By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
“Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself,” advises Linda Rappaport, a senior partner at international law firm Shearman & Sterling LLP and Practice Group Leader Emeritus of the firm’s Executive Compensation & Employee Benefits/Private Client Group. “And be really prepared – there’s no substitute for being good at what you do.”
Rappaport knows all about being good. She has earned a reputation as one of the top executive compensation lawyers in the US and Europe, working with major financial services firms, entertainment companies and other organizations.
Her rise to prominence was no accident. Rather, Rappaport says, it was the product of traditional business values: hard work, a commitment to client service and a genuine interest in the area in which she practices. “Make sure you enjoy what you do,” she said. “You’re not going to enjoy every moment of every day, but if you’re excited by the ideas, people will sense that and will respond with enthusiasm as well.”
“You want work to be challenging. Never in one day of my life at Shearman & Sterling have I been bored – and I consider that a gift. I’ve been engaged, excited, challenged and occasionally even scared or nervous, which is perfectly appropriate sometimes. That’s a wonderful thing,” she added.
Becoming a Leader in Executive Compensation Law
“I’m a Shearman & Sterling lifer,” began Rappaport. “I went to Wesleyan for my bachelor’s degree and then NYU Law School. I clerked in the federal court in Vermont, which was a rich learning experience.”
Rappaport, who grew up on Long Island, considered staying in Vermont to practice law. She enjoyed the challenging work of the clerkship and the New England lifestyle. “But clerkships are not only a great way to learn about law; they are a great way to learn about yourself. And I learned I was well suited to the New York style of corporate practice.”
She continued, “That was a great decision. New York is such a fabulous and vibrant place to practice law.”
Shearman & Sterling was a good fit from the start. “I came to Shearman & Sterling as an associate in the mergers and acquisitions group,” Rappaport recalled, “and refocused on the executive compensation and employee benefits area a bit before the time when I became a partner. I loved doing deals, and executive compensation gave me a way to play an important role in the most exciting transactions.”
She continued, “Shearman & Sterling was and remains very forward looking, and the firm was somewhat visionary in its support for the development of the executive compensation and employee benefits practice. Who would have known this practice area would become such a driving factor in our society?”
Executive compensation has evolved into a multidisciplinary and controversial area. Most recently, Rappaport has played an integral role in helping her clients understand new regulatory changes coming out of Dodd-Frank.
“This is a very important area of focus for management and shareholders, as well as the company executives themselves, and the challenge is to keep these at-times competing interests in balance,” she explained.
One of Rappaport’s greatest strengths is her ability to represent her clients’ best interests while understanding and accommodating all the legal and business ramifications.
“Building long-term relationships with clients – to be a trusted adviser to clients – that’s the most satisfying thing. It’s what I always hoped to be as a lawyer,” she said. “Working with boards and companies to respond responsibly to regulation, as well as to social and political forces, while compensating executives fairly – it’s a difficult challenge. It’s very interesting.”
Rappaport added that one of her most significant professional accomplishments was helping to build a first-rate Executive Compensation & Employee Benefits practice at Shearman & Sterling, with talented, committed partner colleagues and a strong group of up-and-coming associates. She led the group for over 20 years until releasing leadership responsibilities to focus on other firm management responsibilities and her active client work.
She is also very proud of her work outside of Shearman & Sterling. Rappaport serves on the Board of Directors of the Legal Aid Society of New York, the city’s oldest and one of the premier legal defense organizations. “We represent clients in all five boroughs,” she said. ”The lawyers do critical work, helping individuals who need first-rate legal assistance but can’t afford it. Being part of the Legal Aid Society has been a very gratifying experience.”
A lifelong flautist, she is the Chair of the Board of Governors at Mannes College of Music, which is a division of The New School. Rappaport also serves on the Board of Directors of Wesleyan University.
Advice for Lawyers
Rappaport also discussed the value of putting in your time – and advised young lawyers not to get discouraged early in their career. She said, “I believe that if you do the work and you’re there for your clients, you can be successful. It takes a little luck, it takes dedication, and you have to really want it. But, without a doubt, there are still exceptional opportunities for rewarding careers in law.”
Rappaport is often asked to identify keys to success for young lawyers, especially women. Her consistent response: “Dedication and hard work really do get their rewards. I wish I had had more faith in that early on. In addition, learning about your clients’ priorities and getting to know them and your colleagues personally is not only satisfying but key to developing a practice.“
When speaking with women lawyers and professionals, Rappaport shares a consistent theme. “Keep your aspirations high,” she said. “Plan for a career with a trajectory – be ambitious. There really are opportunities to succeed. Women don’t always reach as much as we should – and we sometimes don’t sing our own praises.”
“Women have to be willing to self promote. We also have to be willing to help each other. Successful careers take a lot of support, especially in the current environment,” she continued.
Women at Shearman
Shearman & Sterling has also been recognized for its women’s group, WISER (Women’s Initiative for Success, Excellence, and Retention), an associate-led group that is one of several affinity groups at the firm.
“Everybody needs a stepping stone,” said Rappaport. “Actually, our associates reached out to the firm with the idea for WISER – it’s a terrific forum for our younger women, and quite frankly, vice versa.”
She continued, “Through WISER, our associates run professional development and networking programs, and we’ve found that this is a great way for many of them to be involved in our community. They learn to make connections.”
“It means so much to see so many of the women interested in working together – and to see them growing. They’re doing a tremendous amount for their own careers and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from them. It’s been an inspiration for our female partners. I’m very proud of WISER.”
What makes Rappaport, a long-time member of the firm’s elected nine-member global policy committee, most proud is that WISER has produced important results for the firm and its clients. “Here at Shearman & Sterling, it’s not uncommon to have an all-women legal team,” she said. “And best of all, this has nothing to do with the fact that they are women. Rather, they’re the right team for the assignment. I think our clients notice and appreciate that as well.”
Enjoying the Practice of Law
“What’s so rewarding and challenging about law is that our clients’ needs and issues can change from day to day, especially in a highly regulated industry like financial services, with its morass of new rules and regulations,” Rappaport said. “Our clients need our help as business partners and advisers. The world is changing very quickly for our clients, and I never take for granted that they demonstrate tremendous confidence in us by allowing us to help them with some of their most complex and critical business challenges.”