Why did you go to law school?
I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer in eighth grade. I had no lawyers in my family, obviously. When I was a senior in college, one of my professors said to me, “Julie, have you ever met a lawyer?” I said, “No.” He said, “Before you sign the papers to incur a lot of debt, I’d at least like to know that you’ve met a lawyer.” So he set me up with an informational interview. And then I went to Columbia Law School, and then straight from Columbia to Cravath, Swaine & Moore.
“Clients constantly are saying to me, ‘The most important thing you can do is to tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear.’” — Julie Sweet of Accenture
Cravath is a famously old-school firm. How did you find the culture?
When I came back from the interview at Cravath, all the women said, “What are you doing?” Cravath at the time had two women partners, and its history goes back to 1841. Ultimately, I was the ninth woman partner, the third in the corporate department. But for me it was, “O.K., fine. There’s no women there, but it’s the best firm, and I’m going to go.”
In 1999, I was two weeks away from the meeting where I was elected partner, and we had our first unconscious-bias training. I was one of only a couple of women in the room and the most senior one. The facilitator, a woman, was going through all these different scenarios, and she turned to me and she said, “Julie, you’re a senior woman here. Have you had any of these experiences?” To this day, I remember I went to speak, and I started sobbing. I could not speak. I couldn’t compose myself, and I left. I went back to my office.
Were you concerned about crying in front of your colleagues?
No. I was going to be a partner. It was one of those things that you wouldn’t choose to have done in front of your colleagues. And there wasn’t some big scandal. But it made me think about all the things that I’d gone through, that you just dealt with. Once I became a partner at Cravath, I helped start the first women’s program at the firm. Now Cravath has 25 percent women partners, which is just extraordinary.
Many lawyers never leave Cravath, but you moved on after 17 years. Why?
I was sitting at my desk and I picked up the phone because my assistant had stepped away, and it was a recruiter I knew through social circles. She said, “I know you don’t want to leave Cravath. I know no one ever leaves there. But I have this great opportunity.”
My dad had died that summer, and I always look back and wonder: Why did I take the call? Why did I take the meeting? I had two small kids. I was very successful. I could see my future. So I took a meeting with Accenture. I went as general counsel, and five years later I became C.E.O. for North America.
Tell me more about feeling like you could see the future.
It’s about not wanting to be complacent, and wanting to continue to be challenged and learn. It’s this idea of if you can see your future, then you probably are not challenging yourself enough. I have this little plaque that my husband hung on our wall at home. It says, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.”