The field of securities litigation has grown year over year for most of the past two decades. To better leverage the potential of experienced women in securities litigation, a group of industry leaders has formed an organization to foster networking, mentoring, and collaboration among women who practice in the securities litigation area.
The Women in Securities Litigation Network (WSL) aims to improve opportunities and equality by building a national network of female securities litigators and others in related fields. WSL intends to promote women in this space by building a structured way for female securities litigators and related professionals to provide referrals, help mentor associates and junior partners, and identify and promote female experts and mediators.
WSL kick-off and origins
WSL launched last fall with its first event, a virtual fireside chat that drew participants from around the country. Jill Centella, Managing Director, Global Head of Litigation, Government Investigations and Human Resources at JPMorgan Chase and a founder of the firm’s Leading with Diversity law firm initiative, gave the keynote address, discussing the critical importance of intentional networking in driving greater access to opportunities and leadership roles.
“This is a relationship-based business,” Ms. Centella said, and strong networks are especially important in high-stakes cases such as securities litigation. Networks build the familiarity and trust that are prerequisites for getting exposure to important cases—and leadership roles on them. “The talent is there. We just haven’t been exposed to it yet. The ability to get to know people is so powerful.”
To get the network started, WSL founders formed an advisory committee of more than twenty women across the country within the securities litigation area. Yan Cao, a vice president at Cornerstone Research, represents economic and financial consultants as a member of WSL’s advisory committee.
“I believe it’s important for the securities litigation industry to have more women consultants and testifying experts because they are underrepresented in that area as well,” Ms. Cao said. “This goal really resonates with the rest of the leadership team.”
Part of the leadership team’s initial groundwork included working with founders of Women in Securities (WISe), an organization for women securities litigators in California and other West Coast states. As the membership team identified and reached out to potential WSL members nationwide, they quickly confirmed the pent-up need for women litigators to connect with and support one another. “The response has been amazing,” Ms. Cao said.
Moving the needle toward equality
Securities litigation, like many other areas of law, is experiencing a push toward greater diversity and representation in its ranks. “In-house attorneys responsible for selecting securities class action defense counsel routinely consider the diversity of proposed teams, including which partner will ‘lead’ the matter,” wrote Susan S. Muck and Charlene (Chuck) Shimada—two prominent female securities litigators—in an April 2021 article for the American Bar Association’s Securities Litigation Committee.1
Progress is gradual, however, and the gender imbalance remains dramatic despite greater numbers of women in the legal field and as partners at major law firms. Numerous anecdotal accounts indicate women continue to be much less likely to serve as lead counsel. “Attorneys seek out other people they know,” Cao says. “When women do not have these established relationships or networks, it’s much more challenging to get these important referrals.”
Women also are less likely to be ranked in lists of top securities litigators such as those from Chambers and Partners or The Legal 500. Such listings are often shaped by peers, making informal relationships particularly influential. Even some major insurers compile their own panel counsel directories, which reflect a similar scarcity of female securities litigators.
Looking ahead to the coming year, WSL plans to release a new website that will eventually include forums for thought leadership and a searchable database that enables people to find local counsel nationwide. It also plans to host several panel events featuring female mediators, female in-house counsel, and female judges in the securities litigation field.
“It is very difficult to make lasting change, but we owe this to ourselves and to future generations of lawyers—to leave the industry better than we found it,” Ms. Centella said. “I can see real change ahead if we really try to support each other.”
1 Susan S. Muck and Charlene (Chuck) Shimada, “Overcoming the Status Quo: Women Securities Litigators in the Courtroom and the Boardroom,” American Bar Association, Section of Litigation, Securities Litigation Committee, April 1, 2021.