CAREER PATHS: Christy B. Mason
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CAREER PATHS

Christy B. Mason

Interviewed by Wendy L. Werner


Tell me how you got started along the path that has led you to this place in your career.  In your case I would be interested in knowing about your pre-law school careers. 
Between undergrad and law school, I was a paralegal at a large law firm, a booking agent for a modeling agency and a waitress. The time that I spent working at the big law firm gave me a lot of information about what it was like practicing law.  Eventually I decided to take the plunge and go to law school.   

Was there something that influenced you in law school to move into the area in which you are currently working?  If so, what was it?
While I was a St. Louis native, I had attended college in Boston, and I began to embrace political views more liberal than those of my home town.  My liberal politics became even more enhanced at a law school where the professors were clearly more liberal than the students. I had made a vow to leave the Midwest upon graduation and I had spent a summer in Portland, and it fit together – moving to a more liberal place.   Like many people, I began to get cold feet my second semester of my last year of law school, but my law school career services dean was aware of how much I had enjoyed my summer work in Oregon, and pushed me to take a risk and move where I truly wanted to live.  It was the right decision for me. 

Tell me about how you found your first job after law school.
When I was in Oregon for the summer, I asked my former bosses at the big law firm where I had been a paralegal to set up a meeting with local attorneys for a big client they had in common. The job market was poor that summer, but when I was nearing graduation the following spring, my former employer called and said “they’re hiring now and they want to talk to you.”  Maintaining a good relationship with my former employer was what set me up for finding that important first job out of law school.  And as it turned out, I liked the people that I worked with at the law firm here a great deal.  The work was interesting and so was the environment.  I learned a lot.

How did you get your next job/opportunity?
While I enjoyed my law firm experience, I didn’t believe that I would spend the rest of my career in private practice.  Had I wanted to do so, I would have stayed at that firm.  Finding my second job was something of a fluke.  I literally found the job through an open ad in the classifieds. I went to work for the state attorney general in the charities department, an area of interest for me all along. My primary reference ended up being an arbitrator I had a case with at the firm where one of the interviewers had previously worked, because I was not telling my employers I was looking elsewhere. I liked the people at the firm, but I was tiring of the defense work and the insurance agency protocols for how to handle cases. In the 90s, all of the old ways of doing things were being thrown over by the young efficiency experts. 

What helped you early in your career to become more knowledgeable/gain skills/experience success?
Saying yes to offers to be on committees, boards, and groups. I participated in local bar activities. I went to a lot of meetings. I did pro bono work, and then headed that committee. I sought mentoring from people in my firm, I interviewed women who I thought did interesting work, I bought lunch for a lot of people who looked like they would tell an interesting life story and they were willing to talk to me. I tried cases, I worked 60 hours a week when necessary, and I guess one way to put it is I paid my dues, and realized along the way that some of the dues I was paying would lead me to partnership in a firm where I liked the attorneys but I didn’t like the work. I feel like I was successful at my first job and I chose to leave when the time was right.

What have been some of the critical turning points in your career, including both successes and sidesteps?
Getting a particular case while at the attorney general’s office connected me to activists interested in legal issues surrounding particularly notable people in state politics, and ultimately I was offered a job with them. I was frustrated with some of the ways litigators were managed in a state government office, and I then stepped into a situation where I could learn a new area of law, learn how to manage a nonprofit and basically create my position with great colleagues. It seems like most steps I have taken have been sidesteps.  For me it was important to tap into situations where I felt engaged with the work, and with the people.  Learning has always been important to me – more so than just taking what looks like the next natural step in climbing a ladder.  I have to be engaged in the work that I do. 

Today I work about 30 hours a week for a very decent salary.  Our not-for-profit represents organizations and individuals who care about a range of issues, from preserving funding for our schools and critical services to protecting the environment. As deputy director of a tax-exempt advocacy organization, my job varies by the season (as do the hours – more as a general election approaches!). I have developed an expertise in state elections law and I help answer questions that arise when nonprofits partner to work on ballot measures. I review and revise political literature to ensure there aren’t any legal pitfalls. I manage a team of outside counsel who write initative petitions and other legal briefs about what will appear on the state ballot. I serve as financial director of the political action committees we form to support the fights around ballot measures, and serve as CFO of our core nonprofit. I can say that no day has ever looked like any other!

How has the practice of law changed in the time that you have been practicing?  How has it impacted your particular area of practice and your own work?
I love that I can do research online so easily and for free through the bar. It used to be cumbersome and costly. It is hard to believe I’m old enough to say this, but computers were not standard equipment when I started. Then assistants got them and finally attorneys. Email and online tools have basically made it possible for me to work as an in-house lawyer without the support of a secretary and someone who knows all the filing tricks.

If you were advising a young attorney today who was entering your field, what advice would you give them about how to find a job, how to develop their expertise, and how to be successful?
Be open, look in strange places for answers to questions that seem beside the point. If you like an area, keep studying it and see if work pops up. Working up a pro bono case is a great way to meet other lawyers who are working in that expertise. It’s really all about people. And success is different for everyone. 

What are some of the biggest challenges that you see facing new lawyers today?
Debt and the atmosphere that because there are so many hungry associates,  that in order to get a job you have to be willing to be a slave to your employer. This was always the case for the top students, but they were then compensated accordingly. I went to law school without the motivation that a law degree was simply the ticket I had to get to go make money. It seems the feeling that law school can be another step in one’s education is a real luxury now.

What are some changes and challenges you see on the horizon for the practice of law?
I see kindly mentors who had the time and mindset to take the time to really teach young lawyers how it can be, not just how it seems to be, retiring. I don’t see many great people stepping into their shoes. This is just from my perspective outside of the local bar association now. I see women leaving the profession. I see a lot of unhappy women who stay in. I see women who launch out on their own and disconnect from the more traditional legal community.

What recommendations do you have for someone to be ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with possible changes in the profession?
Figure out your personal priorities early. They can change, and will, but don’t give up on what’s important by starving that of time and attention. Habits like overworking are hard to break! To stay ahead, keep up on technology and go to CLEs – incredible place to meet people who are doing what you may want to do.

If someone were to have offered you some advice about your career early on – what would you have wished that they would have suggested to you? 
Stick with things. I stuck with jobs longer than I wanted to, and was unhappy in different ways for different lengths of time. Looking back, it seems that I was in those first jobs for very important and ultimately beneficial reasons, but I spent a long time wishing I were elsewhere. I would say, even it feels like it’s not the right thing, it is the thing you have now – find out what you can do for your employer, what they can do for you and spend more time than feels exciting or great to see what you can take with you when you go.

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