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At the time Sheila L. Birnbaum graduated from New York University School of Law in 1965, the job prospects for women lawyers were limited. “Many law firms wouldn’t even interview women,” she says. “Judges wouldn’t consider women as law clerks unless they were first in their class. Even in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, they’d only accept you for civil litigation, not criminal.” The odds for women litigators were even more daunting. She was hired at a litigation firm, New York’s Berman & Frost, but was expected to handle appellate work only. She became involved in trial as well as appellate work but, she adds, acceptance wasn’t universal. “When I went to a courtroom in Brooklyn, the judge looked at me and said, ‘Where’s your lawyer, miss?’ “ In those early years, Birnbaum’s practice reflected the work of the firm, representing plaintiffs and defendants in personal injury and products liability. But, Birnbaum says, “I soon gravitated to representing defendants.” It was a way to build a career, by building a client base. And she soon began building a reputation as a tough, resourceful litigator, particularly in the area of products liability. By the early 1970s, Birnbaum had won a landmark ruling in the New York Court of Appeals while representing Chrysler, when the court held that contributory negligence was a defense in strict liability. This reputation has grown exponentially in the ensuing years. Today Birnbaum, now with New York’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is one of the nation’s leading litigators in products liability and mass tort litigation. She has handled numerous multimillion-dollar — and even billion-dollar — settlements and has argued many successful appeals in appellate courts throughout the country, including a landmark case before the U.S. Supreme Court where the Court decided that under common law, there was no cause for medical monitoring without physical injury. Birnbaum has been national counsel for Dow Corning Corp. in the breast implant litigation and lead counsel for Copley Pharmaceutical Inc. in the Albuterol class action. She is national counsel for Aventis Corp. in the litigation over biotech corn and represents Compaq Computer Corp. in class action fraud litigation in Beaumont, Texas. Birnbaum is national coordinating counsel for several major corporations caught up in products liability actions involving asbestos, drugs, heavy machinery, cordless telephones and chemical substances. Following her first successes in private practice in 1979, Birnbaum accepted a job teaching law at Fordham Law School, while becoming of counsel to the Berman firm. In 1985, she reversed directions, coming to Skadden Arps full time to start its products liability section. She was the only lawyer in the section at first, but has since expanded it to 70. She now teaches part time at NYU. “I’ve had two really wonderful careers.”

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