Sidley Partner Karen Popp on Women in White Collar Defense

At the 1999 American Bar Association White Collar Defense Conference, there were very few women lawyers in attendance and hardly any on the panels.

Karen Popp Sidley & Austin

Karen Popp
Sidley & Austin

This year’s conference was full of women white collar defense lawyers with many women on panels.

And women are moving up the ranks of major corporate law firms — with hundreds of women in major corporate white collar practices and in key prosecutorial positions.

(See our list of 150 Women in White Collar.)

Karen Popp is a partner at Sidley & Austin and was present at the creation of the Women’s White Collar Defense Association.

“I had left the government around the same time that my good friend Beth Wilkinson left the government — she left the Department of Justice, I left the White House,” Popp told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “She joined Latham, I joined Sidley. We both joined the firms as partners.”

“We noticed pretty quickly that there were not a lot of women in this practice. We went to the American Bar Association’s White Collar Conference that year — 1999. We had just left the government where there were a number of very strong, prominent women in positions of power within the government. We were surprised that there were not more women in the private sector.”

“The few of us in Washington and New York that were in this practice — we started meeting as a group. And our first meeting that we had in Washington was hosted at Latham. Attorney General Janet Reno was our first guest speaker. And as I recall, we had about ten women in the room. That was in 1999.”

“There was a similar gathering in New York City. And we also met some women on the West Coast — Nina Marino in Los Angeles. And a couple of women in Boston. In 2000, we got together at the ABA White Collar Conference. Thereafter we started having a small gathering at those conferences.”

“That’s how the Women’s White Collar Defense Association got started. And we now have more than 1,100 members in 24 chapters around the world.”

Arguably, the three most powerful white collar lawyers on the government side — Mary Jo White, Leslie Caldwell and Loretta Lynch — are all women.

“And all have been in and out of private practice,” Popp says. “Mary Jo was at Debevoise. Loretta was at Hogan. And Leslie was at Morgan Lewis. And all three were very successful in private practice. And if they were ever to go back into private practice, they would be extremely successful.”

“Many of your very successful white collar men were at one time or another in government. Look at Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer. Government experience is extremely helpful in private practice. Many women also go in house.”

Is the government more receptive to women white collar lawyers than private firms?

“No. I don’t think that’s the case. Law firms try to recruit women very aggressively. The question is — are prospective clients — companies or individuals — are they more receptive to having a man as their defense counsel? That depends on the situation you are in, who is making the decision, and whether they feel comfortable with a prominent white collar defense attorney who happens to be a woman.”

And those corporate decision makers are now increasingly women.

“Also within the boardroom. Your general counsel often selects the law firm or the lawyer who is going to represent the company based on what boards of directors say. More and more women are being put onto the board. More and more women are in the C-Suite. And they appreciate having a top lawyer and a woman defending the company when the prosecutor is a woman.”

“I’ve been in the white collar practice since 1999. And since then, the white collar practice has exploded. You have seen an evolution of women coming into the practice, women getting the big cases, women getting on the same track that the men had pre-1999 and still have today. Women today have a good book of business. Some of it is getting your name out there. Some of it is having a good referral network.”

Do women in white collar defense handle the cases differently from the way men do?

“I don’t think so. To be successful in white collar defense, you have to get your name out there. You have to get your name on that short list of names that a company is considering. That is in part being known as a very good white collar lawyer. And that is where the referral network comes in. And then you handle your cases well.”

“There may well be some cases where being a woman is helpful. But it comes down to being a good white collar defense attorney. The bottom line is that we have a lot of great white collar defense attorneys who are women. And we have great white collar defense attorneys who are men. It’s just that historically, it has been a practice area that was dominated by men.”

“When you had the boutiques in New York and the practices in Washington doing the Congressional work, those by and large were men. There were some women, but not like there are today. As the practices have grown, the number of women in the practices has grown. That’s in part because many of the women have been in and out of government. And when they come out of government, when they come out of the U.S. Attorney’s offices, the Department of Justice or the SEC, they go into the field of white collar because it has exploded in the last twenty years.”

When you say that the practice has been dominated by men — so has the corporate law practice in general, right?

“In the 1960s and 1970s, before you had a lot of women graduating from the law schools, you just didn’t have the pool of women. Justice O’Connor and Justice Ginsburg have talked publically about what it was like for a woman coming out of law school, trying to get a job back in the 1950s and 1960s. Come the 1970s and 1980s, when you started having more women go into law, you now have a bigger pool of women coming out to be hired. My experience has been that major law firms have been very aggressive about hiring women.”

“Why aren’t there more women partners in these big firms? That question has been studied for many years.”

What are some of the reasons?

“That could take many hours to discuss. I have worked very hard with others at Sidley to build our practice as a firm to reflect America — to be diverse, to have higher percentages of women. People leave the private practice of law for many reasons. I don’t think you can peg it on a handful of reasons. Every individual has their reason for leaving the private practice of law. Mary Jo White has been in and out of Debevoise several times now. And she is a woman. I certainly would not say that she is leaving Debevoise to be the chair of the SEC for a gender reason. My guess is that she is doing it for reasons other than she is a woman. But she is a woman, so the statistics are impacted when she leaves. That’s why you can’t label.”

[For the complete q/a format of the Interview with Karen Popp, see 30 Corporate Crime Reporter 26(8), Monday June 27, 2016, print edition only.]

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