Nancy Lieberman – top Wall Street attorney; youngest ever Skadden partner

5 minutes with... Nancy Lieberman

Nancy LiebermanWhen did you decide to become a lawyer? Why? 

I decided to become a lawyer in 1969 when I was 12 years old. When visiting an aunt and uncle, I distinctly remember hearing about my older first cousin who had just finished working as a summer associate in a major Chicago law firm. It sounded absolutely fascinating and so I decided, then and there, that a law career was in my future.  

Starting out, what did you expect from a career in the law?

After spending one month at the University of Chicago Law School, I realized that I absolutely did not want to become a litigator because it seemed too antagonistic for my taste. Since I like to create and build things, in essence to be "positive," I thought my only choice was to become a corporate lawyer (in those days, there were not as many subspecialties as exist today).

Since I was only 19 at the time and had little exposure to the world of business, I was not quite sure what a corporate lawyer did, but I figured being a corporate lawyer would be constructive and not destructive. It was my expectation to have a fabulous summer experience, get a great job offer, work hard on difficult and intellectually stimulating transactions, and ultimately, become a partner. Since we were always doing "first-of-their-kind deals" and making things up we went along, my expectations were more than met early on. Although it now sounds quite corny, I told my parents I loved my job so much that I would pay to work at Skadden!  

Has it lived up to your expectations? 

Actually, my expectations have been exceeded. Since I like to be challenged, I like having the opportunity to figure out how to execute an extremely difficult transaction. Sometimes I say that in my corporate practice I "specialize in doing messy deals." Cookie-cutter transactions would not make it with me.

Accordingly, throughout my career I have done a number of "one-off" first-of-their kind transactions, most recently representing Amylin Pharmaceuticals in purchasing back its rights to a diabetes drug it had developed from Eli Lilly and Company and then within months reselling the reconstituted business to Bristol-Myers Squibb for a substantial gain. When things go right for a client and its shareholders, as it did in Amylin, I feel terrific.

How did you get into the areas of law you are known for today? By design? Chance? Both?

Skadden was one of the last law firms to interview on campus and since I wanted a free trip home to New York City from Chicago for Thanksgiving 1977, I accepted an invitation to visit the firm's offices in New York. Instead of droning on about public offerings and private placements as was the case with other law firms I had interviewed, I walked through Skadden's offices and felt like there was electricity pulsating through the halls as people were rushing around working on deals I had read about in The Wall Street Journal.

Everyone I spoke with seemed to love their work and was energized when talking about it. For the first time, I found a law firm that "sang to me." I knew that if I went to Skadden I would do M&A work because in those days it was essentially the only corporate practice area in the firm. So, I interviewed at Skadden "by chance," but once I got there, I knew "by design" I would be a corporate M&A attorney.  

"I was able to prove that women had the brains and tenacity to become partners and rainmakers in a field which is the legal equivalent to being a Marine or Navy Seal in the military." 

What do you consider to have been your big break? 

Since I was only 22 when I graduated from law school, I decided to get some "real life" experience before joining a law firm. When I joined Skadden full-time in 1981, after serving as a US Court of Appeals law clerk and earning an LLM tax law degree from NYU, I was told I would start as a third-year associate although I had never worked in a law firm. Unlike today, it was very "sink or swim."

After two years at Skadden, I was deemed to be a fifth-year associate but I had not had any significant deal experience until I was suddenly told I would be the "senior associate" in a Japanese/US joint venture transaction involving National Steel and Japan's NKK steel company. That was like going from 0 to 60 mph in five seconds as far as I was concerned. The deal lasted for eight months and was a seven day a week endeavor for me as I learned the ropes. On the day the deal closed – August 31, 1984 – Peter Atkins told me I had done an "excellent job." He was, and still is, at the top of his game and did not give out compliments lightly. Proving myself with Peter was my "big break" at Skadden and I thereafter was on a steep upward trajectory in my career. I became a partner at the age of 30, just five and a half years after I began practicing law at Skadden. 

What differences do you see in today's legal market compared to when you started?

When I started my career, the legal job market in New York was quite rigid. If you were fortunate enough to go to a top law school and get a job offer from a large law firm, you had to prove yourself within the first seven or eight years or leave. This policy was derisively referred to as "up or out." Fortunately, this policy no longer exists. For example, one of our best litigation partners, Maura Barry Grinalds, worked part-time for a number of years as she raised four children. She decided when she would come back full-time and work toward a partnership position, which is what happened. Under the old system, such flexibility did not exist and, accordingly, was why there were so few women in top law firm positions. Thank goodness for the change.

Also, back in the 1970s, it seemed that most young lawyers hoped to become partners at the law firms where they began their careers. Today, I think that most associates view their big law firm experience as an educational training ground from which they will move on to other positions, often in business and not the law.  

What achievement are you most proud of? 

As one of the first women M&A associates and then partners at Skadden, I was able to prove that women had the brains and tenacity to become partners and rainmakers in a field which is the legal equivalent to being a Marine or Navy Seal in the military.

A close second would be returning back to work one year after breaking my neck in a skiing accident and becoming a quadriplegic. It was rough sledding for the first year or so, but I was not only able to reconstitute my practice, but was able to expand it to a level which was actually better than my pre-accident days.

What do you consider your greatest failure or regret? 

Since my family spends most summer weekends on our sailboat, I regret that I have not figured out a way to grow a garden in the cockpit of our boat!  

What have you enjoyed most during your career in the legal profession?

Without question, several of the pro bono matters I have been able to work on and which have had a direct impact on people's lives. About ten years ago, I became aware of a Caribbean church in the Bronx which received a notice from New York City that it was being sued for failure to pay real estate taxes for many years. The church was on the brink of bankruptcy and I was able to not only reverse the decision with the Department of Finance, but also to help the church obtain a refund of over $20,000 in taxes that it had erroneously paid. Presenting the pastor with the check at a Sunday service in front of the entire congregation was just an exhilarating experience.

Also, I have become an advocate for spinal cord injury victims given that I broke my neck in a bad skiing accident. As a cofounder of New Yorkers to Cure Paralysis, I have been working hard to get New York State to restore research funding mandated by a statute which was improperly eliminated several years ago. Most injuries occur to young adults or to gunshot victims who do not have the legal expertise and experience to highlight the problem and work to get results. I view myself as their voice. Last year, some of the research dollars were restored, but I will not stop until it is fully restored. Researchers are on the cusp of major advances in ameliorating this condition and I want to help them to the finish line. 

And enjoyed least? 

Keeping track of my billable hours and preparing billing statements for my clients.

What law would you change, abolish or create? 

I would use my negotiating skills honed over 30 years of experience and help create the "Grand Bargain" in Washington whereby laws would be changed or created to prudently modify entitlement spending, cut wasteful spending and have the tax laws modified to create a fair system that most Americans participate in.

Who is your legal hero? 

Joe Flom because he was not only a brilliant strategic thinker and consummate corporate attorney, but he also set an example of creating an environment where the best attorneys could prosper, regardless of personal characteristics like ethnicity or gender. Unlike my friends at other law firms, I never thought that being a woman would be an impediment to becoming a partner at Skadden. Most of all, he is my hero because he ingrained in us the idea that philanthropy should be as natural as breathing air. It seems as though every attorney at our firm is involved one way or another with charitable or pro bono work.  

What career would you have in your second life? 

Since I love gardening, perhaps I would become a horticulturist. You should see the beautiful flowers and vegetables that have grown from seeds in both my kitchen and my office windowsills – both having tremendous exposure to good light!  

What slogan would you like to be remembered by? 

My current personal slogan, which popped into my head after my skiing accident is: "I would rather drink wine than whine."

This slogan encapsulates my tremendous lust for all that life has to offer, including continuation of my wonderful law practice, my travel to exotic locations, watching my son grow up, aging gracefully with my husband, and enjoying my friendships with people ranging in age from their teens to their 90s. Certainly, I could complain about many things every day, but that would be the surest way to ruin my life. After all, would you want to be around a person like that? 

What advice would you give to students trying to enter the legal profession today?

First, investigate the teaching methods of the law school you plan to attend. You want to be taught in the "Socratic" method, which means that professors will bombard you with many questions and you will have to figure out what the answers are. Lawyers must think on their feet and the "Socratic" method is the best way to train you to think like a lawyer and operate as a lawyer. Many law schools simply lecture to students who engage in rote memorization of the lectures and restate them on exams.

Second, talk to trained attorneys who both practice law and also work in non-legal jobs such as running a business. Practicing lawyers can give you a sense of what it is "really like" and what the vast range of opportunities are. Non-practicing lawyers can explain to you what, if anything, their law school education helped them to achieve in their careers.

If you follow these two pieces of advice, you will go to a worthwhile law school and have a sense of what a legal education can mean to you in the future, whether or not you choose to practice law. 

And secondly, to those who hope to ultimately get into the areas of law in which you are expert?

You must really like dealing with thorny problems requiring "out-of-the-box" thinking in order to be a successful M&A lawyer. Also, preferably, you are a "night owl" with lots of stamina because you will spend many hours working very hard to achieve the desired results!