Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them

From the 2009 article on MsJD.com

Bio for this week's Superwoman JD, Nicole Auerbach:  
Nicole Auerbach is a member of the recently formed Valorem Law Group. She focuses her practice on complex commercial litigation as well as representing clients in arbitrations, mediations and appellate work.

Previously, Auerbach had been a partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman, which she joined in 1993 upon graduating from law school. At Katten, Auerbach co-founded and co-chaired its acclaimed Women's Leadership Forum. In 2005, Auerbach was cited in the Law Bulletin Publishing Company's "40 Illinois Attorneys Under 40 to Watch." She was named as an Illinois Super Lawyer in 2007 and 2008. Recently, Auerbach co-founded the Coalition of Women's Initiatives in Law Firms, a Chicago organization consisting of more than 30 law firms dedicated to the advancement of women in law.

Nicole has been practicing for over 15 years and is a true leader and mentor.  

1. How has being a woman affected your career or legal education?

This is a hard question to answer, as I don’t know what my career or education would have been like if I were a man. I don’t think of the world in terms of “male/female,” so I would like to think that it would be largely the same. I had a great experience in law school, and I have been blessed with a lot of opportunities in my career, having been at a large law firm for almost 15 years, and now, as one of the founding members of a new alternative fee litigation firm in Chicago called Valorem Law Group. 

2. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started practicing law?

I wish someone had told me that it is a journey, not a sprint, and that there are a whole host of paths to success, not just one path with the same stepping stones for everyone.

3. What do you think the legal profession can do to increase the number of senior level females?

I think the elimination of the billable hour is the key to this, as it is, in my mind, one of the aspects that most disproportionately impacts women, as they often find themselves with family or other non-work issues that they must balance.  I also think that law firms must learn how to value efforts other than strictly the generation of billable hours and the origination of business. Because many of the more intangible aspects of law firm work -- maintaining a client,  working a case to a successful outcome or ensuring that associates and staff remain at the firm are harder to measure, these attributes are not always recognized.

4. Being a first year attorney anywhere is tough.  How do you think young attorneys can really hone their skills in their first few years? 

I think it is imperative to really learn the area of law in which you practice. That means doing the work, but also reading periodicals, and seeking every opportunity to “watch” others in action – whether that means observing a deposition, a court hearing, a closing, etc.

5. What advice do you have for young female attorneys looking for a mentor?  Do you feel that there is added value in finding a female mentor?  What should they be looking for in a mentor, and what can they do to make themselves someone you would want to mentor? 

I think that having a mentor or mentors is invaluable, but I think it is important to realize that sometimes the greatest mentors will not be exactly like us. I don’t think that effective mentoring only comes from women to women. I also think that in the absence of a clear “one mentor” arrangement, a lot of value can be gleaned from having a number of different people from whom you can draw different aspects that will help you form who you are as a practitioner.  For example, when I was a young associate in a large firm, I learned about client relationships and client accessibility from one male partner, and networking from another. I learned things about writing and advocacy from a female partner.  All in all, I felt that I got a very well-rounded mentoring experience, although all of the things I learned did not come from one single person.  I do think that it is very helpful to have at least a circle of other women to discuss issues that may be related only to women (issues like maternity leave, opportunities for advancement, etc). It is sometimes difficult to find a more senior woman to act in that role, but peer mentoring and support is often just fine, if not even better.

6. We all have to make sacrifices for our careers, what sacrifices have you made and which would you make again?  

There is no question that we all make sacrfices, and I believe that I have made my share, but because they were all concious sacrifices, I would likely make all or at least most of them again.  First, I’ve sacrificed time with my family (I have 3 boys ages 12, 9 and 6).  I have missed my share of school activities (rarely, because I try to make it to anything special regardless of what is going on with work, but if I was traveling or on trial, that was occasionally impossible).  I think this is the largest sacrifice and the one that has weighed the most on me, but I know that my kids understand the role that work plays in my life and theirs. I am also very lucky to have a hands-on husband, upon whom I depend a great deal. That eases the feeling of sacrifice when I know that he is with my kids.  I also know that I have sacrificed some health, well-being, or just plain “me” time, whether due to working late hours, constant access for clients or the occasional stress that comes with this job.  I happen to love what I do and do not think that I would be the person I am if I were not doing it, so, although I am a firm believer in striking a balance whenever possible, I think sacrifices are part and parcel of getting great enjoyment from anything.

7. What are your interests/hobbies outside of the legal practice?  How important do you think those interests/hobbies have been in maintaining some work life balance?

I have a lot of hobbies outside of law and I think it is imperative to have and maintain outlets no matter what you do. My father instilled a phrase early on in our childhoods and it has never left me – “Work hard, play hard.”  That is the ultimate balance. It’s not perfectly level at all times, but it seems to even out over time.  For me, spending time with my family is one of the things that occupies most of my time outside of law. In addition to that, I am in a book club (it’s been ongoing for more than 12 years! Made up of a lot of women lawyers), I love music (playing, writing and purchasing), I like spending time with friends, I love movies (huge Netflix fan), I like to travel, and I like to play poker.  I also love the news, theatre and other entertainment. If I was not working, there would be no lack of things to fill my day!

8. What has changed the most and the least since you started practicing law?  How have these changes affected you?  

Technology has changed the most, and attitudes, especially among the larger firms, have changed the least.  From a technology standpoint, when I first started, we barely had email. We lived in the library with books and had to be at the offices at all times because cell phones weren’t yet widely used. Now, I do work from wherever I am, via remote-access, blackberry, etc.  I cannot remember the last time I did non-electronic research. I wouldn’t even know how at this point.  For me, the advances in technology have really helped my practice because they allow me to be with my family or away from the office but still in touch after hours. In terms of attitudes, I have not seen that much of a shift in terms of how lawyers are valued at firms. I still think that generating revenue and large billable hours still tends to be the key to success, regardless of the quality of your work and the results that you obtain for your clients. I also remain amazed at the large firm model that continues to raise billable rates, even in the face of this economy. It does not seem ultimately sustainable.

9. What is one change you would like to see in the legal profession in the next 20 years?

I would like to see the elimination of the billable hour. I would also like to see companies and in-house lawyers demanding that firms change.  I would also like to see people who hand out business making a clear effort to consider women and minorities in the mix so that the existing barriers can be leveled faster.  Finally, I would also like to see an 8th day to the week so that we can all have more time for non-work things!

10.  If you could give one piece of advice to new female lawyers, what would it be?

You picked a great profession.  Do not think that there is only one path to success – there are many. Remember that life is a journey, not a sprint, and at times, you need to make lateral or same-level moves in order to find the next step forward. There are a lot of places where the attributes you have and the strengths you have developed are valued. Seek out those opportunities. And, in the end, if they are not readily available to you, then create your own.  Start your own firm, break down barriers yourself, and push the envelope and design the career and life that you want.  Finally, remember to laugh and enjoy the world. Seek out happiness above all else, because if you are not happy, there is no dream job in the world that will make you so.  

A Message from the Author:

This column is a Q&A with senior level female attorneys offering advice and mentorship to young female lawyers.  The questions below were sent to the interviewees and responses have not been edited for content.  The advice, experiences, personalities, and approaches of these women are extremely diverse and more importantly very useful to future generations of female attorneys.  I hope this column will offer helpful advice, and inspire healthy discussions.  I have an exciting lineup of female leaders in the profession, but if you have someone you would like to nominate, or you yourself would like to be interviewed, feel free to email me at superwomenjds@gmail.com

Bio for the author of the column:

Noha Sidhom is a proud graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law.  Before attending law school, Noha interned on Capitol Hill for the Honorable Charles Timothy Hagel and went on to campaign for Senate candidate Peter Ricketts.  During law school, she clerked at Husch Blackwell Sanders, formerly Blackwell Sanders.  She also did an internship at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Enforcement and an internship at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where she is now an attorney in the Office of General Counsel.  Noha is licensed in New York and New Jersey, and currently resides with her husband in Washington, D.C.