Jennifer Beidel: The Path From the Farm to the Courtroom
Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with criminal defense litigator, Jennifer Beidel, to discuss her career, its trajectory, her advice to up-and-coming attorneys, and some of the experiences that have shaped her career.
AALM: What inspired you to pursue a career in law?
JB: I grew up on a livestock farm in Central Pennsylvania and always thought I wanted to become a large animal vet. As a result, I studied animal science at Penn State. I took an agricultural law course while I was there, and I was immediately hooked. I remember hearing about the zoning, environmental, and business challenges farmers were facing and how they solved them (or failed to solve them) based on their willingness to understand and rely on the legal system. I realized studying the law offered so many career options and could be preparation for practicing, owning a business, going into politics, or many other things. Aside from my agricultural law professor, I only knew one lawyer, who was a family friend, at the time. But, I did as much research as I could and ultimately decided to take a leap of faith that has certainly paid off in ways I never could have anticipated.
AALM: What led you to become a federal prosecutor, and how did you prepare for this role?
JB: My first job out of law school was as a law clerk for a federal judge in Harrisburg, PA, the Honorable Christopher C. Conner. At the time, I knew I wanted to be a litigator, because of my natural inclination to be a problem solver, but I would have said criminal law was the one area I knew wasn’t for me.
In Judge Conner’s chambers, I solidified my goal of becoming a litigator and my desire to be in the courtroom. I also noticed that the most skilled litigators that appeared before him tended to be the AUSAs that appeared in criminal cases. I watched them like a hawk for the two years I clerked, and I went into private practice having changed my mind about criminal law and knowing I wanted to become an AUSA one day.
Then came the economic downturn of 2008 and a multi-year freeze in AUSA hiring. I began to think I’d never get the opportunity to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But, a mentor of mine who had also been an AUSA, the Honorable Chris Hall, who is now a judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, stayed vigilant and helped encourage me to apply as soon as the hiring freeze lifted. Chris also encouraged me to apply outside of the area where I lived, which was Philly at the time.
For a farm girl from Central PA, it was certainly a leap to consider moving to New York City. But, I pushed outside my comfort zone and ended up with the opportunity in the Southern District of New York, working for Preet Bharara. Preet was an amazing boss – he inspired the Office with his positivity and made you realize that the entire goal of prosecution was doing the right thing for the right reason. The opportunity to work for him has been one of the highlights of my professional career, and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t decided to push outside what seemed comfortable and safe at the time.
AALM: How did your experience as a federal prosecutor shape your perspective on the legal system and your approach to practicing law more broadly?
JB: Prosecutors are fallible human beings like anyone else. Even the most fair-minded prosecutors battle a confirmation bias in the sense that once they’ve decided who to charge and how, they are more likely to view the facts in a way that supports that belief. Defense lawyers must be cognizant of that natural human bias. Prosecutors aren’t the enemy and shouldn’t be vilified (most of the time). But, they are an audience like any other, and defense lawyers need to work early and strategically to convince that audience that their clients should not be charged before any confirmation bias sets in.
AALM: Can you describe some of the most significant cases you worked on?
JB: When I was a senior associate at my prior firm, I had the privilege of representing Cantor Fitzgerald in the 9/11 litigation pending in the Southern District of New York. Cantor’s offices were at the top of the World Trade Center, so Cantor tragically lost 658 employees on 9/11. In one of those twist of fate stories that you often hear about tragedies like that, Cantor’s CEO, Howard Lutnick, survived because he was dropping his son off at kindergarten on 9/11 and so arrived to work late on that fateful day.
My partner, John Stoviak, and I had the privilege of representing Howard and Cantor in pursuing a recovery for their losses on 9/11. At first, I was a senior associate on the case, managing a team of junior associates and paralegals at every phase of the case. But, when the junior partner on the case left the firm, John had faith in me and put me in the second-chair role. It was the kind of mentoring and sponsorship that I now try to emulate in my work with junior lawyers – find talented junior colleagues and give them the tools, support, and responsibility then need to succeed.
Ultimately, in the 9/11 litigation, we secured a $135 million settlement for Cantor one month before the scheduled trial.
AALM: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in law, and how can they best prepare themselves for success in this field?
JB: You do not have to study political science or pre-law in undergrad to become a lawyer. In fact, some of the most successful lawyers I know studied something totally different than law. My animal science degree helps me every day in unique ways. My science courses often help me better understand the facts in health care or life sciences-related investigations or matters. And my accounting courses help me with damages calculations and working with economic experts. Doing what you’re passionate about and doing it well is much better preparation for law school than choosing the major you “think” is the best law school prerequisite.
AALM: How are you involved in the local community?
JB: My husband and I volunteer for various agricultural organizations in the area, including the Oakland County Farm Bureau, the Oakland County Fair, and the Michigan State Fair.
As a holdover from my Philly days, I’m also on the board of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, which works to support and raise money for various legal nonprofits in Philly and to ensure access to legal representation for all. I’m also on the animal sciences advisory board of the WB Saul High School, which is an agricultural high school in Philly that is designed to expose urban youth to agriculture.
And, stemming from my days as an AUSA, I volunteer for the When There Are Nine foundation, which is scholarship organization founded by female former AUSAs. The goal is to aid low-income female law students in pursuing their dreams of becoming lawyers. The name is a tribute to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s sentiment that there will be enough women on the Court when there are nine.
AALM: How do you balance the demands of a legal career with your personal life? What steps do you take to maintain a healthy work-life balance?
JB: My move to Dykema was, in part, about work-life balance.
In 2021, during COVID, my husband and I moved from Philly to Michigan to be closer to his family during the pandemic. I then worked remotely for a little over two years for my firm in Philly. As things reopened, my travel increased exponentially, and I found myself doing more work from an airplane than almost anywhere else. That took me away from my husband and family more than I wanted and was starting to take a toll on my health as well.
While we considered returning to Philly, we would have missed the opportunity to be near our extended family in Michigan and to watch our five nieces and nephews grow up. When we decided to stay, I knew I needed to make a change, and if I was going to do that, I wanted to go to a firm that is well-known and well-respected in Michigan, and Dykema fit that bill.
As a bonus, Dykema recently hired Mark Chutkow, who was the criminal chief in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Michigan and is one of the most well-respected people in the criminal bar in Michigan. The opportunity to partner with Mark to expand the white-collar practice at Dykema was something I couldn’t pass up.
AALM: Tell us a little about your life outside the office.
JB: My husband also grew up on a livestock farm and showing animals through 4-H. We met at one of those shows. We both gained a lot in our personal and professional lives from the lessons of raising animals and of participating in 4-H, so we like to stay involved with that. Both of our families still raise sheep, and we travel with our families to shows. We enjoy helping our nieces and nephews with their projects and encouraging other local young people to participate as well.
We also live on a little lake in Michigan, so we enjoy spending time with friends and family at the lake. And, as much as we can, we travel. As my career progresses, the more I enjoy art as stress relief, so I also paint, take photos, and build Lego to bring out my creative side and balance out the Type A, high-stress lawyer persona.
AALM: What is something your colleagues would be surprised to learn about you?
JB: I had imposter syndrome before it even had a name. I always saw myself as a Central PA farm girl, who suddenly found herself deposing CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and hobnobbing in New York City. I always felt like someone was going to figure out I didn’t belong. But, I finally realized that if being a federal law clerk, an AUSA in one of the most respected offices in the country, and an equity partner at a 400-lawyer law firm in my early 40s didn’t get rid of imposter syndrome, nothing ever would.
Today, I recognize that those feelings are there and just push on in the face of them. Writing this here feels very vulnerable because I’ve been trained that as a member of this profession, we must always exude strength and resolve. But, I want other junior lawyers (mainly women in my experience) who are going through the same thing to know they are not alone. There is a path through it, and you can persevere in the face of it.
AALM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
JB: During the 9/11 litigation, we worked with AUSAs from the Southern District of New York, whose job it was to safeguard the sensitive security information that was among the discovery in that case. As it turned out, when I applied to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, one of those AUSAs became an unexpected champion of mine. She had seen me stand up to aggressive tactics from senior partners from large white-shoe New York firms during depositions in that case. From that, I learned the lesson that someone is always watching you. It could be your adversary or a third-party or the judge or someone else. So, if you comport yourself in a way that is consistent with the reputation you are trying to build, those folks could end up becoming your allies one day.
The post Jennifer Beidel: The Path From the Farm to the Courtroom appeared first on Attorney at Law Magazine.