It’s true: The number of women entering law school has increased substantially in the last few decades (46% of 2010 class). But in 2012 women made up just 31.1% of all lawyers, only 23% of equity partners, and an even smaller percentage of trial lawyers.
The reasons range widely from a lack of effective mentoring relationships to the resistance to change of most firms and a failure to provide female associates the opportunity to view an entire case instead of asking them only to complete a discrete assignment. Despite these dismal statistics Zoe Dolan has built a successful, although unorthodox career as a trial lawyer and in the process has become one of the most inspirational people practicing law today.
For either gender Zoe Dolan’s chosen path is quite unusual. But it’s particularly unique for a woman to be in this space. Her practice spans from the criminal defense of alleged terrorism, to international money laundering and drug-trafficking cases to various civil and commercial matters. Zoe’s focus in life has been on experiencing as much as possible — she has lived in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and the Middle East, and through her studies and travels she has become proficient in Arabic and Spanish. A proud member of the LGBT community, Zoe was born in a boy’s body and gender- transitioned to female as a young adult. These factors, which play a role in her ability to see a multi-layered reality, all contribute to her incredible career success. ** UPDATE: Zoe was profiled in the New York Times in February 2014.
Zoe Dolan: How one of the most inspirational people practicing law chose her career
There are a lot of women who are lawyers, but not that many who focus on your area. What attracted you to this field?
On the criminal side, I handle a range of federal matters, such as cases involving allegations of international drug trafficking, capital murder and multimillion-dollar frauds. In the realm of civil litigation, I currently represent a group of plaintiffs in an action against numerous banks and financial institutions for racketeering fraud in connection with a foreclosure scheme. I also represent individuals and small business for a variety of purposes.
The national security field interests me because cases in this area give me an opportunity to put my background to use on behalf of clients. Because I am proficient in Arabic and have lived in Muslim countries, I am able to offer a cultural perspective that informs strategic and legal decisions.
Why do you think there’s a gap in women representation at the partnership level at law firms?
I think we are entitled to an answer to this question from the firms themselves. While the female partnership among law firms is increasing, it still falls short of parity, especially given the growing number of women lawyers in recent decades. That said, more and more of my female peers are becoming partners every year, and it is a joy to see them succeed.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in this industry and in your job?
I prefer to view challenges as opportunities. The biggest one I encounter is the multitude of options at any moment in time. I believe there are no limitations in life except those that we create ourselves. I suppose the challenge is to remove those obstacles as soon as they arise, even if it means admitting they are figments of the imagination.
What do you find the most satisfying part of your work?
It is the combination of helping clients and being paid to think in the process.
Zoe Dolan’s advice to women
What advice do you have for other women who have unusual (or challenging) career goals?
Use the glass ceiling as a launch pad.
Give us an example of how you’re currently helping other women advance professionally or fulfill their career goals?
The idea of distinguishing between men and women in helping people seems strange to me. There are any number of ways to help others in the profession, from bringing co-counsel onto cases to serving as a sounding board for colleagues when needed. My own view is that the best service I can provide is loyalty, which is reciprocal.
Could you mention one or more women who have helped you get to where you are now?
My grandma and my mom instilled in me the belief that I can do whatever I want, provided that I apply myself. I probably would not be a lawyer today if my first year Torts professor had not kicked me in the ass and told me, basically, to get with the program. I am also grateful for mentorship at the outset of my career from a solo practitioner here in New York City and general counsel for a multinational corporation based in Switzerland. And of course there are all my girlfriends over the years, who have given me sustenance in the pursuit of my dreams. Since I believe gender is largely a social construct, I am compelled to add that there are many men who have helped me along the way and continue to nourish my spirit.
You can connect with Zoe via her website: