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Recruited by Skadden as She Neared 70, Chicago Lawyer’s Job Is to Bring in Business, Mentor Women

Posted Jul 19, 2011 12:20 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Sheli Rosenberg had retired in 2002, well-to-do and weary after decades as a high-profile Illinois lawyer.

When Wayne Whalen of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom asked her to breakfast last year at the Chicago Club, Rosenberg, who is now 69, expected him to pitch her about making a political donation. Instead he offered her a job, reports the Chicago Tribune in a lengthy article about her career.

The BigLaw job offer to an attorney of her age stunned Rosenberg and others; legal recruiter Kay Hoppe called it "unbelievable" and "unheard of" as well as "a genius move" by Skadden. But Rosenberg accepted, and is now of counsel to the firm, where she expects to focus on bringing in business and mentoring other female attorneys, as the only senior woman at Skadden's office in Chicago.

Married to a law school classmate, with children, Rosenberg seemingly achieved the work-life balance that many women find elusive, at a time when a female lawyer was a rarity. After making partner at Schiff Hardin, where she became the firm's first female capital partner in the mid-1970s, the real estate practitioner was recruited by developer Sam Zell.

Rosenberg formed a law firm to do his legal work that at one point had 35 attorneys. Zell eventually had a window installed between their offices, so that he could communicate with his right-hand woman more easily, he tells the newspaper.

Despite her high-profile career as a pioneering female law partner, corporate director and chief executive for one of Zell's companies, Rosenberg calls herself a "terribly conventional" woman who got where she is, in part, because she isn't perceived as an aggressor who would make others uncomfortable. She also says she could not have succeeded without the help of a live-in housekeeper.

"I've never been radical," she tells the Tribune. "I think I've become more obnoxious in this regard, certainly pushier, as I've aged. … I absolutely know I was the benefit of some tokenism, but I also firmly believe you can open the door for me, but once I walk through that door, I've got to prove myself. And if I didn't prove myself, I wouldn't have reaped the benefits."

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