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Sheila Birnbaum, Product Liability Lawyer of the Year 2013

Sheila Birnbaum is our product liability defence lawyer of the year for the second year running. A partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York, Birnbaum’s practice covers products liability, toxic torts and insurance coverage litigation. Birnbaum shares with Who’s Who Legal her achievements and career highlights.

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Birnbaum remembers, as an 11-year-old, telling others she was going to be a lawyer. Having grown up in fairly humble surroundings and knowing no lawyers at the time, she now admits the circumstances in which she made this choice were quite remarkable.

After a brief spell of teaching and evening classes to obtain a master’s degree in history from Hunter College, Birnbaum went on to pursue her childhood dream and enrolled at New York University School of Law. She graduated in 1965, one of 13 women in a class of 360. Upon completing her course, she recalls that there were very few jobs available for women, particularly in the large firms. “Many areas of law were closed,” says Birnbaum. “Advertisements implying that women need not apply were not uncommon.”

Undeterred, Birnbaum was successful in gaining an associate position at Berman & Frost, a small litigation outfit. “I was the first woman they had ever hired and they were unsure if it was going to work out. I had to demonstrate I could stand up to the rigours of litigation.” Birnbaum set out to prove herself and four years later she became a partner.

After practising for some time, she took a teaching position at Fordham University School of Law. She spent six years there, followed by a further six years at New York University School of Law, during which time she spent two years as associate dean of the graduate division.

In 1979, she made the move back into private practice and joined Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom on a part-time basis specialising in product liability defence. Following the success and quick growth of her practice, she soon left academia to join the firm as a full-time partner.

Product liability first caught her interest when, at law school, she took part in a moot court competition with a product liability problem. “I was completely engrossed and learned a great deal through the activity. As an area of law, it was just emerging and it was hugely interesting.” It is a practice that she says has been “interesting every day since”.

During her career she feels extremely fortunate to have argued two landmark cases before the US Supreme Court, both important to the development of product liability law. The case of Buckley v Metro North concerned medical monitoring, while the case of Campbell v State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company in 2004 explored the issue of which factors should be considered by the court when deciding if punitive damages were excessive or not.

A further high point was being appointed special master to the 9/11 victim fund by the US Attorney General in 2011. Her role, which she performs pro bono, is to distribute $2.8 billion in compensation to victims suffering injury as a result of exposure to toxic substances when the towers collapsed. “It is a challenging role, trying to fairly decide the size of individual compensation packages,” she says. This position followed an earlier role as court-appointed mediator in the settlement of all but three of the 95 cases filed in the courts on behalf of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. On reflection, she declares, “This will be the highlight of my career.”

In recognition of her expertise, Birnbaum has been named the “Queen of Torts”. When asked when the title first arose, she laughs “I can’t remember when exactly. It was used once in an article and has been used ever since.”

Despite her many accomplishments in private practice, Birnbaum says that teaching is also one of her greatest achievements. “Having had the opportunity to teach and interact with so many incredible students,” she says, is something she thoroughly enjoyed. Perhaps one of the reasons this is so important to her is that she never had a female professor. Indeed, when she first began teaching, the faculty was essentially all-male. “This was a key factor in my decision to teach,” she says.

In her rise to the top of the profession, Birnbaum has certainly had to push hard and remain undeterred. “Women of my generation have had to overcome many obstacles,” she says, adding, “In the beginning, we had to work extra hard to get recognition.” Despite this, she says, she overcame the hurdles – along with other women ­– and kept doing what she was doing. “If we dwelled on the obstacles, we would be angry. We needed to work hard, be recognised for the work we were doing and then continue to work at a high level. Those who approached the obstacles in this way, helped to remove them.”

Says Birnbaum,“So much has changed,” highlighting the contrast of her own experience of entering the profession to those entering the profession today. “Now, the legal profession is wide open to women.” She recalls having very few female role models when starting out. “The only other women in the profession that you knew were those you had been to law school with.”

“It is a hard profession,” she says. “It takes a lot of time and effort to do well, whether you are a man or a woman.” However she accepts that women often have more demanding family obligations. “Efforts still need to be made to make the profession more user-friendly for women, such as flexible working, special programmes for women and extended maternity leave.”

If she were to offer her younger self advice, she would tell her to “work hard and keep doing what you’re doing”. She views herself as “very fortunate” to have been able to practise law at such a high level. “To teach, also,” she adds. Having picked an area of law that she loves, and which has stayed interesting and relevant, she declares, “I would certainly do it all over again.”

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