A PIONEERING WOMAN IN DC LAW
Judy Harris started as a lawyer at DC’s Pierson Ball & Dowd in 1974, which merged in 1989 with Reed Smith, where she continues to litigate and counsel in the areas of antitrust, communications, and consumer protection. The Cleveland native, married for 30 years to political analyst Norm Ornstein, has taken leave from the firm twice, first to serve as a senior trial attorney at DoJ ‘78 to ‘80, then to head the FCC’s legislative office ‘94-’96, during passage of the Telecom Act of 1996. She was managing partner of Reed Smith’s DC office from 2003 to 2005.
Anything different about being a female managing partner?
You get singled out more to participate on panels—for a little diversity, I guess. It also fuels discussions of glass-ceiling and work-life balance type issues and, hopefully, sends an encouraging signal to younger women. And I like to think that a woman has a special touch when it comes to fostering collegiality in an office.
Is there still a glass ceiling in law?
For a woman with the right breaks, who’s willing to work hard and manages to negotiate her way through her child-bearing years, the sky’s the limit. I am concerned, though, about the increasing percentage of women electing non-partnership tracks at law firms or deciding to stop practicing altogether. I don’t judge anyone’s choices, but I do think we’re at risk of reverting to an earlier time. It’s hard to manage law firms if you hire equal numbers of women and men and then you lose a noticeable percentage of the women five or six years later, after you’ve invested heavily in them.
Why did you step down as DC managing partner?
In our firm, these aren’t jobs one takes on for life. They are rotated rather frequently, so that no one loses the momentum of his or her own practice. It takes real time. After awhile, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do a hands-on job as managing partner, keep clients happy, and go out and get new clients to keep one’s practice growing. As an office managing partner, you are selling on behalf of the office and there comes a time when you need to get back to stoking your own practice.
What are some of your recent cases?
Right now, I’m working on several mergers in the communications and healthcare sectors. It’s that time in the election cycle. I’m also doing a lot of general counseling on antitrust. I’m involved in the debate at the FCC and on the Hill about how to control escalating costs in the provision of universal telephone service.
How did you choose antitrust?
When I came out of law school, there was really no such thing as a paralegal. I went from this inflated sense of myself as a brilliant litigator to basically doing what many junior litigation associates did in those days, especially women, I’m sorry to say—things like participating in massive document exams for complex pieces of litigation, often antitrust cases. So, that’s where I found myself as a young lawyer. I didn’t choose antitrust, I just sort of ended up there. But I discovered that I really liked it. I found myself attracted to the intellectual challenge, and I came to believe deeply in the importance of the antitrust laws.
That came later, but it was a natural outgrowth of the antitrust work I had been doing. Reed Hundt, who had also been an antitrust lawyer in private practice, had just been appointed Chairman of the FCC. He asked me to join him at the agency to help work with Congress to bring competition to an industry that was, up until then, a regulated monopoly. It was an exciting opportunity.
You were in Bill Clinton’s law school class and a year behind Hillary in law school. What do you remember of them?
Well, everyone knew they were going places. I used to study in the law school library right next to where they would often sit. I watched their romance develop and Hillary was my adviser for a prize trial I competed in during my last year. She and Bill had competed together, as a team, in the finals the year before. Hillary still talks about that experience as teaching her that you can learn from losses. Fortunately, Hillary made me a winner. Now I’d like to help her be the same.
What comparisons would you make between the two worlds of Washington that you and your husband straddle?
Well, at first blush, Norm’s world appears glitzier, more “out there.” In the end, though, I think our worlds are more alike than different. It’s the same basic traits that I admire in any professional: be an individual of substance, know inside and out the issues that you work with, be loyal to those who have put their trust in you, don’t just tell clients or constituents what they want to hear, work hard each day to affect the world in a positive way. Some lawyers in DC measure up; some don’t. Same is true of the politicians.
How do you think the practice of law can be improved?
Much has been gained, but a lot has been lost in the “corporatization” of large firms. Law firms used to be like extended families. I miss that, and I think that the evolution of firms in recent years has resulted in the diminution of some of the intangible satisfactions that historically made the practice of law something more than just a business. We’re just having to find new ways of infusing the profession with meaning. Our firm, for example, is placing renewed emphasis on pro bono work, and hosting frequent retreats where we “speed date” and all get to know each other. It’s an exciting time for innovation.