Paula Anderson – Catalyst Spotlight

What is your occupation and how did you come to work in this field?
I am a Partner in the Litigation Group at Shearman & Sterling LLP, focusing on cross-border disputes, FCPA/corruption investigations and M&A-related litigation.  I first became interested in pursuing a career in law in high school, after studying West Indian history and seeing how the law operated as a powerful tool for social change during the abolitionist movement.  My interest in civil litigation was crystalized in college when I had the opportunity to intern for a judge in the NY State Supreme Court.  During this time, I got to draft judicial opinions and witness firsthand the art of courtroom advocacy.  Today, as a litigator, I enjoy the thrill and intellectual stimulation that comes from advocating on behalf of my clients, crafting persuasive arguments, challenging my opponents’ arguments, and convincing a judge or jury to rule in my clients’ favor.  And of course there is nothing more exhilarating than winning your case.

What is the biggest challenge of your work?
I would say the significant time commitment and sacrifice involved.  This line of work requires maximum dedication to achieve the desired results.  There are no shortcuts, and any errors along the way can have dire consequences for the client, whether an individual or a corporation.  Thus, I always strive to give 110% to every case, whether this means poring over hundreds of court opinions to come up with the winning legal argument, flying halfway around the world on a moment’s notice to investigate the facts, or working around the clock away from family and friends during a trial.  The sacrifices are great, but so are the rewards.

What is your proudest achievement?
I have had several proud moments over the span of my career, but one that really stands out for me is a pro bono case I handled as a junior associate for a young man facing multiple federal drug and weapons charges.  My client was only 19-years old at the time, raised by a single mom in the inner city surrounded by drugs and crime and with few opportunities for advancement. Unfortunately, he had gotten involved with the wrong crowd – a group of older career criminals, who essentially took advantage of his youth and naiveté and then quickly turned against him as cooperating witnesses to save their own skins.  Interrogated by the police without a lawyer, my client had unwittingly confessed to the charges and at trial faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 33 years if convicted.  With the odds stacked against us at trial, the jury found our client guilty on all counts.  However, as a passionate and relentless young lawyer, I was determined not to let the conviction stand.  After meticulously combing through the trial record, conducting extensive legal research and making an impassioned plea to the court, my team and I convinced the judge to grant our motion for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict.  The judge issued an order dismissing the count that carried the mandatory 25-year sentence.  I then prepared a pre-sentencing submission outlining all the mitigating factors that should be considered in sentencing our client on the remaining counts.  Ultimately, the judge, moved by the submission, and holding back tears, sentenced our client to the minimum time allowed under the applicable statute.  Consequently, instead of spending the better part of his adult life behind bars, our client became eligible for release after 6 years, to become a productive member of society and a father figure for his young child.  Moments such as these and the opportunity to have a real and meaningful impact on the lives of others and on society in general make me extremely proud to be a lawyer.

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?
I most admire those people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in and are not afraid to challenge the status quo.  In particular, I have tremendous respect and admiration for advocates of international criminal justice – the lawyers working on the front line to end human rights abuses, who are not afraid to take on dictators, who fight against incredible odds and with limited resources, often on behalf of clients whom they’ve never even met, and with little pay or recognition.  I am proud to say that over the years I have had the honor of working with many of these individuals:  prosecuting the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide; helping to free political prisoners in Ethiopia; protecting civilians in war-ravaged countries; and advocating on behalf of victims of human trafficking.

What would be your advice to young people who want their careers and lives to have an impact?
I would advise them to find something they are truly passionate about and pursue it with the utmost tenacity.  There is no prescribed path to making a difference.  Impactful activities come in many different shapes and forms, whether it be working on a pro bono case, serving on the board of a non-profit organization, engaging in community service/activism, or mentoring.  Impact can even come in the form of just leading by example, being the very best at what we do, and in so doing inspiring those coming behind us to achieve their full potential no matter what odds they may face.

Did you have a mentor or do you mentor someone else? How has that experience changed you?
Yes, I have had great mentors throughout the course of my career.  It makes a big difference just having someone who believes in you, who can offer guidance and advice on a range of issues, and who is always there to provide moral support when the going gets tough.  I have also served as a mentor to dozens of individuals, both within and outside of my firm and it has been an extremely rewarding and gratifying experience.  Last year, I established a scholarship fund at my alma mater John Jay College of Criminal Justice to provide financial assistance to students seeking to go to law school.  The scholarship also includes a mentoring component, where I share my experiences and advice on going to law school and practicing law with the scholarship recipients and hopefully help them achieve their career goals.