Women Criminal Defense Attorneys blog

Connecting Women in Criminal Law

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Interview with Gail Shifman

Gail Shifman, a criminal defense attorney from San Francisco, has a reputation for being a passionate and dedicated defender. She has extensive experience handling complex white-collar cases for both corporations and individuals, as well as general criminal cases ranging from high profile murder cases to less serious matters. Gail has been included in Northern California Super Lawyers since 2009, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and been a Martindale Hubbell AV Rated lawyer since 1996. When talking to Gail her fiery and fearless spirit comes through, and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She has grown a successful private practice and has much to teach about what it takes to make it on your own. She is an inspiration not only for women that dream of hanging out their own shingle but for the defense bar as a whole. Her passion for her work is infectious and I’m thrilled to introduce her to you.

What is the most significant shift that you have seen for women in criminal defense over the years you have been practicing?

I think the most significant shift has been in the number of women in the field. It’s always so encouraging to see young women come into the fold who are committed to real defense advocacy. Watching them roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, so to speak, to ensure that everyone under investigation or charged with a crime not only receives effective representation as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment (which as we know doesn’t require much other than the ability to breathe) but instead providing vigorous, zealous representation is inspiring. For me, that is always wonderful to watch, work next to and with.

On a more substantive level, I actually don’t think the shifts have been that significant, beyond the numbers. Women criminal defenders whether in white-collar or in general criminal defense still aren’t on a level playing field with men, especially when it comes to competing for business or commanding equal pay. There remains a long fight ahead for all of us to ensure that we’re on equal footing with the men in our field. In spite of our increased numbers and the fact that there are some women who have broken through and found great success, it still feels like a boys’ club.

What do you think we, as women, need to be doing to ensure that we are on more equal footing?

We need to be both more sensitive and less sensitive to gender issues. I know that sounds confusing but first we each need to be strong enough to call out subtle gender biases that happen every day in multiple ways while at the same time we need to learn to take it in stride and laugh at it too. Ultimately, though, we need to call out gender bias when it occurs. Something I have found effective when talking to men about behavior which is either overtly or subtly gender biased, is to couch the conversation in the context of their own daughter. This changes the perspective and provides a better path to understanding. I will ask “would you want your own daughter spoken to or treated in that way?” It doesn’t help to get angry or obnoxious about it and, in fact, I think that approach hurts.

Amongst ourselves, there remain some women who still believe they have difficultly working with other women and that kind of attitude doesn’t serve any of us. We have to recognize that there is strength in numbers. The more women you have working together on a team the better because women actually work quite effectively together. Unfortunately this is still rare and it is more typical to see a team of all men and one woman. We each have to say – “I’m willing and want to work with other women and I’m going to put women on equal or first footing in my mind when it comes to building a team or sharing business.” We each have to say – “I’m going to suggest a woman defender to my male colleagues when they are seeking to refer clients.” So often it seems that men control the corporate business that I think women are reluctant to recommend other women for a number of reasons including the antiquated notion that women don’t work well together. That needs to change. I personally love working with other women and welcome it. I would love to see all female defense teams. That would be amazing.

What does it take for a woman to succeed in criminal defense?

First, you have to learn that the worst thing that can happen is that someone is going to say no, and so what? We all hear no all the time in this business. We hear it from prosecutors, judges and in our practices everyday. No is not the end game. There are plenty of opportunities beyond that no. So first and foremost, you have to be willing to risk being rejected.

Then you need to be relentless. You can never stop networking. You have to learn to develop a way to trumpet your successes every chance you get without being obnoxious. I don’t think tooting our horns comes naturally for most women but you need to find your path to it. Every time you meet someone, that is a networking opportunity. Every time you are chatting with someone, that is an opportunity. And every opportunity needs to be followed up – do it the old fashioned way and hand out your card or even better, email, text or, dare I say, call. Add them to your contacts list; go to lunch. And, get out in your communities – from your individual office to your firm to your broader legal community, parents’ and social groups and beyond. Do you go to the driving range? Make sure they know who you are and what you do. You can’t be shy about how fantastic you are and there are really many ways to do that without being a turn-off. And if you are a solo, like me, you have to remember to remind people that you are out there because we can all get lost in the shuffle. Share with others your successes and your hard fought defeats both in and out of the courtroom.

And, if you have kids you have to figure out a way to create work life balance while making sure that the zeal for your clients and your business comes across every chance you get, which is no small challenge. I have no special tricks up my sleeve about that one.

Do you think women bring unique skills and attributes to defending the criminally accused?

Every person has a unique set of skills, whether male or female. Generally speaking though, I believe women are much more effective at listening and understanding the subtext of what is really being said. One of the essential skills of being an effective advocate is being able to tell a story and women are particularly good at understanding their client’s life story. Being able to convey a client’s story for mitigation purposes to persuade the government to refrain from charging or for use to minimize the ultimate sentence imposed by the court is critical.

It’s important to be a good storyteller, but in order to be a good storyteller you first have to be a good listener. You have to understand not just the facts and the law, which are obviously necessary, but you have to understand the motivations and emotions involved. This is true not only for your client but also your opponent because if you can’t understand where they’re going emotionally or where they were emotionally and what is motivating them, then you can’t effectively persuade. At the end of the day that’s what effective advocacy is all about, persuasion.

Most rewarding part of being a criminal lawyer? Most draining part?

The most rewarding part of being a criminal lawyer is effectively managing the risk for my client. Sometimes that means a straight on acquittal at trial and sometimes that means negotiating a resolution that minimizes the impact on their life. Being able to work and communicate with a client and help them understand what the best resolution is for them, in the big picture of their life, is the most rewarding part of the job.

The most draining part is the fallout around the client especially when dealing with the family which can sometimes be a nightmare. I often see male colleagues relegate this duty to female associates or to a woman on the team but, like it or not, it is an essential part of what we all have to deal with when we represent someone. It is, however, emotionally draining and often the toughest part of the job.

San Francisco is a unique environment for women in the white-collar and general criminal field. Can you describe why?

San Francisco has a very entrepreneurial spirit. It always has. The city is on fire right now; it’s booming with start-ups everywhere. Everyone has an idea to make a zillion dollars and it’s the kind of town where the entrepreneurial spirit is valued, above and beyond your gender. So when you have that as a landscape it opens up a lot of opportunities. Nobody cares whether you’re a woman or a man, white, brown or black or what your sexual orientation is if you have a good idea that’s going to make a lot of money.

Having said that, we just had this high profile gender bias trial against a big venture capital firm where a female junior partner was dealing with all sorts of subtle and not so subtle gender discrimination and harassment. She ultimately lost the suit but the trial shed a bright light on what is going on in Silicon Valley as well as other parts of the country. So don’t get me wrong, it’s not as if women here don’t face similar challenges as women do in other parts of the country, but what feels different is the spirit and energy that is uniquely San Francisco.

Most important weapon in your criminal defense arsenal?

My empathy. I understand that humans are flawed and that even a wonderful person 99% of the time can still make a mistake. My job is to convey the message during every stage of representation that it’s a small mistake in the scope of their life. I personally feel that this skill combined with my ability to immediately understand the big picture while at the same time managing minute details enables me to strategize effectively and has made me an incredibly successful advocate.

What has been your most successful business initiative?

I’ve successfully developed working relationships with other law firms. We join forces to work on cases together which has definitely increased the base of work that I have. It has also made it easier for me to market myself on larger cases that might not come my way because I’m a solo.

Claim to fame?

I’m tenacious as hell. I just don’t let go. Some people are less kind at how they describe it and might say I’m a ball buster.

Best advice you ever received?

Be yourself.

Moment you felt you had made it?

I got an acquittal in my first trial and I knew right then and there that I had made it.

One thing people who know you don’t know about you?

I’m a homebody.

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