It was the early 1990s and Amy Schulman was a young lawyer about to conduct her first deposition. She arrived an hour and a half early for the appointment. She readied her Post-It notes and an outline, in case she got nervous and forgot what to say. But when the deposition started, she sat on a chair and promptly fell backwards with her skirt over her head and her legs in the air.

Schulman had to pick herself up and move on, with a partner from her law firm watching her every move. In her quest to exert greater influence over witnesses by appearing taller and more imposing, Schulman had adjusted the chair seat to a higher position. But she rotated it from the base so much that the seat became completely unscrewed. The lesson she learned was a simple one: Be yourself. Schulman, now senior vice president and general counsel of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, shared this and other career insights at the 12th Annual Wharton Women in Business Conference held recently in Philadelphia.

An attorney and former partner at DLA Piper, she joined Pfizer two years ago and led the legal team in the drug maker’s $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals in 2009. The National Law Journal named her to its list of the “20 Most Influential General Counsels” last year while Forbes magazine included her as one of “The World’s Most Powerful Women.” Such a career trajectory might imply that Schulman had it easy, that she always got things right. By her own admission, however, Schulman has made her share of mistakes but said she learned to accept and learn from them. Along the way, Schulman rose to a position she never imagined she would attain when she was starting out.

As a teenager in 1979, Schulman thought she would spend her life organizing farm workers. But her path to a successful legal career was paved a little bit at a time by two generations of women in her family. Her grandmother’s family did not have enough money to send the women to school, so Schulman’s grandmother became a legal secretary and ended up marrying her boss, a federal judge. Schulman’s mother married at 20, had two kids, divorced and went to law school at 45. Schulman attended Yale Law School at 28, and about two decades later achieved her current position at Pfizer.

While rising through the ranks, she has learned valuable lessons about success. For one, she stressed that men and women don’t need to strive for perfection to do well because no one gets it right all of the time. The key is to acknowledge the missteps and use them to grow, without being paralyzed by the fear of showing flaws. Still, Schulman noted that ambitious women tend to operate in a “dutiful daughter” mode and do everything the employer wants, perfectly. Schulman admitted she felt the same way early on as a young attorney. “I was so scared that if anybody learned I wasn’t perfect I was immediately going to get thrown out,” she said. “We had to get it right. ‘Right’ meant you didn’t make a mistake.”

But such a perfectionist mindset can be constricting to one’s career, Schulman pointed out, because there is no chance to learn and mature from the experience of getting things wrong. When a mistake is made, Schulman said, the tendency of many people is to either ignore it and hope no one else has noticed, or to think the error so glaring that it is all anyone can see. Instead, she advised the audience to strive for a balance and see the mistakes for what they are — and remember that everyone makes them. “The ability to say ‘I’ve made a mistake’ … requires a certain level of maturity that I think is particularly hard for those of us who grew up succeeding, because we were really good at making sure everything we did was perfect,” Schulman noted.

According to Schulman, women also tend to internalize the dynamics of a situation more than men, and moderating this mental attitude is critical as well. She should know: Not only did she rise up the ranks with more male than female colleagues, Schulman also has three sons at home. This experience helped her observe that when men lose a ball game, they say the field was wet or the referee was outrageously unfair. But women say, “‘I let everybody down. I can’t believe I didn’t handle better the fact that the field was so slippery,'” she noted. “It’s the difference between internalizing and externalizing.”

Women and men interpret the same message differently, she said, and being aware of this difference can be critically important to thriving in the workplace. Schulman recalled that at one law firm, bosses were less than effusive with praise because that was their style. So at partnership reviews, mid-career female lawyers would be told they were doing OK. Women would react with surprise and disappointment. “[They would say] ‘OK? It’s just OK? What do you mean just OK?'” Schulman said. But the men saw the same message more positively and believed that “Everything’s OK! I’m on top of the world!” Later, when both sides compared reviews, Schulman noted, the men would brag about their stellar evaluations, while the women told the group that they had been judged as mediocre. In fact, they had both received the same message.

Schulman suggested that such misinterpretations of messages by women contribute to many female attorneys leaving law firms a few years before they come up for partner. Companies tend to attribute such departures to a female employee’s desire to have a better balance between work and family — something a busy law firm cannot always provide. But Schulman said this pat response to such resignations lets the company off the hook, when instead they should be examining all the reasons behind the exodus. She cautioned that firms should not assume that the choice to leave “takes place absent social context and that women are all happier at home having balanced lives.”

No Perfect Balance

Besides, striking a perfect balance between work and home is an illusion, Schulman maintained. At different points in life, one side will have more pressing needs than the other. “They are never in [balance] because they are not equally and perfectly weighted at any given moment,” she noted. “If you try and juggle them that way, then you are the proverbial parent on the soccer field on her Blackberry, and all you’re doing is cheating both.”

Women should recognize that whatever choices they make at any given point — be it to spend more time with family or to accept a promotion even if it means working longer hours — are not necessarily set in stone for all time, Schulman said. Be open to non-judgmental conversations about choices between family and career, and realize that these choices may change. Once a decision is made, be at peace with it. “There is no doubt that I am not the parent or the mother I would have been had I been home full-time or even part-time,” Schulman noted. “I’m not sure I would have been a better parent or mother or wife…. I just would have been a different one.”

But choosing to focus more on one’s career than family does not mean making unnecessary sacrifices for work, Schulman pointed out. When Schulman had her second baby, she was a mid-level attorney at a big Wall Street law firm and hoped to make partner. She took her 13 weeks of maternity leave, but became anxious that she would be forgotten because of her absence. So when Schulman finally went back to work, she was determined to impress. That is why she quickly agreed to go to the Philippines on behalf of her client, Del Monte, which had some cases involving banana plantations. “I didn’t have to do it, but I didn’t know that. I thought I had to show that I was completely back in the game,” she said. “‘Hey, send me to the Philippines. No problem! It doesn’t matter that I’m still nursing.'”

Schulman said if one of her staff offered to make a similar sacrifice today, she would tell them to spend time with the new baby. Only if the situation was absolutely critical would she ask them back to work before their leave was over. Schulman advised women to strike that balance as well: Give yourselves permission to take a break.

By the time she had her third child, Schulman already was a partner at a law firm. She also could afford a nanny, so she took her youngest on the road with her. But then, something else bothered her: “I actually couldn’t see the next 10 years. It just felt like more of the same,” Schulman noted. “So when the Pfizer job became open, I decided that this was something that was going to be more fun than what I was doing. Fun was the operative word.”

Whatever one chooses to do, Schulman said, a career ultimately has to bring satisfaction and evoke a sense of passion. When Schulman interviews candidates for a job, one of the main qualities she seeks is enthusiasm. Lawyers who do not show much passion give the impression that they just want to beef up their resumes by working at Pfizer. Schulman prefers applicants who can show genuine interest in the company and the work. “The willingness to challenge and reinvent yourself and to say that fun matters is the biggest driver,” Schulman said. “Find those things that excite you and don’t be afraid to show it.”