By Andrew Cohen
Just 4.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were women as of May—even though the percentage of college-educated women has outpaced men for decades, and companies with more diversity and inclusion in executive leadership show higher valuations and sales.
This jarring gap caught the attention of the Berkeley Center for Law and Business (BCLB), which launched the Women in Business Law Initiative in 2016. The program tries to lower hurdles and raise awareness of corporate opportunities for female students. Not surprisingly, it’s flourishing at Berkeley, which easily ranks No. 1 in female enrollment among Top 20 law schools at 60.1 percent.
“We aim to provide women with the connections they need to a network of other female attorneys that can help them climb the ladder,” says BCLB Program Manager Delia Violante, who oversees the initiative with Executive Director Adam Sterling ’13. “Then, once they’ve ascended to the higher rungs, to help them reach back down and give a hand to those coming up behind.”
A formal mentorship program is available to female J.D. and LL.M. students once they enroll. First-year students interested in business law are matched based on their interests and geographic locations with female attorneys from firms and organizations that partner with BCLB, as well as from business and government.
“I really appreciated having a female corporate attorney mentor me my first year,” says Angeli Patel ’20. “As a first-generation American and college student, mentors are an invaluable resource and often the only way to advance your career. For this reason alone, the Women in Business Law Initiative has been an indispensable asset for students like me.”
Alyssa Golay ’17 played a key role in establishing the initiative, a collaboration between BCLB, the Women of Berkeley Law, Women of Color Collective, and Berkeley Business Law Journal. As a 1L, she saw robust business law offerings at the school—but no programs connecting women in the field.
Golay approached Sterling to develop such a program, and says he was “incredibly supportive.” He and Violante identified young professionals interested in serving as mentors, and crafted programming to support meaningful connections. Golay helped plan events and match mentors with mentees.
“I’ve had a wonderful experience in the mentorship program,” says Dennise Martinez ’16, whose practice at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati in San Francisco focuses mainly on mergers and acquisitions. “It offers incredible access to Berkeley Law’s talented students, and my mentee and I have forged a relationship that is professionally and personally enriching. Bringing female attorneys and law students together in this way is an empowering process.”
Last semester featured a mixer in San Francisco, a meet-and-greet with bankers from Goldman Sachs, a dinner and wine tasting, a panel on corporate law career opportunities, and a think tank event with top female company founders. On September 12, the initiative will present a leadership lunch talk with Uber Legal Director Amanda Rinkoff ’07 on unlocking effective mentorship in corporate law.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding to see the program grow,” says Golay, now a privacy and cybersecurity lawyer in Washington, D.C. “It has helped foster a deeper sense of community and connection among women at Berkeley and in the Bay Area who are interested in business law.”
The initiative also helps lawyers cultivate relationships with exceptional law students who are on track to attain corporate leadership positions. Janice Dow ’17, an associate at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe who worked as a market research associate and corporate paralegal before enrolling at Berkeley Law, cherishes the opportunity to work with budding lawyers.
“I benefitted from mentorship from amazing women a few steps ahead of me, and I want to be a resource for women coming up after me,” Dow says. “It makes a world of difference to see women, especially women of color, a few steps ahead in an industry that is still male-dominated.”
Initiative leaders recently forged a partnership with Vision 2020, a nonpartisan, national coalition focused on gender equality. Vision 2020 coordinated the spring think tank event with BCLB and three other co-sponsors.
Through career development sessions, mentorship, networking, and other tailored programs, the initiative aims to help Berkeley Law’s female students maximize their business law opportunities—and narrow the glaring gender gap in America’s boardrooms.
“I came to law school with very little understanding of what corporate attorneys do,” Patel says. “My mentor familiarized me with the corporate world and how to make my space in it, helped me define my interest in big law, and even shared her network with me. I’d recommend this program to anyone who might have even a slight interest in business law.”