Stacey Friedman is who she is, and sometimes just being yourself can help make a difference.
That's why when she became a partner at a high-powered Wall Street law firm — at the time she was one of only 30 women out of 172 partners and the first to be openly gay — she opted to take on a more visible role in the push for LGBT rights.
"You realize that it has a ripple effect," said Friedman, who achieved partner status at Sullivan & Cromwell in 2007 and is now general counsel for JPMorgan Chase. "If people are going to laud you and notice you for it, then you should make sure you use that as a platform for change."
Friedman is perhaps best known in banking as a tough financial litigator. She is one of the architects of JPMorgan's crisis-era legal strategy, and has had a hand in several major negotiations, including its $13 billion mortgage settlement three years ago with state and federal regulators.
But her reputation goes beyond banking too. Friedman — who has a cool-headed, personable demeanor and an interest in social justice — has taken on high-profile pro bono cases in recent years, including one that successfully struck down a ban on gay adoption in Arkansas. She is also actively involved with SAGE, an advocacy group, on an initiative that ensures gay seniors have safe and affordable places to live.
Among the many demands on her time, Friedman, who describes her top job in banking as a "place of privilege," makes it a priority to participate on panel discussions, because she wants young bankers and lawyers to see that sexual orientation and gender should not be a barrier to success.
"It's undeniable that all of the things that make all of us up are obstacles or benefits along the way, and I wouldn't look at that fact of my life and assume it was never an obstacle — of course it was," Friedman said.
Though she said she has always been surrounded by supportive colleagues, "that isn't the case in every corner of every financial institution or every company."
Friedman stepped up to her current role in January, succeeding Stephen Cutler, who became vice chairman. She joined JPMorgan in 2012 as general counsel of the corporate and investment division. When she was at Sullivan, JPMorgan was one of her clients.
Her work on important negotiations — from the blockbuster mortgage settlement to the resolution of foreign-exchange trading probes — has propelled her to the executive suite.
But in an industry where great ambition is par for the course, Friedman also has distinguished herself through a dedication to social issues.
One of her proudest moments was working on a ballot initiative in Arkansas aimed at prohibiting same-sex couples from adopting children. The American Civil Liberties Union approached Friedman about taking on the case in September 2008, when she was still at Sullivan. The initiative would have made it illegal for cohabitating, unmarried couples to adopt.
Though she worried about the timing — many of her clients were teetering on the brink during the financial crisis — the firm agreed to take it on.
Friedman and her team built their case to focus on the effect of the law on children in foster care. She cited research showing the poor health outcomes, such as high rates of suicide and drug use, among those who aren't adopted into caring homes.
The trial judge ruled in her favor, and the ballot initiative was ultimately struck down. "It came to the right conclusion: You can't exclude kids from loving homes based on unsubstantiated beliefs," said Friedman, who is married with two children.
Earlier this year, she expanded the pro bono program at JPMorgan, implementing a three- to six-month paid fellowship for attorneys to work on a legal service project.
Friedman now oversees 1,900 attorneys across the globe, and is the only woman to serve as the general counsel of a systemically important U.S. bank.
Friedman has spent much of her time of late reworking the bank's living-will plan.
JPMorgan was one of a handful of big banks to receive a failing grade on its living-will submission in April. Friedman said she got the news the afternoon before the results were announced, as she was sitting with her colleagues in Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon's conference room.
Friedman said the experience was an exercise in planning ahead and not assuming that things will go your way. "We have a phrase around here: Adjust your reality quickly," she said.
The resubmission is due in October. JPMorgan also continues to work through a long list of crisis-era cases, even as other issues, like the legal fallout from Brexit, keep arising. But Friedman said she welcomes all of it.
"You sit in this seat, in part, because you want the questions that come to you where there aren't any good answers," she said.