Michele Hirshman

Current Job: Partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP
Education: Bachelor of Arts from Rutgers College in 1980, summa cum laude
YLS year: J.D. 1983
Clerkship: Honorable Pierre N. Leval, then on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (now sits on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals)
Activities at YLS: Articles Editor of the Yale Law Journal, Co-Chair of the former Yale Law Women


How did your career progress to where it is today?

I graduated Rutgers College in 1980 with a B.A. in History and then went immediately to law school.  After law school, I clerked for Judge Pierre Leval who was then a District Court judge in the Southern District of New York and now sits on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  I actually spent a little over a year with him because he had a very intensive caseload at the time.

After that, I became an associate at Schulte Roth & Zabel for two years.  And then I joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York in the spring of 1987, where I worked until the end of 1998.  After I’d been working there for a couple years, I had the opportunity to serve in various supervisory capacities.  I also had my children during that time.  Then in 1999, I became first deputy attorney general for the State of New York, a position that I held for a little over 8 years.  And finally, after that, I became a partner at Paul Weiss, which is where I am today.  My practice now focuses mainly on white-collar defense.

What’s the day-to-day like?

My daily schedule is somewhat unpredictable because of the nature of white-collar criminal defense.  At any given time, I’m dealing with various governmental institutions on behalf of companies and individuals who are facing investigation or scrutiny.  And I represent a range of clients – from financial institutions to pharmaceutical companies to municipal and governmental entities and individuals –across a range of offices including DOJ, SEC, and various local prosecutors and regulators.  I also represent individuals in high-profile, sensitive employment matters.

So on any given day, I may be counseling clients, bringing clients in for interviews before the government, advising clients on strategy to deal with government, or preparing white papers or briefs in connection with litigation.

I also do a lot of pro bono work and supervise young attorneys on their pro bono projects.  The work there ranges from large-scale class actions to appeals of criminal convictions on behalf of individual defendants to representation of indigent individuals in cases against the government in cases of mistreatment by government officers.

What do these mentorship and public service opportunities mean to you?  How have you been able to balance and prioritize them at various points throughout your career?

I spent 20 years in government service and during that time, tried to balance a rigorous practice with the demands of raising children.  My husband is a law professor so he participated very equally in that endeavor.

When I entered private practice, my children were considerably older so that allowed me a little more freedom to be able to participate in formal pro bono projects.  Being in private practice not only freed up time to participate in that work, but serving in government had meant that there were certain restrictions on what I could do outside of that position.  So private practice offered more pro bono opportunities in that way as well.

I believe that my government service gives me a pretty unique window into the needs of private sector groups fulfilling public functions, as well as an understanding of how government should act in connection with pro bono matters.  So I’m grateful to have had the experience in government as I now work on these pro bono issues.


Why did you decide to come to law school?  Where did you envision your legal career going and how did that evolve throughout your time at YLS?

A lot of the academic and extracurricular work I’d done in college had focused on examining issues facing people without power in society and how the addition of power to the powerless could advance and improve their lives – and that’s how I approached what I wanted to do in law.

It was certainly not clear to me when I started law school that I wanted to be a prosecutor.  I think what really began to shape my perspective was less my view of whether prosecutors create social good, but more the nature of the courses that I liked.

I took a course in Evidence taught by Barbara Underwood, one of two – and only two – female professors in the law school at the time.  My experience in that class was really transformative.  Barbara is still, to this day, one of the truly spectacular legal thinkers of her generation. She always combined academic rigor with a practical approach.  And I just loved the class, I loved thinking about the concepts, I did well in the class, and it led me to believe that I might really like this stuff.

So I took criminal procedure, and I took another class with Barbara about the role of the prosecutor.  And then I wrote my law journal note on a criminal procedure evidentiary issue so that cemented it a bit more.

During my first summer, I split my time between a small law firm and the Manhattan DA’s office and I really enjoyed working at the DA’s office and decided I might want to work as an ADA or AUSA.  After my clerkship, I decided to go to a law firm where people had had that experience and valued it– and that’s in part how I ended up at Schulte.

In all of this, I was lucky that there happened to be folks who were there who appreciated my interest and who assisted me in eventually getting the jobs I wanted.

What main activities were you involved with at YLS? How would you reflect on them today?

I was Chief Articles Editor of the Yale Law Journal.  And I have no doubt that I was chosen for that position because of my gender. The year before mine, there was only one female officer on the law journal and there was a lot of consternation about that, appropriately so. Then in my year there were either three or four women officers on the law journal.

The law journal organization is always complicated, and it changes from year to year.  I think that the law journal can be a great institution – although I will say that the whole structure is a little unusual. It’s not morally offensive; it just is what it is.  On the whole, I really enjoyed my time on the law journal and I think it made a big difference in my career going forward, especially because I went to a state university.  I think it demonstrated to people that I had what it took to succeed.  It’s certainly a credential that stays with you.

I also served as co-chair of the women’s group, which was a different organization than it is today.  It was much more modest, more of a loose collective of women at the law school.  And there weren’t all the officers there are now.  There were essentially just two people: one focused on professional development and the other, a more feminist-political person.  That was me, the feminist-political chairperson.  And I just loved it.  We got to take positions on issues at the law school and in the broader legal community.  But I think the most significant part of that experience was that it introduced me to a lot of my classmates and people in classes above me who are my best friends over 30 years later. Two of them are the godparents of my children!


How has being a woman affected you in your career?

In answering this question, you have to separate two things which are not the same: one is being a woman and the other is being a parent.  Sometimes we have a tendency to conflate them but they should each be addressed.

In private practice, much of what one does is to serve clients, which is a very satisfying and rewarding challenge, but also a very demanding business.  It requires enormous amounts of time and also large reservoirs of emotional, as well as intellectual energy. The legal work (writing briefs, writing motions, going to court) is the easy part of the job.  The harder part is providing clients with top-level service.  That’s true across the board whenever you’re working for a client, whether at a private firm or in a public service position. And it’s hard to be both a really great provider of client service and also to be a caregiver in the home.  The duties and responsibilities and emotional energy associated with those tasks are pretty similar and quite extensive – and that’s the same for men and women. So that’s the parenting angle.

On the pure being-a-woman side, I’ve been blessed to have had both female and male bosses who were sensitive and who encouraged me.  Having same-gender mentors can be really helpful because they are looking out for you.  For example, one of the positions I held at the U.S. Attorney’s office was Chief of the Public Corruption Unit. It was a fantastic job but it was a position that became open when I was 2 months into my maternity leave.  During my interview, I explained to my prospective (woman) boss that I’d love to have the position but I did not want to cut short my maternity leave.  She could have said, “No, if you want this job, you need to come back earlier because I can’t leave that position open that long,” but she didn’t.  Instead, she said, “I’ll wait,” which imposed a serious burden on her, on the office and on others.  And I’m not sure that someone who wasn’t a woman would have been willing to take on those burdens. So I think that having a boss who has that perspective can make a big difference.  That boss was Mary Jo White, now Chair of the SEC.

What fights/challenges are most pressing for young female lawyers? What should we focus on tackling?

I love the work I do at Paul Weiss in protecting and defending clients.  Part of the issue that younger women lawyers face now is the changing nature of the legal profession, particularly in the private sector.  Private practice is becoming increasingly competitive and specialized.  In some respects I think that redounds to women’s benefit but you have to think about it and acknowledge it.

Much of the work we do is team-oriented, and sometimes involves managing large numbers of lawyers, issues, information, and documents.  Certain women have considerable talent in those skills – organizational capacity, teamwork, getting people to move in one direction, etc.  Those are really important skills that are especially needed in the private practice of law in large firms.  Women certainly don’t have a monopoly on these traits, and they should use those skills if they have them. However, women need to be concerned that they don’t get pigeonholed as great organizers and team-builders at the expense of being seen as serious substantive thinkers.

The other challenge is that women aren’t prepared enough to make mistakes.  I think that especially for a young woman lawyer, if you’re going to grow and get recognized, you need to make mistakes.  Of course, hopefully you minimize them.  But something I used to tell young lawyers in the U.S. Attorney’s Office was, “If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not making enough decisions.”

One of my male colleagues once commented that men, because they generally have more training in sports, are very used to screwing up, getting yelled at by the coach, and then getting up again and getting back on the field.  Perhaps this isn’t as true today because women are participating more intensively in competitive sports. But it’s something to keep in the back of your head.

So I’d encourage young women lawyers to find a place where they can make and learn from mistakes.


How have you created work-life balance? Do you have any advice for law students on that topic?

One of the most important things to remember, which my mother-in-law told me, and that I always did, is not to scrimp on the amount you’re willing to pay for childcare.  I think it’s a pretty straightforward point.  We always had top-dollar childcare in the home – on the books, and when it became available, with health benefits.

There was a reason that, by the time my children were in high school, I had not saved enough to pay for their college and that was because I had spent so much every year for childcare.

But it was because my mother-in-law told me – and I agree with her – it’s both an investment in your kids and an investment in your career (and an investment in yourself).  If you’re constantly worried about your childcare, you are not going to be able to focus on your job and you’re not going to be able to focus on what you need to do for your clients.  And unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of successful women lawyers struggling unnecessarily with that.

Of course, depending on your job, you may be functioning with constraints – not to mention salary limits and all that – but that’s the investment we made and it meant that I had much more flexibility on the job than many of my contemporaries.

What do you view as your biggest accomplishment?

As a general matter, the thing I’m most pleased with and that serves my clients best is that I have developed a reputation for integrity and honesty and being a straight-shooter.  People know that I will tell both my adversary and my client what I really think. I’ll advocate, of course, on behalf of my client, but I don’t make arguments that I don’t think are going to succeed.  And I think my adversaries tend to trust and respect me for that.