Linda Chatman Thomsen ’79

Leading a Movement: HLS Alumnae Forge Connections

The first woman to serve as the director of the Division of Enforcement at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Linda Chatman Thomsen ’79 led the Enron investigation and expanded enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. She is now a partner in Davis Polk’s litigation department.

Leading a Movement 1

Credit: Jessica Scranton Linda Chatman Thomsen ’79

On her transition from a women’s college, Smith, to HLS:

Ironically, it made it easier. At a women’s college, as any head of any women’s or girls’ school will say, all of the leaders in my school were women. I had a sense of self that helped me get through. I was used to participating in class.

What has lasted from her time at HLS:

Perhaps the best thing that came out of it was my husband, Steuart Thomsen, also Class of ’79. There are six intact marriages from my section. Mine didn’t count: It was intersectional. We met in our third year, working on the law school show. He did lighting; I was in the chorus.

The challenges came when we started practicing. I think the world was still a little unsure what it meant for women to practice law.

The intimidation factor:

[HLS] was as intimidating as all get-out. I was the first person called on in Torts, by Professor [Robert] Keeton. I had declared it was never going to happen to a woman. Phil Areeda was so challenging, a master of the Socratic method—not in a mean way, but it was tough. From him I think we all learned to speak up.

Supreme classmate:

John Roberts was in my class, in my section, but he worked harder than I did. He was a very, very nice man, very smart. Both things remain true today.

Her experience as a young woman in the law:

Everybody I know who wanted a job got a job. I think people were looking for diverse workplaces. The challenges came when we started practicing. I think the world was still a little unsure what it meant for women to practice law. There had certainly been trailblazers ahead of us, but not in large numbers. We were starting to confront issues in a more systemic way: How do we accommodate women in the workforce, especially working mothers?

What it takes to succeed as a woman leader in a big law firm:

You need excellence and a willingness to work hard. You need to love it, because it’s too hard if you don’t. In order to really succeed, I think you have to prepare the next generation. Law firms don’t make anything, except lawyers. It’s important to your success to mentor and nourish and have the next generation carry on.

What she learned taking on the Enron investigation:

Facts ultimately matter. There was an article sometime along the way about all the ancillary employment being generated by the Enron investigations: bankruptcy lawyers, temporary photocopying shops. [As] SEC investigators, [we were] genuinely outnumbered. But facts ultimately mattered.

The legal professionals on all sides showed great skill, great judgment. Part of me wished more of those skills and judgment had been afforded to Enron before it imploded.

Why she decided to attend the Celebration 65 event:

I always love to be in large groups of successful women. It’s sort of inspiring, a reminder of how far we’ve come. Because occasionally I get a little frustrated that we haven’t come as far as I’d like to. But I’d rather be a glass-half-full person.


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