Sidley & Austin Partner Karen Popp on the Growth of the Women’s White Collar Defense Association

When we last interviewed Karen Popp in 2016, the Women’s White Collar Defense Association (WWCDA) which Popp co-founded, was 1,100 members strong in 24 chapters around the world.

Karen Popp

Since then, WWCDA has more than doubled in size to 2,700 members in 48 chapters around the world. 

Popp is a partner at Sidley & Austin in Washington, D.C.

What accounts for that explosive growth?

“The white collar defense practice has grown tremendously during the period that the WWCDA has grown in the last 22 years,” Popp told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “That has played a role. When I came out of government in 1999, you still had a number of the big firms that did not have a white collar practice.” 

“Sidley & Austin, the firm I joined, did have such a practice. And the firms in DC did. But the firms in New York were not yet there. Now all of the big firms have white collar practices, and they are booming. Corporate enforcement is not only big in this country, it’s big around the world.” 

“The practice has grown and it’s a very popular practice. And more and more women have gone into it. And more and more women are successful at it. One of the missions of the WWCDA was to make the practice more diverse and to showcase women going in the practice and to put them out front demonstrating that women are very successful in this practice. People now understand there are a lot of women in the practice and they are very successful.”

What percentage of partners in the white collar defense practices are women?

“I have not crunched those numbers. But I do know that our members represent dozens of law firms. It is the rare firm that does not have a member of that firm being a member of the WWCDA. I can’t even think of a major firm that does not have one of our members.” 

Is there something about gender that makes women successful in this particular field of law practice?

“I don’t think so. Obviously, there are going to be some cases where you might want a woman as your counsel. But it’s a practice that is gender neutral. Historically, it was male dominated. It was a smaller practice then. But today, you have a lot of women in the practice, a lot of women being successful. And I don’t necessarily think that’s because the practice lends itself to women being more successful in it. But I do know that it is a great practice for men and women.”

“It comes down to clients. Many years ago, when you didn’t have that many women in the practice, you may not have thought of a woman as a defense counsel. Today, you have a lot more women.” 

“When the press runs a story about the top white collar defense attorneys, they often will focus on the men. That is very unfortunate. By doing so, they fail to recognize the large percentage of women who are extremely successful in the practice. And that has historically perpetuated the perception that this is a male dominated practice, when in fact there are a lot of women in the saddle and getting great results for their clients.” 

“And the press is finally catching up. But you are still fighting the perception that historically this has been a practice for men. At the same time you now have a lot more women in general counsel roles and in the board rooms. A lot of decisions are being made as to who to hire. Those women in those positions are speaking up. And they are putting on those short lists the names of the top defense attorneys. And it is a list that now has men and women.” 

“And you have prosecutors who are women. There are many women in government today who are former members of the WWCDA. When a client is looking to hire counsel, they look to see whether you have been in government and how effective you can be as defense counsel. There a lot of great women in this practice who are former government officials.”

Do you have a sense whether women are making more progress as prosecutors than as defense counsel?

“I have no idea. You have Lisa Monaco in the number two slot at the Department of Justice. During the Obama administration, you had two women at the top. Government has always been, at least in recent history, a place where you do see a lot of women in leadership roles. When I was at the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York, Mary Jo White was the first assistant and then became the acting U.S. Attorney. Leslie Caldwell was my first chief in general crimes. When I came to Washington, you had Janet Reno as the Attorney General, you had Eldie Acheson as the Assistant Attorney General. I can go on and on about the number of women who were in significant positions.”

“That’s why when Beth Wilkinson and I left the government and we came to private practice, we were like – where are all of the women? We were with all of these women who did their jobs at a superb level, they were in leadership positions. The government is thankfully that way today. In private practice, I would like to see more women in leadership. There are firms like mine for example, who have made an effort to put women in leadership roles and make sure their partnership classes are diverse. And of course clients today demand that.” 

“And as a result, we are seeing a lot more diversity in the white collar practice. But has it caught up with the government? I have no idea. I haven’t run the numbers.”

Circling back to the question of whether it makes a difference to be a woman in white collar, do you sense that corporations that get in trouble with the government have a preference for a women white collar defense attorney because they might be thinking that a women brings something special to the table that would help solve their problems better than a man would?

“There are a lot of factors a company looks at when deciding who to hire to defend a case. Let’s say you have a female assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case. Might a company ask – should we have a female defense counsel? Yes, some companies are going to think that way. If it involves me too related issues, are you going to want to have a woman leading the investigation? Probably so. I know that’s not necessarily white collar defense. But the WWCDA defines white collar broadly. And if you are talking about that space, of investigations related to potential misconduct by management or board members and it relates to sexual harassment and those types of claims, yes – many women are being hired to do that kind of work.” 

“Take the NFL. They will bring in someone like Mary Jo White to do an investigation that is not criminal, but it is an investigation hired by a predominately male organization to come in and investigate. So yes, there are some cases that women are being hired a lot more in that space to do.”

What about a consumer product that produces a woman’s consumer product gone bad. Do companies think – let’s get a woman to handle this?

“That certainly has happened even outside of the white collar defense space – in products liability cases that go before a jury. Have I seen women being hired to defend companies in that way? Sure.”

“Unless there is a unique situation at issue, I believe that women are not being hired just because they are women. Women are being hired because they have the experience, they are very good in this practice, they get great results for clients and they can stand toe to toe against their male colleagues at the top of the heap.” 

“Are there going to be some cases where the gender will work to the woman’s advantage because of the underlying issue? Yes, there are going to be those kinds of cases. But by and large, women are being hired in white collar defense cases because they are good, they have great experience and they can get great results.”

There is a sense that women clean up after men. These corporate crime cases are where big companies get into trouble, and sometimes serious trouble and creating a mess. And the defense attorneys are in this mode of – okay we have to clean up this mess. 

Is this a woman’s job?

“You are talking to someone who has two brothers and whose dad was a college and NFL football coach. I grew up in a male dominated area. My parents were married 58 years until one of them died. I saw a great partnership in my parents and a real belief that their three kids were equal and all three kids walked on water. They were equal in what they pursued.”

“The practice of white collar defense is an excellent practice for women because you have to be good on your feet, you have to be good at assessing problems and trying to figure out what caused it without boiling the ocean, having a good sixth sense, an ability to work fast, multi-task, deal with people, get people to tell you the truth when you are doing an internal investigation, being calm, cool and collected, being able to command respect with whomever you are dealing with, have a lot of integrity and credibility and to have done the work to know what you are saying is in fact true. And when you don’t know the truth or you can’t figure out the truth, you say that.” 

“White collar practice does take a certain type of lawyer. And yes, women have all of those characteristics and that’s why they are being extremely successful in this practice. Do I say that they have those characteristics better than men? No, not from a gender perspective.” 

“Are there a lot of women I would put up against other men in the practice and say they would do a better job? Absolutely. But are there also men that I would recommend and refer business to? Sure.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Karen Popp, 36 Corporate Crime Reporter 11(13), March 14, 2022, print edition only.]

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