PHH: Julie, thank you for meeting with me this afternoon and agreeing to be interviewed for the ISBA. I’d like to talk with you about your career and being a women in the tough business of litigation.
Let’s start with law school—when you entered law school in 1982, that was not yet a common educational choice for women. How did you come to that decision?
JAB: I graduated from college in 1982 with a degree in Liberal Arts. I had no clear direction of what I wanted to do career-wise. But I had uncles who were judges and my father was a lawyer. So I had seen lawyers who were successful and seemed satisfied in their careers. It certainly seemed like a career choice or an educational choice that I would not regret even if I decided ultimately not to practice law full-time.
PHH: You graduated from the University of Illinois College of Law in 1985. Did you have many, if any, women professors?
JAB: I had two, as I recall. When I started at U of I, the only women professors on the faculty were Laurie Reynolds, who I had for my first-year Property class, and Elaine Shoben, who I had for Torts. Even though there were not many women on the faculty at the time, I was exposed to both of them my first year.
PHH: With only two female law professors and only male relatives in the profession, did the dearth of female role models influence your career path at that time?
JAB: I didn’t think about it very much at that time. When I was growing up, women were just starting to go into the work force in large numbers and so it didn’t strike me as surprising that there weren’t a lot of women in the legal profession. I also did my undergraduate work at the University of Virginia, which had only been co-ed since 1970 or about eight years when I started. They still had considerably more men than women, and I was used to classes balanced in favor of men.
PHH: Moving past law school, you entered the practice of law in 1985 as a law clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Charles P. Kocoras and then joined Winston & Strawn in 1987. What changes have you seen generally in the practice of law and specifically with respect to women lawyers?
JAB: Certainly there are many more women not just practicing law, but in particular practicing in large law firms—much more so than back in the mid ‘80s. Generally, in law firms, at least on a numbers basis, there are many more women and minorities now. When I joined Winston and came to work here, I think there was one woman partner in the entire Litigation department. I don’t recall ever working directly for her. Now, anybody starting out at a large firm would expect, over the years, to work for and with both men and women, majority and minority attorneys. Years ago, there was some suspicion about working with women: Could you ask them to stay late? Could you ask them to travel with you? Could you ask them to work on weekends? Those sorts of barriers at least have been broken through, even if others remain.
PHH: Any thoughts or comments on how attorney attire has changed either for men or for women since the ‘80s?
JAB: Certainly much more for women than for men. I started practicing in the era when women invariably wore skirt suits with floppy bow ties. Women have become more comfortable dressing in their own style, instead of just imitating men. When I started practicing, you rarely saw women wearing pants. I don’t remember exactly when that changed, but now you see it not only in the office, but in the courtroom, and no one bats an eye.
PHH: Right, I remember I had two suits, a navy blue and a black one. I remember being so excited when I bought a little silk rosette as opposed to the floppy tie.
JAB: I had one of those too.
PHH: You have been with Winston for 22 years now. How did you work up through the ranks of associate to income partner to equity partner in a large litigation department?
JAB: Different people do it different ways, but I had the great fortune to work for a variety of different partners at various points along my career as an associate. They all had very different styles, and I learned different things from each of them. Some sent me to state court all the time, and some sent me to federal court. Some were focused very much on preparation, and with others, it was how to survive in the moment without a lot of preparation. Those were all good experiences for me to have as a young lawyer.
PHH: Is there anything specific that stands out in your experiences as a young lawyer that was perhaps a turning point in your career?
JAB: Early on I did a lot of work with Ed Foote. He sent me to court frequently. I was in court a few times a week when I was a young associate—on status calls, motion calls, various types of things. It was very helpful to get that experience and to see a lot of other lawyers in court early on in my career.
PHH: Of course Ed Foote is a legendary trial lawyer in the Chicago legal community -- do you think associates today have those same opportunities that you had as an associate working for someone like Ed Foote and going to court?
JAB: They can, but they have to look for those opportunities and sometimes make them for themselves. They have to ask for smaller cases, offer to go to court, maybe take on pro bono cases where they can do that kind of stuff. There are still opportunities out there but you really have to look for them.
PHH: You served as Hiring Partner for the firm for several years. What aspects of that position, for instance, did you find surprising? And what aspects, perhaps, did you find rewarding or even helpful to your practice?
JAB: The most rewarding and enjoyable parts for me were meeting law students and sharing with them what I like about and what’s kept me practicing at Winston & Strawn. Having a say in who would join and be the future of the firm was also significant. It helped me to get a better understanding of the business side of a law firm.
PHH: You’ve worked on several matters and at least two major trials with Dan Webb. Most would not dispute his reputation as a top, national litigator. In fact, you were pictured with him in an American Lawyer article that described him and his team as “humble, but lethal.” What’s it like to work with Dan Webb in the trenches? What would you say that you’ve learned from him?
JAB: What I’ve learned from him is how important preparation is. He prepares more than anybody I know, and because of that he is never caught off guard. There’s always not only a “Plan A” but a “Plan B.” He’s enjoyable to work with, easy to get along with, and always works harder than you do. Yet he never loses sight of the fact that you have a life outside the office and outside the case you’re working on.
PHH: Any examples that you can think of?
JAB: We were on trial this summer in New York for four weeks. The trial lasted over the Fourth of July weekend. Dan was very concerned about everybody’s schedule over the holiday weekend. He wanted to make sure that everybody either had some time to get home to see their families, or in my case, my family came out to see me. He wanted to make sure that I spent time with them even though we were going to be back at it and had experts to cross at the beginning of the next week.
PHH: Speaking of that month-long trial, I know you have been involved in other lengthy trials—both in Chicago and out of town. What does that kind of trial practice do to a person in terms of workload, stress, and family issues?
JAB: My family has always been very supportive of my trial obligations. I think that is due, in part, to the fact that I married later in life. That was part of the package my husband agreed to when we got married, so he’s been pretty good about it. But the longest trial I ever did was a six-month case – Gov. Ryan trial - and I was glad, at that length, that we were in town. It did allow you at least to see your family and sleep in your own bed. It gets hard.
PHH: You received the prestigious Founder’s Award from the CBA Alliance for Women in May of this year. That award is given to a senior woman lawyer of great integrity and high excellence who has contributed to the success of other women lawyers. Do you find it surprising to think of yourself as a senior member of the profession as you look back over the last 20 years and what you’ve accomplished?
JAB: I do find it surprising, and maybe it’s just that no one ever thinks they’re as old as they are. But, whether it’s at the firm or even when I go to court, I look around now and am struck by the fact that most of the people in the courtroom are younger than I am.
PHH: Keeping with the Founder’s Award, one of the major themes in your acceptance remarks was your concern about the continuing lack of opportunities for women lawyers. Can you elaborate on what you said and what you mean?
JAB: We have come a long way in equalizing opportunities at the most junior levels of the profession. We do a much better job in the first few years of making sure that men and women have equal access to work, to clients, to travel opportunities and non-billable opportunities. But as people move up the ranks, the opportunity gap widens. I don’t think women have the same introductions to clients and powerful partners. I think people naturally tend to select people that look like them, that they can identify with. That natural selection process puts women behind because there are fewer senior women. In the current economic downturn, I think that difference has had an impact on people, as firms make hard decisions about who they keep and who they ask to leave.
PHH: Statistically, even before the recession, the numbers would tend to support your conclusion. According to numerous surveys, women make up only 17% of law firm partnership ranks. At the same time, almost 50% of the entering classes in law schools are women. To what would you attribute the gap between that 50% and the fall off to 17% -- lack of opportunity?
JAB: There are probably a lot of factors, but lack of opportunity is certainly one of them. I also think that women are more willing to make decisions to do other things with their lives. Maybe that’s an advantage that women have that men don’t - men feel more pressure to stay in a high paying job and, I think, get more satisfaction from that. Many women are looking for other things.
PHH: One letter nominating you for the Founder’s Award cited your consistent and continuing efforts in mentoring women lawyers. What is the significance of mentoring for women lawyers? With respect to your concerns about lack of opportunities for women, can mentoring play a role in improving those opportunities?
JAB: Everybody, men and women, has mentors whether they think of them that way and like or dislike that term. Everybody has somebody who showed them the ropes and answered their questions and introduced them to the right people and steered them to the right opportunities.
PHH: Can mentoring play a role in improving women’s opportunities?
JAB: Absolutely. People have opportunities because somebody more senior to them introduced them to a client or brought them along on a pitch or asked them to work on a case or a deal. If the decision-makers would think of women as often as they think of men, then I believe the percentages you noted would become more equalized at senior levels.
PHH: You no doubt have had mentors along the way. Have your mentors been primarily women? Men? A combination of both?
JAB: A combination of both. When I entered the profession, most of the people senior to me were men, so my mentors were men. I relied on them for work and advice and all sorts of other things, but I’ve certainly always had a number of good friends who are women in the profession. As I’ve gotten more senior, I rely on their advice and experience as well.
PHH: More as a peer mentor?
PHH: I know you’ve mentioned some things that you learned from Dan Webb, are there other points or practices you’ve learned from your mentors along the way? Good or bad?
JAB: Lots, lots. One thing, and this goes back to Dan again. I remember talking to him at one point about how to conduct a cross-examination in a case we were working on. I laid out the theory of why I thought I should do it. It was somewhat complicated, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be allowed to do it. He spent time with me and worked through it. At the very end, he said to me “but if you’re not comfortable doing it, don’t do it.” And that was great advice, that it didn’t really matter whether technically under the rules you could do the cross-examination or not do the cross-examination, if you don’t feel up to it, it’s not going to work and don’t try it.
PHH: You’ve forced me to ask the ultimate question, did you attempt the cross-examination?
JAB: I started, and the judge shut me down.
PHH: Shifting gears -- your husband, daughter, parents and in-laws all attended the award lunch where you were recognized. You obviously have strong family bonds. What kinds of challenges have you faced in terms of including both strong family bonds and professional success in your life?
JAB: Certainly there are always time constraints, and everybody—married or single, children or none, faces them. Everybody deals with them differently. For me, I married for the first time when I was 40, and we adopted when we were in our mid-40s.
PHH: Let me interrupt you there -- you say everybody is faced with time constraints, but in reality, men for the most part are not faced with the same biological time constraints as women are. Doesn’t being female have more of an impact on one’s time in terms of a family, than it does on a man?
JAB: It does, it does. But again I think everybody prioritizes and decides what they’re willing to do and what’s important to them then. People choose to do it all different ways and have different demands on their time and their attention. One myth I don’t like and never accepted is the idea that women who are either not married or don’t have children don’t have work/life balance issues in the way women with families do. That’s not true. Most people, whether they’ve got young kids or elderly parents or other family issues or just other things going on in their life, have many things pulling them all different directions. What works for you doesn’t necessarily work for somebody else, and what works for you at one point in your life doesn’t always work for you at a different time in your life.
PHH: You mentioned priorities, did you make any decisions on priorities at an early point in your career or did your priorities shift as your career evolved?
JAB: I don’t think I made a conscious decision, but I’ve always enjoyed my career and my career has always been very important to me.
PHH: We’ve talked about your family -- your husband and six-year old daughter, and you have a very full career. How have you faced the challenges of having a family – a strong family - and being a litigation partner in a large law firm?
JAB: My husband is very supportive of me, and one of the things that makes it work is that he has a job where he does not travel very much—he’s out of town maybe twice a year—and so we’re able to plan around it. That helps a huge amount. We have a nanny whom we employ full-time even when my daughter is in school most of the day because we need the flexibility of her being able to be there on days off and in the summer. And we rely on extended family to help us out too. But there is no question that there are other things that you give up, there are trade-offs that you make, there are things that you’re not there for.
PHH: And when you say things that you’re not there for, do you mean things in your child’s life, like a school program?
JAB: Exactly. If you’re going to work full time, you’re not going to always be at school at 2 o’clock in the afternoon to see the play or whatever.
PHH: I know you also have a very strong interest in architectural preservation. How do you find time to pursue this passion?
JAB: I make time for it. I think it energizes and keeps me interested enough and keeps my life varied enough that it’s worth it to make time for it.
PHH: There has been much said and written about how the law has shifted from a profession to a business. What evolution have you seen in this regard and how have you dealt with it? In your view, has that shift impacted women differently than men?
JAB: During the course of my years practicing, the law has shifted dramatically from being a profession to being a business. That has accelerated in the last year or so with the economic downturn. Right now, we seem focused almost exclusively on the business aspects of law. It does impact women greatly. I think women are equally situated with men to contribute to the profession of law. They’re as smart, as able and as dedicated to the profession. There is no gender difference there. But many women in their 20s and 30s are not in a position to commit the same kind of hours to the practice that men can because they are having a family, raising a family, spending time with their children. If you look at it from a strictly financial prospective, those women are not going to be as profitable. Right now, profit is everything.
PHH: I recently read an article that described the character trait of “grit” as perhaps a defining difference between those persons who succeed and those who do not. I wondered if this might be that so-far-unarticulated factor that determines which extremely bright and well-educated associates become successful partners. I also wondered if men are more often considered “gritty” than women—or if “gritty” men are perceived differently than “gritty” women. What do you think?
JAB: Well, I’ve been described, and by a friend, as “gritty.” I see associates start out at the firm, and they’re all bright and they’re all very talented. They’re all capable of doing the work. The question becomes, after a couple years, who really wants it? And who is going to put up with the hours and other sacrifices that you make to achieve partnership. Maybe that’s what “grit” is referring to.
PHH: Let me follow up on that and ask, do you think differences in perception play a role in the documented gender pay differential and why fewer than 20% of partners in large law firms are women?
JAB: I do.
PHH: Do you have women role models now? Are there any women that you look up to?
JAB: There are many, many, many women I look up to. But I don’t think there’s any one person I look at and think “I want that person’s life,” as opposed to “I like this trait in this person and that trait in that person.”
PHH: Good answer. One final question: What advice would you give young women lawyers entering the practice of law in 2009?
JAB: Work hard, but have fun. This practice of law can be very enjoyable, but if you evaluate it on a day to day basis, especially during the first couple years of your career, you probably won’t think it can be fun. If you give it a chance, it will be fun.
PHH: Julie, thanks very much for taking the time to do this interview.
JAB: My pleasure. ■