In early 2016 Beth Wilkinson and Alexandra Walsh left big law to open their own firm in Washington, DC with a male partner in Los Angeles, Wilkinson, Walsh, + Eskovitz. In a recent ABA article, they talked about the lack of women who have experience trying complex cases in the legal field, and their commitment to change that inequity. Wilkinson told the ABA, “[d]ue to many things, there are far fewer women with first-chair trial experience, especially in large or complex cases, and therefore it is difficult for women without that type of experience to get those opportunities.”
As of December, they had 30 lawyers and were looking to hire more. Walsh correctly noted that “[i]f you go through trials enough, you see that things don’t always go perfectly. Beth messes things up. I definitely mess thing up…It’s how you learn.” Walsh shared the story that when she was in a large firm, Wilkinson was the only one willing to let her take an active role in trial and encouraged her that she could do it. Unfortunately, many women don’t have a Beth Wilkinson that help them gain the necessary trial experience to grow into a first chair trial lawyer.
We previously blogged about a report called First Chairs at Trial: More Women Need Seats at the Table by the American Bar Foundation and the Commission on Women in the Profession. There is also a Temple University Beasley School of Law study of multidistrict ligation (MDL) appointments and gender. Its 2016 research found that over a five-year period women made up only 15 percent of the lawyers appointed to first-tier leadership positions, and 19 percent for second-tier leadership positions. Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a Temple law professor, oversaw the MDL study and chose these types of high profile litigation matters because they are so lucrative and so few women are appointed. Ramji-Nogales said that “[b]asically, these surveys document a phenomena that everyone knows is happening.”
Wilkinson has the right attitude about trial experience and why she promotes associates around her being in court as frequently as possible, “[t]he quicker you’ve done your first witness, the easier it is to do your second witness…Every time you stand up, the stress is a little less and the confidence is better. Then you can enjoy the experience and you’re a trial lawyer.” Wilkinson and Walsh hope they can play a role in the increase of women who have first-chair trial experience. “I think you can either complain – which is what I sometimes do – or try to make a difference…[a]nd we’re trying to make a difference,” Wilkinson said.
I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of both accomplished women. I was lucky enough to gain extensive trial experience early on working as a public defender and as a member of the CJA panel. But, gaining this necessary experience is far more challenging in the private sector because women need someone like Wilkinson to take a chance on them. Until more women have first chair experience, landing the elusive complex case will remain only a possibility, not a probability. Thankfully we have leaders like Wilkinson and Walsh who are willing to stand up and commit to changing these statistics for good.