Joint Journeys to Making an Impact on Women in the Law: Mentorship & Colleagues Inspiring Each Other
By Molly Brummond • August 20, 2018•Issues, Mentoring and Networking
Molly Brummond, Assistant Dean for External Relations and Strategic Initiatives,
Elsbeth Magilton, Executive Director of the Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law Program
University of Nebraska, College of Law
Mentorship takes many forms, not the least of which is collaboration. This article, co-written from individual perspectives by two female attorneys in higher education leadership, boils down to the importance of finding role models who inspire us, mentors who support us, and friends who are capable of saying, “muscle up, buttercup.”
A few years back my mentor and colleague, Molly Brummond, and I attended a “Women’s Conference” that shall remain unnamed. You know the type to which I’m referring. There was ample discussion of leave policies, work-life balance, the battle cry for wage equality, and so on. I understand I sound callous. I recognize these types of events can truly inspire and empower people but my frustration as I walked out the door was that I still didn’t feel like I knew what to do about any of it. I felt cynical and frustrated. I felt like I needed data-driven action steps. I think Molly felt the same frustration.
Shortly after that time, we embarked on two different journeys.
Over the past two years I have dived into learning how to support and retain women in technical fields, specifically in law and policy tech, aerospace, and defense sectors. I am particularly passionate about tech because I came into law with background in computer programming and website development. I found myself in a unique but rapidly expanding field of the law: the intersection of law and technology as it applies to so many fields. My goal was to figure out how to use my place in the universe to support the women who love the same fields I do.
The only problem was I had no idea how to do it.
I, too, left the conference Elsbeth mentioned, feeling disenchanted. I am not as data driven as Elsbeth, so my main complaint was that this conference, like so many others I had attended, left me feeling down rather than inspired, with minimal direction as to my role in the progress I so hoped to see for women both in the legal profession and in leadership more generally.
Not long after that conference, however, I was approached by an alumna (Deborah Gilg, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Nebraska) who had attended the Center for Women in Law’s (CWIL) 2015 Power Summit. Deb was so inspired by the Power Summit that she wanted to plan a similar event for women lawyers in Nebraska. She knew that, given my role and areas of interest, this opportunity would be something I was willing to explore. After talking with her in depth about her experience, I learned of the powerful network of women lawyers being built through the CWIL’s conference. I also learned of the incredible progress within the profession that was being made as a result of that network. Convinced, I knew the next step was getting buy-in from Richard Moberly who, at the time, was Nebraska Law’s interim dean. Fortunately, it was a quick “yes!”
Once we received the “go ahead,” planning the conference began in ernst. The theme that we quickly landed on: women’s leadership. Here are two things you need to know about why we settled on that particular topic. First, leadership is something that I have studied both formally and informally for two decades, beginning when I was a freshman in college. Second, this planning was happening during the summer and early fall of 2016. A presidential election was just around the corner and, for me, the hope and belief that the U.S. would elect its first female president was sky high. So, the planning of a conference for women, by women on women in leadership seemed a no-brainer. Our goal was to bring together women to learn from the stories of leadership successes, failures, and lessons learned along the way by women leaders.
With this goal in mind, Nebraska Law’s Women Leading in Law, Business & Philanthropy was born and scheduled for March 3, 2017.
My research into retaining and supporting women in technology and aerospace is far from scientific. I’m not a social scientist (I just play one on blogs). My first step was figuring out how to think about this issue. I started with a group of women I really admire—my program alumnae. I focused on women who have been practicing in the tech or aerospace fields for five or more years. I identified several women who fit the bill, and more importantly, responded to my emails. They ranged from women I knew very well, including personal friends, to women I only knew professionally.
Most interviews turned into natural conversations, but I usually started with a set list of interview questions, such as, “Did your higher-ed experiences prepare you for varied communication styles and other workplace realities?” or “During your education—at any institution—did you receive mentoring or workshops on dealing with perceived or actual inequality in the workplace?”
I had no idea what to expect from these conversations. I didn't even know what I was leading up to. I just knew my singular perspective wasn’t enough to enact effective change. This is where things got personal for me. I have spent over 26 hours talking to women about their stories, their love of science and technology, their successes, their failures, and so much more. I cried and laughed with these women. Before I even reviewed the interviews, I was changed by this process.
Around this time Molly’s Women in Leadership Conference happened. To say I was inspired would be a major understatement.
On March 3, 2017, approximately 250 attendees gathered for the half-day conference on Women Leading in Law, Business & Philanthropy. And, I think I speak for the majority of the speakers and attendees, it was absolute magic!
The session topics ranged from grit and growth mindset, to success in a variety of different careers, to why women should and must lead in all settings. From all of these sessions, I found four themes emerge as to how these women effectively claimed power and became leaders in their respective fields. (Maybe I’m more data driven than I thought!) First, panelists and keynote presenters identified their successes as being a result of being well-rounded individuals. As one panelist succinctly put it, “Being an outstanding technician is the floor, not the ceiling.” The second theme to emerge was one of grit and growth mindset. As one speaker shared, “You must have the ability to get up and keep going. ‘No,’ simply means ‘not yet.’” The third theme that quickly became evident was the need for women to move forward with eyes wide open with respect to culture, people, and opportunity. This power of observation ultimately allowed these leaders to seek new opportunities, become effective influencers, and work more collaboratively. And, finally, the fourth theme: women’s success ultimately results from risk-taking.The keynote speakers and the panelists all articulated in one way or another how risk-taking played a role in their biggest successes; and, from my observation, those risks were taken both within and outside of organizations. For some panelists, risks were taken by asking for assignments within their organization but outside of their areas of expertise. For others, risk was pursuing an opportunity completely outside of their practice. These risks all occurred because they said, “I can! Pick me.”
Ultimately, I left the conference knowing that this fourth theme – risk-taking – was something that I could very easily apply in my own life and, in particular, within my work at Nebraska Law. Looking back, the conference itself was the result of two women taking a risk. Deb Gilg attended the CWIL’s Power Summit in 2015 and thought “I can do this at Nebraska. I just need the right partner.” When she approached me, the College of Law was in transition and I had a new boss, but I said, “This is important work. I will ask.” And, I did. And, we did. The result was the largest conference ever held at Nebraska Law - one in which professional connections and mentoring relationships were formed, and attendees left inspired. More important, attendees left asking, “What’s next?” So, it became evident to me that there were more risks to be taken.
Like Molly, the Women Leading in Law, Business & Philanthropy conference inspired me to take further action. I took the hours of interviews I collected and I started charting the data – what topics, tips, problems, and experiences popped up with the most repetition? I identified common problems and solutions and took note of the outliers. That gave me a good problem set. I just needed to identify what I could do to solve the problems. I used our Dean’s favorite approach to evaluations: “Start. Stop. Keep.” to organize their advice.
I put all the advice and recommendations I pulled from these women and I submitted the idea to a regional Women in I.T. conference, “Women Advancing the Future of Information Technology in Higher Ed” hosted at Nebraska Innovation Campus and I called it “Empowering Women to Bridge the Gap Between Law & Technology.” My audience was small but incredibly engaged. The feedback I received included moments of true empathy... and comments on the length.
I narrowed my focus and I talked about the project and the presentation to anyone who would listen. One of my (then) current students, a remarkable woman in STEM herself, asked me to come to her stomping grounds in Seattle to deliver my message to the Women Who Launch and Seattle Space Gals networking groups at the Seattle Museum of Flight. The museum projected my presentation on a space shuttle (ok, only briefly, but still, On. The. Shuttle). I was a nervous, delighted wreck. I spoke to roughly 75-80 women that night and my passion was ignited. This group not only included attorneys, but engineers, scientists, pilots, and more. Women’s stories, and the conclusions I drew from them, were deeply impacting the women I talked to.
I took those two experience and I started writing. The next month, February 2018, I published my story on the project in the American Bar Association Law Practice Today Journal. Since that publication I’ve been asked my multiple women’s groups, at law schools, and professional organizations, to come share the collective wisdom I am building.
While Elsbeth had begun traveling around to share her work more broadly, I stayed closer to home and committed myself to building Nebraska Law’s Women’s Leadership Initiative. Still basking in the glow of our conference, I had the great fortune of attending the CWIL’s 2017 Power Summit - the conference that inspired it all - one month later. Before my arrival, I had already begun to dream of how Nebraska Law’s Women’s Leadership Initiative could grow beyond our conference and plan for my next risk.
At the end of the Power Summit, we were tasked with setting goals for our “Manifesto Moment.” I wrote the following:
- “Today I will make another connection that will serve as a resource for Nebraska Law’s Women’s Leadership Initiative.
- “In the next 3 months, I am going to solidify a 2-year plan for Nebraska Law’s Women’s Leadership Initiative building upon the success of our first conference.
- “In the next year, I will execute braintrust programming for specific targets, i.e. students, associates, women in management.”
How did I progress on these goals?
That afternoon, I met Danielle Allison, the executive director of Ms. JD. She was just a few months into her role, but this connection is one that I would call on more than a year after this meeting. (I’ll get to that in a minute!)
In the three months that followed the Power Summit, I did solidify that 2 year plan. It included planning and executing the braintrust programming (New! Now. Next?) that I had envisioned in my year-term goal. In 2017-2018, the New! Associate Acceleration Academy (a group of 14 associates) met monthly to learn about the business of law, establishing a professional brand, communicating effectively, and taking a strengths-based approach to the profession, among other things. Also over the course of that year, the Now. Leadership Cohort brought together 14 women who were in leadership roles within their respective organizations. This group met every-other month for very specific leadership training. Finally, the Next? Lunch Series didn’t get off the ground like I had hoped, simply because I ran out of time. Women from this target market did, however, gather for an incredible “Breaking Into the Boardroom” conference that was co-sponsored by DirectWomen.
Currently, I am recruiting members for the second classes of the New! and Now. braintrust groups because I saw first hand how strong the need was for professional networks and how much participants valued the opportunity to build them with women who were similarly situated in their careers.
And, remember that connection to Danielle I made? I am happy to report that she and I have been working on Accelerate 2018: Grow. Rise. Lead. - a conference that we will host at Nebraska Law this fall for women law students across the Midwest. On November 1-2, Accelerate 2018 is a conference filled with mentoring, networking, and learning from women judges, partners, in house counsel, and associates about what it takes to succeed in the legal profession.
Sound exhausting? It absolutely is. But, it is also some of the most exhilarating work that I have ever done. It has required incredible risk-taking. I have had to stretch myself beyond what I thought I could do. I have had to ask for more help than I have ever had to before. It has required me to boldly state my vision out loud for all to hear. I have been overwhelmed by it more times than I can count.
The entire experience has reminded me, though, of an African proverb that tells us that if we want to go fast, go alone, but if we want to go far, go together. That is what this initiative is all about: bringing women together so that we can advance further in all that we do. And, it is my great pleasure to be part of that bringing together.
As I prepare for future presentations on this subject and continue to consider how I can best support women in aerospace, I perceive a lack of a professional networks for women in technology, particularly as it relates to the law, in the midwest. I am aware of multiple, large (awesome, wonderful) professional women’s groups for women in aerospace and technology on both coasts, but that wide coverage feels lacking here in the Silicon Prairie. Certainly many small groups are doing remarkable things to connect and empower women, but the coverage gap feels like a sizable opportunity for the law college.
Not wanting to recreate the wheel, I immediately went to Molly - our resident expert in creating professional women’s groups, workshops, cohorts, and conferences.We are still imagining what a Women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Policy and Law practice group for the midwest may look like. As we work to define our goals and vision for this chapter in both our stories, we elected to first seek feedback.
The Space, Cyber, and Telecommunications Law program hosts an annual space law conference in Washington DC. This year, the evening before the conference, we’ll be hosting a “Women’s Mixer” asking our colleagues, friends, and professional networks specializing in STEM and defense law and policy to join us for an evening of networking and feedback. It’s my hope that this event, and the feedback a gathering of professional women in adjacent practice areas can provide, will help us shape and guide new resources for tech interested female attorneys across the midwest.
So what? We hope that our respective stories inspire you to see a path forward for your own journey as it relates to the advancement of women in the legal profession! There is no shortage of this work to be sure.
We were inspired by the same underwhelming conference in similar yet very different ways. Both of us found ways to use our respective professional roles as a platform for connecting, empowering, and supporting women in male dominated professions. We both followed our instincts and tooks some professional risks along the way.
The means by which we did this important work were different, but equally impactful. One of us stayed close to home; the other examined the issue nationally. One of us studied the issues faced in an industry-specific environment; one of us looked at the broader legal profession. But, despite those differences, both projects revealed a similar truth: there is a hunger for opportunities in which women learn from and mentor other women in the legal profession.
Our hope is that you will join us in these efforts. If you are a student, take advantage of every opportunity to make a connection to a woman lawyer. Take it a step further and invite one of your colleagues to join you. Connect her, too! If you are a woman lawyer (practicing in the traditional sense or not), find a mentor. Be a mentor. Look around and figure out how to bring women together, either formally or informally, to talk about the unwritten rules of practicing in your field, what grit looks like in your business, how to ask for advancement. This sharing builds women up and helps them succeed. Be a part of it!
We have found this work to be complex, difficult, frustrating, and ultimately remarkably rewarding.The road is not an easy one, but one that is greatly improved by collaboration, shared passion, and usually a glass of wine.