Dori Hanswirth, partner, Hogan Lovells LLP
How long have you been working for your current company?
I joined Hogan & Hartson in March 2002, when our then-firm, Squadron Ellenoff, merged with Hogan & Hartson. In May 2010, Hogan & Hartson combined with Lovells, and I have been a partner with Hogan Lovells ever since. I started at Squadron Ellenoff in 1987 after a federal court clerkship.
Briefly explain your career history and what led you to your current position.
I knew I would be a litigator from an early age, when my parents told me that they could never win an argument with me. My grandmother was the assistant to the director of the American Civil Liberties Union for 25 years, and she instilled in me a sense of justice and respect for constitutional rights. During law school, I worked for a prominent criminal defense attorney, and for the United States Attorney’s office. After clerking for a federal judge, I started my career in a small New York City law firm that specialized in both white collar criminal defense and First Amendment litigation. As an associate, I worked in both fields, gaining a broad experience in litigation strategy. After a few years, I was asked to choose between the white collar work and the media work. At the time, I was handling a number of defamation cases for our media clients, and I chose to focus on media law full-time. As my work for media clients increased, I became very interested in copyright, trademark, and Internet law. I have now been practicing law for more than 25 years, and in addition to primarily representing media companies, I represent a wide range of clients in matters involving false advertising, trademark, and copyright issues.
What is your proudest professional achievement and why?
I am most “proud” when I see the successes of attorneys who I have mentored. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to know that lawyers who worked for me have become law partners with prominent careers of their own, and have also excelled in in-house corporate law departments. I have won some cases that people did not think could be won, and I am happy about that. One of these happened very recently, but the case file is sealed so I cannot tell you about it, except to say that freedom of the press prevailed. Other hard-fought cases that highlight my work include a victory in the district court and the First Circuit in a defamation case where our client relied on false quotations in an Internet news article that appeared to be genuine, but the courts correctly held that there was no evidence of constitutional malice. Another was achieving the dismissal of a defamation lawsuit by the parents and brother of Jon-Benet Ramsey, concerning a news report about the investigation into Jon-Benet’s death. The lawyer who represented the Ramsey family won many settlements from other news outlets; we were the only team that beat him in court. I also won a copyright infringement case brought by a famous aerial photographer who claimed that an image of a businessman standing on the ledge of a building and presumably contemplating jumping was infringing his copyrights in a photograph with the same topic. We won summary judgment; the case was widely discussed and became the fact pattern for many copyright law final exams in law schools across the country.
What are the greatest challenges that you face in your current role and what do you do to overcome them?
I like hard cases. The best part of my job is figuring out how to win the hard case. Cases can be hard for different reasons – tough facts, undeveloped law, and sneaky adversaries being among the top culprits. In every hard case, I’ve had a “Eureka” moment when it’s all fallen into place and I know that my client’s victory is secured. The more experience I get, the more difficult it is to find hard cases. Something that would have been tough for me to figure out ten years ago is not tough any more. I just keep trying to challenge myself. I do this by continuing to set goals for myself and learning new areas of law. I am very active in bar association work. I think that is a great way to stay on the cutting edge of new legal issues.
How difficult is it for you personally to attain work-life balance and how do you endeavour to do this?
Sometimes this can be very difficult. One of my first bosses often said, “The law is a jealous mistress.” Sexist as this phrase is, there is truth in it. Practicing law can be very demanding, and the profession has more than its fair share of people for whom work takes precedence over everything else all of the time. I am not one of those people. I had a lot of help in raising two children while practicing law full-time, both at home and at work. I refused to miss a school play, and I left work early to go to many sports events. My firm and my clients have other lawyers, but my children have only one mother. I developed a network of people who I could rely on to help me, and I am pretty good about planning ahead so that my matters are staffed during my vacations and time away from the office. Technology is a big help too. With my Blackberry and iPad, I am never far from my clients. Still, even with great support, there were times over the years when my work schedule took a toll on my family. When I had to be out of town on business or was in the midst of a trial, I promised my family that I would be there for them the minute I could, and I kept that promise. My children are out of the house now, but you’d be surprised how much time I still spend being a parent.
Did you have a mentor or role model in your career or while you were studying law? Who were they and how did they help you?
I had, and still have, so many great mentors that I cannot count them all. Among the most meaningful are Judge Edward Weinfeld and Slade Metcalf – two men. I clerked for Judge Weinfeld after law school. At that time, he was the most respected judge in the federal court in Manhattan. He would often get visits from former clerks and lawyers who appeared before him, including people who are now federal judges and the former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Judith Kaye. Judge Weinfeld taught me the importance of hard work and ethics. Slade was my boss when I was an associate, and he is still my partner today. He taught me how to be a lawyer, and the importance of being absolutely the best at what you do. Both of these mentors exemplify dignity as well. I am also extremely fortunate to have some very loyal clients who have helped my career immeasurably.
How effective do you think corporate diversity initiatives are? What methods do you think are most effective and why?
Corporate diversity initiatives can be effective if the “tone at the top” communicates their importance, and they have a thoughtful mission. Even with the large number of successful, brilliant, women attorneys at our firm, and the majority of law students being women, there is a feeling that, in the future, men will still run law firms and that it is harder for women to get ahead. I think that the timing of big law partnership decisions can be unforgiving to women who have young children or who want to start a family. One of the toughest periods of a law firm career are the senior associate and junior partner years. These years often coincide with women having children. Women need a lot of moral support during these years. Our office has a women’s group that has helped many of us with issues that women lawyers face. To me, the key is to help diverse lawyers throughout their careers. Some institutions focus on hiring of diverse new attorneys, or retention of associates. This is a good start, but it seems to me that this is not enough. Women and diverse attorneys need to know that they have the same opportunities for leadership and business development as other attorneys, at every level of their careers. I don’t think there is a formula or specific method that is effective. Senior attorneys need to be mindful to mentor well, and junior attorneys need to find mentors who will really help them develop their careers. Diversity initiatives that result in tokenism are offensive to me. I would never want to be selected for something because a woman was needed on the team. I’m also not a fan of top women lawyers’ lists. It makes it seem as if lawyering is inherently more difficult for women than it is for men, but that’s just not true. Henry Ford said “Whether you think you can, or you think that you can’t, you are probably right.” Taking that piece of advice to heart is probably as effective as any diversity initiative.
Were there any points in your career when you felt you were at a disadvantage or at an advantage because you were female?
I have protected myself from being disadvantaged in large part. I have pretty good “male chauvinist” radar and I avoid people who I think have that characteristic. Fortunately, one can have a happy and successful career without them. I do think women attorneys can have a slight advantage in court. About 10 years ago, I first-chaired a trial and our entire team was women – two associates, two paralegals, and me. Our judge was also a woman, about 20 years my senior, and she became teary-eyed when she saw us. In open court, she said this was the first time she had presided over a trial with an all-woman team, and she said that she was proud. We won a lot of evidentiary rulings during the trial, and the verdict was less than half the amount that the plaintiff had demanded to settle. Another time, I had a court argument when I was 8 months’ pregnant. Everyone predicted that I could not possibly lose, and they were right.
What do you think have been the most significant changes for women in the legal industry over the past five years?
In my view, the economic recession has taken precedence over diversity initiatives and work-life balance issues. At the same time, our law schools are filled with smart and talented women, and there are three women on the Supreme Court. Women are slowly becoming law firm partners in bigger numbers than ever, and firms are becoming more aware of the need to retain talent. In all, I think there has never been a better time to be a woman lawyer.