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Sennett continues to break down barriers for women lawyers

By: Jane Pribek//June 23, 2011//

Sennett continues to break down barriers for women lawyers

By: Jane Pribek//June 23, 2011//

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When Nancy Sennett started practicing law in the late ‘70s, her co-members of the litigation team met regularly at a private club that didn’t allow women in the main dining area, or even to enter through the main doorway.

She and her colleagues found ways around those rules, however, and Sennett managed to excel despite the limitations. It’s a characteristic that has paid off many times over in her decades-long career at Foley & Lardner LLP.

Sennett came to Foley directly after earning her law degree in 1979. She started on the securities team, but quickly transitioned into litigation.

Sennett was the first female to hold the title of office managing partner at Foley’s Milwaukee office, a position she held for 10 years. She recently passed the mantle on to another female lawyer, Linda Benfield.

Sennett often leads sizeable teams in complex, high-profile cases. In 2001, just one year after she’d been named Milwaukee’s managing partner, Sennett also became the lead trial attorney for Roche Diagnostics in an intellectual-property licensing matter venued in Maryland. She led a team of 25 attorneys throughout a four-month trial, where plaintiffs had demanded more than a billion dollars to settle, but ultimately the jury favored Roche.

“We didn’t win everything, but we got a terrific result at the trial court and an even better result when we took up on appeal certain issues to the Fourth Circuit,” she said.

Her law partner, Tom Shriner, said Sennett has a number of qualities that have contributed to her success.

“One, she’s smart as hell,” he said. “Two, she works incredibly hard. And three, you can take her word to the bank. That combination of intelligence, diligence and integrity marks a lot of successful people — and it certainly characterizes Nancy.”

Her own achievements notwithstanding, Sennett said women lawyers still need to be vigilant of the subtle barriers that might be placed before them.

Women remain underrepresented in leadership roles in large law firms and on the bench, she said. Some well-meaning firm leaders don’t ask women to tackle the more time-consuming or difficult assignments, she said, because they know women often have significant family responsibilities.

Sennett has managed to juggle it all though, raising three children while helping to build a major law firm.

“We need to get to the next step, where women truly are provided with the same opportunities,” she said. “It’s a subtle step, but I see it as a big challenge.”


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