One Woman's Ceiling is Another Woman's Floor

If you still think women can’t have it all, check out Valerie Ford Jacob

Published in 2006 New York Metro Super Lawyers — July 2006

It would be easy to resent Valerie Ford Jacob.
 
Here’s a woman who has reached the pinnacle of her profession at the age of 53. As chairperson of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, a top Wall Street law firm, she’s the driving force behind the firm’s expansion around the globe and across a wide range of new practice areas. She counts as her clients such global heavy-hitters as Banc of America Securities, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch.
 
She’s also the mother of three terrific kids, a soccer mom who cooks big sit-down breakfasts and quizzes the youngest, a high school sophomore, about his schoolwork. “I have the best kids,” she says proudly. “They’re always laughing. Usually at me, but that’s all right.”
 
What’s impressive is that she makes it all seem easy. “Valerie Jacob demonstrates that you can have a wonderful career and be a great mother. And she does it unflappably,” says Herbert Galant, former chairperson of Fried Frank, who is now retired.
 
After you meet this trim, unpretentious woman with pale red hair parted at the side and big practical glasses, your resentment evaporates. To hear her tell it, she can chalk up her career to wonderful luck: the right law firm, great mentors, terrific clients, brilliant colleagues and a loving nanny who’s been with the family for 24 years.
 
But didn’t she face gender barriers? Wasn’t there a glass ceiling to shatter? “At Fried Frank, I’ve never had any impact from being a woman versus a man,” says Jacob. “It was a challenging career but everyone had the same challenges.”
 
Now what kind of a story does that make?
 
Things have not always been easy for Jacob. Born to a large family in Essex County, N.J., she lost both parents before she was out of her teens.
 
One thing that remained constant was her desire to become a lawyer. “I always wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “I must have watched a lot of Perry Mason when I was young.”
 
After graduating from Boston University, she enrolled in Cornell University Law School and spent her summers interning at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington, D.C. As a result, when she joined Fried Frank in 1978, she didn’t come from the farm system of summer internships at the firm like the other associates. She came late, too, lingering in her post-graduation holiday. “I was having fun,” she says with a smile. But all of that, she says, never mattered. “Our class [at Fried Frank] was a very close-knit class,” she says. “We did everything together.” In fact, one of her fellow associates at Fried Frank became very close indeed. In 1980, Jacob, then Valerie Ford, married Charles R. Jacob III, now a partner at the New York firm of Miller & Wrubel.
 
At Fried Frank, Jacob flourished in an atmosphere that she describes as a “large extended family” where senior lawyers took an interest in both the associates’ professional and private lives, inviting them to their homes, while at the same time holding them to rigorous professional standards. Her mentor, Ed Heller, who headed corporate practice at the firm, was particularly influential. “He was an extremely demanding partner but in a way that made us all want to meet those demands,” she says. “He spent a lot of time teaching us to be thoughtful, careful lawyers.
 
“I don’t think I was one of the best associates,” she continues. “When I was a young lawyer, every year my review was, ‘You don’t talk enough. And I would say, ‘Well, I don’t really have a lot to say.’”
 
But what she did do was listen, carefully and thoughtfully, to what clients had to say. “Everyone has their own pressures,” she explains. “I think just having an understanding of the pressures your clients are under and being responsive is an important thing to do.”
 
“She’s very good at getting inside the situation and seeing it from your perspective,” says longtime client James Hislop, president of Penske Capital Partners and a former managing director of Merrill Lynch. In addition, he says, Jacob combines a thorough understanding of the law with “great business instincts.” Her personal qualities of trustworthiness, honesty and hard work are an added boon. “You know she’s squarely in your corner,” he says.
 
Jacob’s “great business instincts” proved an asset to her law firm as well as her clients. Galant remembers being approached by Jacob in the 1980s, at a time when the firm’s business was anchored in mergers and acquisitions. “She said that she wanted to develop a capital markets practice and that she thought the firm should have a specialty in the area,” Galant says.
 
Galant resisted, but Jacob persevered. “She developed this very active capital markets business through sheer effort and diligence,” he says. The practice grew throughout the 1990s and included equity offerings and high-yield practices. “It’s now a much more broader-based firm,” says Galant.
 
In 2003, Jacob, along with Fried Frank attorney Paul Reinstein, was named co-managing partner. Since then, profits per partner have shot up more than 26 percent. The firm continues to expand its horizons, particularly in the international sphere, enlarging its practices in London and Paris, and opening an office in Frankfurt. In 2005, Jacob was named chairperson, with Justin Spendlove, a former managing partner in the London office of the British law firm Ashurst, replacing Jacob and Reinstein as managing partner. In 2005, Fried Frank landed on the American Lawyers A-list of the top 20 American law firms.
 
Pretty good for a lawyer who thought she would probably have to quit the firm when she became pregnant with her first child, Shawna, in 1982. “I didn’t think it was possible to have a Wall Street career and be a mother at the same time.”
 
But the firm proved supportive, even when she decided to extend her maternity leave to six months. Any pressure was internal. “I was really afraid that I was going to forget everything,” she says.
 
But one week after returning to work, it all came back. By the time she had her second child, Charles, two-and-a-half years later, she could relax and enjoy another six-month maternity leave. By the time she had her third child, Oliver, in 1990, Jacob had already been named partner and was able to combine her maternity leave with work at home.
 
Combining her professional work with her family responsibilities could be grueling, Jacob remembers. Some evenings she raced home from work to put the children to bed, and then waited up for some documents to be delivered by cab. She would correct them, send them back by cab, then get up at 4 a.m. to work on them again when they were taxied back to her. Then she would wake the children up for school.
 
But Jacob found staunch allies in her children. “My view is that children should come first and that they should be a part of your professional life,” she says. “My kids have always spent a lot of time at the firm. They can relate to it when I say I have to work late with someone because they know who that person is. It’s not just a nameless person for them to get angry with.”
 
On the other hand, she adds, “I’ve really tried to organize my life so that I don’t miss things. I don’t think I’ve missed a play or anything at school that was special like that.” The key, Jacob says, is planning — looking ahead at workloads, deadlines and dates, and adjusting your schedule. And in a crunch, being willing to call on colleagues to help out. Of course, she says, “You have to be supportive of other people also who have the same type of personal situations and jump in for them.”
 
Recently, Jacob’s children have inspired her to employ her skills in a new direction. As soccer parents — all three of the Jacob children played the sport — the Jacobs learned that the city was about to foreclose on the Metropolitan Oval, an 81-year-old Queens soccer field, because its owners could no longer keep up with the city taxes. Along with fellow soccer enthusiast and Long Island businessman Jim Vogt, vice president of sales at Jaguar Graphics in Bethpage, the Jacobs set up a nonprofit foundation that raised money to pay off the taxes and renovate the field. Fried Frank did the legal work for the Metropolitan Oval Foundation, which now sponsors soccer scholarships and several youth teams. “Valerie and Chuck are the unsung heroes of this effort,” says Vogt, now president of the foundation. “Without their help and especially Valerie’s passion, this never would have happened.”
 
The field has become one of Jacob’s favorite places, a seemingly remote site accessed through a desolate dirt path. “Then all of sudden, you get to the open area and straight across is the whole skyline of Manhattan. On a summer evening you can just sit on the hill, and you can see all the little kids running around, and the Manhattan skyline, and it’s just absolutely beautiful.”
 
Work, family, community service. It’s a busy life, but Jacob wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’ve had a great career at Fried Frank,” she says. “This is not to say there weren’t days when I wished Gloria Steinem had never talked about women’s liberation and I was home baking cookies. But it’s been very good.”

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