Farella Braun Partner Jessica Nall on Women in White Collar

It’s rare to see a woman as head of a white collar criminal defense practice at a law firm in the United States.

But Jessica Nall proudly heads the practice at Farella Braun & Martel in San Francisco.

Jessica Nall
Farella Braun
San Francisco, California

After graduating Harvard Law School in 2001, she went to Farella Braun and has been there ever since, climbing up the ranks.

In 2016, we interviewed Sidley partner Karen Popp and wrote a story about women in white collar.

We came up with a list of 150 women in white collar criminal defense.

How is it at Farella Braun?

“The white collar group here is majority female, majority ethnically diverse,” Nall told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “That’s what the Bay Area needs. The tech companies are realizing they need to hire diverse outside counsel. I’ve led the group for five years. I’m very involved in the White Collar Women’s Defense Association and the ABA’s White Collar Women’s Committee.”

“We get by despite not being a man.”

How has it changed in the years since you have been in the practice?

“I definitely have seen a change for the better. We still have a long way to go. We do have a lot of work still. But there has been a generation of white collar lawyers who grew up under men. There are very few women rainmaking the practice.”

“Karen Popp is in a class by herself. But we are seeing women who are the second in command who are running many of the cases behind the scenes. And now they have reached a level of seniority where it is becoming more and more common to demand the respect of being in the first chair and being the practice chair, going out and rainmaking and networking with other women to bring in work. That is ultimately the only way we are going to support gender diversity – by making sure people are able to fairly compete for the work. The firm’s bottom line is how you advance.”

“I have seen an increase in women standing up and taking that first chair role and going out and proving that they can make it and that they can bring in the work. We have more work to do. But I’m one of the women in that vanguard – and happily so.”

What are you noticing about women prosecutors?

“It is still very difficult to make it as a woman partner at a law firm. It’s just very difficult. There are so many barriers and institutionalized bias. I’ve seen over the course of my nineteen years in the practice a lot of amazing women who have seen other paths to take, including going to the government and becoming assistant United States Attorneys, or going to the SEC as an enforcement attorney, or going in house and working with one of the major corporations like Google or Amazon.” “I can get so much more done when I’m talking to a woman who is a peer level attorney, somebody I can relate to in every way. The door is closed and we are having an honest conversation. There is not a lot grandstanding or measuring — whatever you want to call it. We are just trying to get it done. The number of women we are seeing in government roles has increased over the past decade. And judges too. We see more females on the bench out here.”

“There was one point on the Yahoo case. I was in the Southern District of New York representing a female client in a joint proffer session with the SEC and the SDNY. For the first time in my whole career, everybody in the room was female. It was me, my female client, my female associate, two female FBI agents, the SEC lawyer was a woman and both the SDNY attorneys were female. It was a whole room of gender non-diversity.”

“It was eye opening to me and a treat to see where this is the first time where we are getting it done. We are in one of the highest white collar cases in the country and every single one of us is female. We had a fine interview. We had a couple bumps in the road. But we were able to get past it. There was not a lot of yelling, not a lot of chest beating and we just got it done.”

Do you see that as a fundamental difference –  it’s more reasonable?

“White collar requires different skill sets. The female skill set, which we are raised and socially conditioned to have, lends itself well to white collar practice. We are able to establish that kind of rapport with the client, figure out how best to understand what the issues are, what the view of the case is, and have that kind of counseling that does help with individual representations and internal investigations as well.”

“Growing up in a world where there are not just that many women, we have to learn to talk to all kinds of people, including senior men, in order to advanced. We use those skills to get to the heart of the issue, understand what is going on with the client, help them get over denial that they might be in, and then translate that and be able to communicate effectively with women on the other side of the table. There might be a little bit less bluster, a little bit less taking positions for the sake of taking positions, but instead saying – here is my client, they are human, I know they are human because I have talked to them at length, and trying to essentially change the conversation from one where the prosecutor has some kind of goal in mind and they just want to accomplish that goal in terms of number of years in a sentence or the splashy headline.”

“As a human, I’m saying – let’s look back at this, let’s look at this person and what they actually did and imagine yourself in their shoes. I don’t want to say softer skills, but it’s definitely a different skill set than a scorched earth skill set.”

“We try to get it done through honey rather than vinegar.”

There are male partners in big firms who are uncontrollable. But then there are partners who are more considerate. Isn’t it just about basic decency and not going overboard when it’s not called for?

“Agreed. I don’t believe in essentialism. I can’t say for sure that everything is a woman trait or a man trait. I’m not qualified to say that. I would say that it has been my experience that there are success metrics that men have been held to in the legal profession. They need to command a room. They need to go into the courtroom and wipe the floor with their opposition. There is an image of a man lawyer that people are held to, like – don’t give an inch. Come out of there with twice as much as you thought you were going to get.”

“Women are still held to that standard and it’s an impossible standard to meet. Nobody should have to do that because it’s not effective, especially in white collar. But it’s how people are conditioned. I definitely have experienced that myself. I don’t talk like a man. My voice is high. I don’t look like a man. I don’t go in there and yell. I can yell. But mostly I just talk quietly. I say the same things and get a better result.”

“There is the asshole model of white collar lawyer. And I’m sure there are a lot of women lawyers out there who are assholes. But it sure is easier to chart a different course when you don’t fit that model as much. We chart our own course as women.”

[For the complete Interview with Jessica Nall, see 33 Corporate Crime Reporter 12(12), Monday March 25, 2019, print edition only.]


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