For McDermott’s Lisa Richman, all the world’s a stage (just not right now)

5 minute read

Signage at the legal offices of the law firm McDermott Will & Emery in New York City, New York, U.S., May 26, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

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(Reuters) - McDermott Will & Emery partner Lisa Richman has seemingly riveting legal war stories, like the time a party in an international arbitration pulled out a knife when her client was testifying.

Then there was the time a country banned her from entry after her client sued it, or the Christmas she spent trying to get local counsel out of a country she was litigating against because that country issued a warrant for the lawyer’s arrest.

But alas -- and therein lies both the strength and the pity of arbitration (at least from a journalist's point of view) -- she can’t spill details because the proceedings were all confidential.

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What she can say after almost two decades as one of the few first-chair female litigators in the international dispute resolution arena is that “every single case is different, and I’m excited about every single one.”

I had the chance to catch up with Richman, who also serves as the managing partner of McDermott’s 200-lawyer D.C. office, to see how the pandemic has impacted her practice, which pre-COVID involved jetting off to places like London, Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris and Geneva for hearings. She’s arbitrated cases on every continent but Antarctica.

Of course, as Richman pointed out, business travel for her mainly involves looking at white walls in conference rooms and hotels and then “rushing home as soon as I can” to her three young children. Still, there’s an undeniable glamour about the work.

Richman told me that when she was a new associate at K&L Gates, she was immediately intrigued by arbitration’s flexibility -- that sophisticated parties (think mega-corporations or nation-states) have the ability to customize the rules of evidence and civil procedure that they'll be bound by. Or as a senior partner described it to her, “the discretion to take the rules and throw them out the window,” she recalled. “I thought ‘This sounds fascinating.’”

She asked the partner if she could assist in a pending arbitration. He told her that the case was already fully staffed with two other associates.

Richman was undeterred. What if she did all her regular work, and in her free time, she would take on “whatever menial tasks were available and not bill the client?” she asked.

Lisa Richman

The partner said yes (because why not?). And then shortly before the hearing, the two associates quit the firm. Suddenly as a “very junior” associate, Richman found herself as second chair, with a stand-up role in the proceedings.

Once she had that elusive qualification – experience – she was tapped to serve as first chair in smaller proceedings, and her practice grew from there.

There’s an important lesson here that has nothing to do with luck. Richman got her break as a result of “raising my hand and saying ‘Yes, I really want to learn,’” she said. And then she didn’t take no for an answer. It’s about creating your own opportunities -- a valuable skill for every ambitious lawyer.

It has, however, made her something of an anomaly. The international dispute resolution field remains male-dominated, and suffice to say, there’s not a surfeit of women, especially younger ones, leading cases.

But there are some signs that’s starting to change.

The ICC International Court of Arbitration in its most recent dispute resolution report found that in 2020, the number of women serving as arbitrators crept up slightly. Women were confirmed and appointed as arbitrators in 23.4% of the forum’s disputes, up from 21.1% in 2019.

Per the report, “the proportion of women arbitrators nominated or appointed has increased over the last five years, as a consequence of global awareness and joint efforts to bridge the gender gap in arbitral tribunals.”

So yes, some progress, but as Richman said, “There’s definitely still room for improvement.”

In fairness though, she also noted that across all areas of high-stakes litigation and not just international arbitration, “When you get to the first-chair level, there are far fewer women.”

During the pandemic, she has stayed busy, with four full-blown arbitration hearings – the equivalent of four trials – conducted via video.

It wasn’t immediately obvious to her this would be feasible. When the world shut down in March 2020, she confessed, “My first thought was ‘Oh my God, how are we going to do this?’”

“We just made it work. It’s gone very well,” she said. (Never mind that two of the proceedings were to have taken place in London, which meant 4 a.m. start times for her in Washington, D.C.)

Richman hasn’t been on the road for 18 months, by far the longest stretch at home in her professional career.

“I definitely prefer to be in the same room as my client,” she told me. “There are things you can’t replicate over the internet and Zoom.”

Still, she predicted that some of the pandemic-induced innovations will be here to stay.

“This will be part of the conversation, a potential option,” she said. Still, she added, “I prefer to look the decision-maker in the eye and to make a connection.”

(Opinions expressed here are those of the author. Reuters News, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias.)

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Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com