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Leading Questions: Kirkland & Ellis’s Erica Williams

Erica Williams spoke with Bloomberg Law regarding the upside of virtual meetings, Kirkland’s $5 million pledge to combat racial and social injustice, and the importance of relationship-building for new attorneys.

Lawyers are great at asking questions, but how are they at answering them? Bloomberg Law is talking with lawyers and other legal industry players at the top of their fields to find out what makes them tick, what challenges they face, and how they do what they do.

Erica Williams, a litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis, says Big Law attorneys with corporate investigations and white-collar defense practices should expect an uptick in work under a Biden administration.

Williams, who has both prosecuted and defended companies and individuals accused of white-collar crimes, says the most noticeable uptick will be in antitrust, environment and consumer protection.

“There will likely be an increased focus on insider trading cases and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—two areas where enforcement declined during the current administration,” she says.

Williams joined Kirkland & Ellis as a litigation partner in May 2017 and is the co-chair of the firm’s diversity committee. Based in Washington, her focuses include internal investigations, securities law violations, and white-collar crime.

She was previously a special assistant and associate counsel to President Barack Obama and spent 11 years at the Securities and Exchange Commission as deputy chief of staff to three chairs.

Bloomberg Law spoke to Williams about the upside of virtual meetings, Kirkland’s $5 million pledge to combat racial and social injustice, and the importance of relationship-building for new attorneys.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg Law: What legal question keeps you up at night?

Erica Williams: One legal question that should be a big focus for clients and regulators is the extent to which environmental, social, and governance issues, including climate change, may present a systemic risk to the stability of the economy and the U.S. financial system. In the coming years, I expect to see increased focus on this area both in terms of regulatory requirements and corporate controls.

BL: Do you believe the results of the 2020 election will have an effect on white-collar enforcement. If so, how?

EW: While there have been a number of significant white-collar actions during the past four years, I expect to see an increase in white-collar enforcement actions in a Biden administration. I expect the SEC and DOJ to ramp up investigations of public companies and large financial services firms.

There will likely be an increased focus on insider trading cases and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—two areas where enforcement declined during the current administration. I also predict an uptick in white collar cases in the areas of antitrust, environmental, and consumer protection.

And, while we have already seen cases involving fraud associated with the CARES ACT and the Paycheck Protection Program, I expect to see many more of these cases during the next administration.

BL: What specific strategies are you using to attract and retain clients? What’s the biggest challenge?

EW: Prior to the pandemic, I relied on traditional methods of business development—connecting with potential clients through in-person meetings, dinners, and conferences. While the new virtual environment presents challenges for relationship building, it has also created opportunities. I have found that clients are more willing to connect via phone and video conference than pre-pandemic, so it is easier to schedule meetings.

BL: What has your experience been like as co-chair of the Kirkland diversity committee?

EW: The committee, which is made up of more than 80 attorneys in offices throughout the firm, is dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion not only at Kirkland, but in the legal community at large. Serving as co-chair has provided me with the opportunity to meet and mentor diverse law students, associates, and junior partners; collaborate with clients on their diversity efforts; and implement bold initiatives to promote equity and inclusion.

One of those initiatives kicked off this summer when Kirkland announced a pledge to give $5 million over five years to nonprofits geared towards racial and social justice. While there are still improvements to be made, I am excited about the progress Kirkland is making in the area of diversity and grateful to be able to serve in a leadership capacity on an issue that is so important to me.

BL: Does the firm have specific diversity targets, is the firm meeting those targets, and what does it still need to do to improve diversity?

EW: We are focused on continuing to increase the pipeline of diverse talent from law schools and the lateral market. We are also committed to promoting diverse leaders. To achieve these goals, firm leadership, in conjunction with the firm-wide diversity committee, has been implementing initiatives to increase diversity recruiting, promote sponsorship of diverse attorneys, mandate training on implicit bias, and enhance Kirkland’s culture of belonging and inclusion.

BL: What’s your best war story from your legal career?

EW: I am still in the middle of what will be my best war story—advising clients through the pandemic. When the first shelter in place orders were issued on the West Coast in March, I volunteered to lead a team that tracked every stay-at-home/shelter-in-place order issued by every state and major city in the country.

During the last two weeks of March and the month of April, my colleagues and I spent countless hours counseling clients throughout the country on legal issues that were critical to their business and the health, safety, and financial well-being of their employees.

This summer we pivoted to counseling clients on safe ways to return employees to work, only to have to pivot to increased restrictions in some jurisdictions during the past few weeks. The work has been constant, challenging, and important.

BL: I’m a new associate, fresh out of law school, what should I do to stand out and advance my career in the best way possible?

EW: Do excellent work, raise your hand for new assignments and experiences, and look for ways to add value. New associates should also focus on building and maintaining relationships. As you progress in your career, who you know becomes very important. The associates or junior in-house counsel who are your peers today may one day become general counsel who can send you business or refer you for a job or high-level position in government. Build a reputation for being smart and kind.

Reproduced with permission. Published Dec. 11, 2020. Copyright 2020 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) <http://www.bloombergindustry.com>