New York based Kirkland & Ellis partner Erica Berthou discusses gender in the legal profession in the United States and her firm's accomplishments in promoting diversity and inclusion


What obstacles have you had to contend with during your legal career that related to your gender?

While there have been obstacles over the course of my 20-year career, I have always tried to turn them into opportunities. I think my upbringing in Sweden is a big reason why I have such a positive outlook and seize opportunities with little to no regard to my gender. I was fortunate enough to be born and raised, and begin my legal career, in an environment where gender equality has been at the forefront of people’s minds for a very long time. I took my natural place in the industry and rarely had to worry about my gender. The obstacles I did face were more about changing geographic location, including moving to a new city I had never even visited, and practicing law in a different language. These challenges were sometimes made more difficult by the fact that I had advanced quite far in the profession at a relatively young age.

I have benefitted from having fantastic role models in the legal private equity industry, both at my current and past firms, and I believe that the private equity women’s network in New York and globally is strong and will continue to grow. I see a lot of support and opportunities for women in the legal profession.

I am, however, incredibly mindful of the fact that many of my female peers have faced gender-related challenges, some career debilitating. As a consequence, I work with many women, side-by-side, on a daily basis to support their careers and overall growth. I am so grateful for the opportunities I have had, and have every intention of continuing to pay it forward.

From the perspective of gender equality how does the environment which you work in now compare to the one you began your career in?

I think there are so many more options for women attorneys today to progress throughout their career, whether it be in-house or at a law firm. I see many women in leadership positions in law firms who are able to mentor and promote younger women, and female in house counsel who are retaining female outside counsel, such as myself, generating real business opportunities for us as lawyers. This makes me very optimistic about the future.


In general do you feel the legal profession within your jurisdiction treats women and men equally?

I absolutely believe that big law in the US has every intention to treat women and men equally throughout their career. It is important to remember that being at the pinnacle of the legal profession has a significant impact on any lawyer, male or female - there are long hours, the work is strenuous, and it can be challenging to find the right balance. Simply put, the hustle is real.

As a senior attorney, I work with large teams and strive to know each team member on an individual basis, including their particular challenges, allowing for some tailoring to maximise their potential. I have found that when you personalise to the individual, and work together as a team, there is more longevity in this career, which makes it more likely that women, including those who are the primary caregiver, will continue to reach full potential.

It also goes without saying that the more women (and male allies) we have in leadership positions supporting other women, the more likely we are to see and have women feel that there is more equality.

Are there any initiatives to promote gender equality in the legal profession in your jurisdiction?

While not specific to the United States, I find women’s networks and legal and business conferences to be incredibly impactful. It is through these channels and events where women from the most junior to the most senior positions can attend, learn more about the industry and build a network that is incredibly strong and long-lasting. These networks can generate real business opportunities, and I think the focus is most importantly placed on female lawyers having meaningful business relationships, generating revenue and enjoying stellar careers, rather than gender. To effect changes, we have to become and be leaders.


If you could introduce one policy related to gender equality in the legal profession what would it be?

I think continuing to support a virtual working environment, especially after the current COVID-19 crisis, will have a profound impact on the ability with which women can have more flexible working hours and arrangements. It may make it possible to stay connected to your career even while on maternity or other extended leave in a way that wasn’t possible before given the emphasis on in person meetings and travel. Virtual working arrangements will be a key focus for law firms in the years to come.


Do you feel women are well represented at partner level and in management positions in firms within your jurisdiciton?

While I believe that this is a work in progress, I am encouraged to see that there has been an uptick in female managing partners and firm committee members at law firms in the US and abroad. I think we are seeing and will continue to see meaningful progress in this area.


What initiatives do you have in place at your firm to promote gender equality?

We as a firm are so committed to the advancement of women in the legal profession. Our Diversity & Inclusion Committee’s gender subcommittee is dedicated to examining issues, policies and practices that directly impact women attorneys at the Firm; we have real hands-on dialogue regarding these important matters. We have a multitude of initiatives from recruitment and mentorship programs aimed specifically at women, to speaker series, sponsoring women’s organisations, flexible working hours and remote working possibilities, and generous parental leave.


Do you think your firm compares well to others in your market when considering gender equality?

I serve on the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and am very excited about the initiatives here at Kirkland as I can see first-hand the positive effects they are having on recruitment, retention and promotion of women attorneys. Most recently, Joi Bourgeois joined us as the firm-wide Director of Diversity & Inclusion and she has further inspired us to remain laser focused on all diversity issues, including gender equality. I have seen so much progress being made here - it’s not for nothing that Kirkland has been recognised as one of the 'Best Law Firms for Women' by Working Mother every year since 2012. We are going after these issues hard.


What advice would you give to women in junior positions to encourage them to work towards attaining senior positions?

My first piece of advice to women in junior positions is to always do your best and let your work speak for itself. Second, take the time necessary to establish relationships with your colleagues and peers on a more personal level; not only can they become your best clients down the road, but it makes the work a lot more fun. Finally, I recommend that you develop your own personal brand and always stay true to yourself within the confines of what it takes to succeed. I suppose my overall advice is less about focusing on gender issues, and more about claiming your place when you have worked hard for it and are deserving of it.


What do you feel are the biggest obstacles for women in your jurisdiciton joining the legal profession now?

At the moment, like so many of us, I am extremely concerned about the global COVID-19 pandemic and what its lasting effects might mean for the entire legal profession, and women in general. I also worry that COVID-19 could have consequences on the international nature of the legal field. With limits on travel and in person cross-cultural exchange, I am concerned about diminished dialogue and educational and professional opportunities. As an international attorney practicing law in New York City for nearly 20 years, I truly value a rich diversity of cultures and experiences, and sincerely hope that we do not lose it.