Lessons From the Life of Deborah Lancaster

My aunt, Deborah Lancaster, was a pioneering lawyer from whom we could learn a lot about managing our careers and lives. After her notable work for the Attorney General of the State of Israel, she in the early 1960s moved with her young son to the United States, where she earned her American law degree from Columbia University. She did this as a widowed single mother and went on to become one of the first women lawyers hired by Skadden.


She passed last Thanksgiving, a few months short of her 90th birthday. A year later, I’d like to remember her life and note three lessons we could all learn from it.


  1. Will power and desire matter. Deborah Lancaster was, to say the least, assertive. She needed to be to overcome the daunting obstacles she faced. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to be as headstrong as she was, but her successes show that sheer desire and the willingness to work for something count for a lot in life.


  1. Cultivating relationships with style will take you far. Deborah entertained with style, and her apartment near Columbia University’s campus was for decades a gathering place for elevated conversation and smart and artistic people. Last year, many gathered at her apartment in her memory one last time. It was there that I met Ezra Levin, Chairman Emeritus of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, a law firm that now has more than three hundred attorneys. After meeting in Chicago, he and Deborah kept in touch for more than fifty years, and he was able to help Deborah get her breaks as a beginning lawyer in New York. You don’t create an amazing career by yourself. It takes time and long-lasting allies.


  1. You have to adapt to the times. Deborah left law firm life to work as a corporate in-house lawyer. But she didn’t just define herself as a lawyer. Well into her career, she got into the computer business. She sought out and followed opportunities, and she didn’t stay rooted in just one place or identity. She used her intellect, connections, and business savvy throughout her life.


Deborah Lancaster’s life on this planet ended, but her memory will endure. Even in these turbulent times, there is much to be thankful for and much we can learn from those who preceded us. Please join me in remembering this impressive woman and force of nature.

Troubling Signs for Non-Equity Partners

The legal services industry, along with much of the country, is coming to terms with the reality that COVID-19 is not the short, temporary interruption many had hoped. We are beginning to see law firms make more permanent adjustments. Headlines in publications like the American Lawyer are already highlighting the acquisition of stars in hot practice areas, but what won’t be included in the press releases is what will happen to less-desirable practices areas and less-favored attorneys.

While winners in bankruptcy, internal corporate investigations, and healthcare may be sought after right now, a larger number of attorneys work in areas of litigation and transactions that are slowing down. Behind many announcements of new partners will likely be untold stories of other lawyers at those firms who have been demoted from the ranks of partner or had their compensation reduced.

Through the end of the year and into the first quarter of 2021, we expect to continue seeing attorneys who represent certain industries, such as retail and hospitality, suffering severely. Lawyers whose work is focused on serving these industries should start to create options for themselves now. Many partners, regardless of the clients they serve, will need to consider making a move during the first quarter of 2021 when bonuses are usually paid. Given the magnitude of the economic, societal, and health-related changes that are buffeting our lives, some lawyers who have always felt secure at their firms will find themselves looking for an exit in the months to come.

While we may be in physical isolation, this is not the time to isolate from one’s network. For non-equity partners whose clients have been hit especially hard, avoid the temptation to wait for the bad news to come to you. Likewise, it’s a sign of intelligence, not weakness, to begin identifying allies with whom you can discuss forthrightly your situation and your concerns.

By starting the process now, attorneys can give themselves the time to cultivate strong relationships within their networks before asking for any favors. This is also the moment to be present for one’s existing clients through the hard times. When economic activity returns to more normal levels, the demand for legal professionals will return for a vast majority of lawyers. But non-equity partners first need to cross some very choppy waters.