Erin Marie Meyer is the Pro Bono Counsel at Proskauer Rose LLP, where she manages the firm’s global pro bono practice. Prior to that, Erin was a senior litigation associate at Hogan Lovells US LLP. I met Erin when we both worked at Proskauer, and I admire her for being a champion of diversity and inclusion, social justice and public service in Big Law.
Erin writes about a variety of pro bono legal issues for Proskauer’s blog, Proskauer For Good. Learn more about Erin in this Women Who Wow profile.
Why did you choose your profession?
My mother would tell you that I’ve been “making a case” since the time I was 5 years old, but I didn’t realize that I wanted to be a lawyer until my second year of college. I was majoring in Women and Gender Studies at Columbia University, and I was passionate about women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.
I was immersed in feminist and queer theory, but I didn’t want to be an academic – I wanted to apply my knowledge in a way that would help real people solve real-world problems. I wanted to seek justice for survivors of homophobic, transphobic, and gender-based violence and discrimination. I decided that lawyers have the tools to do that, and so I pursued a certification in Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School.
What do you love most about what you do?
I am very blessed to have a job that enables me to do life-saving and life-changing legal work for underserved individuals who could not access justice without a pro bono lawyer’s support. My pro bono immigrant justice cases have been the most rewarding.
I have won immigration relief for survivors of sex trafficking and domestic violence, and for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers who have suffered persecution based on their gender identity, sexual orientation, or HIV status.
Every one of my immigrant clients has a story of resilience and strength in the face of enormous life challenges. I have the privilege of helping them tell these stories and navigate the years-long journey to U.S. citizenship.
Which woman most inspires you and why?
My mom, Donna. She is an occupational therapist who truly works miracles with her clients through creative problem-solving and tremendous skill. She enables people with disabilities to live as independently as possible in all areas of their daily life. She sees the world through expert eyes trained to dismantle the barriers created by able-bodied privilege so her clients can live their fullest lives.
She is also a survivor of domestic abuse who, despite the many hardships she has endured, remains an extraordinarily empathetic, hopeful, and spiritual person who practices gratitude every day. She is the inspiration behind my legal work in disability rights and gender justice.
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
I started law school hoping to pursue a public interest legal career, but my father’s death in 2009 financially devastated my family, the Great Recession had wreaked havoc on the legal job market, and I could foresee that I would be graduating with six figures of college and law school student loan debt.
Pursuing a “Big Law” associate job was the best way to dig myself and my mother out of debt as quickly as possible, but I felt like a sellout and my dreams of being a human rights lawyer had gone out the window.
That’s when I received the best career advice from my law school professor, Katherine Franke, who leads the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law at Columbia. Professor Franke advised me to “be an anthropologist” – to go into the law firm and study it, to observe the people, the office culture, and the power dynamics – and to analyze all of it with a gender justice lens. And then to figure out what I was going to do to change the law firm from the inside out to make it a better place – more diverse, more inclusive, more equitable, and more public interest-minded.
She sent me on a mission that I continue to this day. Ten years later I have yet to leave Big Law, but I like to think that as Proskauer’s Pro Bono Counsel I am strengthening the firm’s commitment to public service and leveraging the firm’s talent and resources to advance social justice.
Do you have a sponsor?
Last year I lost my law firm sponsor to COVID-19. Steve Edwards became my sponsor when he was a Litigation Partner at Hogan Lovells, my prior law firm. Until he passed away in April 2020, we had worked very closely together for 6 years on a pro bono federal class action on behalf of public housing tenants with respiratory disabilities.
Steve was everything I could ever hope for in a male ally in the workplace. He intentionally staffed his cases with teams of diverse lawyers. He gave me challenging and important work, and his confidence that I could handle it helped me banish my own self-doubt. When he knew I had greater subject matter expertise than he did, he would give me the floor – when others looked to him automatically on the assumption that he was the authority, he would direct them to me and invite me to speak.
He advocated for me and my advancement even when I wasn’t in the room. He was never threatened by my success; to the contrary, he gave me opportunities to shine and he used his power and his network to help me reach my career goals. I miss him dearly.
Any advice to young women who want to succeed in the workplace?
Advocate for yourself. Negotiate your first salary. Ask for a raise. Ask for opportunities to grow professionally and to build your profile inside and outside your organization. Often we are better advocates for others than we are for ourselves.
Ideally we would all have sponsors who will elevate us, but the sad reality is that women face more challenges than their male peers in finding sponsors in a corporate environment, and we continue to face gender bias when it comes to our compensation and advancement. We must empower ourselves and other women.
What is a fun fact about you?
I used to sing in vocal competitions and perform in school musicals. In my senior year of high school, I co-starred in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a musical set in the late 1950s about an ambitious man who cheats his way to the top of the corporate ladder. I played the role of “Rosemary,” a secretary who aspires to marry this scheming man. I tried to portray Rosemary as a woman with agency and ambition of her own, but I surely failed because this musical is far too loaded with misogyny and gender stereotypes.
There’s a lot to unpack about it, but for now I’ll just say it was written before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – before sexual harassment in the workplace was an actionable claim – and it’s an opportunity to reflect on how far we have (and haven’t!) come since then in the fight for women’s equality.
Learn more about Women Who Wow and read the profiles of all of the women featured in the series.