Emilie R. Ninan is the managing partner of Ballard Spahr LLP’s Wilmington, Del., office, the partner responsible for the firm’s public finance practice in Delaware, and the immediate past president of the South Asian Bar Association. Ninan works with governmental, quasi-governmental, and private entities, including 501(c)(3) institutions, to obtain lower-cost capital financing through the issuance of tax-exempt bonds. She has advised each of the counties and every major municipality, hospital and higher educational facility in the state of Delaware. In addition, she advises clients on uniform commercial code matters and delivers formal legal opinions in connection with financing transactions.

In early 2013, Ninan was part of the delegation that traveled to India on a trade mission led by Delaware Gov. Jack Markell. She is the founding president of the South Asian Bar Association of Delaware and a former chairwoman of the Commercial Law Section of the Delaware State Bar Association. She is a fellow of the American Bar Association's Law Practice Division and a former ambassador of the ABA’s Section of Business Law. She is a recipient of the Leadership Award of the Multicultural Judges and Lawyers Section of the DSBA, a Cornerstone Award from SABA, and the inaugural Hinton J. Lucas, Jr., Torchbearer Award from DuPont for outstanding leadership and dedication to advancing diversity in the legal profession.

Q: How did you break into what many consider to be an old boys’ network?

A: As a young lawyer, I did my best to demonstrate a strong work ethic and produce excellent work product. That helped me gain the trust and confidence of the partners I worked with. I needed them to be willing to not only mentor me but also to be my sponsor behind closed doors when necessary.

It also took patience and resilience on my part. I switched practice areas early in my career and had my daughter as a fifth-year associate. The firm where I started my career told me belatedly that those decisions would make my track to partnership longer. Some partners at that firm questioned my commitment to the firm once I became a mother. The firm had female partners, but they had all waited until becoming a partner to have children. I decided to take a long-term view of my career and stuck it out. I continued to focus on adding value to my clients and to my firm and made partner the following year.

Q: What are the challenges of being a woman at a senior level within a law firm?

A: The added scrutiny that comes with visibility is a challenge. Expectations are high, and I find people are generally less forgiving of missteps. What I do or may fail to do not only affects my own reputation but could reflect upon all the women in the firm, especially those women of color coming up in the ranks after me.

Communication within the law firm seems to be constant challenge. I learned that the hard way as an associate when my deference to the age and experience of a senior partner was misinterpreted as a lack of confidence. The senior level of a law firm is composed of white men. Men and women communicate differently. All of us have to work toward communicating clearly and appropriately whether in person or in writing. What one person is trying to say and what the other person hears are often different messages.

Q: Describe a time you encountered sexism in your career and tell us how you handled it.

A: As a young associate, I had the opportunity to travel around the country and take deposition in connection with an insurance coverage case. Upon arrival at one of those depositions, I was informed by opposing counsel to take a seat and that we would begin once the attorney for my client had arrived. He had obviously assumed I was the court reporter. I simply told him who I was and that its always best to assume that those you meet in the legal profession are lawyers. He was appropriately embarrassed. However, the repeated presumption that I was a legal assistant or anyone other than a lawyer is the reason I wear suits daily despite today’s corporate casual environment.

My experiences have certainly been minimal compared to the stories I’ve heard from the women attorneys in the generation before me. While I still overhear the occasional conversation reminiscing about the good old times before women were in the law firm, sexism and discrimination in the workplace is not so blatant. Rather, women need to be aware of the implicit bias that results in the exclusion from informal networks and the lack of quality assignments and constructive feedback. These invisible roadblocks can derail a career.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring female attorney?

A: Although women have many options within the legal profession, increasing the retention of women in the law firm is a personal interest of mine. Many young female associates get discouraged and leave the firm because they don’t think they have what it takes to be successful in the law firm environment. Many hear the bragging of their male counterparts and don’t think they can live up to the number of hours or amount of assignments they are claiming to have worked. Typically those claims are exaggerated.

My message to those women is to ignore the naysayers and to persevere with courage. They can own their careers and forge a path to success, if they choose. I encourage them to become advocates for themselves: to speak up and ask for assignments they want, to form a personal board of advisers, and to seek the advice of rainmakers and other successful partners in the firm.

Q: What advice would you give to a law firm looking to increase the number of women in its partner ranks?

A: Law firms need to stop treating associates as if they are fungible. Instead, we need to identify the strengths a person has and invest in high-potential individuals. Our corporate clients have been using executive coaching to their organization’s benefit for years. Leadership development programs have a proven track record, particularly with respect to the advancement of women. Law firms have yet to embrace this as a useful tool for men or women they would like to see in partnership ranks or leadership positions. If we don’t begin to look at this issue differently, firms will continue to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in training time due to the high attrition rate of associates.

Q: Outside your firm, name an attorney you admire and tell us why.

A: During my almost 20 years of law practice, I’ve met quite a few attorneys that I have come to admire. The ones I admire the most are those who have committed their lives to bringing justice to the poor and underserved. They’ve left the security of well-paying legal jobs to bravely shed light on unpopular issues such as forced labor and human trafficking that we’d rather sweep under the rug.

One such person is Deepa Iyer, the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). She is a vocal civil and immigrant rights advocate, speaking and publishing widely on the issues of race relations in a majority-minority nation and hate violence in a post-9/11 environment. She produced a documentary about bias and hate crimes which has been screened at college campuses, conference and film festivals and serves as adjunct faculty at Columbia University. I had the privilege of working with Deepa and SAALT on different issues when I was president of the South Asian Bar Association and got to experience the passion she has for her work first hand. We all want to make a difference in the world; Deepa is leading by example.

Related Area

Diversity