Mentors, Court Experience Help Build Path to Success

May 2011Articles The Philadelphia Bar Reporter

Their success in commercial litigation is undisputed, and although their paths varied, their advice at the Women in the Profession Committee Meeting on March 29 was the same--find a mentor, seek out opportunities to get into the courtroom, and come through when it is essential. The panelists included Barbara W. Mather, Elizabeth K. Ainslie and Sherrie R. Savett. The successful litigators and leaders in their fields shared tips on how to be successful litigators.

Mather began her career at Pepper Hamilton LLP as the firm’s second woman attorney. She is now a partner at the firm and past chair of the firm’s Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department. To gain valuable litigation experience, Mather sought out work that would get her inside a courtroom, such as adversary work from the bankruptcy department and injunction litigation involving restrictive covenants. Mather observed that teaching was one of the most valuable lessons because it taught her to be reasonably engaging for 45 minutes. Mather also noted that if a woman attorney wants to be in charge of a case, she has to be viewed as someone who will, and can, try it to verdict. In order to create that perception, women attorneys must volunteer for tough cases and seek out opportunities to get into the courtroom.

Ainslie, now a partner at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, took a slightly different track. After joining a firm in Boston as the first woman and part-time attorney in the litigation department, she moved to Philadelphia and began working at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. She spent five years prosecuting white-collar crimes, and after the birth of her first child, asked for a four-day workweek, despite the fact that the office had no part-time lawyers at the time. She then started her own firm, which she recognized as the best move she had ever made. It was there she learned to ask clients for work and tried over 500 cases to verdict. Ainsle suggested that an ideal time for women attorneys to start their own firm is after having children because it offers women the flexibility to have a better work-life balance.

Savett started her career at Berger & Montague where she is chair of the Securities Litigation Department and member of the Management Committee. Savett did not encounter many of the obstacles that she believes women encountered at other large law firms because the partnership recognized talent despite an attorney’s gender, race or nationality. Although she struggled to find good female role models, she connected early on with Mather and received valuableadvice about juggling work and home life. Savett commented that not all cases go to trial and not every woman wants to be first chair. She recognized that women could be valuable members of a trial team no matter what their role. She also noted the benefit of part-time policies because most women will return to the firm with a tremendous amount of commitment. Savett feels an obligation to mentor young women who are coming through the ranks today.

All three women agreed that women who succeed in litigation have an excellent work ethic and come through when it is essential--even if they have children and are working part-time. On the other hand, Mather recommended, and Ainsle and Savett agreed, that if women with children want to work at a full pace, they should have short commutes and an excellent support system with several layers of back-up child care.