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Michele Penzer ’93
Managing Partner, Latham & Watkins, New York, NY
I am a Latham & Watkins lifer—I started with the firm as a summer associate in 1992, joined as an associate in September, 1993 after graduating from Yale Law School that spring, and became a partner on January 1, 2001. As an associate, I took full advantage of the firm’s unassigned program. Though I was leaning towards doing transactional work when I came to the firm, I really had no idea what kind of transactional work I wanted to do. I tried a variety of matters during my first two years, and, at the end of my unassigned period, joined the project finance group. Had I been required to choose a practice group when I walked in the door I never would have chosen project finance—I didn’t even know what it was when I joined the firm. I credit Latham’s unassigned program with helping me to make an informed decision about my practice, and setting me down the path of a very fulfilling career. After I became a partner, a temporary dip in the project market and the dislocation of some of my clients caused me to look for new practice opportunities, and I transitioned to the banking practice. When that practice took off like a rocket ship in the mid-2000s there was no turning back, and I went on to serve as Global Co-Chair of the banking practice group from 2010 to 2015. Today, I continue to represent banks arranging acquisition financing and other types of leveraged financing across a broad range of industries.
Along the way, I have had the opportunity to serve the firm in a variety of other capacities as well. As an associate, I served on the firm’s Associates Committee for three years, and, after I became a partner, went on to chair the Associates Committee in 2010. The Associates Committee at Latham is a unique institution comprised of half partners and half associates that, among other things, recommends which associates will be promoted to the partnership each year. Each member of that committee has an equal vote, and I was honored to be entrusted with such an important responsibility at a very early stage in my career.
Latham has always had a clear partnership standard, which evaluates first chair skills, commitment, team play and business development skills in the context of asking whether any partnership candidate is capable of the sustained and substantial growth that we expect of our partners. From the minute I joined the firm, I was impressed by the fact that everyone would be evaluated in the same way, against the same set of criteria. I worked very hard as an associate, not so much for the sake of working hard or achieving any particular goal (I had not yet decided that I wanted to be a partner when I first joined the firm), but because I felt that there was an incredibly steep learning curve, and I was determined to get up that curve as quickly as possible. Frankly, I hated feeling like I had no idea what I was doing, and discovered very early on that the best remedy to that problem was to roll up my sleeves, dig in and learn as fast as possible, which also helped me to showcase my first chair skills, as well as my commitment and team play. Along the way, I was lucky to develop some great client relationships, and to be taught business development skills by some true masters of the craft. So, when I was up for partner in 2000, the firm was able to conclude that I should be promoted along with my class, despite the fact that I had taken six months off on maternity leaves along the way. To me, that was a true testament to the fact that I was being evaluated based on my skill set at the time and prospects for future growth, just like everyone else.
In 2005, I became the first woman elected to serve on the firm’s Executive Committee, and I served on the Executive Committee until 2009. I also have co-Chaired the firm’s Diversity Committee, have served as a member of the Pro Bono Committee and helped to establish Women Enriching Business, a group designed to help women both inside and outside of the firm develop networks and develop business. Today, I am the Managing Partner of Latham’s New York office, as well as the global partner leader of the Women Lawyer’s Group. These were, and continue to be, terrific experiences, as they have taught me a tremendous amount about the business of running a law firm, which, I have learned, is a very different skill set than the practice of law.
I have had several mentors during my time at the firm, who taught me everything I needed to know about being a lawyer. They also went out of their way to include me in their client relationships, bringing me along to client meetings, dinners, pitches and the like, and encouraging me to develop relationships with clients very early in my career. Watching them in action was a terrific experience—I learned so many of my legal and business development skills just by tagging along for the ride. My relationships with my mentors developed naturally—they were not assigned to mentor me, but they did so nonetheless, perhaps unwittingly sometimes.
Business development is an important part of the job for law firm partners, and though associates are not expected to bring in business, at Latham we encourage them to participate in the process so that they can learn this key skill set. There are many ways to develop business, from impressing clients with the quality of your work and commitment (which may be the single best way to develop business in my view), to helping clients find business (or employment) opportunities, to socializing with clients at dinners and ballgames. Find the method that works best for you and realize that you may be better at (or more comfortable with) certain types of business development than others. Fundamentally, it is important to do excellent work, of course. Beyond that though, it is important to try to develop relationships with clients, so that they are more inclined to call you, rather than the firm down the street. When attending events, it is always a good idea to force yourself to meet and talk to a few people you don’t know—if you spend the whole evening talking to your colleagues you’ve missed the opportunity to connect with potential clients.
I have two kids, currently ages 20 and 17. My son was born when I was an associate, my daughter when I was a partner. I have heard some people say over the years that it is better for a woman to wait to have kids until after she becomes a partner. I completely disagree with that. I firmly believe that a woman (or man) should have kids when she (or he) is ready to have kids. The rest will sort itself out. I personally found it much easier to return to work and reintegrate into firm life as an associate than I did as a partner. Each woman’s experience is personal and different though, and the decision as to when to have kids really can’t be generalized.
Balancing being a parent and being a lawyer is very much a juggling act, and I learned early on to take it one day at a time. I also learned not to fault myself for not being the “perfect” mom (whatever that means) or the “perfect” lawyer (whatever that means). Two somewhat imperfect personas can, in fact, create a fulfilled person. And showing both my daughter and my son that a woman can both be a good (if imperfect) mom and have a great career is fulfilling in and of itself.
Taking a somewhat long- (or at least medium-) term view of your career is helpful. If you expect that each day will be perfectly “balanced” you will no doubt be disappointed. But, if you look at your work and home lives over the course of weeks or months, rather than days, you are way more likely to be satisfied with the results. Flexibility is key. By virtue of working in a client service business, we are often at our clients’ beck and call. There will be days (and weeks, and even months) that are way too busy. Early in my career, I found myself incapable of enjoying the slower times—I always worried about where the next deal was going to come from. As I have become more senior, I have come to embrace and enjoy the downtime when it comes.
Developing good relationships with your supervisors and clients is also important. The better those relationships, the easier it will be to set realistic expectations—the client who knows that you are willing to do what it takes to get her work done in a crunch will be much more likely to give you leeway if she can. We all have commitments outside of the office. I have seen many school concerts, dance recitals and little league games in the middle of the day over the years—sometimes, I tell my clients where I am, sometimes, I tell them I am in a meeting, and sometimes, I am the crazy mom sitting in the bleachers on a conference call with a document in her lap. Whatever works, works, as long as I get there.
There is no one path to success, because there is no one definition of success. What you define as a successful career and the way you define happiness may in fact be very different than the way your law school classmates define those things. Don’t measure yourself against someone else’s definition of success, or happiness. Think about what is important to you, and then figure out how to achieve it. And pick a place to start your career that feels like a good fit for you. Ask yourself if you can see yourself practicing there, with the people you’ve met, for both the short and long term. If that takes you a big law firm, you will no doubt have a truly fulfilling, challenging (and busy!) career.