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Interview with Jerry English

13 Mar 2018 1:09 PM | Anne Lazo (Administrator)

When Jerry English was awarded NJSWEP's 2011 "Growing Great Women in the Garden State Award," she challenged NJSWEP to pay it forward to the next generation of women in the environmental field and "Don't let them get trapped in amber."

We were inspired by Jerry English's challenge, and in response, NJSWEP is surveying leaders and role models in the environmental industry, asking them to share their wisdom and experiences with our members so they don't get trapped in amber.  The following interview is with Jerry English herself, and occurred during an hour-long conversation between Jerry and Jillian Mooney.  (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Jerry Fitzgerald English, Esq.

Former Legislative Counsel to the Governor Brendan T. Bryne, former Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, and 2011 NJSWEP Growing Great Women in the Garden State Award Winner

What challenges have you faced in reaching your current position/title/occupation, and how did you overcome them?

The challenges had to do with being "the first" at every stage, whether it was at my law firm or in state government or boards and commissions or elected political positions, and subsequent appointments in politics, government agencies, and private legal organizations, including the Inn of Court. How did I overcome it? With a lot of help. 

In my speech to NJSWEP in 2011 - Growing Great Women Don't Let Them Be Trapped in Amber - I was not talking about people in the past, I was talking about people in the future. Meaning, in contemporary life, don't get trapped in amber - don't get stuck and give up - which can happen unless people have some standards and goals they are going to really stick to and have the people around them see to it they are getting moved along.  So, it can be for younger women, or it can be for people in mid-career, or people who have other gifts to give who have now come through - they are no longer the first anymore.  They are no longer the "firsts;" they are in the positions to become leaders in their law firms, leaders in their engineering company, leaders in political life, and leaders in the public and private sectors. It is important that they not get caught in amber - that they not give up because they feel they aren't getting any place.  And it is important for those who determined to help them say, "there is talent here and it can't be wasted," because talent is such a fragile, fragile thing. 

Would you share some specific examples of who helped you along the way?

I had a mentor - formal or informal - at every stage; whether it was my parents, all of my teachers in grade school, high school, law school, and in my law firm. And, all the people I worked with subsequently, whether it was in government or appointed boards and commissions. 

A lot of help really came from my clients because they were the ones who gave me an opportunity to start at the beginning of what has become an environmental specialty, which did not exist when I first got out of law school and didn't come into anybody's curriculum for years. So, it helped very much to be at the beginning by being in state government at the time and drafting the laws and passing the laws. And, because I was a state senator, I had an opportunity to work with the legislative branch and the executive branch. When I became commissioner for the DEP, it was still in its nascent period, but one in which I could watch first-hand, smiling to myself as more and more women were coming into the profession.

You mentioned how your clients gave you an opportunity.  How did you go about getting your first clients?  How did people find you in private practice?

I figured it out when I first came to New Jersey because I had never been here before in my life.  My husband went to Bell Labs and that brought us to Summit, NJ, and that's when I started getting a job as a lawyer.  Many people, even in my law school class, never believed I intended to practice, which I found fairly astonishing.  But anyhow, I figured out pretty quickly that it was my job to get my clients. That I was going to have a period of time in which my small firm was going to have me work on their matters. But there would come a time - which no law school or other professional schools tell you - when you are on your own. You'd better figure that out quickly, and then start developing your own clientele.  In any profession you are going to have to be doing that in order to be able to have a full career, or have the sense to change it if that is not working, because not everybody's personality is such that they could do that. One way that helped me -- because back in the day lawyers could not advertise - was going into political office, which I'd always wanted to do anyhow. Finding an opportunity or a way to give yourself an opportunity comes because sometimes you get some good breaks, or sometimes it is because an avenue opened up to you because of your connections or the organizations to which you belong.  Those organizations give you provenance because you do a good job and then you start to know your colleagues through them.  I don't like the term networking - I think it is overworked.  But you develop relationships with people in what I call a "repertory theater," because we are all going to know each other in one sector or another. And, you may develop those relationships through organizations that are important ones for you to be associated with.  That becomes one of the vehicles in which you get to know people and they get to know you are reliable, that you care about their business, and you are willing to put in the time and effort to know as much about it as possible, and of course to use your own skills in your profession. I'm not just talking about law here, I'm talking about engineers, doctors, and lawyers and all of the learned professions, which is especially what your organization (NJSWEP) is about. 

Did you have a formal/informal mentor?

I was lucky to have parents who had discussions - challenging ones - at the dinner table. We never talked about "what did you do at school today" without politics entering into it, including national affairs and policy issues that were compelling at the time. And, these were grown-up conversations. So it started right there, in my own family. Both my mother and my father used the Socratic method. And because I was brought up in a mountain resort (the Fitzgerald Mountain Lodge in Lake Arrowhead California), we had 15 people at the table every night. So it was not just my parents, it was the very interesting group of people that came from all over the country, including members of the press, entertainment, members of the neighborhood, as well as my own friends.  It was unique.

Moving on from there, of course the teachers I was really lucky to have.  And I started my political career in the 4th grade.  That was the sort of thing I really enjoyed,  And going through high school and university, where I continued to do those kinds of things.  

What is the relationship between your success and luck?

You can't take one without the other. And sometimes there are a lot of setbacks too. Success is hardly a linear situation for anybody. There are days when we really want to stay in bed and put the covers over our heads.  But, I was very lucky in the sense of having my background and no one ever told me "you can't do this," throughout my career.  My family and all of these people I've talked about - I was incredibly helped by having mentors.  We didn't use that term in those days. I clerked for nine months and I had a preceptor, who has remained my partner and dear friend to this day. I still practice with him.  That kind of thing is becoming unusual.  There is so much more mobility today, at least within the legal world.  I can't speak for the other professions but I think it is a trend that is different from the one in which I prospered in.

People are so mobile now. Are they not developing the kind of relationships you were developing?

Either that or they also don't seem to have very much interest in loyalty about the place that teaches them.  That's something they should be thinking about.  Unless of course they are not getting the kind of opportunities they need.  

You were never told you couldn't do something.  Was it that you came up with ideas and were never discouraged, or were you actively told you can do this, you can do that?  Both?

It was a combination.  For example, I applied to the university I wanted to go to, but I never asked my parents if it was alright.  So I went to Stanford. And they said, that's OK.  But no matter what it was that I said I was going to do, my parents didn't say you couldn't do that.  They said, "go ahead."  When my husband was in the Navy, I said I'm not staying home.  So I took Holly -- my then 4-year old -- with me and we followed his ship around Japan. I wasn't on the ship of course.  And then with two kids - first Holly and then Chris  - we were in the south of France and followed the ship wherever it was.  My mother-in-law was not happy about either thing.  Including law school.

She thought you should be home with the kids?

Oh, yes.  Home with the kids and home in the US.  She didn't think law school was a good idea.  She didn't think going into politics was a good idea.  And this was not an uneducated woman. She had a master's degree from Stanford from 1916. But it just shows you the contrast between a really smart and gifted person who was pretty much caught in amber herself. And later on, I think she even thought that what I was doing was OK, but it was still so different from her generation and mine that being 3,000 miles away was probably a good thing.  My father-in-law was completely different.  He was brought up by an extraordinary group of professional women.  His father died when he was 18 months old. This was about 1895.  He was raised by the first women doctors, opthamologists, PHDs, suffragettes, so he was from a completely different background.  And when in doubt, I knew that my father-in-law was going to say whatever it was I wanted to do, it was OK with him.

And I assume that followed down to his son as well?  You couldn't have done all of this without support.

Absolutely. From the minute I made [my husband, Alan] type my first paper. Well no, I asked him to type it. -- I cannot type.  I found men who could and they typed for me and continued to do so.  I couldn't do margins.  And he has continued to do that through the times you [Jillian] knew him.  But, of course, he was an extraordinary person with a very fabulous science and technical background with many interests.  He was with Bell Labs for many years, on the [lab bench] and then in Administration.

How did the two of you balance that?

Let's make this very clear.  Nobody got to do all of the things I got to do without a lot of help. For many, many years I paid my household staff more than I made. You cannot do this without the help of all of the qualified people you can possibly have.  It is one thing to go and spend the time and money to be at a university. That does not change.  You must have the help of qualified people if you want to do things you think you want to do.  And if you don't want to do that or give that sort of - there is a financial sacrifice in that - but you make a value judgement and it is very hard, as we all know, to move in a career that you want to have going forward if you step away from it and then want to get back in.  For many of the women - and men - who I know who do that, there is a bias against it. And they feel as if they have to start all over again, instead of being seen as someone with life experience and maturity, which makes them much more valuable to their clients and society.  

How would you recommend that people address that?  For someone who needs to take a step back for a while, or at least reduce responsibility, are there ways to do it that you have seen to be successful?

It depends.  If it is a family situation where there is illness involved, no matter whether it is parents or your own children, or your spouse, these are ones where the policy set by the employer is absolutely critical. And then being told -- just like a veteran's provision -- that you'll have the same job when you come back. And we have done that as a matter of national policy in matters of great urgency - like wartime.  If people have circumstances in which there is no reliable way for it to be managed except for that person - whether it is a man or a woman, then that is the formal policy that I would hope the organization would have.  A policy that you could understand at the time you are getting hired.  So that you don't get to the point where you need it, and only then say "are you telling me I don't get X, Y and Z?" And the employer says "that was never our policy, but we wish you the best and when the situation clears up, please come back and see us and we'll see if we can accommodate you."  That's the benign brush off.  And whether it is discrimination is another issue for another day.

What is your short, three-priority mission statement?

The first part is never give up your personal integrity.

Second, honor every person you interact with in your work, personal life and community.  A lot of that came from my parents dining room table and what I observed with them every day.

The third one is be optimistic every day.

Why are these your three?

How you interact with someone -- even just opening the door for someone - these are acts of courtesy at every level. No one's job is not to be honored.  I saw that many times and it went on through my political life when I was managing a whole bunch of people and shaking hands with every cat and dog there was.

And that's when you've got to be optimistic too.  I only won one of my campaigns. Somethings you really have to suck it up. So I was in the wrong demographic place in the wrong year. Don't run when George McGovern is running. However Nixon did get caught, didn't he?  So if you live long enough, he who laughs lasts laughs lasts, right. 

The first part about personal integrity is the most important.  There will be times in everyone's life and career when somebody will ask you to, or demand of you, something you innately feel is wrong and if you say ok I'll do it, it will be completely against your values.  And in some fields it could cost you your license. Or your certifications.  Or expose you to some really bad things - and not just criminal liability.  There will always be somebody who thinks you will do anything to curry their favor or keep them as a client, or customer.  There  you are at university and they say they have an honor code where people will not cheat.  And if you do, then who are you cheating?  You are cheating yourself.  So that goes back to Stanford, to High school, to how you are brought up.  

That comes with something that is very important in our own personal DNA and it's the sort of thing that makes for good professionals, for people that you trust. There are people who in every circumstance you say, "I have a lot of fun with them, but I'm not going to do business with them" and you probably won't continue having those social experiences with them.  This resonates with everybody.  They may say "Gee, would you change your expert's report?" Or  "You don't have to put down those particular figures on this regulatory form." These kind of requests from clients or their agents or employees who thought they were doing them a favor because no one explained to them that that was not the culture.  That really what I'm talking about here. What is the culture you are involved with?  Is it one where you have confidence that you can either guide your clients and it will be taken seriously, or they are no longer your client. That is a tough thing when people have a pay roll they need to make.  I'm not saying that it is simple.  But most people have their own inner conscious that says, wait a minute, this isn't a good idea.  It doesn't mean you have to be unpleasant about it. You just have to say, "Gosh I wish I could help you but I can't take on this matter at this time." If they want to bad mouth you, so much the better, because look at who is bad mouthing you.  And besides, we have long careers.

I'm good about knowing early on what I'm no good at - whether it is typing - we had a rule in our household, Alan English was involved in all matters involving metallurgy.  I was involved in everything else.  I did take a course in metallurgy but I was careful not to bring it up.  Be careful with what you know.

How has the workforce changed in a way that you could not have expected?

On the legal side, my daughter, who does employment law wrote a book ten years ago, A Gender on Trial.  It is a published working resource. I asked her recently if it is time to do a pocket part [to update it] and she said there is no reason to because nothing has changed. And I find that stultifying. There is no rational reason for women not to be the lead partners, for women not to be the lead technicians, for more women not to be elected to office, for women not to be policy leaders. I worry every time a company seems to be on the skids.  That when they bring in a woman to be CEO.  They say ok this is going down the tubes, here's a good idea, let's find a woman off of EMILY's List or put these women onto the board where they will then be ignored because they don't have the votes or the stature to guide the company, whether that is on the business side or the cultural side.  If you just start making it look good as opposed to being substantive good because you care about your business, or your law firm, or your engineering firm, or you care about the abilities of people to go into the regulatory side of the world that we depend upon to be speaking the same language as our experts -- and we don't invest in them with enough money to make these institutions viable -- those are things that I think are very troubling. Individual professionals should be writing whatever kind of thing they can write for whatever publication will publish them so that they can be gaining expertise, and they should join as many organizations as they can that will encourage them and help to stabilize them if they need to change careers or companies.  Everybody has to make their own career.  If you are looking for someone else to do it for you, good luck. Don't count on it. That makes it sound very individualistic -- it is.  Not everybody thrives in the same kinds of organizations. 

This is the kind of thing that you used to be able to take to the bank.  If some other lawyer told me, this is what we agreed on, and this is what we are going to do, I could take that to the bank.

One of the things that bothered me when I went into public service as counsel to the governor and DEP Commissioner and the Port Authority is that I didn't have the comfort of being able to say, let's put that on the record so that there would be no question about it.  But it would be pretty rare that you would have to resort to something like that unless somebody was so untrustworthy that you knew was the only thing you could do, at which point you already knew it was going to be pretty hostile.  I never had the feeling, with at least in most of the stuff that I was dealing with, that I couldn't take that person's word for it.  It became terribly important in politics, if somebody told me that that was what they were going to do, I knew that would be the case because that was the culture of the time. And if they disappointed me, they would at least come to me and say "I want to explain why I had to change my position", and they would tell me, and that would be the candor you would have to have with the people who also had a personal need for a long view of their career.  I've watched that in the engineering world. One of the really good opportunities was that many of my clients would let me come into the company and be there while the decisions were being made and I watched the collegial approach that engineers used with one another.  That was not our normal combative legal adversary who comes out real quick even among people on the same side.  These are things that become important also for all the people we are allegedly trying to mentor.  If you tell somebody something and you have the authority to do so - and you can always say "I don't have the authority to bind my client to X, Y, and Z" - that's OK, don't get above yourself and pretend that you do.  That's kind of eternal. But are people telling each other the same kinds of things that you and I agree on?  I have no idea.  And should that be part for the culture? Part of the training in all of our organizations? It is part of seeking out where you think ought to be [what organizations you think you ought to join].  It takes time, it takes money.  People say, I can't do that, I've got to do XY and Z.  Its bizarre to say that staying professionally competent is what is forcing people to join organizations and take classes and find out what is going on. Everyone struggles around and says how hard it is for everyone to get ethics credits.  But the ethics requirement started a long time before there was any credits.  It started with the lessons that you got at home.  But there are some people who never had that sort of benefit as a young person or growing up, and it get instilled in them as a result of the organizations that they are lucky enough to be in, and they spend the money and the time to be in. 

Any final words?

I want to close with this quote from Dorothy Parker, a columnist from years ago: "That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgement" 1893-1967

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