Voice of Experience: Paula Anderson, Partner, Litigation, Shearman & Sterling

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

At just 36, Paula Anderson, a partner in Shearman & Sterling’s litigation practice, has already earned a national reputation, having been named to Crain’s NY Business Magazine’s “40 Under 40” list and having received the National Organization for Women’s 2012 Women of Power and Influence Award.

It is not lost on her that these are significant achievements for an African American woman in an industry where diversity is still too rare.

“I’ve been interested in diversity in the legal industry since I began my career, and it still concerns me,” she said. “I go to industry functions and there are hundreds of attorneys there, and I am often the only person of color or maybe one of about five out of hundreds. I’ve always been driven to find a way we in the legal industry can address that, to better reflect the students graduating from law school.”

Anderson is doing her part at Shearman & Sterling. She is a member of the firm’s Diversity Committee, has been active in the firm’s WISER (Women’s Initiative for Success, Excellence and Retention) inclusion network, and was the first chairperson of the firm’s African American inclusion network BLAQUE (Black Lawyers Aligned in the Quest for Excellence).

“Through our various inclusion networks, we aim not just at recruiting diverse lawyers but promoting them as well,” she explained. “At the mid-level we lose a number of these lawyers. We see too many people opt out or pursue other careers. It is an industry-wide issue.”

Anderson adds that Shearman & Sterling’s inclusion networks are designed to enable people to advance by providing two key factors for success in a legal career: mentoring and programs focused on business development and networking. She has been very open in talking with young lawyers about the stereotypes that women and people of color must contend with in their line of business.

“Access to the pathways to success also means dealing with some of the unconscious biases that may exist,” she said. “For example, there are certain preconceptions some people have with respect to women not having boardroom presence or not being aggressive enough. Particularly in the litigation field, there are certain ideas of what a successful and capable litigator should look like, and that’s often something akin to a Perry Mason.”

That’s why visibility is so important for successful role models, she added. “We need examples of women who are successful, who have their own unique style and are being themselves, and are able to relate to a board or a jury. We are making some progress in addressing these types of challenges.”

Career in Law

Anderson, who grew up in Barbados, went on to study criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, where she now serves on the college’s Board of Trustees. After graduating as the valedictorian of her class, she enrolled at Harvard Law School. She joined Shearman & Sterling as a summer associate, and when she graduated she came back to the firm as a full-time associate.

“I really had a passion for being a litigator,” she says. “I loved formulating arguments and knocking down arguments, and I also had an interest in international arbitration.”

Anderson has worked in both Shearman & Sterling’s Paris office as part of the corporate finance practice, and in the New York litigation practice where she is now a partner.

“After nine years, I became the first-ever African American woman partner in litigation,” Anderson says. “It’s a great achievement, particularly because of how it is perceived by young women and young minorities. It shows that it’s something attainable and that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Today Anderson is involved in a number of cases. Most recently, she was a key member of the legal team that was able to get a motion against her client, Daimler, dismissed, ending a complicated four-year legal saga. “It was a $4 billion claim against Daimler by the creditors of Chrysler, and we were able to get it dismissed in the bankruptcy court and have the dismissal upheld on appeal in the district court and again in the Second Circuit,” she says. “That was a huge victory for the client and for our team. There were some very complicated legal issues, and our client was extremely pleased with the outcome.”

Anderson balances her heavy corporate litigation case load with an equally challenging pro bono commitment. She currently serves as pro bono counsel to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and has conducted training courses for ICC prosecutors, focusing on prosecuting cases involving the enlistment of child soldiers. Anderson’s other pro bono work includes assisting in the prosecution of genocide cases in Tanzania and Rwanda and, closer to home, indigent criminal defense cases in New York.

Advice for Women in Law

Anderson believes that the importance of establishing relationships should not be overlooked by younger lawyers. “When I came in, I focused exclusively on establishing substantive and technical skills,” she recalled. “I wish I had understood more the value of cultivating and maintaining relationships. One key to success as a partner is business development, and the way to generate business and build up your clientele is through relationships that are cultivated over time – and trust has to be developed over time. The earlier you start, the better.”

She also encouraged women to be authentic. “This is the same advice that was given to me when I first started: be true to yourself.”

“Do some introspecting. What are your most valuable aspects? You may not be the loudest in the room, but you can write persuasive arguments. Cultivate those skills,” she explained. “And when you do a good job, make sure you are adequately credited for it.”

She is pleased to see that, increasingly, senior women are supporting one another. “When we get to a certain level, we tend to be protective of what we have,” she said. “It’s important to reach back and sideways and develop a strong support network. We do need each other.”

She added, “When I look at the clients I work with, there are so many powerful women. We can be a force to be reckoned with if we help each other.”

Diversity as a Business Driver

Shearman & Sterling is part of a group called the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, a partnership of law firms and Fortune 500 corporations that have come together for the common purpose of increasing diversity in the legal profession and increasing diversity in leadership. Anderson is one of the group’s 2011 fellows. “The Council convenes conferences and speakers for fellows, to cultivate all the skills you really need to be successful,” she explained.

“The general counsels of the participating corporations made themselves available to me and provided key opportunities to make presentations to their leadership teams,” she said. “This is another avenue aimed at increasing diversity, and it has buy-in at the very top ranks of the participating law firms and corporations.”

In Her Personal Time

Anderson says she has begun to think more seriously about work life issues since having her first child last June. “I took off six months for maternity leave, and it’s so good that I had that opportunity,” she said. “My son is now a major focus in my life and I’m really enjoying him. I can’t imagine anything more fulfilling than being a mom.”

She also recently took up boating with her husband when they bought a small yacht – and was surprised to find the boating world presented its own gender biases. “I signed up for a boating class in Long Island for women… but it was all about how to serve your captain! They assumed the captain would be male. I thought, ‘Oh, forget this!’”

She added with a laugh, “Now I captain my own yacht – it’s another barrier I’ve broken.”