Q&A: For Cooley’s new bankruptcy chairman Cullen Speckhart his practice is personal
Cooley recently appointed Cullen Speckhart chair of the firm’s restructuring practice, making her one of the few women to lead bankruptcy practices in Big Law.
Speckhart, 39, who joined Cooley in 2019, will guide the group as he represents corporate debtors and creditors in various industries. In the past year alone, Speckhart has been heavily involved in major Chapter 11 cases, including those of Ann Taylor’s parent company, pharmaceutical maker Mallinckrodt Plc, and Lord & Taylor department store. She also sits on the Cooley Women’s Initiative Committee and leads a task force that provides leadership training to female lawyers at the firm.
Reuters recently spoke with Speckhart about his career path and success in a male-dominated practice. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
REUTERS: Looking at the 25 best practices in business bankruptcy, we found only a handful of female co-chairs. You seem to be the only one who is the only president. How does that feel?
SPECKHART: It’s a humbling thing to have a leadership role like this and I think it’s an example of Cooley demonstrating who it really is as an organization, which is a place of limitless opportunity. for women. It’s a company that doesn’t just talk about supporting women and promoting women. He actively and intentionally supports and promotes them. And I’m just one example of many women leaders at Cooley. The firm has created this environment where I can live my day as a professional and never feel inferior.
REUTERS: Is it difficult to evolve in a field of practice largely dominated by men?
SPECKHART: I am now at a point in my career where I have this incredible freedom to be feminine. I really don’t have any internal mandate to try to act like a man. I am just me and I am a woman. It is a real treasure that I have thanks to the work of so many women of older generations who have allowed me to live and work without feeling inhibited by my gender. I realize that is not yet the case for all young lawyers and we have a lot of work to do.
That’s my goal. I want everyone to feel the way I practice as a woman. I really understand what it’s like to be on the other side and not feel free as a woman in practice. I struggled a lot as a junior associate and frankly I have too many memories of those very early years and I feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness, discouragement and worthlessness. I almost made the decision to stop being a lawyer at that point.
(Instead) I went to a much smaller store that didn’t have the kind of Chapter 11 practice I wanted. I decided to build one myself. But I was aware of all the things I didn’t know. So I cold contacted six or eight of the most accomplished restructuring lawyers. I traveled to meet them to try and develop that personal connection. None of them told me no.
If there is one piece of advice I would give to young women in law, it would be to invest time and connections to create your own circle of trusted allies. The earlier you start the better, but it really is never too late.
REUTERS: How did you get into bankruptcy law?
SPECKHART: It’s really personal to me. I grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where my parents still live today. It was the home of Bethlehem Steel. My parents both worked in the steel industry, that’s how they met. When Bethlehem Steel started wrestling things really changed for my family. Both of my parents lost their jobs the same day, which was a terrifying thing for a young couple with three young children. Soon after, my father was able to return to work for Bethlehem Steel to help stabilize and restructure it.
The company finally applied for Chapter 11 listing in 2001. It was a very formative period for me because after such a long and trying period of uncertainty for my family and without knowing how things would end for the company , we heard that there could be remedies in bankruptcy court. We were talking at home about what bankruptcy lawyers were doing to save jobs and pensions and to give some sort of security to everyone in the community who depended on the business for their livelihood. And being young at the same time, I was thinking about how to choose my own career.
REUTERS: What’s next for Cooley’s restructuring practice?
SPECKHART: I have a few assignments. The first is to continue to build on the growth momentum we have in our practice. The second is to motivate our junior lawyers to exploit their full potential.
Jay Indyke, my predecessor, has spent the past decade expanding the scope of our practice and developing our young lawyers. My job is to take this progress to the next level. And it couldn’t come at a more exciting time for me as we have a real opportunity to showcase the capabilities of our company and our committees.