The NLJ 250: Three Decades of Change

Sheila L. Birnbaum, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom

The National Law Journal


The practice of law has changed tremendously over the past three decades. When I graduated from law school as one of 13 women in a class of 360 students, women lawyers — especially litigators — were not commonplace. Typically, we were limited to fields like trusts and estates and family law. When I interviewed at the district attorney's office, they prohibited women from working murders or other felonies, and the U.S. attorney's office wouldn't let women work on criminal cases. Most large firms would not hire women, either. I chose an atypical job, becoming a litigator in a plaintiffs' personal injury practice. Even then I was warned not to let people know I could type, because the fear was that they would start using me as a secretary. When I joined the Women's Bar Association, there were only three women justices in the entire New York state supreme court system, and none of them were appellate judges.

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