Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Current Happenings in Criminal Defense

During the annual meeting of the ABA Criminal Justice Section held in Boston, Massachusetts August 7 through August 10th, one of our own, Cynthia Orr, along with James Felman, will be installed as Co-Chairs of the Criminal Justice Section. For many years Cynthia has been a champion for women in the field and continues to pave the way for women to hold positions of leadership and find ways to support their advancement. Congrats to Cynthia for this honor and continuing to be a source of pride and an example to all women criminal defense lawyers.

Also, during the NACDL Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, the Foundation for Criminal Justice will host its 2014 Awards Dinner at the National Constitution Center on August 1, 2014. Click here to learn more about this must attend event or to donate to the foundation. Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, is the featured speaker. Cynthia Orr, past president of the NACDL, will receive the Robert C. Heeney Award. Current NACDL Secretary Rick Jones will receive the Champion of Justice Award. Also just this week, NACDL announced that Attorney General Eric Holder will address the NACDL annual meeting and seminar attendees at 10am on August 1st. The seminar and meeting is a perfect time to get more involved with the NACDL and meet criminal defense lawyers from all over the country.

I don’t know about you but I am beginning to feel more hopeful in my role of defending the criminally accused. Let’s face it, the last two decades for the criminal defendant were quite depressing. But even though I’m almost afraid to trust them…there are signs of hope. From the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California which held that law enforcement couldn’t generally search, without a warrant, digital information on a cell phone seized pursuant to an arrest; to the United States Sentencing Commission just this week unanimously voting to apply a delayed reduction of the drug quantity tables retroactively to most federal inmates serving time for drug trafficking offenses as of November 2015. The commission estimated that this could affect almost 50,000 incarcerated inmates. Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission ended the news release stating “The step the Commission is taking today is an important one,” she said “but only Congress can bring about the more comprehensive reforms needed to reduce disparities, fully address prison costs and populations, and make the federal criminal justice system work better.”

Even five years ago I wouldn’t have believed it if someone told me the conversation about the criminally accused would change so radically. If someone had told me our Attorney General would be lecturing around the country about Smart Sentencing or that anyone in this country would care about collateral consequences for convicted felons, I would have had to pinch myself to make sure I was awake. Let’s hope that these positive signs translate into real change. And let’s hope that more women attorneys like Cynthia Orr are able to obtain positions of leadership and influence. It’s an exciting time for women in our field and let’s keep building momentum.

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Ex BigLaw Lawyer and IMF Director Christine Lagarde Discusses Women and Leadership

Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director and former Baker & McKenzie executive committee chair recently discussed women in leadership and it was a fascinating conversation. Lagarde took over the IMF immediately following the abrupt resignation of Dominique Strauss-Kahn over allegations of sexual assault. She was the first woman and first non-economist to lead the organization.

Lagarde said, “I have a theory that women are generally given space and appointed to jobs when the situation is tough. I’ve observed that in many instances. In times of crisis, women eventually are called upon to sort out the mess, face the difficult issues and be completely focused on restoring the situation.” Maybe she is really on to something… especially when you consider that GM’s first woman CEO, Mary Barra, was appointed right at the start of a major crisis for GM. At first the news articles heralded her appointment as a true breaking of Detroit’s car industry glass ceiling. Then we started to hear that her pay was half of that of her predecessor and now CEO Mary Barra is at the heart of a controversy over the company’s recall of millions of small cars based on a flaw in the ignition switch which has lead to a Congressional Investigation.

Lagarde discusses the need for women to get more comfortable in their own skin and bodies and to put aside the outside pressure to constantly change themselves. She explains that this mindset is an integral part of how a woman commands a room as a leader. She also discussed the need to have more women on the IMF board, which is currently made up entirely of men. She never had a career plan and shared the advice her American father gave her at 17… “Don’t let the bastards get you.” Great advice for a slew of circumstances that any woman criminal lawyer may find herself in. Read the entire interview on the Washington Post here.

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Michelle Peterson Represents Benghazi Suspect

Federal Public Defender Michelle Peterson has been appointed to represent Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the suspect who was brought to D.C. district court to face charges related to the Benghazi attack. Peterson appeared in court with her client during the recent bond hearing and conceded that pretrial detention is appropriate based on his status as a foreign national, but strongly criticized the lack of evidence against her client and the Government’s failure to turn over evidence which has essentially left her and her client unable to challenge the charges.

“It is incredibly difficult for us to defend someone against a charge when no evidence has been provided,” Peterson told the court. “We are left to glean from press reports what the government evidence is.”

Additionally, Peterson said that the little disclosure she had received that same morning contained “no evidence of direct involvement”, and “There was no suggestion that he was one of these 20 individuals [said to have carried out the first attack] – their allegation appears to be that he knew these individuals, not that he was directly involved himself.” When addressing the argument of his dangerousness due to the fact that her client was armed when arrested she stated, “This is a broad stretch … Libya has been in a constant state of rebellion, and it is not at all unusual to be armed.”

I know very little about the Government’s case in this instance but I already have a feeling that precious constitutional and due process rights could be at risk in the name of politics. There is such a powerful political tug of war occurring over Benghazi as we approach the next campaign for Presidency. It has the makings of the perfect witch-hunt. It is obvious from what I am reading that Michelle Peterson is a tenacious advocate and up for the fight, but unfortunately this case may be more about politics than it is about evidence.

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Karen Patton Seymour and Women of Sullivan Cromwell Represent BNP Paribas in Guilty Plea

Just this week BNP Paribas, France’s largest bank, entered a guilty plea in New York State Court based upon a global deal with both the State of New York and the Justice Department, in which the bank has agreed to pay a $9 billion fine relating to transactions in blacklisted countries in violation of US trade sanctions.

The bank entered its first guilty plea in State Court in New York on Monday, and will also enter a guilty plea in federal court.  BNP’s General Counsel entered the plea, flanked by the bank’s lawyers, Karen Patton Seymour, who is the co-managing partner of Sullivan Cromwell’s litigation group and has been frequently published for her role in representing the bank, and her partner Elizabeth Davy.

The bank is pleading guilty to processing billions of dollars in transactions on behalf of clients in Sudan, Cuba, and Iran. The sanction brought by the Justice Department is the largest penalty in any criminal case involving a bank. And it is noteworthy that a woman criminal defense attorney is at the helm of one of the biggest white-collar cases ever brought against a bank in this country’s history. It’s another hopeful sign that the glass ceiling is beginning to bust wide open.

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: The Grit Project

The American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Women in the Profession just launched a new initiative called The Grit Project.  The project is an educational toolkit that is aimed at helping women develop the right mindset to enhance the retention and promotion of women lawyers.  The thinking behind the Grit Project is that traits known to be associated with success in law can be developed in women. This is in contrast to what many erroneously believed were traits that one was born with and coincidentally viewed as exclusively masculine.  The Grit Project takes up the task of training and educating women lawyers to develop the very traits that research has shown are consistently found in the women succeeding in law. The Commission on Women makes a strong case based on science that women leaders in law share two important traits:

- Recent science suggests that grit is often on the short list of answers successful women lawyers provide when asked to describe the traits that led to their success.

- Similarly, a growth mindset, or the belief that one’s abilities are flexible entities that can be developed and improved through effort, is a trait that many highly successful women lawyers rely on to navigate challenging situations in the workplace.

Based on this research the Grit Project sets out to teach women these critical traits. The goal is to change the dismal reality that, in spite of the fact that women and men are entering law schools in equal numbers; the high percentage of women entering the profession has not translated into staying power and equal advancement.

Download the brochure here and the toolkit here.

The toolkit includes:

- Tools to help women lawyers apply the grit approach to their law careers.
- Discussion scenarios such as how to handle speaking up in class, the job search, and a bad grade on a midterm paper.
- Resources for law schools, bar associations, law firms, and women’s groups to introduce these concepts.
- Program agendas, PowerPoints, handouts, and speaker recommendations.
- Future reading and learning opportunities.

There are individual scenarios for women to prepare for certain real life circumstances, videos, conference and program agendas, a grit test, a mindset quiz, and coming soon are lists of speakers.  Do your own grit test and start talking about what you can do proactively in your community to change the playing field for women in law. From where I sit, the more we work together to ensure the success of more women in the field, the more we each ensure our own success. The old belief that it is every woman for herself just isn’t going to work anymore. Bravo to the Commission for Women in the Profession!

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Joan McPhee Snatches Victory From the Jaws of Defeat

Previously on the WCDA blog, we highlighted Joan McPhee’s representation of Kurt Mix.  Mix is one of the few individuals criminally charged relating to the BP Oil Spill. At the time of our original post, pretrial motions were being filed and the trial prep was underway.

What a difference a year makes. Since that post, Kurt Mix went to trial and was unfortunately convicted at the end of 2013 of one count of obstruction, but strangely acquitted of the other obstruction count.  Remember that both counts stemmed from the deletion of emails.  McPhee was quoted as saying “We remain as convinced as ever of Kurt Mix’s innocence,” and “We intend to continue to fight to ensure that justice is done in this case.” And since that day in December, McPhee has done just that, tirelessly fighting for a new trial or to overturn the conviction.

Just last week, on June 12, 2014, she reached her goal.  The federal judge in New Orleans ordered a new trial based on evidence that McPhee and her team obtained and presented relating to improper juror influence. The judge came down hard on the defense team for talking with the jurors and for the delay in bringing the issues to the Court, but as one contributor for Forbes appropriately pointed out in an article titled Kurt Mix Granted New Trial Thanks to Juror #1, “I’m thinking that McPhee and her team would take a little reprimand over discovering an injustice done to their client because when it came to that actions of Juror #1, it was clear that Mix had been denied a fair verdict.”

I sat next to McPhee at a dinner a couple months after Mix had been convicted and I vividly remember being struck by her dogged pursuit to right what she felt was an injustice. I am embarrassed to say I discounted her zeal, as being the consequence of still being under the “trial coma” spell.  I couldn’t have been more wrong! It is easy to discount passion for a cause but it takes far more courage to accept the burden to fight for that cause. It is so easy to let the system turn us into cynical defense attorneys and each of us has been there once or twice.  Watching injustices day after day can break anyone’s spirit, but we have to remember why we do this job, and remember that that with dedication and perseverance anything is possible.  Bravo to Joan McPhee and her entire team for reminding us that victory really can be snatched from the jaws of defeat!

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Interview with Melinda Sarafa

This week, I had the privilege of talking with Melinda Sarafa. Sarafa, from New York City, has been a practicing criminal lawyer for almost twenty years. She graduated from Stanford Law School in 1995 and has represented hundreds of clients in federal, state and international investigations, enforcement actions, trials and appeals, and handled a wide array of sensitive and high-profile cases. Prior to establishing Sarafa Law LLC, Melinda was a partner at Zuckerman Spaeder LLP. Her experience includes several years of practice at the criminal defense firm of Brafman & Ross in New York, New York, and as an Assistant Federal Public Defender in Houston, Texas and prior to that she clerked for two federal judges. Melinda is a Director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and has served as co-chair of NACDL’s White Collar Crime Committee and the Women’s Initiative. She is about to start a new chapter in her career as an in-house attorney working in the financial industry and her new employer is lucky to have her. She is not only a champion for her clients, but is committed to promoting women in our field and is a true defender at heart.

What inspired you to become a criminal defense attorney?

After college I spent two years as a jobs skills trainer and placement coordinator for low-income immigrants and refugees in Boston’s Chinatown. I was a strong advocate, but recognized that I could not effectively help my students combat discrimination and other obstacles to employment without a working understanding of the US legal system. At one point I received a death threat after helping a 55-year-old Chinese engineer file a complaint with the state commission against discrimination, and I knew I had to arm myself with more than just a bachelor’s degree. In law school I explored a range of public interest pursuits, but the minute I set foot in the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Houston I knew I had found my professional home. Representing individuals in such a vulnerable place tapped my protective instincts while keeping me intellectually and emotionally engaged at a very high level.

What changes have you seen for women in the field since you started? What still needs to change?

The primary change for women since I started in this field is the availability of more women to serve as colleagues and mentors. What still needs to change is the perception that women are somehow not as capable as men of handling complex, high-stakes matters, and that women do not deserve to be paid as much as men.

Of the women criminal defense attorneys that you know and admire what made them stand out to you? Why were you inspired by them?

The women criminal defense attorneys I know and admire are first and foremost dedicated to providing first-rate representation to their clients, not simply earning a fee. They listen to their clients, dig into the discovery and legal research themselves, ask questions and personally know their cases inside and out. This gives them great strength as negotiators and in the courtroom. Sarita Kedia and Justine Harris in New York are two such outstanding lawyers. Seeing them obtain phenomenal results through solid, steady work is always an inspiration.

You are the Co-Chair of the Women’s Initiative for the NACDL, why do you think it is important to create women focused opportunities in the criminal defense field?

Criminal defense remains a strongly male-dominated field in which women continue to face great challenges. These include a relative dearth of role models and established female referral sources, routine underestimation of our skills, subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that sexual favors will earn us business, and double standards for aggressive defense of our clients. These and other issues must be addressed openly and in collaboration with our male colleagues. I have found that our Women’s Initiative events, which welcome both men and women, provide tremendous and much-needed opportunities for dialogue, connection, support and development of mutual respect.

How did you find the courage to open up your own private practice? And what advice would you give a young woman in the field wanting to have her own firm one day?

I opened my own private practice, after working more than ten years in the field, because I believed it was the best way for me to establish my ability to handle difficult cases as lead counsel. Looking back, I took a great risk in leaving a partnership at a well-established firm where I worked with many wonderful lawyers, but at the time I felt the greater risk was staying there and failing to realize my own potential as a lawyer and business generator.

A young woman who wants to have her own firm one day should seek opportunities to work closely with lawyers who demonstrate: (1) professional excellence and integrity; (2) an interest in and willingness to mentor; (3) a track record of generosity in supporting other lawyers and referring business. It is not enough to work on interesting cases with colorful lawyers. A young lawyer must seek out experienced attorneys who will genuinely support her in building her own practice.

What was the most fascinating case you ever worked on? What case has most stayed with you through the years?

My most fascinating case was the representation of Maia Topuria, a Georgian national and single mother of three who was accused in 2006 of plotting to overthrow the Georgian government. She and more than a dozen others were rounded up in a blatantly manufactured political prosecution aimed at undermining a number of political opposition figures. The late Larry Barcella and I were granted permission by the Georgian Ministry of Justice to appear on behalf of Maia in the Tbilisi courts, where we worked closely with local counsel and a Georgian interpreter. We studied the Georgian constitution and recently revamped code of criminal procedure, and over the course of more than a year and a half represented Maia during hearings, trial, appeal and in several human rights forums. We came to appreciate the crucial value of an independent judiciary and the limitations on achieving that in post-Soviet Georgia. Our work took us into several different realms of international advocacy and provided an extraordinary education in the challenges facing rule of law advocates around the world.

In addition to Maia’s case, the case of Jamal Yousef has profoundly affected me and will stay with me indefinitely. Jamal, a foreign national, was serving time in a Honduran prison for passport fraud when he became involved in discussions with US government-paid confidential sources posing as FARC representatives in search of weapons. Jamal saw an opportunity to make money by posing as a weapons dealer and extracting a sizable advance payment. No weapons were ever produced or exchanged, and the recorded conversations revealed that even the confidential sources doubted the existence of any weapons. But Jamal was charged with an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty of 20 years, and he ultimately sought, on the eve of trial, to mitigate his exposure by pleading to an offense with no mandatory minimum and a maximum of 15 years.

The case represents to me so many fundamental problems with our criminal justice system. Most significantly, the use of mandatory minimum penalties effectively deprives defendants of their right to trial by ratcheting up the stakes to intolerable levels. In this case, denial of the right to trial also effectively deprived Jamal of his right to appeal, by precluding review of a very strong motion to dismiss. In addition, the use of paid confidential sources to manufacture terrorism cases where there is no actual threat to the United States creates fundamental fairness problems and diverts resources from more productive law enforcement.

What both Maia and Jamal’s cases have in common is the lengthy imprisonment of individuals who did not do what they were accused of. Such cases are the most difficult and the most haunting.

What do you find is the most rewarding and the most draining aspect of being a criminal defense attorney?

It is extremely rewarding to obtain a great result for a client and see the dark cloud that he or she had been living with for months or years suddenly lift. The stress and uncertainty of being under investigation or accused of a crime is enormous, so the moment when a client gets his or her life back is profound and profoundly satisfying. At the same time, the responsibility involved is heavy. Ensuring that a client is fully and effectively represented is consistently difficult.

 If you could go back and give one piece of career advice to your 30-year old self what would it be?

On the whole, I am very comfortable with my career decisions. But if I could go back, I would advise myself to consistently take the long view of my decisions about what jobs to take, which individuals to work with and what organizations to devote time to. And when I say take the long view, I mean consider carefully the investment that is being made, and identify those firms, individuals and organizations that have the interest and ability to provide support over the course of a career.

You are about to embark on a new chapter in your career as an in-house attorney for a financial company, what opportunities or direction did you take in your own business to make that shift possible?

I did not specifically plan for this opportunity, but in retrospect a great deal of how I have managed my career prepared me for it. First, the importance of fundamentally strong academic and professional credentials cannot be overstated. In that regard, there is no substitute for consistent hard work. Second, partly due to my own innate curiosity and interest in learning about everything, I made sure that my practice was diverse enough to include a healthy mix of both white collar and non-white collar matters, and that I learned all I could from each case and each client. Third, I maintained strong networks of colleagues. These factors combined to put me in a position to be recruited for this particular opportunity when it arose.

Do you think a criminal defense practice opens doors for women who want to explore opportunities in a corporate America? And what kind of advice would you offer other women who are interested in pursuing these opportunities?

It really depends on what kind of criminal practice one has. Someone who is interested in working in corporate America one day would be well advised to work with corporate clients, as opposed to devoting oneself to the defense of individuals accused of street crimes. At a minimum, it is important to become familiar with the areas of legal practice relevant to the industry one may wish to work in. That might mean learning about insider trading, antitrust law, health care fraud, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or any number of other areas.

As a woman, what do you consider your secret weapon?

I consider my secret weapon as a woman to be a combination of listening skill, patience and empathy. I want to understand my client as a whole person and my client’s situation in its full context. I do not believe there is any definitive line separating me, as a lawyer, from the client sitting across from me. Most people, until they experience the criminal justice system firsthand, view criminal defendants as “others” who behaved in unthinkable ways. I think we are all far more vulnerable than we can imagine to finding ourselves accused of wrongdoing. This is not to say that we are all inclined to violate the law, but rather that life and law often sneak up on us in unexpected ways. This perspective tends to shrink the distance between lawyer and client and facilitate strong working relationships.

What is one thing people who know you don’t know about you?

In 1980, at age 13, I was both a card-carrying member of WRIF Radio’s Detroit Rockers Engaged in the Abolition of Disco (D.R.E.A.D.) and the Detroit News contestant in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It was an exciting year. I have since softened my position on disco, but I still have my D.R.E.A.D. card.

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: NACDL Releases Must-Read Restoration of Rights Report

NACDL’s Task Force on Restoration of Rights and Status After Conviction began a study in 2012 to examine the relief mechanisms available for people who have a conviction on their record at the local, state and federal level. Just recently, on May 29th 2014, the Task Force released their report titled Collateral Damage: America’s Failure to Forgive or Forget in the War on Crime – A Roadmap to Restore Rights and Status After Arrest or Conviction. This is by far the most comprehensive report ever created addressing the kind of stigma and policies associated with labeling individuals with convictions and treating them like second class citizens.  As criminal defense lawyers, we know firsthand the stories of our clients, but this report sheds a bright light on the seriousness of this problem across the country.  I was shocked at the findings of the report and so very proud to be a part of the organization that prepared it. The report aims to start a national dialogue about the issue, and it includes ten recommendations to ensure that this unfair treatment changes.

The report has attracted attention. The New York Times editorial Board wrote In Search of Second Chances, which cites the NACDL report and begins by contrasting how Martha Stewart was afforded a second chance but so many far less rich and powerful citizens are not.  At least 65 million people in the United States have a criminal record and there are 45,000 laws and rules that serve to exclude vast numbers of people from fully participating in American life. Examples include bans or restrictions on voting, access to public housing, gun possession, professional and business licensing; as well as consequences on immigration status, parental rights, credit rating, ability to get a job and eligibility for benefits.  The editorial board correctly notes “these law are also counterproductive, since they make it harder, if not impossible for people with criminal records to find housing or land a job, two key factors that reduce recidivism” and ”it is in no one’s interest to keep a large segment of the population on the margins of society.”

As defense attorneys, we are entrusted with the great responsibility of protecting a client charged in the system, but in fact our responsibility to protect our clients extends far beyond the system. Today, clients face a multitude of collateral consequences the moment they are arrested, even if they are not convicted, and devastating consequences if they are convicted. I remember when I began practicing and records were locally maintained and you would routinely hear lawyers in the courthouse telling clients very flippantly not to worry “you aren’t going to have a record” because depending on the resolution a client could seal and expunge a record. That bothered me then and it infuriates me today. Even back then sealing and expunging only did so much and there were multiple ways an arrest and the disposition of a case could easily be discovered. Today records are being sold by police departments and clerks offices within days of an arrest and the facts are effectively hemorrhaging all over the public domain. Records are the single most important thing that we should be talking to our clients about, after their liberty of course.

If you haven’t yet seen the NACDL report, please follow the link and read it. The findings here should serve as a tool to educate you, your clients, the prosecutors on your clients’ cases, and the Judges who are determining their sentences. Use it and refer to it often. And tell everyone you know about it.

Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Blair Berk Representing High Profile Defendant in Los Angeles

Blair Berk is no stranger to representing celebrities, but now finds herself involved in one of this country’s most media intensive cases. She is currently representing former NFL Safety Darren Sharper, who is charged with multiple rapes in multiple cities. He is now facing charges in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Tempe, Arizona, and faced investigations in both Las Vegas and Miami.  He was originally out on bond in Los Angeles but was taken back into custody and held without bond after being charged in both New Orleans and Arizona. By anyone’s standards this is a challenging case, considering that the client is facing sexual assault allegations by multiple women in multiple jurisdictions on a very public stage. Without question, hiring Blair Berk, a female criminal lawyer, was a very smart move. When I originally read about the case it was obvious to me the case needed a strong woman lawyer and a unified defense amongst the various jurisdictions. And it appears both are being successfully accomplished.

Blair Berk and Leonard Levine have begun to globally address the evidence through a recent motion that exposes the weaknesses in each individual case. It was just announced that Sharper would not face charges in Miami and Berk highlighted the fact that the Miami victim waited until Sharper was charged in LA to come forward, along with the fact that DNA taken from both LA victims contained DNA evidence belonging to other men. She also noted that the alleged victim from New Orleans is under investigation for drugging another woman to demonstrate that the cases are not what they have been hyped up to appear. Although they weren’t successful in obtaining a bond for Sharper, they were successful in obtaining more discovery evidence.

This case is a dangerous example of what can happen when cases are tried in the media.  At this point can there ever be an untainted venue where the credibility of the witnesses can be fairly evaluated?  I can’t recall a case like this, where so many women have alleged they have been raped by the same public figure in such a media intensive environment. It creates a frightening public sentiment that “the charges must be true,” and forms the making of a modern day witch hunt.

The good news for Sharper is that Blair Berk is up for the challenge. She was highlighted by CNN in 2010 as a lawyer who specializes in making stars’ legal scraps disappear. She was quoted as saying “In my 20 years of practice, I have never once found it in my client’s best interest to have media coverage of their criminal case.” She considers lawyers who bask in a client’s reflected fame to be “cringe-inducing.” I was so thrilled when I read that because she couldn’t be more right.  Sometimes it seems that lawyers representing celebrities are more interested in their own celebrity status than what is in the best interest of their client. Kudos to Blair Berk for knowing the difference.  Strong, savvy women criminal defense attorneys like Blair Berk are a great asset for their clients and the pursuit of justice.  Be sure to stay tuned for updates on this case. And, if you know a female criminal defense attorney that is doing great work, I’d love to hear about it and possibly highlight the case on this blog.

Women Criminal Lawyers: Everybody Needs a Straight-Talking Mentor

During the most recent NACDL Spring Conference and Board Meeting held in Las Vegas, the NACDL Women’s Initiative held a lunchtime panel discussion called Mentoring & Your Career.

The panel was moderated by yours truly and included Jo Ann Palchak from Tampa FL; Letitia Quinones, from Houston, Texas and First Assistant Federal Public Defender Lori Teicher from the District of Nevada in Las Vegas. It was a robust and honest discussion about challenges that women face in the criminal defense field, and specifically about the importance of finding women mentors, and the value of mentors in general.  It highlighted the importance of finding someone to help you navigate the dynamics of business and career development in both private and public sectors. Here’s a picture of the panel in action:

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During the conversation, we discussed statistics which reflect the depressingly low number of women advancing in big law firms. While some audience members noted that we can’t be driven by statistics alone, these numbers are a window into the harsher realities of being a female lawyer in the very male-dominated field of criminal defense. Particularly in the white-collar sector, we are still not seeing a proportionate number of women handling big cases.  This has to change.

Along these lines, I read an article on the Washington Post’s blog entitled Large law firms are failing women lawyers, which isn’t really news to any of us, but a comment by a lawyer named Kelly Hoey caught my eye. She explained that the single trickiest aspect of navigating firm culture as a woman is “finding a powerful mentor who tells you straight-out how the law firm game is played,” and then “having that strong mentor back you up when you play the game.” The article goes on to discuss how mentors like this can help to advance your career, if they trust you, by sharing their book of business, which can pave a golden road to advancement.

Even after twenty years of practice I have found straight-talking women mentors to be priceless. Whether you’re fresh out of law school or a seasoned pro, I’d encourage you to look for a straight-talking mentor of your own. And, just as importantly, I encourage you to look for fellow women attorneys who could benefit from your wisdom and experience. This is how we work towards equal footing for women in law and in business in general.