The Blog

Women in Business Q&A: Heather Lamberg Kafele, Partner, Shearman & Sterling

Heather Lamberg Kafele is a partner in the Antitrust and Litigation Groups at Shearman & Sterling. She has extensive experience in complex litigation, investigations, and regulatory proceedings with a particular emphasis on complex antitrust, competition and consumer issues. She has represented plaintiffs and defendants in a variety of antitrust cases, including monopolization, price-fixing (cartel), predatory pricing, bundling, tying, false advertising, unfair competition and leveraging cases in state and federal courts across the country. Ms. Kafele has handled worldwide internal investigations of cartel activity. In addition, she has represented companies and individuals in criminal cartel cases before the Department of Justice, as well as follow-on civil class action lawsuits.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

As a child and pre-teen, my family moved around 10 times before high school to support my father's career advancement. That meant that I was always the new person in school and always a bit of an outsider. But, by necessity, I became very comfortable adapting and learned how to make connections very quickly. These are great skills, and they have stayed with me today. I can enter a client meeting or a courtroom and immediately find a comfort zone and form positive relationships with clients, judges, opposing legal counsel and others.

In addition, when I was in high school, I became very active in DECA, the student-led high school business organization - first serving as state president in my home state of Wisconsin and later serving as national vice president. I developed into a confident public speaker, addressing as many as 5,000 students at one national gathering. This ability to rally people behind ideas and principles really inspired me, and today - unlike many people - I get highly energized by the public speaking opportunities in the courtroom.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Shearman & Sterling?

Following college and before law school and my arrival at Shearman & Sterling as an associate, I spent a year on a grant in Kenya, working with a local university. It was not only a life-changing period, but the experience helped me see the world more broadly and to be much more appreciative of my privilege. Perhaps most of all, it enabled me to truly see the humanity in every single person I came into contact with.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Shearman & Sterling?

My most exhilarating moments have come in the courtroom, where I have been able to take on fast-paced, incredibly challenging cases, push myself way beyond my comfort zone and produce a favorable outcome for my clients. It's a lot like bungee jumping or mountain climbing - incredibly terrifying on the one hand and a great adrenaline rush and a memorable experience on the other.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

I have always made an effort to be myself and to speak with my voice. I think most people I work with find that refreshing and authentic, and it's my best strategic weapon.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?

You have to be in the game - not on the sidelines - to be successful. So contribute ideas. Be assertive.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I'm married with two girls, and work-life balance is always a challenge and perhaps not even a realistic goal. But we make it work. In my work, there are ebbs and flows - a big case, a critical brief. In those situations, my work takes up much of my time. But when things slow down, I make a concerted effort to make it up to my family. Best of all, when attending a recent Back to School night for my 10-year-old daughter, I opened up the folder of artwork and papers that she had prepared for me and saw her comments about me: 'My Mom has a really cool job.' I was very excited about that and felt really good that she understood the importance of this work to me and how important it was for me to be able to help other people in the work I do. And perhaps that's my best role modeling ever, because I want her to have a 'really cool job' too and to reach for all of her personal goals.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

There is no question that we have a ways to go. Sometimes it's two steps forward and one step back, but that still means we're moving forward, albeit a bit slower than most of us would like to see.

In the legal field, everyone sees the statistics. Graduation classes at most law schools run around 50-50 men/women, and yet only 15-20% of BigLaw partners are women. I haven't seen statistics on the percentage of women BigLaw partner litigators who are taking the first chair in court, but based on my experience I suspect the percentage would be woefully low. There are just not enough women partners from big firms who take the first chair - standing up in court and arguing cases and motions. I frequently work on multi-defendant cases where the other defendants are all represented by male partners and I am the only women partner. I think that is changing, but very slowly. We need more women trial attorneys. For my part, I try very hard to be a good role model and mentor female associates in my firm.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

As a mid-level associate, I worked for a female partner on a case. When the case was over, she invited me out to lunch, along with the partners that worked with more frequently. At lunch, she asked them point-blank: 'What is your plan for Heather's career? How are we going to get her the assignments she needs to continue developing and the exposure she needs to become a partner.' That lunch was a game-changer; it set in motion a discussion about my future and a strategic path to the partnership.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I have always found Oprah Winfrey to be incredibly authentic and very inspiring. She has been so successful - all the while espousing and demonstrating the importance of social consciousness and being true to herself.

What do you want Shearman & Sterling to accomplish in the next year?

It is very exciting to me that we continue to accept the challenge, along with other leading law firms, of increasing the opportunities for women in the legal industry. There's a lot of momentum, and I'm confident we can keep it going.