Alex Walsh, JD ’01, has always stood out. As a law student, there was her commanding voice in class, service on the managing board of the law review, and a star turn in the moot court competition. As a young lawyer, she was a clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court and, later, a successful partner at two major law firms.
“I think it’s fair to say that the entire Class of 2002 was in awe of her,” recalls Nora Freeman Engstrom, JD ’02, Stanford professor of law, Deane F. Johnson Faculty Scholar, and associate dean for curriculum, who was a year behind Walsh in law school. “She was supremely successful in law school … and she made it all look effortless.”
Now, at the age of 44, Walsh is adding “law-practice pioneer” to her long list of impressive credentials.
This past February, she formed an elite new Washington-based law firm with this audacious goal: Practice as high-stakes trial lawyers, but be flexible about balancing work and life interests.
Law schools have been admitting women and men in equal numbers for decades. But women account for just 20 percent or so of the equity partners at the largest firms. That is a reflection of the long hours, which fall hardest on women with families, as well as “subtle forms of discrimination,” says Robert Gordon, professor of law at Stanford.
“Partners tend to make assumptions about competence and willingness to work longer hours that tend to stereotype,” Gordon says.
Walsh and her founding name partner, Beth Wilkinson, a lawyer with her own long and distinguished career, figured the best way to address the glass ceiling was to strike out on their own.
Since opening its doors, Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz has jettisoned traditional hourly billing in favor of fixed fees that emphasize results instead of punching the clock. And they’ve made a conscious effort to give up-and-coming trial lawyers opportunities to shine that they might not receive at mainstream firms.
Not that the hours aren’t long and hard. “You can’t have a ‘trial boutique’ firm and just put in 70 percent. That’s not the nature of this type of work,” Walsh says. “But we’re open to figuring out ways to accommodate people’s other interests and needs.”
The firm’s eight partners, including Sean Eskovitz, a former litigation chief at Munger, Tolles & Olson who is based in Los Angeles, have 22 children among them. The simple but effective office leave policy: Work hard and take some time off.
This summer, for example, Walsh decided to take a 10-month sabbatical to travel the world with her husband and four children. Most law firms certainly would have blanched at the extended time out of the office. Her new law firm embraced it.
“We take great pride that our firm was strong enough to say to Alex, ‘Go take 10 months off. Enjoy it. Come back to us. You are going to be a better lawyer, and our firm is going to be better because of it,’ ” says Wilkinson. “That could not happen at a big firm. I take it as a badge of honor we were able to do this.”
In August, when a case unexpectedly settled on the eve of trial, Wilkinson herself took a two-week trip to China with her three children and husband, television journalist
David Gregory. Another lawyer took his family to Alaska and yet another went to the Olympics in Rio.
“In law school, Alex had a knack for taking her work seriously without taking herself seriously. You got the sense she was working just as hard as the rest of us, but she was also having a rollicking good time,” Engstrom recalls. “She has clearly achieved that same balance in D.C. And, as she pilots her own firm, she’ll show a new generation of young lawyers just how exhilarating, rewarding, and fun the practice of law can be.”
After clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Walsh spent a dozen years at two prominent law firms in Washington. Her first case in private practice was helping defend former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby in a high-profile trial that involved charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the outing of a CIA agent. Libby was convicted, but was later granted clemency by President George W. Bush.
Even in a losing cause, Walsh distinguished herself, writing a “magnificent brief” challenging the appointment of the prosecutor in the Libby case on constitutional grounds, recalls veteran Washington lawyer William Jeffress, who helped lead the defense team and oversaw Walsh’s work.
Impressed with her range of talents, Jeffress later turned to Walsh to handle an appellate argument in another of his cases. “I told the client, ‘Look, I would be happy to argue the appeal, but if you want to get someone really good, let Alex do it,’ ” says Jeffress.
At the same time, Walsh began stepping out, beyond the pathway taken by many Supreme Court clerks, seeking to experience the full range of litigation. She helped represent Liberty Media in a securities fraud case against Vivendi SA, which the French media company recently agreed to settle for $775 million after more than a decade of litigation.
A dogged litigator, Walsh is a graceful writer capable of turning mind-numbing facts and law into engaging and sometimes riveting legal narratives. Another specialty—poking holes in the testimony of expert witnesses, reflecting an affinity for learning and mastering complex subjects including teratology or corporate governance, for example.
“Alex has an uncanny ability to synthesize these complex areas and boil them down in a way that jurors and regular folks can understand,” says U.S. District Judge Christopher R. “Casey” Cooper, JD ’93.
Cooper recalls working with Walsh at the Baker Botts law firm and defending a CEO accused of accounting fraud. Walsh—a philosophy major in college—was put in charge of understanding the relevant transactions and devising defenses.
“She threw herself into it and by the time of trial knew more about the applicable accounting concepts than anyone in the case, including the government’s expert accountant,”
Cooper says. Ultimately, the CEO entered a deferred prosecution agreement, and all charges were dismissed.
Walsh met Wilkinson in 2002 while clerking for D.C. Federal Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland (whom President Obama has nominated to the Supreme Court). At the time, Walsh was sorting out her next career move. Wilkinson had worked with Garland prosecuting the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing. And the women hit it off and agreed to stay in touch. Walsh ended up getting a clerkship with Breyer. Wilkinson became one of the nation’s top trial attorneys representing the likes of Pfizer Inc., Altria Group, and the National Football League.
In 2013, Walsh joined Wilkinson at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and they began trying cases together, with Wilkinson normally taking the lead in the courtroom, delivering opening arguments, and picking juries and Walsh acting as the head brief writer and co-strategist conducting the examination of many witnesses. They proved to be an effective team.
They have successfully defended Pfizer in early trials arising from claims that its antidepressant Zoloft causes birth defects, partly because Walsh dug up an old resume showing that a plaintiffs’ expert had an extensive record as a professional witness.
They got a dismissal of a decadelong securities fraud class action against Pfizer for allegedly concealing problems with its anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex, after Walsh exposed flaws with the plaintiffs’ method for calculating damages. An appeals court reversed the dismissal, but agreed the damages model had flaws and the case is now settling.
They won a defense verdict—on just three weeks’ notice—for the owners of online retailer Rue La La who had been sued by company founders in connection with a sale of the company to eBay.
Walsh has been managing a career and a growing family almost from the moment she left law school. She was pregnant with her first child while clerking for Garland and delivered her third while the jury was deliberating the fate of Libby, who was tried in federal court in Washington.
She recalls having “what turned out to be fake contractions,” while helping Libby’s top lawyer prepare the night before closing argument. “I was writing down the times on a sticky note,” Walsh says. “Do you have thoughts you want to share?” she recalls the lawyer asking her, thinking she was jotting down notes about his presentation.
Help comes from her husband, Brendan O’Brien, who has stayed home with the children for the past 10 years.
“I have certainly made efforts to achieve the elusive work-life balance. I think I have done a decent job of it, and I have had a lot of support,” she says. “At the same time, with the ambition to be a litigator and try cases, there have been inevitably longer periods in my career when I have been away from my kids and not on a day-to-day basis engaged in their lives.”
“As a younger lawyer, I feel like being a woman helped me. But as I have gotten closer to the glass ceiling, I’ve realized how ‘real’ it actually is,” she adds. “I became convinced that starting this firm would be a contribution we could make to the practice of law that was pretty unique and, hopefully, would make some difference.”
Talks between the women about venturing out on their own heated up last summer. At the same time, Walsh still felt strongly about taking the round-the-world trip she and her husband had long discussed as a way of bringing their family closer together. With the support of her new law partners, especially Wilkinson, Walsh was able to do it once the firm was up and running. Says Wilkinson, “I was inspired to think if Alex can take a year off, I can indulge in my own professional adventure, which would be to start a firm with her and others.”
So far, they seem to be having the best of both worlds. In addition to clients that have followed them from Paul, Weiss, the firm now represents Facebook in a trade secrets case, Medtronic in a product liability suit, and Theranos against securities fraud charges. They are helping investigate allegations of match-fixing in the professional tennis world—and advising Cheryl Mills, JD ’90, former top aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a civil suit over Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state. The firm expects to have 29 lawyers onboard by year-end, double the number when it opened its doors.
On Walsh’s agenda for the foreseeable future—horseback riding in the Andalusia region of Spain, trekking in the Himalayas, and scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. There’s also home schooling for the kids, which started September 10.
“I don’t think we would change anything,” Walsh says. “I love my career. It is important to me and ultimately makes me a better mother. At the same time, it was important to me and my family to find an experience that could help make sure we were glued together in a familial way. As you know, they grow up so quickly.”
Rick Schmitt, an attorney and former staff writer for the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C