Voice of Experience: Kathy Robb, Partner, Hunton & Williams

03011.jpgby Erin Abrams (New York City)

Kathy Robb, a partner in the New York office of the law firm Hunton & Williams, credits her success as an attorney in part to a willingness to embrace change and a passion for environmental issues.

The Glass Hammer recently sat down with Kathy, whose practice focuses on energy, environmental and administrative law, to talk about her background, her accomplishments and her advice for young women in law.

Kathy’s Path to the Law

Kathy grew up in Texas, and often took trips with her family to national parks throughout the western United States. “I fell in love with the west from our baby blue station wagon,” she laughed. From a young age, she knew that she wanted to be a lawyer, and she developed an interest in environmental law and water rights issues through these family trips.

In college, Kathy pursued this interest by participating in a unique program called Plan II at University of Texas at Austin, a program that allowed students to design their own majors by taking a wide range of liberal arts courses and individualized paths of studies. After graduating, she headed east to University of Virginia for law school.

Kathy had a wonderful experience at UVA law school, and often heads back now, years later, to interview for her firm or meet up with fellow alumni. Kathy explained that a group of women in her law school class stayed in touch after graduation, convening for annual weekends at the beach.

After law school, Kathy served as a law clerk to the Hon. Glen M. Williams, U.S. District Court, Western District of Virginia. The Judge was one of Kathy’s early mentors and he shaped her views about social justice and using the law as a tool to empower people. Kathy explained that the judge had been passionate about working with illiterate miners in Virginia when he was a young lawyer, helping them register to vote. Underscoring the importance of building a lifelong network, Kathy notes that she still attends reunions with the judge and his other clerks when they are held.

Building a Career at Hunton & Williams

When her clerkship ended, Kathy accepted a job at the law firm of Hunton & Williams in Richmond, Virginia. When asked about how she chose her firm initially, Kathy said, “I was thinking I wanted to go to a big firm initially, but wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in Virginia long term or move. I chose a large, well-respected firm that people had heard of outside of Virginia,” in order to keep options open in other geographic areas, or in the event that she pursued a career in government. As it turned out, Kathy rose through the ranks at Hunton and decided to build her career there. Said Kathy about her long-term affiliation with the firm, “I love the work and the people I work with.”

She began in the field of environmental law right away at Hunton. Kathy explained that she loves environmental law because “the law changes constantly and is new. You have to make choices about policy arguments as part of your legal arguments. It is also varied— In the environmental practice area, you advise and counsel clients on the status of the law, do regulatory work, and litigate.” In Kathy’s book, this adds up to an intellectually stimulating and fulfilling practice area.

In Kathy’s early years at the firm, she worked with another one of her mentors, the firm’s then managing partner Taylor Reveley (now President of The College of William & Mary), on licensing a nuclear power plant on Long Island. Kathy particularly enjoyed working as a team on this large, long-term effort. “It was an immersion course and a fantastic experience for a new lawyer,” said Kathy. “It was like having a couple of years’ of experience condensed into each single year.”

Kathy worked on the case for several years and learned about the benefits and strengths of working on a team. After seven years at the firm, Kathy made partner.

Meanwhile, Hunton had opened a New York office, and Kathy was interested in doing something new. The firm asked her to move to begin the environmental practice in New York. The move was a great experience for her, personally and professionally. Indeed, this transplanted Southerner fell in love with the energy and vibrancy of life in New York. Her practice also changed. “Some of my work in New York became more transaction-driven, as you would expect,” explained Kathy. “Litigation and regulatory work have a longer time-frame. Transactions have a beginning, middle and end date. It’s a different way of practicing, and I enjoy both.”

New Challenges

As a person who is always looking for the next new challenge, Kathy is involved in several leadership initiatives on environmental law, both through her firm and outside of it. This year, she rolled out the Water Policy Institute. Kathy explained that she formed the organization to provide a forum for companies, government entities, and other parties interested in water scarcity, quality, and regulation to convene to discuss sustainable solutions, both domestically and internationally

Kathy is passionate about water issues; a subject she says is “global and local at the same time. Everyone has views about water. People experience it every day and it’s a requirement for life. In the US, we take access to it for granted, but that is not so in many places around the world–and is changing here, even in places where water was previously abundant.”

Additionally, Kathy co-founded a non-profit called the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future about 6 years ago. Kathy explained that the organization got started when she and Ann Goodman, now the Executive Director, put their heads together to brainstorm about how to help executives put sustainability on their radar screens. The Women’s Network was soon born, and incorporated as a 501(c)3 .

If that wasn’t enough involvement for this woman on the go, Kathy also serves on the board of the Environmental Law Institute is the Chair of the Environmental Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association.

“Much of what I do outside of work has turned out to be related to environmental law in some way,” said Kathy.

Advice for Young Women Attorneys

When asked for her advice to young women attorneys who aspire to make partner, Kathy said, “Make sure that’s what you want. If it is, then go for it. Do excellent, high quality, meticulous work. Work hard. Practice in an area that really interests you so that you can wholeheartedly throw yourself into it and enjoy it.”

Kathy also has a few pointers on work-life balance for career women striving to balance competing demands at home. As Kathy noted, “attorneys are a self-selecting group of energized, driven people. So work-life balance will naturally sometimes be difficult in a field full of goal oriented, career driven people, regardless of their gender.”

The key, Kathy said, is to try to set realistic goals. “The thing about the balance issue,” she said, “is that it sets you up. The idea that there is this perfect state you will reach, where your home life and work life will be in equipoise, and everything will be the way you want it, is unrealistic. It is more likely that some days, your priority is going to be work, and work will need your complete undivided attention. Other days, it may not.”

Kathy’s work-life balance priorities shifted over the years as well. She noted that, when she was first starting out, she didn’t have the happy tug of a family that she wanted to be with and do things for. When she was a first year, she “was there to work and learn.” These days, as a wife and the mother of a 13-year old daughter, her days of “being able to just throw caution to the wind and work for 24 hours” are few. That means that Kathy has to think of new and creative ways to be more efficient and prioritize her time.

For her, living in the city and not having a commute makes work-life balance easier. But, Kathy stated, “The most important thing is to find your own way. For some people, a commute works great. For me, it was better if I came home early, and came back to work after putting my daughter to bed, if necessary. It’s best to do it your own way, rather than search for a perfect formula that may not work for you and your family.”

One of the best things about working in a law firm in this day and age, according to Kathy, is the flexibility that both men and women have in structuring their careers. Kathy observed that Hunton was ranked as one of the top law firms for working moms and one of the best law firms for women. As with many big firms these days, the focus is more on supporting attorneys to achieve their career development goals, and giving lawyers the flexible options to make that happen.

When asked about mentoring relationships in the course of her career, Kathy says that she has been lucky. In addition to being mentored by Judge Williams and Mr. Reveley, Kathy said that her dad, who recently passed away, served as a lifelong role model for her. “He set the example of hard work, taught me about setting big goals, not just small ones, and the value of not letting anyone tell you that you can’t do things.”

Kathy noted the importance of looking for mentors in unlikely places. She explained that “a mentor is not a particular kind of person. Lots of people can come out of woodwork as mentors and you can learn from them.” Though many firms try to do more formal mentoring, Kathy believes that the best mentors are the ones you find on your own. While a woman attorney starting out might like to have a woman mentor, Kathy’s advice is not to limit yourself to only women. She noted that the current managing partner of her firm, Wally Martinez, has been a terrific mentor in support of her efforts on the Water Policy Institute.

Finally, Kathy emphasized the value of “being your own mentor.” Kathy concluded, “It’s important to set your goals and pursue them, self-propelling to execute your plans and pursue your interests. Of course it is so satisfying when someone validates the work that you have been doing and encourages you to do more. Mentors are so important, and seeking them out can make a big difference.”