For trial lawyer groupies and fans of the National Football League’s Washington Commanders, Beth Wilkinson is a household name. One of the most prominent litigators of our times, she first catapulted to fame for successfully prosecuting Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Wilkinson has been in the limelight more recently for investigating alleged sexual misconduct within the Commanders organization. A former partner at Latham & Watkins and general counsel of Fannie Mae, Wilkinson left the partnership at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in 2016 to launch Washington-based Wilkinson Walsh, now called Wilkinson Stekloff.
Below is an edited version of our conversations.
When you left Paul Weiss seven years ago, it was shocking that a woman at the top of her game would give up her enviable perch. But I notice more women following your path. Did you start a trend?
There’s been a long problem with women leaving. But what’s unusual is that women who have leadership roles and are well-compensated are leaving too. I think it says something about the limitations of Big Law. Firms can say they’re feminist, but they have to ask themselves why women are leaving.
So what is the problem with women and Big Law?
I think the rigidity makes it difficult for women. One problem with Big Law is that the measurement of success is always billable hours. We don’t have billable hours here—it’s all alternative billing. Now I don’t have to keep track of my hours or review time sheets, which makes everything a lot easier. Clients have to trust in you, and you in them.
I also think women appreciate flexibility. We want people to work at the highest level and have a sense of control. As a woman, it’s good to know you can be at different points in your life—when you face personal pressures to take care of family members or your kids—and that the firm will accommodate you.
I think Big Law has tried to do some of these things. It’s hard for them not to bill by the hour.
It’s great that your firm has been a smashing success. Yet, I feel something is off—that women like you aren’t sticking around to run Big Law.
It’s bittersweet, isn’t it? Look, Paul Weiss has a wonderful history and is very devoted to pro bono work. There are a lot of benefits and pride in being part of that.
So what drove you out of Big Law?
We had a litigation boutique within Paul Weiss but I wanted to do something different—do more trials and create a firm with greater diversity. My practice hasn’t changed. It’s been enhanced because there aren’t the conflicts that arise in a big firm.
We had a huge trial seven weeks after we left. The NFL transferred their matters to us—and we were brand new. It was a real tribute. Literally every matter I was working on came over with me. We got calls [from another major firm], asking whether we wanted to join, and we said, “Nope, you’re what we’re trying to get away from.”
You seem to have a magic touch in developing clients, but that’s not the case for most women. As you know, women are rarely among the top rainmakers at any given law firm. Why are they stuck?
I do think the system is geared towards men. They turn to others like them when work opportunities arise. Women are often left out of those conversations and meetings when firms pitch for work.
The problem is that people are vying for credit—monetary and power—and it’s hard for those with power, who are men, to share with others. That’s the nature of power: once you have it, you want to keep it. There were times I just wanted to do my work.
And women aren’t as interested in this kind of game?
Women seem to want freedom more than prestige. They won’t stay in power until they’re carried out. Work doesn’t define them.
That raises one of my favorite questions: Are female leaders different?
In some ways, it must be, because being a woman is who I am. In some ways not, because I’m demanding, tough, and have high standards. But I have an understanding of being a caretaker. And I have an appreciation for experiences like mansplaining or being asked to get coffee.
Speaking of being a woman in a man’s world, you’ve represented the NFL, the Commanders, and the NCAA in some highly publicized matters. A lot of male lawyers are probably drooling. Was it hard as a woman to gain the trust of the clients—who I assume were mainly male—on those matters?
I was lucky to have a male client who advocated for me to represent Major League Baseball, and the NFL general counsel has always been supportive. I don’t think the sports clients are different from any other clients. They all want you to do the work, understand their business, and deliver stellar results.
I often hear women are disadvantaged in client development because they can’t talk sports.
Having an interest in sports always helps. It makes it more fun. As a mother of three athletes, I have come to love competitive sports. Working with the NCAA and the leagues is fascinating on so many levels but perhaps most importantly, my kids think it’s cool.
I don’t think the NFL ever asked me which is my favorite team. Growing up, I was no athlete; I was a ballerina.
I know you can’t comment about your investigation into the Commanders—which will disappoint a lot of readers. But what about other investigations—any juicy ones in the pipeline?
I’m not interested in doing more investigations. I don’t think they’re the best use of my talents. I like the courtroom. I love talking to juries. The problem with investigations is that once it’s done, you turn it over to the client, and that’s it. There’s no resolution.
Since you left Paul Weiss in 2016, Big Law has elected many more women as leaders. Is this a sign of change—that firms won’t always be ruled by old White guys?
I think it does matter. But do I think it will fundamentally change Big Law? No. I’ve been practicing for 35 years, and look at the pace of change. When I was in law school, 50% of my class was women. But they’re nowhere near that level in partnerships. If I’m a young woman looking at that trajectory, I’d be pessimistic, unfortunately.
That sounds bleak. Let’s end on a cheerier note. You seem to have it all: a huge career, three kids, and a high-powered husband [David Gregory, former host of Meet the Press]..
My husband is incredibly supportive. Having it all? I don’t think anyone has it all. My twins are about to go to college, and I want to be at home with them before they go. But I have a trial coming up. Sometimes you put your career first, and sometimes you put your family first. I know these are first-world problems. I am very lucky.
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