“I recommend any young professional have a plan, but be open to unforeseen opportunities and pivot as needed,” says Katten Partner Lily Chinn.
A Sharp Learning Curve Promotes Experience
That belief has shaped her own career, which started in an atypical fashion compared to most law firm attorneys, as she worked for the Department of Justice in Washington, DC after graduating from law school at UCLA. Chinn found her federal government experience to be exceedingly useful and informative in her approach to law because of the responsibility of immediately handling her own cases. In fact, it’s a path she would recommend to any ambitious attorney, as an ideal way to earn hands-on experience, particularly for future litigators.
One key to success is feeling confident enough to ask for help—which she says is excellent advice for any young associate, but was particularly crucial at the DOJ. She was able to build relationships by asking questions of various senior attorneys while learning about career opportunities she would have otherwise missed if she did not have these conversations.
Chinn also advises all young attorneys to take control of their professional development, whether at a law firm that has an established program or more importantly at a government agency that does not. Proactively initiating contact in areas that interested her—such volunteering for cases going to trial and seeking work in the DOJ computer crime division—helped propel her career, and allowed her to gain essential experience that led to her next position at an environmental boutique law firm in Washington, DC, where she was named a partner.
Chinn later moved back to California with that firm and began concentrating on criminal enforcement, which ultimately attracted her to Katten’s Environmental Workplace Safety Group as it is one of the premier white collar environmental crime practices in the country.
Play to Your Diversity Strengths
Mentors can play an important role in a career trajectory, and Chinn recommends that all young professionals find someone who can provide inspiration and guidance, but she also stresses that you should continue to seek out different mentors throughout your career.
“As you become more senior and experienced, you still need to continue to find mentors and support so you can keep growing,” she says.
Chinn also recommends finding peer groups that will support your goals. She stays active in organizations like the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), which she finds can be extremely important to the career of diverse professionals. “You need to create your own network, so find groups that support what makes you unique and different and build your profile there.”
At Katten, she has worked with the Chief Diversity Partner to strengthen firm ties with similar groups focused on improving diversity in the legal profession, including providing networking and speaking opportunities for diverse attorneys. For example, the firm is active in the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD), which was started by a group of corporate chief legal officers and law firm partners to help diverse high potential attorneys succeed. Chinn was part of the second class of LCLD Fellows, which is now in its eighth year.
Make Work/Life Balance A Key Goal
Creating time for yourself and your family are all critical for career longevity, Chinn says, since being a lawyer can be a demanding and all-consuming profession.
That’s one of the reasons she urges fellow attorneys to choose colleagues whose company will help enhance their quality of life, a factor that she recommends keeping in mind when interviewing for positions. “It’s important to work with people whom you respect and with whom you will enjoy working during the grueling hours that legal cases often require.”
Some behind-the-scenes intelligence gathering with those who know the culture at a new law firm or agency can confirm you’re making the right choice in a workplace. “It’s easy to overlook when you consider other aspects of the job, but I’ve found that your team is actually one of the most important elements in the long run,” Chinn says.
Chinn has been pleased with the culture at Katten, and her satisfaction has been magnified by a close working relationship with a good friend who joined Katten with her. “Having someone you can rely on—who has your back—can be an important component of a successful career,” she says, adding that this type of collaboration can also promote work/life balance on a daily basis, especially when they can provide cover when you need to be out of the office.
While Chinn has helped her corporate clients achieve ongoing success, one of her proudest professional achievements involved a pro bono case where she was able to help a woman who was a victim of domestic abuse. The resolution of that case allowed Chinn to see the life-changing difference she helped make. That experience led Chinn to get involved with groups such as Elevated Legacy, a nonprofit that teaches urban youth leadership skills through sports, where she sits on the board.
“Through my day-to-day work, as well as my pro bono work, I always seek opportunities that support diversity, which is a value I hold dear.”