Sarah Ferguson

Going Public: Wise Women

Most days I’m confident I’ve made the right decision to go to law school and devote my career to public service. Most days. There are other days when I find the prospect of my future career on the public path downright scary.  On those days it’s nice to know there are women out there who have made the less obvious choice to “go public” and have succeeded. Once I start talking to women (and men) I know in the public sector, I’m reminded that there are innumerable ways to jump-start a career in public service and there are ever evolving opportunities once you’re there. Sometimes, a few words of wisdom from others who have gone before us are all we need to stay motivated and focused on our goals (public service, of course!).  Two of my personal inspirations, Hayley Meadvin, Press Secretary for the Small Business Administration and Tracy Hartzler-Toon, New Mexico Special Assistant Attorney General gave it to me straight about their decisions, where they are now, and why women should go into public service.

Why is it important for women in the public sector to have a law degree?

Hayley Meadvin (HM):  As a woman, I believe it’s more important to have law degree in the public sector than as a man. It helps with credibility, especially for those of us who went straight from college to law school. I look young and I think my degree helps people take me more seriously.

Tracy Hartzler-Toon (THT): Having a preordained path never worked for me. In my experience, most women don’t follow linear professional paths and a law degree gives you room to move. You can reinvent yourself at any time. Particularly in the public sector, you should be constantly on the look out for opportunities and having a law degree gives you the flexibility to take advantage of those opportunities.

Why did you go to law school?

HM: I was looking for a way to help people.  I didn’t necessarily want to practice law and because D.C. (where I moved after graduating from college) has so many people who have gone to law school and don’t practice, it seemed natural to want to go to school and not practice.

THT:  I had been working in the education field for nearly 10 years and wanted to reach a higher level of expertise and responsibility. I thought working at a college or university, possibly as an attorney or senior administrator, would be consistent with my intellectual and professional interests. 

How did you decide to “go public?”

HM: I didn’t necessarily see myself in public service when I started law school—it evolved over time.  My first summer I clerked for a judge and loved the experience. I also worked for a disability law clinic and started to realize that so many people don’t understand how much laws impact their lives. After graduating I knew I wanted to do work that would help educate people about how to use the law to make changes in their lives.

THT: I went to Catholic schools all my life, which influenced my beliefs about the importance of public service. I wanted to serve the greater good in whatever way that would be. In law school my commitment to social justice eventually led me to legal work on behalf of American Indians, Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives.

What was your first job following law school?

HM: I graduated in a midterm election year. I’d always been intrigued by political campaigns and decided that if there was a time to do a campaign this was it!  I got in touch with Claire McCaskill’s Senate Campaign through a family friend. The people in charge of the campaign basically said, “Since you’re a law school grad you can do research and you can probably write. You’re hired.”  I was lucky enough to wind up in the press shop, and it turned out to be a great fit.  Lawyers are trained to distill complex ideas into clear terms that people can easily understand.  In many ways, press is similar—translating complex public policy into messages that resonate with a broad audience.

THT: During law school I did research on Indian law and property rights and it captured me in a way that I hadn’t expected.  I worked for an Indian law firm where there were (and still are) brilliant lawyers working on fascinating, complex, historical issues. I decided to follow my intellectual curiosity and interest in social justice. That “ah-ha moment” led to my first job as a lawyer in the public sector, Counsel to the Majority-Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, in Washington, D.C. Talk about topping out! 

How has your career evolved since then?

HM: After the campaign, I moved back to D.C. and couldn’t figure out my next steps.  My previous boss convinced me to continue to work in press, which I loved (and still do) because of the fast pace and variety of policy issues. Initially, I had to start near the bottom putting together press events. It was hard to swallow my pride and take what was nearly an entry-level job. However, the nice thing about Capitol Hill is that if you prove yourself you move up quickly—it took me less than two years to become a press secretary.

THT: I became interested in water issues while working on federal programs and legal settlements affecting tribes, state governments, local irrigators, and environmental groups. Water law is an area people respect because everyone needs water, especially in the West and Southwest. Coming from the Midwest, where water seems ever-present, water in the west has almost a mythical quality. Again, I followed my intellectual interests and sought out some of the best water lawyers to work with. I attended ABA conferences on water law to expand my professional network and met brilliant attorneys who were generous with their time and shaped my informal education on water matters. That’s how I transitioned to working for the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission.

Why should other women “go public?”

HM:  Law school is all about conforming to structure and “following the rules.”  It can be hard to think creatively.  It’s important to step back and remember that there are lots of ways to help people. If you don’t want to go “obvious” route of practicing law, public service is a great path. Coming out of law school, I realized that I wasn’t interested in the conventional legal career path. I had a general idea of what I wanted, but I have been flexible and continue to refine what I’m looking for while staying open to the possibilities that might be out there.

THT: Opportunities for women to run the world exist in the public sector, especially for young people. I’ll be honest; wages are often not what they should be in the public sector. However, I have yet to find private-sector experiences that, right out of the starting gate, give you the responsibilities and opportunities that are consistently available in the public sector. You’re not marginalized the way you may be in a traditional firm setting, plus the work is rewarding and exciting. I think women are particularly well suited to public sector work—they do an exceptionally good job at negotiating, facilitating, and considering the greater good when analyzing a particular matter.  I see women in federal and state government exhibit these qualities every day and I learn a lot by their example. 

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