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Lawyer Limelight: Susan Saltzstein and Allison Schneirov

Photo by Laura Barisonzi.

Making partner was not a big focus for either Allison Schneirov (photo, left) or Susan Saltzstein when they joined Skadden more than 20 years ago. As it turns out, they not only made partner but rose to the top of their practices nationally, Schneirov as a transactional lawyer and Saltzstein as a litigator. The two lawyers were friendly during college at the University of Pennsylvania, though Saltzstein was a year ahead.

“Allison may not remember that we were in the same history class, but I do,” Saltzstein says. “She stood out from our peers in that large class with her spot-on insights. She was impressive, even as a college student.” They went their separate ways during law school – NYU Law for Schneirov and Columbia Law for Saltzstein – but they were summer associates together at Skadden in 1990. Schneirov says that, of a summer class of 84 associates, 22 were women – and three of those 22 are partners today.

Lawdragon: Can you describe your paths to Skadden?

Allison Schneirov: My mother has always worked and both of my parents encouraged me and my two sisters to find a fulfilling career. My father has been a practicing lawyer in Philadelphia for over 56 years so I was exposed to the practice of law quite early on. Unlike the specialized transactional nature of the practice of big firm lawyers today, my father has always been a true generalist, counseling his clients on all of their legal issues, whether buying or selling businesses for them, doing their personal real estate transactions or even their estate work. He is the consummate “trusted adviser” to his clients on all matters, a goal I have always tried to achieve with my clients as well.

I thought of going into finance after I graduated from college but ultimately decided to go straight to law school. I had the privilege of working at Skadden as a summer legal assistant while I was still in college during the summers of 1986 and 1987. It was an incredible time to be at Skadden as this was during the height of M&A activity in the ‘80s. After that experience, I knew that if I went to law school I would want to start my career at a big firm like Skadden.

Susan Saltzstein: I used to think that my path towards a career in law was rather ordinary. I grew up during the ‘70s and ‘80s, the daughter of a corporate labor lawyer and a working mother, both of whom possessed (and still do, thankfully) no small amount of good judgment. My brother and I were required to join my parents at the dinner table, which meant not just a meal but a dialogue that spilled beyond our usual sloppy table-side manners, to politics, history, news, books and the latest legal developments. We debated around that kitchen table, we were counseled around that kitchen table and out of those simple meals in that small suburban town, I began to view myself as an advocate. In college and law school, I never once thought that achieving success as a lawyer was unattainable. A short stint as a legal assistant at Skadden confirmed my optimism. And as a young Skadden lawyer, I witnessed women achieving, meritocracy embraced, integrity cherished and clients valued. To this day, I appreciate the camaraderie among Skadden partners, their genius, creativity and client-minded values. I now see that my path towards law was anything but ordinary.

LD: Can you offer any guidance to young lawyers that are interested in becoming a partner at a large law firm?

AS: That is a really tough question because I didn’t come to Skadden with the aim of becoming a partner. I came to Skadden with the intent of staying for two years, getting some great training and moving back to Philadelphia. As you can see, I ended up staying much longer. My advice is to not think about becoming a partner when you begin your career. Focus on learning as much as you can and having pride in your work. Although some deals will undoubtedly have difficult moments, take the time to get to know everyone on the deal and try not to burn bridges no matter how heated the negotiation. One of my best clients today is someone I met when I was an associate and he was across the table from me, so you never know who may end up being a great client. Perhaps most importantly, young lawyers should try to find people who care about them to help with their professional development, whether that is becoming a partner at a large law firm or not.

SS: New lawyers are often eager for insights on how to become a partner — they want to know the trick. There’s not one linear, exclusive path to partnership and that was not my focus when I joined Skadden. I would advise new lawyers to appreciate the value of practical advice and search for creative ways to solve problems. New lawyers ought to think about how to contribute to strategy; anticipate clients’ and colleagues’ needs; approach a problem from a new perspective; take pride in their work; always act ethically; turn a phrase in a way that it has not been turned before; anticipate questions; find meaning in a document that’s been read before; offer their help when no one has asked; prepare, prepare, prepare; review and edit (and edit again); and exude enough confidence to concede a mistake and then help to fix it.

LD: Would you give advice specific to women lawyers?

AS: My advice for young women is the same as for young men — find a practice area that you really enjoy, work really hard to become an expert and find people who will help you develop both professionally and personally. Make yourself indispensable. Don’t look for problems, look for solutions and have a positive attitude. Find a sense of purpose that motivates you because only you can define what it means to be successful in your career. Most of all, try to have fun. The best part of working in a big law firm like Skadden is that you are surrounded by an incredibly motivated, talented and interesting group of people who are all working closely together to get the best results for their clients. That is a tremendously energizing environment in which to work, so enjoy it while you are there.

SS: My advice for women is the same as for men and falls in line with advice I would give to any new lawyer. In addition to embracing a client service perspective, young lawyers should watch, listen and learn. Skadden’s culture promotes the exchange of ideas. Wisdom is passed from one partner to another routinely. Throughout my career, I have been the beneficiary of the guidance of more senior lawyers who took an active interest in my career, who provided me with opportunities and offered me their friendship. I am not a believer in forced mentorship; those lasting relationships are best formed organically. Engage yourself in firm life, make new friends, and remember that cases are never won alone.

LD: What led you to choose the practice areas you’re in?

AS: I have always enjoyed the excitement and challenges of M&A. Every deal is like a giant puzzle and solving those puzzles is always fun (well, almost always fun). Each deal has its own unique set of legal issues and complexities and, of course, its own unique cast of characters. M&A involves a lot of negotiating with different personalities, a skill I seem to hone every day with my kids! The M&A lawyer is often called the “quarterback” of the deal team which means I get to work with a very big and broad team of my colleagues — finance, tax, employee benefits, antitrust, litigation and IP just to name a few — where each member is critical to getting the deal done. Add to the mix that most of my deals have an international component and that makes my practice that much more interesting.

SS: I decided to become a litigator even before I entered law school. I was inspired by the heroes of history, who used the simple power of words to change their times. For me, litigation was my calling. But when I graduated from Penn in 1987, Ronald Reagan was in his last year as president; Wall Street was booming, and almost everyone that I knew from Penn had made a beeline straight to business school or an investment bank. My friends who enrolled in law school were focused mainly on corporate law. At that time, the idea of pursuing law school to become, of all things, a litigator seemed a bit out of vogue. Even though I received a job offer from a top investment bank, my gut told me to stick with the law school plan. Once I made that decision, my career path was chosen. Ultimately, I decided to pursue litigation because I thought that my skills and interests suited a litigator’s skills: writing, oral advocacy, formulating strategy, problem-solving and counseling.

LD: What’s been your most rewarding deal or case?

AS: I have been incredibly fortunate to work with so many terrific clients over the years on so many interesting deals that it would be really hard to choose the most rewarding. One deal that has always stood out for me as particularly fun was representing the government of Trinidad and Tobago in the partial privatization of BWIA International Airways to private investors. We never knew what to expect as each day brought a new challenge, including approval of the deal by the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago. At the time, the BWIA transaction represented the most significant employee stock ownership plan in the history of the Caribbean. That deal had it all, including an extremely exotic location in which to spend all of my time in a conference room!

SS: When we represented the underwriters in the WorldCom bondholder litigation, that was my most rewarding case. When we helped to defend Sumner Redstone’s Viacom against Edgar Bronfman’s Universal in a Delaware trial, that was my most rewarding case. When we represented Anadarko against securities claims relating to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, that was my most rewarding case. When we represented Ann Taylor in a securities litigation that set the standard for pleading fraud in the Second Circuit, that was my most rewarding case. When we successfully defended a bank against foreign exchange claims, that was my most rewarding case. When we devised a successful legal strategy to defend UniCredit against billions of dollars in Madoff-related claims, that was my most rewarding case. The list goes on and on.

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