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October 07, 2019 Articles

A Bit of Luck and a Lot of Hard Work: Her Path to Partner

Jennifer J. Lee, litigation partner at Dentons, discusses how various factors, including her firm's emphasis on diversity, helped her career.

By Davis G. Yee

Ms. Jennifer J. Lee is a partner in Dentons' Litigation and Dispute Resolution practice group. She serves on Dentons’ Associate Development Committee and is active in Dentons WomenLEAD. Ms. Lee is also a member of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area.

Without getting into specifics, what is the case you are preparing for trial?

Most of my practice for the last ten years has been related to asbestos. But for the last two years has been related to talcum powder and talc-based products. So generally, my practice has been what we call mass tort. The trial I’m working on is a talcum powder case. When I was a baby, talcum powder was used all the time. But what I didn’t know, and what I’ve come to learn, was that talcum powder wasn’t just a baby product. I’ve come to learn that many people in this country, in particular in the 1950s and 1960s, used talc-based products as adults. For example, it was used by some to keep skin dry. It was used by others as an alternative to deodorants that people use nowadays.

How did that shift [from asbestos cases to talcum powder cases] happen?

That shift was not that difficult. It seemed somewhat natural. We already had clients that were in the asbestos-only world, and those clients also had products with talc. And they started getting sued in what, for the past two years, has been an explosion of talc-related cases. So in a sense, we already had a client base. The reasons we were in the asbestos cases for those clients were different than why they are being sued for talc. But those contacts were already there.

I guess the better launching point for my question is how you got into asbestos cases. Because when I first met you, we were both associates at another big firm. That other firm did a little bit of asbestos work, but for the most part, you and I worked on other kinds of cases.

Yes, the firm that we used to work at, I felt, didn’t have a lot of diversity among the partners. I don’t think I realized how much of an impact that had on my professional development. I learned a lot there, and I don’t regret working there. Looking back, there were a lot of experiences I had there that were excellent. But in terms of the environment I was in, the potential for growth, and the potential for success there, I didn’t feel like I was going to be there long term. So I looked around and moved to another firm that ultimately merged into Dentons.

Tell me about your path to becoming partner at this new firm.

A lot of what I did to become a partner was a lot of circumstance and luck, I feel like. Tort reform happened in Texas and other states. So much of the litigation was pushed to the West Coast. And the generation before me did a lot to position ourselves to be, what I believe, the best defense firm for asbestos litigation, definitely in the Bay Area and California. And that generation included the heads of the practice who hired me, both of whom are women.

You mentioned luck. I agree with you on that. But I also think that that luck is a product of your hard work, in a sense that when the opportunity came, you were ready.

You’re right. I’m not trying to discount my own drive and ability. I can’t even think of any activities I do outside of work or my family. You have to work hard. So when the opportunity came up, like tort reform in states other than California, I was ready to say to my clients, “Yes, I can do that.”

In terms of selecting counsel, do the companies you represent care about diversity of your firm?

Every time. Every time, that question is asked. Our clients are all large corporations that have had a very long history in this country, and they push the issue of diversity all the time. One of the things that come up with us is that we are primarily women. It’s proven to be very successful for us.

It strikes me that to become a partner dealing with litigation and dispute resolution, you not only have to have a book of business, but also trial skills and experience. When I was an associate, many of the cases settled, sometimes on the eve of trial. So how does a female associate get the trial skills and experience to become a partner dealing with litigation and dispute resolution?

Last-minute settlements still happen. But the particular litigation I do is very trial heavy. In the last year, our group has gone to verdict six to seven times. That just comes with volume litigation. And it has also come with this new wave of talc-related cases. Our clients are joined very often as a co-defendant. When I’m preparing these cases for trial, I have at least one associate, usually two. And our clients come to us over the years because they want to “stop the bleeding.” And in order to do that, you have to be a real trial threat. Which means that the case may settle before getting a verdict, but only after a trial. There’s still a lot of opportunity to stand up and pick a jury, to take a witness.

How did you get your requisite trial skills and experience? I know you currently have WomenLEAD, which makes a conscious effort to professionally develop women associates. But when we started, there wasn’t WomenLEAD. Yet there’s a certain skillset you need, like how to conduct voir dire. You can learn it in classes. But it’s different when it’s a “live fire,” so to speak.

The legacy firm sponsored NITA training to learn some basics, like how to mark an exhibit and how to conduct a deposition. That was helpful. But you are right. Nothing is like standing up when it’s really happening. At least in my type of practice, if you wanted those opportunities, they were there. Most of our senior trial lawyers who serve as first chair always have a second chair, and usually the second chair is the associate who worked up the case. Not all the time will the second chair get the opportunity to stand up and do something active during the trial. But for me, the way it happened was a slow progression. I started working towards cases that were higher and higher profile. The more I worked on those cases, the more I was in the courtroom. And the more I was in the courtroom, the more I was there for trials. I think I had my first witness, who was an economist, when I was a second chair. And then I just got more and more opportunities. That was all before I became a partner.

What final directions, if any, would you give to female associates who are on the path to partnership?   

Besides luck, which we equated in large measure to hard work earlier, I worked hard on developing good relationships with the clients’ In-house counsel. Part of that meant getting good results on the asbestos cases so that they would entrust me with their talc cases. I also worked hard on developing good relationships with national counsel, the firm hired by the client to oversee all the litigation nationwide. So, the clients would ask for me to be on their cases. In a sense, all of that was years of groundwork being laid for my path to becoming partner.

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Davis G. Yee is a special trial attorney for the office of chief counsel for the IRS and and adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. He is also a cochair of the Section of Litigation's Diversity & Inclusion Committee for the 2019-2020 bar year.

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