Alternate Routes

For many women, a government job is an ideal—albeit necessary—springboard to a law-firm partnership.

Government Jobs for Female Lawyers

Jennifer Alvey

April 17, 2019 12:17 PM

How often do 170 lawyers publicly agree on anything?

When that number of in-house counsel signed on to a public letter calling for more gender and racial diversity in the partnership ranks of law firms, then, attorneys noticed. The letter, published on a general counsel group page on LinkedIn in January of this year, brought the simmering issue of equitable representation in partnerships to a full boil.

Long before 2019, though, many female lawyers developed their own way of breaking through the law-firm glass ceiling: Many went into government service and gained valuable, highly marketable skills. That experience in hand, they then landed partnerships at major law firms.

The Root of the Problem

While the discouraging lack of gender parity has long been a known fact, a study by Stephen Turban, Laura Freeman, and Ben Waber, published in Harvard Business Review in October 2017, tried to pinpoint the cause. Researchers gathered multiple types of data about the employees in one office of a multi-national corporation. The researchers selected 100 employees (50 women, 50 men) spread across seniority levels and with varying lengths of service at the company. Researchers gave the participants sociometric badges, which looked like the ID badges worn by all employees, but they recorded communication patterns by using sensors that measured movement, proximity to other badges, and speech (volume and tone of voice). These badges could tell the researchers who talked with whom, where people communicated, and who dominated conversations. What did they discover?

  • There were almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women.
  • Work patterns in online behavior, concentrated work, and face-to-face conversations were the same regardless of gender.

Researchers also found that men and women received statistically identical scores in performance evaluations. This held true for women at each level of seniority.

Despite this data, “women weren’t advancing,” the researchers said, “and men were.” Although the study took place in a large corporate environment, the results sound hauntingly familiar to women who have voiced similar complaints for decades about law firms.

Find Another Way

Erica Williams, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C., says women need to be clear about the experiences they want to have throughout their career. Having a set schedule or plan isn’t as important. Williams had been an associate for a few years when she decided she needed to look outside corporate law to get the trial experience she sought. She realized, too, that the structure at the typical firm erected significant barriers to gaining trial experience. “If a client is paying high rates,” she says, “they want a partner to try the case.”

Ultimately, in 2004, Williams landed at the Securities and Exchange Commission as assistant chief litigation counsel, though she had no prior experience with securities. She was surprised by how much autonomy she had as trial counsel: “I was able to do everything: first chair trials, take depositions, argue motions.” She stayed with the SEC in a variety of roles until 2015, when she got a call asking her to move to the White House as associate counsel for finance and economic policies.

Katya Jestin, partner at Jenner and Block in New York, knew from an early age that she wanted to be a criminal lawyer, inspired largely by Nancy Drew stories. As she got closer to law school, she refined her dream: She wanted to work on organized-crime cases.

After a stint at a New York firm, she realized she’d need much more trial experience. Given that that was hard to come by in most firms, she initially went to work at the District Attorney’s office in New York, then to the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York. As a prosecutor, she tried cases regularly. Living her dream, in fact, she successfully prosecuted the leadership of three of the five Cosa Nostra crime families, and was co-counsel in the RICO conviction of Gambino boss Peter Gotti in 2003. “It was,” she says, “way better than Nancy Drew got to do.”

Find a Guide

Jennifer Saulino, partner at Covington and Burling in Washington, D.C., emphasized the importance of women finding sponsors early in their legal career.

Saulino started her career at Covington. When she first considered leaving for a government position, she reached out to Lanny Breuer, for whom she’d worked before he was tapped to lead the Department of Justice Criminal Division in 2009. His encouragement and guidance were key, she says.

Beth Brinkmann, a Covington partner also in Washington, spent most of her pre-Covington career in government service. A former clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun, she was a natural to argue for the government as assistant counsel in the office of the Solicitor General, and later as deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the Justice Department. “Having that foundation as a Supreme Court advocate was unique,” she says, noting that she wouldn’t have the same depth of experience had she remained in private practice her whole career.

Jestin, too, points out how important professional relationships have been to her. She decided to leave the government after discussing it with a good friend from the U.S. Attorney’s office. The fact that a former AUSA she knew had gone to Jenner and Block and was happy there made Jestin far more comfortable about making the same leap. Look who’s in leadership positions in a given firm as well, Jestin and Brinkmann emphasize; it’s important to see women occupying some of them.

Sarah Fitts, a partner at Schiff Hardin in New York who mentors young lawyers, observes that the “really important metric to look at is how many women over age 50 are at the firm. That will tell you what its culture is.” If there aren’t many female partners of that age, it’s a sure sign the firm was late to bring women into the partnership ranks—or bad at retaining them.

Client Pressure Can Make a Difference

The government-lawyer career path alone will not solve gender inequity in law firms, partly because there just aren’t as many opportunities for government work outside of a few major cities. Moreover, some women are simply uninterested in that option.

Regardless, though, there’s plenty of room for improvement. So far, the Trump administration has appointed eight women as U.S. Attorneys. Over Barack Obama’s two terms, 24 women served as U.S. Attorneys, out of 109 overall. “I’m worried that the lack of government appointments will hit women in the profession hard,” Fitts says. “If fewer women get that government experience now, 10 years from now there will be fewer women with that type of experience available to take leadership roles at firms and in the profession generally.”

Jestin says the in-house counsel letter could certainly pressure law firms to improve the diversity of their teams and partnership ranks. As it stands, she adds, many firms are plagued by unconscious bias, and “the detritus of the past needs to get shaken out” of their corporate cultures. “If [diversifying] isn’t a habit, it won’t happen.”

When Covington’s Brinkmann joined the SG’s office in 1993, she was just the second woman who had ever argued before the Supreme Court for the Appellate section; the total team comprised about 20 attorneys. Then-Solicitor General Drew Days asked Brinkmann to help boost diversity in the SG’s office, and among her tactics were expanding their recruiting pool by more widely advertising openings, and interviewing at more law schools. By the time she left, five more women had joined the team.

Similarly, Brinkmann maintains, firms need to make sure that the pools they draw from for assignments and partnerships are fair: “It’s important that [partners] aren’t going to the same attorneys over and over.” Kirkland’s Erica Williams points out that partners tend to sponsor people who are like them. To bolster diversity, she says, they need to sponsor those “who don’t look like them.” Sponsorships need to happen earlier, too. Clients can be instrumental in shaping more-diverse teams, she adds. “Clients have to demand [diversity] when reviewing bills” and by asking why pitches for business don’t include a varied group.

Years ago, women were often told that they couldn’t be given certain assignments because clients didn’t have confidence in them. Now the tables have turned, and clients are demanding teams staffed with women and minorities. It falls to forward-thinking law firms to provide them.


Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and unrepentant coffee addict who stopped practicing before smartphones became ubiquitous. She has written for and edited numerous legal publications since 1999. In addition to writing and editing, she coaches lawyers on finding more satisfying careers. She can be reached at, or via her blog,

Related Articles

Anna Inventing: The Importance of Diversity in Innovation

by Emily C. Peyser

A patent from 1887 by female inventor Anna Connelly not only revolutionized fire safety, but highlighted the need for diversity in innovation. Our world is facing big problems that need diverse voices at the table to find solutions that work for everyone. Building diverse teams and encouraging diversity in innovation is a beneficial step forward in resolving our collective challenges.

Diversity in Innovation and Technology

A Double Dose of Power

by Constance Endelicato

Women in the Legal and Medical Professions Can Work Together to Dismantle Gender Inequality

Women Work to Dismantle Gender Inequality

Memphis Bar Gets First Black Female President

by Anissa Cordova

Best Lawyers is celebrating listed lawyer Tannera George Gibson who has become the first ever black female president of the Memphis Bar Association.

First Black Female President for Memphis Bar

The State of Women Inventors

by Amanda Hermans and Kate Rockwood

What’s being done to improve the gender patent gap—and how attorneys can help.

How to Improve the Gender Patent Gap

An Interview With Norton Rose Fulbright

by Best Lawyers

Australia’s 2020 “Law Firm of the Year” in Insolvency and Reorganization Law

An Interview With Norton Rose Fulbright

All Aboard

by Patricia Brown Holmes

What effect is California’s new law mandating more women in corporate boardrooms likely to have?

California's Mandatory Gender Diversity

Q&A with Dan McMahon of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker

by Best Lawyers

An interview with Advisory Board member Dan McMahon of Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker.

Advisory Board: Dan McMahon

Embracing Diversity

by Gary Sasso

Beyond Statistics

Embracing Diversity

Trending Articles

A Celebration of Excellence: The Best Lawyers in Canada 2024 Awards

by Best Lawyers

As we embark on the 18th edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™, we are excited to highlight excellence and top legal talent across the country.

Abstract image of red and white Canada flag in triangles

The Long, Short, Thick and Thin of It

by Avrohom Gefen

“Appearance discrimination” based on employees’ height and weight is the latest hot-button issue in employment law. Here’s a guide to avoid discrimination.

Woman stands in front of mirror holding suit jacket

Trailblazing Titans of the Industry: Announcing the 4th Edition Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch® in America

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers honor and celebrate these talented, innovative newer lawyers who are trailblazing their way to victories in courtrooms across the country.

Connected web above map of the U.S.

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees

by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

Pearls of Wisdom: Celebrating 30 Editions of Best Lawyers’ Rankings

by Best Lawyers

In celebration of our landmark 30th edition, Best Lawyers’ leadership explains how the world’s original and most trusted legal awards maintain their esteem, integrity and reputation for excellence among the top legal entities and their clients.

Best Lawyers logo for 30th edition release with gold glitter in background

Vanguards of Victory: Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada 2024

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada™ has been announced, and the lawyers showcased by these awards are rising to the challenge each day as advocates for clients all across the country.

Blue and black background with small squares connected by lines

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in Canada Honorees

by Best Lawyers

The Best Lawyers in Canada™ is entering its 17th edition for 2023. We highlight the elite lawyers awarded this year.

Red map of Canada with white lines and dots

The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers proudly announces lawyers recognized in South Africa for 2023.

South African flag

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?


How Long Does a Felony Stay On Your Record in California

by Peter Blair

A felony can remain on your record for life in California. Some felonies qualify for expungement. Learn how to remove a felony conviction from your record in California.

Hand setting bird free out of a guarded fence


Thomson Rogers: Toronto Personal Injury Lawyers

by Thomson Rogers

Since establishment in 1935, Toronto-based firm Thomson Rogers has consistently delivered results for their clients struggling through complex litigation.

Top of a Staircase Featuring Two Large Black Doors with Bookshelves and Chairs on Each Side

Incendiary Behavior

by Lyssa A. Roberts and Rahul Ravipudi

California’s future will see more frequent wildfires caused by faulty equipment. Litigation tied to recent Golden State infernos shows the way forward.

Mountain range with glow of wildfires behind it

The Upcycle Conundrum

by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2024 Launch

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce The Best Lawyers in Australia™ for 2023, including the top lawyers and law firms from Australia.

Australian Parliament beside water at sunset