October 10, 2017

A BigLaw Ladies’ Guide To Becoming A 1st-Chair Trial Lawyer

October 6, 2017

On Aug. 8, Judge Shira Scheindlin published an op-ed in The New York Times discussing the statistical truth that law firms have poor representation of female attorneys as first-chair trial lawyers. Titled, “Female Lawyers Can Talk, Too,” Judge Scheindlin’s piece observed that progress in making women first-chair trial attorneys at private law firms has stalled, particularly relative to government attorneys. Backed by data collected by the New York State Bar Association, Judge Scheindlin’s observation is not merely anecdotal.

But it doesn’t have to be inevitable. I am a female, homegrown, BigLaw lawyer who managed to become a first-chair trial lawyer while working at a big firm. In the past, I have directed advice at BigLaw, advocating for institutional measures that can help junior female attorneys develop into first-chair trial lawyers. But the purpose of this article is to provide guidance to female BigLaw associates who want to become first-chair trial lawyers.

Having spent nearly nine years as a BigLaw associate, and now six more as a partner, I’ve seen this journey from all points on the timeline. And frankly, when I was an associate, I “lucked” into hospitable circumstances that helped me develop my trial skills. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I have a better perspective on what is important and fruitful and what is not, which hopefully will be of use to others who are beginning their journeys.


Becoming a trial lawyer takes a lot of time and effort. Some of this might be accomplished on the dime of a client, but most isn’t. Nor is all of this work properly subsidized by your employer, though they should recognize and applaud your efforts. I tell trial associates that, in my opinion, investment in their trial development should be 85 percent them, 15 percent firm. The reasons for this are, first, that your career is portable to you, so it makes sense for you to be the bigger investor, and second, that becoming a trial lawyer takes a certain amount of passion, which has to translate to a willingness to dedicate effort to it on your personal time.

So how do you invest? For starters, read and read widely. There are a lot of good books about trial lawyers out there. One of my favorites that deals with the mechanics of trial work is “The Trial Lawyer” by David Berg . . . . There are some really good fiction and narrative-style books out there too (see, e.g., “Anatomy of a Murder” by Robert Traver and “The Caine Mutiny” by Herman Wouk). Read trial transcripts too. If you work at the right firm, these should not be hard to come by.

Also, go watch trials. If your firm does a respectable amount of trial work, your colleagues will try cases periodically in your jurisdiction. Even if you are not personally staffed to a case, go watch. This will give you invaluable perspective on different styles and approaches. Will this cut into your billable time? Yes. But getting this exposure is well worth the late nights. Federal district court clerkships are also invaluable trial exposure opportunities.

Finally, jump-start your own on-your-feet experience. Take on pro bono matters that require you to appear in court and examine witnesses. Make it clear within your firm that you’re willing to take witnesses. And do this even if it scares you to death — do it especially if it scares you to death. I read somewhere that women tend not to ask for promotions or new experiences until they feel 100 percent qualified to undertake them. If you are a woman for whom this is true, you need to put that down right now, and volunteer for as many trial-level responsibilities that come your way. The fear will always be there. Having a bank of successful past experiences to draw on is the only thing that even remotely makes that better. Plus, trial skills are iterative. You will stink at first. It is best to get the stinking over with as quickly as possible.


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