Sandra-Goldstein-Art

It’s big news when a partner leaves the hallowed halls of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. And even bigger news when the partner is a woman. But when that move comes with reports that she’ll be making $11 million annually for the next five years (not counting the sign-up bonus), the news is a showstopper.

That describes Sandra Goldstein, who recently vaulted to Kirkland & Ellis from Cravath. Though it’s hard to say if she’s officially the highest paid female partner in Big Law, I’m willing to bet she’s way up there. (According to The New York Times, which broke the story about her compensation, the amount “is an estimate and not technically a guarantee,” though two people involved in discussions with her confirmed the amount.)

Any way you look at it, Goldstein is making buckets of moolah—particularly noteworthy considering that women still lag behind men at most firms.

So who is Goldstein? How did she do it? And what advice does she have for other women?

Below is an edited version of my chat with Goldstein at Kirkland’s midtown office in Manhattan.

You grew up at Cravath. You went there right out of NYU Law School in 1987, and you were the youngest associate to make partner (at age 30). Why did you leave it for Kirkland?   Kirkland has energetic, business-minded people and an enormously diverse practice. I was at Cravath for 30 years and I have friends there, but this was a choice to go to firm with an even greater platform.

They strike me as polar opposites—Cravath is traditional and lockstep, while Kirkland has a reputation of being the Wild West where partners eat what they kill. Did you find that a culture shock?   Culture is a big word. It depends on how you break it down. There’s an extraordinary culture of collaboration at Kirkland. I’ve already been introduced to new clients. I’ll still be doing securities litigation and commercial litigation. There’s greater breath of practice here, like private equity. It’s not changing but expanding my practice.

I have to ask about that fat elephant in the room—that fat compensation package you reportedly are getting at Kirkland. Did you jump ship for the money?  I did not decide to leave Cravath after 30 years for monetary reasons.

Let’s talk about how you got where you are. By any measure—for men or women—you’ve been extremely successful. You must have enormous drive.  I had a spectacular role model in my mom [Gloria Goldstein]. She was a trial lawyer for 22 years with my dad, then became judge of New York Supreme Court, and then was elevated to the appellate division. She’s in her late 80s, and she is still working at the appellate division as a judicial hearing officer. She failed at retiring.

Interesting you cite your mom. I’ve talked to a number of women partners who credit having a working mother for their careers.  My mother was committed to her career and her three children. There was never a time in my childhood when I wished she was present. She was always there, and I never wanted for attention. If she was able to do it, I could, too, because she had it much harder. My mother graduated No. 1 from Brooklyn Law School, but it was not acceptable at the time for a woman to be in that position. The school held a private ceremony for her, but it was a male student who gave the graduation speech. When I graduated from NYU [law school], I didn’t feel like a pariah the way my mother did.

There’s obviously been progress since your mother’s time. Did you ever experience sexism in your own career?  I didn’t experience bias on a global level. I never thought men didn’t want me to succeed. But did people underestimate me? Absolutely. And if an opponent underestimated me, I thought that was great because I made sure they paid for it!

You’ve succeeded phenomenally, but that’s not true for women overall. How do you assess the pace of change for women in the last 30 years ?  There are a lot more programs and discussion about making sure that women know that they can succeed. And there’s more focus that you can pursue career and family.

The profession is not right for everyone one. It is an exceedingly rewarding but hard job that requires time and tenacity.

You have three kids, as did your mother. So what’s the lesson to having it all or at least doing it all?  In my mom’s mind, everyone has a choice. You do what you want is what she taught us. If you want to be a lawyer in a big firm, you do it. If you want to opt out, you do that. My mom never said, “You will face these challenges.” My parents encouraged me and my brothers the same way and told us we had the wherewithal to do what we wanted.

And did you set a goal early on to be a partner at a major firm?  I thought I’d eventually join Goldstein & Goldstein, my dad and brother’s practice! I didn’t walk into Cravath and think I’d be partner one day. But I also didn’t think I was limited. You shouldn’t be so dead-set about what you’ll do when you’re 25.

You ultimately decided to go for it at Cravath—and got the prize. So what is your ultimate advice for lawyers, particularly women, who want to succeed in this competitive profession?  The three most important qualities for the job are judgment, tenacity and confidence. They have to work in tandem, and that’s true for women and men. To the extent that women might have less confidence than men, sometimes they have to say to themselves, “You can do this.” You have to picture yourself at that table, in that courtroom. A lot of things are nerve-wrecking, and you need to psyche yourself up. So if you need to talk to yourself, do it. The more you succeed, the more you will succeed.