Female Powerbrokers Q&A: Nossaman's Yuliya Oryol


Nossaman Partner Yuliya Oryol was profiled in Law360 as part of their Female Powerbrokers Q&A series.  Ms. Oryol's full Q&A can be found below.

Yuliya A. Oryol is chairwoman of Nossaman LLP's public pensions and investments practice group and serves as administrative partner for the firm's San Francisco office. She represents institutional investors, government agencies, multinational corporations and privately held companies in a broad range of investment, corporate and real estate matters.

From 2000 to 2003, Oryol worked in Seoul, South Korea, where she represented American, Asian and European institutional investors, financial institutions and South Korean business conglomerates. Prior to private practice, she was a judicial intern for the Hon. Daniel M. Hanlon, California Court of Appeals, First Appellate District and a Judicial Extern for Chief Magistrate Steele Langford, U.S. District Court, and Northern District of California. She is fluent in Russian and Spanish.

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

A: The lack of women in senior-level positions certainly frustrates me, but it has never discouraged me. I started my legal career as a maritime attorney. At the time, the maritime bar did not have many women, but the few I met were intelligent and confident. More importantly, I admired how comfortable they seemed practicing in a male-dominated sector of the law. I later practiced corporate law in Seoul, South Korea (from 2000 to 2004). For most of my time in Seoul, I met few female attorneys, and I was frequently the only female at the negotiation table. But these early experiences in my career taught me how to navigate difficult situations. Over time, I actually found my gender to be an advantage. It helped me to stand out and differentiate myself.

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

A: The biggest challenge for me has been the ability to balance family life with work. I have found it even more difficult as my children have gotten older and want my participation in their various activities while at the same time I have also taken on more senior-level responsibilities at the firm. It seems to me that men in senior-level positions typically do not face the same hurdles as women when it comes to balancing family life with work. Leadership and firm management requires a commitment of many nonbillable hours and long workdays. For many women lawyers, that type of commitment to the firm is something that's incredibly hard to justify since most firms tend to measure an attorney's productivity by their billable hours. For this reason, many women attorneys are unwilling to sacrifice their family life in exchange for a senior-level leadership position at the firm.

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

A: I was pregnant with both of my children while working full-time at a law firm in South Korea. As I got progressively bigger, I noticed that the male attorneys (especially the more senior partners) were not as comfortable with taking me to client dinners, negotiations, closings and other client-related functions. I sometimes felt like it would have been easier for them if I just stayed in my office behind closed doors and worked on the deal without having in-person interactions with the clients. While I assumed that their discomfort with my pregnancy may have been due to cultural differences, I made sure to attend every meeting, closing and client event all the way up to my delivery date. I simply refused to be invisible and insisted on being included.

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

A: Obviously, hard work is necessary in order to succeed professionally. However, I've come to realize over the years that working hard is not the most important thing. Be visible. Get involved. Find opportunities to prove yourself. In addition, make sure you find strong mentors (both men and women) who can informally support you and help to advance your career. Finally, if you have children, don't be afraid to ask for help and consider hiring household help, if you can manage it financially. It's impossible to do it all on your own.

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

A: Any firm that wants to increase the number of women partners needs to understand that there are phases in each professional woman's life when they cannot devote as much time in the office due to family obligations, whether in raising a young family or helping aging parents. Firms need to accommodate these phases, which may require providing women with time off, reduced work schedules or less demanding assignments.

Firms need to support and accommodate women attorneys' decisions around family planning. Many women would prefer to continue working despite child-rearing obligations if firms would provide a workable structure to allow them to do both. Otherwise, women at firms will leave for alternate careers or other places to practice law.

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

A: There are many women attorneys that I admire. One that particularly stands out for me is Louise Renne. Louise graduated from Columbia Law School in 1961, at a time when few women received law degrees. When she started practicing law, most women at law firms were secretaries and it was extremely unusual to see women in leadership positions. A few years ago, Louise participated on a panel I helped to organize and moderated as the president of the USF Women Lawyers Committee. I will never forget Louise's stories of what it was like to attend law school in the early 1960s, which included being called up to the front of the class to answer the professor's questions on designated "Ladies' Days" or hiking across campus to use the faculty restrooms because no restrooms existed for women students.

Louise overcame many challenges to become a San Francisco supervisor and later the first female city attorney, a position she held for 16 years before going back to private practice and founding her own public interest law firm. I believe women lawyers practicing today owe a great deal to the women lawyers who came before them, such as Louise, who are the true trailblazers.

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