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For women attorneys who have decided to be litigators, the journey to success has always been challenging. And until the last few years, it was nearly impossible. Women who started their careers in the 1960s or before found obstacles everywhere — judges who wouldn’t acknowledge them, colleagues who ignored them or refused to share or refer work, law firms that expected them to do secretarial work. When Sheila Birnbaum of New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom began practicing in 1965, she says, there were few women litigators and they were mostly assigned to appellate work. “Women didn’t try cases,” says Birnbaum, now a well-known products liability and mass torts specialist. “It was very rare to see women in the courtroom at that time.” Twenty years ago, a list of the United States’ leading women litigators would have been easy to compile, but there would have been few candidates who had much beyond a niche practice. Nearly every prominent trial was first-chaired and second-chaired by a man. The names of women attorneys might appear on appeal briefs, but nearly all the oral arguments were conducted by men. Times have definitely changed. In compiling a list of the top 50 women litigators this year, The National Law Journal found more than 100 legitimate candidates, many with national practices and all with multiple significant wins at the appellate or trial level. And these top women litigators are not consigned to litigation ghettoes — areas and subjects considered suitable for women. They are in a wide range of practice areas. The changes started happening in the 1970s as the number of women in law schools began increasing. In 1971, according to the American Bar Association, only 3 percent of lawyers were female. By 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 30 percent of lawyers were women. This increase, of course, widened the pool of women litigators. More women began to be hired by corporate law firms and as prosecutors; more joined plaintiffs’ firms or struck out on their own. THE TRAILBLAZERS A handful of pioneers began to attract notice. Roxanne Barton Conlin managed more than 100 prosecutions while she was a U.S. Attorney in Iowa during the late 1970s. Birnbaum already had won a precedent-setting decision on products liability in New York’s highest court. By the mid-1990s, women began appearing as lead counsel in some of the biggest civil cases. In 1995, Anita Porte Robb of Kansas City, Mo.’s Robb & Robb was co-lead counsel in two of the largest products liability verdicts ever, for $350 million and $70 million. In 1996, Margaret McKeown, then of Seattle’s Perkins Coie, and now a federal judge, was lead counsel in one of the top defense verdicts of the year, a fraud case against a unit of Citicorp in which the plaintiffs were seeking $250 million. That same year, Suzelle Smith of Los Angeles’ Howarth & Smith beat legendary plaintiffs’ attorney James E. Butler in a products defense for Suzuki. In 2000, the two largest employment verdicts of the year were won by women, as was the largest verdict of the year, against the tobacco industry on behalf of an individual plaintiff. That verdict, by the way, was won by Madelyn Chaber of San Francisco’s Wartnick, Chaber, Harowitz & Tigerman, who is not on the NLJ list because she has taken time off following the death of her husband. This year, million-dollar verdicts won by female plaintiffs’ attorneys were almost commonplace. In separate cases, women as lead or solo counsel won verdicts of $15 million and $31 million in medical malpractice, $56.55 million in products liability and $20.5 million and $55 million in asbestos litigation. CORPORATE WORK WAS CRUCIAL Most of the first women to break through to the top echelons of litigators nationwide were those who worked in larger firms, and for corporate clients. Such firms and clients weren’t necessarily less prejudiced. But there were more opportunities to become involved with high-profile litigation and to come in contact with major clients. Chilton Davis Varner of Atlanta’s King & Spalding worked on her first products case for General Motors Corp. as a fourth-year associate. That set her on the road to becoming one of GM’s lead trial counsels in products liability litigation. Patricia L. Glaser of Los Angeles’ Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, Weil & Shapiro was assigned collection litigation for PepsiCo soon after joining her first firm. The experience trained her in all aspects of business litigation. BUILDING BUSINESS As these women litigators succeeded in smaller cases or in smaller roles in larger litigation, they began to build their own books of business. Companies embroiled in products liability litigation seemed particularly open to accepting women in leadership roles. Debra E. Pole, partner in the Los Angeles office of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, for instance, became national coordinating counsel for Baxter Healthcare Inc. in breast implant litigation. The past decade has seen an increase in successful women plaintiffs’ attorneys. Elizabeth J. Cabraser of San Francisco’s Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein and Dianne M. Nast of Lancaster, Pa.’s Roda & Nast became among the most successful and experienced U.S. class action plaintiffs’ attorneys. Patricia Hynes of New York’s Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach became the first woman to be made a name partner at a national firm, in 1993. Judy Livingston, Lisa Blue and Dianne Jay Weaver began amassing record numbers of million-dollar plaintiffs’ verdicts. Few statistics are available on the number of women litigators. The ABA does not have such a breakdown. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are more prominent successful women litigators than ever before. And there are a lot more coming up. Glaser suggests that women will not have really made it as litigators until lists of the best women litigators become as irrelevant as lists of the top male litigators. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to talk about women litigators?” she asks. “We could just talk about litigators.”

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