Q&A with Judge Lorna G. Schofield

Judge Lorna G. Schofield serves on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She is the first Article III federal judge of Filipino descent. Judge Schofield was a litigation partner at Debevoise from 1991 to 2011. Prior to joining Debevoise, from 1984 to 1988, Judge Schofield served as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Criminal Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

Q. You have had an exceptional career that has taken you through the government, private practice and the federal judiciary. Was this all part of a master plan?

No. I am a firm believer in following opportunity. If you are too rigid with your plans, then you might not seize opportunities as they arise. After law school, I joined Cleary Gottlieb because, at the time, it had a growing international practice. I was interested in this field because I had previously studied French, German and English literature in a comparative literature graduate program. While at that firm, I worked with a partner who came from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I was impressed with his approach to litigation, which focused on themes, the big picture and the end result. Based on this experience, I joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office to gain more trial experience.

Later, I decided to join Debevoise because the firm had a number of former AUSAs and a growing white collar practice. Debevoise seemed like a great opportunity and a good fit following my stint at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. As for the judgeship, that’s not something you can plan, and luck is required. I applied to Senator Chuck Schumer’s judicial selection committee and was fortunate enough to be nominated.

Q. What has your experience been like as a woman practicing in these different areas?

During the course of my career, the world has changed dramatically for women in the legal profession. In my law school class, which I think was typical of law schools at the time, approximately 40% of the law students were women, so there was definitely a pipeline. Unfortunately, the pipeline didn’t translate into women in leadership positions. For instance, when I was a young associate at Cleary, there were lots of female associates but very few women partners. When I became a partner at Debevoise in 1991, I was the sixth woman partner and the only woman litigation partner at the firm. Mary Jo White had preceded me but had since left. At the time, the partnership had 88 men, so even if all the women partners attended a firm meeting, we were a tiny drop in the bucket. Law firms in those days also didn’t have part-time programs. More broadly within the legal and business community, a female lawyer wasn’t what people envisioned when they thought about a litigator.

Over time, things have changed for the better. For example, at Debevoise, leaders like Mary Jo White have helped throw all types of stereotypes about women lawyers out of the window, and the number of women partners has increased. Debevoise also has been ahead of its peers in adopting successful programs that support women, such as the part-time program. These changes came about partly because some men in leadership positions had daughters and understood on a personal level the importance of meeting women’s needs.

Q. What do you wish you had known when you were starting out as a lawyer?

I needed to be responsible for my own career by ensuring that I focused on professional development, networking and client development. The economics of law firms have changed significantly, so I think it’s important for young lawyers to understand that they need to lay the groundwork from the beginning to develop the expertise and relationships necessary to succeed.

Q. What advice would you give to junior female attorneys for how to build their skills and network?

Join a bar association because I think there are many benefits. First, you get the chance to act for the good of the profession and not just for a client. Second, you meet different people from various parts of the legal profession, and networking is easier when you are working on a project with others. Third, you develop substantive expertise and get a chance to show off your knowledge and skills in front of people who in the future may be potential clients and referring lawyers. Fourth, it’s a good opportunity to become a leader in a different environment. Joining a bar association may be especially rewarding and fruitful for women because succeeding in a new setting can help build your confidence and leadership skills.

At Debevoise, there is a long history of supporting bar association work in the spirit of service to the profession. Barbara Paul Robinson, the first woman partner at Debevoise, was the first woman president of the New York City Bar Association. John Kiernan currently serves as president of the association. Like a couple of Debevoise partners before me, I served as chair of the American Bar Association Section on Litigation. David Rivkin was the President of the International Bar Association. Other partners have chaired various bar association committees.

Q. In the United States Courts’ Pathways to the Bench series, you discuss your background and how it shaped you. Could you talk more about how your life experience made you the leader you are today?

My life experience taught me the truth of the old adage—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Growing up, I encountered resistance and obstacles at various points, but I learned from my mother that I needed to put my head down and push through. My mother worked full-time while raising me as a single mom. On top of that, she had health problems and lived in a foreign culture to which she never fully assimilated. Given the challenges she faced, my mom—who was very demanding—taught me always to hold myself to a high standard and that any obstacle could be overcome with hard work.

Q. Did you have mentors along the way? If so, could you talk about what you had in common with them and how these relationships made a difference in your professional and personal life?

One of my colleagues on the bench, Judge John Koeltl, has been a mentor of mine for a long time. He recruited and hired me from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to work at Debevoise, and we worked closely together at the firm until he left to go on the bench. John was a real mentor and helped my career even when I didn’t realize it. For example, the year before I became a partner, I was working hard and trying to do good work but I didn’t realize that I needed more billable hours to make my partnership candidacy stronger. (I had been staffed to head a team on a very substantial pro bono case, so had many non-billable hours). John staffed me on a client matter that required me to participate in depositions all over the country for a year. My hours skyrocketed that year as a result. It was only after I became a partner that I realized that he probably gave me these assignments partly intending to help my partnership candidacy.

Based on my experience, one thing I emphasize to women is that they need to have different mentors. Judge Koeltl and I have no external attributes in common, but he has been a close mentor and friend. Some mentors have backgrounds similar to yours, and they can advise you based on shared experiences. Equally important, however, are mentors who can act as sponsors by advocating for you and ensuring that you get good work. You need both types of mentors to succeed, and they often are not the same person.

Q. You raised your daughter while juggling a remarkable career. What advice would you give working parents?

When your child is young, there’s a tendency to think that he or she will be a child forever. But time goes by so fast, and it’s an experience you can either grab or not. You cannot say that you’ll do it later, so you need to make room for what you want to do now. That includes not only being a parent but also having other activities that you care about, such as work or some other passion.

To juggle everything, I think you need to draw a line and know your own boundaries so you have a good sense of what you will or will not do, and what you’re willing to sacrifice and compromise. I’m also supportive of law firm part-time programs. They give you room to take on one less major project and allows you to make space for another part of your life.