For the first time ever, women now make up the majority of U.S. law firm associates, at 50.31%. While women have made great strides at the partnership level, they still make up just 27.76% of all partners, and only 27% of all practice group leaders. Biglaw firms are taking steps to remedy this situation, and women lawyers at the top of their game are being promoted to leadership positions within their firms.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Amy Caton, who was recently named co-chair of the bankruptcy and restructuring practice at Kramer Levin, to get her thoughts on the matter. Here is a write-up of our lively conversation on bankruptcy and restructuring, and how young lawyers — and women in particular — can get ahead in what was once considered a male-dominated practice area.
Staci Zaretsky (SZ): Congratulations on your promotion! I know that not many top bankruptcy practices are led by women. How does that make you feel as a leader in field?
Amy Caton (AC): Thank you! The restructuring field has made a lot of progress on recognizing that women are talented restructuring lawyers. To generalize, many women are excellent negotiators because we have high EQ, which is really important in obtaining information, understanding your opponents’ soft points and where they have room to move, and crafting creative deals. In restructuring, you have to be tough and ready to litigate, but almost all of the top practitioners are known for their skill in negotiation and deals.
When I was a young associate 20-25 years ago, I was often the only woman in the room. Not anymore — and in fact, I have had deals where most of the lead partners were women. For other top bankruptcy practices headed by women, you have Jones Day (Heather Lennox), Willkie (Rachel Strickland as co-head), and DLA Piper (Rachel Albanese), as well as several other talented female partners leading restructurings — including my partner, Rachael Ringer.
SZ: You’ve worked in bankruptcy and restructuring for decades. Can you please tell me a little bit about why you enjoy working in this practice area?
AC: I feel fortunate to love what I do. If I had been a pure litigator or corporate lawyer, I doubt I would still be a lawyer anymore. But being a restructuring lawyer, I do both deal work and litigation, and learn about businesses and what makes our economy tick. I learn something new — not just about the law, but about the world — almost every day. These days, I’m particularly interested in electric utilities and new green energy technologies, and the way these companies have to be restructured and repurposed to deal with the changing climate and new technologies. And I love municipal restructurings.
In my job, I am intellectually stimulated and have the privilege of working with repeat clients I really like, and whom I understand. And I feel like we are accomplishing something together when we negotiate a new deal or win a case. It really doesn’t get much better.
SZ: What advice do you have for women who hope to excel in this area of law?
AC: For all newer bankruptcy lawyers, my first piece of advice is to read the financial news and some of the great, entertaining financial literature out there — Barbarians at the Gate was my first. If you are working on an airline bankruptcy case, for example, try to understand how an airline operates, who the important stakeholders and creditors are, how it sets pricing, who its competitors are. If you find all of that interesting, it’s a great field to work in. And ask for opportunities to present in meetings or in court.
For women in particular, my advice is: only say “sorry” when you truly need to apologize. Project confidence even if you don’t feel it. Don’t try to yell over people, but make it clear that you won’t be interrupted, and finish your point — forcefully. Women are conditioned from a young age to please people and make other people feel comfortable – it actually makes us great associates. But many of us have to train ourselves to take up all of the space that we deserve. You need to be comfortable taking that space to be a great advocate for your clients. That took me a few years to realize as a senior associate, but once you learn that, you will become an extremely effective and powerful lawyer.
On behalf of everyone here at Above the Law, we’d like to thank Amy Caton of Kramer Levin for taking the time to help answer some pressing questions on how women can advance in the practice of law, specifically in bankruptcy and restructuring law.
Staci Zaretsky is a senior editor at Above the Law, where she’s worked since 2011. She’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to email her with any tips, questions, comments, or critiques. You can follow her on Twitter and Threads or connect with her on LinkedIn.