Nixon Peabody’s Ruth Silman on Finding her Path, Creating Communities, and Sensing Ahead
Ruth Silman’s path to the law is, in her words, “a winding one.” She’s a managing partner who once thought she’d never join a big firm, and a juris doctorate holder who thought she’d never practice law. So how did the BU Law grad end up leading the Boston office of a Global 100 firm? It started in a somewhat unlikely place: the National Park Service.
“I spent one summer during college in Washington, D.C. working in the policy office of the National Park Service,” Silman explained. “The woman I worked for was both a boss and a mentor. She said ‘I’m going to do for you what somebody else once did for me.’ And she opened her rolodex and set up meetings for me with people throughout the city.”
Silman spent that summer meeting many people, from members of Congress to employees at The White House. Most of them were women, and the vast majority had gone to law school, although none practiced law. Their advice to her was to do the same: Go to law school to hone your skills to think critically and analytically. Ruth took that advice and enrolled at Boston University School of Law. She looked forward to the intellectual rigor, but had not planned to practice law. That all changed during her first semester.
“I was sitting in Torts Class just absorbing all of it,” she said. “My professor was both a doctor and a lawyer. He started talking about a toxic tort case that he was working on, and honestly, my entire career path became clear. I thought: I could do that for a living. I could investigate. I could figure out the law and the policy. I could help people. I could clean up the environment. Being an attorney was an opportunity to do all of that.”
After spending a year in the Attorney General’s environmental protection division following graduation, Silman transitioned to Anderson & Kreiger, where she practiced “litigation by day, and land use by night.” But Silman missed focusing on certain environmental issues like the Clean Air Act. In 2000, she made the move to Nixon Peabody, and immediately found herself working on environmental and renewable energy issues not just in Boston, but around the country.
“All of a sudden I had this national reach. I had the opportunity to work on cases from New England to California. There were so many clean air cases to work on, I felt like a kid in a candy store. And as renewable energy has grown, I’ve been able to broaden the breadth of my practice.” Silman has also had the opportunity to strengthen her land use practice, working closely with the firm’s preeminent affordable housing group. “We create communities for people who are underprivileged and underserved.” One project makes Silman particularly proud. “A few years ago, one of our clients, Beacon Communities, was designated as the redeveloper for the initial phases of the Boston Housing Authority’s Old Colony project in South Boston. We had an extraordinarily tight deadline to permit the project and begin construction. Old Colony was a series of three-story concrete block buildings that stretched for ‘megablocks’ with little light or green space.” Silman was part of a team that helped to reorient the development to the existing neighborhood and the nearby waterfront by building a series of beautiful new buildings. “I brought my kids to the ribbon cutting and as we walked through the development, the residents kept thanking us for giving them true ‘homes’ that were not only safe and clean, but truly integrated. I am very lucky to be able to help my clients navigate through the maze of permits and regulations to build new communities.”
Today, as Silman’s first year as managing partner of Nixon Peabody’s Boston office comes to a close, she’s looking ahead. Her vision for the office is a three-pronged one, including community, diversity and sustainability. She sees engagement in the community as not only a vital means of giving back, but also an important part of reaffirming the firm’s place as a corporate citizen. “More of our attorneys are involved with non-profits and offering their time to community service. We are living in a day and age when too many people are underprivileged; we have to do our part to help.”
Nixon Peabody is also working to move the needle on increasing diversity, something that – as the first female managing partner in the firm’s Boston Office – is important to her. To that end, the firm has hired a head of diversity and inclusion who focuses on this effort full time. Silman owes a great deal to her family for its never-ending support, as well as to her numerous mentors and sponsors who have helped throughout her career. She wants to be a role model for others.
Silman is also focused on sustainability – literally as well as figuratively. In the next few years, the Boston office will follow an office renovation model other Nixon Peabody locations have undertaken, with a focus on more collaboration space and using lots of glass and light to create a transparent feel making less space feel like more. But what is also of importance is the sustainability of the firm’s people. “I want to make sure we’re paying attention to the long term viability of our people. This includes offering benefits such as flex-time and flex-place, but I also want to continue to motivate people to love what they do, and maintain that sense of being ‘in it’ together. This is very important to me.”
“Our mantra here is ‘sense ahead.’ As I see it, we need to stay on the cutting edge substantively, perhaps even outside of our traditional comfort zones. It is what keeps us entrepreneurial and intuitive. Our clients are in situations where they have to make choices, and it’s never a ‘white hat, black hat’ scenario like you see in the movies. There are always shades of gray. New issues arise daily. When a client asks you what they should do, you’ve got to dig into your intuition and your judgment to inform them of their choices and provide a recommendation. This is our value. There are very few absolutes in the world. And that’s good. It is what keeps the work and the practice of law interesting.”