Nancy Kestenbaum

Hometown: New York, NY
Current Job: Partner at Covington & Burling LLP
Education: J.D., Yale University, 1990; B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1985
YLS Year: 1990
Clerkship: Hon. Kimba M. Wood, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, 1990-1991
Activities at YLS: Landlord-Tenant Clinic, Barrister’s Union, Moot Court

1.     CAREER

What’s the day-to-day of your current job like?

As a white-collar lawyer, I represent clients—companies and individuals—in government investigations. The investigations are always interesting and every day is different—meeting and speaking with clients, witnesses, government enforcement agencies. Being the subject of a government investigation is often the worst thing ever to happen to a client, but I try to help clients get the best result possible with the least amount of pain during the process.

How many hours a day do you work?

It varies. I work long hours, but not necessarily in the office.


What was most valuable about your YLS experience?

I learned so much from my classmates. They were so smart and excited to be at YLS and to participate in what it offered. YLS fosters an atmosphere where people can engage and push themselves, but not feel as much pressure as they otherwise might. When I first entered law school, (now Second Circuit Judge) Guido Calabresi was Dean and he gave a famous speech during first-year orientation about “stepping off the treadmill.” My classmates and I took that advice to heart—we took risks and had fun.


What do you view as your biggest accomplishment?

Teaching my son how to ride a bike! It was a challenge for me and for him. As for my career, I’m proud of the cases I handled as a prosecutor and as a defense lawyer and I love to see when lawyers I trained—in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and at Covington—do great things with their careers.

How have you balanced work and life? How do you deal with all your obligations?

“Work/life balance” is a misnomer. Managing work and life is the opposite of balance! “Triage” is a better way to put it. Every day, and within each day, one has to decide what is the most important use of one’s time at that moment. Sometimes it may be work, and sometimes it may be family or other obligations. You have to decide on your priorities and make choices—at any particular moment you can’t do everything, but you may be able to over the longer term.

4.     ADVICE

You spoke about the joys of being a mentor. What traits impress you most in young lawyers?

I expect young lawyers to be analytical, to work hard and to be careful. But to stand out, you need to go beyond the specific project and take ownership of the matter. In other words, take initiative, put yourself in the partner’s shoes and think of yourself as the lawyer for the client.

What is the most direct path to where you are? If you could re-do it, what would you change?

I’ve been very happy in all of my legal jobs, so I would not re-do anything. I did not take the shortest path to become a partner in a law firm, but it was the best path for me—I loved being a federal prosecutor and that experience is invaluable to me now because I am able to understand the government’s perspective.

In the next 5-10 years, what developments do you see in the status of women in the legal profession?

In the private sector, both law firms and clients increasingly focus on the importance of diverse work forces, including at the top. I hope that continues to improve because there is certainly room for improvement.

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

When I was a young lawyer, I tended to master the details. I received advice to think strategically about the big picture. That was good advice.

Career-wise, I would urge law students and young lawyers to keep an open mind. If you had asked me during law school, I would never have envisioned myself as a partner at a big law firm. In fact, I purposefully went to a small firm after my clerkship. That changed over time. After leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I realized that I would enjoy the types of matters I could handle at a big law firm. Now I love being a partner at Covington.

For women in particular, do not sell yourself short. It can sometimes feel like you might not qualify for a job because you lack certain experience, but if the job is one you want to do—go for it!