By Andrew Cohen
Janet Napolitano’s distinguished career started unremarkably enough—with a 2,220-mile cross-country drive in a two-door hatchback.
After graduating from the University of Virginia Law School, the Albuquerque native returned west to clerk for U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Mary Schroeder.
“I loaded up all that I owned and drove from Charlottesville to Phoenix,” she recalls. “I didn’t know anyone except having met the judge. It was a late afternoon in August when I arrived, and the waves of heat were overwhelming. I remember thinking, ‘Thank goodness I’m only going to be here a year.’ Twenty-five years later, I was the governor.”
Now the University of California’s first woman president, Napolitano was the featured speaker recently at the Women in Business Law Initiative’s new quarterly roundtable series. She and several other women attorneys shared career advancement insights at the event, held at Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco.
Interviewed by Professor Abbye Atkinson before a rapt audience, Napolitano described what fueled her trailblazing journey as assistant U.S. Attorney, Arizona attorney general, Arizona governor, U.S. Security of Homeland Security, and leader of UC’s vast 10-campus public university system.
When Atkinson noted how “the willingness to be wrong feels harder for women than for men,” Napolitano told audience members to nourish their self-confidence and be willing to embrace career flexibility and risk-taking.
“Careers are not straight lines for most people,” she noted. “There are zig-zags, twists, and turns. That’s one of the reasons why having a law degree is so great, because it has so many uses.”
Having risen to leadership positions in several male-dominated arenas, Napolitano touted the need to cultivate mentorship—and shed ingrained gender expectations.
“I think one of the things that hold women back is fear of failure and reticence to take risks,” she said. “Things may not always go well, but you have to be willing to accept that and move on. I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the course of my career … I think of it as earning your callouses, developing a thick skin, and not letting others deter you from where you want to go.”
Part of Anita Hill’s legal team during the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas before an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, Napolitano called for women to help each other individually in order to effect collective change.
“Part of it is giving women substantive work that challenges them and allows them to expand their circle,” she said. “Find ways to expose their talents so others recognize them and what they offer.”
Quartet strikes a chord
After the Napolitano interview, four top practitioners—Wilson Sonsini Goodrich Rosati partner and board chair Katie Martin, Zynga Chief Legal Officer Phuong Phillips, Kirkland & Ellis partner Samantha Good, and Even Responsible Finance general counsel Priya Pai—shared advice on how women can best realize their business law goals.
Moderated by former securities and intellectual property litigator Deborah Kang, who now directs Startup@BerkeleyLaw, the panel offered concrete advice for climbing the corporate ladder and establishing a leadership foothold.
“My biggest tip is to take on things that are not only important to you, but also will advantage you,” Good said. “Women are great at saying yes, but not always at saying yes to the right things for them.”
Kang recalled how as a first-year associate, a mentor told her, ‘You’re just as smart as the other associates in your class, but you say things in such a timid way that it doesn’t inspire confidence in the partners. If you’re 80 percent sure, say it as if you’re 120 percent sure, and then go back to your office and double-check.’”
Good and Phillips recommended carving out time to strategically develop professional networks—and asserting the need to do so.
“Men are very comfortable saying to a partner, ‘Oh, I’m going to get some new clients,’ whereas women say, ‘Is it okay if I go to this networking event?’” Phillips observed. “With job searches, studies show that men will say ‘I hit 5 of these 10 [listed requirements], I’ll apply.’ Meanwhile women say, ‘I got 9 out of 10, maybe I’m not qualified.’ That has to change.”
A program of the Berkeley Center for Law and Business, led by Executive Director Adam Sterling ’13, the Women in Business Law Initiative pairs 80 Berkeley Law students with mentor practitioners from BCLB partner firms and organizations. Delia Violante leads the initiative and organized the event, which was covered by The Recorder. The mentorship program was recently reported by Bank of The West.
Panelists also stressed the importance of honing skills that will be useful outside one’s current position.
“Extend yourself and show an entrepreneurial spirit,” said Pai, the only woman on a 13-person executive team in her previous job. “If you see something that needs to be addressed, put your hand up and go take care of it. Also, knowing your style is important. I’m more effective one-on-one than in a large group setting, so I meet with people that way to learn their views.”
While the gender gap within law firms is narrowing, a cultural divide remains. Martin noted a simple but telling example: Sometimes women are not asked to shake hands. In a setting where men are doing so, she said women should initiate handshakes with those in the room.
“Don’t be shy,” Martin urged. “Get involved. Participate. Look for the people doing things you’re interested in and push to create mentor relationships with them. There’s no downside to that. Don’t sit back and wait for it to happen.”