The best piece of advice I ever received on developing my own career came from one of my law school professors, Lani Guinier. In my third year of law school, I took her capstone course on Practicing Public Interest Law. However, by that point, it had become apparent to me that, due in part to financial constraints created by my student loans, I might not in fact be practicing public interest law upon graduation. Despite my goal of becoming a lawyer to further my commitment to social justice and serve the public good, it looked pretty likely that I would end up accepting a job offer an a law firm (a great firm that had many partners who were committed to pro bono work, to be sure, but it wasn’t exactly Legal Aid).
On the last day of class, before she sent most of her students out into the world of Corporate America with heavy hearts and down-trodden dreams of serving the public, she offered a piece of advice that has stayed with me ever since, and guided my post-graduate vision of my career.
“Create your own personal board of directors. Throughout your life, enlist people who inspire you, believe in you, and support your vision. Appoint them to your personal board of directors, and make them hold you accountable to your vision for your own career and your own life.”
With this advice, I went forward from Harvard and into the practice of law.
But first, I appointed a director to the Board. Another professor of mine, Diane Rosenfeld, had served as the faculty advisor to the student organization that I ran, Students Organized for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. She had overseen my third year paper on integrated sexual violence courts in South Africa, and had come to know me well through my participation in her seminars on Gender and Law.
Professor Rosenfeld knew that I wanted to work in the field of women’s rights advocacy, and had dreams of using my legal skills to serve the public good. While she encouraged me to go straight into public interest law, she also knew that I wanted to go to work in a law firm to gain some practical litigation experience, develop some marketable legal skills, and secure my financial future. She was honored to be appointed to “my Board” and promised to help me never lose sight of my vision.
When I got to my law firm, I found another unlikely candidate for the Board. My mentor at the firm was a gregarious securities lawyer who was well-known for his commitment to recruiting the top law students to our firm each year, and for his brilliant legal mind, tireless work ethic, and legendary litigation skills.
However, he wasn’t known as someone with a strong pro bono practice or a particular interest in women’s rights advocacy. While I developed good relationships with several female partners at the firm who were well known for their work helping women in family law and asylum cases, I gravitated towards this male partner because of his impressive litigation skills in my practice area at the firm and our easy going rapport. He was fun to work with, even on the most intense cases, and I always felt like I learned something when I got a draft of a brief back from him, covered in handwritten comments.
But more than teaching me concrete skills, this partner mentor believed in my commitment to pro bono work, and supported my vision for what was already shaping up to be an unorthodox career. When he recruited me to the firm, he told me that I would be able to work on the pro bono cases in women’s rights advocacy, representing battered women in family law and asylum cases. When I took him up on his offer of employment, he was true to his word, and always made sure that I had time to work on these cases, even when we were extremely busy with billable matters.
When I decided that I wanted to apply for a one-year pro bono fellowship at a women’s rights organization that was offered by my firm, he said he was sad to lose me on his cases, but he wrote me a stellar letter of recommendation. I got the fellowship, and took one more step towards my dream of using my legal skills to combat violence against women. But, I’m looking forward to coming back to the firm working with this member of the Board again.
While at my legal services fellowship, I’m getting into court, running my own cases, and learning how to be a real litigator, Law and Order-style. But, I’m also working with and learning from many dedicated impassioned legal services attorneys. I have a feeling that a few more slots on the Board might be filled by the time this year is up.