Catherine Weiss

Hometown: New York, New York
Current Job: Chair of the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest and Partner, Lowenstein Sandler
Education: Princeton University (AB 1981); Yale University (MA 1984)
YLS year: 1987
Clerkship: Judge Alvin Rubin, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
Activities at YLS: RA for Professor Drew Days; TA for Professor Burke Marshall; Steering Committee Member of the Public Interest Council; formed a women’s group with Louise Melling and later published an article about the experience of women at YLS.


What do you do? How did you get there?

I run the pro bono practice of a 270-lawyer law firm. The firm’s pro bono practice exceeds 20,000 hours per year; to ensure success of the program, I make sure our lawyers are adequately trained, monitored, and supervised. I also maintain relationships with a wide range of nonprofit legal service organizations and legal entities, as most of our pro bono work comes to us through nonprofit partners. I continue to participate directly in large and complex pro bono projects as well as selected individual cases.

After law school, I clerked for one of the last great civil rights judges, the Honorable Alvin Rubin. I then worked for a number of years for the reproductive rights projects of both the NYCLU and the ACLU, including serving as the Director of the Reproductive Freedom Project at the ACLU national office from 1997-2002. From 2003-2004, I worked as a consulting attorney for the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Planned Parenthood of NYC, as well as teaching as an adjunct professor at Rutgers University School of Law. From 2004-2006, I was staff counsel and then Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. In 2006, I was asked to create and manage a division of New Jersey state government dedicated to protecting and advancing the public interest; I served as the Director of the newly minted Division of Public Interest Advocacy in the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate until 2010, when the Department was dismantled in the new state administration. I joined Lowenstein Sandler in 2010 and became the Chair of the Lowenstein Center for Public Interest and a partner of the firm in 2012.

What do you see as the major differences between working on public interest projects through a firm versus a traditional public interest organization like the ACLU?

There are a lot of differences between doing pro bono work at a firm and working full time for a nonprofit public interest organization. Perhaps the greatest difference is that when you’re working full time at a nonprofit organization, you’re surrounded by other attorneys who get up every morning to think about and do the same work that you are thinking about and doing. Attorneys at nonprofit organizations are specialists in their particular public interest field. In contrast, at a law firm you are surrounded by lawyers who have full-time private practices. For these lawyers, pro bono work is a part-time matter and generally a small percentage of their overall practice. Additionally, even though these attorneys are very skilled, their pro bono work is nearly always unfamiliar to them, far different from the work they do in their private practice. As a result, making sure that firm policies support the work is critically important.

What makes for a successful pro bono practice at a private law firm?

A successful pro bono practice depends on a number of things. First, the firm leadership needs to be invested in the program. This includes having partners who are personally committed to the pro bono program and do pro bono work themselves. Second, the firm culture has to support the pro bono practice. It helps if the firm has a historical commitment to public interest work. Finally, the firm needs to have standard policies that promote pro bono work. For example, at Lowenstein Sandler pro bono hours count as billable hours on a 1:1 ratio; pro bono hours are applied toward an associate’s target hours; and pro bono hours figure into the calculation of compensation and bonuses. We do not have a fixed cap on the number of pro bono hours that count toward billable hours, whereas some firms cap the number of pro bono hours at 100. I feel very fortunate to work at a firm that is so committed to its pro bono program.

How many hours a week/day do you work?

I probably average 10 hours per day. Last year I worked between 2300 and 2400 hours.


What was most valuable about your experience at YLS?

This is a close contest between two answers: first, having incredibly dedicated, smart, talented professors who taught courses that I cared about; second, having equally dedicated, smart, talented classmates who remained colleagues and friends, sometimes for years.

What is the most important lesson you took away from your time at YLS?

I don’t know—I think YLS mostly reinforced things that I already wanted to do or knew to be true about myself. For example, I came to Yale knowing that I wanted to be a public interest lawyer, and when I left the law school that is exactly what I did. I was a hard worker and dedicated student before coming to YLS, and during my time at the law school those habits were also reinforced.

What skills do you rely on now that law school did not emphasize enough?

A Yale education is about thinking through how to argue your case. This means that my education wasn’t skills-based in the way that is being emphasized now in some legal education circles. In my practice, this is not something I regret.


What do you view as your biggest accomplishment?

Raising three daughters who are funny, smart, generous, kind, and talented—that is truly my biggest accomplishment, without much contest.

How have you balanced work and life? How has this changed throughout your career?

The greatest challenge of my adult life is how to balance my serious desire to be with my family with my equally serious desire to have work that I care about and that is challenging. That has been really hard.

Of course, the way in which I have balanced my work with my life has changed at different points in my career. For example, my work/life balance changed dramatically when I had children. When my children were small, it was enormously difficult not to be with them, because I missed them—but their care could be managed by nannies and other helpers. As they got older, my children were less dependent, but what they needed from me was no longer delegable.

How did you fit having your children into your career?

All of my children were born while I was at the ACLU. My oldest daughter is a senior in college, and I have twins who are seniors in high school. I took four months off when my oldest child was born and six months off when the twins were born. Very little of my maternity leave was paid, but I felt fortunate to be able to take the time off.


What advice was helpful to you as a law student, or what advice did you wish you had received?

This really depends on who you are and what you’re after.

I have found that the three most important things to me in my work life are 1) doing work that I’m committed to, 2) work that is intellectually challenging and engaging, and 3) with people I like a lot. These will be the highest determiners of whether I like a job.

If you could re-do your career, what would you change?

There are things that I would change about myself, which would lead to changes in my career. I have a tendency to operate at too high of a pace wherever I am, whether that is at work or at home. I wish I were better at pacing. Living in a headlong manner speeds up time. Days, weeks, and years can fly by while I’m busy checking things off my to-do lists. I wish I were better at slowing time down and holding on to what I experience.

How has being a woman affected you in your career?

In my family life and in my work life I’ve been very attentive to this question.

At home we’ve had a much more equal share in the job of raising the children than is true in many families; this is part of what has enabled me to work the way I have and have the career I’ve had. The kids have had two parents who are around. This is a juggling act, but it’s been very important.

At work, in contrast, what I find is that by overwhelming margins it is still women who take time off or work reduced schedules to be with their children. Many fewer men do that. This is true at the various public interest organizations where I’ve worked, as well as at the firm. As long as this continues to be true, broader repercussions will flow from it. As long as the only people who are taking advantage of flex-time programs are women, women will continue to be disadvantaged in the workforce.

I look around at the young women coming through the ranks here, and I see what I’ve always seen: women don’t handle these kinds of hierarchies in the same way that men do. This disadvantages women. Law firms are designed to reward behavior that is disproportionately male—which isn’t necessarily the same thing as behavior that is the most profitable. When they consider taking on a project, men are more likely to ask, “Is this something that will help me in my career?”; whereas women tend to ask, “Did I do a good job with what I was asked to do?” This means that women spend years doing work that their male colleagues have decided won’t help them advance their careers. This work needs to be done well—in fact, it is often work that is vital to the operation of the firm—but it is considered lower-skilled, case management work. As a result, the women who work on these projects generally aren’t promoted.

What’s your favorite activity outside of work?

I wish I made more time for my hobbies. I do all kinds of artistic projects, such as laying mosaics, throwing pottery, and weaving baskets.

Final words of wisdom?

Figure out what you love doing and go do it. But know that this is much harder than people act like it is—even if you’re a person with an enormous range of choices. Actually, it may be especially difficult if you’re a person with an enormous number of choices
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