Joy Langford spent more than two decades in private practice, but after leading a firm’s insurance practice through a global pandemic and trying three complicated cases in three months’ time, she suddenly found herself open in the summer of 2021.
“I got a call out of the blue from PartnerRe, asking if I would entertain an interview with them,” she remembers. “PartnerRe was seeking the successor for their retiring general counsel, but I was a litigator, so I kept waiting with each successive interview to hear that they needed someone with more corporate or regulatory experience. No one was as surprised as I was that I kept making it through the interview process.”
Unexpected as it may have been, Langford landed the job. Today, she serves as executive vice president, general counsel for the Americas, and global head of litigation at PartnerRe, a global reinsurance company. The multifaceted role requires her to draw on her years of insurance and reinsurance experience, even as she broadens her purview to encompass areas of law beyond litigation and functions of the business beyond legal.
Langford had always had a strong sense of justice, but it wasn’t until she showed up at Georgetown Law that she began to grow into her own as an advocate. She fell in love with litigation and joined Chadbourne & Parke (which merged with Norton Rose Fulbright in 2017) upon completing her JD.
“The partners at Chadbourne let me learn to be a litigator in different ways,” she reflects. “I was trusted with significant responsibility for our group’s corporate clients—mostly insurance and reinsurance companies—but the firm also supported my pro bono projects for the Anti-Defamation League as well as major death penalty cases, which allowed me to get courtroom experience more quickly, an invaluable asset to becoming a good trial attorney.”
Langford heralds Chadbourne’s support for her growth as a litigator. “I was really fortunate in where I landed,” she says. “While there were challenges along the way, I never felt like firm leadership saw being a woman with a family to be incompatible with becoming a partner and leader within the firm. While on path to becoming partner, I had three children, and eventually became the managing partner of our [Washington, DC] office and head of the firm’s (re)insurance practice when my mentor David Raim retired.”
The attorney recalls looking to other women at the firm as she considered how best to balance career and family. “I did not have to look beyond my own practice group to find women role models who were succeeding at moving up in the law firm ranks while also raising a family, which was not necessarily the norm in big law at the time,” Langford says. “While this was a testament to firm leadership, I realized it was even more a testament to the personal decisions these women and their spouses made.”
She continues, “Three women in our practice group actively pursued partnership or held senior firm positions while their spouses stepped back from careers to stay home with children. Stay-at-home dads were not nearly as prevalent then as they are today.”
With those women as models, Langford and her husband opted for a similar arrangement when the birth of their second child and her election to equity partner coincided in 2004. Langford acknowledges that her husband’s willingness to leave his career as a prosecutor for the US Department of Justice made it easier for her to excel in her own work. “No matter how demanding a case became, I had the peace of mind that everything at home was in good hands,” she says.
However, Langford still made her share of compromises. “I did not make every soccer game or theatre performance, but there were also times when I let someone else handle the big deposition because a family commitment was more important,” she notes.
When young associates ask about her career experience, she often paraphrases Ruth Bader Ginsberg, explaining that she believes women can absolutely have it all, but just maybe not all at once. She points out that at the end of the day, how is that any different than men who are balancing career and a family?
In addition to her husband, Langford credits Raim and other male mentors, including Abbe Lowell and former New York Governor George Pataki, with bolstering her career. “Most of the people who helped me pave my career path were men because, at the time, there weren’t a lot of women in senior positions,” she says.
She urges aspiring attorneys to cultivate similar relationships, with both mentor-type sponsors and more intimate allies. “You need to find that person who will be your sponsor and who will get you in front of those within the organization with the power to promote you,” she confirms. “But you also need allies—people who know you on a personal level who can serve as sounding boards.”
Langford also encourages early-career professionals to be bold and take risks. “The tried-and-true conventional path will always be there, but that different, once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity may not come around again,” she says. “So, don’t be afraid to go for it.”
Langford took her own advice in making the jump to PartnerRe, where her tenure thus far has been a time of learning. “My day-to-day used to focus primarily on a handful of large litigations, and it afforded me the luxury of time to learn every detail relevant to a case,” she says. “As a general counsel, my day-to-day is much more eclectic, involving anything from HR issues to tax issues, to data privacy and cyber concerns to monitoring legislation or fielding an antitrust question, to managing budgets and outside counsel, and the list literally goes on and on. It’s been a breadth of experience that I never had as a litigator.”
The lawyer’s first year at PartnerRe involved the sale of the company to French mutual insurance group Covéa as well as navigating the impact of world events like COVID-19 and the Russian-Ukraine conflict on the reinsurance industry. She has also sought to lay the groundwork to influence PartnerRe’s strategies around talent development and acquisition in the years to come.
“We’ve been delighted to work with Joy since she joined our long-term client PartnerRe,” says Amos Friedland, partner at Freedman Normand Friedland LLP. “Her guidance and insight have considerably aided us in our litigation and trial work on their behalf, as well as in understanding their broader business strategy and concerns.”
She hopes to be an asset to PartnerRe’s established commitment to diversity and inclusion—an aim that hits close to home when she reflects on the early stages of her career.
“When I started working in the insurance industry, it was not uncommon for me be the only woman in the room at meetings,” Langford says. “In order for companies to attract diverse talent, it is important for the talent you are recruiting to see within the organization someone who looks like them and who is where they someday want to be.”
Langford also notes that philanthropy and community awareness is more important than ever to attracting and retaining talent. “Young people want sophisticated, challenging careers, but they also want to know they are making the world a better place,” she says. “In that regard, I am committed to the message that the reinsurance industry offers career opportunities which satisfy both goals.
As she collaborates with the rest of PartnerRe to continue moving in the right direction, Langford remains grateful for her latest role. “At fifty-three, you don’t always get a chance to start over and learn something brand new,” she says. “One of the most invigorating things about my job change is that now I don’t know what every day is going to look like, and that’s been really exciting.”