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Gibson Dunn’s New Chair Barbara Becker Dishes on Having It All

May 3, 2021, 4:17 PM

I bet Barbara Becker, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher’s new chair and managing partner, cringed when I told her that she reminded me of Amy Coney Barrett, Donald Trump’s last gift to the U.S. Supreme Court. The two women are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they exude a similar vibe: Friendliness, calmness, and (dare I say?) likability—even though they are in positions of power and influence.

And you know what else Becker and Barrett have in common? Fertility. Both managed to get to the tippy top of the profession while producing a lot of babies along the way. What’s more, both of them make it all look easy peasy—as if it’s a cinch to ascend to the Supreme Court or be picked as the leader of a 1,400-lawyer international firm with a house full of screaming kids.

Becker has four kids versus Barrett’s brood of seven. While four kiddies might not qualify as a big family in some parts of the country, it’s a jaw-dropping number for women in Big Law. Most women who’ve ascended to partnership produce maybe one kid, two max. And some none at all. Stereotypes persist that female partners go home to empty apartments. I can’t tell you how often I hear young women at firms gripe about how female partners sacrifice family for their careers: “They are not my role models. They have no life.”

Then comes Becker, the poster girl for big job, big family and having it all. Here’s the un-P.C. question we’re not supposed to ask a successful woman (because no one would ask a man): How does she do it? And what sacrifices did she make for that success? Subtext: Are her kids actually juvenile delinquents?

Gibson Dunn Chair Barbara Becker and her family
Photo courtesy of Barbara Becker

Spoiler alert: Her kids are fine. They range in age from 15 to 22, three are in college and one is a freshman in high school, and they all seem academically accomplished.

And what about her husband? Ah, that’s where it gets really interesting.

I met Becker over 15 years ago and I recall she was forthright about her non-traditional, yet traditional, support system. She has what ambitious women have always said they need: A stay-at-home spouse. In her case, it’s her husband Chad Gallant, an ex-associate at Cravath Swaine & Moore, whom she met at New York University School of Law.

When I asked Becker if she’d be where she is today without her hubby minding the homefront, she demurred. “That’s a complicated question, because I’ve always prioritized family first,” answers Becker. “Whether Chad stayed home or not, I would have pursued [my career] with the same sense of purpose.” She adds, though, “I did back flips to be home as much as possible. I had a rule about how many nights I’d go out with clients, and I was famous for taking the red eye to get home to see my family.”

Another nosy question I had to ask: What was she thinking having all those kids while climbing the partnership ladder? (She had the first three in quick succession—November 1998, April 2000, and December 2001.) Didn’t it occur to her that a large family might kill her career? (Remember that study that found that three or more children derailed women’s careers?) “I thought the opposite—that if I could show it could be done with grace, it would pave a path for others who were interested in combining family and law firm life,” responds Becker.

Her husband Gallant—an apt name, you might say—insists that his wife would have made it no matter what. “I think Barbara would have handled it fine with four kids even if I had worked,” adding that they’ve always had a nanny. Moreover, he says, “Barbara’s phenomenal at managing me and the rest of us, so I know she’ll do great job.”

Like almost every female law firm leader I’ve spoken to over the years, Becker says she never aimed for such a high profile role. What prompted her to go for the top job at Gibson Dunn, she says, is that “an overwhelming number of partners suggested me, including women partners.” Plus, she adds, “my kids pushed me.”

Indeed, their 22-year old daughter Georgia seems to think it’s perfectly natural that her mom would be leading such a mega enterprise: “I didn’t anticipate this exact role for her but she has a crazy ability to get things done and make it look seamless and effortless. She exercises every day, works, comes home for dinner.”

Becker sounds scary organized but I’m not done with Gallant. Did he sacrifice himself at the altar of domesticity to pave the way for his wife’s brilliant career?

Gallant refuses to play the traditional domestic martyr. “I didn’t stop working for the kids. I had worked very hard as an associate , then on my entrepreneurial venture.” He explains, “when I stopped working, it was an elixir. I don’t have the skill set to do what Barbara does or work those hours,” adding, “I have lots of other interests.”

Those interests include mastering French cooking (“Barbara loved what I was making, but not the kids”), beekeeping (he’s been doing it for over a decade, despite severe allergies to bee stings) and now gardening (from seedlings—mind you). Along the way, he says, “I taught myself to code, then started a robotics team at the kids’ school, including robotic soccer, then taught robotics in a public school on a volunteer basis.”

It’s an exhausting list of activities but Gallant says, “Barbara loved all my endeavors! We feed off each others’ interests.”

So if Gallant never played the role of dutiful stay-at-home parent that so many high-powered law firm partners (male ones, typically) seem to have, what is Becker’s recipe for doing it all? “I don’t really have a secret sauce,” insists Becker. “I always put family first and work hard to do my absolute best in all things. I am disciplined. I am collaborative, trusting, and loyal so I have benefited from fantastic colleagues, both more senior and junior.”

Though both Becker and Gallant stress that they shared child raising responsibilities, I have to assume that having a spouse at home relieves some of the stress and worry that plague parents with demanding careers. And maybe they were also blessed with easy-to-raise kids.

However you want to slice it, Georgia says it all works for her family. “Growing up, I didn’t feel different. For me, it all feels normal.”

It’s awesome that a woman with four children is now running one of the preeminent law firms in the country. But “normal”? Nah.

To contact the columnist: Vivia Chen in New York at vchen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor: Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com

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