By Michelle Hugard • April 29, 2010•Writers in Residence
Practicing attorneys are not the only Deal Makers and Breakers in the corporate setting, and they aren’t the only one with a law degree. This month’s column features Beth Inadomi, a Principal at top government relations and public affairs firm, the Podesta Group. Her full bio appears at the end of the interview.
Ms. Inadomi isn’t the traditional corporate law firm “Deal Maker and Breaker,” but she is definitely a female powerhouse. Below, read how she turned her interest in “space law” into a full-time legal career and created her own path to success.
Did you always have an interest in government, science, and technology?
I graduated UCLA with a degree in Political Science. In college, I focused my work on comparative government and political parties and was interested in the way that people govern themselves. I’ve also always had an interest in the space program. When I was seven or eight years old, a NASA space mobile came to visit my elementary school in Orange County, California. Suddenly, I was captivated by the fact that there was a space craft on its way to Mars and how human ingenuity and technology could figure out a way to get a space craft there, take pictures, and send those images back. From that point on, I always kept track of what the space program was doing.
My father is a retired attorney, and he followed a much more traditional path in the law. He was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles and a partner in a firm in Southern California. When I started law school, it was definitely with an eye of perhaps eventually working with him.
At the time, UC Davis School of Law offered a course on the “Law of Sea, Antarctica, and Outer Space.” The professor was visiting from McGill University, a school in Montreal, Quebec with an air and space law program. There were four of us in the seminar, and even by UC Davis standards, that was small. I found the class really fascinating. There was little case law, few treaties, and lots of academic speculation on the subject. That’s when I started thinking that this was the sort of legal topic that I would be interested in – an area of law that had not been well trod. I even co-authored a Law Review Comment (titled Who’s the Captain Kirk of this Enterprise?: Regulating Outer Space Industry Through Corporate Structures, 18 UC Davis L. Rev. 795 (1985)) on space law.
The other part of this decision-making process was that being a woman, and being a woman of color, I was fairly cautious about my opportunities in a traditional law firm, and I was a little more hesitant to go down that path. It was about this time I realized that I was not interested in transactional work, and it propelled me to do something that was much more outside the box. It made me look at things that were less traditional and more policy oriented.
What was your first legal position outside of law school?
While some of my colleagues were off working in nice, lucrative jobs at law firms, I took a 6-month position with the NASA Ames Research Center for $2,000 a month and no guarantees. As a member of the UC Davis Law Review, I had interviewed the Center’s Chief Counsel for my Law Review Comment. When I was searching for a job, he contacted me to meet with one of the program directors in the brand new field of technology utilization and commercial use of space. Expansion into these sectors had just been announced as a goal for the country, and NASA was trying to determine how they were going to implement the programs committed to by the President.
It really became my first step. It was a huge risk. It was so outside what my classmates where doing. It was different from what I saw everyone else doing. And it was the right thing for me, because I knew something about my interests and myself.
Did your gamble turn out well for you?
My six-month temporary position turned into a 25-year career. During that time, I worked with the Chief Counsel developing new legal agreements and ways NASA could deal with the external community – universities, companies and non-profits – to encourage and promote novel research ideas. I also managed several programs.
While I worked at the Ames Research Center, nothing that the scientists could throw at me – the science or the technology – would unnerve me. To be successful, I had to understand what was going on and the science supporting their work. They were doing amazing things, but it soon became apparent to me that there was a need for someone to translate what they were doing, someone to advocate for their interests. NASA’s engineers and scientists were working on really interesting developments, but they couldn’t fully promote them by themselves or show how their achievements were relevant to policy makers, legislators, and the general public.
My advocacy efforts led directly to working in the United States Congress as a Counsel for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Staff Counsel for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and now Principal at the Podesta Group. I’d say my 6-month gamble has yielded great rewards.
Biotechnology, Aerospace and Information Technology appear to be very male-dominated fields. Do you feel that being a woman has affected your career in these sectors in anyway? Is it still a male-dominated “old boys club” – type atmosphere?
NASA was a male-dominated engineering society, but I was able to show my value and worth by achieving things that they couldn’t themselves. I advocated their interests to Congress and secured funding for NASA’s particular projects, and they put me on a management path fairly early on. Managing projects got me better pay, higher positions, and more visibility. I am very thankful and feel completely fortunate for that. At the time, I had no idea how difficult it is to achieve those things. Sometimes when you are enjoying what you are doing, you don’t realize how fortunate you are.
However, I could not stay at NASA at that time and do everything that I wanted to because it was still dominated by that “old boys club” atmosphere. While there were great opportunities, they were not what I ultimately wanted. I needed to leave to do more.
I think if you are inside a biotech company, an aerospace company, or an IT company - which I have never been - you might find that same ceiling. Because I chose the route of a consultant, I believe the only thing that really matters is how good I am at my job.
You are currently a Principal for one of the top government relations and public affairs firms in Washington D.C., and you provide counsel to clients on issues related to clean technology, information technology, biotechnology, and aerospace. How has being a woman affected you in your current position?
Certainly when people in the energy, biotech, IT or aerospace fields see a woman who is not an engineer or a physicist, they really want to know what value I can bring to their organization. The answer is simple. I have something they need. I have relationships. I have knowledge of the system that they would like to have access to and that they would like me to work in their favor. I possess knowledge of the political and regulatory processes. I know the points of entry and have access to make their case.
I do think that it might be different if I was an employee of those organizations, but because I possess a unique skill that the company needs, they hire me and my firm. They have to know they are hiring me for my skill, my track record, and my ability to get to a result. Being a woman becomes secondary when I have concrete results standing behind me. That said, at the Podesta Group, about half of our Principals are women, and our firm is racially and ethnically diverse. Though my areas of expertise may be generally dominated by men, I’m in a firm that values diversity as well as excellence.
What advice do you have for dealing with the technology “old boys club?”
Political and government affairs work is a competitive environment, as you’d find in most fields. If the other side doesn’t want you to succeed, they will do things to make sure you don’t. Part of that is making sure that people don’t feel equal in negotiations. That’s a head-trip, and it exists in every competitive environment. You have to see that for what it is. Have a better plan. Have a better strategy. Have a better result. It can be irritating, but you have to do whatever is best for your client. Sometimes that will make you do things outside of what you’re comfortable with. Sometimes that is just what you have to do to get your job done.
You’ve received major recognition for your work and a Federal 100 award for your role in developing a national encryption policy agenda. Can you describe what you do in your work as a consultant?
My firm has a unique blend of government relations and public relations expertise that provides clients with the depth and range to achieve their legislative and regulatory objectives. We’re a bi-partisan firm and nearly all of us come from the Hill, the Administration, or media outlets. We also work as part of teams with members possessing specialized expertise.
Working for the U.S. Senate and House of Representative committees, a federal agency, and as a lobbyist with the Podesta Group, I know how to put together a campaign and strategies to reach a certain end point. I know whether that campaign requires lots of grass roots efforts or whether it requires very technical or surgical moves. I develop strategies and tactics based on my areas of expertise designed to change policy. A strategy might include several goals, including lobbying Congress and reaching out to Administration officials and organizations that may have similar interests. I work closely with my colleagues, and they give their input as well. We’ve found that in achieving a result, it takes everyone working together or else nothing works.
You graduated from UC Davis School of Law. Do you find that lots of your colleagues also have legal backgrounds?
Some consultants have legal backgrounds, but not all. Many also have backgrounds in journalism, government, and political science.
What has really surprised you about your career path?
What surprises me is that I actually have a career that makes sense in the rearview mirror. Every time I was presented with an opportunity, I made a choice based on my interests and the areas where I could bring the most value. And in retrospect, it has made sense.
I don’t think you can plot out a clear career path, especially one in the technology, science, and communication fields. With the way these sectors develop, expectations and advocacy can change rapidly. I don’t think you can say that in 25 years you are going to be at certain point. You have to be open to all the opportunities available and keep yourself looking for new opportunities in the future.
What advice would you would give to law students who are interested in alternative corporate careers, particularly those interested in technology consulting or lobbying?
My advice is that if you have the stomach for risk or have a sense of adventure, look for opportunities where the law is not completely mapped out. There wasn’t much in space law, and that absence has turned into a 25-year career for me.
Any last thoughts?
The definition of a lawyer has expanded beyond the traditional transactional practice. The tools you learn in law school are a starting point, but they aren’t everything. Law school teaches you to problem solve and helps you look at the world through a certain lens. Just because you are trained as a lawyer, doesn’t mean you have to follow a set path. You can make your path.
An alumnus of UC Davis School of Law, Beth Inadomi currently heads the Podesta Group's San Francisco office and provides strategic counsel to major corporate and nonprofit clients on issues related to clean technology, information technology, biotechnology, and aerospace.
Before entering the consulting world, Ms. Inadomi had an impressive career holding positions in local, state, and federal governments. She worked as Staff Counsel for the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Counsel for the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, and she was appointed to the Science, Space and Technology cluster of the 1992 Presidential Transition team. Beth also headed the external relations organization for the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California – a top aeronautical and computational research laboratory.
In this series, we have heard from “The Academic” and the “The Consultant” and learned about “The Corporate Arena.” Next month, we will hear from an Am Law 100 corporate law partner specializing in emerging companies and venture capital. Is there a particular Deal Maker you’d like to hear from? Do you have a question you’d like answered? Leave a comment below, and I’ll address it in future posts.