For 12 years, Linda Leali worked in the Miami office of White & Case, toiling long hours as a senior associate in the firm's global financial restructuring and insolvency department.
Leali represented top clients like WCI Communities Inc., a developer with $2 billion in debt; Recticel S.A., a manufacturer of synthetic compounds; and Appaloosa Management L.P., one of the largest shareholders of Delphi Corp. She was a key member of the legal team in the Chapter 11 reorganization of Mirant Corp., the largest bankruptcy filing in the U.S. in 2003.
Leali, a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, also made sure to stay active in the community, serving on the board of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers, Legal Services of Greater Miami, Southeastern Division Children's Home Society as well as vice chair of an American Bar Association committee.
When Leali was not promoted to partner this year, she decided it was time to hang out her own shingle. She recently joined forces with a friend to form Alderman & Leali in Miami Shores, Fla.
It is not surprising that Leali left White & Case to advance her career since only one woman has ever made partner in the 25-year history of the firm's Miami office.
"I'm leaving for a better opportunity," Leali said. "While the firm's women initiative has always been supportive, over the years I have had to look outside the firm in the local community for some role models and mentors. Those mentors and role models led me to conclude that my best chance for both professional and personal success was to venture out with my new law partner."
Chris Hansen, White & Case's Miami managing partner, did not respond to requests for comment. A firm spokesman in New York issued a statement saying the firm is "committed to the success of our women lawyers around the world and their advancement into positions of Firm leadership. As a global law firm, our new partner class is assessed on a global basis; 18 percent of our new partners for 2013 are women. While we still have more to accomplish, we have made progress since we established our Global Women's Initiative in 2009."
Leali is not an anomaly. Increasingly, women, frustrated by unequal pay and opportunity for partnership, are leaving Big Law, taking their chances with smaller firms or by going solo.
The issue is not new.
Women have been grappling with the challenge of succeeding at law firms for decades. While many firms have taken steps to address women's concerns about balancing their work with parenthood by offering flex-time, the conversation now appears to have shifted to moneyequal pay, equity partnerships and training to develop that crucial book of business.