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How I Made Partner: Ropes & Gray's Melissa Bender

Woman climbing a building to symbolize achievement.

Melissa C. Bender, 46, Ropes & Gray, San Francisco and Silicon Valley

Practice area: Asset management (hedge funds, private funds, hybrid funds, fund formation, regulatory compliance).

Law school: University of Denver Sturm College of Law, 1999.

How long have you been at the firm? Overall about 17 years. I say “overall” because I started at Ropes & Gray in Boston in 2000. After a few years, I left for an in-house role with a client, rejoining the firm in late 2005. For nearly a decade, I worked remotely as part of a Ropes & Gray attorney off-site program, which allowed me to continue to develop a top legal practice even though I wasn't living in a major city at the time. Following a move to California in 2013, I returned as an on-site attorney in our San Francisco and Silicon Valley offices.

How long were you an associate at the firm? I was promoted to counsel in 2016 before making partner, so in total I spent 14 years at the firm as an associate.

What year did you make partner at your current firm? 2018.

Melissa Bender of Ropes & Gray/courtesy photo

What’s the biggest surprise you experienced in becoming a partner? What I was not expecting and really surprised me is the reaction I’ve received from other women who have said that my journey to making partner has been inspiring to them. Unlike many of my colleagues and peers, I worked in different practices at the firm, left to go in-house, and then returned. I also worked off-site and part time, and moved geographically. Given that I have such an unusual background, a number of women I work with who are shaping their careers have said it’s been motivating to see my path to success.

Describe how you feel about your career now that you’ve made partner. It’s been empowering. I’ve devoted nearly my entire career to Ropes & Gray, and I strongly believe in what we offer in terms of client service.

What’s the key to successful business development in your opinion? Understanding our clients’ businesses: the way their organizations work, their day-to-day demands, and operational complexities. Once a client trusts that I understand their business, we can solve their legal issues in more thoughtful and effective ways.

My in-house experience has also given me firsthand experience in understanding the demands and pressures lawyers face within their organizations. In particular, I appreciate that internal clients can present uniquely demanding challenges.

What’s been the biggest change, day-to-day, in your routine since becoming a partner? My engagement as a formal mentor to associates and participation in recruiting efforts has increased, particularly as we continue to build out our West Coast asset management team.

Who had the greatest influence in your career that helped propel you to a partner? Laurel FitzPatrick, a Ropes & Gray asset management partner. Laurel founded Ropes & Gray’s hedge funds practice more than 15 years ago and is well-known in the industry—really a star in our field—and has been central in creating a leading hedge funds practice. She’s also been an inspiration to me in the sense that she also went in-house to hedge fund Tiger Management, and similarly returned to private practice. As I’ve navigated my own career path, shaped my own practice and built out our hedge funds capabilities on the West Coast, she’s served as a tremendous role model and supporter of my work.

What’s the best piece of advice you could give an associate who wants to make partner? Be fearless. When something feels hard or uncomfortable, push yourself to stick with it. Find a firm that shares your values and inspires you to achieve your goals.

It’s also important to seek out mentors and role models at your firm. Share your goals with them and be open to the knowledge and experiences they share with you.

If you have a recent partner at an Am Law 200 firm to suggest for this series, please contact Jonathan Ringel at jringel@alm.com.

Melissa Bender of Ropes & Gray