By Noha Sidhom • March 15, 2009•Superwomen JDs and What You Can Learn From Them
Bio for this week's Superwoman JD Diane Russell:
Diane has practiced law since 1986, including six years with the Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. She has been a trustee with the Kitsap County Bar Association, president and vice president of the Washington Women Lawyers, Kitsap County Chapter and a board member and president of the Silverdale Chamber of Commerce. Diane has twice been recognized as a Rising Star in the Washington Law and Politics magazine, a recognition for young professionals with the talent to make it to the top of their field who are age 40 and under. She has served as a faculty advisor for the Career Prosecutor Course put on by the National College for District Attorneys. She is a true leader in the profession.
1. How has being a woman affected your career or legal education?
My (female) guidance counselor in high school strongly steered me away from law school, she pushed me very hard to be a legal secretary – she stated why go through college and law school when I would probably get married and waste all the education. She was not sure that I was smart enough to be an attorney. I was stubborn. Then when she found an article on paralegals, she pushed hard for me to do that. I was almost swayed – girls were not to be lawyers – ever. If my gender had been male, I would have received guidance and encouragement. I was fortunate that my parents were friends with a “career woman” who absolutely encouraged me to enter law school following college. I did not receive encouragement from my high school teachers or counselors – my parents listened to the guidance counselor with one ear – my mother often stated that I would get married and drop out of college – a common misperception facing women at the time. (She is now very sorry she made those statements, but has admitted that she was a bit jealous because the opportunity to even enter college was not there for her – I fully understand her position. Once I started law school, she was my number one champion).
2. What advice do you wish someone had given you when you first started practicing law?
Try to gain balance in your professional and personal life.
3. What do you think the legal profession can do to increase the number of senior level females?
Women and men need to mentor each other. We need to respect and value non-economic contributions of others. Women need to establish firms that can accommodate mothers and non-mothers without discriminating against each other (i.e. non-mothers expected to work during holiday weeks so mothers can take time off).
4. Being a first year attorney anywhere is tough. How do you think young attorneys can really hone their skills in their first few years?
Become a prosecutor or public defender. Get real trial experience.
5. Our profession is male dominated. How can young women balance being feminine and professional at the same time? I meet many women that simply act like one of the boys; I do not think that is the solution. Do you have any advice for handling social situations, outings with clients, etc.?
This is a tough one. Be yourself. If you like shopping for shoes, why hide it? If your client is a woman who shares that interest, why not go shoe shopping or to a spa? Also learn about typically male dominated areas so you can also communicate with male attorneys and clients – baseball, football, soccer. If your clients are males, go to a sporting event that you enjoy. I think once you understand the way the games are played, there is at least one sport women should enjoy – skiing, women’s soccer, fast pitch.
6. There is a perception that senior female attorneys think that they had it tough and so should you. Do you think that this sentiment is true? If so, do you think there is value in figuring things out on your own like women before you had to?
I don’t know that I have encountered this perception. I am aware of the difficulties women have faced entering into the profession and I respect the challenges senior female attorneys have faced. One way to address this sentiment might be to have a luncheon where senior female attorneys are honored – when they have an opportunity to tell the stories of blatant discrimination they faced. I organized such a meeting – it was well attended by both senior and young attorneys. It was worth while because the seniors realized that younger women attorneys recognized the struggles faced by them; there was mutual respect and admiration. We cannot forget the struggles faced by the pioneering women attorneys who have made our lives better.
7. What advice do you have for young female attorneys looking for a mentor? Do you feel that there is added value in finding a female mentor? What should they be looking for in a mentor, and what can they do to make themselves someone you would want to mentor?
I don’t think that a mentor needs to be female; however, if you have a male mentor, the mentor needs to be one who understands and does not engage or encourage subtle discrimination against women. If your mentor is a male partner, he should absolutely shut down another attorney who bypasses you. For example, I was litigating a case where the male attorney felt that I and my client needed to settle on his terms. My client and I believed we had a strong defense and refused to settle. The attorney went to my partner and tried to use the “old boy” game to get my partner to make me settle. “That “girl” lawyer won’t take my [crappy] deal.” My partner shut him down immediately and stated that it was my case and that he would not entertain any discussion that ran around me and my client.
8. We all have to make sacrifices for our careers, what sacrifices have you made and which would you make again?
Student loans – I was earning $19,000 per year as a deputy prosecuting attorney and my student loan repayments were $500 per month. I know how to economize!
9. What is your favorite thing about being a lawyer? I am sure you have a moment of achievement that made the sacrifices seem worth it. Can you tell us about a highlight in your career?
I received the Professionalism Award from our local bar association in January – the award is to recognize continued excellence in the practice of law. I am very proud to have been honored by my peers.
10. Men still get paid more and get promoted faster. What advice do you have for young women to help them accelerate their careers?
Unfortunately, we are still in a quandary because only women can carry babies. There has not been universal respect or recognition of this dilemma by men. Taking time off for children or the perception that women will take time off to be mommies, in my opinion, creates this distinction. Men generally do not contribute equally to the child rearing/house caring responsibilities. Unless you earn enough money to hire house cleaners, nannies, shoppers, etc., we will be disadvantaged. The best way to accelerate a career is by earning litigation skills, then business skills, and then being your own boss – where you can define what success is to you by your standards. I don’t have to bill X number of hours or earn more money to feel successful. I have established an amount that I live comfortably on and measure my success by individual results – a good divorce settlement, a good plea bargain, a tough mediation that settles . . . whatever it is that I am able to feel good about. Success does not always have to be defined in economic terms. We don’t celebrate our non-economic successes enough.
11. What are your interests/hobbies outside of the legal practice? How important do you think those interests/hobbies have been in maintaining some work life balance?
About twelve years ago, I felt that everyone was happy but me. I went to a seminar and learned that everyone goes through different seasons in life – I was in my winter and needed to figure out a business plan for my life to jump me into a spring or summer season. I did some soul searching – did I want to still be a lawyer? Yes. What else would balance me out? My passion is travel and travel photography. I rearranged my priorities and started to travel at least once each year; I have traveled to Mexico once, Canada three times and Europe eight times, and East Africa once since that seminar – I’m heading to Turkey in June. Practice your passions!
12. What has changed the most and the least since you started practicing law? How have these changes affected you?
The number of women in the profession. The blatant/overt discrimination is gone. Discrimination is more subtle now.
13. If you could go back, what would you have done differently in how you approached your legal education and career?
If I had the knowledge that I have now, I would have approached my legal education and career so that if I wanted a change, it would have been financially possible. I took out substantial student loans and in the mid 80s the interest rates for student loans were at 13% - many of which accrued interest while I was in law school. I did not have the luxury of changing or reshaping my career because of finances. I should have taken out a student loan in the early 80s to lock in a lower interest rate, or purchased a house and then taken out a home loan to pay for law school. Other, than that, I probably would do things the same.
14. What is one change you would like to see in the legal profession in the next 20 years?
Less animosity and more professionalism (this is nothing new).
15. If you could give one piece of advice to new female lawyers, what would it be?
Always dress appropriately (people do still judge by appearance), always return phone calls in 24 hours, always listen to clients and opposing counsel carefully and consider their position (even if you are rejecting it), always be prepared, always be professional (even if you have to write a letter expressing your true feelings and then delete it).
A Message from the Author:
This column is a Q&A with senior level female attorneys offering advice and mentorship to young female lawyers. The questions below were sent to the interviewees and responses have not been edited for content. The advice, experiences, personalities, and approaches of these women are extremely diverse and more importantly very useful to future generations of female attorneys. I hope this column will offer helpful advice, and inspire healthy discussions. I have an exciting lineup of female leaders in the profession, but if you have someone you would like to nominate, or you yourself would like to be interviewed, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bio for the author of the column:
Noha Sidhom is a proud graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law. Before attending law school, Noha interned on Capitol Hill for the Honorable Charles Timothy Hagel and went on to campaign for Senate candidate Peter Ricketts. During law school, she clerked at Husch Blackwell Sanders, formerly Blackwell Sanders. She also did an internship at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of Enforcement and an internship at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, where she is now an attorney in the Office of General Counsel. Noha is licensed in New York and New Jersey, and currently resides with her husband in Washington, D.C.