Isabel Dische

Hometown: San Francisco, California
Current Job: 
Partner at Ropes & Gray in the Asset Management Practice (New York, New York)
A.B., A.M., Harvard University
YLS year: 
Activities at YLS: 
Associate, Atlas Venture; Research Assistant for Professors Robert Shiller and Michael Graetz; Temporary Restraining Order Project


What is it that you do?

I’m lucky to have a job that I love at a firm that I appreciate and respect: I’m a Partner at Ropes & Gray in the Asset Management Practice.

At Ropes & Gray I work predominantly in three areas: (1) helping large investors deploy their capital; (2) advising investment advisers with respect to their private fund platforms; and (3) working with buy-side participants on derivative strategies.

What I do from day-to-day varies greatly – with a mix of counseling clients, negotiating transaction agreements, and grappling with regulatory changes and the implications for my clients’ businesses – but one common theme is that I get to work with a team of colleagues that I respect intellectually (and who have become good friends) on interesting problems. I particularly like having new problems to tackle. The questions posed by our clients aren’t easy, but that is what makes it fun.

You said that new associates often don’t know the job before they take it on. Did you fit that description when you started?

Yes. When I started law school I thought I’d return to business, not practice law. I never even meant to take the bar!

Before coming to YLS, I worked at a venture capital fund, Atlas Venture, where I was on a team investing in early-stage biotechnology companies. It was expected that associates earn their MBAs, but I solicited approval to pursue a JD instead (frankly, because it sounded more interesting). I continued working for Atlas while at YLS as I fully intended to return there —and I probably would have done so if my mentors at Atlas hadn’t suggested that I spend a summer doing legal work.

This leads me to my first piece of advice: wherever you are, focus on finding mentors. Ideally you will have a network of people to whom you can turn for career advice. A mentor can (but need not be) in your field, but she should be someone with whom you can have a candid conversation. You may find that you turn to different people for advice on different types of situations.

In any case, one of my mentors encouraged me to try practicing law during my second summer at YLS. I did, and much to my surprise, I loved it. After that summer I decided to change paths and join Ropes & Gray.

What skills are needed for new associates who are just starting out at a law firm?

Focus on developing your analytical capabilities, as well as your oral and written communication skills. You can view this as the tool chest you’ll apply to tackle questions in your professional life after law school. YLS offers great preparation in these areas, both with traditional black letter courses and with more thematic courses. Additionally, as a junior associate you’ll want to take responsibility for, and “own,” whatever job or role you’ve been given. I would start building a network of mentors – beginning with trusted professors, classmates, and colleagues from your internships.

Are there any skills that are particularly advantageous to a corporate business career?

There is a necessary mindset. You should recognize that what’s driving your client’s inquiry and approach isn’t confined to the legal problem at hand, but rather there is a greater business concern. You must understand a client’s business objectives in order to provide valuable service.

We expect our new associates to learn both the business and legal concerns of our clients so that they can develop into trusted advisors in addition to transactional lawyers. This works to the advantage of our clients, who find us to be more valuable because of this service. It also works to the advantage of junior associates, by making the job more engaging. Once you can start advising a client, your job becomes more fun!


As someone who was focused on business, what were you hoping to get out of your law school education?

I had two main goals at YLS. First, I wanted three years of intellectual engagement. Second, I wanted to develop a tool kit for my life after law school. Accordingly, I found myself in classes covering everything from Islamic law to accounting to joint ventures.

How did you identify which courses to take or which professors you wanted to take classes with?

I used the shopping period to test out a wide variety of classes. It wasn’t easy to winnow that down to a manageable load, but ultimately I chose courses based on my interests and my rapport with particular professors (e.g., did I find their lectures engaging).  I also took courses at SOM to learn a variety of instructional and problem-solving methods (e.g., negotiations, accounting, etc). Being able to think about an issue from multiple perspectives is a useful tool to develop.


What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your career, particularly in the realm of work/life balance?

Whether you go into big law or any other field, work-life balance can be tricky, whether that includes family or not. These days, limited time is the price we pay for interesting careers.

That being said, I think there are strategies for juggling work/life balance:

  • Know your priorities and act accordingly. If you want to have a family, for example, prioritize selecting a firm that has a family-friendly culture. One thing I love about Ropes & Gray is that we prioritize job output, not face time. I work hard, but I also walk my children to school every morning and usually am home for dinner (logging-in from home after they’re in bed). It doesn’t always work, but having flexibility in where and how I get your job done is key. The importance of that can’t be overstated.
  • Protect your values. I value a strong sense of collegiality at work and family time at home, two things that are prized at Ropes & Gray. Sure, the work is intense and there are personal costs. That said, we very much work as a team. I’ve pulled all-nighters to allow a colleague to go on vacation, and my colleagues have stepped in to help me. If you find yourself sacrificing values that are important to you, it will be hard to protect your own sense of work-life balance.
  • Cultivate a support network. Get the help you need, whether that means hiring a nanny, a housekeeper, or finding a grocery delivery service that actually works. Maintain your friendships and block “me” time to workout or do something else you enjoy. Have someone you can call to when life feels overwhelming, someone who will remind you that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

Having a job I love and kids I love isn’t always easy, but it is possible. And at the end of the day, I am a happier individual having both.


Do you have any final words of advice for young people, particularly women, entering law today?

Sure! I think the most advice I can give is to:

  • Find strong mentors who will guide and support your career.
  • Stay true to your values—check in and know yourself.
  • Create a support network to manage the details of life.

There are three other points I’d like to make. The first is how to focus your energy as a junior associate. The second is a key question that students should consider asking when interviewing with firms. The third is what I see to be the future of women in big law.

How should junior associates focus their time and energy?

As a junior associate, and particularly during your summer internships, focus your energy on figuring out what you want to do, which involves two equally important prongs—content and culture/work-style.

Content: Many young associates are worried about making the wrong practice choice. The way to make a good choice is to spend as much time as you can in people’s offices, particularly as a summer associate. Do what you can to observe senior attorneys’ work, even if it means you don’t get as much legal work done yourself! Join conference calls and meetings. Spend time in the offices of people who are doing work that you find interesting, but also in the offices of people who are doing work you think you have no interest in whatsoever. Exposure matters! You may discover you would like to pursue a practice area you hadn’t been contemplating or you may reaffirm your preferences, but either way it is a valuable experience. Also, by spending time with lawyers in a variety of practice areas you are developing a network of colleagues to call when questions arise down the road and may even find mentors.

Culture and work-style: Assess the culture of firms and their various departments. Culture will color the content because each firm (and each practice group within a firm) will have its own quirks. The better you can identify these differences and evaluate the importance of those differences for yourself, the better off you will be—so talk to people about what they know. Also, take for granted that there are intellectually engaging questions in any area of practice, but the course of a typical day will vary greatly depending on which practice area you choose. When you are observing attorneys, consider their lifestyles. Ideally you will find an area of the law where you love the types of questions that are asked and also are comfortable with the day-to-day lifestyle and pace of the work. Be honest with yourself, and choose a practice area and firm based on what fits you best, not what is “sexiest.” Remember, you’re the one who has to live the day-to-day of your job.

What is a key question that students should ask when interviewing with big law firms?

When evaluating firms for a big law position, I’d suggest asking how they staff matters. Ropes & Gray uses a client team staffing model. New associates are assigned to a small handful of clients. When new tasks come up for those clients, they are delegated to people on their client team. In this way, each associate has the opportunity to gain a more in-depth familiarity with a specific client’s business and legal concerns —to really become a valuable asset for that client. Some of the clients I work with today are the very same clients that I was assigned to when I first came to Ropes & Gray. These clients value my longstanding relationship and familiarity with their precise concerns.

Contrast this with a project-based staffing model which allows an associate to more quickly become an expert at a particular type of project, but which offers fewer opportunities for developing a relationship with a client. Which model you prefer will depend on your personality and your longer-term career objectives, but only by asking can you make an informed choice.

How do you see the future of women in big law?

There’s a lot of opportunity for women in big law right now. The partnership and senior executive numbers are starting to even out. Yes, they still skew male. But keep in mind, once you make partner, you stay partner until you either leave or retire, often in your late 60s or 70s. As the generations change, so will the numbers.

Right now, at Ropes & Gray, our new partner classes are roughly split between men and women. The two co-heads of our hedge funds team – one of the practice groups within our asset management practice – are both women and our team has more women partners than men. Big law can be equally as promising for women as for men these days, especially if you commit yourself to finding a firm that meets your values and expectations.