CBIA BizCast: Leander Dolphin’s Path to Leadership
Shipman & Goodwin managing partner Leander Dolphin’s career as an attorney is marked by numerous successes.
However, law wasn’t always part of her career aspirations.
“What I wanted to do when I went to Wesleyan was I wanted to be an English professor,” she says.
“I wanted to write books. And I wanted to focus my study on African-American literature, particularly by women.”
But Dolphin’s plans began to change when an advisor told her that while she was talented, she lacked discipline and should consider doing something else.
From Literature to Law
“It was hard, but I needed to hear it,” she said.
“I believe that it is important to listen well, even when it’s something that you don’t think you want to hear.
“Because often, those are the people who are given the gift of sort of foresight, they’ve seen something.”
Dolphin decided to pursue a law career after working in criminal justice consulting.
“Being the person who collected all of the data about our prison system in the United States was very sobering and also got me to shift a little bit,” she said.
“I wanted to do work that was impactful, and that had a policy bent.”
Dolphin graduated from Howard Law in Washington, D.C., and joined Shipman & Goodwin as a litigator in 2004.
However, she began to rethink whether she wanted to stay in private practice once she started a family.
“I couldn’t figure out where to draw the lines between what it took to be a successful lawyer in private practice and what I thought I wanted to be as a mom who was present,” she said.
“It isn’t one or the other, or it shouldn’t be but at the time as a young mom, I really couldn’t figure out how to do it well, and then I felt sort of adrift.”
In 2007, Dolphin was presented with an opportunity to be general counsel and vice president of human resources at the Girl Scouts of Connecticut.
“I jumped at it because it was about girls,” she said. “I went to an all-girls high school, I studied women’s studies and it was a passion of mine.”
Dolphin said that as a fairly young lawyer, the experience required her to stretch her skills, and taught her valuable lessons about business and how to be an executive.
“That’s probably the thing that I got most of the Girl Scouts experience, that there was a way to combine purpose with business and being an executive leader,” she said.
Dolphin said her time at the Girl Scouts helped her learn more about herself and what she was capable of.
And after nearly two years with the organization, she returned to Shipman in 2009.
“I felt that I was more mature than when I left and I felt I understood that or what it required to be the person in charge of my life,” she said.
In 2015, Dolphin became the first Black woman named an equity partner in Shipman’s 100-year history, starting her path to leadership with the firm that culminated with becoming sole managing partner in 2022.
She was asked to be on a number of committees, including running their diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. But she said it was important that that wasn’t the only thing she was asked to do.
“I’ve often said, just because I’m a Black woman doesn’t mean I’m a diversity professional,” she said.
“And so there are people who study this and who could offer organizations advice on how to do it better.
“But I did think I had a perspective that was important and I was at a place that welcomed that.”
Voice for Change
Since becoming managing partner in 2022, Dolphin has continued to use her voice to encourage people to look at things more broadly.
That includes implementing training on implicit bias when it comes to gender, race, or people with disabilities.
Dolphin said she’s proud of the systemic change at the firm.
“We say that diversity is a core value at the farm and what does that look like?” she asked.
“That looks like we’re not afraid to have those tough conversations. It looks like we are seeking people who might not otherwise be in the room to provide them with opportunities. That we focus on equity and fairness.
“And I think that we all feel better about our work when we are confident that we are doing those things.”
Dolphin said one of the things that’s helped her success is the mentorship and opportunities she received.
Paying It Forward
She’s now working to pay it forward.
“I would like to be, I think, a better mentor because I think of how I’ve been enriched,” she said.
“So making myself available to others, frankly, at all levels of the firm is one of the most important things I could do.”
Dolphin reimagined the mentorship program at Shipman to help tie mentors to junior lawyers based on their goals.
“I actually do think it improves the culture and improves your wanting to go to work,” she said. “It helps you when you’re making decisions about your life.
“If this is a place that people care about you and want you to do well and listen to you.”
Dolphin will host CBIA’s annual When Women Lead summit on May 18, highlighting Connecticut’s unsung heroes and their professional and personal journeys.
Dolphin said one of the lessons she tries to instill in others is to know that they are in charge, and to encourage them to not give away their power for making decisions in their lives.
“We are faced with choices every day,” she said.
“And when you’re the person making the choices, it makes it easier to get through stuff that might be hard because there are going to be hard things every day.”
The CBIA BizCast is made possible through the generous support of Google. Please rate, review, and subscribe to the BizCast wherever you get your podcasts—we appreciate your support! If you have a story to tell, contact Amanda Marlow.
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