In March the second most profitable firm in The Am Law 100 made history when Kathleen Sullivan, the former dean of Stanford Law School, joined the name partner ranks of what is now known as Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Sullivan. Here, the 54-year-old Sullivan, who already chaired the firm’s appellate department, discusses breaking the name partner glass ceiling, her proudest achievement in private practice, and the persistent rumors that she might yet be government-bound.
Q You’ve been hailed as the first woman name partner in The Am Law 100. Is this a meaningful milestone for the profession?
A There are already so many holes in the glass ceiling, I was a bit surprised that it was a first. I stand on the shoulders of many great women who were pioneers. I came out of law school the year that Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman on the [U.S. Supreme] Court, and not long after Susan Estrich, who is now my partner, became the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review. The most important thing to say about this is that John Quinn has built a law firm about one thing. It’s about excellence. If an Irish girl from Queens can become a name partner at Quinn, it shows that it’s all about what people do and what people can contribute to the firm, and not who they are or where they come from.
Q You’ve also been hailed as the first openly gay name partner in The Am Law 100. Is that a title you embrace?
A I embrace the title of lawyer. I’ve devoted my whole career to trying to be the very best lawyer I can be. I’ve been lucky enough to have taught 5,000 students at two fabulous law schools, and to have begun my appellate career with the great Larry Tribe. I’m now at a law firm that has assembled a number of the very best lawyers under one roof, and I’m very, very proud to be a name partner here.
Q Bloomberg reported last year that you were the president’s second choice for solicitor general. The current solicitor general [Elena Kagan] is a favorite to replace retiring justice John Paul Stevens. Given your new post, would you accept an executive appointment?
A It’s always very flattering to be talked about for judgeships and high public office.
Q Most of your career has been spent on campus, where public service is often respected more than law firm achievement. What would you say to a Stanford or Harvard first-year who can’t understand your new career choice?
A I would tell the student that practicing law at a law firm is not only exhilarating but a wonderful place to make legal policy. I’ll give you an example. Congress is now debating financial regulation. Here at our law firm, we’ve been trying to change rules of agency and tort law by which professional service providers that aid and abet financial fraud at companies that go bankrupt can be held liable. That’s making policy. What could be more exciting to somebody who spent her career in academia than to be in the middle of two cases — Parmalat and Refco — in which we’re going to make law about who are the gatekeepers who should be guarding against financial fraud that causes the collapse of companies? At a time when there’s partisan gridlock in politics, and at a time when academia is going through a lot of wonderful changes that make it more interdisciplinary but take it farther from the profession, private litigation is a great place to go if you want to make legal policy.
Q What is your proudest achievement in private practice until now?
A Overcoming constitutional objections to [New York governor David] Paterson’s appointment of Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor was the thrill of a lifetime. We took an underdog case. We litigated it from start to finish in ten weeks. We made constitutional law of first impression. For a person who’s taught constitutional law for a quarter of a century, it was a dream. It was basically Marbury v. Madison comes to New York.
Q Your sexiest pending case involves Pfizer Inc’s medical trials in Nigeria. Is it the vehicle for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the corporate alien tort?
A We think this case is an excellent vehicle for the Court to address the very pressing question of corporate liability under the alien tort statute. The Court was unable to address that question a few years ago in the South African apartheid case due to recusal issues that deprived it of a quorum. Meanwhile, these cases go on at enormous expense to corporations, with enormous stigma. It’s exceedingly important that the Court try to clarify a statute that’s been used in ways the first Congress never envisioned in 1789. We’ll see what happens when the solicitor general’s brief is filed.
Q What if you’re appointed solicitor general before the brief in the case is filed?
A [Laughter.] The president hasn’t called me on that.
Q If you do become solicitor general, what happens to the firm’s name?
A We had to change a lot of signs and letterheads and receptionists’ greetings, so we’re not planning to repeat that exercise anytime soon.
Q If being a name partner is the apogee of your legal career, will you be satisfied? What would you like to achieve within that role?
A When I graduated from law school in 1981, if you told me I would ever be a name partner at a major law firm, I would have said, “Yes, and I’ll also be the Pope.” It’s a huge, thrilling, wonderful gift. What I’d like to do with it is to continue to work with my partners at cutting-edge legal creativity, to continue producing impossible results for our clients, like Governor Paterson, to learn and grow and be the best lawyer I can be, and to help my young colleagues at the firm see the exhilaration of private practice. •