Leading a Law Firm, Balancing a Life
September 08, 2010
Beth Skillern J.D. ‘86
As the story goes, a male senior partner in the Portland- based law firm of Bullivant Houser Bailey invited a number of female employees to dine with him at one of the city’s membership clubs—back in the early 1980s, when women were beginning to gain stature in the workplace. The senior partner was able to enter through the front entrance, but the women were required to enter through the back door.
“Our firm was founded in 1938, and things have changed dramatically over the years,” says Beth Skillern, president and general counsel. “Opportunities for women are now diverse and abundant.”
Skillern joined Bullivant Houser Bailey in 1987 and practiced primarily in the area of insurance coverage for more than 20 years. “The firm has grown, both in number of lawyers and offices, since I joined,” she says. “Our practice areas include business transactions and other complex litigation, in addition to insurance coverage.”
Skillern has been the firm’s general counsel since 2006. She took over as president three years later when the term of David Ernst J.D. ’85 ended and he returned to full-time practice at the firm.
Skillern’s interest in the law took root in high school and continued through college. “I loved history and political science classes, which led to my fascination with legal reasoning and analysis,” she says.
But following the advice of a favorite college professor, and at the urging of her parents, she earned her teaching degree at Southern Oregon State University. She taught at the junior high level in Grants Pass and in New Orleans.
Although she liked teaching, Skillern decided to revisit her dream of becoming a lawyer—about the time her youngest child entered kindergarten. She chose Lewis & Clark Law School because of its location, reputation, and flexible class schedule. She was familiar with the college because of her sister, Carolyn Roberts B.S. ’72.
Skillern’s skills as an educator translate naturally to the practice of law. “I teach clients the value of a case, what to do and what not to do,” she says. “I try to teach the judge and jury the merits of a case. And as a manager, I teach by example and direction.”
She advises lawyers, especially women, to find balance and perspective in their careers. She encourages them to examine their priorities and extended family circumstances.
“There are greater opportunities for balancing work and life now than ever before. Our firm has shareholders and practice group leaders with management responsibilities, both men and women, who have chosen to work part time,” she says.
Skillern strives for balance in her own life as well. For the past 25 years, she and a group of women friends have walked two miles together every morning. Rarely missing a day, except when rain showers turn into downpours, they talk as fast as they walk and keep things positive. No complaining or gossiping allowed.
She is also a 15-year member of a local book club, where she enjoys the spirited, convivial monthly discussions.
Community service is another of Skillern’s passions. She volunteers at the Northeast Emergency Food Program and recently joined the board of directors for Self Enhancement, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to helping inner-city youth succeed.
Skillern understands the value of support and encouragement, a gift she extends to her two young grandchildren. She says that her own success “can be traced directly to the mentoring and understanding I’ve received from family, good friends, and colleagues who have encouraged me throughout my life.”
—by Pattie Pace