MoFo Women Spotlight: Kristina Ehle and Julia Schwalm

Editors’ Note: MoFo’s Women’s Strategy Committee (WSC) comprises both male and female partners and associates who strive to foster women attorneys’ development and professional success. During a recent program hosted by the WSC, Berlin-based litigation associate Dr. Theresa Oehm interviewed managing partner of our Berlin office and Technology Transactions Group partner Kristina Ehle and Berlin litigation partner Dr. Julia Schwalm. In this 19th installment of the MoFo Women Spotlight series, Kristina and Julia discuss how they grew into their roles and what has helped shaped their careers.

Theresa: Julia, would you start by telling us a little bit more about yourself, your practice, how you came to the firm, and how long have you been here?

Julia: I am responsible for the German litigation team, which covers everything that is litigious and high-stakes. As for my career path, I started out as a commercial litigator working for financial institutions and manufacturers. In my second year, I became involved in antitrust follow-on litigation, and I found myself to be the only litigator on a team of antitrust lawyers. So every time there was a litigation question, all eyes turned to me. And, when you have 500 million Euros on the table that can be a bit intimidating. This was my first experience with a real stretch assignment, so to speak, but I found it fascinating and I think I learned a lot from it. My current practice group also handles corporate litigation and assists on internal investigations. Our clients come from several industries, from aviation and automotive to IT, and we’re always happy to learn new things. I joined the firm in 2015 as a counsel because Paul [Friedman] convinced me that the firm and I would be a great fit. And, from my perspective, I can say that Paul was right.

Theresa: Thank you, Julia. Kristina, how did you come to the firm, what’s your practice, and can you tell us a little more about yourself?

Kristina: I’m a partner in the Technology Transactions Group in the Berlin office, and I’m actually the first woman to make partner in Berlin. Before joining Morrison & Foerster, I went between private practice and in-house several times. When I joined the firm in 2013, our office had just joined MoFo. I was very happy about this because this move enhanced our technology practice here in Europe and Germany and gave us the opportunity to expand into the fields of information and technology, while also advising the big Silicon Valley firms. I’m a transactional lawyer and I’m very operational, so I love to work not only with the in-house legal teams and my colleagues in other offices, but also with business and technology-minded people because those are really the fields that I’m most interested in.

Theresa: Julia, since you’ve been working in U.S. firms since the start of your career, how does MoFo differ from other U.S. firms?

Julia: I really appreciate that we work with a variety people from different cultures. MoFo is not a typical U.S. law firm, and from what I’ve seen firsthand, it’s more collaborative and collegial. My cultural reference system is more a continental European one, so we communicate a bit differently from the U.S. For example, we are more direct in the way we speak, and I feel we are less assertive. So there’s always a danger that we might misunderstand each other. On the other hand, because we are truly an international law firm, there is a lot of challenging cross-border collaboration. I feel that I’ve been learning so much since I joined the firm. It’s really quite fascinating all around.

Theresa: How do you work with other offices and how do you experience the culture at MoFo?

Kristina: I haven’t seen a law firm—and I saw some of them as an associate and also as a counsel—where you have such a close collaboration across offices and colleagues who make an effort to really reach out to you, who integrate you, who think of how to pursue joint opportunities with existing clients and new clients. People are also very open-minded, always open to sharing their knowledge. In particular, in the TTG group, we have great role models like Billy Schwartz and Tessa Schwartz who, from day one, included us in the team. I felt integrated from the first day, and I thought, “Yes, this is the firm where I want to stay. This is the firm where I want to become partner.” I’d never had this feeling before. I was always thinking, “Yeah, maybe I’ll change, maybe I’ll take a different path.” But when I joined this firm, within a very short time I was sure this was home for me.

Theresa: Julia, can you tell us a little bit about your path to partnership in the firm and what advice you have for associates who are interested in seeking partnership?

Julia: My path to partnership in the firm was fairly straightforward because I joined as a counsel, and I was given the chance to build up the commercial litigation practice here in Berlin. I was able to expand the practice and the team, and I’m happy to say that everyone agreed that the litigation practice needed another partner. My piece of advice would be to not shy away from stretch assignments. If somebody asks you to do something, and you think, “I have no clue—I have no idea how to do that,” chances are that person has thought about why they are asking you. And they are pretty confident that you will be able to do it. If you feel that there are things that you’re struggling with and you need more experience, doors are always open. You can ask anyone, and people would be happy to help you.

Theresa: Kristina, how would you advise new associates to set their path to partnership?

Kristina: I actually left my previous law firm after my fourth year as an associate, not just because I wanted to join this gorgeous American company (eBay) in Germany and really get myself and my practice more into the internet and IT world. It was also that I did not really have a clue whether I was good, whether I was in the right law firm on the right career path, or whether I could ever make partner. Of course, I had those annual evaluations like every associate, and they always told me, “Everything is fine. You are doing great.” But I still had the feeling that I wasn’t really getting honest feedback. I think what I did wrong in this situation was that I didn’t ask for feedback. So the first step is, you need to think about what you want, because people can only support you and help you if you tell them what they need to do to support you and help you. Be honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish, maybe not in 10 years but for the next two or three years, and then think about how you can best get the support. It’s very likely, as a young person that you will not just figure it out yourself, but that you will really profit from the experience of others.

Theresa: Julia, did you have a sponsor or mentor along the way?

Julia: Yes, I did. I just saw an excellent question about whether we need formal mentorship or whether informal mentorship is enough, and I was lucky enough to have both. I had a formal mentor who was extremely helpful and gave great guidance; in my case, Paul Friedman agreed to be my mentor. I also had so many other sponsors, like Brad Wine, for example. They were both so generous with their contacts, both inside and outside the firm. I consider the entire Berlin office, all the partners there, mentors, in a way, because just by working collaboratively together we all try to support each other, and that is something that I find extremely important. I think in many cases, if you only look for formal mentorship, you miss so many opportunities and good advice, either just by observing people or when somebody tells you that, “You really did that very well” or “Maybe you should consider changing this or that.”

Theresa: Kristina, as a partner, do you have a mentor, sponsor, or person who you look up to right now?

Kristina: I definitely have other partners I go to for different kinds of advice. I also have associates outside of my practice group with whom I discuss partner-associate relationship questions. It’s very important to get feedback from different people, on different levels, because this really helps give you the perspective that you need to make sure that you’re working on the right path and you’re doing what you need to reach your targets.

Theresa: Julia, do you remember one specific piece of advice that you got from a mentor or sponsor that you can share with us today?

Julia: The one that stands out, is to trust in others and also put trust in younger associates. I found that very encouraging because it means, first of all, that you don’t have to do it all alone even if you’re a partner, and secondly, that it gives others the chance and the opportunity to grow alongside of you. I thought that was really good advice because it makes you feel like you’re part of a team, which I think helps a lot. I would also suggest finding someone who has insight into your immediate practice group, who knows the people and who can advise on how they think and what they value.

Theresa: We have just lost an incredible pioneer for women’s rights, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose unflinching principle was that women belong in all places where decisions are being made. Julia, where do you think we stand in Germany on achieving gender equality?

Julia: We do have a female chancellor, and I’m very grateful for that because I feel like she does a really good job, even though I may not be on the same political wavelength that she is. But I think despite that, we still have a long way to go, if you consider the management in the listed companies in Germany; there are still so few women in decision-making positions. I think that has a lot to do with how conservative Germany is as a country.

Theresa: How do you think can we make sure to achieve greater diversity among partners at MoFo Berlin?

Kristina: I think it starts in the culture and in our hands, in the hands of all: partners and associates, female and male. We have to find ways to give us more flexibility. We have to find ways to show our younger associates, and also our senior associates who are thinking about starting a family, that you can have a career in an international law firm, and you can have a family whether you are female or male. I have a daughter myself. The thing that I most enjoy is working with colleagues and clients from different cultures on cross-border deals. I love that, and wouldn’t want to have to give this up because of my family life; I’d rather find ways to combine the two. I think it is possible, as long as we all continue to move in the right direction on this.

Theresa: Julia, what do you think is the best approach in this regard?

Julia: Litigation is labor intensive, so to speak, but we can schedule things. We have our court deadlines, and we know when we will be super busy and when we won’t be. So I think, especially in areas like litigation, it is not that hard to plan to work part time. Of course, the entire team has to be on board, but I’ve seen it in the past, and it worked quite well. What I think everybody needs to bring to the table is a bit of trust in others and also sometimes to just make the leap. Just try it; don’t overthink it. We’re all very analytical, but so many things have a way of just sorting themselves out.

Theresa: I would be interested in how much of our day-to-day life is actually influenced by gender roles.

Kristina: In Germany and almost all the Western European countries, women still go for subjects like art history, social work, and jobs that tend to be not so well paid. We still don’t see enough women signing up for science, for information technology. I personally believe that we have to continue to work on those gender roles that come in at quite an early stage, starting at kindergarten. It’s a question of education. It’s a question of culture. It’s a question of encouraging everybody to follow up your talents, to follow up what you consider your vocation, what you want to achieve in life and not what others expect you to do.

Julia: I very often find myself the only woman in the room with opposing counsel who use their physical presence and are very robust. What I like to do is first make the judge an ally and also make sure I am prepared. I also prepare the clients to have them know that “this may look impressive, but really, it’s totally ineffective; it doesn’t work.” I think looking for allies is also something that you can do in every stage of your career. It may be another associate, it may be somebody who will take on your idea or who will mention something positive that you did in a larger round.