A supportive boss and a refusal to conform to stereotypes paved the way for this agency president
This month Rough Notes presents the first profile in a new series titled “Broken Glass.” In this space you’ll meet women who have defied stereotypes, shrugged off detractors, and leveraged drive and determination to achieve top leadership posts in the traditionally conservative independent agency arena. This month we’re profiling Dawn Law, a 30-plus-year veteran of the insurance business, who describes her path to the top spot at an all-lines New Jersey agency.
At the turn of the last century, author Horatio Alger famously chronicled the lives of fictional boys, frequently orphaned, who persevered despite daunting obstacles to become wealthy and successful men. With titles like Luck and Pluck, Sink or Swim, and Bound to Rise, these stirring tales inspired generations of young men to follow their dreams and achieve impossibly lofty goals while remaining modest and humble.
Because no such inspirational volumes existed for girls, I read my way through my father’s well-loved Alger collection and dared to dream of a life beyond the deadening drudgery of housework. When I began my insurance publishing career, my employer forbade women to wear pants in the workplace … and finally relented to the extent of permitting pantsuits with matching tops and bottoms. Dissatisfied with this grudging grant of partial freedom, I led a crusade to achieve equal sartorial rights for women. So long as men were allowed to wear sports jackets and non-matching trousers, I declared, women likewise should be able to “mix and match.” Management, unable to refute this argument with a shred of logic or reason, caved to the pressure, and a new era of equality dawned at this old boys’ club—at least with respect to business attire.
That was then; this is now, and it’s time to meet Dawn Law and hear another kind of Horatio Alger story.
Law began her insurance career with Allstate, where she worked part time while in high school as part of DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America). After graduating, she worked there full time as a customer service representative. She left Allstate, obtained her insurance license, and joined an agency, leaving after a year to go to another agency.
Sounds like smooth sailing so far … but wait.
“At the second agency, I ended up as part of a criminal investigation,” Law says with a rueful laugh. “The owner of the agency tried to put the blame on me, because I was young and new. Of course, I left. I decided that if I wanted to stay in insurance, I needed to find a job with a stable agency, and around that time I met Nick San Filippo, who owned an all-lines agency, and accepted a position there.”
Settled at last? Not exactly.
“On the first day I reported to work, I was sent home and told to come back the following day, when there would be a big announcement,” Law recalls. “I thought, ‘Here we go again.’ I had just moved out of my family’s house and signed a lease on an apartment, and now I wasn’t sure if I had a job.”
Law returned to the agency the next day and learned that San Filippo and his partner had decided to part ways. “That was in 1985. American Insurance Services Agency opened for business on January 15, 1986, and I’ve been with Nick ever since. I started as a personal lines customer service rep, and six months later I was thrown into the commercial lines department, when a CSR quit. Then a few weeks later, the manager quit.
In the mid-90s, the office manager left and I was promoted to that position. I was named vice president and became a partner in 2001. In 2015 I became president of the agency.” In addition to American Insurance Services Agency, Law runs two other agencies: Comp-Care Brokerage, a workers compensation and business auto specialist; and New Jersey Agency Network, the master agency in New Jersey for the Strategic Insurance Agency Alliance.
Thanks to Nick San Filippo’s positive attitude toward women in the insurance business, Law encountered no discriminatory behavior in the agency and instead found in him a staunch ally and advocate. As a woman who’s been in the industry for more than 30 years, however, Law has experienced some less fair-minded treatment—and not just from men.
“When I was at Allstate, I had a female supervisor with curly hair,” she recounts. “She ironed her hair every morning before work started, because it was required by the company. Once I started working for Nick, I didn’t have to deal with any discrimination internally. Externally, it was another story. Some clients and carrier personnel were patronizing toward me.
“Today things are very different,” she continues. “It’s a whole new world as far as discrimination is concerned—not just for women but for people in other groups that have been marginalized for decades. Women have made great strides in the workplace in all fields of endeavor, and we’re being recognized for our achievements. When I came into the insurance business, there were few, if any, female agency principals or women in positions of responsibility with carriers. Now it’s common for women to hold high executive positions with carriers and to own and operate agencies.”
When confronted with someone who doesn’t seem to respect women, Law says she doesn’t take it personally. “I’ve always been a strong person and very independent. I don’t let anyone define me, and if I hear a negative comment, I know I can take care of myself. There was a man who worked at the agency for a couple of years, and he made the statement to another employee that I had become vice president by means of something other than hard work. It had never occurred to me before that people would ever think that. It was so ridiculous. I went into Nick’s office and said, ‘Did you know that I got my job because of our close personal relationship?’ He was in shock just as I had been when I heard the remark. It just was never an issue for us.
“Nick has been a great mentor and support, and we’ve always had a strong relationship based on trust and respect,” Law observes. “He was always the idea person, while I’ve been the operations person, so he would come up with new concepts and I would work to implement them.
“Basically, I think everyone has to earn respect, and that’s what I’ve tried to do throughout my career,” Law continues. “There will always be people who think women don’t measure up, and as women, we can’t take that personally. I keep calm, but I’m not afraid to confront someone who is disrespectful to me as a woman.”
“You can accomplish anything you want to accomplish… You keep your nose down and work very hard.”
Within the agency, Law explains, there’s a culture of equality and mutual respect. “No one makes sexist remarks or discriminates in any way,” she says. She adds, however, “A while ago, one guy kept referring to women as ‘girls.’ He was always pleasant and didn’t mean that he thought women were inferior, but I had to explain to him that he couldn’t do that. That took care of the problem.”
Reaching the top
How did Law feel when she became president of the agency?
“In a way it was a non-event because the plan was always that I would succeed Nick,” she says. “Over the years that I was vice president, I’d been taking on more and more responsibility for running the agency, but almost until the last minute I’d thought that it would be a while before I took over. Then one day Nick told me, essentially: ‘It’s yours,’ and everything changed.
“It was a huge change for me personally,” she continues. “I realized that now I was carrying the weight by myself. As vice president, I was already basically running the agency, but I didn’t realize until I became president what it felt like to have complete responsibility for everything. I’m responsible for people—our 23 employees and their families—and for our relationships with carriers, insureds, and the community. I’m responsible for maintaining the agency’s high standards of integrity and ethical behavior and for running a profitable operation in a positive work environment. Being head of the agency also means taking more risks because, as much thought as I put into a decision, once it’s implemented it affects everyone we deal with.”
A word to young women
What advice can Law offer to young women who may be considering a career in insurance?
“I see tremendous opportunity,” she asserts. “In our industry, I think you can accomplish anything you want to accomplish. I tell my daughter that in the beginning you keep your nose down and work very hard. You have to accept some criticism and some outright guff, but never let anyone take advantage of you. It’s important to keep a balance.
“The opportunities for women in insurance go far beyond being in a service position, unless that’s where you’re happy. Today, women are forming and running agencies and leading major carriers. To me it’s always been about working hard, having integrity, and not accepting any limitations.”
Congratulations to Dawn Law, the subject of our first Broken Glass profile. Dedicated, confident, and determined to succeed, she’s broken decisively through the proverbial glass ceiling and is eager to welcome other women to follow her.
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU