Ask a Leader: Interview with Debra Devassy Babu

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Learning from a Leader: Career Development Advice

Interview with Debra Devassy Babu, Attorney at Law and Shareholder at Askounis & Darcy PC.


AUGUST 2019

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Interview conducted by Jon Gerson, President of Executive Solutions for Leasing & Finance, Inc. and edited by Lexie Dressman, Assistant Vice President, Huntington Equipment Finance. Both are members of the ELFA Emerging Talent Advisory Council. Learn more about this interview series.

When did you first join the equipment financing industry and what has been the trajectory of your career?

I joined the equipment leasing industry in 2004 when I graduated from law school. Like a lot of people, I fell into leasing. When I graduated, I was just looking for a job and wanted to do litigation. I sent my resume to probably 100 firms, and had a few interviews, and the firm that hired me focused on litigation, bankruptcy and collections in equipment leasing. I didn’t even know the industry existed. The firm broke off into another firm 11 years ago, but for all intents and purposes, it stayed the same, as it’s in the same industry with the same clients and work.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your own professional development? How did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge was not even knowing this industry existed. I had to learn about the industry itself and what a huge part of the economy it is, as well as how prevalent it is despite the lack of publicity. I had to learn the law surrounding this practice area, which involves the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Educating myself on these aspects was probably the most challenging, since I didn’t study any of this in law school. So I hit the books, cracked open the UCC and read through it (which is hard, especially when you don’t know it). I also spoke to the partners and other attorneys in the firm. I gained experience just by working on each case, learning more and more about the field. At some point, I got involved with ELFA by attending the Legal Forum. This was important as an attorney, because the Forum is specifically geared toward equipment leasing law, and in what direction the law is moving. I think attending the Forum was the most helpful, but it was after having some context and understanding of the business from practicing for a few years.

When did you first get involved with ELFA and how have you been engaged as a member thus far? How has being in ELFA helped your career?

My prior firm was involved from the 90s onward. When I joined in 2004, the partners were involved in ELFA and attended conferences, and they had a lot of ELFA materials in our office. Before I started attending, I would look at the materials. I believe I started attending conferences in 2008. I have been to the Forum every year but one and, since then, I’ve gotten involved in some other conferences and committees.

What is the most rewarding risk of your career?

I think there are risks professionally and personally. On the professional side, as an attorney, there is risk when you are arguing something without a lot of case law, because you don’t know if the judge will accept your argument. But it is also exciting and challenging. On the personal side, when you first start coming to conferences, it can be intimidating when you don’t know people. Of course, I knew the attorneys from my firm, and they did what they could to help get me introduced, but it’s hard to walk into a cocktail party and meet people. The more conferences that I attended, the more people I met, and talking to people and introducing myself became easier.

If you had to pick one, which is more important when considering a hire—a soft or technical background? You can’t pick both, and please include which soft or technical skill is most beneficial to success. 

Obviously, if you’re looking to hire an attorney, you’re looking for a Juris Doctor degree, writing skills, ability to think on your feet and litigation skills. Emotional intelligence is definitely important. Being articulate and able to communicate with people is almost as important as technical skills, because if you can’t get your point across, it does you no good.

What are the top 3 pieces of advice you would give to someone just entering the industry?

First, I would say try to be like a sponge. I think almost everyone I’ve met has fallen into equipment finance by accident, very similar to myself. So many of us start without knowing anything about the industry, so we don’t have any knowledge or preconceived notions. The most important thing is to learn as much as possible. Second, I would say do not be afraid to ask questions or seek out someone who could be a mentor, whether it’s someone in your organization or more generally, the industry. The more people I knew and could reach out to in ELFA, or in the firm, meant the more people that could help me get my bearings, learn about the industry and learn about the changes in the law. It is too much for one person to know completely, so collaboration is huge. Third is a piece of advice my law partner and I discuss. If you don’t know a lot about the industry or practice area, you have to just put in the time. In the beginning, there is so much time you have to put in off the clock because you’re not sure what you’re doing, so you have to read to sort through some things in your mind. It’s not time spent necessarily as a lawyer, not time you could bill for to work on a project. Instead, it is time you have to put in to work on yourself and to learn more.

Given that the ELFA recently updated its mission statement and strategic plan to affirm its commitment to diversity and inclusion, can you give some perspective on what it is like being a woman in the industry?

I think the last 10-11 years that I’ve been attending conferences, I’ve really noticed a change. I notice ELFA trying to make an effort to put together a more diverse group of people, in terms of bringing people into the industry, speakers, panels and leadership roles. It is much more diverse than it used to be. When I first attended a Women in Leasing group meeting in 2008, it was a small group of women and the conversation always turned to, “We’re a small group and we’ve always been small and it’s heartening to see it growing.” For me, I didn’t have context, so the group still seemed small. However, according to some of the more seasoned attendees, the group used to just be 10 women. Seeing more women and more attendees is awesome. I definitely see a change, particularly on the leadership side.