Women Lawyers Who Rock: Laura Kabler Oswell of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP|
It goes without saying that Sullivan & Cromwell, an international law firm that regularly ranks as one of the most prestigious law firms in the world, houses only the best of the best attorneys. After learning more about Laura Kabler Oswell, an associate at the firm’s Palo Alto offices, it’s clear she is one of them.
A 1999 graduate of the University of Southern California, where she earned her B.S. in business administration, Oswell worked as a consultant for three years at Accenture between undergrad and law school, where she primarily worked on projects for clients in the financial services industry. Since college Oswell had an interest in going to law school, but a particular opportunity at Accenture gave her reassurance.
A six-month sabbatical program offered by the company allowed Oswell to work as a corporate clerk at a law firm. The experience reassured Oswell that she wanted to invest the time and money in law school, rather than attend business school like many of her colleagues were doing. The experience also hinted at Oswell’s future practice area interests.
“While working at the law firm, I had the opportunity to work on both corporate and litigation matters and realized that litigation would be the better fit for me, and learned that there was a good chance that I would enjoy being a lawyer.”
Not only does Oswell work at a prestigious firm, she also went to a well-respected law school – Stanford Law School. Oswell noted some of her favorite courses that carried through to actual practice.
“My favorites were probably the capital markets class and corporate governance seminar taught by Professor Grundfest. Those classes were really interesting at the time and also turned out to be very helpful in my work after law school. Other classes, like civil procedure and complex litigation, I didn’t necessarily enjoy as much at the time, but have turned out to be really helpful in my work at the firm.”
Oswell started with Sullivan & Cromwell during her second summer of law school and has been there since. Oswell works on a great deal of issues ranging from securities and transaction to litigation to employment disputes to tax matters. She filled me in on what it’s like working at such a large, international, and incredibly high-ranking law firm.
“It’s been a terrific experience. I like that much of our work is for large, international companies in a variety of industries – the clients and the issues we address for them are always interesting,” she said.
“I don’t really specialize, nor do most of the litigators at our firm. We work on whatever our clients need. One of the things I like most about this job is that it is always changing – you get to learn about different types of companies and areas of law all the time.”
I was really curious to get Oswell’s view on the difference between working at a large firm like Sullivan & Cromwell and a mid-size firm, particularly for work-life balance. Oswell said it’s not that easy of a generalization to make.
“Every firm is different, and those differences have everything to do with the people. Based on what I know from friends of mine who are also lawyers, some firms make it easier for their attorneys to have a balance than others. In my time [at Sullivan], I’ve been lucky to work with some terrific lawyers from whom I’ve learned a great deal on a variety of matters and always been involved in cases that deal with what is going on in the world at the moment. And, while there are certain aspects of this job that are inherently demanding – because of the nature of a client-service business – I have found that the people at the firm also support family life and life outside the firm generally.”
In fact, Oswell says she has plenty of time for an enjoyable and fulfilled life outside the office – even as a busy new mom (she and her husband welcomed their first baby – a little boy – last August!).
“[While] it varies to some extent over time – even in busier times, though, I still feel like I have plenty of time with my family and friends – to do the big things like weddings, baby showers, etc., and the small things like just catching up over dinner. I have time to volunteer for a few things that I enjoy.”
“The internet definitely helps with the everyday things, especially for parents – Amazon and Diapers.com are great time savers these days. But, outside of those everyday errands, I still have time to do things on my own to recharge, like attend a pilates or Bar Method class, or to do things with my family like brunch and swimming lessons with my son every weekend,” Oswell said.
Along that same vein, I asked Oswell my favorite question to ask successful female attorneys: what’s the best piece of advice they’ve ever received. I think Oswell’s response will be a pleasant surprise to Ms. JD readers!
“The best piece of advice I ever received – and it takes a while to really adhere to it – is to enjoy the downtime when you have it. From the minute I walked in the door as a first year associate, if there was ever a slow period, the more senior attorneys would always advise the more junior of us to enjoy it. Sometimes that’s easier said than done, but it really does make sense and makes the very busy times that much easier to deal with if you’ve allowed yourself a break when things were slower,” Oswell said.
Oswell has some advice of her own for those who are striving to work for a firm as esteemed as Sullivan & Cromwell.
“I think it’s terrific for law students to want to work at the firm, and at our firm, doing well in law school is an important factor in our recruiting. But, I also think that students are well-served to take the time to learn about all of the firms that they’re interested in – a lot of being happy as a lawyer at a firm is about finding a good fit, not about one name or the other. So, while a firm might sound good because you have heard of it, it is always a good idea to look at what the firm actually does – who their clients are, what types of cases or transactions they handle for those clients – to make sure it is a fit in addition to just a recognizable name.”
Oswell also offered some priceless words for recent graduates, reassuring that soon after beginning to practice they will be much more confident.
“[Lawyers] are always learning and always developing their skills, and for most people that stay in the profession, I think it’s one aspect that they enjoy the most about it. At the same time, you will gain confidence in everything you do over time, which makes the job easier and a lot less stressful as you get more experience. For me, it seems the first time I do anything, whether it’s filing a brief, defending or taking a deposition, or appearing in court – it can be nerve wracking, but every time thereafter is dramatically less so. It’s all the more reason to try to get those “firsts” in early in your career, because once you have done anything once, it will be easier the next time around – and you’ll get increasingly better at it.”
When not busy at work Oswell enjoys relaxing with her son, watching football – in particular, when USC is winning, shopping, pilates, and an occasional trip to the spa.