Women talk earlier this month. Sponsored by Latham & Watkins, the series profiles Michigan Law alumni who are leaders in business. Frantz, who is vice president, deputy general counsel, and corporate secretary at Microsoft Corp., shared her views of gender bias in the legal industry and was candid in admitting that she has perpetuated that bias herself.

“When I attended Michigan, I didn’t join the Women Law Students Association because I was adamant that I was a law student, not a woman law student,” Frantz said. “When I entered the workforce, I assumed that because I was doing great, it must mean that gender discrimination didn’t exist.”

Over time, however, Frantz has had to challenge her assumptions. She came to realize that when meeting a new male associate, she thought about what a promising future he had. When meeting an equally credentialed new female associate, she found herself wondering “if she’ll be any good,” Frantz admitted to the crowd. “It was painful for me to realize that if I had these biases, then they were everywhere.”

Frantz was introduced by Latham Vice Chair Ora Fisher, who shared her own story of working on Wall Street in the 1980s. It was a conservative, male-dominated atmosphere where she was expected to dress like a man. Today, Fisher noted, women still must struggle to find the balance between being authentic and projecting the image that clients expect. “You’re being hired by clients to handle their problem, so you need to show that you are strong and confident,” said Fisher, who joined Latham right after graduation and now is based in the firm’s Menlo Park, California, office. “You also get the opportunity to promote the abilities of your colleagues, which is easier than promoting your own.”

In describing her career path, Frantz told the audience that as a law student, the only thing that disinterested her as much as women’s issues was the practice of law. The undergraduate philosophy major, who also graduated from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, was determined to be a law professor. After clerking on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and on the U.S. Supreme Court (for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), she taught at NYU and the University of Chicago before joining Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP in Chicago. She left academia because she realized that she liked being busy and deadline driven, and at the firm she realized she liked working with her clients to solve tough problems. Her favorite client? Microsoft.

Frantz joined Microsoft in 2016 and said her earlier skepticism that representing corporations would be “boring and possibly immoral” has proved to be unfounded.

“I don’t ever feel like I have to choose between giving the moral advice and the advice the business needs to succeed.” Part of that is inherent to most consumer-focused companies (“We know that if we want to keep selling products, we need to empower our customers, not hurt them.”).

But Frantz said it also speaks to Microsoft’s community-focused ethos, which includes social initiatives like bringing broadband access to rural America and providing training so workers can be ready for the modern, digital workplace. Another important reason for her change of heart was that she found that working for a corporation can have heart, too. “People care about their work at Microsoft,” she said, “and that makes it easy to care about them. Work done well feels personal.”

Because she takes her work so personally, Frantz said it is stressful—but the kind of stress that energizes her. “It’s pressure, but it’s what I like.”

As her career has advanced, she faces work-life balance conflicts with raising three young children “every week. But looking back, I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

She encouraged the women in the audience to find mentors within and outside their organizations, citing her main internal client—Executive Vice President and CFO Amy Hood—as a powerful role model for her, both personally and professionally.

“If you are thinking about joining an organization that doesn’t have any women in leadership positions, what makes you think that will change?” Frantz said.

Fisher also encouraged students to look closely at organizations’ structure and culture.

“I once had a professor tell me the following: ‘You cannot underestimate how much a law firm cares about you.’ But I always have felt greatly valued at Latham,” said Fisher.

“If you consider going in-house, the most important question you should ask is, how much does the company value the opinions of its lawyers?”

While both acknowledged that women face unique challenges in advancing in the legal profession, Fisher and Frantz were adamant that some key factors for success transcend gender lines.

“I still attend meetings where I’m the only woman, but at Microsoft, I generally find that what I get out of the day is proportional to what I put into it,” Frantz said. “People listen to my good ideas, less so to my bad ones.
That’s exactly how it should be.”