By Lauren Butler • August 31, 2015•Law School, Pre-Law
Endurance, Determination and Persistence, all three characteristics I witnessed when attending the Stronger Together Conference in San Francisco. I was surrounded by women who were zealous to jump over the lines of discrimination despite the challenges. I had the chance to speak face to face with some of the women and left in awe by Ms. JD’s willpower and ability to endure. There’s something inspiring about a person who's willing to show you her battle scars and the stories that goes with them.
“Through Her Determination” is a way for the Ms. JD community to connect with one another through our individual stories. As women we are taught to see each other as obstacles to overcome in order to achieve this sense of “greatness”. Either consciously or unconsciously we tend to believe that. In return becoming bricks blocking each other from success instead of bulldozers eliminating those barriers. “Through Her Determination” encourages women to talk about the challenges they have faced in the legal industry. Encourages women to show their battle scars instead of seeing them as shameful or weak. We encourage and uplift each other to see that pain is something that we have all endured. The strength to endure, the willingness to persevere and the hunger to succeed is what we all have, and sharing our stories reminds us of that.
I met Katie Larkin-Wong at the Stronger Together Conference in San Francisco. Katie works as a litigation associate at Latham & Watkins LLP focused on complex white collar and antitrust matters. Currently the President of Ms. JD, Katie sees the organization as a pipeline for future women leaders in law. I chose Katie to be my first interview because I remember being fascinated by her ability to control the settings around her while still being warm and inviting. I was inspired by Katie and began to wonder if she faced any challenges while becoming the woman she is today and if she had any advice for the women or young ladies who are dealing with similar challenges now. We met at Bob’s Steak & Chop house on 500 California Street in San Francisco around lunch time. I instantly felt welcomed as we ordered our lunch and began the interview.
When you were younger how did you define professional success? How do you define success for yourself today?
When I was younger, I used to define professional success as something you could see, such as wearing a suit or going to court. Now, for me, it's more about something you don’t see: knowing and being confident in what I'm doing. I got the opportunity to interview Kathy Ruemmler who served as Counsel to President Obama and who now works for my law firm; she said something that stuck with me ever since: “I wanted to be a lawyer who carried my own bag.” What she meant by that is she wanted to be someone who engaged on the issues and who knew and understood issues well enough that she could deal with on her own. For me, that is when I started to redefine professional success as wanting to carry my own bag.
In your career, have you ever faced discrimination because of your race or gender? If so was the discrimination you faced blatant, or more subtle?
Yes. I find that I notice it most with co-counsel or opposing counsel who thought that just because I was the youngest person on the team that I could be bullied. Some of it is fair. Law is about judgment and the more that you do it the more that you improve your judgment. But people make a mistake when they think that they can bully someone who is less experienced.
When did you first learn that there was a gender gap in the legal profession? How did that realization impact you?
I was aware of it long before law school. I had seen a lot of articles about it; I had heard about it. I think I started to recognize it in the classroom when I saw that my female classmates’ comments were not always valued in the classroom. So much of this is subtle: it’s not outright anymore, it’s not an outright bias, it’s a subtle difference. That’s why I think it's very easy it recognize when it's not you: because you can see when it happening to someone else more easily.
What sparked your interest with Ms. JD?
I went to a Ms. JD conference when I was in law school in Chicago, and it engendered this amazing feeling. I felt like I had found my people, this amazing group of women who I really admired and enjoyed being around. All of them were really committed and ambitious women but they still had other things going on. They were partners and mothers, competitive runners, and politicos; they showed me that there could be life outside of law while still being successful. That was the group of people I wanted to be around. People with ambition but who also wanted other things too and that was exactly what I found at Ms. JD. I also saw so many women who I looked up to that were much further in their careers and that was awesome.
What do you believe are the underlying issues that continue to contribute to a culture of sexism?
The Shriver Report just came out looking at how men think about their wives versus their daughters and what traits they want in them. And it's very interesting to see the breakdown. One of the things I think is important, and is something we can capitalize going forward, is that many of these men who have daughters want traits in their daughter like independence and ambition. I see opportunity in those findings. I also see opportunity in the changing attitudes of men more generally. Millennial men do not think the same way as their dads and granddads did about the qualities they want in women. They also do not think about childcare, home, and work duties in the same way as their parents did. There’s opportunity for change there as well.
Have you ever found yourself compromising your personality or femininity to fit into a male dominated industry?
Yes, but not because anyone else pushed it on me, but because I thought I needed to compromise and change to be more accepted, to be more respected. I was wrong about that, and as I become more and more “me” in my job I have become happier and more comfortable. The people around me also respond better to me. So I think we have to be very careful in trying to change our self to fit a mold. This whole idea that you need to be someone you're not will just lead to you being in a place where you will never be happy, because you will have to keep faking this personality which just means the place that you are working is not a good fit. I made that mistake not because anyone had told me to, but because I thought that was what I needed to do to fit in. I have been so much happier now that I’m more me.
What can the next generation of women lawyers do to breakdown conscious and unconscious gender bias?
Talking about it is the most important thing. Often we’re afraid to talk about it, but talking about our experiences - recognizing them and valuing them with one another - is very important. Talking about them with men is also really important. Often they hear a story that they didn’t realize could happen. They are just not aware of it. We have to keep working at sharing the stories to bring unconscious biases into the light.
What role do you think organizations like Ms. JD can play in helping women support one another?
Ms. JD provides a space that you can meet one another, share stories, find support and get together both online and offline. Having people inside and outside of your office to talk with about issues you are experiencing is a huge benefit of Ms.JD. We also provide a place for people to tell their stories, whether it's an anonymous story or a story that has your name attached to it. It’s important to provide a place for that. You might check out the Walk a Mile in My Heels Series to see some of the stories that women have told via the Ms. JD blog.
What advice would you give to young women who are interested in pursuing a career in law?
Study hard. Your grades will matter later, so study hard. Make sure law is what you want. Law is not an easy career, a lot of people decide to transition out of it, and that’s fine, there is nothing wrong with that. However, law school it is a lot of expense and time if it’s not what you want to be doing long term. Soul search a little bit and interview people who are doing what you think might want to do to get a sense of what you’re going to get into. Law shouldn’t be your default. For too many people, law school is their default. They say, I hate numbers so I’m not going to business school and I can’t stand the sight of blood so med school isn’t for me. Law school is way too much debt and way too much work to do it as a default. Go out and experience other things you are interested in to see if law school is still calling you. If it is, then maybe it is the right fit.
If you could go back and tell yourself one thing at the beginning of your career what would you say?
Chill out! I worried too much, too often and sometimes worrying gets in the way. I always say get comfortable being uncomfortable if you’re going to be lawyer, because what we do is deal with new questions and new issues all the time - that’s our job. My job is to deal with questions that people have not seen before, so there will never be a single answer; it will be about figuring out the argument. The response of, “I’ve never done this before,” is never going to be the way you want to be dealing with things in law. Trust yourself that you can figure it out. Ask for help - ask your peers. But worrying is only going to get in the way of being effective.
Persistence is the word that comes to mind when reading over the interview. Katie's ability to move forward in her career despite the misconceived notion of others is commendable. A keen sense of the truth is hard to possess especially when it comes with taking accountability for one’s own actions. However, Katie shows this trait when asked if she had to compromise her personality or femininity to fit into a male dominated industry. “Yes, but not because anyone else pushed it on me, but because I thought I needed to compromise and change to be more accepted, to be more respected.” When faced with self-reflection the easiest thing to do is to hide behind the behavior of others instead of taking ownership of our actions. Katie’s ability to self- reflect said a lot about her character and also made me question if I have come to terms with my own truth. Have I come to terms with my actions in the past? Or am I unconsciously protecting myself from the mountain I will eventually have to climb in order to become the woman I hope to be in the future.
“I see a change happening. The men of our generation do not think the same way as their dads and granddads did about the qualities they want in women.” This is a clear example of how time and perseverance can change the mindset of others. I couldn't help but to be proud of the women that came before me and fought for the equality of women in the workplace. Walking into those buildings with their heads held high despite the conceptions of others, despite the comments of men who feared the possibility of a woman being ahead of them. Yes, there is a long way to go but I am hopeful for what organizations such as Ms. JD will do to contribute to this goal.