Karen Popp – Women in Law Q&A

In an exclusive interview with WWL, Karen Popp from Sidley Austin discusses the Women’s White Collar Defense Association (WWCDA), the importance of such networks and the challenges facing women in the legal industry.


Name: Karen Popp

Firm: Sidley Austin

Role: Global co-leader of the firm’s white-collar: government litigation and investigations group and global chair and co-founder of the Women’s White Collar Defense Association (WWCDA)


You are global chair and co-founder of the WWCDA. Tell us a bit about this initiative.

The WWCDA was founded in 1999 with the establishment of the Washington, DC chapter. Today, the WWCDA has 30 chapters with more than 1,400 members throughout the US, Europe and Asia: Washington, DC; New York; Boston; Philadelphia; Florida; Denver; Dallas; Chicago; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Atlanta; Houston; Phoenix; Detroit; Seattle; Indianapolis; New Orleans; Connecticut; Ohio; Oregon; Tennessee/Alabama; North Carolina; St. Louis; London; France; Hong Kong; the Netherlands; Puerto Rico; Toronto; and Vancouver. Nine more chapters are in the process of being launched: Ireland; Spain; Switzerland; Brazil; Australia; China; New Jersey; Pittsburgh; and Minnesota.

Membership in these chapters consists of women professionals engaged in the private practice of white-collar defence. The WWCDA promotes the common business and professional interests of women attorneys who specialise in the representation of corporations and individuals facing government enforcement actions (criminal, civil, regulatory, and administrative), and in internal investigations, compliance and ethics matters. The WWCDA promotes diversity in the legal profession; organises business activities to facilitate networking and business development opportunities for women in the practice; and provides educational programming focused on the defence of government enforcement actions and internal investigations, compliance and ethics issues. The WWCDA also promotes the common interests of women consulting professionals who specialise in the same field and offer support services and referral opportunities to attorneys in the practice.

Many of our members have previously served in government positions and in corporate roles. Notable members have included former corporate general counsels and chief compliance officers, as well as former prosecutors and senior government officials.


What are the organisation’s main goals?

To promote diversity in the legal profession and in the legal fields of criminal, civil, regulatory and administrative enforcement, as well as internal investigations, compliance and ethics.

To provide networking and business development opportunities for our members and participants in their local markets, as well as nationally and internationally.

To develop educational programming focused on the legal fields of criminal, civil, regulatory, and administrative enforcement, as well as internal investigations, compliance and ethics.

To facilitate collaboration and communication among our members and participants.

To develop resources to assist our members and participants.


What was the impetus behind launching the organisation?

Beth Wilkinson and I started the group in 1999 shortly after joining our respective law firms as partners upon leaving the government. I had been associate White House counsel to President Clinton and before that, I was in the office of legal counsel at the US Department of Justice and had served as assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of New York. Beth had been an assistant US attorney in the Eastern District of New York also; that is where we met each other. She was later one of the lead prosecutors in the Oklahoma City bombing cases.

We left the government around the same time; I went to Sidley Austin and she went to Latham & Watkins. We saw a lack of women outside counsel in the white-collar practice and in existing professional white-collar organisations. This was so different from our experience in the government. Attorney general Janet Reno and deputy attorney general Jamie Gorelick, the first women to hold these posts, led the Department of Justice. Mary Jo White, Beryl Howell, Valerie Caproni, Leslie Caldwell, Loretta Lynch, Kirby Heller and other women were part of leadership in the Eastern District of New York. Beth and I thought that women working together for and with each other could create a powerful force in the white-collar bar just as it had in the government. Professional activities are crucial in promoting diversity in the practice, providing educational programmes and networking to develop business in the practice area.

We attended the 1999 ABA white-collar conference and noticed that although there were hundreds of men in attendance, only a few women were there and virtually none of the panels had any women speakers. After returning from the conference, we discussed the idea of forming a women’s white-collar defence group with some of the other women. Those talks led to the launch of the Washington, DC chapter of the WWCDA in late 1999, with a lunch of a mere 10 attendees, but with the attorney general Janet Reno as the guest speaker. The group was able to discuss with General Reno certain aspects of the then recently released memorandum from the deputy attorney general Eric Holder on federal prosecutions of corporations, including the waiver of the attorney-client and attorney work product privileges. The lunch was a huge success and extremely valuable for the attendees. Soon thereafter, chapters were launched in New York and Boston. The group continued to grow as the years went by, launching chapters throughout the United States and beyond.


What was the greatest challenge you faced when setting up the network?

Frankly, the development and growth of the WWCDA has evolved organically and with ease. Women helping women has resulted in the word spreading fast about the group and attracting new members and chapters. It really has been a fun grassroots effort. We have great leadership, activities within the chapters and by the WWCDA, and a Listserv that keeps us all connected. On any given day, there are business referrals happening on the Listserv and through direct contact. We are focused on ways to let others (eg, potential clients, male colleagues, etc) know that the WWCDA exists and that there are more than 1,400 impressive women white-collar defence attorneys and consultants around the world. We hope that more people will follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter (@WWCDA1) and visit our website (wwcda.org).The site has upcoming events and a directory of our women, to make it easy to find women professionals in any sub-speciality area of white-collar.


Why are networks such as the WWCDA so important for young lawyers?

Providing help in the area of business development, mentoring and educational programming will benefit any lawyer, including young lawyers. Having visible role models is especially helpful to the junior women. Most of the women who have “blazed the trail” in the white-collar area are or have been members of the WWCDA. It is awesome to have these powerful women supporting the next generation of white-collar attorneys.


You hold a prominent position at Sidley Austin as global co-leader of the firm’s white-collar: government litigation and investigations group. How important are senior female lawyers when it comes to promoting gender diversity in the profession?

It is critical. Building a white-collar practice is referral-driven. The practice has been historically male-dominated. People usually refer business to friends and people they know. This translates into men commonly referring matters to other men. Having more women will hopefully do two things in the referral area: first, women referring business to each other. And, men referring business to women. In addition, having more women, and women with high profiles, will help bring visibility, in the corporate world, that women are very able to handle these type of matters.


Would you say there are any challenges that women face that are unique to those in the legal industry?

I think there are unique aspects of the law practice that impact women in a disproportionately adverse way. One is the referral process previously mentioned. Next, within law firms, a similar dynamic can happen as with the referral process. Men may be more inclusive of their workplace friends on firm matters, introducing them to clients and passing their “book of business” to them. This can result in men giving more work and client introductions and mentoring to other men, instead of doing it evenly among men and women within the firm. More corporate clients today are adopting diversity programmes with their outside counsel to try to facilitate diversity among the team of lawyers working on their matters.


What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of women behind you looking to achieve leadership roles in their career?

Although most career issues are not gender-specific, some still are. The one diversity issue that I would raise with the next generation of women is to be aware that gender issues still exist. Young women lawyers grew up post-Title IX and other initiatives that allowed them to experience a more level playing field as they went through school, university and law studies. The next generation needs to embrace the diversity programmes, help lead them and be inclusive of all colleagues in the effort.


What is the best piece of career advice you have received?

It came from my parents, who were the ideal role models: have a good work ethic, be reliable and exercise excellent judgement. Never compromise your integrity and always help others along the way.


What advice would you give to young lawyers just starting out in the legal profession?

Be proactive in seeking out different types of work so that you fully develop the various skills needed for any law job, and have the confidence that you can handle assignments outside your comfort zone. Endeavour to always learn and grow as a lawyer. At times, it may require longer hours than you wish, but it will pay off in the end. Finally, seek out mentors and organisations like the WWCDA that can help you to have the career you wish to pursue.

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