Melinda Haag on Living in the Present and Being a Mother in Big Law

Photo by David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

On March 1, Melinda Haag will become the head of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe’s global litigation department.

The departing U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California took an interview with Big Law Business, covering her views on switching sides from government to private practice, being a mother in Big Law and climbing the ranks of a big firm.

Below is an edited transcript of our discussion.

Big Law Business: What prompted your move to Orrick?

Haag: As the end of the administration approaches, the presidential appointees tend to step down and it seemed to me that it was the right time. The office was doing really well. I wouldn’t have left if it was something that needed to be addressed — if it was in a hiring freeze or something. We had hired a number of assistant U.S. attorneys and we could see the end of the road in terms of the administration. I had a really great team in place.

BLB: What are your plans for Orrick’s litigation department?

Haag: What I want to do in particular has to do with what I learn once I get there. I was interested in serving in a leadership position. The Northern District of California is an extra large district, and the only downside of being the U.S. attorney was that I didn’t handle my cases. When I thought about next steps, that is something that I would like to think my skills had been honed in over the last five years: the big picture and strategic direction of an organization.

Melinda Haag, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California.
Melinda Haag, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California.

BLB: To what would you attribute your career achievements? 

Haag: I try to remain very focused on the present and I try to do a really good job wherever I am. When you’re a law student, do your greatest work, impress the heck out of anybody that you come across. If you’re an associate at a law firm and you’re working on a legal memo or something boring, do a great job and try to learn from it. I have tried to do that and remain present. I never think about what’s next. I didn’t think about becoming the U.S. Attorney until I got a call from the senator selection committee. I knew they were looking for applicants and I had thought about it. But I was in a trial. I hadn’t thought about filling out an application that takes days and days to fill out. So I just didn’t. I got a nice comment from the person on the committee: ‘A lot of people here think you should be the next U.S. attorney, but you know what the problem is? You haven’t applied.’ I said, ‘I am interested, but I can’t fathom it right now.’ They took my application as soon as I could get to it. That has been kind of a constant theme in my career: I never really think about what’s next. 

BLB: You’ve played the role of both prosecutor and defense attorney. How do you feel about switching sides?

Haag: I spent roughly half my career in private practice and 14 or 15 years as a prosecutor. I have gone back and forth and I have not had an issue. When I am a defense lawyer, I am focused on a client’s rights and what’s best for the client, and when I’m a prosecutor I’m really doing the same thing with an added overlay and a heightened responsibility as a federal prosecutor, in terms of doing the right thing as opposed to doing something in the interest of your client. But, you know, when I’m on the defense side I have been as zealous of an advocate as I have been on the prosecution side. I think there are some people who have a more difficult time making that transition. They are described as, ‘True Believers.’ I do think those people exist and they are people that, with a mindset like that, have a hard time going back and forth. I think my experience on the defense side made me a better prosecutor. If I could require it, I think it would behoove anybody who serves as a prosecutor to spend some time on the defense side because you then truly understand the impact of your work: How monumental it is to seek criminal charges against an individual or an organization. How monumental it is to ask for a custodial sentence or to seek payment for an extraordinary amount of money against an individual. I think prosecutors need to understand how much power they have.

BLB: You represent a minority of women in Big Law who have advanced to such a high leadership post at a large law firm. What advice would you give others?

Haag: I never really focused on the fact that I was a woman as I navigated my career. Certainly, things happen and comments are made and, for the most part, I would either laugh it off or gently tease in response, just to point out that I noticed, but am not taking it to heart. Any woman my age has stories to tell about probably less-than-stellar behavior in other people. I never let it impact me. I frankly would just barrel right through it. If you’re female and young, it’s a little different than if you’re female and you’re a little bit older. Every once in a while I’d sense that someone wondered about my abilities. And when I sensed that was happening, my reaction was just to, without saying anything, but through my work and professionalism, just to show them whatever preconceived notion they had was not correct. I had one experience as a prosecutor. I had one case that involved Hell’s Angels associates who faced murder allegations and violent behavior and I was assigned to the case and I worked with a number of law enforcement agents who were all male. Everyone was convicted and at the party at the end of the case, we had a dinner and they confessed to me that when they first met me, they were aghast that this 27-year-old girl had been assigned to an important, intense Hell’s Angels case. And they confessed and figured out very quickly that that reaction was completely wrong. That is what I always went for. I didn’t have to say anything.

BLB: How do you manage your work/life balance?

Haag: I’ve balanced this my whole life and I talk to young female lawyers about this issue. I actually have two sons who are seniors in high school and tragically they will be leaving me soon to go to college. The only upside is, I will have fewer responsibilities and less of a need to race home and make their dinner than I have had for the past 18 years.

What I needed to do with my kids when they were three is very different than what I need to do now at 18. There are ways it’s harder and easier. But you know, I just make it work. It means I’m very busy and get very little sleep. But I think that it’s easy to make it work when you love all of it. I love my children and my husband.

BLB: How much do you sleep

Haag: Very standard is six hours. Sometimes it’s less. I’m a night owl. I can work all day, come home, make dinner and then at 10 pm go back to work. I have always loved what I do professionally, which I think makes it so much easier. I know a lot of people who I know don’t love what they do. They find it easier to step away. I have seen over the course of my post law school time, people step away from work and give it up. I think there is one common demoninator: they don’t really like what they do. Few of them love what they do. The people who do it can’t really walk away from it. I am in that category. I have always loved what I do.