A Review of The FBA—Tampa Bay Chapter’s “Staying in the Game: Getting to the Top.”

When you walk to any corner of the University Club of Tampa, you're immediately struck by the beauty of a sun-kissed Hillsborough River. You're eye-level with a helicopter, and a bit further off you spot a sailboat.  The beauty of Tampa isn't lost on me at that moment and being surrounded by a room full of 100 plus successful attorneys and judges; you get a sort of invigorated feeling. I'd like to tip my hat at this moment to all of those who put on such a great event.  

I'll start by saying that overall, I thought the program was just shy of fantastic. If I had to grade this program, If I had to grade it, I'd say it was an A-. Here's my breakdown:


I LOVED the panels --both of them. The questions were a good mix between standard and thought provoking, but the myriad of people that the Tampa Bay Chapter of the Federal Bar Association was able to bring together was amazing. Panel One consisted of various practitioners, from a federal judge to an equity partner. Panel One was an excellent illustration of practice diversity! By having individuals with different backgrounds and experiences, there was something for everyone, all the while informing others about those experiences that they may not be familiar with. We saw, not just racial and gender diversity, but diversity in experiences and views on the legal profession as well. 

As I watched one panelist candidly discuss how she didn't always enjoy being a lawyer --and I saw the nods of agreement, I was once again reminded that, although I've loved every step of my journey thus far, the panelist's statement resonated with many people. When Judge Sneed mentioned her experience as a Black woman attorney, my inner fan-girl jumped up in ramped applause at such open acknowledgment of intersectionality. And, I think everyone agreed with the managing shareholder at Trenam Law when she said that when she first started, she sometimes felt like she had no idea what she was doing and how she use to think that at any moment it could all be taken away. 

This was just the first panel! Panel One included: 

  • Erin Smith Aebel -Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick (Partner)
  • Rachelle DeVaux Bedke U.S. Attorney's Office --Middle District of Florida (Chief of Criminal Divison)
  • Stacey Blank - Holland & Knight (Equity Partner)
  • Rhea Law --Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney (Chairman of the FL Office)
  • Margaret Mathews -Akerman LLP
  • The Honorable Julie Sneed --U.S. Magistrate Judge (U.S. District Court for the Middle District of FL)
  • Marie Tomassi --Trenam Law (Managing Shareholder)
  • Katherine Earle Yanes -Kynes, Markman & Felman, P.A. (Partner)
  • Christopher M. Pietruszkiewicz --Dean of Stetson University College of Law. (Moderator)

PANEL TWO --consisted of senior and general counsel attorneys. The thing that I loved about this group was that every single person selected to speak was down to earth. They discussed the kinds of things that they looked for when hiring outside counsel. This conversation reminded us of the business side of the law and the importance of building healthy relationships when "staying in the game." The panel moderator then asked about " staying in the game life hacks." While these questions are typically cliche, I have to admit; I loved the panelists' answers. 

One of the reasons why we love life hack questions is because we're all just trying to figure "it" out, and it feels good to hear reassuring things from successful and impressive people. One panelist cited prayer as her life hack. You can probably tell, at this point in the blog, that I love this kind of honest authenticity. We're not robots in this profession; we're multifaceted and unique. We have different experiences, and those are the things that endear us to one another. I think we should encourage this kind of candor in our profession so that we can live full and relatable lives. 

Oh, and my favorite line of the program was "dignify every stage of your life." 

The afternoon panel included: 

  • Kelly Andrews -Moffitt Cancer Center (Associate General Counsel)
  • Shauna Burkes --HSN (Commercial Litigation)
  • Shannon Eichberg --Jabil Packaging Division (Director of Global Legal Affairs)
  • Kristine Oureilidis --Jabil (Vice President, Deputy General Counsel)
  • Jonathan Santelli --Raymond James Financial (Executive Vice President and General Counsel)
  • Gretchen Walsh --Transitions Optical (Vice President, General Counsel, and Chief Financial Officer)
  • Diedre White --Grow Financial Federal Credit Union (Senior Vice President and General Counsel)
  • Bradford Kimbro -- Holland and Knight (Executive Partner) Moderator. 

A: Organization 

Yes to all of the breaks! Maybe this was just me, but I'd worn a dark gray dress, and I often needed the relief to stand, and to also frantically ensure that I didn't somehow get deodorant everywhere. In my opinion, breaks in any day or half-day conference are crucial! A well-placed break can do multiple things. First, breaks allow people to network throughout the program. So if you were shy at first, you still had time to get comfortable. Second, well-placed breaks provide an opportunity to digest all of the information. Lastly, they allow those who have to return to work, a safe and secure exit. No one wants to leave in the middle of a conference question. 

The event coordinators were minglers! I consistently saw them dance around the tables shaking hands, making introductions, and facilitating conversations. As someone who has crashed several of these events in the last few months in search of job connections, I will say that this was a first for me, and very cool to see. (Well, Ms. J.D. does this at our conferences, but we don't count right now wink. The program was well thought out, and it ended on time. 

B: The Keynote Speaker. 

I need to start off by saying that I respect Susan Smith Blakely immensely. I think she is phenomenal. I first purchased her book "Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law" in 2012 --the year before I started law school. I loved it! At the time, it spoke to everything that I'd been saying and feeling about professional women, and it gave me so much insight into what to expect in the legal field. When I'd heard she would be speaking at this event, I knew I had to see her. 

I, however, felt a bit of a disconnect when listening to parts of her talk. While I agreed with many of her points, I also disagreed with many as well, and at that moment I realized that my feminism has grown. I've been thinking about it for a few days before I posted this, and I think I can sum up my issues into a few points. 

1. My feminism is intersectional and lately, any discussion on women's problems in the workplace that lacks intersectionality or only mentions it in connection with equal pay, I inherently feel side-lined to. Don't get me wrong; this may be a "me" thing because we must ask ourselves, should everyone be discussing intersectionality? My gut answer is "no," so I don't hold this against speakers who choose not to consider intersectionality in their talks, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the feeling.

2. Soft Skills --I cringe a little at the mention of soft skills. The first time I'd heard it was in my Global Perspectives on Women in Law class at MSU Law and again at the 2016 Ms. J.D. Annual Conference -"Superwomen JDs." Perpetuating the idea of soft skills, in my opinion, assumes too much and prolongs old stereotypes. Do I think that law firms and businesses need soft skills? Absolutely. Would I consider "soft skills" to be skills that many of the young professional women that I know or I that I, myself, possess? Hardly.

I understand that selling the point of soft skills will allow women who are more "feminine" to thrive and be valued in rigid law firm settings, but what about the men who possess more soft skills and the women who don't? I don't think fitting "women skills" into a box and saying "here this is why you should value us" is a proper solution because many women don't possess soft skills. In fact, according to some researchers, many Black women don't fit this mold at all. (See Joan C. Williams "Double Jeopardy? An Empirical Study with Implications for Debates over Implicit Bias and Intersectionality" 37 Harv. J. L. & Gender 185) Black women are allowed to display more "masculine skills" until we become angry. Research also shows that Latin women are sometimes considered "firey." So, what is the likelihood that our skills would be considered "soft?"

I wonder whether this concept of valuing the "soft skills" that women possess was designed as a tangible incentive for law firms to value women. A "why" of it all rather than simply saying value women because we make up half of the human population.

3. Double Binds? Is it just me, or does feminism always change words and come up with new terms for old concepts? When women exhibit traditional male characteristics, they are considered mean or "bossy," but when women are "nice" or display "soft skills," then they are considered weak -this is a double bind right? So why are we coming up with different names to describe things that have been happening to us for decades? I'm not sure if we do this to renew interest in feminism, but to a person who values direct communication, I raised an eyebrow. 

Do not mistake my three criticisms to mean that I did not like the presentation. I thought it was great, but I believe that to further feminism and to progress as a group--especially at events like "Staying in the Game," that we need to constantly be self-aware and sometimes critical of the philosophical views in feminism. All in all, I thought that the presentation was excellent! 

The thing that I loved most about Susan Smith-Blakely's talk was the advice at the end to "talk to young women about your experiences." Even if her experience is different than yours, it helps to hear what other women are going through. That resonated with me so much because I believe that the truest way to make a difference and touch lives is to connect and share.

I'm looking forward to next year's Staying in the Game discussion. Thank you to the Federal Bar Association-Tampa Bay Chapter for putting on such a relevant and well-thought out event!! 

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