By Jeanne Ortiz • February 16, 2016•Ms. JD, Conference, Careers, Firms and the Private Sector, Other Career Issues, Law School, Choosing a Career and Landing a Job, Issues, •Balancing Private and Professional Life, Mentoring and Networking, Features, Guest Bloggers and Profiles of Women in the Law, Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them
Each year, the Ms. JD Honors recognize exceptional members of our community in connection with our annual conference. This year, our Eighth Annual Conference, Superwomen JDs, will take place at NYU School of Law on Friday, February 19, with the Awards Reception taking place from 4:30 to 6:30 pm. This is a great opportunity to network and meet extraordinary women and men from around the country. There's still time to register!
The Sharing Her Passion Award is given to a woman who has practiced for more than ten years and who inspires young career women lawyers through sponsorship, mentorship, and by sharing her passion for the practice of law. This year's awardee for this honor is the amazing Denise Henning.
Denise is an attorney in Kansas City, Missouri. She represents plaintiffs who have been victims of personal injury, wrongful death, medical malpractice, and transportation-related injuries. She has mentored both men and women in the profession and encourages young women attorneys to seek meaningful connections throughout their careers. Her many awards are proof of the incredible work she does, which include the "Women Who Mean Business Award," the "Woman of the Year" by the Association for Women Lawyers, the "Best of the Bar" for Kansas City, and one of the "Top 50 Women Lawyers" in Missouri and Kansas. She created a program called "Connections" where experienced women lawyers are paired with younger ones for mentorship opportunities. Denise is the definition of passion, as she continues to help others not only through her practice, but also by serving in organizations that help women and children and by raising funds for the Henning Family Foundation, created in memory of her husband, Tim. I had the honor of interviewing her to give our readers an insight on her career success and experience as a woman in the profession.
Q: You are the recipient for the Sharing her Passion Award this year. What was your reaction when you received the news?
Denise: I was truly honored. I won't be able to make it to New York this Friday but I think what Ms. JD is doing is wonderful. I couldn't be more honored to receive the award.
Q: What does passion mean to you?
Denise: Passion for me is finding what you love to do and giving it all. It means putting heart and soul into what you do. It also means being good to others. I love my clients and helping the little guy. To me, that's what passion represents, being able to help others while working hard for it.
Q: You have an amazing record of recognition, including receiving awards that highlight your work as a woman in the profession. How does it feel to keep inspiring women?
Denise: I knew from the beginning this is what I wanted to do. In a profession that is still male-dominated, I really want women to help other women. That was the idea behind the Connections program for the Association for Women Lawyers. I don't want younger women to feel afraid. I want them to know they can have access to experienced people, which is often a hard thing to do. Through the program, I also wish to improve the number of women on the bench, at higher levels.
Q: Part of Ms. JD’s work consists of addressing challenges that women still face in the legal profession. As a woman, what type of challenges, if any, have you faced throughout your career? If so, how did you overcome them?
Denise: I think we still face many challenges. In my 24 years of practice, I can say there's been progress, but it has been very slow. That's why I think more experienced women want to help younger ones. It's part of branching out, not just accepting a job that you don't like. It's essential to help younger generations to overcome these challenges. We have to be willing to sit down with each other in order for that to happen. We still face discrimination and an example is how we're still treated differently than men in many situations. That's another reason I want to see more women on the bench. We need people to nominate the women. Women often have to put in more work to get recognized and I hope that by supporting one another we can completely change that.
Q: You've already mentioned the Connections program. Can you tell me more about it and how it was created?
Denise: Yes, I came up with the idea for it to promote mentorship opportunities. It's a group of ten women, five young attorneys and five experienced ones. We match them up and switch them every year so the mentees have a new mentor every year. It's a five-year program that allows the younger women to know about the variety in law and all the opportunities in the profession. At the end of the program, we hope they can feel connected to at least one of the mentors and their practice. We want women to know what they want after having experienced a mentoring relationship with the older women. Connections makes that network possible, it facilitates it. Interestingly, the mentors say they get more out of the mentees. It's an event for every participant.
Q: I understand you had your own mentor, Judge Patricia Breckenridge. Can you tell me more about how that worked and your relationship with her?
Denise: Oh, she was definitely a great mentor for me. I've also had male mentors but Judge Breckenridge was always willing to give her time and advice. She has a great personality and I learned a lot from her.
Q: Ms. JD supports programs that also promote mentorship, such as the Ms. JD Fellowship and the National Women Law Students' Organization. Why do you think mentorship is so important? What can women get out of it?
Denise: I think mentorship is very important for any young person, not just women. Finding a mentor is key for your career. Men often do this on their own. For some women, it doesn't come as naturally. We're not as intentional about it and there's a number of reasons that might explain that, such as taking more responsibilities at home. After a long day, we might think that a cocktail network party will only take more of our energy. We underestimate the results that an event like that might give us. That's what Connections does, we facilitate that process.
Q: You have a fascinating track record in representing victims who have been injured in a number of ways. What would you say to law students who aspire to your same line of work?
Denise: I would say it's the best job you can have in the legal profession. It is incredibly rewarding. My clients are people who have been hurt. They need someone in their corner to help them. I can say I have had the opportunity to represent amazing people. I have cases where the defendant has failed to take responsibility for fixing a known defect like a part in a car or a product that is defective. They have also failed to audit a truck drivers' hours and enforce the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. At the end of the day, the point is that my client has been hurt and needs to be compensated for that. My client needs a lawyer to hold the defendant accountable for the injury they have caused my client. A lot of risks come with taking on cases like these and I think that may be one of the reasons women hold back. I hope more women take charge though, because I believe we're uniquely qualified to represent plaintiffs in tort claims. We connect more with people and the jury.
Q: You're also a solo practitioner. What has been the best thing about founding your own firm? What advice would you give to women who want to follow the same path?
Denise: Get help. Hire a consultant if you can afford it. Seek help from someone who knows about insurance and staffing. Outsource as much as you can. Hire independent contractors if possible. For example, doing your own payroll can take an incredible amount of time, time that can be used to build your case. I would say that it's been a great experience for me but it really helps to have other people do work that you don't necessarily have to do.
Q: Ms. JD also has a program called The Incredible Men Initiative (TIM). It celebrates men who value and advocate for equality and diversity in the legal profession and support women’s achievements. Do you think men should have an active role in promoting women in the law? If so, what should they do?
Denise: Yes, they should definitely have an active role. I've had male mentors myself. They should be more aware of the issues or challenges women still face in the profession. Treat us as your equal. I've also mentored young male attorneys and you come to realize that gender doesn't matter when it comes to achieving the same goal as an attorney. Both men and women can serve as mentors. It's a responsibility we all have.
Q: I think our audience would be very interested to know how you have been able to manage everything and been so successful. The million dollar question is how do you do it? What has been key to balancing personal and professional life?
Denise: Balance is always the big question. I honestly don't have the perfect answer. I had a very supportive husband, friends, and wonderful paralegals. I would say find your support network, even if it means paying for it sometimes. If you can afford someone to clean the house or a daycare then that's something less you have to worry about. The ultimate goal, of course, is not having to pay so much for this help but it's definitely something worth considering when you're trying to get your career off the ground. Decide what is important in your practice. Analyze the work you invest in a case and what you're getting as a result. Try not to do everything. Find the best you can do and stick to it.
Q: What is the ONE thing you believe women entering the legal practice should know or have in mind?
Denise: They need to network. It's not just meeting a lawyer at a cocktail party. It's about forming a relationship. The thing that worked for me was getting on boards or committees. You get to know people and they can see you have a genuine interest in whatever you seek to work on. That might even lead to getting clients.
Q: Anything else you would want to say to the Ms. JD network?
Denise: Yes. When we start out, we think we have to do everything. Sitting down and making goals is extremely important. Picking out the organizations you want to be a part of is too. Having a plan, even though it might not always work, is key. For example, in our firm we discuss and plan the cases we want to settle. We actually put it down on paper so in a way it stays subconsciously in your mind. That helps a lot in achieving your goals. I would also say be intentional about networking and helping people. Pinpoint the people in the profession that you look up to and work on building a relationship with them. Thank you so much for this award, too. It's a great honor.
For a complete list of the Ms. JD Honors awardees, please click here. We hope to see you there!