Illustration by geralt (Pixabay)

As managing partner ofMorgan Lewis & Bockius’ Palo Alto office and an employment lawyer,Melinda Reichert occupies a unique position to observe the trial that everyone in Silicon Valley is talking about.

For the past month, twelve jurors in a San Francisco courtroom have been listening to one woman’s allegations that her gender trumped her ideas when it came to career advancement at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a premiere venture capital firm. The plaintiff Ellen Pao, now interim CEO of the online discussion board Reddit, is seeking $16 million in lost wages and future earnings from Kleiner Perkins.

To many people, Pao’s case speaks to wider issues about how women’s ideas are embraced, and gender issues in the workplace.

Mentoring is a key part of lawyering, in particular, and Reichert said Pao’s lawsuit could create tension at law firms. "I worry that [the case] will make a lot more men feel that by being nice to and mentoring and trying to be a good person toward women colleagues ... they too will be hauled before a jury,” she toldBloomberg BusinessWeek.

Big Law Business caught up with Reichert to ask how gender works in Silicon Valley, since Morgan Lewis is one of the few firms to elect a woman as its chair, and also because Reichert herself occupies a leadership position.

Interview Excerpts:

I’m a believer that there’s a meritocracy in Silicon Valley, and if you’re good, you will succeed.

If you’re constantly thinking that you’re being treated differently, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

She’d had such a successful academic career and I worry she was more focused on that than on what it takes to succeed.

To succeed in law, you have to be able to do business development. That’s something not everyone is comfortable with, and not everyone is good at it.

 

Below is an edited transcript of our interview with Reichert.

 

Big Law Business: Are you concerned this trial will make men less willing to mentor young women?

Reichert:  I am worried about this. It’s kind of a no-win situation. I think that mentoring dinners are important and I’ve been mentored — by men — at various times throughout my career. Generally, I say you should have those mentoring dinners but I just tell people to be super cautious. There should be no excessive drinking of alcohol because almost all of the sexual harassment claims I see involve excessive consumption of alcohol.

I’m a believer that there’s a meritocracy in Silicon Valley and if you’re good, you will succeed. I know not everyone agrees with that. In my career, I stepped back from being as successful in my career as I am now and focused on being a mother [of two children]. There’s a balance that every woman needs to find.

Big Law Business: What about people who see discrimination against women, and believe women don’t have the same opportunities as men?

Reichert: I just find that kind of hard to believe because I look at women who are successful — like Sheryl Sandberg [Facebook’s chief operating officer.] She says that women have to do things differently than men do to succeed. If you’re constantly thinking that you’re being treated differently, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Big Law Business:  Do you think Pao was too focused on how she was being treated?

Reichert: She was compared to [another junior partner] who lived and breathed Kleiner Perkins — it seemed to me that he understood that when you’re a junior partner, you don’t always get the benefits of a senior partner. I just worry that she wanted to be ahead faster than she was, and she’d had such a successful academic career [at Princeton University, Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School] and I worry she was more focused on that than on what it takes to succeed.

Big Law Business:Does it matter that Pao is bringing this case alone and not as part of a larger group of women in a class-action?

Reichert: I think she would have been helped a lot if there were other women, but it’s also a very small company. I also think people are trying to make this case into more than it is. It’s about Ellen Pao — it’s not about the tech industry. The venture capital industry is a very small industry. Gender issues in Silicon Valley predated Ellen Pao — people have been talking about that for awhile. The principal focus is how do we get more women into engineering and sciences — to me, that’s what it’s about.

Big Law Business:  The legal industry has its own gender imbalance. Do you have thoughts about why this is and how to fix it?

Reichert: To succeed in law, you have to be able to do business development. That’s something not everyone is comfortable with, and not everyone is good at it. I hated it originally, but when my kids were grown up, I realized the importance of it. I don’t do a lot of the traditional male-oriented activities like playing golf or going to sporting events.

I like to say I became a trusted advisor to my clients. I try to focus on who my client is and what their business is. It’s giving good responsive advice and understanding their business — and getting back to them quickly. To me, it’s not about going to sporting events or things like that. Having lunches is part of it — I try to have lunch with every client every year. I like to think we have a meritocracy and people who have the skills and are willing to work hard are going to succeed.