Interview: Sheila Birnbaum, Partner Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom

By Shoya

birnbaumRanked by Crain as the 23rd Most Powerful Woman in NY.
Color Q Style: RED.

Known as the Queen of Torts, she has been named as the leading product-liability lawyer in the world for 3 years by the industry’s top trade publication. Translated, this means she settles high-end class-action lawsuits. Her challenge is to be creative and avoid long drawn out battles and litigations. Several years ago, I interviewed her for my book Women & The Leadership Q. This is a short summary of the interview.

The path began in the South Bronx of New York where she grew up the oldest of three. Money was tight; but it was a loving, extended family. Her parents ran a grocery store and worked long hours. Birnbaum was the first in her family to go to College. Though she always wanted to be a lawyer, at everyone’s insistence, she took a job as a fourth grade teacher so as to “not be more educated than her husband,” she recalls with a grin. Two years later, a not-so-happy teacher went ahead and enrolled in NYU law school. The marriage did fall apart, but a childhood dream was about to come true.

Of course it was still the dark ages for women lawyers. She became of counsel to Skadden, while remaining full professor and later associate dean at NYU, later leaving academia to join Skadden as a full time partner. Today she is co-head of the complex mass tort and insurance group. They represent major corporations in complex litigations and class action suits.

Like other Color Q Reds”, Birnbaum describes her leadership style as collaborative. It is leadership by example, by working with people to achieve a common goal. “Even in negotiations, when dealing with an adversary,” she says, “we try to bring people into the fold so they have a stake in the outcome. I don’t believe,” she continues, “you can lead by dictating and coming down on people.”

Activities she finds most energizing are twofold: getting new business, and strategizing on how to resolve the crisis in major litigation suits. “Usually it is all-consuming,” she says with relish. “You are dealing with government investigations, lawsuits in the courts, media issues and you have to respond on many fronts and often at the same time. It is around-the-clock crisis management.”

Others see her as a super rainmaker. Rainmakers are defined as those who bring in a lot of new business for their firm. “She gets to the heart of key issues and senses the right time to settle better than anyone I know,” says a former adversary with open respect. Like many Reds, Birnbaum embraces risk and needs excitement. “The worst thing that can happen,” she says, “ is that the telephone doesn’t ring all day. The more that is going on, the calmer I am,” she adds, “and the more I handle.” She finds long term goals of less importance.” I never had a five or ten or fifteen year plan,” she says. “I am ready for change all the time. I came to Skadden because I met someone at a cocktail party.” She continues, “we never had a plan for the product liability practice, we just started it, it kept growing and now it is the biggest group of its kind in the country.”

Also like Reds, she finds high stress situations energizing. Dealing with details, however, is boring. “I hate reading agreements over and over again,” she says, “or dealing with the nitty-gritty of the factual development of the case. I prefer to let someone else dig up the facts, and I come up with the solution. I enjoy enormously,” she continues, “going to court, making an argument before a judge or appellate panel, and negotiating.”

For Birnbaum, work is highly satisfying. “When you are considered a top player, you converse with top players. And people in your field recognize that. Power is walking into a room and getting instant respect. Power is the ability to make things happen.”


By Elizabeth Drolet on April 8th, 2012 at 5:02 pm

So fortunate to have met and worked with Sheila. One feels smarter after spending five minutes with her.

After reading your blog post I browsed your website a bit and noticed you aren’t ranking nearly as well in Google as you could be. I possess a handful of blogs myself and I think you should take a look here: You’ll find it’s a very nice tool that can bring you a lot more visitors. Keep up the quality posts


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