« Whatever Happened to Davis Polk's Report on Victoria's Secrets? | Main | Why Women Are All Riled Up About [Dr.] Jill Biden »

The Future of Boies Schiller Is Female

Vivia Chen

December 14, 2020

Harrison-McCawley-Article-202012111128

 

Woohoo! It’s not just old, white men running the show anymore. Two women (OK, they are white) have emerged as top leaders at Boies Schiller Flexner. 

Last week, Natasha Harrison (pictured on left), the firm’s co-managing partner, was catapulted to deputy chairwoman. And now, Sigrid McCawley (on right), a member of the executive committee, has been elevated to co-managing partner. (The other new co-MPs are Matthew Schwartz and Alan Vickery.) Plus, a woman is joining the executive committee: Joanna Wright (the other new member is Hamish Hume).

“It hasn’t been a straight line, and it’s taken us a while to get here,” says chairman David Boies. “But we now have some extraordinary women in the leadership, and they are the next generation.”

Call it the dawning of the feminine order at Boies Schiller. Time to pop the champagne!

Yet, I feel nervous.

I can’t help thinking about that “glass cliff.” As any corporate feminist knows, that’s when women are thrust into leadership roles—when organizations are in deep crisis. And crisis certainly describes Boies Schiller this past year: Since January, it’s been bleeding partners, losing around 60 of them—the most recent being co-managing partner Nick Gravante, who’s decamping to Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft with three other partners. 

Obviously, any leader in these situations faces daunting odds, but what happens when that leader is a woman? She’ll be scrutinized more closely, and if things go south, expect a double blast of blame. So will the female leaders at Boies Schiller face the same fate?

Harrison and McCawley take umbrage at the suggestion that they were tapped to steer a sinking ship. “That’s a stereotype that devalues us as women,” says Harrison, adding that she doesn’t feel she’s inherited a mess. McCawley stresses that she lobbied for the co-managing partner role. “I’ve been pushing for it. It was a lean-in moment,” she says. Instead of enlisting women to do the cleanup, says McCawley, the firm was signaling faith in their leadership. “They were saying, ‘we will put two women in power to move the ship forward,’ ” she says. 

Harrison says, “It’s been in vogue to say that this firm is failing.” She cites what she calls a string of “inaccurate” reporting in the press, including rumors about the firm’s finances (no, the firm isn’t struggling with cash flow), associate bonuses (yes, associates got them, and they are big and spectacular) and her own career plans (“I was shocked to read that I’m on the market. Not true”).

What the press ignored, adds McCawley, is that “we’ve continued to be doing great.” She names the firm’s big score for plaintiffs against insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield that resulted in legal fees of $667.5 million that will be shared with two other firms. She adds, “And I won a $30 million arbitration this year.” What’s more, says Harrison, the firm’s London office, which she heads, boasts a 10% increase in earnings this year.

I get it. The firm is humming, the money is flowing and it’s way too early for a death watch. That said, there’s that inconvenient fact: Partners keep bolting.

Indeed, the narrative that the firm had been pushing since early this year—that the departures were welcomed, even part of some master plan—has fizzled. “Some of the departures were friends and colleagues,” admits Harrison.

Does she take the departures personally? Were they a referendum on her leadership and her partnership with Nick Gravante? 

“There were times when I dug deep, at 3 o’clock in the morning, and took it personally,” she says. “But it occurred to me that it wasn’t remotely personal. People left because they wanted a different platform or a different opportunity.”

And the question on many women’s minds: Did Harrison face greater challenges as a female leader? 

“Not greater challenges but different ones,” says Harrison. “Five years ago, I might have faced greater challenges as a woman, but the world is different now. People joshed me about what I’ve achieved, not because I’m a woman.” 

Under her watch, Harrison has imposed structure on a firm that’s known to be wildly unstructured. “We’re a hard group to lead,” concedes Boies, adding that Harrison has brought more discipline to the enterprise. “Jonathan [Schiller] and I have our strengths but detailed management is not one of them. We’re better at practicing law and leading litigation teams than developing a five-year plan.”

Harrison says her biggest accomplishment so far is “setting out a strategic vision for the firm,” adding, “for the first time, the firm has a strategy.” A key component of that strategy is revamping partner compensation, which, she proudly notes, was implemented with over 90% support. “In any other firm, this would have taken three to five years to achieve,” she says. 

McCawley says Harrison “shook things up” and that her gender proved to be an asset. “Natasha’s femininity adds to her value; she has a more collaborative approach that’s appreciated.”

And speaking of style, how did Harrison’s London-sophisticate mesh with Gravante’s Brooklyn rough cut? Though never explicitly stated, I clearly got the sense that their co-managing relationship was less than breezy. “Nick and I are very different,” says Harrison. “But my ‘marriage’ to Nick worked in many ways because we are so different. He challenged me.”

McCawley is blunter. “It was very apparent that one of them would emerge,” says McCawley. “Natasha has the support of the executive committee, and she’s emerged as a true leader.” During the pandemic, Harrison rose to the occasion, adds McCawley. “COVID forced her to shine as a leader. She was more invested than Nick was at the time. She was charting a path and more visible,” McCawley says.

Gravante is now out of the picture. So will Harrison have more autonomy flying solo? The answer seems to be a resounding yes. “The contest about who’s the next chair is over, and we have the right people to lead the firm,” says Boies. “Natasha’s the heir apparent going forward,” sums up McCawley.

That sounds like an enviable position, except that the expectations must be enormous. Which brings me back to my original point: Why do women get the most difficult jobs at the most difficult junctures? By any stretch, Harrison has got her work cut out for her, and everyone is watching. Maybe it’s un-PC to frame the issue in terms of gender, but there it is.

Boies, however, says Harrison has already proved herself. “She’s handled difficulty very well; it’s been a tougher test than anyone contemplated,” he says about the firm’s internal turmoils and COVID. “She kept the firm together and focused. While she has a challenging role ahead, she now has a firm that’s better organized, more cohesive.”

As always, Harrison insists she’s unfazed by the uncertainties ahead. “I thrive under pressure. I’m a restructuring lawyer, so I know how this plays out.” The next phase, she says, is “stabilizing things once the departures slow down and reinvigorating the firm.” In other words, cauterize the wound, sew the pieces back together and make everything better than ever.

No pressure. Really.

vchen@alm.com

Twitter: @lawcareerist

Comments

Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Subscribe to get The Careerist via e-mail

Enter your e-mail address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

To search across all ALM blogs, go to www.Lexis.com.