Top takeaways from the 7th annual Ms. JD Conference: Stronger Together.

On Friday, March 6th, I had the pleasure of attending the 7th annual Ms. JD Conference, offered in partnership with UC Hastings College of the Law in downtown San Francisco. Ms. JD, a nonprofit organization headed by President Katie Larkin-Wong and Executive Director Heather Byrd Asher, works to increase opportunity and gender equality for women in the field of law from the earliest stages of their careers. 

This year's conference was focused around the theme "Stronger Together," and addressed special attention to diversity -- from intersectionality between minority groups to the inclusion of men in feminist movements.

Welcoming Remarks

The day began with a welcome from President Katie Larkin-Wong, followed by an introductory speech by UC Hastings professor Joan Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. Professor Williams discussed key problems women face in the legal workplace and suggested several ways for women -- and men working to advance the role of women -- to deal with these situations when they occur. 

By working strategically -- for instance, taking on projects with more responsibility and politely redirecting lower-level requests in order to move up from entry-level "paperclip duty" -- Professor Williams helped the audience see that it is possible for women to take their career advancement into their own hands.

Rising Together: Young Trailblazers

The first session of the day focused on leadership in law. After an introduction by moderator Raychelle Tasher, the panelists began a lively discussion of their early career inspirations, ranging from seeing women lawyer characters on television to writing a grade-school report on the US Constitution, and moved on to focus on ways for women to develop their leadership skills, both in law school and as lawyers. 

Law school programs are a great way to get started as a leader. For instance, doing work with an advocacy team can help you develop the skills you need to best advocate for yourself. Julie Silverbrook noted that school organizations may not cover your interests -- and that if you are in that circumstance, founding your own group can let you explore your interests and develop leadership skills simultaneously. 

As you work toward gaining leadership positions, Mika Mayer noted that it's important to let people know you're interested. Networking and communication are key among both peers and superiors. And, as Betty Chen mentioned, everyone has to eat -- so you can easily make new connections and strengthen old ones by asking people to grab lunch.

Passion and drive informed much of the leadership discussion. According to Myra McKenzie-Harris, it's important to do things you're passionate about because you will give those projects 110% -- which means you'll have a better effect in the end. If you are concerned about being able to achieve your ambitions, Nicole Chiu-Wang suggested that confidence in your own abilities is key. When opportunity arises, have faith in what you can learn and know you can rise to the occasion.

The panelists agreed that as women leaders, we face unique challenges, from balancing home and work tasks to dealing with gender bias. However, Julie made the point that when gender bias happens, it's not your problem -- it's their problem. You have your job because you can do it -- so stand tall and give it your best shot. 

Standing Together: Women's Initiatives and Affinity Groups

Moderator Sandra Yamate of the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession kicked off this discussion of intersectionality between women's groups and other diversity organizations by asking how we can make law a profession anyone can enter and rise within. Julius Truman of Reed Smith noted that we can all advance together if we can see others' perspectives and give our own. Mary Snapp added that we all have unique issues, but our human values are the same -- which gives us a way to relate and work for the benefit of all. 

The panel continued by asking why women's groups should seek to engage other diversity groups, and why a range of different diversity organizations are necessary. Joanne Villanueva of Latham and Watkins described her experience as the only woman of color in a women's group, noting that the lack of diversity sent a clear message that they weren't speaking to the entire population. UC Hastings student and NWLSO board member Julie Alarcon added that it is not only important to have organizations for women of color, but also to bring a diverse perspective to women's organizations. 

Linda Chanow of the University of Texas Center for Women in Law noted that to be inclusive, women's groups must proactively reach out to other student diversity organizations and give of themselves what they'd like to see from others. Overall, the panelists agreed that it is important to reach out to others and try to see from their perspectives while we also help them learn about our own.

Next, the panel discussed what law firms can do to encourage diversity. Julius explained that what really matters to a law firm is what their clients want -- such as more diverse attorneys. Mary gave examples of the different initiatives undertaken by her department at Microsoft, including offering financial awards to spur diversity. She noted that firms can simply try out different ideas and see what works best -- but also that if law firms want more diverse lawyers, it's important to attract diverse students to law schools. Ultimately, as Julie said, you want to work at a firm that accepts you and welcomes what you're doing as you balance your diverse interests with being a competitive lawyer.

Finally, the panel examined the importance of working through our own individual biases. As Linda said, until we understand our own biases, how can we discuss the biases of others? Biases are complicated, so we all need to realize that we're going to make mistakes -- but that we can also acknowledge those mistakes and strive to do better in the future.

The Incredible Men (TIM) Initiative

One of Ms. JD's newest programs, The Incredible Men (TIM) Initiative focuses on inviting men to participate in the feminist and gender equality movement in the law profession. 

This lunchtime panel began with a hot-button question: can men be feminists? Panelist and Ms. JD board member Tim Miller argued that men can certainly be feminists, but that the term is highly charged, so we need to take it back. Gordon Endow of Gordon and Rees added that men can only be feminists up to a point because they do not have women's gendered experience, so they need help and guidance to truly understand the situation. He noted that it's incumbent on all of us to speak up and educate people who don't understand what feminism is or why it should be important to all.

The panelists agreed that feminism should be a concern for all genders, and that it may be a good strategy to frame the concept of feminism differently -- as fairness or justice -- in order to garner support from men. Malcolm Heinicke noted that familiarity -- building friendships and relationships with men -- can also help women bring up issues of gender bias, and make men more likely to respond well to these difficult discussions.

To improve the situation of women in the legal profession, the panel shared a variety of ideas, from creating strong mentoring programs to pushing for more inclusive firm policies. As women, we can improve our situation by demanding fair treatment -- for instance, participating in closed-door meetings -- to reject old taboos and fears and bring us more acceptance in the workplace.

Pay It Forward: The Importance of Mentoring Programs

This panel discussed the crucial value of mentorship and sponsorship in building a strong legal career. Having a mentor will be important at every stage of your legal career. As Lori Trujillo of Sidley Austin said, if you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room.

We began with a discussion of formal and informal mentorship. Panelists agreed that it's a good idea to take advantage of formal programs when available, but that it's also a good idea to search out informal mentorship opportunities. As Tina Hua noted, you shouldn't underestimate the power of chatting over coffee. Lori gave the excellent advice that anytime someone reaches out to you and offers advice, take it, because you will always get something from it. Ray Ocampo mentioned that throughout his career, he had mentors, but didn't really realize it. He recommended asking potential mentors for help and advice straightforwardly. 

Ending a mentor relationship can be fraught, but the panelists agreed that law students and lawyers should not burn bridges. Instead, it's a good plan to talk to your mentor about exploring a different area. As Ray mentioned, the best way to transition to a new mentor is to ask for a reference.

Next, the panel tackled the complexities of being a good mentor or mentee. Tina noted that as a mentor, you don't want to feel like your time is being wasted, so mentees should bring specific questions to the table. Lori added that if you're wasting time, you're wasting billable hours, and that you shouldn't treat mentor like your therapist. Sonya Rahders said that as a mentee, you must be the instigator -- it's your job to make calls & ask questions. Essentially, you should come prepared with a good reason to talk to your mentor, use their time well, and thank them for their help.

The last question of the panel concerned how to find a mentor. Tina gave a succinct outline of how to make contact with a potential mentor. After targeting an appropriate mentor -- generally someone a level or two above you in school or firm hierarchy -- make a cold call or ask for an introduction from a friend or colleague. In your discussion, be specific about what you're looking for and directly ask for advice. Give them options, suggesting either a lunch meeting or 15 minutes over coffee. Finally, thank them for their time, and if they aren't able to help you, ask if they have a connection you can contact instead.

Planning for the Future Together

In this final session of the conference, participants had the choice of attending one of five breakout sessions: Clerkship Application, Fellowship Application, How to Write a Grant, How to Write a Business Plan, or How to Succeed as an Early Associate. I chose the last session, and was wowed by the insights presented by the panel. 

This panel began with a question about each panelist's biggest mistake on the job -- an enlightening discussion that highlighted how everyone was once in the same first-year associate boat. The panelists emphasized that after making a mistake, it's important to have the courage to get back up and try again.

Next, the panel turned to relationship-building and law firm economics. Grover Cleveland said that women lawyers should focus on how to gain power in their law firms. If you have power, you can build kind of career that works for you and help make important firm decisions. To make yourself indispensable to senior partners, it's critical to clarify your assignments and understand how they provide value to the client. Also, because lawyers use words to create outcomes, work to be as persuasive as possible. The panel cited Amy Cuddy's research about using power poses to present yourself well [VIDEO], noting that the way you hold yourself affects not only others but you yourself. 

The discussion moved on to how to get help and support at work. The most important thing to do, according to Luann Simmons of O'Melveny and Myers, is simply to ask. She stressed using your resources -- from assistants and paralegals, who have probably done these tasks hundreds of times, to looking things up in technical documentation -- to do your homework before taking questions to senior partners. Katie Larkin-Wong added that you shouldn't underestimate the value of people right above you, such as 2nd and 3rd year associates, who have probably dealt with very similar problems in the past. 

Next, the panel turned to meeting client needs. To understand the big picture for each client, Janet Wallace said it's key to ask questions. Spending time getting to know their business needs is important, because you need to be able to give them guidance beyond what they think they need. Bethany Kristovich of Munger, Tolles, & Olson stressed the importance of growing and learning, recommending that you don't take on the same role in every case. Instead of focusing on developing a specialization, focus on developing broader expertise. 

Work-life integration can be a challenge for new associates. Katie noted that you have to take control of your own career and decide what your boundaries are. Bethany added that in a busy life, you may want to consider not focusing as much on lower-stakes issues. You may instead deliberately choose to outsource lower priorities, such as laundry. But setting boundaries between work and life is not the only issue. As Luann said, it's a constant struggle to set good boundaries at work as well. You will need to set boundaries to prioritize the most important projects and get them done -- without getting sucked into other work.

The panel closed with a shower of career advice. Katie recommended that law students network, take a wide variety of courses, take initiative, and own their projects. Keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes -- but don't make the same mistake multiple times. Grover advised that students make a habit of looking for ways to be more helpful and anticipate the needs of people who will mentor and sponsor them. Take the initiative to learn and grow, so you can provide more value to the client and get more power in return. Bethany recommended that students develop good habits in law school, because these habits will also carry over into your career. Know yourself and don't complain. If you want something to change, change it. Luann noted that women are less likely to grab opportunities outside their comfort zone. She recommended having confidence and trying new things -- but never throwing anyone under the bus. Finally, Janet recommended asking for feedback and being kind to everyone. 

PASS it Forward Reception

The conference closed with a bang at a cocktail reception where participants had the chance to network and make new connections with law students, practicing lawyers, Ms. JD board members and volunteers, and more. 

This year's Ms. JD conference was a great success. It was a wonderful experience to meet so many law students and lawyers focused on making their career dreams a reality -- and on working to help others succeed in the legal profession as well. The theme of Stronger Together really did shine through in all the participants did.

Thanks again to everyone at Ms. JD for hosting such a valuable event -- and for all the work you do in advocating for young women lawyers across the country. 

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